Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

The Old Empire

April 30, 2011

Ian Bostridge Photo: Ben Ealovega 2010

The concluding performance of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County’s season took place on Friday with a visit from Bernard Labadie and his crackerjack Canadian Baroque ensemble Les Violons du Roy. And though that is enough in and of itself, they weren’t alone, bringing along British tenor Ian Bostridge. The program wasn’t surprising—Handel, Vivaldi and a stray Geminiani or Caldara bit here or there. What was a bit unusual is that this is not necessarily the first music one thinks of when one thinks of Bostridge. Or at least I don’t. The tenor has risen as one of the best known tenors of his age, but this has been largely in the works of Britten, Schubert, and Mozart. And while he’s no stranger to Baroque music, having recorded both Handel and Monteverdi, it has not been the mainstay of his repertoire. So in some ways, this show might have been an ideal setting for him to branch out. There are few ensembles as satisfying as Les Violons du Roy. Playing modern instruments with historical performance techniques, they produce a hybrid sound that is both stable and powerful but still related to the past. The evening opened with a suite from one of Handel’s best operas, Alcina, which was one of the highlights of the whole night. The playing in conerto grossi from Handel and Geminiani was equally brisk and lively and sounded warm and full in the Segerstrom Concert Hall.

The arias on the program were predominantly those of Handel and Vivaldi. Bostridge opened with two different settings of the same text from Tamerlano, one from Handel and another from Francesco Gasparini. But from the outset it was clear that as admirable as Bostridge’s singing is, it wasn’t completely satisfying. Technically, he made much more of the coloratura runs than many tenors I’ve seen who regularly perform Baroque works. His vocal leaps were clean more often than not and he avoided losing track rhythmically. But Bostridge never felt like he was invested in the characters or emotions of the texts, however. Granted, Baroque operas are not known for their unique or identifiable themes and plots. But these arias often felt unattached to anything. Bostridge’s gaunt frame and lack of other physical involvement than some minor contortions only heightened the effect. Probably the most successful pieces in the vocal component of the program were “La tiranna” from Vivaldi’s Arsilda, Regina di Ponto with its unusual rhythmic elements and Handel’s “From celestial seats descending” from Hercules. This latter lovely work is more oratorio than opera and recounts Hyllus’ torn emotions between his father Hercules, and Princess Iole, whom his father has captured as a prisoner of war. And it is possible that given the more two-dimensional aspects of the drama of Hercules that made it seem a better fit for Bostridge. The dramatic range of the aria seemed more fully occupied here for some reason. Or maybe he was just saving the best for last. In any event it was a nice end to the Philharmonic Society season, which will be followed next year with perhaps one of the strongest and most star-studded season the groups has yet put together with a schedule that reads like a list of the world’s major orchestras including visits from the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra as well as Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, St. Petersburg, Baltimore and, of course, Los Angeles.


In the Wings - May '11

April 29, 2011

Sofia Gubaidulina

Ah, May. It’s not quite summer and the performing arts seasons that started all the way back in September and October are hopefully going out in a blaze of glory instead of grinding to a halt. So you can take your pick with this month’s best bets. The one event that I would not miss above all else is the three day, four concert mini-festival of the music of Sofia Gubaidulina at CalArts’ REDCAT space downtown. The many great musicians among CalArts faculty and friends will perform two shows on Sunday the 15th including a matinee of music written for children and an evening show focused on percussive-sound works. The 16th and 17th will cover a number of chamber concerto works. And to top it off, the 80-year old Gubaidulina is scheduled to travel to L.A. for the festival. It’s a visit as significant as Boulez’ was last March, and while I sincerely hope it is not the case, this might be your last chance to see one of the great names in late 20th-century music in the flesh.

Missy Mazzoli

Gubaidulina will also make an appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic during its season concluding Brahms festival, “Brahms Unbound” with a new commission, Glorious Percusion on May 19. What exactly needs to be “unbound” about Brahms is unclear, but Gustavo Dudamel and the L.A. Phil are planning to make to most of several shows pairing Brahms’ symphonies and other major works with more contemporary compositions. The festival is already off to a rocky start following the loss of two major commission premieres in the schedule. (Golijov’s violin concerto, which isn’t done, and Peter Lieberson's percussion concerto which was left unfinished with the composer's untimely death.) But the shows will kick off in any event on the 5th with Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 paired with a Dutilleux Violin Concerto to be followed on the weekend of the 12th with A German Requiem with soloists Matthias Goerne and Christine Schäfer paired with Stephen Mackey’s new Beautiful Passing for violin and orchestra. After the Gubaidulina weekend, Brahms’ Symphony No.3 will show up on the 26th with Górecki’s Third Symphony and the festival will complete the following weekend on June 2 with Brahms and more Brahms, which is the show the L.A. Phil has chosen to conclude its theater broadcast L.A. Phil Live series for the season.

Coco Peru
And while these Brahms programs may run the risk of suffering under Dudamel’s typically laborious conducting, there are a couple evenings sponsored by the L.A. Phil this month that may be better bets. Jordi Savall will return on the 10th with his Hesperiòn XXI troupe for an evening of Mexican Baroque music, and John Adams will be back in town on the 24th for a season-ending Green Umbrella program including new works from young composers including Missy Mazzoli and Gabriel Kahane. And in case you missed it, you should go to the WDCH this weekend to see David Afkham lead the L.A. Phil as a last minute replacement in a Beethoven and Prokofiev program. But just before that, if you can squeeze it in, Ian Bostridge and Les Violons du Roy will appear in a Handel program TODAY down in Orange County as the close of the Philharmonic Society’s season at the Segerstrom Concert Hall.

June Omura and Bradon McDonald from Mark Morris Dance Group Photo: Nan Melville.

On the opera and dance front there a few big shows of note. The Mark Morris Dance Group will return to L.A. and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion starting on the 5th with their well respected version of Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, which is being co-sponsored by Dance at the Music Center and Los Angeles Opera. The L.A. Opera Orchestra and Chorus will be conducted by Grant Gershon with soloists Hei-Kyung Hong, Sarah Coburn, Barry Banks, and John Relyea. Meanwhile in Long Beach, Long Beach Opera will present Shostakovich’s operetta Moscow, Cherry Town on the 15th, 18th, and 22nd. Lucinda Childs and her company will also be in town over the weekend of the 5th on a national tour revisiting her landmark collaboration with Philip Glass, Dance at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Of course, I can’t resist jetting off quickly to the Metropolitan Opera in New York before the season closes on May 14 for performances of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and the much anticipated Robert Lepage staging of Wagner’s Die Walküre.

Will there be any breaks in all this music? Why, yes. For me those will include Tennessee Williams’ The Eccentricities of a Nightingale at A Noise Within on the 7th, Justin Tanner’s Voice Lessons returns to L.A. at Sacred Fools Theater on the 6th with Laurie Metcalf and French Stewart, and the return of Roger Guenveur Smith to the Kirk Douglas Theater starting on the 17th in his latest solo work, Juan and John. I’ll also be off to Ashland, OR, over Memorial Day for another promising summer of shows with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival but I’ll say more on that later. Oh, and one more thing. Don’t you dare think about missing the return of Miss Coco Peru to the LA Gay and Lesbian Center’s Renberg Theater starting on the 13th. You’ve got your work cut out for you.


Sometimes It Snows in April

April 26, 2011

Michel Galante and the musicians for MEC on 4/25/11 Photo: mine 2011

Even here in Los Angeles. Or at least it did in a way at the final Monday Evening Concerts program of the season, which presented a single musical piece, Hans Abrahamsen’s Schnee, or Snow. And while it isn’t clear to me that this just over an hour-long work has much to do with the weather, it certainly is related to the passage and marking of time. In particular, Abrahamsen uses the piece to explore musical canons. But before this got under way, there was a short video piece from artist Rick Bahto entitled Cave Creek. Winter canon. 2011. Bahto has worked extensively with 8mm film and Cave Creek consisted of three film loops exhibited side-by-side simultaneously. All three were shot in Cave Creek, Arizona, during the winter and capture elements of the beautiful landscape as Bahto follows a series of physical actions while filming resulting in broad circular sweeps and other movement of the typically static landscape. He filmed the same sequence three times resulting in the three separate loops thus creating a sort of visual canon when played back at the same time. The vague black and white images reminded me of the kind of graphic design 23 Envelope did for the 4AD label in the 1980s. Sadly, the work didn't come off completely well when one of the projectors failed to work on Monday leaving the audience with only two of the three images.

Still, the point about the movement of time and canons meshed well with Abrahamsen's Schnee. The work grew out of the composer's arrangement of canons from J.S. Bach for another project that inspired him to create pairs of his own canons following an invitation for a new work from ensemble recherche. Schnee is divided into five pairs of canons that mirror one another with each pair becoming progressively shorter over the course of the work. The effect is to mimic the passage of time over a life span with things moving more quickly as one goes further on in years. The sections are divided by three Intermezzi during which the players systematically tune down some of their instruments by fractional steps to create microtonal effects. There are two separate teams of musicians separated by a percussionist on stage with each team anchored by a piano and consisting either of strings or wind instruments. The canons are passed back and forth between these groups enhancing the mirrored images of the sections. The sound can be delicate with halting rhythms or more involved with flurries inspired by the work of Mozart. At times it does give a wintry feel and as the work continues, time does seem to both expand and telescope, a phenomenon familiar to those who have lived through a snow-filled winter. (You can get a feel for this with the video above.) Michel Galante, the director of the Argento Chamber Ensemble, served as conductor for the evening. He's well known to MEC audiences and he proved as insightful with these local players as with his own New York-based ensemble. It was a lovely, often quiet piece and perhaps an odd choice to conclude a season for Monday Evening Concerts. But with playing this good for a piece not heard on the West Coast before, it's hard to argue. Here's looking forward to the return of the MEC series later this fall.


Breakin' News, Breakin' News

Conductor David Afkham Photo: Horschülr für Musik Franz Liszt Weimar

Now here’s some exciting news. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has just announced that David Afkham will be the last minute replacement for Jaap van Zweden in this weekend’s performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Prokofiev's Sinfonia concertante. Afkham has won a number of big conducting programs including the inaugural 2010 Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award. He’s a protégé of Valery Gergiev and has worked as Assistant Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra since 2007. The 28-year-old German maestro is in town conducting some of the Toyota Symphonies for Youth programs and was tagged to fill in for this previously scheduled program as well. Word is that he’s the next big thing and in a twist, actually has the talent to back it up, so his mainstage appearance should be worth seeing.


Not Drowning, but Waving

April 25, 2011

Tadhg Murphy and Laurence Kinlan Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2011

Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan is entering its final week of performances at The Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City in an excellent touring production from Ireland’s Druid Theater. Druid has been intimately involved in the genesis of a number of McDonagh’s plays and the experience is evident throughout. The show is directed by Druid’s founder Garry Hynes and from the moment the lights come up, the show sings with the brittle comic energy that marks this playwright’s world. Things veer from sentimental to macabre without warning and layers are peeled away only to reveal new and more intricate puzzles to solve. It's a very funny comedy with a very sharp bite. The "cripple" in the title is one Billy Claven who has been taken in by his two “aunties” Kate and Eileen after the loss of his parents. It's been a hard life and Billy stands out for virtually everyone's ridicule in this rural coastal island town in the early 1930s. Billy makes plans to break out of this small town and head to Hollywood on the wings provided by a visiting film crew on the mainland. Billy is played by Tadhg Murphy, who is an actor on the front lines of many of the most important plays of the last ten years. His association with Druid has landed him plum roles in the works of both McDonagh and Enda Walsh. He’s great here too as are all the members of the ensemble cast including Ingrid Craigie and Dearbhla Molloy as Billy’s “aunties”. McDonagh's characters, like those of Walsh and Conor McPherson, are storytellers at heart, and everyone in this cast masterfully spins stories that are nail-biting in their often surprising and unpredictable endings. There's the mean Slippy Helen played by Clare Dunne and the childish Bartley played by Laurence Kinlan. And then there is the town gossip, JohnnyPateenMike who is bright enough to know his "news" audiences' preference for stories about sheep without ears over those relating to Hitler's rise to power in far off Germany. It’s a furiously funny script that uses as much silence as dialog to win its many laughs.

This is a great show and you should see it, but more than that, it comes at an opportune time for the Kirk Douglas Theater. The KDT is the third of Center Theater Group’s L.A. venues, which also includes the Ahmanson Theater and Mark Taper Forum downtown. CTG completed the theater’s renovation under the guidance of former Artistic Director Gordon Davidson in 2004 and it was initially filled with both new plays and smaller revivals that fit the more intimate space. However, the course of this particular space has been increasingly confused and muddled in recent years. Following the Fall 2008 economic downturn, productions have been fewer, requiring less resources and increasingly reliant on imports of successful works from elsewhere. The heady days of January 2008's Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Spring 2009's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo seem like increasingly distant memories in 2011. But The Cripple of Inishmaan suggests a potential new direction.

The Druid production of The Cripple of Inishmaan is a touring production and it’s the kind of important International theater event that has relatively few places to go in L.A. following the implosion of UCLA Live’s International Theater Program in 2010 and the resultant sudden departure of their artistic director David Sefton. Sefton had an amazing ability to pick productions much like Inishmaan and had hosted the Druid company on prior occasions at UCLA. He showed that there is definitely an audience for intriguing and exciting experimental work here in Los Angeles. CTG and the Kirk Douglas Theater have been no strangers to hosting imports and a modicum of edgier material in its early seasons of existence already. And given Druid's current success at KDT, it raises the question, why not do more of this? The KDT has the opportunity to become home to a wide variety of experimental and international theater on a much larger scale than previously and its more intimate stage would appear to be the perfect venue for it. Could this be the site for the next visit from the Volksbühne or Mabou Mines? It should be. In any event, for now we have the excellent Druid players and The Cripple of Inishmaan until May 1. Go see it if you can.


The Youth Vote

April 24, 2011

Stephen Costello And Ailyn Pérez Photo: Cory Weaver/SDO 2011

Perhaps one of the smartest moves San Diego Opera has made in recent seasons is providing opportunities for the most promising of young singers to perform starring roles. In particular, I’m thinking of the appearances of tenor Stephen Costello and his wife, soprano Ailyn Pérez who returned to San Diego last night in the lead roles of Gounod’s Faust after a huge success there last year in Roméo et Juliette. And while they may not be the next Alagna and Gheorghiu (if that would be considered a good thing), they are both capable and rather exciting performers, and this Faust is a success in large part due to their vocal contributions. The fact that they can both act and actually look the parts is a decided bonus in the equation as well. Costello, who was making his role debut as Faust, has easy, solid top notes and sings with real athleticism and not an ounce of strain. And while it's not always the warmest voice, he can sell “Salut! demeure chaste et pure” to the point it almost overshadows Marguerite’s big arias in the same Act. You can bet he’ll be fascinating to watch opposite Anna Netrebko in the fall when he sings Lord Percy opposite her Anna Bolena when the Metropolitan Opera season opens. (Of course folks in Dallas already got a taste of this last year, so you’ve been warned.) Pérez’ dark-hued tone is equally lovely if a little less certain at the top of her range. She makes hay in a part that traffics heavily in tarnished innocence. She’ll be repeating this part this summer in Santa Fe as well, and husband or no, she’s a face to watch.

Brian Mulligan Photo: Cory Weaver/SDO 2011

There’s another young voice in the cast worth remembering and that is Brian Mulligan who sang Valentin, Marguerite’s principled brother. His two appearances on stage were superb and he gave arguably the all around most integrated and successful performance of the evening. Valentin’s rage and heartbreak were palpable and he stole all the scenes he was in with a role he'll repeat at The Metropolitan Opera in December. (He’s also singing title roles in two John Adams’ operas in the near future: The Death of Klinghoffer at Opera Theater Saint Louis this summer and Nixon in China in San Francisco the next.) The Méphistophélès was American Greer Grimsley who played up the more affable qualities of his part and meshed well with the ensemble. Siébel was sung by a bright and clear Sarah Castle. In the pit, Karen Keltner led an enthusiastic San Diego Symphony Orchestra that never lagged in an opera that can be bogged down without close attention.

The production itself was a revival of a familiar design from Robert Perdziola that has been seen on several American stages in recent years. It was last in San Francisco in 2010 with Patricia Racette, Stefano Secco and John Relyea and in the year before that in Chicago with Ana Maria Martinez, Piotr Beczala, and Rene Pape. This time around it was directed by David Gately who gave perhaps the most clarity I’ve seen yet with this particular show. He smartly added an extra dancer to Méphistophélès’ Act II aria to relieve Grimsley of having to mess with a violin that has tripped up everyone else I’ve seen in the part. Gately was also helped by clearer lighting that focused less on creepy atmospherics and more on ensuring the audience could make out the action on stage. It’s a trade off to be sure, and while I understood more of the action in these scenes than in the past, the show is a little less menacing at times. Still for the overall musical quality of the show and a chance to see three artists in the early stages of what will likely be exciting careers, this is a Faust worth seeing. There are three more performances through May 1.


Remember When

April 22, 2011

Juraj Valcuha

Yefim Bronfman’s visits to the Los Angeles Philharmonic tend to be special occasions. He played a wide variety of works on the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage, some that stand out in my memory more than others. I was particularly fond of his Shostakovich First Piano Concerto, which seemed to thrive under his muscular, emphatic approach. Considering the works he has performed that I’ve been most taken with, I would not have thought the Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto scheduled for this weekend would have been among them. But that’s one of the great things about this music, you never can tell. Bronfman’s Brahms was in a word thrilling. From beginning to end, he was forceful but never to the point that it was overwhelming. Both the first and second movements had that perfect combination of effortlessness and bold assurance that is a joyful rarity. Better yet, Bronfman was well matched with Juraj Valcuha in his conducting debut with the L.A. Philharmonic. Valcuha is another young and very handsome young man who has a rising profile and will be making many debut performances with the world's major orchestras over the next two season. This performance for one bodes quite well for his future. Bronfman was well complemented for so many years in his collaborations here with Esa-Pekka Salonen, and this young Slovakian seemed to have a similar musical disposition in terms of both clarity and finish resulting in a performance that was so well integrated that it was often surprising this was a concerto at all.

Valcuha displayed the same strengths in the first half of the evening as well in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1. This is not the most familiar of works for a composer who often suffers the contempt of listeners precisely because of their familiarity. It can also be said that it may not be as satisfying as those same ballets and symphonies. There are some lovely winter wonderland moments in the first movement, however, and Valcuha did his best to make the most of them. He seemed more concerned about clarity and detail overall, and while more could have been made of the Scherzo and Finale, I was very appreciative of this decidedly less overheated approach overall. The evenings where this kind of control and subtlety are a priority are few and far between these days on the L.A. Phil stage, and this is a program not to be missed for those who miss those qualities in our local and beloved orchestra.


Up in Smoke

April 21, 2011

Zabryna Guevara and Adam Rothenberg Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2011

Given that his plays have never been absent from American stages, it was inevitable that a revival of one of Lanford Wilson's many important works would coincide with his untimely death at age 73 last month. Thus, Burn This arrived at The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles at an opportune time to remind us all of Wilson’s great gifts as a playwright. Or at least it could have. But sadly, this particular revival of Wilson’s late 80s romantic-dramedy never catches fire. It’s not a big production, involving only four characters. A young dancer, Anna, and her roommate, Larry, mourn the death of their fellow roommate, Robbie, a dancer who has died in a boating accident. They are soon rudely interrupted by the intrusion of Robbie’s drug-addled, anxiety-ridden brother, Pale, and a clandestine romance between him and Anna is initiated right under the nose of Anna’s long-time writer boyfriend Burton. Burn This is a somewhat ephemeral play whose energy rests almost entirely on instantaneous chemistry between characters that are not obviously complementary. Pale is a foul-mouthed drunkard when he meets Anna, and yet she bonds with him in their grief and soon succumbs to an unexpected physical attraction.

In this instance, not only Anna but the audience as well must be seduced by Pale on some level, which this time around, fails to materialize. Adam Rothenberg and Zabryna Guevara play the unexpected lovers, but under Nicholas Martin’s direction their interaction seems obtuse and mysterious. Pale comes off as more threatening than charming while Anna reads as more ambivalent than grief stricken leaving many in the audience wondering what this is all about. The performances themselves are quite good and thought out, they just seem to belong to different plays. Probably the most purely satisfying performance in the show is stage veteran Brooks Ashmanskas as Larry, the gay roommate who serves largely as initiator of comic relief is this universe. On Tuesday when I saw the show, Ashmanskas provided one of the most dramatic moments in the evening when he broke character heading into a scene change in Act II to approach the foot of the stage and verbally chastise a rude couple who apparently had been talking throughout the play so far with a “We can hear you up here, you know.” But as much as I love watching rude audience members being publicly humiliated, it was a somewhat empty victory here amidst a show that by that point had grown tedious.

Burn This is certainly filled with some relatively juicy dramatic roles and has been a favorite of actors for all of its existence. But since its debut in 1987, the play has picked up some sludge and sounds dated. The wistful descriptions of casual sexual encounters and long faces in response to the implication of the AIDS crisis that was raging through the New York communities these characters come out of seem rather precious in hindsight. It's the kind of thing that makes you remember exactly why folks like Larry Kramer were so angry to begin with. But to be fair, Burn This is not a history lesson, its a play about being truthful to your passions. It's a shame the current revival at the Mark Taper Forum doesn't inspire more of that in its audiences.


The Gods Must Be Crazy

April 20, 2011

James Gandolfini, Hope Davis, Jeff Daniels, and Marcia Gay Harden Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2011

There’s funny and then there’s profoundly funny. Or better yet, there are things that make one laugh, and then there are things that make one laugh and think at the same time. There is a fine line here to be sure, but it’s an important distinction to be made. Which brings us to Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage. A play about what happens when two pairs of parents are asked to spend 90 minutes on a single stage to show what happens when people stop being polite and start being real. Or something like that. The play opened on Broadway in 2009 winning the Tony Award for Best Play and garnering nominations for all four of its cast members including James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, and Jeff Daniels. In something of a casting coup, Center Theater Group managed to contract with all four stars to reprise their roles here in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theater when God of Carnage opened there last week under the direction of Tony-winner Matthew Warchus.

Warchus has developed a reputation of turning dramatic straw into theater gold in London and New York with much lauded revivals of comic gems such as Boeing-Boeing and The Norman Conquests. That he was drafted into collaborating on Reza’s somewhat bloodless comedy of manners would seem a natural fit. And it is in many ways. A couple, Annette (Davis) and Troy (Daniels) have come to the well-appointed house of Veronica (Harden) and Tony (Gandolfini) to discuss an event of physical violence the 11 year-old son of the former has recently enacted on the 11 year-old son of the latter. Things start out pleasant enough, but soon the pretenses come down and the booze and true feelings come out, creating some sharp one liners. Warchus stands back and manages four excellent actors by letting them do their thing and the results are often very funny. And despite the lack of blood, Reza and Warchus do work in some other bodily fluids including perhaps the funniest vomiting scene you're likely to see anytime soon on a stage.

But does this amount to anything? That was a bit harder for me to decide. God of Carnage, despite its many appeals to our baser selves, is surprisingly genteel. It couldn't hold a candle to Pinter or any number of contemporary playwrights for actual bite or edge despite all the predictable arguments among the characters. There are some implications that Reza is critiquing the myopic concerns of (American) family life. When Annette questions the authenticity of Veronica's concern for the children of Darfur from her New York condominium, you can see where the cultural lines are being drawn. But the indiscreet charms of the Bourgeoisie are hardly new material for the stage. Furthermore the notion that a thin layer of civility is all that separates us from more animal instincts hardly seems like the basis for sophisticated comic play at this point, even at just over an hour and a half. Warchus and the design team do try to make the most out of it with a clever visual motif of encroaching darkness on the characters displacing the bright red of the single living room set. But I couldn't help feeling the whole thing was somewhat hollow.

Perhaps the biggest exception to that, though, is the performance of Marcia Gay Harden. The only winner among an entire casts' worth of Tony nominations, she does manage to turn Veronica into something more than just a character. Not that it isn't fun to watch the great thespian sparring, but Harden definitely brings just a little bit more to the evening. And that may be more than enough to see this very high quality production. God of Carnage may not make you a better person, but it won't leave you displeased or unamused either. It runs downtown through May 29.


Hauntingly Familiar

April 18, 2011

Jeffrey Kahane conducting the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra Photo: Ken Hively

Jeffrey Kahane and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra returned to their westside home, UCLA’s Royce Hall, this weekend in their penultimate performance of the season. The show featured works from Dvorák and Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. But for all the familiar favorites, the evening was also a reminder that LACO has and continues to have a significant hand in the new music arena even in a town with a number of significant venues for new(er) music. (The season's concluding performance will feature a new piece from Derek Bermel, Mar de Setembro, on May 14 and 15.) Kahane commented from the stage that he had long wanted to pair the Beethoven piano concerto with the first work on the program, Gli accordi più usate (“The Most Often Used Chords”), by John Harbison. The short four-movement piece was a commission from LACO for Harbison in 1993, and Kahane stated that he felt it was important to bring it back again given its beauty and the difficulty some new works have in seeing the light of day after their original performances. I for one was very glad he did, hearing this time around. Harbison based Gli accordi after a chart in an Italian music notebook identifying the most commonly used chords in musical composition. This guideline provided unintended inspiration for Harbison, who took it, and other charts in the notebook, as a kind of challenge to use familiar chords that rarely appeared in his own work at that time in new ways that fit into his musical world view. Kahane is right in that it is a lovely and very seductive piece. The third Ciaccona movement in particular suggests much deeper currents than its Baroque inspired name implies.

Jon Kimura Parker Photo: Tara McMullen

Harbison's piece was followed by Dvorák's Serenade in E major for Strings which is filled with more catchy turns of musical phrase than you can shake a stick at. Kahane led a well coordinated performance that made the most of the dance rhythms that permeate the piece. It wasn't the most Czech of all imaginable sounds, but the performance made up for any lack with its energy. After the break came the big piano concerto with Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker as soloist. As Kahane noted, this work starts from a similar place musically to Harbison's, relying on inventive uses of the most familiar of chords, scales and arpeggios arranged in a way for maximum effect. The LACO players sounded on top of things and provided a robust counterpoint to Parker's bright and athletic approach to the score. And yet it wasn't rushed in any way, though at some points I wished for a bit more reflection, particularly in the Adagio. On balance, the show played to LACO's strengths, pleasant, enthusiastic playing with a spirit of adventure and plenty of excitement. And revisiting the group's history of their own home grown commissions in the context of works they make a specialty in playing is always a good idea.


Mercy, Mercy Me

April 17, 2011

F. Murray Abraham and Melissa Miller and Jessica Photo: Gerry Goodstein/TFANA

Perhaps one of the most respected theater companies in New York, the Theater for a New Audience has spent three decades producing forward-thinking revivals of Shakespeare and other playwrights both off-Broadway and around the world. The company has collaborated with some of the biggest names in today’s theater world, so it’s quite exciting to have them in Los Angles as part of their current tour at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, one of the few venues left in the city willing and able to present this kind of work to local audiences. So hurray for the Broad and hurray for this production of The Merchant of Venice directed by Darko Tresnjak. Following its premiere in 2007, this modern dress staging of one of Shakespeare’s most problematic of problem plays has garnered great reviews everywhere it’s been. In this case, you can believe what you read. Tresnjak updates the action of the play to the “near future” where the world of 14th-century Italian commerce is re-envisioned as the corporate world of Wall Street with its HD monitors, business suits, and frosted glass. There are smart phones and gadgets at every turn. The production relies on a rather simple set that is dominated by little more than three monitors and three Apple laptop computers that serve as Portia’s caskets. But it’s a good looking show that makes the few props that are used, a glittering knife, a plexiglass chair, pop in contrast to their surroundings.

Of course this is Merchant so the matter of who plays Shylock is of utmost importance. It’s catnip for the greatest actors, and Oscar-winner F Murray Abraham is one of the biggest draws in the show. His is a Shylock devoid of some of the physical and vocal trappings used by others to connote Shylock’s ethnic heritage. Which has the effect of making some of the more jarring racial epitaphs used by other characters in the story all the more unsettling by making this world seem exceptionally familiar to our own. Abraham’s Shylock is a more deliberative and argumentative than a purely angry or rageful one. The other pole in this play is Portia, the young woman who wins the Merchant’s life and humiliates Shylock though having never met him before. Kate MacCluggage gives a lovely performance as Portia’s rage blossoms out of the whirlwind romance she has embarked upon. There are many other solid performances in the cast, like Jacob Ming-Trent’s assured and funny Launcelot Gobbo, and a heartbreaking Melissa Miller as Jessica, Shylock's daughter.

Tresnjak does go for a strategy similar to the one that Daniel Sullivan recently used in the Public Theater’s The Merchant of Venice seen in New York last Fall and Winter. By shifting the focus to Portia and portraying the events of the play as ultimately a betrayal of her trust in Bassanio, Tresnjak creates a believable balance between the romantic comedy and the jarring anti-Semitism expressed by characters in the play. Tresnjak doesn’t quite carry this line of thought out as far as Sullivan does, and this Merchant still has a happy ending that is a little outside of the believable for a modern audience with the play’s three central couples dancing off into the sunset. Tresnjak is also somewhat more ambivalent about Portia’s higher moral virtues particularly in the first two acts. On the other hand though, this production is a little more blunt about the homosexual subtext of the relationship between Bassanio and Antonio, the Merchant, when the former plants a kiss on his beloved confidant in the climactic trial scene. It’s not enough to seem out of context, but certainly makes a sharp point about another of the work’s subtexts. And any production of The Merchant of Venice that communicates this much complexity and does it so well is worth seeing. This is a great chance to see the highest quality New York theater right here in Los Angeles, so hurry up and don’t miss this show before it ends next Sunday.


Another Enigma

April 16, 2011

Nicolaj Znaider

After the celestial highs of programs under the guidance of Thomas Adès over the last two weeks, the Los Angeles Philharmonic returned to more earthly, work-a-day classical music realms this weekend. That is not a bad thing, and an evening including Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and the Elgar Violin concerto was certainly welcomed. Well, at least the Tchaikovsky was. The conductor this weekend is Vassily Sinaisky a familiar face in both London and Moscow where her recently took over as Chief Conductor and Music Director of the Bolshoi Theater. He was paired with soloist Nicolaj Znaider, who played the Elgar concerto on the Guarnerius “del Gesu” 1741 violin, which at one time was played by Fritz Kreisler for whom Elgar originally composed the concerto. It's an interesting bit of serendipity that Znaider has been making the most of for over a year now both recording the concerto and playing it all over the world. It might have been even more intriguing if Elgar’s music were a little more enticing. As it stands, this lengthy concerto can often seem meandering with rather sobering and low expectations. It's a work filled with restraint and not an easy nut to crack. Not that there aren’t significant technical demands that Znaider met, but I found his performance somewhat aloof. Znaider is a relatively big man at 6-foot-4 and not prone to demonstrative physicality in his playing. He played using a score and although he's obviously familiar with the piece, I never felt like I was getting any closer to unlocking it as a listener. I found the concerto somewhat dry and removed in tone and rather hard to warm up to.

The Tchaikovsky that followed sounded a bit more convinced of where it was going, and the L.A. Phil players sounded more dug in. Tchaikovsky, of course, is a lot less unclear about the emotional content of things and Sinaisky led a fairly driven and robust performance. There was a strong rhythmic sense throughout and I thought the woodwinds outdid themselves last night especially bassoonist Shawn Mouser and Principal oboe Ariana Ghez. It’s a sizable symphony with an expected big ending that isn't particularly cathartic even in the context of a fairly dramatic performance. But Sinaisky gave the symphony the attention it deserved for a pretty nice evening overall.


Measuring the Milky Way

April 15, 2011

Monette Magrath as Henrietta Leavitt in Silent Sky Photo: Henry DiRocco/SCR 2011

Astronomical research, at first glance, may not seem like the richest wellspring for theatrical ventures. But somewhat surprisingly, Lauren Gunderson is proving just such an assumption wrong with the world premiere of a new play at South Coast Repertory this month called Silent Sky. Actually, Gunderson has written a number of plays about science-related topics, and Silent Sky joins their ranks, though it is also about the pull of family commitments. In particular, the story focuses on one of the great unsung heroes of late 19th-century astronomy, Henrietta Leavitt. Leavitt, working for next to nothing in the Harvard College Observatory of the late 19th century discovered a groundbreaking property of stars that paved the way for her successors including Edwin Hubble to better determine the distances between stars and the vastness of the universe overall. Leavitt's story is a compelling one considering the lack of opportunity for women to excel in and receive credit for work in the scientific fields of her time, and Gunderson seizes the opportunity to flesh out Leavitt's achievements and the personal characteristics that contributed to her perseverance.

In fact, the work-life and scientific advancement scenes in the play are some of the strongest in Silent Sky. Gunderson is especially adept at translating technically sophisticated, if historical, material into something watchable. Monette Magrath, the actress who plays Leavitt, gives a credible and very watchable performance. Her interactions with professional colleagues like Annie Cannon, played by Colette Kilroy, and Williamina Fleming, played by Amelia White provide much of the driving force behind the often intellectual action in the show. I also rather liked the attractive if simple staging which incorporated a video projection of stars on a stage largely uncluttered except for the suggestion of arcs and spheres. If there is a downfall in Silent Sky it's the relatively clunky family, romantic, and personal background foisted upon Leavitt's story. Relatively little is known about Leavitt's personal life, and Gunderson has fleshed out some details with rather predictable storylines. There is a sister, Margaret, played by Erin Cottrell who is initially hurt by Henrietta's desire to leave home to do scientific work. The health and welfare of her family frequently draws Henrietta away from her work as well as a burgeoning love affair with Peter Shaw, played by Nick Toren. Gunderson does not overplay this imagined frustrated romance, but it can feel a bit cliché and certainly forced as if the arc of the scientific discovery plot isn't compelling enough on its own.

But regardless of the relative success or failure of Silent Sky, the play represents one of the most important and exciting things about South Coast Repertory, the organization's commitment to new American plays. Gunderson's play is an SCR commission and part of the 14th year of the company's Pacific Playwrights Festival. Again SCR has made room for two fully staged productions of new plays and several readings of works in development. The festivals reading will start on April 29 and the second fully staged production this year, Itamar Moses' Completeness, will start previews on April 17. The festival is one of Southern California's theater gems and it’s great for audiences to be exposed to so much new work on a regular basis.


The Great Debate

April 13, 2011

Joseph Kaiser and Renée Fleming in Capriccio Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2011

I remain convinced that Richard Strauss’ Capriccio may be one of the most under appreciated operas in the standard repertoire. (Whether or not the opera is in the “standard repertoire” is probably a matter of debate in itself, but I would contend that it should be.) Perhaps one of the most musically inventive of Struass’ works, the opera is also blessed with perhaps the most “meta” of all opera plots this side of, … well, Ariadne auf Naxos. The one act “conversation piece” as Strauss called it is an extended debate about the relative importance of words vis-à-vis music in the arts and in what ways the two are subservient to theater as a whole. Each position in the argument is presented by a character, all of whom meet in the salon of a well-off young countess who acts as arbiter and eventually non-decider in the debate. She proposes that the warring sides compose an opera which becomes the very opera being performed, Capriccio. That the umpire in the discussion is one of Strauss' beloved soprano roles is to be expected, and it is a touchstone role for a certain class of performer. And one of them is Renée Fleming who is currently singing the role in a thoroughly enjoyable revival at The Metropolitan Opera in New York. I saw the performance on Monday, and you can too even if you aren’t in New York considering that the final performance in the run will be broadcast as part of the company’s “Live in HD” series to theaters around the world on April 23rd.

Strauss is one of Fleming’s strong suits, and she shines here. And while I wasn’t as taken with her individual performance last Monday as I was three years ago when she sang the part in Vienna, Fleming is still able to infuse the countess with the same kind of melancholy that makes Strauss’ Marschallin one of the great opera characters. Fleming seemed a hair less assured to me in the middle and lower part of her range on this particular evening compared to three years ago to my ear, but this feels like nit picking in a performance of this caliber. Of course singing the countess invites comparisons to some of the last century’s great voices. The only other time that The Met offered Capriccio was in 1998 with Kiri Te Kanawa in the lead role in the same production the house is currently reviving.

Sadly, much like this season’s revival of Debussy’s Pélleas et Mélisande at the Met, revivals of Capriccio are so infrequent that updating the previous already dated production may seem economically unwise. Fleming is placed in one of those trademark Met Opera dioramas like something from the Museum of Natural Opera History. The original production was directed by John Cox with sets from Mauro Pagano updating the action of the opera moved to the 1920s. This forces Fleming and Sarah Connolly, who plays the other major female role, the actress Clairon, into some mighty unattractive costumes. As has been documented elsewhere, Fleming did not wear the John Galliano designed gown she wore during the 2008 Met Opera season opening gala for the final scene of this opera. (Granted given Galliano’s fortunes this was probably wise.) But the matronly outfits she landed here are unfortunate at best. She spends most of the evening in a teal number dragging around what appear to be two dead gerbils attached to trains she repeatedly works not to stumble over. Then in the final scene she returns having raided Blanche's wardrobe from The Golden Girls.

Costumes aside, the most disappointing thing about Cox' staging is the real lack of sparkle and plain old stage magic in an opera that cries out for it. The cast is strong with Joseph Kaiser as an assured Flamand, the composer, and Russell Braun as the poet Olivier. Peter Rose makes a robust and persuasive La Roche, the impresario who reminds the two younger man exactly where they stand in things. Sir Andrew Davis, who conducted Te Kanawa in Capriccio’s first performances at the Met over a decade ago returned to the pit. I don’t feel he made the most out of some of the detail and rich texture in the work which builds from string quartets into full orchestral ensembles and then back again with deceptive ease. But the music is still very touching throughout.

It’s tempting to try and interpret Capriccio in anti-authoritarian ways. Not unlike Shostakovich during much of his career, Strauss wrote and premiered his final opera in Munich in 1942 during the Third Reich and WWII. Is the opera willfully ignorant of the times in which it was born? Is it a defiant testament to a world and art that Strauss saw disappearing as his own life was drawing to a close? Unanswered questions to be sure, but sometimes those are the most intriguing ones. In my mind the melancholy that pervades Act I of Der Rosenkavalier permeates all of Capriccio and I think that is why I find it so moving and lovely. And it is also an opera without a resolution. The countess expresses no answer to the debate and leaves the stage with a call to dinner. And maybe that is the best we can hope for in a very difficult world.


Why Can't The English Learn to Speak?

April 12, 2011

Mark Rylance with the London cast of Jerusalem Photo: Simon Annand

The weight of culture and history are everywhere in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem which is currently in previews on Broadway following a highly successful run in London. The country in question is England and the title refers to the William Blake poem “And did those feet in ancient time,” that was later set by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916 into something of an English national anthem. The hymn is sung a cappella by a young woman in a pale green slip dress and fairy wings in front of a giant hand painted curtain of the English flag at the opening of Butterworth’s play. As she draws to her conclusion, the curtain lifts to reveal a strobe lit rave with pulsating electronic music taking place deep in the woods of the English countryside fueled by all stripes of illicit drugs in front of a aluminum sided camper van. It’s not subtle, but Butterworth is clearly laying down his challenge early in this comedy with a provocative “This is England.”

Of course it is really just one of many Englands, but Jerusalem focuses on the ways in which some of the more marginal characters in a small countryside town do and don’t reflect the cultural history of a land once inhabited by ancient Druids and the builders of Stonehenge. At the center of the play is one Johnny “Rooster” Byron, the drug-dealing inhabitant of the camper van who has spent the last several decades staying just outside of prison going from one alcohol-fueled bender to the next. He’s also a bit of a Green Man as well and we’re invited repeatedly to see him as representing, albeit sometimes ironically, a more ancient or essential version of the English. He’s about to be evicted from the woods around Flintock in Wiltshire and his current merry band of drug-addled teens and hangers-on are none too happy about the local estates plans to develop the wooded land he currently resides upon illegally. Of course Byron, like his romantic poet namesake, is not about to let the law or reason get in the way of his tall tales or his very low rent version of the good life. Byron is masterfully played by perhaps one of the greatest actors currently on the world’s stages, Mark Rylance, who adds yet another incomparable performance to his resumé here. He is mesmerizing for all three and a half hours of this, even when Byron drenched myself and several others sitting down front by wildly wringing out his wet hair in Act I.

Mark Rylance from the London production of Jerusalem Photo: Simon Annand

Byron has left a lot of damage in his wake including a child who he rarely sees and has served as a sort of pied piper to teens in the rural community for decades. He’s filled with stories of the countryside’s mythic past including tales of giants and magic drums and there are glimmers along the way that there may be more supernatural going on around him than meets the eye. There are moments of sentimentality, but Byron’s very existence lies in opposition to a modern corporate-driven world that has lost touch with an all too easily forgotten past.

The play includes a number of wonderful ensemble performances as well including a great Mackenzie Crook as Ginger, an unsuccessful DJ and quasi-employed construction worker who may be one of Byron’s longest-standing acquaintances. Many of the members of the London cast including Alan David as the Professor and Danny Kirrane as Davey, have continued on in New York providing wonderful and very funny turns. But there are also some American additions including John Gallagher, Jr. as Lee, a local boy who is packed up and ready to leave for adventure in Australia the day following the events in the play. Gallagher is probably the weakest link in the show more due to his ongoing mugging than any accent problems, but this is Rylance’s show and the cast is large enough overall that no individual takes up so much time as to overwhelm the many great things going on here.

I think this is a great play. And in its way, it has much the same sensibility as Tracy Letts’ intense envisioning of American in August: Osage County. Will it be a success in New York however is unclear. The play in unabashedly English and Butterworth and his team including expert direction from Ian Rickson, have declined to refit or tone down the very aspects of the play that may make it les familiar to a general theater going New York audience. But perhaps that is for the best. It has often been observed that the biggest difference between the U.S. and Europe is that Europe actually has history. And lots of it. Jerusalem in the end is about creating a national identity in the context of just such an ancient heritage and the necessary trade-offs in it. It’s not an American story, but it is a fascinating one that deserves you attention.


In a Family Way

April 11, 2011

The Cast of IHO Photo: Joan Marcus 2011

Although it has one of those exceptionally long titles that begs the question, why would anyone do this to a play, Tony Kushner's latest The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures couldn't be more aptly named. The work (which I'm going to abbreviate as IHO from here on out) is currently receiving it's New York premiere at The Public Theater and I had the good fortune to see all 4 hours of it while in previews on Sunday night. The title is a double reference encapsulating both George Bernard Shaw's The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism he published in 1925 as well as the founding text of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. IHO is filled with characters who've spent their whole lives thinking about communism and theology and along with suicide spend much of the play engaged in humorous and lengthy debates on these topics. The title is appropriate not only for it's content, but also it's wordy format.

Stephen Spinella and Michael Esper Photo: Joan Marcus 2011

The evening opens splendidly with Pier Luigi "Pill" Marcantonio, asserting over the phone to his gay hustler lover that there is in fact theater in Minneapolis (IHO's world premiere took place there at The Guthrie) and that he and his husband, Paul, saw an excellent production there of Shaw's Major Barbara that was only marred when an insensitive audience member's phone went off at a crucial moment. And we're off. Pill has returned to his childhood home in Brooklyn to see his father, sister Maria Theresa "Empty", and brother Vito (or V for short). They, along with their partners and aunt Clio, have come to discuss their father Gus' renewed plan to commit suicide a year after a prior failed attempt that everyone is still reeling from. Gus, a former labor organizer and current card-carrying Communist, believes he has developed Alzheimer's disease and no longer wants to live. But IHO is no rehash of 'night Mother and the elaborate plot twists and philosophical debate that follow are some of the most engaging dialog you'll hear anywhere. This is due in part to Kushner's writing, but director Michael Greif keeps the dramatic focus tight and moving.

Michael Christofer and Linda Emond Photo: Joan Marcus 2011

There are subplots galore. Pill finds himself returning to his lover/hustler during the visit home again placing his marriage in jeopardy. Empty's wife, Maeve, who is a theologian like Paul, is pregnant with their first child, and Vito has his own crosses to bear with his wife and two children. There is so much more, but the plot of IHO is all about learning the secrets of these characters' past unfold so let's leave it to say things get a whole lot more complicated and interrelated before the night is over. Often the whole cast will be onstage taking part in huge free-wheeling arguments and debates. There's a lot to say and sometimes Kushner's is so overwhelmed with it all that he lets scenes play out concurrently with multiple characters all speaking at once over each other. The spirit of GBS hangs over IHO indeed when even at four hours there is so much to say and so little time to say it in.

There are many excellent Kushner's alumni in the cast and there isn't a weak link among any of the ensemble. You have your political theorists like Gus played by Michael Christofer and daughter Empty, the labor lawyer, played by Linda Emond. There are two theologians, Paul, a scene stealing K. Todd Freeman, and Maeve, the excellent Danielle Skraastad. Clio, who has done stints both as a nun and a Maoist rebel is played by Brenda Wehle. In the middle are Pill's hustler Eli, a charming Michael Esper, and Vito, Steven Pasquale. It's a cast that is clearly working together on every level and watching their craft is enjoyment enough in the play. It's also a splendid looking production that feels especially intimate despite its large cast.

All this being said, I'm not convinced that IHO is a great play. At times it does chatter on, and not all of the elaborate sub-plots seem to be necessary to the overarching storyline. Of course there are so many of those to choose from, it would be fair to argue that all of them have their own case for legitimacy. But I never felt they all worked together at the same time. Unlike Angels in America or even Homebody/Kabul Kushner has proven that he can create disparate strains and stories and unite them under the banner of a much greater project examining our lives or the feel of a particular cultural moment. And while this multi-generational family drama aspires to that, it sometimes seemed a little muddled to me as if straining to incorporate everything in it's grasp. And while it is also not Death of A Salesman, it does use a particular American family from just a few years ago to give us an update on where we're at now. So enjoy the language and the debate. IHO runs at The Public Theater through June 12 and will open on May 5.


While I was Out


The bad news about being ou of town this weekend was missing Saturday Night's finale to the Los Angeles Philaharmonic's "Aspects of Adès" festival which included the composer conducting his own Polaris with video from Tal Rosner as well as Messiaen's Éclairs sur l’Au-Delà. I'll be kicking myself for missing this one for awhile, but luckily my friend Lou emailed me this brief account.

Ades' Polaris was absolutely fantastic. I was pleased to see Frank Gehry there. This was Adès' commission to open the new New World Symphony Concert Hall in Miami last year, which Gehry and Yasuhisa Toyota designed. The visuals were much less distracting than in Adès In Seven Days which was performed last weekend. Rosner spoke at the pre-concert lecture this weekend about the visuals, which made it more comprehensible. The music sounded and felt so much like waves on the ocean, and the visual reflected that so nicely.

The Messiaen was transcendent. We've been so fortunate to hear the Turangalila-symphonie in October, and now this. Adès did a terrific job of conducting, considering it must have been a handful to steer the 120 plus musicians on stage toward a single unified sound. The percussion was squeezed into the portion of the auditorium usually reserved for bench seating between the stage and organ, and to their side were the low brass. The brass sounded immense and got a big workout. They've never sounded better and got to play entire movements of the work without any other accompaniment from the orchestra. The penultimate movement was quite the roof raiser, followed by the last movement which transported you to heaven. What a treat.


The Last Days of Disco

April 10, 2011

Alan Held and Waltraud Meier Photo: Cory Weaver/Met Opera 2011

Second Viennese School operas are getting a lot of play in New York this month with Alban Berg’s Wozzeck now onstage at The Metropolitan Opera and Schoenberg’s Erwartung having just completed a run across the Lincoln Center Plaza at New York City Opera as part of a trilogy program entitled “Monodramas.” Both evenings are successful ones if not necessarily for the same reasons. Of course, the big story since Wozzeck opened earlier this week is the return of maestro and Met Opera music director James Levine to the pit following a sequence of ongoing health issues and cancellations this winter that have led to his departure from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and fueled countless rumors about his future engagements. Here’s what’s curious to me, though. I’ve not followed Levine’s career for most of his 40 years at the Met in New York. Honestly, I’ve had little exposure to his live performances until the last five years or so and can honestly say I don’t have much appreciation for his long and storied history with the Met. And though I’d say I’ve always found his conducting in recent years respectable and of a high quality, I’ve never quite gotten all the fuss about his comings and goings. His Wagner conducting to me seems rather turgid and overwrought at this point, though not without perspective. But I’ll admit Saturday night’s Wozzeck is the first time I think I’ve really gotten what people are so worked up about. Levine led the orchestra in a performance that was on fire. The detail was amazing and dynamics and contrast at times overwhelming. It was one of the best performances I’ve heard from this world-class orchestra in one shocker of an opera to begin with.

Onstage was an excellent cast of vocalists as well. There aren’t many opera performers like Waltraud Meier, and her Marie was up to her own unique set of standards. Meier seems submerged in her characters almost to a point beyond recognition. The steel and power of her voice were immense and the torment in her relationships was palpable. Alan Held stars in the title role. The American bass-baritone took over the role in this production after Matthias Goerne dropped out earlier this year revisiting the role he last sang here in 2005. I’ve always enjoyed seeing him perform and here he was tragic and heartbreaking. He's a big man, and his towering size over many in the cast helped emphasize his character's increasing alienation from the world. There were numerous superlative performances in the supporting cast as well including the malicious doctor, Walter Fink, and the malevolent Drum Major, Stuart Skelton. Mark Lamos’s stark 1997 production is still effective despite its staccato rhythm given that the curtain must be dropped for each scene change - a total of 14 times in 90 minutes. Luckily there are two more performances left next week for those who haven't seen it yet.

Cyndia Sieden and ensemble Photo: Carol Rosegg/NYCO 2011

Meanwhile, New York City Opera closed up its run of “Monodramas” on Friday with an unusual staging of three 20th-century works, none of which are known for being easy to access. Each of the three segments in “Monodramas” featured a work for solo soprano. The first was La Machine de L’Etre byJohn Zorn, a 10 minute work without text referencing the work of Antonin Artaud. Anu Komsi worked the syllables in the piece to great effect amid a surreal design that fit perfectly into Artaud's world. Two disaffected young people, a man and woman, in suits enter a crowd of figures dressed in burkas. They disrobe a few of these figures to reveal a man in a red suit and Komsi among others. As the singing continues large word balloons arise from below postulating a visual language of cartoon drawings in the place of actual words for this work of abstracted sounds. Zorn's short piece directly segued into a staged version of Schoenberg’s Erwartung. Several of the burka clad figures are now disrobed to reveal young women in romantic white dresses including Kara Shay Thomson who sang the sole part in this work. She gave a solid, very listenable performance and maintained consistent tone throughout. She is surrounded by a torrent of falling red petals. In a smart bit of staging, director Michael Counts works the physical story on stage backwards. Initially, the protagonist seems oblivious to the dead male body on stage. However over the course of the monologue, he eventually comes back to life stands up and Thomson pulls the knife out of his chest re-enacting her murder of him in reverse order. It was good looking, but I felt Schoenberg’s music was missing a dark edge and some detail here under George Manahan's conducting.

The highpoint of this evening though was the concluding bizarre staging of Morton Feldman’s Neither. Soprano Cyndia Sieden handled Beckett’s obtuse text and Feldman’s monochromatic lines with clarity and ease in a floor length black gown. She was situated in a room covered with holographic-style wallpaper and a cadre of more young men and women in suits. Soon numerous mirrored cubes descend from the ceiling spinning at different rates to the fascination of all involved. I can’t tell you what it all meant, but it sure looked cool. And somehow it generated dramatic tension. There was enough foreboding in the activities of the black-suited ensemble, one of whom would periodically fly above the stage and hover for stretches, to imply some anxiety around unexplained past or future events. None of it looked outright silly, which is certainly a risk in these kinds of productions. And "Monodramas" in the end did achieve some sense of unity between its three female protagonists, all attempting to be understood with language that isn't quite sufficient for the task. Plus as a reminder of the legacy of Schoenberg and Berg, it couldn't have come at a more opportune time.

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Oops...I Did it Again

April 09, 2011

Diana Damrau, Joyce DiDonato, and Juan Diego Flórez Photo: Marty Sohl/MEt 2011

It might seem impossible to render the combined acting and vocal talents of Juan Diego Flórez, Diana Damrau, and Joyce DiDonato inconsequential in an opera production. But Bartlett Sher has a particular talent for just that in the feckless and dull staging of Rossini's Le Comte Ory, which is currently running in repertory at The Metropolitan Opera and which I saw in the house on Saturday. Granted this frothy work, one of the composers last, is not a high point in one of the greatest careers of any opera composer. A comedy written for the Paris Opera in 1828, it used musical material from his earlier Il Viaggio a Reims in a new story about a count, Flórez, who attempts to seduce an innocent single countess, Damrau, by first disguising himself as a hermit and then a nun. The count has competition for the countess' affections with his page, Isolier, played by DiDonato. That's about it with much of the running time occupied with characters running about in shock as a response to the kind of mild groping that might startle a character in a Nickelodeon sitcom. Le Comte Ory makes Die Entführung aus dem Serail look like Götterdämmerung in its gravity.

Still there are plenty of operatic examples of slight material making for great opera performances, so what went wrong here? First was Sher's very tired play-within-a-play conceit which is neither especially informative nor funny in its own right other than to provide an excuse for the 19th-century costumes for a story set around 1200. (As if one was needed.) This is Sher's third production for the Met and it felt familiar in a bad way. The chorus runs about back and forth to little end in a manner that is more agitated than funny. There are the bits that should seem clever, like the tilting bed the three principle characters cavort on during the penultimate scene, but come off as forced and mildly confusing. Now this is not to say that Damrau, DiDonato, and Flórez don't display some fine acting and vocal chops. Flórez, who became a first time father just before Saturday's curtain, made the most of his hermit and nun costumes. The chemistry between all three was warm and affectionate.

And vocally all three were impressive. Every time I see DiDonato she amazes me a little more and the depth of her involvement in this portrayal was admirable. Damrau's coloratura is in fine shape and she sounded bright and lovely. I should also mention three supporting vocalists Michele Petrusi, Stéphane Degout, and Susanne Resmark who all made the most of their contributions to the performance. But musically, they weren't receiving all the support they needed from the pit. Conductor Maurizio Benini kept things dragging along and under-paced all along the way, never rising much above tepid. Sadly, Le Comte Ory, one of the Met's few completely original productions this year, turns out to be a bit of a fizzle. There is some lovely singing, though, so you can still catch the show in New York through April 21.


In Earnest

April 08, 2011

Composer Gerald Barry Photo: Betty Freeman

One of the best parts about Thomas Adès’s visits with the Los Angeles Philharmonic over the last few years has been his advocacy for the music of Irish composer Gerald Barry. Adès brought concert versions of Barry’s first opera The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit to L.A. in 2006 and later to New York. This Thursday, Adès conducted the world premiere of a decidedly funny operatic treatment of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. It was a match made in heaven. Barry’s penchant for musical wit proved ideal for one of the all-time great comedies. Barry does make some judicious cuts to the play's text, bringing Wilde’s three acts to just under 90 minutes of music. But Wilde’s magnificent word play is left intact and Barry manages to preserve the joys of the original syntax with music that is sly yet respectful of the text. The orchestra is reduced to a string quartet plus bass with a nearly full orchestra accompaniment of brass and woodwinds, percussion and piano. Despite the relatively smaller size of the orchestra, though, the imbalance of wind instruments made for plenty of sound for the vocalists to contend with. It is not a work of lush lyricism, but the blustering, cajoling, and scurrying sounds of the winds proved a perfect counterpoint for comedy not unlike Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, which was often brought to my mind musically in the performance.

The piece begins with a prerecorded intro of the butchered piano version of "Auld Langs Syne" Algernon Moncrieff is playing in the next room. This subsides as the cast enters including Gordon Gietz as John Worthing, Joshua Bloom as Algernon Moncrieff, Katalin Károlyi as Gwendolen Fairfax, and most hysterically, bass Stephen Richardson as a booming, blustering Lady Bracknell. At first the vocal lines are performed independently of the music, entering only in a call and response fashion during pauses. The characters sing their lines in punctuated and stilted ways at times rushing through lines in arpeggios or scales highlighting the rhythm of the text. At other times the lines are broken down into awkward distinct syllables. Vocal lines rapidly rise and plunge without warning for their own comical effect. Some of the text is spoken as opposed to sung and occasionally there were electronically processed segments as well. In one of the best moments of the show, Gwendolen and John’s ward Cicely Cardew, sung wonderfully here by Hila Plitmann, meet unexpectedly on John’s country estate. They soon quarrel comically over their incorrect assumption that they are both engaged to the same man, Earnest Worthing. As the two argue they sing their lines into bullhorns and as Gwendolen commences her final volley of insult and outrage, each word of her vocal line is interrupted by a plate smashing to the ground. After two percussionists have gone through 40 or so of these smashed plates on stage, Gwendolen’s tirade ends punctuated with four gunshots. And while it might not be the most subtle scoring in the world, Barry’s musical language speaks volumes about the emotional content of the characters in this comic scene. At other times, Lady Bracknell’s respect for things German boils over into sections of the text that are suddenly sung by her in German at emotional climaxes.

The music is filled with references to other musical genres referenced in the plot. And there are comical parodies of popular songs in several places punctuated with telephone rings and other comic sounds and motifs. The smaller roles were well served with Hilary Summers as Miss Prism and Matthew Anchel as Dr. Chasuble. But Barry has maintained focus on the two couples and Bracknell in his libretto. Wilde's text does create a bit of an obstacle in the third act, though, even with Barry's cuts. Given that the play's conclusion involves a fair amount of didactic explanation of John's history, the third act of the opera is a bit drier in tone than the first two. At the first performance, there was a single intermission between Act II and Act III that might better have been omitted, keeping the show's energy going through the end. As it was, things petered out slightly with the break. But with so much humor and creativity in Barry's version of The Importance of Being Earnest, the work on the whole is a wonderful success. It repeats again tonight and comes highly recommended.


The Good Doctor

April 07, 2011

Maggie Siff and Polly Draper Photo: Lisa Petereson

Jane Anderson has developed a reputation for writing smart and funny plays that skewer the presumptions that hold together our pleasant everyday lives. Thus, it is no surprise that her latest collaboration with the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, The Escort, which opened on Wednesday night, delivers significant laughs amidst a text that presses some buttons both for the characters on stage and the audience. As the name promises, The Escort concerns a woman who trades sex for money. Whether or not you want to call Charlotte a prostitute or a sex worker is one of the many contentious issues Anderson is taking on in her new play. But to be fair, the escort of the play’s title, marvelously played by Maggie Siff, is less the protagonist of the play than the catalyst for change in others, particularly a gynecologist who’s treating Charlotte, Dr. Rhona Bloom. Dr. Bloom, played here by the wonderful Polly Draper, treats Charlotte with a professional and respectful if somewhat curious manner, when she first enters her office. It's not unlike what most of us would expect and hope to emulate in a similar situation.

But what start's out as a light-heated consideration of Charlotte's professional career, soon gets more complicated. The doctor-patient boundaries are gradually dropped over Charlotte's subsequent visits with Dr. Bloom and a friendship forms. Eventually, Dr. Bloom is cajoled into meeting with a male prostitute in light of her own ongoing worries about her desirability and her frustrations with both her ex-husband, a urologist, and their 13 year-old son. It's really the gynecologist, and not the escort, that the play turns around. Dr. Bloom's own misgivings about the social and sexual development of her son, her unresolved emotional conflicts with her ex, and her own sense of self-worth are brought into new relief by this patient, who has a very different, though initially not objectionable, view of the world. The rub of the play, though, is that Dr. Bloom soon finds herself at odds between an arguably more fulfilling vision of herself à la Charlotte, or the more morally determined self she has always known. On the one hand she's concerned about her son looking at pornography on line. On the other she's rethinking her own attitude toward sexual promiscuity. And while this is not entirely new ground, Anderson sharply questions the stories and falsehoods we tell ourselves in order to create our own moral subjectivity. This works both ways for both women in The Escort who initially fantasize that they have far more in common than what they come to discover. Anderson is taking on liberal notions about pornography, sex, and women's work here under one big umbrella and leaving very big questions open for the audience to consider in a group of characters with a high level of complexity.

This makes the play sound much more serious than it is, however. There are great one-liners throughout. Anderson also expertly crafts an introductory monologue for Charlotte who speaks directly to the audience about the body suits she and a male prostitute character wear in the play, given the large amount of nudity and sexually explicit activity portrayed or implied on stage. Charlotte explains that onstage nudity can be distracting in and of itself, and Anderson wants the audience, whom Charlotte addresses several times directly, to concentrate on the events at hand. There are also several wonderful comic moments from the men in the cast. Dr. Bloom's ex, the other Dr. Bloom, is played by James Eckhouse and their 13 year old son is played by an adult, Gabriel Sunday. Mr. Sunday also doubles as the male prostitute in the play in a bit of deliberate overlapping casting that fleshes out some of the parent's issues in the script.

If there is anything disappointing in The Escort, it's Anderson's haphazard, poorly realized ending. I don't want to say too much and spoil the show, but the final scenes have the feel of a show that isn't sure where it wants to go. It knows where it doesn't want to go, but isn't exactly sure how to prevent that from happening entirely. On balance, though, The Escort is a strong show, and good ideas are often much more than one gets from any play, well scripted or not. The Escort runs through May 8.


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