Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

In the Balance

September 29, 2010

Charles Castronovo and players at Zipper Concert Hall Photo: mine 2010

Last weekend provided one other performance I wanted to mention, particularly because it provided a sort of operatic cosmic balance to Los Angeles this week. The event was a benefit recital from tenor Charles Castronovo who is currently starring in the title role of Catán’s Il Postino for Los Angeles Opera. One of the more commented-on aspects of this new work has been the fact that Catán opted to set a story more related to the 1994 Italian film adaptation than to the original 1985 novel by Skármeta that is set in Chile. However, despite retaining the Italian setting and title, Catán did use a Spanish-language libretto which seems appropriate given that the poetry of Pablo Neruda is central to the show, which features several vocalists who are native speakers. And, even though opera libretti composed in languages other than that of the work’s setting, there is still a sort of Italianate absence from the operatic treatment of Il Postino.

In a gesture seemed to almost counterbalance this little bit of lack, Castronovo performed a program of primarily Neapolitan songs from the early to mid-20th century at Zipper Hall downtown on Saturday. This was a very personal program in a number of ways. First, it was a chance for Castronovo to highlight and express some of his own cultural heritage. The singer’s family, with roots in Sicily, was clearly close to his heart in assembling this particular program, which included some brief video accompaniment with what he identified as photos of his own family and ancestors. His own wife and young son, whom he made direct reference to were present in the audience. He was accompanied by a five-member ensemble complete with guitar, bass, drums, accordion, and mandolin; and Castronovo himself showed off his own guitar talents in an encore. There were two opera arias as well, “M’appari tutt’amor” from Martha and “Una furtive lagrima” from L’elisir. But the popular songs from the likes of E. A. Mario and R. Flavio suit Catronovo to a tee. They also allow him to lay claim to his place in a long and rich tradition of Italian tenors who’ve famously performed them as well. Castronovo’s rendition of Totò’s “Malafemmena” was particularly fine.

The recital was also close to home in another way. The performance was a benefit for the Opera Buffs. Operating in Southern California for almost 30 years, the Buffs main goal is to provide financial and other support to young singers at the earliest stages of their careers. Castronovo was one of their prior beneficiaries, and it’s support like theirs that helps singers with his talent achieve their dreams of providing all of us with some beautiful vocal art. The show was a beautiful thank you to the Buffs and best of all, it helped raise money to help foster and support those that will come after him. If you haven’t seen Castronovo’s performance as Mario in Il Postino, you should before it leaves town on October 16.

Up All Night

September 27, 2010

Grant Gershon and the LAMC Photo: mine 2010

Sunday ended that traditional summer dry spell in Los Angeles for classical music fans. At last there was a reason to go back to the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Months of gritty amplification and easy to swallow crowd-pleasers that are the coin of the realm at the Hollywood Bowl suddenly recede and for a day with highs topping out at 100 degrees, the cool environs of WDCH were doubly welcomed. Best of all, fall kicked off with a superb show from the hall’s most artistically consistent resident ensemble these days, the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The evening had all the feel of a big event, and there was plenty of reason to celebrate. The LAMC is celebrating a new recording deal with Decca, the first fruits of which, A Good Understanding with works by Nico Muhly, just came out a few weeks ago. On top of that, the organization acknowledged the start of Grant Gershon’s tenth year as Music Director. He was presented with a giant card filled with well wishes from fans and he proceeded to make comments from the stage about how much he truly loves his work here in L.A. with the LAMC.

Gershon’s contribution to the level of performance of this ensemble as well as its commitment to contemporary works is no small accomplishment. And as if to highlight some of these achievements, the evening’s program featured a reprise of perhaps one of the greatest moments of his tenure with the Chorale, the 2006 presentation of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil. This a cappella work based on the chant traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church, is no walk in the park. A sort of Everest to climb for choral groups, the fact that the LAMC handles it as well as they do is remarkable. The fact that this profoundly moving and spiritual work with its setting of liturgical texts, came from a composer not known for sacred or choral music is even more surprising. Despite its veneer of simplicity, this is music with so many layered harmonies, slight errors of alignment can often grow to be much bigger problems. Gershon and the LAMC have nothing if they don’t have an impeccable sense of unison and they maneuver the most complicated bits with ease. Granted they might not have the all the bass end one would have with a traditional Russian Orthodox choir, but their mastery of the material has more than enough to recommend it on its own terms. It’s another great start to a great season for LAMC and here’s wishing them and their music director the best in the next decade.


A Wedding Story

September 26, 2010

Bo Skovhus, Philip Cokorinos, Daniel Okulitch, Marlis Petersen, Martina Serafin Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

Everyone who loves opera has a handful of pieces they never seem to get tired of. I’m not necessarily talking about favorites, though they can be. I’m talking about operas that you can sit through over and over again regardless of the circumstances and are perfectly willing to plop down money to see them again. Mozart has written a number of those for me, and Le Nozze di Figaro always seems to be a musical marvel. Now that doesn’t mean that every time I see a performance of the opera that it’s a good one. It just means I seem to have a high tolerance even for the bad ones. So I will admit that I was not dreading Los Angeles Opera’s third presentation of Ian Judge’s staging of Le Nozze di Figaro this season. (It was previously here in 2004 and 2006.) What was surprising is not only how well it holds up, but how good of a show overall this revival is. I like Judge’s colorful, humorous and period non-specific staging. The sets are often dark making room for some interesting lighting effects including the use of flashlights by the cast in Act IV, a shimmering imitation gold-leaf wall in Act II, and of course the still surprising fireworks finale. (There are fire codes in L.A., right?) In fact having seen Figaro in most U.S. houses, I feel I can say with some authority that Judge’s staging is easily the freshest this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

The other thing I love about this opera is that since virtually all professional vocalists of any stripe sing one of the five major roles, the casts always have a sort of random dinner party feel. How did these five end up in the same room? You begin to wonder. The current L.A. cast is no different. The title role goes to Daniel Okulitch who is as attractive as he was in the ill-fated premiere of Howard Shore’s The Fly in 2008. The good news is that since that time his star has been on the rise with a number of well-received roles and his Figaro was a nice reminder of what a good vocalist he is, too. His Susanna, for at least the first three performances in her L.A. debut, is another increasingly hot commodity, Marlis Petersen who got to pinch hit for Nathalie Dessay in this year’s big premiere of Hamlet at the Metropolitan Opera before turning around to perform her signature Lulu there only weeks later. Her Susanna is bright and subtle without being bogged down with too much spunk which is a hazard in this part. Count Almaviva brought another local debut from another hunk of operatic eye candy, Bo Skovhus, whose vocal charms in this role have been well documented on the DVD of Claus Guth’s Salzburg production of Nozze. He was comic and very well controlled, also without being too blustery.

Matina Serafin sang a vocally upsized Countess Almaviva and while I was a bit unnerved that she went at this like it was Wagner at first, she grew on me. Renata Pokupić’s Cherubino and Ronnita Nicole Miller’s Marcellina were also highlights. Of course, L.A. Opera’s Le Nozze di Figaro has more often than not been a bigger and more modern sounding one than you might run across elsewhere. This was especially true under the baton of Placido Domingo, the company’s director who is also starring in the concurrently running Il Postino. Domingo’s work as a conductor rightly or wrongly has a reputation of being much kinder to singers than it is at times to audiences. He did give the singers a wide berth when it came to tempi and things did feel a little slow to start. However, the pace improved over time and his Mozart leadership was more than reasonable with the hometown crowd giving him lots of love all the same. So what’s not to like? Le Nozze di Figaro runs through October 17.


Whisper to a Scream

September 25, 2010


After an inspiring and provocative opening performance at REDCAT from Sardono Dance Theater last weekend, downtown’s home for experimental performance and film was right back at it this weekend with another fascinating show. This time the black box theater hosted the Radosław Rychcik/Stefan Zermomski Theater ensemble from Poland and their bracing production of In the Solitude of Cotton Fields. The original French play by Bernard-Marie Koltès was written in 1985 and like much of the author’s work, is still largely unknown to most American audiences, although many of his play’s have been produced in Europe under big-name directors like Patrice Chéreau and Peter Stein. Koltès’ plays focus on loneliness and power relations owing much to artists like Genet and Artaud. His texts are often lyrical and are less concerned with a naturalistic narrative than a sense of relationships between characters and what they represent. In the Solitude of Cotton Fields consists of two characters, a "dealer" and a "client", who engage in a negotiation over a proposed transaction. However, who is proposing what to fulfill which desire is not entirely clear, allowing for a variety of interpretations.

The Stefan Zeromski Theater production directed by Radosław Rychcik takes a Polish translation of the text with two men: the dealer as a hustler and the buyer as a john. Gamesmanship and struggle as a metaphor for male homosexual desire is rather a worn trope, but given Koltès’ view of himself as an outsider as a gay man and his overall debt to Genet, it seems fair in this context. We’ve seen a lot of this on local stages lately including a thematically very similar The Twentieth-Century Way by Tom Jacobson that premiered at Boston Court Theater in Pasadena prior to a much noted run at the New York Fringe Festival. But director Rychcik takes Cotton Fields one step further by setting the entire play in the context of deconstructed rock show. The two performers Wojciech Niemczyk and Tomasz Nosinski appear side-by-side in black suits with white shirts and skinny black ties. A black curtain parts at the opening to reveal each man in his own spotlight behind a microphone dancing to the rhythmic live electronic/punk performance of the Polish collective, Natural Born Chillers. Dialog is delivered, and sometimes screamed into the microphones without ever being sung. The whole performance turns the latent homosexual desire ever-present in rock performance on its head by placing it front and center and directly implicating the audience in that none of the characters’ dialog is ever addressed to anyone else than the audience.

It was a loud show, complete with earplugs distributed at the door, and the amount of movement and physical dancing called for made the show much more than a straight play. In the end, although it’s never clear who is zooming who, the “client” completely strips long enough to gain the first and only gesture of connection from the “dealer”. And while the ending is more ambiguous, the whole thing is sealed with a kiss. In the Solitude of Cotton Fields is one interesting and attractive show. We’re lucky to have it here during its string of U.S performances from the Radosław Rychcik/Stefan Zermomski Theater. And with the ever-dwindling number of venues for this kind of material in L.A., it would be sad to miss it. There are performances at REDCAT through Sunday night the 26th.


You've Got Mail

September 23, 2010

Placido Domingo and Cristina Gallardo-Domas in Il Postino Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

Three months after completing a landmark, controversial production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, Los Angeles Opera opened its 25th Anniversary season Thursday with another ambitious project, the world premiere of Daniel Catán's Il Postino. Without missing a beat, L.A. Opera has jumped right back into the fray by presenting a new opera, the company's sixth, despite having decidedly mixed results with prior premieres. (Remember Drattell’s Nicholas and Alexandra in 2003 or Shore’s The Fly in 2008?) The good news is that Il Postino is about as far away from any previous disasters as one could hope to get. This is an excellent show with beautiful, accessible music and a strong well-paced narrative. And while it may not be musically groundbreaking, it's hugely successful and entertaining. If you're wondering what a modern opera that is widely popular with contemporary audiences would look like, Il Postino is it.

Catán, who wrote both the music and Spanish-language libretto, has put together a highly faithful adaptation of Michael Radford's 1994 film of the same title and the 1985 novel that in turn inspired him, which you can read more about here. The opera maintains most of the film's narrative structure including frequent scene changes. The biggest additions are substantially increased parts for Pablo Neruda, played by Placido Domingo, and his wife Mathilde, sung here by Cristina Gallardo-Domas. Fleshed out (and sometimes fleshy) love duets between this couple provides a parallel with the developing passion between Neruda's tongue-tied postman Mario, sung by Charles Castronovo, and a local waitress Beatrice, performed by Amanda Squitieri. Catán manages a deft and major substitution in this adaptation as well. Radford's film is slight and often precious. It's held together by little more than Neruda's poetry and the striking visual images of a romanticized Italian seaside village. Without the benefit of those visual images on stage, Catán must rely more directly on Neruda's poetry, which he does with supreme success. Not only are his musical settings of the poems beautiful, he and the design team of director Ron Daniels, scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, all manage to create a visual space that emphasizes the romance and excitement of language. When Neruda or Mario sing of poetry, their words appear larger than life behind them in a variety of animated ways. L.A. Opera invested in a large amount of the latest video technology for their recent Ring cycle, and it is used here to great effect, going beyond simply projecting visual backdrops.

Vladimir Chernov, Charles Castronovo and Amanda Squitieri Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

The music itself is neo-romantic in style with a familiar operatic structure including distinct arias and duets. There are some love orchestral passages including Mario's Act III recording adventure of the island's sounds. However while the style is comfortably familiar, it is substantial music that demonstrates Catán's clear talent in writing for the voice. It’s often challenging music to sing and there are some indications that Catán may have made some minor changes to the score to better complement the cast's vocal strengths. There are several beautiful love duets between the two couples and some dramatic arias as well. Perhaps most unusually, the work ends with a short duet for the two tenor roles, Mario and Neruda. Catán uses the music as much more than backdrop. He uses the music to tell the story directly and move events forward. The music Mario sings initially in the opera is disjointed and somewhat jarring and monotone reflecting his character’s inability to voice his inner emotions. However, as he learns about poetry through his friend Neruda, he gains a more lyrical voice. This is also reflected in the love duets between Mario and Beatrice that change over the course of the story from a decidedly one sided affair to a real barn burner towards the end of Act II. There is also an effort to include various ethnic and folk music elements including accordion accompaniment in the wedding reception scene in Act II as well as an a cappella flamenco vocal solo performed by Gabriel Lautaro Osuna in the role of Mario's Father.

Grant Gershon conducted a sizable L.A. Opera orchestra on this evening and worked with a cast that rose to the occasion of the excellent material they had been provided with. At the center of this piece is Placido Domingo. The fact that Domingo can sing the hell out of this role, which he did, isn’t a surprise. Neruda is a huge part with several arias and at least three major duets to boot and Domingo met the acting challenges in the role as readily as the vocal ones. Il Postino is certainly a landmark performance from Charles Castronovo as well. The entire opera centers around the connection the audience feels with Mario, and Castronovo excelled in this. His voice was warm and generally strong throughout and held up very well in his two duets with Domingo. The women were no less impressive. Squitieri's Beatrice and Gallado-Domas Mathilde both managed secure navigation of high notes throughout with Squitieri in particular receiving a huge ovation at the curtain call. She did have to take somewhat of a second seat to the response given to Catán, however, who received a hero's welcome when entering the stage. He should probably get used to it since, I imagine, he'll be hearing plenty more of it from other audiences as charmed by Il Postino as this one was. The show is running through October 16 downtown.


Know Before You Go

September 22, 2010

Charles Castronovo and Vladimir Chernov in Il Postino Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

Los Angeles Opera will open its 25th-anniversary season tomorrow night with the world premiere of Daniel Catán’s Il Postino. On Tuesday, however, a significant crowd of donors, students, and others got a sneak preview at the final dress rehearsal. I was there, but will hold any opinions about the piece and its performance until I’ve seen the final product later this week. However, Tuesday’s rehearsal has revealed enough about the opera that it bears some description as a preview of coming attractions.

The opera is based on the 1994 Michael Radford film Il Postino. Radford’s movie in turn was based on an earlier 1985 novel and film, Ariente Paciencia by Antonio Skármeta. There are a number of significant alterations Radford made for his famous film, although both works generally concern the story of an inarticulate postman, Mario played in Catán's work by tenor Charles Castronovo. Mario is aided by famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in his romantic aspirations towards a woman in the man’s village, Beatrice, sung by Amanda Squitieri. Skámeta sets his novel in the early 1970s close to the time of Neruda’s death and the overthrow of Allende’s socialist government by the soon-to-be dictator Pinochet. Radford moves the action of the story to a much earlier time, 1952, when Neruda was living in exile in Europe due to his political beliefs and activities. And while there is some reference to Neruda’s socialist and communist leanings in the latter film, Radford has emphasized the romantic elements of the plot.

Catán, who also wrote the libretto, sticks extremely close to Radford’s version of the story in his version of Il Postino with the setting in 1950s Italy. He keeps almost the entire narrative structure of the film and has only made slight changes by giving a bit more for Neruda, played by Placido Domingo, and his wife Mathilde to sing. There are still some allusions to the political elements of the story, but this is first and foremost a romance and rarely does it stray from that course. The opera, which will be seen in both Paris and Vienna in the coming months after its debut in L.A., is accessible, with lyrical often very beautiful music in a neo-romantic fashion. The music communicates emotional and narrative material in its own right. There is serious and challenging vocal writing throughout the piece including a number of memorable love duets and distinct arias. The great majority of the vocal music is written for one of four characters, Pablo Neruda, his wife Mathilde, Mario, and his love interest, Beatrice.

Grant Gershon is conducting a sizable orchestra for the production, which is directed by Ron Daniels with lighting from Jennifer Tipton. Much use is made of all the video and lighting equipment L.A. Opera purchased for its recent ring cycle, and several scenes rely on video animation for scenery. Several of Neruda's poems that appear in the libretto come to life visually as well with words burning onto the scrim behind the vocalists as they perform. All of this happens above a bright blue tile-patterned floor that adds a great deal of color and light to the show in addition to its obvious reference to the sea which surrounds this island and its events.

The music and content can be downright steamy at times and Mathilde, played by Christina Gallardo-Domas, appeared topless in the first romantic scene with Neruda or at least it appeared so from where I was sitting, although admittedly she was turned with her back to the audience. Before the rehearsal, it was announced that Domingo had a slight cold and had elected to walk through the rehearsal without singing in order to conserve his voice for the upcoming opening night. In the rehearsal, his role was instead sung from the side by his cover. Here’s hoping he feels better soon, because this is a significant part with some real fireworks in it for him.The rehearsal audience had a very warm response for Domingo, even when he wasn't singing, and seemed pretty excited by the whole thing. The biggest ovation was saved for Catán. If the rehearsal is any indication, it looks like opening night is on track to be a big success. Stay tuned for more.


10 Questions for...
Charles Castronovo

September 21, 2010

Charles Castronovo

One of the more unique qualities of Il Postino, the new opera from Daniel Catán that will open the Los Angeles Opera season on Thursday, is that there are two starring tenor roles. The first is that of Pablo Neruda which everyone knows by now will be sung by Placido Domingo. The other tenor, the postman Mario referred to in the title, goes to American Charles Castronovo. He’s a face that should be familiar to local audiences since much of his early time as a resident artist was spent with L.A. Opera. Over the last decade, though, his blossoming career has taken him to major stages all over the world. He’s best known for his Mozart roles including Don Ottavio, Tamino, and Ferrando. He noticeably stars as Belmonte in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, filmed during the Salzburg Festival’s 2006 Mozart anniversary year. He’s also known for his Nemorino and has sung that role as well as Alfredo opposite the likes of Anna Netrebko.

Charles Castronovo as Mario in Il Postino Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

While in Los Angeles, he’ll also be performing a recital of Italian arias on Saturday, September 25, in support of the Opera Buffs. The Buffs is a nearly 30-year-old organization founded to support the careers of developing opera singers in Southern California, and Castronovo is one of the many young artists they helped foster at a much earlier stage. Tickets are still available for the show that will take place at Zipper Concert Hall. All proceeds will benefit other young singers so follow the link and hopefully we'll see you there.

Out West Arts put a few questions to the tenor this week:

1. What role would you most like to perform, but haven’t yet?
Massenet’s “Werther.” It’s a role that I really love not only musically but also dramatically. I love to brood onstage! Plus, I never died onstage before... and this one is a classic... suicide by pistol. Love it.

2. What role would you never perform, even if you could?
Herod, in Salome. He is just too slimy... I could do evil, but not plain slimy.

3. Describe your best moment on stage.
I have 3: Singing the small role of Beppe at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam–never had so much applause, I was shocked! / Singing a perfect (for me) rendition of “Una furtiva lagrima” in Paris and just reveling in the extreme silence of the audience between my last phrases.../ Exchanging high notes in a big duet with Placido Domingo in “Il Postino”... incredible.

4. Your iPod is destroyed by a vengeful mezzo. Which lost tracks would you miss most?
Led Zeppelin, Beatles, and Giuseppe Di Stefano singing Neapolitan songs.

5. Which music made you want to sing opera?
Entrance of Otello sung by Placido Domingo... wow.

6. In Il Postino you portray Mario, a postman. The next role written
especially for you should be...
Michael Corleone from the Godfather... 100% right on the money.

7. What is the best thing about working with a living composer?
When he hears you can't sing something well he offers to change it a bit... love that!

8. What's the best thing about being a tenor?
You get the best music, and all the ladies know it. :-)

9. What's your current obsession?
The Neapolitan dialect and my 3 year old son, Alessandro.

10. With which of your operatic roles do you have the most in common?
Alfredo from Traviata: very passionate in everything... love, anger, jealousy, and happiness.


Aida and the Amazing Technicolor Opera Production

September 20, 2010

Marcello Giordani and Micaela Carosi Photo: Corey Weaver/SFO 2010

It’s hard to take San Francisco Opera’s current production of Verdi’s Aida ,which opened their season earlier this month, seriously. I saw it on Sunday and couldn’t believe that it had no more artistic aspirations than say Ernest Goes to Camp. It borders on kitsch, but doesn’t really have the humor to pull it off. Garish would be the other word that comes to mind, but that’s more of a compliment than I would intend. The six-year-old behind me seemed to enjoy it, as did many in the Sunday matinee, retiree-populated crowd. So maybe the best way to think of this show is as a tale of war, murder, and suicide that speaks to the six-year-old in all of us.

Dolora Zajick, Marcello Giordani and Christian Van Horn Photo: Corey Weaver/SFO 2010

And in another way, this Aida directed by Jo Davies with neon-colored production design from Zandra Rhodes, made me question my career choice. One might surmise from this that all it takes to direct an opera is to dress up some singers, line them up at the foot of the stage, and let them have at it. Or to put it another way, this Aida makes doing nothing look easy. Now reportedly the idea behind the production is to refocus attention on the central love triangle. Fine, a great idea even. But I for one would not have taken that away from this particular performance. The interaction between principals is more often than not stiff and just as likely to happen with either involved party standing at the opposite end of the stage facing the audience. The only moment of life in the entire dead three hours was a turquoise, life-sized elephant puppet Radames arrives on in Act II that elicited applause from the audience. If that is your kind of thing, then this Technicolor travesty may be the opera you’re looking for. And given that San Francisco Opera is putting on a mammoth 12 performances, you should have plenty of chance to go.

On the bright side, I’ve heard far worse sounding Aidas. Conductor Nicola Luisotti avoids the orchestra descending into self-parody and things moved along nicely. Dolora Zajick was the vocal star of the show delivering her patented Amneris. Given that she hadn’t been burdened with acting direction, it gave her wide berth to work her vocal magic au naturel. Marcello Girordani sang Radames with good energy and some urgency. He was stable enough throughout his range and appeared heroic. Micaela Carosi was the Aida and had by far lost the costume lottery for the evening – mid-riff, real or implied, is a delicate thing on the opera stage. She was strong and mostly in sync with the orchestra, but I really didn’t find her all that convincing. Then there are the bare-chested supernumeraries in the giant gold lamé hoop skirts. I admired the over-the-top look, but it was mind-boggling how it was tied to a show so short on excitement or originality. Aida keeps going and going with performances right through the start of December.


Good Charlotte

September 19, 2010

Alice Coote and Ramon Vargas in Werther Photo: Corey Weaver/SFO 2010

Shame on you San Francisco. Saturday night at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera put on a first-rate, interesting, and very well sung performance of Werther and you could have thrown a brick in the rear orchestra with no risk of hitting anyone. What? You actually want a season of not much else besides Figaro, Butterfly, and Aida? Oh wait, you’ve already got that. Well, get ready for more if you all can’t support a show as good as this Werther is. Of course, considering the casting, the excellent singing is a given. Ramón Vargas has made Werther a calling-card role and he has more than a few splendid romantic turns in this. He seemed particularly unbound and thoroughly believable. His Charlotte is a radiant Alice Coote. You may recall that Coote was a replacement after the originally announced Elīna Garanča backed-out when she reportedly got a better offer elsewhere invoking a tersely worded missive from David Gockley. Well, the company may not have got its glitzy international opera vixen, but it did get something much better, a touching, warm and beautifully sung Charlotte. Give me Alice
Coote any day for this role (and any number of others). I was also quite fond of Heidi Stober’s Sophie and Brian Mulligan’s Albert. Emmanuel Villaume conducted a richly textured and well-paced performance from the orchestra.

Alice Coote and Ramon Vargas in Werther Photo: Corey Weaver/SFO 2010

Although all the great singing in the world won’t save a bad production, Coote and Vargas have lucked into a very thought-provoking new one from Francisco Negrin. The opera’s action plays out in a single set comprising of a small grove of trees encased in metal around their trunks and a mountain of boxes to the left side of them representing the homestead of Charlotte’s parents and later that of her own family. All of this is surrounded by a black lacquer enclosure lined with white lights. The stage is elevated roughly six feet. The black backdrop opens to reveal a variety of projections including blocks of homes and later splatters of blood. The raised stage floor is entered primarily through a trap to the right of the grove and all of this is foregrounded by a small room representing Werther’s own quarters. At times he lays in bed amidst images of Charlotte including a rear wall that becomes a video screen for projected images of her.

Negrin emphasizes that Werther's affections for Charlotte are not in any way reciprocated until Act III. Negrin keeps Werther and Charlotte physically separate during their big Act III duet, stalling their kiss until Werther is about to die in the final act. In fact, Negrin portrays the Act III duet as a dream of Charlotte's. As she lays in bed next to her husband Albert, she recalls Werther's letters and discovers her love for him. The net effect of this maneuver is to Tristan-ize the opera providing no consummation of their love until Werther’s death is imminent. In the same vein, Negrin uses two Werther doubles in Act IV. After he commits suicide, Charlotte goes to the side of one of the fallen doppel-Werthers as Vargas watches events from the sidelines, singing the final duet as if a ghost observing his own life slipping away. It’s all very engaging and produces a quite touching ending. Admittedly, this interpretation may not be to everyone's taste; however, it is a very attractive and an often thoughtful one that deserves a much bigger audience than the one it had on Saturday.


Throw Tolstoy From the Train

September 18, 2010

Jasmina Halimic in Anna Karenina Photo: Pat Kirk/Opera San Jose 2010

Friday night brought my first visit to Opera San José on my way north for the weekend. The company has a number of assets that are immediately apparent. First is the beautifully restored California Theater in downtown San José where the company currently performs. The 1927 marvel comes complete with two working organs including one in the lobby and frankly was worth the visit in and of itself. The second major asset on display was the quite good San José Opera orchestra. For a company its size, I wasn’t expecting an ensemble that sounded as warm and on target as they did. Which I suppose says more about my shortsightedness than their significant abilities, which were under the guidance of Stewart Robertson. The orchestral performance was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening. It was clear that a lot of time and money had been lavished on this good-looking and sounding production.

Now all anyone could ask for was a good opera. Sadly, David Carlson’s Anna Karenina wasn’t it. The work was commissioned in 2007 by Florida Grand Opera in a co-production with Opera Theater of St. Louis and is now receiving its West Coast Premiere. I suppose it’s some measure of success that the work has received as many performances as it has, but it is undoubtedly a long and unconvincing slog. The music was reminiscent of a movie score and seemed to float in the background without ever poking its unobtrusive head into the mix. The vocal writing had an absent quality as well. All of this is only compounded by libretto issues. Credited to Colin Graham with additional text by Mark Strenshinsky, the opera does undertake a Sisyphean labor in converting Tolstoy’s huge novel into only three hours of stage drama. This is not an iporssible task as proven by Gene Scheer with his excellent libretto for Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick in Dallas earlier this year. Anna Karenina however is littered with unnecessary characters, storylines and dialog for a rather simple and melodramatic story of an affair. The text waxes between the cliché and the pedestrian arriving at the prosaic “It is over” for Anna’s exit line. But wait - at the 2 hour 50 minute mark, there’s more with an additional 10 minute or so epilogue.

The vocal performances themselves were professionally done by the members of Opera San José’s cast of resident artists. On Friday’s performance Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste sang Anna Karenina with her dueling paramours Karenin and Vronsky performed by Isaiah Musik-Ayala and Torlef Borsting respectively. All were watchable performers who projected well with good clarity and stability. I also rather liked Steven Kemp’s romantic, if minimal, sets that were evocative without being fussy. But the action on stage often flagged with too much to say and too little to do. Even the business about jumping in front of the train, which is revisited on three separate occasions in the work was underwhelming relying on the old walking into the bright oncoming headlight trick. However, you cannot fault the company for giving it their all for a strongly made case of a losing argument. For a recent opera, that's a sizable risk for an American company these days and they should be acknowledged for it.

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Forest for the Trees

September 17, 2010

I Ketut Rina, Sardono W. Kusumo and Bambang “Besur” Suryono Photo: Steven Gunther/REDACAT 2010

Thursday was the opening night of the Fall season for REDCAT, Cal Arts' black box theater in the basement of Walt Disney Concert Hall. Of course, REDCAT, as Executive Director Mark Murphy reminded the crowd at the evening’s reception, is a multi-disciplinary space with a theater used for both performance and film as well as a gallery space for visual art. Thursday included the opening of Not Only Time: Zhang Peili and Zhu Jia the newest exhibit in the gallery, and as if to highlight the interdisciplinary approach of the theater, the Sardono Dance Theater presented a world premiere dance work, Rain Coloring Forest in collaboration with lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, composer David Rosenboom ,and video artist Maureen Selwood. The dance troupe's leader, 65 year old Sardono W. Kusumo, is a dancer, painter, actor, and all around artist who works primarily out of Indonesia but who has made regular appearances all over the globe. And much like its creator, Rain Coloring Forest is much more than a dance piece. The work is structured around several giant canvases, some as tall as 30 feet, painted by Sardono in the tradition of Tibetan "Tanka" works and hung from a metal frame. The “trees” are raised from the floor at the opening of the work and dominate the stage throughout. Of course like a real forest, they rarely look the same from minute-to-minute thanks to the work of Jennifer Tipton, whose lighting design work is all over L.A. stages this month. These giant scroll paintings transform from a frightening nighttime forest to a friendly woodland glade almost imperceptibly.

But the collision between artistic media doesn’t stop there. While there is certainly movement from Sardono and two other male dancers during Rain Coloring Forest, a lot of it involves interacting with other painted canvases which the dancers drape or enfold themselves in at times. Furthermore, in the final sequences of the work, Sardono creates yet another painting on a canvas stretched across a slanted panel of the floor. He rapidly throws paint across the slanted canvas which is then raised as the paint runs down, gravity blurring the image as he and the other dancers, who are now masked as if Adam and Eve, watch in amazement.

This is certainly somewhat unusual fare and to be honest I couldn't tell you about the meaning of it all. Sardono has an interest in a variety of political and environmental issues, and Rain Coloring Forest appears to reflect on humanity’s relationship to nature. Dancers appear from the forest of paintings wrapped in canvases or huge costumes of shredded material as if to resemble wild creatures of the forest. Other canvases snake along the sides of walls to take over the stage. The movements are rarely conventionally graceful and are often accompanied by deep throat based vocalizations. Sardono himself appears atop the blank canvas he will later paint as a dishevled and uncoordinated creature, regarding his limbs, hands and feet as if they were new to him. Slowly he learns to walk upright and welcomes the forest around him. He then litters the stage with mounds of shredded material paving the way for the entrance of the masked Adam and Eve. In addition to this activity, a near-psychedelic soundtrack of sampled groans and wails is recorded and played again and again with the assistance of David Rosenboom. I was rather taken with Rain Coloring Forest both in spite and because of its unfamiliarity. It may have been many things besides dance, but it was always thoughtful.

P.S. : I want to give a special shout out the the overweight Eric Bogosian look-alike two rows in front of me. Nothing says boorish like justifying your incessant talking during the performance by noting that you were bored and attend "lots" of dance events. Charmed, I'm sure.


St. Louis Woman

September 16, 2010

Judith Ivey and Patch Darragh Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2010

You couldn’t be blamed for thinking that you were somewhere else when faced with the veritable embarrassment of riches on L.A.’s major stages this month. With a great version of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined playing at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, the Center Theater Group has scored a major success by importing the superb Long Wharf Theater revival of Williams’ The Glass Menagerie nearly perfectly intact to the Mark Taper Forum. This will undoubtedly be one of the best shows of the year here in L.A. and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The most publicized reason for the show's success to date has been the master class performance of Judith Ivey as Amanda Wingfield. She deserves every accolade she can get for this performance. It is tough, nuanced and swims in complexity for a part notorious for its pitfalls. Yes, Amanda is suffocating, interfering and pathologically charming. The surprise is that she is frequently funny, warm and just as often painfully right in her assessments of her fractured family. Ivey’s Amanda Wingfield is brilliant not simply because she can be both sympathetic and repulsive at the same time. It is a great performance because of Ivey’s ability to point out exactly what her character understands – that her children are in serious trouble and this family’s sinking ship needs some desperate bailing whether or not she's going about it the right way.

But let me talk about what else is so right about this production. Patch Darragh’s Tom is beleaguered but not much nicer than his mother. He is able to bring out the autobiographical overtones of Willimas’ play without overwhelming it. Meanwhile, the restrained physicality of Keira Keeley’s Laura almost steals the entire second act. The only newcomer to the production fromn its East Coast run is Ben McKenzie who is excellent as the Wingfields’ gentleman caller Jim. But equally good to these stellar performances is the beautiful and very smart set design by Michael Yeargen under the direction of Gordon Edelstein. The dark, brown shabby set doubles as both hotel room and family apartment reinforcing the memory aspects of the play, often blurring the line between the temporal narrative and Tom’s later recollection of them as if they might be stream of consciousness. Lighting designer Jennifer Tipton deserves special mention here for a performance that is equally as remarkable as Ivey or anyone else on stage. Tipton is working overtime in L.A. this fall where she is lighting not only this play, but a dance piece from Sardono Dance Theater that opens the REDCAT season on Thursday the 16th as well as L.A. Opera’s world premiere of Catan’s Il Postino starting on the 23rd. I can’t recall the last time I saw such effective and profoundly understated lighting for a stage performance. The Wingfields’ rooms are dark and hazy in an evocative memory-referenced way. It is always too dark for them, but never in a way that the action cannot clearly be seen. And with the final scene proceeding largely in candlelight there is a beautiful lyricism to the whole mise en scène. This is a masterful production that takes on the frequent and real laughs of Williams’ play honestly without ever shorting the audience on the real heartbreak of this unraveling family. Don’t miss it at The Mark Taper Forum through October 17.

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Once More With Feeling

September 14, 2010

Condola Rashad and Russell G. Jones Photo: Chris Bennion/Geffen Playhouse 2010

On the recommendation of my friend Jim, I went to the Geffen Playhouse on Sunday for one of the preview performances of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined. Yes, I had just seen the play not but a week ago in a superb production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. However, given that the Geffen has brought director Kate Whoriskey and virtually the entire cast of the play from its prior incarnations at Seattle’s Intiman Theater and the Manhattan Theater Club, I thought it might be worth another visit. It was. And to be honest, there’s something about seeing two different productions of a new(ish) play in such close temporal proximity to one another. Undoubtedly, Nottage’s powerful, if eager to please Pulitzer Prize winning work has enough depth to make it worth a second viewing in a short amount of time. But these two different versions brought out different subtleties in the work that I might not have appreciated with only the first viewing. Ruined still brought tears to my eyes here in L.A. and it continues to leave one almost beside oneself with the knowledge that this is the world we live in today. That Nottage’s characters experience such unthinkable violence and poverty in the Democratic Republic of Congo at the same time our day-to-day lives proceed in their comparably trivial concerns is almost too much to absorb.

And while Whoriskey has a bit of a different take on Ruined compared to director Liesl Tommy and her excellent Ashland cast, this is no less of a production. Certainly the Geffen’s space and equipment are less generous than those in Ashland with its less constricted home for Mama Nadi’s bar in the New Theater. Whoriskey’s staging mines a different kind of dramatic tension. In Ashland I felt a constant sense of an unexpected catastrophe awaiting the characters at every turn, as if the differences between past and present were irrelevant and prior traumas were likely to recur at any moment. In the Geffen’s current production, the sense of time is more linear. The characters more clearly battle past demons, but the here-and-now is contested on terms not only of danger, but of family and love.

Whoiskey manages a much brisker pace shaving almost 15 minutes off of the OSF running time. This has the benefit of making the play seem much less indulgent in its brighter and warm-hearted moments. The performances from many of the cast are more reserved suggesting the work the characters have done to bury the unthinkable and go on living. These differences are felt most in the biggest roles. Portia plays Mama Nadi with a steadier keel and a little less steel. She is less removed in both age and attitude from the young women she supports including Condola Rashad's Sophie and Quincy Tyler Bernstine's Salima. Salima in Whoriskey and Bernstine's hands comes off as less angry and more mentally unstable, which makes some of her actions toward the end of the play more believable. Perhaps the most interesting performance for me here, though, was Russell G Jones’ Christian who anchors the action more directly in this version. Jones infuses Christian with a more global male consciousness suggesting some of Nottage's larger targets about the politics between men and women, even in a war zone. Ruined, despite its heart of gold, is an excellent play and the form it has taken at the Geffen Playhouse makes it highly recommended.

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Sisters are Doing it for Themselves

September 13, 2010

That old time religion with the Scissor Sisters in Hollywood Photo: mine 2010

I wasn’t going to say anything about the Scissor Sisters performance at the Hollywood Palladium this weekend. It was a fun show from this American outfit, still greatly under-appreciated in their own country where fake TV homosexuality is more palatable to middle America than the real on stage kind. (A fact of course they happily wear on their collected sleeve.) The band is relentlessly tight and worked their way through a very rehearsed and lively set of familiar hits and songs including some from Night Work, their well received new recording. But the most interesting part, (aside from Jake Shears and Ana Matronic's increasingly hot gym bods which have definitely benefited from some attention sometime along the way) came in a mini-rant from co-lead singer Ana Matronic. Towards the end of the evening, she slammed out an undisclosed print critic for recently calling the band's current touring show “shallow.” She responded to this perceived attack by embracing the term and aligning it with an LGBT community that continues to suffer discrimination of all kinds in many places around the world. For Scissor Sisters, the feel-good party atmosphere is a refuge and validation for the like-minded in a still cruel world. So there.

Fair enough, I say. There is certainly plenty of truth to that and calling dance music “shallow” is hardly a very sophisticated or insightful critique in 2010. However, I would argue that the purported shallowness of the Scissor Sisters isn’t really the problem. The problem is that crafting dance music as a sort of "liberation theology" has been done before. Freeing your mind with your ass close behind and all this one-nation-under-a-groove business has been done far better by many others for at least 40 years. Scissor Sisters are fun and competent musicians. Their crime is not shallowness, but lack of originality. Saturday’s opening act, a solo Casey Spooner with nothing more than a gray suit and a microphone delivered more sly wit in his five or six number karaoke set with far fewer pyrotechnics. Granted, this may not be his natural state. Nonetheless, with this preview of material from his forthcoming recording Adult Contemporary, with features tracks co-written with Shears, Spooner delivered one dead pan word bomb after the next including paeans to cinnamon toast and not going out. “I don’t want to go/I just want to be invited.” And there, my friends, is a worldwide sentiment that you can relate to.


Please Be Quiet, Please

September 12, 2010


Last week, I stopped by the Apple Store in Santa Monica for one of those in-store performances the company seems to make more and more out of these days, sometimes recording the sessions for release on iTunes and whatnot. In this case the occasion was a promo not only for Apple’s Garage Band software, but also for composer Nico Muhly and one of two new recordings of his music being released this month, A Good Understanding. (The other, a full length dance work, is called I Drink the Air Before Me which will come out on the 21st of September.) A Good Understanding features Muhly’s choral music, which is performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale under its director Grant Gershon, who was present on Wednesday with eight of the chorus members for some samples from the recording.

It’s a rather promising venture, and one that highlights the LAMC’s commitment to contemporary music under Gershon. The organization has fostered a significant relationship with Muhly over the last few years performing several of the works on A Good Understanding as part of their regular season. It would have been particularly exciting to hear them in Santa Monica if it wasn’t perhaps the worst possible venue to hear any music performed of any length given the horrible rabble of the store all around it. I sympathized fully with the LAMC and Muhly supporters who kept glowering at everyone else in the store during the under-amplified and under-considered presentation. (Note to Apple Store managers - why bother with an in-store music presentation if the very customers targeted to see it aren't going to be able to hear any of it?) But Gershon and the LAMC made the most of it and it certainly got me excited about their upcoming season opening performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall on the 26th.

As for Muhly, he is well meaning and quite exuberant in person, greeting individuals in the crowd on introduction with pronounced, quick bows like some stereotypical French maitre d'. He gave an excitable overview of his use of Apple software in his composition and talked about some of the inspirations for his choral music. As he also points out in some detail in the program notes of the new recording, he was heavily inspired by the traditional choral music and arrangements he sang in church as a child and incorporates many of the same strategies in his own work. The pieces on A Good Understanding are accessible and inventive if not earth-shattering. The music is decidedly straight forward preferring restrained emotion over grand gesture. A number of the works also feature organ accompaniment and are unabashedly sacred in content including settings of the Mass in Bright Mass with Canons as well as Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in a work called First Service. It suggests that he may have a flair for choral writing and one wonders what, if any, may creep up in his forthcoming operatic work Two Boys which is scheduled to appear at English National Opera next summer before a planned appearance at the Metropolitan Opera. Time will tell, but for now there is A Good Understanding to give us some hints.


Heavy Lifting

September 10, 2010

What's in the box? Photo: mine 2010

Thursday was the final Los Angeles Philharmonic performance of the 2010 Hollywood Bowl season and it was unusually cold and cloudy. With the shortening days, it felt much more like fall than L.A. usually ever does, so when conductor Bramwell Tovey joked about it being time to get back inside to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, it struck a chord with the audience. Tovey also had the honor of congratulating a few long-serving musicians with the Los Angeles Philharmonic who he reported were retiring after tonight’s show including violist Jerry Epstein, trumpeter Boyde Hood, and Principal French Horn, William Lane. They all received big rounds of deserved applause from the audience for their more than 100 years of combined service and music making with the L.A. Phil. (I did feel it a little odd that the role of thanking them for their artistry in this public forum fell to Tovey, Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, instead of someone from the administration such as Deborah Borda whom I've seen do this sort of thing in the past. But Tovey is certainly a warm and charming personality.)

And if you wanted user-friendly works that gave the retiring brass players a chance to shine, Stravinsky’s suite from The Firebird was an excellent choice for the program. The evening featured dance music of various stripes and kicked off with a solid version of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, a familiar if enjoyable chestnut. The Stravinsky followed with a warm and large sound which was perfect for the often distancing Hollywood Bowl. Tovey talked briefly from the stage about his history with ballet music and his experience showed. I'll admit this is one of my favorites. This is the second time the L.A. Phil has programmed the piece this year and it is currently scheduled to make a third visit in November at the WDCH.

The second half of the program consisted of the second of a three-part dance commission from the L.A. Phil for pieces set to contemporary compositions. L.A.’s own Diavolo Dance Theater presented Fearful Symmetries set to John Adams’ orchestral piece from 1988. The first work in the series was set to Salonen’s Foreign Bodies and premiered at the Hollywood Bowl in 2007 with the composer conducting. Both works start off from the same place, a large, Borg-like cube occupying center stage. In Foreign Bodies, the cube broke apart into pyramids which the troupe manipulated into numerous configurations, but this time around the cube broke apart into several rectangular blocks. Diavolo can often seem like a troupe of stunt artists or acrobats as much as dancers as they fling themselves about, jumping from heights in conjunction with the large architectural set pieces that dominate their work. They can also appear like furniture movers at times considering the amount of lifting and arranging they do of block elements nearly twice their size. The 10-dancer cast was divided into black-shirted and blue-shirted subsets who often looked like workers from some early 20th-century labor propaganda poster. And while the dance and music were kindred spirits, I felt the orchestra sound here rather sloppy and muddled from its place behind the dancers. Adams music chirps away with a predominating synthesizer which at times sounds rather like a calliope. It was a good program, but certainly sitting in the cold night air, I was relieved that another outdoor season at the Hollywood Bowl had drawn to a close and that the inviting Walt Disney Concert Hall awaits next month.


In The Wings - September '10

September 08, 2010

A set concept from Il Postino; Set Designer Riccardo Hernandez

I should probably comment on September’s upcoming events before it gets too late to make it worthwhile. As is usually the case, now that the holiday weekend is passed, there are a lot of new performances on the horizon as the fall season gets under way both here in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Probably the most anticipate event this month will be the opening of Los Angeles Opera’s 25th season with the world premiere of Daniel Catán’s treatment of Il Postino starring company artistic director Placido Domingo as Pablo Neruda on the 23rd. The music direction for this big event will fall to the company’s Associate Conductor Grant Gershon who’ll be having a very busy month since he’ll also be opening the Los Angles Master Chorale season the following Sunday the 26th with a performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil. It’s one of LAMC’s most exciting programs this season and there are only a few tickets left that aren’t behind the chorus so act fast if you don’t already have tickets.

Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale Photo: LAMC

There’s other opera both in and out of town. LA Opera will also open up a revival of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro on the 26th which will be conducted by Placido Domingo and has a good cast with Bo Skovhus, Marlis Petersen, and Daniel Okulitch. Up in the bay area, Opera San Jose will be offering the West Coast Premiere of David Carlson‘s Anna Karenina that I will see on the 17th. San Francisco Opera will be on the agenda for the same weekend with their two season opening productions, Verdi’s Aida with Dolora Zajick and Massenet’s Werther with Ramon Vargas and Alice Coote.

From In the Solitude of Cotton Fields Photo: Maciek Zorawiecki

On the theater side, REDCAT downtown will be offering two productions with promises of visual riches. On the 16th, the Sardono Dance Theater and Jennifer Tipton will present a world premiere dance piece, Rain Coloring Forest. The following weekend, RadosŁaw Rychcik/Stefan Zeromski Theatre will present a two-man art-rock inspired work, In the Solitude of Cotton Fields on the 23rd. Decidedly less experimental will be the big ticket offerings from Center Theater Group including the world premiere of a new musical, Leap of Faith based on the Steve Martin comedy, but now starring Raul Esparza and Brooke Shields at the Ahmanson Theater on the 11th. At the Mark Taper Forum, the Judith Ivey-starring revival of Williams’ The Glass Menagerie will arrive in L.A. after a very well reviewed New York run. I’m also planning to head to South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa at some point to catch their well-cast revival of Shaw’s Misalliance after it opens on the 10th.

There is other music to be hear around town in September. Gloria Cheng will open up the Piano Spheres season at Zipper Concert Hall with a recital on the 28th. The Los Angeles Philharmonic will finish up their Hollywood Bowl season with a few last shows including a Stravinsky and Adams double bill under Bramwell Tovey on the 8th including a performance from L.A.’s own Diavolo Dance Theater. And for those who like their music amplified, there’s New York’s Scissor Sisters on the 11th at the Hollywood Palladium and last but far from least, perhaps the most exciting rock bill of the whole year, Sonic Youth with the recently reunited Pavement closing out the month on the 30th at the Hollywood Bowl. My work here is done. The rest is up to you.


Rauch's Annotated Shakespeare

September 07, 2010

Dan Donohue as Hamlet Photo: David Cooper/OSF 2010

With all of the exciting new plays at this year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival it might be easy to actually overlook the Shakespeare part of the festival. That is, it would be if it weren’t for the fact that two of this year’s four Shakespeare productions are being helmed by the festival’s Artistic Director, Bill Rauch. Of course, this isn’t Rauch’s first turn at Shakespeare here or elsewhere, but this year is notable considering he’s chosen two of the more important plays, Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice, in his first Shakespeare directorial efforts as part of a season he himself planned since taking leadership of the festival in mid-2007. (He directed Romeo and Juliet in the summer of 2007 for OSF just after moving into the job as well as Two Gentlemen of Verona in 2006 and The Comedy of Errors in 2004.) I saw both of the Rauch-directed productions last weekend, and his direction indicated some things he sees as important not just for these works, but the festival as a whole. As with 2006’s staging of Two Gentlemen of Verona, Rauch is most concerned with making these classic plays not only relevant, but in fact urgent to a contemporary and, I would argue, somewhat youthful audience. Of course, this is stock and trade in the opera world these days, and certain “updating” techniques are by no means new to OSF itself. But there’s an aggressive edge to Rauch’s vision that has both a political and aesthetic aspect to it.

l - r: Jonathan Haugen, Anthony Heald, and Danforth Comins Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2010

One technique on display in both of this year's productions is the desire to make audiences relate more to the plays by making things look more familiar and contemporary. In The Merchant of Venice, characters are dressed in a hodgepodge of Elizabethan and 20th-century garb of various kinds. Bassanio wears both a doublet and jeans as he woos Portia. There are swords and laptops side-by-side in this Venetian courtroom. And while this kind of aesthetic updating can be a rather hollow and oversimplified maneuver, I can appreciate the gesture here. Rauch wants to highlight the notion of Venice as a multi-cultural city where the characters are exploring the limits of tolerance at a confluence of crossroads both in the here and now as well as the past. Rauch is also willing to do a little tweaking of temporal elements for effect. In his vision, The Merchant of Venice opens with a scene from Act IV, when Portia arrives, disguised as a young judge, to a courtroom complete with microphones to rule in the case between Antonio and Shylock with the opening question, “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” The action rapidly shifts back in time at this point to the start of the play as if with a backward tape loop sound effect. But the point is made. Rauch adds his voice to a long litany of directors interested in salvaging this perhaps most problematic of plays by recasting it as a call for tolerance. There are many wonderful performances here and it would be wrong not to single out Anthony Heald’s Shylock and Velma Silva’s Portia.

The players perform "The Death of Gonzago" in Hamlet Photo: David Cooper/OSF 2010

Meanwhile, Hamlet has arisen as perhaps the hottest ticket of the summer in Ashland. Here Rauch goes for broke nearly abandoning any trace of things stereotypically Elizabethan with the exception of the castle’s stone wall that makes up the back of the set. Everything else on stage matches the turquoise lacquer floor underneath. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become two old female college buddies, the whole castle is equipped with closed-circuit TV and the traveling acting troupe is now a hip-hop ensemble complete with a rap-influenced “Murder of Gonzago”. Some of this works, and some of it doesn’t, although all of it is interesting. When Hamlet appears to Ophelia in the opening of Act III, she is wearing a wire so Polonius and the King can eavesdrop. Half way through Hamlet’s rambling confrontation, she reveals the wire to Hamlet who proceeds with his ranting while kissing her. There are more of these confusing amendments throughout and Rauch again tampers a little with temporal elements. Nearly all of Hamlet’s soliloquies are moved in the play –typically into either the tail end of the scene before or the first few lines of the scene following them. They are instead presented as asides to the audience while the rest of the players stand in frozen poses highlighting the address as an inner thought process. Soliloquy finished, the action resumes right where it left off. This strategy helps keep the energy level high and things moving along at a ripping pace.

But while some of these changes may seem confusing or simply cosmetic, they do create a youthful energy and urgency at times. Rauch may try a little too hard at times to make a connection with the audience, but his efforts pay off more often than not. Dan Donohue, who is perfectly cast as Hamlet, seems young, fragile, and burning hot and fast. It’s rather an "emo" version of Hamlet reminiscent in many ways of Alex Timbers’ characterization of Andrew Jackson in the recent Bloody, Bloody, Andrew Jackson. This Hamlet is a rock star in his red T-shirt and skinny jeans, his ambivalence about revenge linked to a sort of contemporary adolescent malaise about the world. Not many Hamlet's succeed in making you feel that Hamlet and Ophelia are of a different and younger generation than their parents, but there is no mistaking it here. This is a good looking production and despite its flaws, it is undoubtedly a Hamlet for today. It also makes it clear that Bill Rauch’s Shakespeare is not one that is going to take anything lying down.

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I Pledge Allegiance

September 06, 2010

l - r: Richard Montoya, René Millán, and Herbert Siguenza Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2010

One of the new initiatives spearheaded by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival under its recently appointed artistic director Bill Rauch was a major play-commissioning project entitled American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle. The project, under the direction of Alison Carey, is the largest series of commissions in the festival’s history and will result in 37 new plays from a diverse group of leading American playwrights on topics related to and inspired by American history. Up to 15 of these commissions will receive full productions in Ashland over the next decade and the first of these plays, American Night: The Ballad of Juan José comes from L.A.’s own Culture Clash collective. Now as much as I’ve come to love the loose association brand of sketch-comedy-as-theater that Culture Clash has produced for any number of venues in Los Angeles and elsewhere, they seemed like an odd choice to kick off a major new initiative for American history plays.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. American Night is extremely funny and better yet has an immense amount to say, and not just about the way we as a nation construct our own history, and what it means to be an American. The work is a series of comic skits, but they do lead somewhere very worthwhile. The overarching conceit is that a recent immigrant from Mexico, Juan José, is currently in the throws of studying for his citizenship test the night before the big exam. The play is filled with actual examples of test questions (some of which are projected on the corrugated tin backdrop) and returns to them again and again as a unifying device. Juan José falls asleep on his books only to enter a 90 minute fever dream in which he finds himself drawn into stories of great Americans, many of whom were immigrants themselves at one time, but who have been forgotten or written out of history books. From African American cowboys in West Texas at the turn of the last century to Australian-born labor organizer Harry Bridges, these voices add to the story of America’s history often with a sly smile. Juan José is also exposed to the racism and hatred that have made up the country’s past as well, with visits to the Japanese-American internment camp at Manzanar in the 1940s to a modern day town hall meeting complete with tea-baggers and not-so-thinly-veiled xenophobia.

There are too many funny cameos from historical figures to mention here, but the superb OSF cast, which centers around René Millán's Juan José outdoes itself. Culture Clash’s own Richard Montoya and Herbert Siguenza appear at various points in this American circus and their respective Bob Dylan and Neil Diamond impersonations are worth the price of admission alone. They aren’t pulling any punches here and go after racism of all kinds in an increasingly complex American picture. They're not afraid of politics either, and a closing segment on the recent immigration debate is one of the show’s highlights. But oddly enough, even with all its sharp edges, there’s a patriotic heart to American Night. As much time as the play spends on Juan José’s ambivalence about pursuing American citizenship, it also expresses quite eloquently at times exactly why he should bother doing so in the first place. It may be comedy filled with the most transitory of topics at times, but Culture Clash’s American Night proves to be just about the most perfect way to start a very big project on the very big topic of American History and identity.

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Life During Wartime

September 05, 2010

Kimberly Scott and Tyrone Wilson in Ruined Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2010

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Lynn Nottage’s Ruined currently getting a bang-up production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Not that I feel 100% good about that. Nottage's 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner takes inspiration from Brecht’s fiercely anti-war Mother Courage and her Children. Ruined is set in present day war-torn DR Congo and is concerned mostly with the horrific violence, sexual and otherwise, women (and men) continue to face in this part of the world. Mama Nadi runs a local watering hole-cum-brothel where business is king and soldiers, miners, and rebels alike all check their ammunition at the door to honor the house rules. She has carved out a fragile safe haven where she harbors a number of other women who work as prostitutes in an environment far preferable to the violence and death they face outside of her protection. The play is set in motion when Mama Nadi’s contact for goods, Christian, brings her two new young girls she reluctantly accepts into her establishment, Salima and the beautiful Sophie who we come to find out has been “ruined” and permanently disfigured in a violent gang rape at the hands of soldiers.

There is a great deal of trauma in Ruined and the audience, like the characters, are asked to accept it all and yet, keep moving. We learn more about these individual traumas and the bargains everyone has made to keep on living over the course of the play. Meanwhile, the encroaching conflict between government forces and local rebels grows closer and closer to Mama Nadi's, although its often difficult to tell the difference between the sides, a fact reinforced by having the same cast members play both sets of men. Mama Nadi, like Mother Courage, is making a living off the war while still trying to protect her many "children". It’s powerful and often emotional material that brought plenty of tears to plenty of eyes in Saturday’s audience.

But unlike Brecht, Nottage is not interested in alienating the audience, but trying to draw them in emotionally. And truly, Nottage has crafted a play that is easy to access with friendly, likable characters, a strong arching narrative, and relatively clear lines between the heroes and villains. She even throws in the redemptive power of love for good measure. Ruined is an oddly non-political play, especially when compared to Danai Gurira‘s Eclipsed, which deals with nearly identical themes in a similar setting while wearing its feminist orientation on its sleeve. Nottage keeps things a bit more personal in Ruined coating its very awful medicine with plenty of theatrical sugar and craft. But to her credit, the play avoids descending into melodrama and packs no less punch in the final analysis. The performances in the OSF production are spectacular with Kimberly Scott as Mama Nadi, Tyrone Wilson as Chritian, Chinasa Ogbuagu as Salima, and Dawn-Lyen Gardner as Sophie. Director Liesl Tommy (who has also tried her hand at Eclipsed) and the cast have crafted a big and very detailed staging that appears opulent even in its depiction of the worst poverty. Ruined, despite its conventions, is an important play and OSF has done right by it. And if you're in L.A. and can't travel to see it, you're in luck in that the Geffen Playhouse will be mounting it starting on September 7.

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The Japanese Play

September 03, 2010

Cristofer Jean (left) and Kevin Kenerly (right) in Throne of Blood Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2010

I arrived to beautiful weather in Ashland, Oregon, this weekend for my visit to this year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The festival has been taking a number of exciting new directions under the tenure of artistic director Bill Rauch, and this year’s line-up provides several productions that have grown out of artistic collaborations Rauch has fostered both here and during his long history working in American theaters across the country. Perhaps one of the most promising new projects this year is an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s film Throne of Blood for the stage by director Ping Chong. It’s a natural fit for Ashland and the festival considering that Kurosawa’s film is an adaptation of Macbeth to begin with. The show is a co-production with the Brooklyn Academy of Music where it will appear in November.

Ako as Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2010

Chong has an ambitious visual sense that makes for one of the most striking productions I’ve seen here in years, which is saying something considering the high quality of OSF productions on the whole. Throne of Blood directly references the visual style of the Kurosawa's film using elements that refer to the cinema. The set incorporates a stage-spanning rectangular screen used for video throughout, often providing hints of scenery or supertitles in the few instances where Japanese is spoken by the characters on stage. Beyond this, Chong, like Kurosawa before him, peppers Throne of Blood with references to Japanese Noh and Kabuki theater traditions. There are at least three visible black-clad and masked stage hands, kuroko, and the actors are moved about at times on platforms, Hiki Dōgu, while striking characteristic poses, mie. These touches and other stylized movements, give the very familiar Macbeth storyline a rather alien air. This is particularly true for the role of Lady Asaji, the Lady Macbeth character played by Ako, who often remains completely still or relies on smooth patterns of Japanese stage movement while her husband, Washizu played by Kevin Kenerly, flits and flails about her in his own struggle for resolve.

But for all of the visually interesting images, Throne of Blood periodically stumbles into self-parody like some Saturday Night Live skit of a samurai B-movie. Shakespeare’s witches are replaced by a “wood spirit”, portrayed by the tall and lanky Cristofer Jean, in white make up and robe with a large white fright wig. He appears in a cloud of smoke seated at a spinning wheel and speaks in a voice heavily augmented with audio special effects. But the wild swings in his characters’ tone from a high-pitched winsome ghost sound to a menacing angry growl were often as likely to produce laughs as fear in the audience undercutting the creepy feel of the scene. Perhaps the bigger problem than any specific effect or characterization, though, in Throne of Blood is the lack of poetry. Blessed neither with Shakespeare’s lines nor the cadence of Japanese, the prosaic dialog is bland at best and unintentionally comical at worst. And while it never reaches “All Your Base” proportions, the text does feel at times like a second class translation from another tongue. But on balance, the elements that work in this stage version of Throne of Blood more often than not outweigh its weaknesses to create a show that is worth seeing in a Shakespeare Festival that is reaching out in several new directions.

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