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Culture Beat – Prototype Opera Festival; Met Fledermaus; NY Philharmonic; Lincoln Center Theater “Domesticated”

Posted on: January 19th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

I have been so busy with LGBT legal developments over the past month that I have neglected to blog about my various cultural expeditions, so I’m going to play catch-up here with a few brief comments about the events I’ve attended since mid-December.

On December 17, I saw Lincoln Center Theater’s production of “Domesticated,” a play by Bruce Norris which seems to have been inspired, at least in part, by the hit network TV show, The Good Wife. A public officeholder confesses publicly to patronizing a prostitute and is forced by circumstances to resign his position, resulting in all kinds of stresses on his marriage. This issue has received enough treatment now to raise the question whether another play has anything to contribute. What struck me about this one was that the playwright seemed to have sympathy mainly for the politician, unless the dialogue he wrote for him in the second act is intended to caricature his views, because, having been relatively mute through Act I, the politician spews forth a stream of invective in Act II, the main burden of which is that things seem to be rigged against men in public life who can’t win if they stray even once from the straight and narrow. Anyway…. I thought the show as a whole was rather depressing, although certainly the cast gave it their all.

Next up was the New York Philharmonic’s last performance of a run of five of Handel’s Messiah, which I attended on December 21 with one of my students who won a raffle conducted by the LGBT student group to raise money for a gay charity. The Philharmonic, exhibiting a singular lack of imagination, has fallen into doing Messiah every year for the week before Christmas. As if we don’t have enough Messiahs of every variety in New York City during December. . . At least with the NYP one can be sure that there will be a well-drilled, well-schooled choir in attendance, first rate soloists, and an interesting guest conductor. This year they invited Andrew Manze for his NY Philharmonic debut. Manze, who first came to public attention as an early music specialist, has been doing more conducting of mainstream orchestras, serving since September 2006 as principal conductor of the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, and preparing to take up a similar post with the North German Radio Philharmonic in Hamburg, Germany beginning next season after his Swedish gig ends. Manze brings insights from the early music movement, which is useful in Messiah, so this account was fleet and ship-shape. Matthew Muckey, a fine young member of the Philharmonic’s trumpet section, was outstanding in “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” The soloists -Joelle Harvey, Tamara Mumford, Allan Clayton, and Matthew Rose, were all superb, but I was especially taken with Rose, whose marvelous recording of Schubert’s Winterreise I had recently heard. His bass voice was startlingly big compared to the other soloists. I noted that Manze, unlike some other early music practitioners, does not go for excessive speed, and at times indulged much more “romantic” sorts of interpretive moves than I would have expected, especially in the instrumental overture and the Pastoral Symphony. It was altogether a satisfying Messiah, if in some ways a redundant one. The Philharmonic could do us all a favor by injecting some more variety into holiday season concert-going by finding other suitable music for that third week in December. They are releasing next year’s schedule soon. Will it include yet another run of Messiah?

My next outing, with my usual concert/theater companion (who had been away on a business trip for much of December), was the Prototype Festival’s NY premiere presentation of the one-act opera, “Paul’s Case,” with music by Gregory Spears and libretto by Mr. Spears and Kathryn Walat, heard on January 9. Robert Wood conducted the American Modern Ensemble instrumentalists and a fine cast headed by Jonathan Blalock in the title role. The opera is based on a Willa Cather short story about a Pittsburgh teenage boy in the early 20th century who suffers the torment of being “different” from his contemporaries – concerned for poetry and music and art and a bit of a dandified dresser, he suffers ridicule and dismissal for not being a “real boy.” Thus oppressed, he steals enough money from his employer (he is working in a boring retail clerk job) to fund a trip to New York City, where he falls in with a Yale student down from New Haven for a slumming weekend, but he eventual perishes in the snow as he runs out of cash and has to leave the sumptuous hotel where he had stayed. Today, he would undoubtedly fall into bed with the Yalie, “come out,” and become a gay liberationist. But this is all subtext in the Cather story, and the composer/librettist appropriately leave it as subtext to be true to the period. Blalock impressed me a few years ago when he sang an important role in the Ft. Worth premiere of my friend Jorge Martin’s opera “Before Night Fall” (get the recording!!) and he was most impressive in this intimate “black box” opera production. The music was rather minimalist and at time monotonous – I found myself nodding off a bit toward the end of the Pittsburgh segment — but it really came alive when the action shifted to New York. The same performers who provided the supporting roles in Pittsburgh changed their costumes to become the New York performers, and Michael Slattery particularly impressed as the Yale freshman down for his wild New York City weekend. The inventive production was directed by Kevin Newbury, who used a few key props to establish the scenes.

On January 10 it was back to the Philharmonic for a bit of a hodge-podge program led by Alan Gilbert in anticipation of the Philharmonic’s upcoming tour. There would seem to be little thematic sense in bringing together Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture and First Symphony, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Except, of course, for the fact that the NYP plays all these pieces well, and perhaps the contrast between the Symphony and the Gershwin provided a refreshing second half to the program. Shostakovich’s concerto, which received its American premiere from this orchestra in the 1950s with the dedicatee, David Oistrakh, and then-music director Dmitri Mitropoulos, who left a CBS recording done a few days after the concerts that has never really been surpassed, has now become a frequently-played showpiece for young violinists. Lisa Batiashvili, one of the legion of extraordinarily gifted young violinists now gracing concert platforms worldwide, brought plenty of passion and high technique to her playing. I thought that perhaps in the context of this program the orchestra did not spend lots of time rehearsing the Beethoven symphony, which came off as untidy in spots, especially in the first violins. They last played the symphony in 2012, so perhaps they didn’t pay so much attention to it in rehearsal. The Shostakovich concerto was last done by this orchestra in 2012 as well, and the Gershwin they played this past summer during their Vail, Colorado, residency. In other words, this program harked back to the “lazy programming” characteristic of the Maazel administration, when it was rare, apart from the very occasional premiere, to hear anything at the Philharmonic that had not been played within the previous five years. (The Fidelio Overture managed to evade this, having last been played by this orchestra a decade ago.) Each of these pieces is worth playing, of course, and a joy to hear, and otherwise this year the Philharmonic’s schedule has a fair degree of variety in it, so I won’t complain to hard. But when you put this together with the Messiah from December. . .

The next afternoon, I was at the Metropolitan Opera with my usual opera-going companion to attend a matinee performance of Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus,” performed to a new English libretto by Douglas Carter Beane. The Met rationalizes performing this piece in translation because it is really an operetta with lots of dialogue, but sometimes the English sounds a bit odd sung to Viennese strains. The production is lavish and seems to work well enough. In an age of countertenors, Orlovsky is no longer a “pants” role for a woman, so we had Anthony Roth Costanzo, one of my favorite young singers, as the Prince, although I agree with the Times critic that he seemed a bit stretched by the vocal range of this part. His acting and dancing was spot-on, however. The entire show seemed very well cast, with Christopher Maltman a superb Eisenstein, and Danny Burstein doing a well-crafted comic turn in the non-singing role of Frosch, the jailer. Adam Fischer’s conducting was not quite as frothy as one usually encounters in this piece. The sets were worthy of applause.

On January 18, I attended my second Prototype Festival production, “Thumbprint,” a world premiere of a one-act opera by Kamala Sankaram (music) and Susan Yankowitz (libretto), directed by Rachel Dickstein, with Steven Osgood conducting. Although I was laboring under a bad cold, which distracted me at times with the business of breathing and stifling coughs, I was quickly drawn in by the intense drama of a young woman, Mukhtar, in a Pakistani village, who gets pulled into a situation where she is subjected to an “honor rape” by men from another village who accused her young brother of looking the wrong way at one of their women. Mukhtar, at first devastated and resigned to being damaged goods and perhaps fading away locked up in her room, is encouraged by her parents to fight back, and finds the courage to go to the police and testify against her assailants. She is lucky to appear before an honest judge who believes her story and convicted the leader of her assailants. Composer Camala Sankaram was glorious singing her own music as Mukhtar, and Theodora Hanslowe was superb as the mother. (I have a soft spot for Hanslowe, since her father was one of my favorite professors when I was an undergraduate at Cornell in the 1970s.) The remaining cast, playing a variety of roles, was also superb: Steve Gokol as the father and the judge, Many Narayan and Kannan Vasudevan as, among other things, the assailants, and Leela Subramaniam as the younger sister among other parts. The production was in a rather larger space than “Paul’s Case,” which had been presented at HERE. This production was at Baruch College, and used projections and props to create the Pakistani setting most evocatively. The music was a piquant mix of eastern and western motifs, using some ethnic instruments as well as western ones to produce the requisite exotic sounds. I hope this will receive lots of productions. It should be within the range of university music departments, and deserves wide exposure.

I also saw several movies over the course of the holiday season — The Book Thief, the Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, Saving Mr. Banks — but have let time go by without comment and won’t bother to comment here, other than to say that every film I saw had some redeeming features and that 12 Years a Slave struck me as a particularly important production. I haven’t seen all the films nominated for Best Picture by the Motion Picture Academy this year, but if I were voting I would vote for 12 Years a Slave.

Current Theater: Metropolitan Opera’s “Rigoletto”; Atlantic Theater Company’s “The Night Alive”; Lincoln Center Theater’s “MacBeth”

Posted on: December 4th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Over the past several days I’ve had three intense, but very different, theatrical experiences.  On Saturday night, I finally caught up with the Metropolitan Opera’s “new” production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” which was introduced last season.  Then on Sunday afternoon I attended Atlantic Theater Company’s presentation of the Donmar Warehouse production of Conor McPherson’s “The Night Alive.”  Finally, last night, I was at a performance of Shakespeare’s “MacBeth” presented by Lincoln Center Theater.   All were interesting and exciting in their own ways, but Shakespeare wins the prize.

And I’m tempted to write in reverse chronological order, because I found Jack O’Brien’s concept and direction so compelling.  This is a brilliant rendition of “MacBeth,” much enhanced by Mark Bennett’s extraordinary musical score and sound effects and the innovative sets and lighting.  This is not to slight the cast in the least, because I found them brilliant as well, but this production struck me as a total concept.  The choreography — almost constant movement by the cast members — was as important in signaling character and relationships as the text itself.  I found Ethan Hawke compelling as MacBeth.  Early reviews suggested that he was mumbling his way through the script, but that was not my impression at all.  His was a very physical performance, full of highly communicative gesture and vocal manipulation.  When he was performing soliloquies, he frequently spoke very quietly, presenting the soliloquy as the character musing to himself, and so close attention had to be paid to pick up all the words, but I would never say he was mumbling.  He was surrounded by an extraordinary cast.  Daniel Sunjata as MacDuff was fierce and fiery, Jonny Orsini as Malcolm, heir to the Scottish throne, was mercurial in his mood changes.  Anne-Marie Duff as Lady MacBeth was ideally cast, I thought, sinuous in her plotting.  Brian d’Arcy James, a favorite of mine from the TV series “Smash,” was excellent as Banquo.  The ghosts — Francesca Faridany as Hecate, Malcolm Gets and John Glover and Byron Jennings as the three “sister” witches — provided wonderful comic relief, especially John Glover.  Who can top John Glover?  I’ve never been disappointed by any performance I’ve seen by him.  I could easily find myself listing every cast member, such was the excellence on display.  This rendition of Shakespeare learned its lessons well from the pioneering films by Kenneth Brannagh, avoiding the stilted recitation of iambic pentameter characteristic of earlier American efforts and embracing a naturalistic reading of the text that made it highly comprehensible, even amidst all the movement and bustle.  I was stunned to see how many empty seats there were last night.  I suspect that the early mixed-to-negative reviews had their effect, as well as the competition from gaudy musicals on Broadway, but this production is the real thing – a masterpiece, highly entertaining, worthy of its distinguished author.  It should be selling out.

By contrast, I find it difficult to write about Conor McPherson’s latest effort, “The Night Alive,” because I found it so puzzling.  This is one of those “slice of life” plays where the audience spends much of time puzzling about who is who, what is going on, and why one should pay attention.  The central focus in this long, intermissionless presentation, is the ne’er-do-well Tommy, played by Ciaran Hinds, living in a ground-floor studio apartment in the large Edwardian House near Phoenix Park in Dublin owned by his uncle Maurice, played by Jim Norton.  There are but three other characters: Aimee, played by Caoilfhionn Dunne, whose identity and status is puzzling for much of the play; Doc, a hapless, somewhat witless friend of Tommy, played by Michael McElhatton, and Kenneth, played by Brian Gleeson, who materializes part way through the play and is soon established as having some prior relationship with Aimee.  Things don’t start to come clear about the relationships of these characters until one nears the end.  The cast, with the exception of Norton, is intact from the prior production in London at Donmar Warehouse, so they know their characters quite well and have developed the relationships in advance of this U.S. run.  Which makes it no less confusing for the theater-goer confronting this for the first time, since one has no idea why these characters have the relationship they do, only learning bits of their back-story well into the piece.  At the end, I was not sure what had been accomplished, other than depicting the interaction of a particular motley group of characters.  Perhaps there’s more there….  It was a pleasure to see Hinds, who has turned up in so many interesting movies and plays, and who I particularly remember from his star turn as Julius Caesar in the first season of the TV mini-series “Rome.”

Finally, going in reverse order, the Met’s Rigoletto, in a production conceived and directed by Michael Mayer.  The young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, currently principal conductor of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, is making his Met debut this season in this production, and I thought he led a buoyant performance, although it didn’t reach the end until well past the advertised time, which I put down as much to the overly-long intermissions as anything else, since tempi tended to be very forward-moving.  The orchestra played well for him.  Mayer’s concept is to place the story in Las Vegas in 1960, the Duke being some kind of authority figure at a grand casino where Rigoletto hangs around as a sort of court-jester type.  Sparafucile and his sister Maddalena are what they are in the original: hit man and prostitute.  There is some playing about with other characters.  Monterone, in particular, is presented as Arab shiek in Middle Eastern dress with suited bodyguards with Muslim headwear in tailored western suits.  Well, it could work, but with that name?  (I suspect Mayer’s guidelines from the Met included a requirement that no matter what updating he did, the Italian text could not be tampered with — but that didn’t inhibit the subtitle writer!!).  At the end, a 1960s vintage Cadillac is parked by Sparafucile’s place, with custom license plates identifying the car as his, and this is where Gilda, daughter of Rigoletto, is stashed after the murder — in the trunk.  My opera-going companion asked why Rigoletto, who was given the car keys by Sparafucile in order to drive the body to be dumped in “the river”, didn’t immediately drive her to an emergency room upon finding her stabbed and bleeding in the trunk.  Well, this is opera, not real life.  The only staging business that I thought was wrong was in the second act when Gilda is about to make her confession to Rigoletto.  He asks the crowd of men who have been hanging around outside the Duke’s quarters to leave, but they stay huddled at the back of the space, obviously overhearing everything.  And then Gilda sings about the fierce, forbidding look in Rigoletto’s eyes before she begins to confess her promiscuity with the Duke — but as she sings this, he is standing at the far end of the stage with his back to her.  It’s as if Mayer staged the scene without regard to what the characters are singing — a frequent problem with these “updatings” of operas.  All that said, I found that the concept worked very well most of the time, pumping some new life into the old standard.  But Rigoletto’s life really comes from the music, especially the big solo numbers, and these were handled well.  As to casting, the only disappointment for me was Matthew Polenzani as The Duke – Not because of his singing, but because the Duke has to be charismatic for the plot to work, and Polenzani doesn’t really project that kind of charisma.  Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Rigeletto was a revelation, totally transforming himself from the dashing Russian with the sharp cheekbones and mop of startling white hair into the old, shlumpy Italian court jester, balding, humpbacked, physically clumsy.  It was an incredible bit of acting, and he sang the role with authority.  Sonya Yoncheva as Gilda was fine, projecting the naïve love for the Duke.  I thought Stefan Kocan as Sparafucile was brilliantly cast, and practically stole every scene he was in.  Oksana Volkova as Maddalena seemed a bit light of voice for her part, but did the physical acting of the seductress well.  Secondary roles were all well taken.  The physical production is spectacular, but so specialized that I don’t think it will wear well.  Once one has seen this concept, one is not likely to be eager for a repeat, so this is not likely to be a production that is brought back regularly.  I think more traditional productions tend to have much more staying power (see, e.g., the Met’s Rosenkavalier and La Boheme).  But I’m glad I saw it, and I’m glad it is packing them in, since the Met needs the patronage, as its more risky productions have left vacant seats this year, or so I’ve heard.