Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

A Soldier of the Great War

January 31, 2010

Matthew DiBattista and Alex Richardson
Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff/LBO 2010

“Opera,” as Eddie Izzard opined at the Nokia Theater in downtown LA this weekend, can be described in sight and sound as "rich people watching large people shaken by small people.” And while this assessment still holds some truth, particularly here in America, there may be no company fighting it more than Long Beach Opera. This lone wolf of an organization continues to do much, much more with much, much less than virtually anyone I know of. LBOs productions are certainly not to everyone’s taste. The programming under artistic director Andreas Mitisek, is decidedly more outside the standard repertoire than any of those of the company's peers. The productions are not about opulence and glamor, which irks the kind of people that like to be “transported.” (I have long wished that opera would in fact transport these people somewhere. Hopefully a somewhere far away from me, but it’s a small world after all.) Nevertheless LBO is exceedingly good at making compelling and interesting opera that is almost always worth considering even when it isn’t always a complete success.

This weekend in Santa Monica the company offered the second performance of Robert Kurka’s The Good Soldier Schweik. The opera, which premiered at New York City Opera in 1958 adapts Jaroslav Hasek’s 1920s satirical novel about war and the military in WWI for the lyrical stage. A probably half-witted young private, Schweik, is drafted into the army where his naïveté unwittingly benefits him in numerous comical situations. He’s a Candide of sorts, winningly sung here by Matthew DiBattista. In fact the quality of singing in the production was quite good overall. The eight other members of the cast play a huge number of roles that swirl around Schweik’s episodic adventures until he finally reaches the front lines. The music is mid-Century Americana. Kurka’s orchestration calls for no strings and gives the feel of a military band. Sadly, the music is perhaps the least intriguing thing about this piece, although the orchestra, under the direction of Mitisek made the most out of what they had to work with and did provide a handful of very satisfying passages.

LBO’s production was broad, aiming for many laughs, which it mostly got through the very crafty direction of local theater legend Ken Roht, who also provided the evening’s choreography. The minimal set involved few props and relied on scenic video projections for the most part. But Roht created a very physical production that actually worked quite well in the space. The opera was both witty and light on its feat and despite the episodic nature never dragged. So while The Good Soldier Schweik may not be an important opera in its own right, it is a significant piece of American opera history, and LBO should be commended for bringing it to light in a season focusing on American composers. Next up for LBO will be John Adams’ Nixon in China, which will return to the Southland for the first time in two decades on March 27 and 30. And if you’d like a little more preparation, you’d be advised to check out a live appearance by John Adams in conversation with Andreas Mitisek at LACMA on Monday February 1.


Season's Greetings

January 27, 2010

Nino Machaidze in the Christof Loy production of Il Turco in Italia
Photo: Armin Bardel

I must admit I was rather pleased to read the press release from the Los Angeles Opera today about plans for the upcoming 2010/2011 season. Not that it was incredibly surprising or that it avoided the economic realities that all arts organizations have had to face up to. It’s a markedly smaller season than in recent years with fewer performances of fewer operas. What I was most pleased about was that it felt like a great big “screw you” to all the forces who have been talking shit about LA Opera over the last year. The slings and arrows have been numerous from many quarters mostly focused on the company’s daring, beautiful, and totally unique Ring cycle which will take place this Spring. East coast critics feel it isn’t “human” enough apparently wanting something more akin to a sentimental Hollywood melodrama. Everyone from the once-musically-relevant David Byrne on down can’t believe it cost so much. All kinds of critics don’t like that L.A. County underwrote a loan to make it happen when the cash ran short, and one of the local supervisors and his cadre of idiot supporters can’t stand that it was written by Wagner. Besides this, the company’s management, including director Placido Domingo, are regular targets of the press. (A number of folks including Anne Midgette have postulated how relieved Washington National Opera’s board members must have been after canceling their own Ring cycle and hearing about L.A. Opera’s loan guarantees to maintain their own. Somehow I seem to think that actually having the entire Ring cycle instead of bailing on it after shelling out for 3/4ths of the whole thing—with no payoff of consecutive cycles—would be more humiliating, but I guess I just don’t get that whole East Coast mentality.)

So while it hasn’t come to pass as of yet, L.A. Opera stepped out today with what is likely the most interesting proposal of any company in the U.S. so far for the 2010/2011 season. Oh sure, it has some popular fare including Le Nozze di Figaro and a borrowed production of Rigoletto from San Francisco. But it’s also got at least one thing nobody else has been willing to do so far for next season - a world premiere opera, Catán’s Il Postino, which will star Domingo and Charles Castronovo among others. Then there is a spectacularly cast revival of the company’s own Lohengrin with Ben Heppner and Dolora Zajick. And not to be overlooked is an equally well-cast Il Turco in Italia with Paolo Gavanelli and Nino Machaidze. Furthermore, the Turco production is a modern dress affair from Christof Loy and the Hamburg State Opera. Rounding things out is Britten’s Turn of the Screw in Jonathan Kent's well-received Glyndebourne staging with Patricia Racette. Granted this is not radical programming. But it would have been far easier for the company to remount Butterfly, Boheme, or Carmen yet again in the place of any number of these other choices.

So, while San Francisco, Washington, and Chicago shroud themselves in star-studded crowd pleasers in 10/11, Los Angeles is stepping forward to continue to take some risks even in a challenging environment. So kudos to our local company for not going completely into retreat and keeping something lively on the plate.


The Dress of Many Colors

January 26, 2010


My recent weekend in New York ended with a concert from the world-class Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall under James Levine. It was a bit of an Oreo cookie of an afternoon – a familiar favorite whose best part was a delicious center part. Bookended by Schubert’s unfinished Eighth symphony and Beethoven’s Fifth which closed the program was a wonderful mini-recital from soprano Diana Damrau. She appeared in the crazy patchwork gown she wears on the cover of her latest recording “Coloraturas” and she focused on material that spectacularly showed off her adept acrobatics. She started off with eight familiar Strauss Lieder including “Morgen!” and “Das Bächlein”. She gave intense and thoughtful readings of both and closed the set eventually with “Amor,” which more prominently featured the vocal acrobatics she’s readily capable of. This was all prelude, however, to Zerbinetta’s aria from Ariadne auf Naxos which she dispatched with real humor and lightheartedness mixed with real power and control. She was clearly having a great time and the audience shared it with a huge ovation. She came back on stage several times afterward and then gave a true encore singing the last portion of the aria again, clearly hamming it up with Levine perched on his stool nearby. It was lovely in just about every way and an expert bit of cross promotion for the opera. The Met will be opening Ariadne next week and while Damrau will not be in it, she will be singing Marie in La Fille du Regiment with Juan Diego Florez as she takes over for Nathalie Dessay in the Laurent Pelly production that was so warmly received everywhere. As much as I like Dessay, Damrau is fairly spectacular in this production, which she gave a test run in San Francisco to loving audiences last Fall. (And as an extra bonuse, Meredith Arwady who played the Marquise de Berkenfield in San Francisco will be returning the the Met stage in this revival as well. She's great.)

But back to the rest of the cookie. Levine and the Met Orchestra can pull out the drama in a flowing and smooth production with ease, and both the Schubert and Beethoven got the full body workout. The Schubert fared better and was rather lush. The Beethoven, however, was decidedly overcooked with big gestures drowning out any detail. It was not an inappropriate approach, but not the most convincing one. It’s always great to hear the Met Orchestra play music that they don’t get to do everyday even when it’s familiar to the audience. But it’s hard to deny the orchestra’s strong suit and even here, it was the relationship with a vocalist that showed the group off in the best light.

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The Talented Mr. Domingo

January 25, 2010

Plácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra with Adrianne Pieczonka and Marcello Giordani
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera 2010

The main event last weekend was a trip to New York for the latest installment of Keeping Up with Plácido Domingo. Not unlike Savoir-Faire, the legendary tenor is indeed everywhere working on careers he’s taken on in musically related, but secondary, fields – conducting, arts company management, and being a baritone. Specifically, Domingo is appearing in two productions at The Metropolitan Opera this month. He’s conducting Verdi’s Stiffelio while also appearing in the baritone leading role of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. Of course, this has been all over what’s left of the papers and the blogosphere with everyone from Anne Midgette and Daniel Wakin to Lisa Hirsch questioning whether or not Mr. Domingo has overextended himself particularly in light of recent financial woes over the last year at the two opera companies he directs, Washington National Opera and Los Angeles Opera. But when that many print journalists (including Anthony Tommasini who side-swiped the topic in his recent review of Domingo in Simon Boccanegra) all begin to write from the same apparent set of talking points, I become a little wary of the developing party line.

Domingo may not be as successful in any of his secondary careers as he is in his incarnation as an operatic tenor, but make no mistake; he is a force to be reckoned with and has offered much to all the companies and individuals he's worked with. He is easily the most famous living name in opera and would have few challengers for the title in the broader field of classical music. His appearance fills opera seats and get projects off the ground that no one else would dream of. Even if things don’t always work out perfectly, he has a way of making things happen that very few others do in the opera world. And despite some peoples' concerns about his commitments, there seems to continue to be a line around the block for any crumbs he's willing to drop. If you don’t believe me, just look at the brochure for the upcoming, and largely disappointing, San Francisco Opera 10/11 season. Aside from the new Ring cycle, there's Aida and Butterfly until your nauseous, and yet the big selling point to grace the cover is the return of Domingo to the War Memorial Opera house after some 15 years now as Cyrano de Bergerac. Apparently when you’re ready to ask people for a big cash outlay, SFO still thinks Domingo’s got the power. Whatever anyone says about his management in Los Angeles, the fact remains that he has played a huge role in the very existence of one of the country’s largest and simultaneously youngest companies. This rise so far so fast is no accident despite the county underwriting a deserved and appropriate loan.

Meanwhile, the musical career rolls on and Domingo's two appearances at the Metropolitan Opera are tantalizing in different ways. Perhaps the higher profile, and more successful, of the two is his vocal performance as Simon Boccanegra. Domingo has always had a darker tone to his voice, so it wasn’t completely outrageous when he announced plans to take on this major baritone role a few years back. What surprises me is how successful he is at it. Granted he is not attempting to sound like a baritone in any way. His Boccanegra is clearly operating in a higher register. But it works beautifully. His acting and general stage instincts are so strong that he easily overcomes what is lost in the change in sound. (Trust me if you can believe Elina Garanca as Carmen, this is a no-brainer.) In fact, he’s probably as convincing as virtually any baritone I’ve seen sing the role. Boccanegra’s death scene in Act III was superbly done. The rest of the cast including Adrianne Pieczonka as Amelia and Marcello Giordani as Gabriele are quite good as well. The Giancarlo del Monaco production is still a dud with one dreadful static set after the next and cries out for something more visually engaging at every turn. But as has proven true in the past, this may make the upcoming HD broadcast of the opera in movie theaters on February 6th the ideal way to experience the show when camera angles are likely to inject some much needed excitement into the theatrical part of the proceedings. The best part of the evening, though, was the hero's welcome in a final curtain call for Domingo with longtime friend—and the other major force behind that evening's success—conductor James Levine.

José Cura as Stiffelio
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2010

Domingo’s conducting in Stiffelio is not quite as heroic. He has also won a perhaps undeserved reputation as a conductor who's overly indulgent to vocalists at the expense of pacing and drama. He was famously booed after a performance of La Boheme he led a few years back at the Met Opera. But his guidance has been better received in this early Verdi work, though, admittedly, the biggest excitement for me came from the many surprises in the cast onstage. José Cura played the title role with understated grief and was certainly more than reasonable. Around him were a number of younger singers that appear to be on their way to much bigger parts and increasingly enthusiastic receptions. This was one of three performances from Julianna DiGiacomo as Lina who is sharing the role with Sondra Radvanovsky. DiGiacomo was wonderful with a solid, strong, and bright tone. She gained admirers quickly over the course of the evening and, if anyone was regretting not seeing Radvanovsky, you wouldn't have known it from the ovation she got at the end. I feel certain we haven't heard the last of her lovely voice, and for that I am grateful.

Lina’s father, Stankar, was sung by baritone Andrzej Dobber who gave a riveting account of “Lina pensai che un angelo” in Act III. I’ve seen Dobber sing Germont here in L.A. and was rather indifferent about the performance, but here he was heart-breakingly good. Also on stage was Michael Fabiano, the young tenor who appears in The Audition, Susan Froemke's recent documentary about the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions finalists. His Rafaelle was appropriately rash and impetuous among a field of the more reserved and shamed cast of characters. Although Domingo may not have given the show the thrust it deserves, he did marshal a performance worth remembering from the cast. And, while the show isn’t getting the HD treatment, it will be featured on the Saturday radio broadcast on January 30 and comes recommended as well.


So Alive

January 23, 2010

Sahr Ngaujah in Fela!
Photo: Monique Carboni 2009

Its title may have an exclamation mark, but Fela! the musical at the Eugene O’Neill Theater is anything but your typical Broadway fare. In fact it’s probably the best new musical to arrive in New York since at least Spring Awakening. It’s one of those shows where time stops and you wonder if all of what you’re seeing is really happening. Needless to say it’s much better than good and is packed with so much energy that it’s nearly radioactive. Fela!, which was conceived by choreographer Bill T Jones and Jim Lewis, is technically a “jukebox musical” using the music of legendary Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti to tell the story of his politically and musically charged life. But to call this a “jukebox musical” really sells the show short in terms of both its energy and aspirations. It makes Green Day’s American Idiot (which will arrive in New York after a run in Berkeley last year) look like Mamma Mia!.

Fela is played by two alternating actors, Kevin Mambo and Sahr Ngaujah. Ngaujah appeared at the matinee I saw on Saturday and gave a raw, edgy, and often very touching performance. Much of the biographical thrust of the story concerns Fela’s struggle to honor his mother and stay committed to his Nigerian homeland. It covers everything from his time in Los Angeles to the repeated harassment faced by his family band members in Nigeria. The role of his mother who was murdered in one of those attacks on his compound, was handled by Broadway legend Lillias White with a pair of vocal powerhouse numbers. But as important as these vital performances were, the show owes far more to perhaps one of the hardest working ensembles currently on a New York stage. The twenty or so dancers and band members are in motion almost the entire three hours. They race around the stage and aisles throughout a theater that has been remade with a variety of paintings and artifacts to emulate the Shrine, Fela’s legendary Lagos night-club/commune he worked out of for many years. It’s a show that has you ready to jump out of your seat on several occasions so there’s plenty of audience participation built into the experience as well.

Perhaps the thing I appreciated most of the many great things about Fela!, is the free and easy way it mixes the personal and political aspects of the artist's life. It also doesn’t shy away from connecting the dots between Fela’s political concerns in the 60s and 70s and the continued legacy of colonization even today. It also picks up on Fela's spiritual beliefs in a segment where he goes to visit his mother for advice after her death. It immediately reminded me of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and brought to life things that seemed rather abstract to me on the page at the time. But when Fela paints his face and crosses over to the underworld it rivals the journey of Gluck’s Orpheo. Fela! is no small work of art and will stay with you a long time. There’s so much more I could say, but you really should go see it yourself if you haven’t already.


Street Life

January 22, 2010

Members of Grupo de Rua

The REDCAT downtown has kicked of their Spring season with a slate of impressive shows to come including a return engagement from The Wooster Group in February and a celebration of the life and work of Betty Freeman in May. But perhaps the most exciting events on their schedule are a large group of dance performances from a number of important contemporary artists and companies including Lionel Popkin, John Jasperse, and Rosanna Gamson to name a few. But before we get into that, this weekend brings us Bruno Beltrão’s Brazilian Grupo de Rua with his latest work H3. It’s a remarkable, athletic and energetic piece featuring nine male dancers going full bore for over and hour.

Beltrão has made his name by adapting Brazilian “street” hip hop dance styles into a more traditional Western high art dance context. Yes, people do occasionally spin on their heads. And there is that whole hot Brazilian guy thing. But the similarity to what you might see in an average music video pretty much ends there. In H3, the dancers appear often in small groups interacting through a series of small, almost introspective gestures that may suggest confrontation as readily as tenderness. All of this is punctuated by much larger ensemble moments where the dancers charge and fly at each other in a sort of dance equivalent of a chest bump. I know this makes it sound like the work is weighted down by a certain machismo, and that is partially true. Beltrão acknowledges this himself in program notes for the performance. But he has also explores other aspects of male relationships in his work that should not be foolishly dismissed as nothing more than male bravado.

In H3, the men dart around one another in large circles often running backwards or exiting the stage bent over backward as if being dragged by the hair. The movement and visual sense of the work draws you in. Their immediacy to it as well best represented by the frequent sound of sneakers squeaking against the glossy floor like a basketball game without all the stops and starts. The rather minimal and stark lighting creates the sudden surprising effect of men simply hovering and spinning in mid-air at times. Now I know nothing about Brazilian street culture, hip hop or otherwise. So I can’t really vouch for how authentic or not any of purported cultural aspects of the troupe's performance are. But I can tell you that it’s a great show watch and worth seeing especially now that the rain has stopped. Grupo de Rua’s H3 continues at REDCAT through Saturday this weekend.


Are We There Yet?

January 21, 2010

Maazel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2010

Don’t bet on it. At least that was my thought during this weekend’s performance from the Los Angeles Philharmonic currently in the final of two programs led by Lorin Maazel. This evening was devoted entirely to Bruckner’s 8th Symphony. It’s a massive work that contains so much beautiful music it’s hard to believe it all sprang from the same source. Of course it is also quintessentially Bruckner with all of the hallmarks of Wagner’s influence and Bruckner’s own self-esteem issues. Like many of his symphonies it underwent numerous revisions in the wake of critical feedback from people Bruckner respected after its premiere. In the end, though, it’s a lyrical, radiant piece with plenty of mystery.

But in the wrong hands it can be dreadfully dull, and Maazel did Bruckner no favors on this count tonight. As with his most recent appearances, the maestro proved that he can extract details and dynamics from the orchestra. However, more often than not the line was lost. There are some beautiful tunes in this symphony, but you’d have been hard pressed to find them tonight. Frequently Maazel seemed to lead the orchestra to a near dead stop, only to turn and plow into the next phrase as if checking items off a shopping list. He covered a lot of ground, but got nowhere fast. Of course, it was a rather limited audience who got to share the experience. Between the rain and Bruckner, the hall was only about 60 percent occupied from the looks of it. Hopefully things will pick up musically and otherwise at Disney Concert Hall this weekend when the program repeats.


Tale of Hoffmann

January 20, 2010

Richard Goode in Los Angeles
Photo: mine 2010

On Tuesday the Los Angeles Philharmonic hosted an excellent solo recital from pianist Richard Goode. It was raining, so of course the crowd was thinner than usual, but those of us who showed up were in for a performance that made all of the transport hassles worth it. Goode may not share many of his high-profile contemporaries’ reputations for being fussy, tempestuous or darkly brooding. But, like Emanuel Ax, what he lacks in dramatic stage persona, he more than makes up for with remarkable playing. Tuesday’s program seemed unassuming on the surface with some small Bach excerpts, three Haydn Sonatas and a large romantic piece from Schumann. But the show was exciting at every turn in execution.

Goode set the tone with two brief passages from The Well-Tempered Clavier. This is lush, highly-felt but not overly fussy or fastidious playing. This was only a warm up for the surprising main attraction in the first half of the evening, three sonata from Haydn. Haydn’s solo piano music is not perhaps among his best known works and they were composed, at least in part, to be played by a wide audience with a commercial appeal in mind. But under these conditions, Goode presented them with such warmth and exuberance that they became monumental. This was a first-rate reminder that knuckle-busting pyrotechnics aren’t all that make a superior pianist. After the break was a single work from Schumann, Kreisleriana. A sizeable Romantic excursion, the work is based on Kreisler, a violinist and a character from one of the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann. The music vacillates back and forth between rapid flourishes and quiet, still reflections. Goode flew at these passages with gusto and some foot stomping excitement that added to the piece. It was undoubtedly florid, but very effective and again allowed Goode to mine a piece of arguably meager prospects for maximum effect. There were encores of works by Chopin and more Bach, which were met with an enthusiastic ovation for the rather unassuming artist.


Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before

January 17, 2010

Paul Reubens as Pee-Wee Herman

Is there such a thing as too much publicity? That may be a question actor Paul Reubens is asking himself these days as he embarks on a comeback as his most well known character, Pee-Wee Herman, in a series of live performances here in Los Angeles over the next few weeks. His new stage show, entitled The Pee-Wee Herman Show, opened on January 7th after a period of rather tumultuous attention in the press. Originally slated for the Fall of 2009, the show was booked at The Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood. However, when response for tickets turned out to be greater than expected, the performances were canceled and rescheduled for early this year at the larger Club Nokia downtown. This caused significant consternation among a number of fans who had already purchased tickets for the earlier events in that they were given little to no priority for seating in the new venue. Worse yet, a number of out-of-town fans found themselves stuck with such things as plane tickets for dates they no longer needed. To make up for some of the ill-will over the switch, Reubens offered a post-show meet and greet for all the previous ticket holders to take place after each performance in the new run.

I was one of those prior ticket holders, and will admit that I wasn’t thrilled when exchanging my tickets to be told that I wasn’t permitted to trade up into a higher price category at the new location and pay the difference. I either took a refund and bought new seats in a subsequent general ticket sale, or I sat in the crappy rear side seats they put me in. To be honest, I didn’t care that much at the time. But after seeing the actual show on Saturday, I was decidedly nonplussed. It had nothing to do with the seats or any sense that I’d been inconvenienced. It had to do with the decidedly mediocre show whipped together for this comeback performance.

This new version of The Pee-Wee Herman Show will undoubtedly make the most hardcore fans happy in that it is nothing if not overly familiar. In fact, far too much so. The show relied heavily on the sets, characters, and tone of Reubens’ late-80s CBS Saturday morning show, Pee-Wee's Playhouse with its campy but genteel brand of comedy. There are still some references to the far more edgy and adult humor of the earlier stage performances that initially brought Pee-Wee Herman to national attention. But they are few and far between and when they do arise the gags are lifted, sometime almost word for word, from that prior show. This is Pee-Wee as you’ve seen him before, moderating a cast of puppet characters. There are live actors too, of course, and some of the original cast members have returned like Lynne Marie Stewart as Miss Yvonne and John Paragon as Jambi. The old characters clearly outnumber newer ones although there was a man in a bear suit called "Bear" and a talking Sham-Wow. But the familiar gags have the upper hand on the new ones making them seem less comforting and just kind of sad. There was little new to say after two decades away aside from some references to the Internet. Otherwise it was pretty much a rather average episode of the old Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. But for some, that may be enough. For others maybe not. There was at least one vociferous booer at Saturday night’s show and a significant number of empty seats. With the number of ads I’ve seen for the shows, which run through February 7th, I imagine that sales haven’t been quite as strong as they may have hoped. In either event, it’s a walk down memory lane to be had if you so desire.


A Fine Romance

January 16, 2010

Lorin Maazel and Nancy Gustafson with the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2010

This weekend marks the return of Lorin Maazel to the conductor’s podium with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the first of two weeks worth of programming. And while they may not have the “tradition” requisite to retain the service of top flight French flutists, our local players have developed a track record of making great music in recent years with maestros recently resigned from contentious East Coast music directorships. Christoph Eschenbach has led some very memorable performances here, and now Maazel is returning to Los Angeles perhaps looking for some of the same magic. Tonight’s program, which featured Strauss and Sibelius, was very good. Certainly it was a marked improvement over the miserable account of Britten’s War Requiem under his guidance from 2008. But tonight was not quite the barn-burner that it might have been.

The Richard Strauss works in the first half of the show were all operatic in origin. Maazel opened with a luxurious wallow in the Der Rosenkavalier Suite. With pacing a decided notch slower than most opera productions, Maazel took time to lavish attention on every last Viennese moment of these highlights. Following a very large ovation, he returned with two Salome excerpts, the Dance of the Seven Veils and the final scene of the opera with soprano Nancy Gustafson. The dance music was sufficiently slinky and foreboding and the playing was committed from everyone. The finale was somewhat marred by the playing of a prerecorded dramatic reading of the opera’s plot summary. It was laughably bad and I couldn’t help but wonder why no one wants to speak to the L.A. audiences any more. It wasn’t a problem last year when our then maestro would often comment from the stage on a wide sampling of work. Now, no one seems to know what to say, preferring a tape to do their job.

Nancy Gustafson, a favorite of Maazel’s, is not an ideal Salome. She’s underpowered here and was often crushed by the orchestra. She has a bright and pretty tone that lacks much edge in a part that greatly benefits from it. And while she definitely went with a dress that oozed an appropriate sexuality with cleavage and a huge slit up the front, it was also a little reminiscent of one of those Erich Sokol cartoons from Playboy in the 60s. Maybe a bloody head prop would have helped. I will give her this, though, she could find and hold the notes which is more than Nadja Michael did in her most recent San Francisco Opera appearances. After the break was Sibelius' Symphony No. 2, which was by turns exciting and frustrating. Maazel again went for lush, big, romantic versions of the first and last movements. But the Andante seemed choppy and confused, frequently coming to near standstills for no apparent rhyme or reason. It wasn't unreasonable, though, and the show, which had fairly patchy attendance on Friday, will repeat this weekend for those so inclined.


Child's Play

January 12, 2010

Luciano Chessa and friend at this week's Monday Evening Concert
Photo: mine 2010

The Monday Evening Concert series kicked off the new year Monday with a program entitled “Mostly Californian” that was filled with a number of surprises. True to its billing, the program included works from three living composers all of whom currently live and work in the Golden State with a dash of Webern and Milton Babbitt thrown in for good measure. And while everything in the program was marked with a 20th-century preoccupation with process over outcome, the strongest bits bookended the show and rose above the thrill of an academic analysis to deliver a little more. First off was Clint McCallum’s In a Hall of Mirrors Waiting to Die for saxophone and piano. At the tender age of 29, McCallum gives off a vibe that one might get from crossing Nico Muhly with Rob Zombie. Currently studying and working in San Diego, he expresses an interest in the physical limits of musicians in the production of sound. Waiting follows this trend by featuring a saxophone part consisting mostly of very high and very loud tones held to a point of near exhaustion. Against this, a piano tempered with chains and books across the strings pounds away ending only with a definitive slamming shut of the keyboard lid. And while it might seem like an academic stunt, I must admit I was rather taken with the jarring, urban, jazz-inflected sound. It came off as a 21st-century Rhapsody in Blue in the lively dialog between the players.

The program built on this saxophone and jazz influence with solid performances of Webern’s Quartet Op. 22 and Milton Babbitt’s All Set which made sense in this context even if they weren’t as immediately compelling here. After the break was a subtle work for a large ensemble by Michael Pisaro called The Collection. Consisting of a number of miniature segments played between different sets of one or two instruments in the ensemble, this passive and quiet piece almost got lost in a program about the theatrical.

And as if to underscore this point, the evening closed with two solo piano works performed by the composer Luciano Chessa. To be fair Chessa is cheating a little bit in that the works presented here thrived on elaborate theatricality that bordered on performance art. First up was Variazioni su un ogetto di scena a collection of three variations on Italian folksongs from his own childhood performed in the most unadorned and basic fashion. When Chessa entered the stage with a large stuffed cow to begin the performance, you knew something was about to happen. What did transpire is that all three songs are actually played by stuffed animals with the composer's assistance. After the large ponderous hooves of the cow, Chessa returned with a teddy bear, and then finally a baby doll. In the finale, Chessa played sequences of notes in a call and response model with the doll as if teaching it this simple melody. Not only did the performance catch some of the childlike glee of the folk songs themselves, but it also showed them as multifaceted. The performance was often just as creepy as it was funny.

Following this was Chessa’s Louganis inspired by the famous diver who Chessa states he remembered from the Seoul Olympics he watched on TV as an adolescent. The work makes reference to both the sounds of wind and water, but is also meant to capture a sort of nostalgia for childhood. Next to the piano was a small living room set with chair, side table and television. The television was intended to play a video created by Terry Berlier, but was plagued by some technical difficulties, so Chessa let the television play on with a snow pattern as he proceeded with the musical part of the performance. Here he worked inside the piano with a number of electric toothbrushes vibrating against the strings creating a rushing sound akin to aerated water. This was periodically punctuated with his playing a simple melody on the keyboard while wearing bracelets of sleigh bells around his wrists. Oddly and unexpectedly the piece worked for me, creating a sense of the past with a kind of physicality. It may be equal parts theater, but the music of Luciano Chessa presented here left me wanting much more.


OWA Knows Best - Theater 2009

January 11, 2010

Stephen Mangan and Amanda Root in The Norman Conquests
Photo: Joan Marcus 2009

Sometimes silence is golden. The following is the Out West Arts companion list of 2009’s top theater events from where I was sitting. It was a banner year for excellent plays and of the 87 theater events I saw, these were my favorites.

1. The Norman Conquests by Alan Ayckbourn. Circle in the Square Theater, New York. 4/09. That Ayckbourn’s three interlocking plays under the eye of Matthew Warchus can turn 70s British sex comedy into something profound about modern life is almost as stupefying as the quality of the ensemble cast that pulls this off. Riotously funny and unexpectedly moving.

The cast of Arcadia

2. Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. Duke of York's Theater, London. 6/09. A very, very close second for number 1. A modern masterpiece given a loving and detailed performance that catches the play's humor and intellectual rigor. This is English theater that is intellectual in the best sense of the word that doesn't need to be stood on its head to get it's point across. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Arian Moayed (below) and Hrach Titizian in Bengal Tiger
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2009

3. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph. Kirk Douglas Theater, Los Angeles. 5/09. The first great American play about the Iraq war. Wildly ambitious with its blend of comedy and magical realism. The best news is that it will return to the larger Mark Taper Forum in spring 2010. Don't miss your next chance to see it.

4. The Walworth Farce and The New Electric Ballroom by Enda Walsh. The Druid Theater Company on tour at UCLA, Los Angeles. 11/09 and 12/09. Walsh takes a Pinteresque approach in these companion plays that take on everything from Irish culture to sexual politics. Fierce, provocative and swiftly psychological works that we were lucky enough to see close together here in L.A. thanks to David Sefton and UCLA Live.

The Big Art Group perform SOS
Photo: Dan Hansell/Big Art Group 2009

5. SOS from Caden Manson and The Big Art Group at REDCAT, Los Angeles. 4/09. Contemporary media culture taken on at Blitzkrieg speed. Funny and highly energetic in a way that demands not to be ignored.

A scene from Castellucci's Purgatorio

6. Purgatorio from Romeo Castellucci and Societas Ragaello Cedillo. UCLA, Los Angeles. 10/09. Alternately lyrical and difficult to watch, this offering from the UCLA Live International Theater Festival was so complex that it left the audience adrift in a sea of visual art and ideas that constantly morphed and changed. That's not a bad feeling.

7. Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller. Broadhurst Theater, New York. 5/09. Two amazing performances from Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter made this dark, and sparse Donmar Warehouse Production radiate heat.

Meg Stuart and Philipp Gehmacher in Maybe Forever

8. Maybe Forever by Meg Stuart and Philipp Gehmacher. REDCAT, Los Angeles. 9/09. This is cheating a bit in that it's a dance piece and it did involve some music in the form of songs performed by the composer Niko Hafkenscheid. It was the best dance piece I saw all year with its sublime movement often in near darkness. Expatriate choreographer Stewart returned with a beautiful piece on intimacy and loneliness with its own indie logic.

9. Monsters and Prodigies: The History of the Castrati by
Jorge Kuri. Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes at REDCAT, Los Angeles, 1/09. The name says it all in this work that takes a DIY aesthetic to the subject at hand complete with live horses, satyrs, and opera singers.

Tristan Sturrock and Naomi Frederick in Brief Encounter

10. Brief Encounter from Noel Coward and the Kneehigh Theater Company. St. Ann’s Warehouse, New York, 12/09. So heartfelt and campy that you instantly fall in love. How can you deny a company that serves cucumber sandwiches after the show?

Honorable Mention: Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms with Brian Dennehy and George S Kaufman's Animal Crackers both at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. Geoffrey Rush in Ionesco's Exit the King on Boradway. Caryl Churchill's A Number and Adam Bock's The Receptionist both at the Odyssey Theater in L.A. The touring production of Tracy Letts's August: Osage County with Estelle Parsons at the Ahmanson Theater. T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T. from Pasolini by way of TR Warszawa at UCLA. And lest we forget, Culture Clash's hysterical take on Aristophanes' Peace at the Getty Villa.

Biggest Disappointment: The musical adaptation of The Addams Family in its tryout run in Chicago. A show so bad I didn't even have the heart to write about it at the time I saw it. It will take a miracle to make it watchable by the time it reaches New York. But who knows what surprises 2010 will hold?

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In the Wings - January '10

January 10, 2010

Luciano Chessa who'll appear at this week's Monday Evening Concert

The holidays are over, and, while we all get our bearings back, there’s plenty on the agenda to consider for the month of January. (Sorry this is a wee bit late, but I’m just getting caught up myself.) Here in Los Angeles, you can always count on the Los Angeles Philharmonic to come through with events in the first weeks of the year. There are two weeks of shows under the guidance of Lorin Maazel, the first a program of Richard Strauss operatic tidbits and Sibelius followed the next week by Bruckner’s 8th Symphony. At the end of the month they’ll host Vasily Petrenko and the great Piotr Anderszewski playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The Walt Disney Concert Hall will also welcome three other pianists of note, André Watts (who I already wrote about here), Richard Goode on the 19th, and Emanuel Ax who’ll appear in a double recital with Yo-Yo Ma on the 27th.

Perhaps piano is not your thing? Then you might consider the largely a cappella program from the LA Master Chorale on the 31st which will include two local premieres from Nico Muhly. Speaking of newer music, Monday Evening Concerts will be offering “Mostly Californian” on Monday the 11th with works from three living Californians, Clint McCallum, Michael Pisaro, and Luciano Chessa. Meanwhile, the Westside’s own Jacaranda series will present a variety of 20th-century British and Irish composers’ works on the 16th including Thomas Adès, Harrison Birtwistle, and Gerald Barry.

Grupo de Rua
Photo: Bruno Betrao

There are a number of notable out-of-towners performing in Los Angeles this month. Brazilian dance innovators Grupo de Rua will be at the REDCAT with H3 starting on the 19th. Pee-Wee Herman will finally kick off some live comeback shows downtown at Club Nokia on the 12th after last year’s tease that will hopefully live up to all the anticipation. But even if it fails, there are a couple of shows nearby a the Nokia Theater on the 29th and 30th from comedian Eddie Izzard that may get the job done.

Jose Cura and Sondra Radvanovsky in Stiffelio
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2010

Opera-wise, Los Angeles is a bit of a ghost town this month due to the reduced 09/10 season. There will be a couple of notable Ring Festival L.A. events in the build up to this big attraction this spring. And, of course, we will probably have 10/11 announcements from both L.A. and San Francisco this month as well. But there are some good out of town options. San Diego Opera will kick off its season January 30th with La Bohème starring Piotr Beczala and Ellie Dehn. While you're down south you may also want to catch the premiere of the latest musical from the mind of Duncan Shiek, Whisper House, which will be on stage at the Old Globe Theater as of the 13th. I’ll also be back in New York to catch up on the activity of L.A. Opera’s director, Placido Domingo, as he takes over the Metropolitan Opera, conducting Verdi’s Stiffelio, starting on the 11th, while starring in Simon Boccanegra on alternating evenings beginning on the 18th. So don't just sit there, do something.


Back to Work

January 09, 2010

Bramwell Tovey shakes hands with members of the L.A. Phil with Andre Watts
Photo: mine 2010

The new year is underway and the L.A. Philharmonic was back in business this weekend in a somewhat odd program pairing Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 2 with Brahms’ Second Piano concerto. But hey, why not? The show followed hot on the heels of an unfolding controversy around Mathieu Dufour, the L.A. Phil's principal flutist who came and went in nearly record time back to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from whence he came. After rather unflattering comments about the L.A. Phil attributed to him appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday, an open letter Dufour penned to the L.A. Phil musicians appeared later in the week professing his deep admiration for all things L.A. Phil, and begging everyone not to look behind the proverbial nearby curtain. Game over. The Great Oz has spoken. But if any of this had affected the L.A. Philharmonic musicians on Thursday, it certainly didn't show in what was on their part, a very well-played program.

The evening was conducted by L.A. favorite Bramwell Tovey who has done his fair share of dirty work around town including several programs at the Hollywood Bowl. He’s usually on the money, and this instance was no different. His take on Vaughan Willimas’ “London Symphony” was likable for its clean and sober approach. This is music that can sound rather cinematic if one runs away with it. But it can still be evocative of the city without turning to mush, and I for one was feeling it. There's so much to love about Vaughan Williams' music and the second movement of his London Symphony is another one of those endearing gems that he's unfairly ignored for in this country. Now what all this has to do with the Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, I can’t tell you. But I will say that this was not one of the more sterling performances of that work I’ve heard. In fact it was decidedly below average. The soloist was Andre Watts and he plunked and pounded his way through the piece in a sloppy and rather ham-fisted way. Subtlety continues to be an elusive quality at the Walt Disney Concert Hall these days. The show repeats through Sunday afternoon.


OWA Knows Best - Music 2009

January 07, 2010

Esa-Pekka Salonen hugs Leila Josefowicz after the debut of his Violin Concerto in 4/09
Photo: mine 2009

Well now that 2009 is actually over, it’s time for the annual best of music list. I know it’s somewhat silly, but I’m a list kind of guy. There were 265 live performances I attended in 2009 to choose from. Here are the 10 best shows that involved music from among 70 operas, 93 programs of “classical” music, and 15 other musical concerts of more popular fare. Read ’em, but don’t weep.

1. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. 4/09 In perhaps the greatest series of concerts Los Angeles has seen, Esa-Pekka Salonen, the departing L.A. Philharmonic music director, went out with a musical bang despite his often humble style. Between January and April, he led shows with an incredible number of world premieres each more outstanding than the last including Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No.4, Andriessen’s double piano concerto, The Hague Hacking, and best of all his own Violin Concerto presented in his penultimate performance with the orchestra and Leila Josefowicz. If I had to pick just one, it was the Josefowicz program I admired the most, which also featured Ligeti's Clocks and Clouds and Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 since no show quite encapsulated his tenure here as well as this one evening. The following week was a glorious finale, with a pairing of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms in a semi-staged performance packed with all the redemption and salvation you could want for the world.

Linda Watson as Brünnhilde and Vitalij Kowaljow as Wotan in Die Walküre
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2009

2. Wagner’s Die Walküre at Los Angeles Opera. 4/09 L.A. Opera generated headlines all year with the first three installments of the Achim Freyer-directed Ring cycle, which will be presented in full this coming Spring. It’s a major undertaking that is paying off immensely in artistic terms. It’s a groundbreaking staging that is doing what few opera productions can – push audiences to question their preconceived notions of a work. Despite grousing of how it doesn't look exactly what less adventurous types might expect, no production could be more literal. There is incredible beauty in Freyer’s primitive, rough-hewn vision and the cycle’s completion bodes to be a major achievement.

Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros in Lohengrin
Photo: Wilifred Hösl 2009

3. Wagner’s Lohengrin at Bayerische Staatsoper. 7/09 I admittedly had reservations about Richard Jones very dark and challenging production. But over time, I found I couldn’t get this evening out of my head. The performances were simply outstanding including Anja Harteros as Elsa and the arrival of a major new Lohengrin in the form of Jonas Kaufmann. Kent Nagano continues to be one of the most impressive conductors around, and this was an evening to savor.

Peter Mattei in From the House of the Dead
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2009

4. Janacek’s From the House of the Dead at The Metropolitan Opera. 11/09 The Met’s efforts to catch up with the most important artists of the 20th century continued with the house debuts of Patrice Chereau and Esa-Pekka Salonen in this well-received staging of Janacek’s final, bleak drama about prison life and redemption. Gorgeous in every sense, it was a major achievement and contained a wonderful performance from Peter Mattei.

5. Leonard Cohen in Los Angeles. 4/09 I hate it when people talk about song lyrics as poetry, but I must admit, there are few other ways to seriously talk about Cohen’s songs with their marvelous language and intricacy. Exhibit A in the unimportance of a beautiful voice in a masterful musical performance. Cohen's shows in Los Angeles were easy going and beautiful in their world-weary way and were unsurpassed this year.

Dawn Upshaw, Michael Scuhmacher, Salonen and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2008

6. Kaija Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone with Dawn Upshaw and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. 1/09. Another of the superior Esa-Pekka Salonen performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this year, these twice delayed performances of Saariaho's masterful reflection on the life of Simone Weil finally took place in January 2009. Saariaho’s brilliant music finally received the quality performance it really deserved. Upshaw brought her beautiful voice to bear on a complicated life during time of war. Saariaho enjoyed another major outing this year with the UK premiere of L’Amour de Loin at English National Opera where the work was given a new staging filled with acrobatics and flowing fabric.

7. Joyce DiDonato in Il Barbiere di Siviglia everywhere but particularly at the Royal Opera House in London. 7/09. DiDonato proved herself every inch a global superstar this year with a fantastic recording of Rossini arias and several performances of Rosina in London, New York and Los Angeles that were unsurpassed. Most amazingly, she completed a performance of the role in June at Convent Garden after breaking her leg in the first act. Even after this incredible night where she performed in what must have been remarkable pain, she returned to sing the rest of the performances of the run in a cast. Her Los Angeles performances were no less endearing and she even offered up the best John Adams anecdote of the year on her blog.

Maria Kanyova as Marie Antoinette
Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2009

8. John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles at Opera Theater St Louis. 6/09 The Metropolitan Opera may have abandoned its plans for a major revival of this work in late 2008, but St. Louis got the last laugh. The company went ahead with its smaller, revised version of the work for an evening of incredibly ambitious and thoughtful music, proving once again that bigger is not always better.

9. Bob Dylan at the Hollywood Palladium. 10/09 He’s got nothing to prove. But with a new recording in hand, he launched into a blisteringly tight set with a band that responded immediately to his every move. Perhaps the single performance I underestimated the most this year, and thus (to me) the biggest surprise.

from the Wooster Group's La Didone
Photo: The Wooster Group 2009

10. Cavalli’s La Didone from the Wooster Group in New York and Los Angeles. 4/09 Initially at St. Ann’s Warehouse and then REDCAT in L.A. this summer, The Wooster Group took their first foray into opera by fusing Cavalli’s Baroque opera with a 60s Italian sci fiction nugget and supertitles. Psychedelic and technologically daring, it kicked off an ongoing collaboration of several works from The Wooster Group and REDCAT in Los Angeles. If everything to come is half this good, it’s going to be a beautiful relationship.

Honorable Mention: Christine Brewer in Alceste in Santa Fe and in recital, Renée Fleming's recital in support of Verismo and her monumental turn in the Met's Der Rosenkavalier, Simon Rattle leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust, Peter Gelb actually allowing the Met Opera to take some chances as above and in La Sonnambula and Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Karita Mattila in Katya Kabanova in Chicago, and Christoph Eschenbach's Bruckner with the L.A. Philharmonic.

Most Overrated: Need I even say it again? The train wreck that is Gustavo Dud-amel and the circus that has followed him into town heralding many of the worst concerts of the year.


Bait and Switch

January 06, 2010


Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera

The Los Angeles Times today reports that flutist Mathieu Dufour has reneged on his reported plans to leave the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the principal flutist spot with the Los Angeles Philharmonic he had assumed earlier this season. Having fulfilled the obligations of a trial period with the orchestra here in L.A., Dufour has elected to leave in favor of continuing his relationship with the CSO according to the reports. Dufour has received wild praise in the press and I among many other L.A. Philharmonic fans have noticed his superb contributions to shows this season and last since his appointment by Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2008. While the L.A. Times article goes on to offer a myriad of potential reasons why Dufour has backed out of the position after his trial period ended, it also points to disparaging remarks he made about his time with the L.A. Philharmonic so far this year that appeared in yesterday’s Chicago Sun-Times.

So take your pick. Did Dufour back out as he is quoted as saying because he discovered suddenly that our local orchestra has “no tradition of sound and no tradition of working together as a dedicated ensemble”? Or was it the reported pending shoulder surgery or love of all things Midwestern? Certainly while all these are possibilities, it seems odd that these issues weren’t clear earlier in the process of hiring a new principal flutist. Which leads me to wonder what else could possibly be different in the orchestra of 2008 that he signed on to for a probationary period compared to the orchestra of 2009? Could it be that the love fest with new music director Gustavo Dudamel is not all it’s cracked up to be as the organization’s PR machine would have you believe? Back in September, the L.A. Times told us the Dudamel had actively interacted with Dufour and "spoke with him very extensively" on prior visits to Chicago. But it appears that if there had been any selling of the L.A. Philharmonic position going on at the time, it hasn't panned out that way now. Maybe the Salonen L.A. Philharmonic was a little more tempting than the reality of the haphazard playing we’ve had here since his departure. I would imagine it would be very different joining an organization that has a reputation as a leader in the contemporary music world from one that has a lot of ¡electrico! but lots and lots of work to do on their sound. Or maybe not.


The Little Death

January 04, 2010

Angela Lansbury, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Photo: Joan Marcus 2009

Perhaps the only heartwarming thing about Trevor Nunn’s revival on Sondheim and Wheeler’s A Little Night Music currently on Broadway, is that it has generated an actual starring role for Catherine Zeta-Jones. Like an increasingly large number of shows in New York, a high profile star is now nearly required if a show has any chance of succeeding. While it is not a guarantee that things will go well, a star, particularly of the Hollywood variety, will get you some extra press and create a draw among the tourist classes, if at least for a few weeks. This is not by any means a new phenomenon. However, what has changed recently is that increasingly Broadway is the only place where these Hollywood stars (like Zeta-Jones, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Hugh Jackman, etc) are in fact stars. Hollywood has proven time and again this year, that “stars” are rarely worth their price tag and if you want to actually open a film big you’re going to need talking hamsters, children’s toys, or 3-D aliens. And since Hollywood doesn’t need them anymore, Broadway may be the perfect place for many of these folks to go, especially if they’ve had the kind of theater background Ms. Zeta-Jones has.

Sadly, this particular paring has not resulted in a great revival. In fact Night Music may be the weakest Sondheim revival to hit Broadway in a decade. The problem is a lack of wistfulness and melancholy in a story that virtually reeks of it. Instead we get almost cutthroat characters looking out for opportunities to take advantage of one another at every turn to buttress their own egos. Nunn’s operating spirit here is less Der Rosenkavalier and more Valley of the Dolls. Zeta-Jones’ Desirée Armfeldt comes off as a cougar laying in wait and by the time she gets around to asking “Isn’t it rich?” you’re wondering why she suddenly went all reflective on you. Alexander Hanson’s Fredric Egerman is only marginally better. The only exception in this rather harsh if attractive production is the superb Angela Lansbury who appears for brief instances as Madame Armfeldt to show everyone around her exactly how to make even the smallest part a towering edifice. Sadly, her expertise doesn’t appear to be rubbing off as much as you’d hope.

from Kneehigh Theater's Brief Encounter
Photo: Kevin Berne 2009

After such a manicured and premeditated revival, seeing the Kneehigh Theater company’s production of Brief Encounter seemed like a burst of fresh, if freezing cold, air in an overheated musty theater. Director and adapter Emma Rice has taken Noël Coward's play and the subsequent 1945 film it inspired and made something both funny and full of admiration. This simple melodrama is offered as a love letter to films and British culture of the period. The show is crammed with simple stage magic handled by a compact troupe of multi-talented folk – singer, dancers, instrumentalists and puppeteers virtually down to the last person. The intentionally low budget props and sight gags all serve the purpose of recreating the look and feel of David Lean's film in the simplest and most direct terms. The sometimes campy slight of hand produces numerous instances of warm—never mean-spirited—laughter. There are some surprising moments as well, particularly when the cast interact with or step in and out of projected film images. Even with this tongue and cheek approach, though, the intent is not to overwhelm the source material but to try and preserve its melodramatic heart. And it works beautifully. Despite the clear self-awareness of the work Laura and Alec remain accessible and by the end you're just as crushed by the loss of their love. On Sunday's final performance of Brief Encounter at St. Ann's Warehouse, I got to see a couple big Hollywood celebrities. Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica-Parker were there and even though I was glad I got to see them, I was just as happy they weren't in the show, but got to join the audience that afternoon.

UPDATE: St. Ann's and Kneehigh have extended the run of Brief Encounter Through Jan 17th. So if you haven't seen it, this would be a great time to go.


Busters of Myth

January 03, 2010

Michael Cerveris and Laura Benanti
Photo: Joan Marcus 2009

Saturday was a day of refuting myths. The first incident came in the latest excellent play from Sarah Ruhl, In The Next Room, or the vibratory play. Set in the 1880s, Ruhl’s comic romance concerns exactly what it pertains to. That's not to say this is light fare. There are plenty of serious issues brimming everywhere just beneath the surface. The exercise here is to exploit the changes in cultural attitudes about science, female sexuality, and family dynamics in the last century for laughs as well as some drama. What’s best about the humor in Ruhl's play is that the majority of the laughs don’t come from jokes or formal bits. Instead Ruhl presents a not unreasonable version of the treatment of hysteria in both men and women by a physician in post bellum America and lets the surprising discrepancies between what the audience would expect for the time and the reality of what history has documented drive things. This is a very specific era before Freud but after the Civil War and the rise of professional medicine in the United States. The play focuses primarily on a doctor’s wife and her relationships with two other women, a hysteric patient of her husband’s and a wet nurse she and her husband have hired to care for their newborn daughter.

Mama's talkin' loud. Mama's doin' fine

I don’t want to give away too much more about events in the play, but it is at turns funny and touching and always professionally done. Director Les Waters keeps a certain realistic clarity by not overdoing the few visual gags there are and keeping the focus on straight-forward interpersonal interactions. I should also mention the fantastic performances from Laura Benanti, Michael Cerveris, and Maria Dizzia. Benanti’s Mrs. Givings feels unassumingly authentic in most every way. She has loads of chemistry with everyone else on stage and avoids an overly sentimental take on a character that invites such an approach. Benanti makes it easy to forget that she’s a star with a number of significant credits to her name including a Tony for her role in the most recent revival of Gypsy. Though sadly, I apparently missed her appearance in yet another revival of that musical between the Tony win and now according the married couples behind me on Saturday who couldn’t stop raving about her turn as Gypsy Rose Lee opposite Patti LaBelle.

Anna Netrebko and Alan Held
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2009

Which brings me to my other myth correcting episode for today. I had a chance to revisit the Metropolitan Opera’s final performance this season of Les Contes d’Hoffmann. This time James Levine conducted and even though Joseph Calleja was out sick again, I felt a little more positive about the experience than I had previously. David Pomeroy was the cover again and despite the announcement he had a cold he sang well with plenty of fire and excitement. I got to sit in the front row just off center among a group of four over-70 couples who were long time friends, donors, and subscribers to the Met. We struck up a conversation over a variety of topics, but, of course, things came around to opera and the Met in particular. All of them seemed to enjoy the performance of Hoffmann and expressed their good feelings about the new Bartlett Sher production. The gentleman next to me was a bit concerned that the several barely clad women on stage in Act III might catch cold with little more than pasties and black panties on in the big theater. But surprisingly all our neighbors commented that they thought this season at the Met had been great so far. They even liked the reportedly controversial Luc Bondy Tosca that bloggers like to write so much about. And while this group may not have been a representative sample, it just goes to show that young people are not the only ones who are attracted to the idea of new and fresh stagings and productions. "It's different, but so what. You can't do the same thing forever," noted the octogenerian to my right who was celebrating his 59th wedding anniversary. Just because you’re elderly and/or have been going to the Met Opera forever does not necessarily mean that you hate everything that’s changing at the house. Which I think is very good news for everyone.

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Costume Drama

January 02, 2010

Renée Fleming and Susan Graham
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2009

I hate to admit it, but apparently it is possible for a cast to sing and act its way out of a bad opera production. At least that’s what I took away from the first of four last performances of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier this season at The Metropolitan Opera on New Year’s Day. This musty Nathaniel Merrill production left over from another era is in bad need of some serious rethinking and refurbishment. Given that it's just slightly older than I am, I recognize how someone might have nostalgic feelings for it like harvest gold-hued kitchen appliances or the Nixon administration. However, despite the decay, tonight’s Der Rosenkavalier was the best opera I’ve seen in New York all week. The reason was a cast that dreams are made of. In the pit was Edo de Waart who played Strauss with no regrets. While Strauss' tide may have turned between Elektra and this, his subsequent opera, de Waart treated the score with the love and care it deserves. Of course, he had help on stage from three women who are not only among the world’s best in these roles, but are perhaps some of the best ever.

Renée Fleming is singing the Marschallin, one of her signature roles. Which is to say that outside of Rusalka it may be more suited for her than anything else she has ever sung. Just heart-breaking to the point of tears. Fleming's Octavian was Susan Graham who sang with such conviction and clarity that it was almost like I had never heard her before despite my longstanding admiration of her voice. Then there was Christine Schäfer as Sophie whose small frame and beautiful voice provided the perfect foil to the powerful and large Baron Ochs of Kristinn Sigmundsson. There is often too little for the cast to do onstage, but luckily these four are not just incredible voices. The sheer experience and acting abilities of the entire cast filled in a dreadfully large amount of standing-around time. Suddenly the musty confines of the past seemed to fade away under the glories of these performances. The final trio between the three female leads was absolutely first rate. Luckily there are three more of these necessary performances between now and the 15th of January, though they are mostly sold out. Best of all however, is that there is an HD broadcast to see next Saturday afternoon that everyone can take advantage of.

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