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Saturday, November 3, 2018

International Festival of Balanchine

In 1948 George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein finally managed to get a fledgling company off the ground. This was of course New York City Ballet. They made their debut at New York City Center, an old theater with weird sight lines and a tiny stage. Nevertheless City Center was their home until 1965, when New York City Ballet made the move to Lincoln Center. It was at City Center that many of Balanchine's most iconic ballets debuted, and to honor that City Center made an International Festival. Five days, eight companies. Spotted in the audience: a who's who of the ballet world.

Festivals like these are useful to take a pulse of how well Balanchine ballets are being preserved thirty five years after his death. Not just at his home company, or some offshoot companies (Miami City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet) but around the world. The Royal, Joffrey, Mariinsky, Paris Opera Ballet, and the like do not dance Balanchine consistently and are not trained in the company style. I saw the first three programs.

Program I: Serenade (Miami City Ballet)/Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux (Mariinsky)/Tarantella (Royal Ballet)/Symphony in C (NYCB)

Program II: Apollo (Mariinsky)/Concerto Barocco (NYCB)/Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux (Royal Ballet)/Divertimento #15 (San Francisco Ballet)

Program III: Scotch Symphony (San Francisco Ballet)/Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux (Mariinsky)/Midsummer's Night Dream Pas de Deux (Paris Opera Ballet)/Four Temperaments (Joffrey Ballet)

Symphony in C, photo @ Andrea Mohin
First things first: the festival demonstrated why the move to a larger theater was necessary. Mr. B said that even when the dancers were dancing on such a tiny stage, he was always designing ballets meant to be danced on a large stage. And indeed, Balanchine "style" is Olympian: faster, higher, stronger. Many of the dancers in the festival seemed visibly constrained by the lack of space. This was painfully apparent in the dizzying finale of Symphony in C (danced by NYCB). Usually this finale is an explosion of joy. But with the dancers in such tight corners their was an uncharacteristic hesitancy to the performance.

In fact, as much as I'd like to say that NYCB showed the rest of the world How It's Done the two performances they gave were not representative of the company at their best. As I mentioned Symphony in C suffered from spacing issues as well as an unusually tense, brittle adagio from Sara Mearns. She took a stumble early in the adagio and never regained her confidence. That famous developpé balance to penchée sequence was shaky. Anthony Huxley and Ashley Bouder probably gave the strongest performances -- both of them flew like cannonballs in the third movement. Concerto Barocco was also very average. Maria Kowroski, Abi Stafford and Russell Janzen gave a careful and correct performance but it didn't take you to a new plane.

Tereshkina and Kim in a grand but not very idiomatic Tchai pas
However despite the aforementioned spacing problems in the larger corps ballets many Balanchine ballets were clearly designed for a smaller space and watching those ballets at City Center was revelatory. Example #1: Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. We got dueling interpretations -- one from the Mariinsky pair of Viktoria Tereshkina and Kimin Kim, the other from Anna Rose O'Sullivan and Marcelino Sambé of the Royal Ballet. On paper Tereshkina/Kim are the superior dancers: Kim in particular has this magnificent elevation and ballon. His jumps hover in the air and cleave through space like a cheetah. However their very grand, mannered interpretation was all wrong for this 9 minute showstopper. Their habit of stopping for lengthy applause breaks broke the momentum, and Tereshkina ignored many of the smaller steps of this ballet including the gargouillades and the pas de chat that begins the coda solo. Kim's solos were jaw-dropping but his partnering was less impressive -- the final lift into the wings looked labored.

O'Sullivan and Sambé, photo @ Andrea Mohin
On the other hand O'Sullivan and Sambé looked born to dance on the City Center stage. Their more restrained British style was perfect, and the smaller stage brought out details in this warhorse that are missing from NYCB performances I've seen lately. One example: in the female variation the ballerina does a series of backwards traveling arabesques. Tereshkina did about four of them, got to about mid-stage, and stopped. City Ballet dancers like Tiler Peck usually do about seven or eight, travel about three quarters across the stage diagonal, and stop. O'Sullivan did all ten backwards traveling arabesques and crossed the entire diagonal of the stage. It was such an "aha" moment. All of a sudden I could see how Mr. B originally designed this variation to travel across space.

O'Sullivan and Sambé oddly gave the most scrupulous performances of the festival. (I say odd because I don't usually associate Royal Ballet with dancing Balanchine). Their Tarantella was a bit slower than I'm used to seeing but it was cute and all the steps were there and done well. O'Sullivan even did those deep squatting pliés that many non-Balanchine-trained dancers struggle with. Their Tschaikovsky Pas was maybe the finest dancing I saw the entire festival: all the steps were there (both big and small), and so was the spirit, the musicality, the charm. And yes, they did do the big leaping fishdives (something Tereshkina/Kim also eschewed).

Miami City Ballet's Serenade
There were some surprises: you'd think the companies that are associated with dancing a lot of Balanchine in their rep would give very fine performances, right? Well ... not exactly. MCB's Serenade was ... okay. Just okay. It didn't have the moonlit elegance I associate with this ballet, and the Waltz Girl (Simone Messmer), Russian Girl (Jeannette Delgado) and Dark Angel (Emily Bromberg) were individually fine dancers but did not look like part of a mysterious sisterhood. The corps was also ragged and one girl took a tumble.

Even worse was San Francisco Ballet's grim Divertimento #15. The men (Benjamin Freemantle, Angelo Greco, and Lonnie Weeks) were fine -- elegant and unassuming cavalier types. The women however were a real let-down. Balanchine designed this ballet on five magnificent Ballerinas (Diana Adams, Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent, Tanaquil LeClercq, and Patricia Wilde). The five San Francisco ballerinas were the definition of forgettable. They didn't do anything particularly wrong, but their was no personality to their dancing. It was like tasting matzo crackers without any sauce. And can none of the women do bourrées? This was painfully apparent in the sublime adagio when ideally all five women glide seamlessly on and offstage. It's not so smooth when their bourrées are so bumpy, awkward, and effortful. Two of the girls also slipped and fell. Balanchine should never be so small-scale.

SFB in Scotch Symphony
However just because their Divertimento #15 was disappointing didn't mean San Francisco Ballet was disappointing. The next night their Scotch Symphony was just lovely -- Mathilde Froustey in the role created for Maria Tallchief had both the grace and the authority, and Joseph Walsh was an elegant partner. The only thing I missed was the huge dives into the arms of Andrei Egelevsky that Maria did in this video. For whatever reason Scotch Symphony is considered minor Balanchine but I don't agree with this assessment. I think it's a joyous celebration of a Scottish wedding, and the fact that the men wear old fashioned kilts is just part of the charm. There must be a slippery spot in the City Center stage because a corps girl took a nasty fall in Scotch Symphony, which made for five falls in three programs.

Comparing sunbursts: the Mariinsky sunburst (bottom right) looks .... weird
An Apollo by the Mariinsky was an odd duck. The trio of muses (Maria Khoreva, Anastasia Nuikina, Daria Ionova) are all recent graduates of the Vaganova Academy and they were lovely.  Not idiomatic but they had enough to offer that their foreign accent didn't bother me that much. They eschewed much of the audience-facing smiling that I have seen in videos of the Mariinsky muses of the past and impressed with their beautiful lines and grace. Maria Khoreva (Terpischore) is already being touted as the Next Big Thing and you can see why -- besides having an arresting face that catches light in all the right ways she dances with a maturity and purpose beyond her years. I saw some snippets of her Terp over the summer and she's already a more authoritative, less smiley muse.  The trio of muses did not have a god that matched their talent. Xander Parish as Apollo looked like a million bucks ... and that was about it. He was repeatedly off the music. In the opening lute solo his arm movements were completely disconnected from the accelerating melody. The "soccer" solo had a real distortion of the choreography as he started with two grand battements so exaggeratedly high that all sense of athleticism was lost. His partnering was also weak. The "swimming" motion in the pas de deux was shaky. And the final sunburst tableau was grotesque -- instead of the three legs being placed like a sundial, the three legs were like a clock. One leg was 12 o'clock, another was 10 o'clock, and the third leg was 9:00? The muses' heads also were pitched so far forward that they peeped out from under Parish's body and thus kind of ruined the image of Apollo as The Sun. I'm going to guess this is a coaching issue?

Christine Rocas and Dylan Gutierrez in Sanguinic. Why is she smiling?
The Joffrey Ballet also gave a performance of Four Temperaments that mixed some excellent dancing (Victoria Jaiani with her long spidery arms and legs as Choleric, Yoshihisa Arai with a flexible back and expressive arms as Melancholic) with some awful dancing (Christine Rocas inexplicably simpering her way through Sanguinic and dancing it as this was the Giselle Act One variation). The company doesn't really have the strength to make the most of the thrilling ending. The army of girls doing their grand battements lacked the tension and menace that are usually present in 4T's, and those iconic split leg lifts looked labored. Still, it was a respectable attempt at a difficult ballet that NYCB itself sometimes gets wrong.

There was no performance that was actually unacceptable except the Paris Opera Ballet's Midsummer's Night Dream Pas de Deux. On paper this seems like a good fit for the POB -- it's one of Balanchine's most classical pieces, and the POB has always prided themselves on their austere if slightly constipated classicism. Uh, not anymore? Because Sae-Eun Park and Hugo Marchand gave the single most graceless, ugly performance of this pas that I've ever seen. This pas's hallmark is the way the cavalier gently glides the female into different arm positions and the pas ends with that famous face forward dive that's an expression of trust. Marchand jerked Park around from position to position as if this were Mayerling, and Park seemed to think she was dancing Agon (the other piece the POB is scheduled to perform). All sharp angles and sudden attack. The constant grimace on her face didn't help. Their was zero lyricism and poetry. It was horrific. (Edit: I have since watched a video of Sae-Eun Park dance this pas de deux with Karl Paquette and it is MUCH better than the performance I saw. So I'm willing to chalk this up to a bad day.)

But Balanchine knew that after his death his ballets would continue to be danced by other companies, and they would change and evolve. That was a price he was willing to pay so his ballets could belong to the whole world. As he said, "I don't have a past. I have a continuous present. The past is part of the present, just as the future is. We exist in time." And so this festival is the continuous present of his ballets, where the excellent, the good, the mediocre, the bizarre, and the just plain awful co-exist all at once.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Marnie - All Style, Little Substance

Marnie and her dopplegangers, photo @ Ken Howard
I have an admission to make -- I've been horrible about attending new, contemporary operas. I did have tickets to Written on Skin a few years ago but vacation plans got in the way. But in general I just have not kept up with the contemporary opera scene.

Part of this is pure laziness -- given the choice between, say, Verdi/Wagner/Puccini and Thomas Ades, it's easy to just go with the tried-and-true. But part of it is also my strong conviction that musical theater is the art form that has the highest quality of new staged, sung dramas. Not every new musical is worthy but Fun Home, The Book of Mormon, Waitress, Dear Evan Hansen, The Great Comet, Hamilton are just some of the outstanding sung dramas that have graced the stage in the last 10 years.

Nevertheless tonight I decided to go to Nico Muhly's Marnie, partly because reactions to the opera have been so varied. I know people who absolutely loved it and those who thought it was trash. Tippi Hedren attended the premiere and claimed to love it. Nevertheless it has people talking. It has buzz. And from production stills, it has great costumes.

Davies and Leonard, photo @ Ken Howard
So what did I think? Marnie feels like two works. One is a very intriguing orchestral tone poem. Nico Muhly's orchestrations are far and away the best part of the opera. The orchestration creates a dark, sinister world -- he makes usually angelic instruments like the harp and celesta sound perverse and tortured. Alfred Hitchcock would have approved.

Muhly's orchestrations however are hampered by an astoundingly prosaic libretto by Nicholas Wright as well as Muhly's awkward vocal writing. Wright's libretto attempts to cover too much. A subplot of machinations within the Rutland family business is just a distraction. Not a MacGuffin. A distraction. He also just doesn't know how to write poetic lyrics. An understanding of the English language hampered my enjoyment of the work as certain lines just did not need to be sung. Here are a few nuggets:

Mark: "Halycon Printing is a family firm. I am the managing director." Also: "Someone's been buying the shares. They must be planning a hostile takeover." And then this gem: "Have you not noticed how I linger at your desk. How I call you into my office on the smallest pretext."

Marnie's mother: "Blond is for tarts and sluts."

Mark: "Slap me as hard as you like."
Marnie: "If I let you will you ring for a taxi?"

Mrs. Rutland (Mark's mother): "I think Tony would make a better fist of the job than you." Also: "I'm the one who has been buying the shares! I have a minority holding."

Marnie: "What does he think I am? A tart? A slab? A good-time girl? The office bike?"

Marnie and Mark, unhappy newlyweds, photo @ Ken Howard
Muhly's vocal writing unfortunately cannot lift the libretto to a higher plane. In the program he wrote that instead of arias he's written "links" -- short transitional moments when Marnie reveals her innermost thoughts. I listened for those "links" but for the love of god couldn't really differentiate one from the other.

For an opera that has big roles for a lyric mezzo (Isabel Leonard in the marathon title role), contralto (Denyce Graves as Marnie's mother), baritone (Christopher Maltman as Mark, Marnie's captor/rapist/husband), countertenor (Iestyn Davies as Terry, Mark's oily, facially scarred brother), tenor (Anthony Dean Griffey as Mr. Strutt, Marnie's Javert-like pursuer of justice), and an extensive chorus, Muhly's vocal writing has very little in the way of variety. It's better to go into Marnie expecting a sung tone-poem than an opera.

Here is an example: Marnie's aria "I see Forio" is supposed to be her big moment. The compulsive liar/stealer and personality cipher finally shows some tenderness when she sings about her beloved horse. This is actually a time-honored operatic tradition: a character shows her inner life by expressing his or her love for an outwardly insignificant object. But listen to this aria. Do you hear anything really memorable? Does this aria tug at your heartstrings? When you compare this to arias like Colline's "Vecchia zimarra" or Manon's "Adieu, notre petite table" does "I see Forio" have the same impact?

Emotional climaxes repeatedly go for very little musically because the vocal line is too similar from situation to situation. For instance at the end of Act One Mark attempts to rape Marnie. Marnie runs into the bathroom and slits her wrists. We know she's slit her wrists only because we see a shadow of Marnie cutting her wrists and an operatic panel turning bright red. In the second act Marnie sings "The hint of a cut, a trace of a scar, the wounds have faded. But the pain is there. Wounds never heal." Should be a big moment right? Muhly's vocal writing can't make you feel Marnie's pain. The finale of the opera (won't give it away) also goes for way less than it should as Muhly's clipped, constrained vocal writing simply can't take the viewers to a higher emotional plane.

This isn't to say that Marnie isn't worth seeing. For one, Michael Mayer's production is wonderful -- it's sleek, stylish and stylized. One of his best conceits is having four Marnie dopplegangers trail Marnie. They represent both her ever-shifting identities AND her unchangeable core. Julian Crouch's design are obviously inspired by film noir and the similar-looking rooms that are created by the ever-shifting panels suggest how Marnie is always in the same place, even when she's running from town to town, job to job, money-safe to money-safe. Arianne Phillips' costume designs really evoke the 1960's era.

Isabel Leonard in the title role is also worth seeing. She looks exactly like a Hitchcock heroine -- tall, icy, aloof. She throws herself fearlessly into the role, pushing her slender but warm mezzo and creating some sense of Marnie's fear and tortured soul. Her face is expressive and gives the character more of a soul than is in the opera's DNA. Denyce Graces is almost as good in the brief role of Marnie's mother. Her deep resonant contralto sounds like a sheet of ice which makes the eventual reveal of her all the more chilling. Longtime mezzo Jane Bunnell also does good work as Marnie's mother's maid Lucy.

Leonard and Maltman, photo @ Ken Howard
The Rutland family casting was not as inspired. Hitchcock repeatedly cast his leading men against type: Cary Grant became cold and sinister in Notorious, Jame Stewart creepy and tortured in Vertigo, the boyishly handsome Anthont Perkins was disarmingly sweet as Norman Bates. In the movie Marnie Mark is played by leading man Sean Connery. Christopher Maltman as Mark has a nappy, menacing baritone. His acting doesn't go beyond the stock villainous baritone gestures. I also hate to comment on these things but part of the reason Hitchcock liked to cast Hollywood leading men in complex, villainous roles was that they created a tension and dichotomy -- the character could be sexy, charismatic, and also totally disgusting and awful at the same time. Maltman looks like a schlub. All too easy to understand why Marnie doesn't want to touch him. It's a shame because Mark actually has the best music of the opera. His act two monologue comparing Marnie to a "wounded deer" is one of the few moments Muhly's vocal writing takes flight.

Iestyn Davies has a nice, slender countertenor voice but his character is so poorly written that it was hard for him to make much of the role. Why is he even given so much stage time? Janis Kelly as Mrs. Rutland was another character given too much stage time with little to no emotional payout. I did enjoy Anthony Dean Griffey as Mr. Strutt. He was a jolly, genial-looking man whose appearance belied his ruthless determination.

The orchestra was superb. It's hard to believe this is Robert Spano's debut at the Met. He conducted the Muhly's dense, thorny score with a taut sense of drama and tension. As I said, when I wanted to know what was happening onstage, I often listened to the orchestra rather than the vocals. The chorus was also magnificent. They actually have a huge role and Muhly's writing for the chorus is more inspired than his writing for individual voices. For instances in the Fox Hunt scene the chorus does little more than recount what is happening, but it sounds exciting, and for once I was listening more to the vocals than the orchestra.

Overall Marnie is an interesting work and I'm glad I saw it, although I don't know how much lasting power it will have. But at least no one can say I didn't give contemporary opera a chance anymore!

Last Tuesday I was at Carnegie Hall for Elina Garanca's recital. I've read some very negative reviews of the recital in some parts and think that those reviews are unfair. She was criticized for using a music stand, something I've seen many artists do during recitals. Yes Garanca did have a music stand but she rarely used it. I saw her glance at it a few times in Ravel's Shéhérazade and that was it. I think a larger issue is that two of the song cycles she chose (Wagner's Wiesendock Lieder and Ravel's Shéhérazade) benefit from being sung with an orchestra. The accompaniment is too dense and rich for a single piano to suffice. Nevertheless Wiesdendock Lieder suits her voice and I'd love to hear her sing it with an orchestra.

But I thought overall Garanca sounded gorgeous as always, and her program had enough variety to keep the viewer's interest.  The three encores she sang were worth the price of admission. The first was a gentle Latvian ballad called "Close Your Eyes and Smile," and then she sang her two major calling-cards: Carmen's "Habanera" and Dalila's "Mon coeur." In the context of a recital she played with the music and rhythm more and as a result her Habanera had more sexiness than I've ever heard her sing in any staged rendition, and "Mon coeur" was breathtakingly beautiful. She can sing the phone book and I'd still pay money to hear her.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Jonas Rides Back Onto the Met Stage; A Star is Born

Johnson seduces Minnie, photo @ Ken Howard
Over four years ago I saw Jonas Kaufmann's final Werther. It was the HD performance. The whole run had been a huge success and during his curtain call fans tore up programs from the family circle boxes so it rained confetti. Little did I know that he would not return to the United States to sing for nearly four years. The short story is he canceled a lot. The long story is he canceled a lot.

But 2018 was the year Jonas changed his mind about singing in the US? I can't believe this but I've now seen him four times in less than one year -- a lieder recital in January, a concert version of Act 2 of Tristan in April, and a rather disappointing concert a few weeks ago. Still to see Jonas back on the Met stage was something I was afraid was never going to happen again. I was a mix of excited and jittery last night as I took my seat for La Fanciulla del West. My heart sunk when there was a curtain announcement. The poor guy who came out was clearly dreading the audience response. He held up his hand as if to say "Don't kill me." But it was simply that Kaufmann had a cold and he asked for our "understanding."

Kaufmann, photo @ Ken Howard
So how was Jonas? For much of the first act I would have said "not very good." His voice either wasn't completely warmed up yet or he was trying too hard to sing through a cold. The tone was surprisingly dry and constricted, with little of the trumpet-like brilliance I associate with his voice. It wasn't until the gorgeous duet that ends the act that Kaufmann sounded like himself.

Fortunately he improved in the following two acts. His voice does seem to have lost some sheer horsepower, but Kaufmann is a shrewd manager of his own vocal resources. After listening to the excruciating Roberto Alagna in Samson et Dalila and Aleksandr Antonenko in Aida it was a relief to hear a tenor who could actually ... sing. Kaufmann controls his voice with an iron grip -- when he wants to sing softly he sings softly, when he wants to sound stentorian he sounds stentorian. By "Ch'ella mi creda" Kaufmann was fully in his element. His upper register is ringing and secure, his musicality and enunciation of text scrupulous, and his burnished dark-hued tenor is still one of the most compelling voices we have today.

His acting was his usual -- reserved but strangely compelling. His Ramirez/Dick Johnson was a rather glum creature who is used to living in the shadows of life. Despite the black cowboy costume (replete with hat, saddle and horse) Kaufmann exuded a Don Draper-like cool. If you're looking for full-throated, hot-blooded romanticism, Kaufmann is not your tenor. But hey, I never missed an episode of Mad Men and a huge part of that was the inscrutable, distant Don Draper. And in his own way he had good chemistry with Westbroek. Like him or not Kaufmann is the total package. It's so good to have him back in New York singing again.

Minnie cheats at poker, photo @ Ken Howard
Eva Marie Westbroek was a lovable, spunky Minnie. The core of her voice is warm and vulnerable, her portrayal heartbreaking and believable. It's always stretched credibility that Minnie, owner of the Polka Saloon in the Wild West, has never been kissed before. But Westbroek is such a sincere performer that one believed that Minnie is saving herself for the right man. She transitioned seamlessly from the shy lover to the ruthless poker player in the Act Two showdown with Jack Rance.

Alas, Westbroek's voice repeatedly came to grief with Minnie's many ascents into the upper register. High notes came out as either weak, flat and unsupported or not at all. Sometimes they were little more than screams. Puccini's orchestration shimmers and glows whenever Minnie goes up high -- when done right, those notes should sound like ecstatic expressions of love or fierce declamations with the orchestra fusing with the soprano's voice. So when the beautiful orchestration went up high and Westbroek's voice simply could not follow the orchestra, the impact of Minnie's music was muted. Westbroek is a treasurable artist with a voice that will no longer cooperate. Still, you had to love her, high notes or not.

Zeljiko Lucic did his usual thing as Jack Rance. He sure is reliable and never cancels. With that being said, his acting and singing are usually so generalized that there isn't much difference between his Rance and his Scarpia or Rigoletto or Iago. He's always just the generically bad guy. Even in the foolproof poker scene Lucic was oddly low-energy. When he lost the poker game he just walked out of the cabin without any expression.

Polka Saloon, photo @ Ken Howard
Giancarlo delMonaco's production is an old one (from 1991) and looks like an episode of Gunsmoke -- very traditional, but with little in the way of direction. One of the things Puccini did masterfully was draw little cameos of the various characters in Minnie's saloon -- there's Jack Wallace who sings a heartbreaking song about his longing for home and family, Ashby the Wells Fargo agent (Matthew Rose), and Sonora (Michael Todd Simpson) who urges the miners to forgive Dick Johnson in the final act. But in this revival all these guys were a blur, lost amid a throng of people. It's too bad that Oren Gradus (Jack Wallace) really distinguished himself but in all the wrong ways -- his wobbly bass ruined the exquisite ballad "Che ferrano i vecchi miei." But the production had its picturesque old fashioned charm. The moment when snow falls outside Minnie's cabin is lovely. Conductor Marco Armiliato led a workmanlike performance in the pit -- he follows his singers and doesn't draw attention to the orchestra. Too bad, because the opera has some of Puccini's most evocative orchestration.

It's a shame the house was not sold out because this might be Puccini's most rewarding opera. It has none of the slash-and-burn theatrics of Tosca or the sentimentality of La Boheme. It's quietly heartbreaking. "Minnie's theme" (which Andrew Lloyd Webber shamelessly lifted for Phantom of the Opera) is a slow-burn earworm -- hear it once and it sounds nice, but by the end of the evening it's fully lodged in your head. Fanciulla is also one of the few Puccini operas to end on a note of ambiguity -- Minnie and Dick Johnson start a new life together, but what will they do? Where will they go? How long is it before Johnson's past catches up with him again? And what will happen to all the sad miners who have lost their leader? There are only two performances of Fanciulla left -- don't miss it.

And now ... because I had to ...

Cooper and Gaga
In other news I saw the latest rendition of A Star is Born. It was absolutely beautiful, heartbreaking, definitely a worthy successor to the Judy Garland film. This story never gets old no matter how many times it's told because there's a core of truth that applied to the entertainment business way back when and applies today. The business creates stars and destroys them with astonishing rapidity. This version of A Star is Born stars Bradley Cooper as country rock star Jackson Maine and Lady Gaga as aspiring singer Ally. There is a subplot about another fallen star -- Jackson Maine's older brother (an excellent Sam Elliot) who was once a star himself before he became his brother's manager/caretaker.

Lady Gaga is extraordinary in her film debut. I'm sure will win an Oscar for "Best Song" and probably will walk away with the Best Actress statuette as well.  She's earthy, funny and likable (not a surprise for anyone who's ever seen her delightful SNL sketches), so we want her to become a huge star. Like Judy Garland she is a tiny woman with a huge voice and a huge heart. "Shallow," 'I'll Never Love Again" and "Always Remember Us This Way" might not quite be at the level of "The Man That Got Away" but they are great displays of Gaga's diverse talent. (The movie pays a neat homage to Judy Garland by having Ally sing the first verse of "Over the Rainbow" as she leaves her waitressing shift.)

One weakness of the George Cukor film was that James Mason never seemed like a believable fallen star -- from the first moment the film was a tribute to the protean talent of Judy Garland. In this latest rendition Bradley Cooper (who also directed the film) made Jackson Maine's downfall heartbreaking because he does start off as a believable superstar. A boozing, pill-popping superstar but he has charisma and charm to burn. He and Gaga have great chemistry and their love for each other was palpable. Even at their lowest you believed in them as a couple. Switching the focus from the film to the music industry was smart as Cooper sang for many portions of the movie. When Ally joins Jackson Maine onstage to sing "Shallow" the moment is electrifying -- the convergence of two voices, two hearts, two talents. As Jackson continued to spiral downwards the magic of the two of them singing together onstage was never forgotten -- they coulda been  contenders together. As the final act approached even though I knew what would happen Cooper's soulful acting still packed an emotional punch. I left the movie crying buckets.


Sunday, October 14, 2018

Farewell Joaquin

Joaquin soaks in the audience adoration
Joaquin de Luz made his farewell to NYCB this afternoon after 15 years with the company. The program was a decent one -- Theme and Variations with Tiler Peck, Suite of Dances, and Todos Buenos Aires. It was a memorable emotional afternoon as many of his colleagues could be seen wiping away tears during the curtain calls. But in a sense the entire fall season has been a farewell tour, as de Luz danced almost all his signature roles for the last time. I didn't have a chance to see him in Other Dances and Prodigal Son (back to school means busy schedule), but I did see his "farewell" to four of his most well-known roles: Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Rubies, James in La Sylphide, and the short sailor in Fancy Free. In all those roles he was technically impressive. You could never tell that he's 43 and has had a number of injuries over the years.

de Luz and Hyltin, photo @ Paul Kolnik
First, the bad news: La Sylphide required a bit more stamina than de Luz could offer. By the end of the ballet his form had become sloppy and his upper body did not have much Bournonville epaulement. James is also a role that was an odd fit for him -- de Luz is all sunshine and joy onstage, and James is all sturm and drang. de Luz's slumped posture was a contrast with the light, etheral Sylph of Sterling Hyltin, who is a marvel in the role. She's obviously studied the Marie Taglioni lithographs as she stamped out nearly all neoclassical habits and looked completely like a Romantic ballerina. Her light jumps, sweet and teasing stage presence, and innate musicality (the way she flickered her fingers when the Sylph heard a bird was worth the price of admission) made her one of the most natural Sylphs I've ever seen. I also wasn't a fan of the Rubies he did with Ashley Bouder. de Luz danced with a lot of energy and brio and garnered applause for the jogging/corkscrew turn solo, but both dancers IMO did too much audience-facing mugging.

Veyette, de Luz, Angle, photo @ Irving Chow
Of the roles I saw him do this fall season Fancy Free was maybe the best. Before de Luz was with NYCB he danced for many years at ABT and ABT's version of Fancy Free is often thought to be better than the version across the plaza. de Luz as the short, show-off sailor was an adorable ball of energy. His double tour/ground split solo was awesome. During the curtain calls his fellow sailors (Andrew Veyette and Tyler Angle) carried de Luz on their shoulders. Fancy Free isn't my favorite Robbins ballet (I find the humor extremely dated) but this trio of sailors, plus the sexy passerbys of Mary Elizabeth Sell as the purse girl, Tiler Peck as the flirt, and Miriam Miller as the last girl made this piece good-hearted fun. It was actually one of the best renditions I've seen of this piece.

Just as impressive was the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux with Tiler Peck. Peck and de Luz are both bravura, show-off dancers, and they brought the house down the night I saw them. They were spurring each other on to out-do the other in the variations and coda. By the time Peck dove into de Luz's arms for those final fishdives the audience was screaming like it was a YAGP gala. The two even did some very Russian-style milked curtain calls. Here's a video of them where you can gauge their astonishing virtuoso technique:

Reichlen's speech at fall gala
In fact after a summer of scandal this ended up being a great fall season. A few standouts: the company fielded three separate casts of Jewels and all of them had their considerable merits. Concerto DSCH where Sterling Hyltin was exquisitely delicate in the adagio, and Tyler Angle her perfect partner who swung her around so high you thought she was going to fly off. That performance also had a great "blue team" of Harrison Ball (finally back after a long injury), Joseph Gordon, and Brittany Pollack, and Devin Alberda as the central "jumping" guy in the corps (he's the one who simply jumps up and down happily throughout the first movement). West Side Story Suite is really a weak-sauce teaser of the real enchilada but it was great to see Gina Pazcoguin's sizzling Anita again. A moving, intense Prodigal Son with Daniel Ulbricht and Tess Reichlen. Reichlen had a great season -- she was exquisite in Diamonds, devastating as the Siren in Prodigal Son, quietly beautiful in This Bitter Earth, and the picture of Balanchinean geometry and line in Concerto Barocco. It was Reichlen who made the speech at the Fall Gala about how "we the dancers ... will not put art before common decency or allow talent to sway our moral compass." She's been anchoring the company's performances with the same integrity.

And just on the heels of Joaquin's departure, NYCB promoted Joseph Gordon to principal, and several corps members to soloists. One door closes, another one opens.

Scenes from a farewell
Now onto the farewell. Who can  retire at the age of 43 by dancing Theme and Variations? Apparently, Joaquin. Balanchine's grueling test of classical technique is a calling card of both Tiler Peck and de Luz. And wow! de Luz tackled all the challenges of the role fearlessly. The audience roared after he finished that infamous solo that ends with the double tour/pirouette sequence. The whole ballet looked amazing considering they haven't danced this all season. The corps was beautiful, Tiler was her usual excellent self, and of course Joaquin proved that he's still the king of the fifth position/white tights roles. After the ballet was over Tiler gave him a big hug during the curtain calls.

An okayish Concerto Barocco (Kowroski, Janzen, Stafford) gave de Luz a chance to rest before Suite of Dances. This 12 minute solo that combines classical ballet with skipping, hopping, pulling the tag of a shirt, cartwheels, somersaults and the like is minor Robbins but it did give de Luz a chance to show off his boyish charm. A finally Todos Buenos Aires is by any measure an awful ballet but Martins ballets always have a flashy "jumping boy" and de Luz basically jumped around the stage and wowed the crowd while the rest of the cast did some basic tango moves. Multiple turns a la seconde, corkscrew jumps, you get the picture. His colleagues (Sara Mearns, Maria Kowroski, Ask La Cour, Taylor Stanley, Andrew Veyette, Jared Angle) all muted themselves so the spotlight was squarely where it belonged.

When the ballet was over the auditorium exploded and de Luz was showered with confetti and flowers from his colleagues. A few memorable moments: a heavily pregnant Megan Fairchild got her tummy kissed by de Luz, Gonzalo Garcia brought out a Spanish flag and the two of them pretended to be matador and bull, Tess Reichlen came out and picked de Luz up, Robert Fairchild came back to NYCB for the afternoon, and de Luz did an adorable tango with his mother. Many balletomanes were sad that de Luz was retiring and a bit puzzled. After all he's still dancing very well. But he said in an interview that he wanted to go out on top, and he did. He has teaching and dancing gigs lined up, and seems completely happy with his decision to retire. It's the audiences who will miss him.

Here is the farewell video:

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Jonas Kaufmann's Carnegie Hall Concert: Don't Ask Me Why

Jonas Kaufmann accepts bouquets
In 2014 Jonas Kaufmann released a recording called You Mean the World to Me. It was a delightful tribute to the operetta hits that made legendary tenor Richard Tauber so popular. I have that album downloaded on my phone and it's one of my favorite running/cardio playlists. The lilting waltzes get me in a groove mentally and before I know it I've ran 5k. In short, it's one of the albums I return to over and over again.

Therefore I had high hopes for Kaufmann's concert at Carnegie Hall. It was also titled "You Mean the World to Me" and promised an evening full of operetta hits. The positives first: he showed up? The cancellation-prone tenor I think now knows how antsy his fans are about his appearances, so his Instagram account even had pictures reassuring his fans that he did indeed get on a plane to NY. Can't believe this but this is the third time I've seen him this year. And I'll see him again in Fanciulla del West at the Met (fingers crossed).

The second positive is his voice seems to be in good shape. Stentorian when it needs to be, healthy upper register, good control of his vibrato. He ended "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" both times (one regular program, the other the last encore in English) with a ringing high note. Obviously singing Lehar standards is different from singing, say, Dick Johnson, but after hearing both Roberto Alagna and Aleksandrs Antonenko scream and shout for hours it was great to hear a tenor who can actually ... sing.

And now the negatives. Oh boy, where do I begin? First of all, the stage had huge boomboxes on the sides, as well as smaller amplification devices lined on the lip of the stage. Jonas sang into a mike. He explained that many of these songs were radio hits and meant to be sung with a mike. Fine, but from where I was sitting the amplification of the orchestra was so loud that these romantic, gentle melodies lost much of their charm.  Carnegie Hall is widely considered to have some of the best acoustics in the world -- I've heard many smaller voices sound actually LOUD at Carnegie Hall. The miking needed to be adjusted to accompany the acoustics of Carnegie Hall. "Girls Were Made to Love and Kiss" lost all its whispery sexiness with the over-miking. It was as if an intimate recital decided to have the same sound system as a Metallica concert.

How unnecessary this was was driven home when Jonas did 4 encores. All of a sudden the miking and amplification were dialed back around 100 notches, and all we heard was Jonas' voice and the orchestra in a very natural acoustic. Those were by far the best four numbers of the night -- the presentation had the intimacy and sweetness that these songs demand.

Another disappointment was how much of the concert was broken up by orchestral pieces (led by conductor Jochen Reider, who also conducted Kaufmann's studio cd). Overall there were six orchestral numbers and only 8 official solos by Kaufmann, which gave the concert a rather skimpy feel. I mean with all due respect to Reider and the Orchestra of St. Luke's but the sold out audience came to hear Jonas Kaufmann. The orchestral pieces were stuff like the Waltz from Merry Widow and overture to Land of Smiles. Very Viennese New Year's concert stuff.

Thankfully Kaufmann did supply four encores but many audience members were so upset that they didn't even bother staying for the second half of the concert. The sold out auditorium had scores of empty seats after the intermission. When Kaufmann came out for the second half you could tell he was surprised to see all the empty seats. I was also disappointed by a few omissions. I missed the sublime Marietta's Lied. I know it needs a soprano but couldn't they have found a soprano to do some of the famous Tauber duets?

But great opera divas/divos are often frustrating people. Just this morning Spanish diva Montserrat Caballé passed away. In her time she was known for her frequent cancellations and burst of giggling in the most serious operatic moments. But she had a great voice and to listen to Caballé is often akin to falling into a rabbit hole as that shimmering soprano has a drug-like effect and before you know it, hours have gone by and you're on your second bootleg recording of a Maria Stuarda. In one day.

Jonas is a frustrating artist. I was disappointed by the skimpy program, the over-miking, blah blah blah, but when he sang his third encore "Don't Ask Me Why" all those gripes disappeared. He seemed to be singing directly to the audience: "Don't ask me why I've leaving, don't ask me why/Don't ask me why I'm grieving, don't ask me why/I only mean to tell you I miss you so" ... The audience actually clapped after he said "I miss you so" as the legion of NY Jonas fans (of which I consider myself a proud member) have missed him so, and it is so wonderful to have him back.

And now, Caballe. RIP. This is a clip from her legendary Lucrezia Borgia from 1965:


Sunday, September 30, 2018

Aida and Amneris: Vocal Gladiators

Netrebko and Rachvelishvili face down, photo @ Marty Sohl
In recent years, the NBA has gained a renewed interest. Maybe the most intense since the days of Michael Jordan. Why? Because NBA fans know that every spring, there will be a thrilling facedown between Lebron James and Stephen Curry. Two equally amazing players doing what they do best, and throwing down season after season. It's great for the sport.

In an ideal world Verdi's Aida is supposed to be a throw-down between Lebron and Steph-calibre singers. The battle of wills between Aida the Ethiopian princess and Amneris the Egyptian princess when done right is thrilling, edge-of-your-seat drama. Unfortunately it's been a long time since we've had performances where the Aida and Amneris have been equally matched. Well we finally got that match. Anna Netrebko and Anita Rachvelishvili are two prima divas of the stage. Their voices are huge and soaring and overpower the chorus and orchestra. Their temperaments are fierce and unyielding. They both have charisma to burn. And the energy they generate together takes the performance to another plane.

Netrebko, photo @ Marty Sohl
Aida is by far the best thing I've ever heard Anna Netrebko sing. It's a great synergy between singer and role. Her voice sits in a perfect place for the music -- she has at this point in her career both the cavernous chest voice and the soaring upper register to handle the role's daunting range. Her vocal security allows her to negotiate the treacherous climb to high C in "O patria mia" without any fear. She could even take the C "dolce." You'd have to go back to Leontyne Price to find a soprano who sang "O patria mia" with so little fear. Her control over her instrument is a marvel -- she can float her voice in moments like the "Numi, pieta" of "Ritorna vincitor" and also let her voice rip in huge waves of sound during the Triumphal Scene. Her acting was not very specific -- it involved a lot of raised fists and not much else -- but it was deeply felt. There was a sincerity to her performance that isn't always there. Besides, who cares about the acting? Opera is about voice and Netrebko's voice carried the evening.

Netrebko learned the role from Ricardo Muti and this is also the most disciplined singing I've seen Netrebko do. Because as great as her natural gifts are Netrebko can often be a careless singer. Sagging pitch, rhythmic slackness, cloudy vowels and disappearing consonants, smudged runs -- that's usually the "but" of the Netrebko experience. With this role, there was none of that. She sang the role with scrupulous attention to vowels, consonants, pitch, and dynamics. Brava diva.

Netrebko throws a fit
For those who are curious: after an online scuffle on Instagram about skin darkening makeup Netrebko tonight wore virtually no bronzer. I guess she took the criticism to heart after all.

But all of this would be for naught if there wasn't an Amneris who threatened to steal the show. Amneris is actually the most fully realized character of the opera -- her storyline makes a complete arc from spoiled, jealous princess to vengeful, spurned lover to the heartbroken woman left behind. Verdi gives her the last word in the opera, a beautiful prayer of forgiveness.

Amneris and Radames, photo @ Marty Sohl
Anita Rachvelishvili was just that mezzo who didn't just threaten, she actually stole the show. Her voice is a lot like Netrebko's -- a large powerful column of sound. She too has a genuine chest voice she's not afraid to use, as well as a decent enough upper register to negotiate those upward ascents in the Judgment Scene and she caps the scene with a thrilling final high A. She wasn't all bluster though -- in the final scene her prayer floated over the auditorium like a breeze. She was also not the most specific actress -- Olga Borodina had less voice but could slay with the bitch-face and side-eye, while Rachvelishvili mostly used stock gestures. But as I said, with a voice like molten lava and such charisma, as well as such frisson with Netrebko, who cares? Brava diva.

Quinn Kelsey, photo @ Marty Sohl
This run also has a strong Amonasaro in Quinn Kelsey, who may not have the world's most beautiful voice but sure has the vocal power to thunder ominously in the Nile Scene. The duet between Aida and Amonasaro was another one of the moments when one was simply awash with waves of sound from two huge-voiced singers. It's great to finally have an American baritone with the volume and range of, say, Leonard Warren or Robert Merrill. Kelsey even has the Warren snarl. I've heard Kelsey in other things at the Met but next to Netrebko and Rachvelishvili he also seemed energized and unleashed his voice with all cylinders grinding. The world is always short of true Verdi baritones. Maybe Kelsey will be The One. Ryan Speedo Green was also sonorous as the King. Dmitriy Belosselskiy (Ramfis) is a bass without low notes. How is that possible? But one low note after another came out like a weak growl. Russia used to produce the world's greatest basses. What happened?

I've avoided talking about Aleksandrs Antonenko (Radames) because had he even been halfway decent the night would have been an unalloyed joy. But Antonenko was quite frankly awful. Strangulated, off-pitch bellowing in "Celeste Aida." Okay, but that aria is impossible so let's give him a chance. Unfortunately he got worse. By the Nile Scene he was completely out of voice, and what came out of his mouth was noise rather than music. The Tomb Scene with the exquisitely quiet "O terra addio" had Netrebko floating beautifully and Antonenko yelping helplessly. The warm appreciative audience gave him almost no applause and there was even scattered booing during his curtain calls. Usually I'd say "poor guy" but this was not a vocally acceptable performance in any venue, anywhere.

Nicola Luisotti led a taut, thrilling performance from the orchestra. He did not indulge his singers, and that also elevated the quality of the performance. The Met chorus continues to be another star unto itself. Sonja Frisell's 30 year old production looks like the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Egyptian Gallery -- the Triumphal Scene continues to be a crowd-pleaser, with the horses getting applause. I've seen several Aida runs and the production can look tired and rote with lesser singers but when you have Netrebko and Rachvelishvili it served as a perfect picturesque backdrop for these two divas to just let their voices rip downstage center in front of the prompter's box.

This past summer my mom visited Rome but she refused to see the Roman Colosseum because of its savage background. "It's too hard to think about," she said. "Lions over here, gladiators over there ... no." My mom's sense of morality and compassion are amazing, but the current run of Aidas with Netrebko and Rachvelishvili is like being transported back to Roman times where two gladiators are fighting to the death. And I could understand the thrill.

Here are the curtain calls:

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Met's Samson Brings Back Cecil B. DeMille Biblical Epics

Our Samson and Delilah, photo @ Ken Howard
When I was a kid I used to watch Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments every year it was on TV. I didn't watch it because I was religious or because of the special effects. I watched it because it was so darned funny. Nefertari (Anne Baxter) shimmying in her see-through gowns for Moses (Charlton Heston) while fending off the conjugal advances of Ramses II (Yul Brynner) will never not be funny. Eventually I watched a bunch of those Biblical epics and they were all great, kitschy fun. I mean in The Ten Commandments, could we really live without lines this this:
Nefretiri: You will be king of Egypt, and I will be your footstool!

Moses: The man stupid enough to use you as a footstool will not be wise enough to rule Egypt.
Maybe it was for that reason that the Met's new production of Samson et Dalila  was so enjoyable. This despite the fact that we had an ailing Samson (Roberto Alagna) who sang with a curtain announcement that he had a cold and barely had enough voice to finish the final heroic monologue, a glamorous-voiced but physically rather cold Dalila (Elīna Garanča), and a conductor (Mark Elder) who seemed to think he was conducting a Bach Passion. Because for a couple of hours, I was transported back to those MGM Biblical extravaganzas where gaudiness is next to godliness.

Orgy in the Temple of Dagon! Photo @ Ken Howard
Make no mistake: Darko Tresnjak's new production is not a great production. What it is is a fun production. As I said it evokes the old Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epics. Linda Cho's costumes were awesome. All the Israelites dress in drab garbs, while all the Philistines went to town on the colorful, revealing clothes. The multiple sets all look like a gigantic Middle Eastern harem, and the choreography of Austin McCormick (of Company XIV) involves a lot of undulating bodies. In the Bacchanale there was a neat transition from an all-male orgy to a mixed-sex orgy. Maybe some people will think this production harks to the bad old days of Zeffirelli excess but I loved it. Camille Saint Saens' opera demands a certain level of kitsch, and Tresnjak's provided the kitsch and then some.

Lamarr/Mature, Garanca/Alagna
Vocally the production was lopsided with a poorly matched Samon and Delilah. Roberto Alagna was struggling with a cold but I'm not sure if what I heard was a cold or just the present state of his voice. Any youthful sheen is now gone and we're left with a rather leathery, wobbly voice that flies off pitch on sustained tones and is rarely pleasing to the ear. With that being said, he did much better than the opening night livestream, where he lost his voice completely in the third act. Tonight he hung on by a thread, and almost made it to the final heroic B-flat that should bring the house down (literally).

Elīna Garanča on the other hand caressed your ears with her uniquely cool yet alluring timbre. Her wig and costume were obviously inspired by Hedy Lamarr's screen Delilah (see picture) but she has the physical beauty to pull that sort of thing off. Musically she was immaculate -- she doesn't quite have the earthy chest voice for some of Dalila's lower-lying music but she is that rare singer whose timbre immediately grabs your attention and never lets go. Both "Printemps qui commence" and "Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix" were gorgeously sung, with the voice blooming in the upper register. She can also make her voice sound like a sheet of ice and so it was in the third act when she mocked Samson with her "seductive" music from the earlier acts. BUT ... there was very little chemistry between this Alagna and Garanča. During "Mon coeur" there was no sense of overriding passion. It doesn't help that at this point Garanča's buttery smooth mezzo blends with Alagna's raw tenor about as well as chalk and cheese. This was very far cry from their sizzling Carmens.

Oh come on. This is fun. Photo @Ken Howard

Naouri as High Priest
The supporting cast was solid if unremarkable. Laurent Naouri as the High Priest has a rather hollow, woofy voice without much body to the tone but he is idiomatic and he looked like he was having fun with the part. Dmitry Belosselskiy (Old Hebrew) was okay. Nothing memorable. The chorus was the huge star -- people who only know Samson et Dalila though the famous arias and Bacchanale might be surprised that so much of this opera is choral. Donald Palumbo deserves all the kudos and then some for the work he's done with the Met chorus. Mark Elder's conducting was mixed -- the orchestra sounded great, but the actual conducting was sometimes ponderous and painfully slow during "Mon coeur" to the point where Garanča seemed out of breath.

I eavesdropped on a few conversations around me during intermission. People all seemed to love this production. Again, no one said it was a great production. It was fun. And sometimes you just need fun.

And because this is just gold:

Sunday, September 23, 2018

NYCB Recovers After a Summer of Scandal

To say this has been a tumultuous summer for NYCB is an understatement. In late August, there was the news that three of NYCB's principal males were involved in some sort of scandal. Chase Finlay resigned, and Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro were suspended without pay for the rest of 2018. Then in September, an explosive lawsuit came out in which Finlay's ex-girlfriend Alexandra Waterbury accused Finlay, Catazaro and Ramasar (as well as a NYCB donor/patron) of exchanging nude images of her and other company dancers without their consent. The texts apparently contained such charming phrases as "I bet we could tie them up and abuse them like farm animals." On September 15 NYCB terminated Ramasar and Catazaro permanently. In addition to this scandal former NYCB principal and SAB teacher Peter Frame commit suicide. And in the larger dance world, legends Paul Taylor and Arthur Mitchell passed away.

You could almost hear the audience breathe a sigh of relief when NYCB started its fall season with its eternally beautiful and popular Jewels. This plotless three-acter has been a hit for 50 years and judging by the full audiences and enthusiastic applause it will continue to be a hit for centuries to come. Jewels' appeal lies not just in the usual complexity of Balanchine's kaleidescope-like corps patterns or the melding of dance to music. There are several male-female relationships in Jewels that remain mysterious and unknowable -- every time I watch it I think a dancer will unlock one mystery but never all of them. Jewels is an eternal drug that never loses its high. It's a testament to the depth of the company that even though NYCB overnight lost three of its most prominent principals I saw three separate casts and they all had their pleasures.

Emily Kikta as Tall Girl, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The first cast might be called the "senior" cast. Abi Stafford, Jared Angle, Ashley Laracey, Ask La Cour (Emeralds), Ashley Bouder and Joaquin de Luz (Rubies), and Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle (Diamonds) are all company veterans. The performance was a bit too cozy, too much of the main dancers doing what they've always done. Balanchine is never supposed to be this comfortable. The Violette Verdy role is one of Stafford's better parts, but Jared Angle was woefully out of shape in his solo. Laracey and La Cour had more of the cool mystery of the walking duet. Bouder and de Luz (Rubies) were a huge hit with the audience but truth be told I found their relentless audience-facing mugging too much. The Rubies pas is supposed to be a sexy conversation, not a "But look at ME" exhibition. Only Emily Kikta as the Tall Girl had the right energy for the ballet. The cool swagger, the nonchalant attitude as four men manipulated her limbs, the rock solid unsupported arabesque penchée as she exited to the wings. Alas, she injured herself in the process. As for Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle, Angle is always a wonderful partner and Maria has great legs and looks gorgeous in a tutu. But she was entirely too careful in the pas de deux where the off-balance lunges and changes in center of gravity define the piece. She was also slow and leaden in the scherzo, just barely crawling through that series of pirouettes en dedans. I felt like I was watching a beautiful mannequin rather than a dancer. She was the same in Symphony in C -- elegant with mile-long legs, but weak on the exposed developpe balance and painfully slow in the joyous fourth movement.

Danchig-Waring and Phelan in Emeralds, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The second cast was in general superior. Emeralds remains difficult to cast. Tiler Peck is maybe the world's greatest ballerina but the Violette Verdy part eludes her. Tiler is all about nailing the steps, the role is all about wafting in the perfume. Taylor Stanley as her partner also exudes an earthy warmth rather than a mysterious hauteur. Unity Phelan (making her debut in the Mimi Paul role) and Adrian Danchig-Waring were lovely in the walking pas de deux, although Phelan is another dancer whose sheer strength overwhelms the ballet. Rubies had the very different duo of Sterling Hyltin and Andrew Veyette as the central couple. Veyette's dancing has taken on a heavy, leaden quality but Hyltin is by far my favorite current Rubies girl -- she had just the right amount of sass and sexiness. Claire Kretzschmar (another debut) doesn't have either the height or authority for Tall Girl, and was shaky in her solos. Diamonds had the odd couple of the boyish Joseph Gordon (also making his debut) paired with the very womanly Sara Mearns. Gordon's dancing was impeccable -- his scherzo variation got loud applause for its clean beauty, and his partnering was great for a first-timer. Mearns danced with her usual strength and drama, although her posture could use some work -- she often hunches her shoulders. The audience loved them, although I thought they were mismatched in terms of size and temperament.

It was the third cast of Jewels that provided the complete experience. In Emeralds we got practically a brand new cast. Lauren King might not be the strongest technician but she has the charm and softness that Tiler Peck and Abi Stafford lacked. Daniel Applebaum was excellent as her partner. Megan LeCrone did not fare so well in the Mimi Paul role -- for one, she forgot to do the "clock" arabesque! Either that or she didn't articulate it enough for the audience to notice. I usually don't pay much attention to the trio but Harrison Ball (making his return after a long injury) impressed with his clean double tours and Kristen Segin and Sarah Vilwock were very charming.

The Rubies was also the best overall cast. Lauren Lovette and Gonzalo Garcia (who was also making his return after a long layoff) were the best mix of technique and charm. Garcia doesn't have de Luz's showboating skills but he does have the warmth, playfulness, and the light landings that Veyette lacked. Lauren Lovette seemed entirely at ease with Garcia. They were adorable. Claire Kretzschmar is still miscast as Tall Girl but she was more technically secure. After the show I ran into Lovette and she was so cute and still dressed in what she called her "offstage Rubies outfit."

Reichlen and Janzen in Diamonds
But Diamonds. Oh my. I can say without any hesitation that Teresa Reichlen and Russell Janzen are the most beautiful Diamonds couple I have ever seen, and I'll venture to say they might be the most beautiful I'll ever see. Reichlen combines Maria's gorgeous aesthetics with Mearns' strength, and then adds her own brand of aloof magic into the mix. Janzen is her always sensitive, gallant partner. He's not the world's strongest virtuoso dancer but in the scherzo he does remember to point his feet in those turns a la seconde, something Tyler Angle did not do. The pas de deux between Reichlen and Janzen was so beautiful, so serene, that I don't think I breathed once. Reichlen doesn't include many of the "traditional" mannerisms of Diamonds -- in the scherzo she doesn't pull her neck and head backwards in the exaggerated Suzanne Farrell tradition, nor does she do the dramatic back-bends and swooning lunges of Sara Mearns, but she doesn't need to. She is one of the rare dancers that can do "just the steps" and have that be enough. And maybe because of muscle memory after several performances, or being inspired by Reichlen/Janzen, but the corps in Diamonds was the best I saw it all week. Spritely in the waltz and scherzo, and regal and uniform in the polonaise finale.

Reichlen and Stafford in Concerto Barocco, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Sandwiched in between all these Jewels was an all-Balanchine program (Concerto Barocco/Tchai pas/Stravinsky Violin Concerto/Symphony in C). Some highlights included Tess Reichlen's cool authority in Barocco (miss her SO much as Tall Girl) and Russell Janzen's expert partnering, Joseph Gordon and Ashley Bouder's geometric classicism in the first movement and Indiana Woodward and Sebastian Villarini-Velez exploding out of the third movement of the Bizet, and Tiler Peck and Joaquin de Luz bringing the house down in Tchai Pas. Tiler put on all the fireworks and then some -- multiple fouettes with fancy arm changing positions, huge fishdives that had the audience gasping. They got called out for five curtain calls and took some very ABT-like grand bows. But hey, when you dance like that, you've earned your right to milk those curtain calls.

And so despite the unending negative publicity this summer, NYCB has gotten off to a great start in its fall season and everything is once again beautiful at the ballet.

#SpeakingInDance | “You’re supposed to shoot out and fly,” said @indiana_woodward of her entrance in #GeorgeBalanchine’s spectacular “Symphony in C,” set to Bizet. A soloist at @nycballet, Indiana makes her New York City debut in the ballet’s third movement opposite Sebastian Villarini-Velez on Sept. 21. “It’s like being shot out of a canon,” Sebastian added. The third movement is for jumpers, and because, as Indiana pointed out, “it is really hard, thinking of just flying is a nice thing.” Many of the steps are identical for the man and the woman, which is rare and helps cement their bond onstage. “The most important part is the connection that you establish with your partner,” Sebastian said. “We get through it together.” When he learned he would be dancing the part, he had just returned to the company after a long layoff. “I went home to Puerto Rico and lounged for 5 weeks,” he said, “and came back to this monster.” And those jumps? They’re equal parts distance and height. “It’s like Balanchine always said, ‘Dance big,’” Indiana told the @nytimes writer @giadk. “And it always works.” @laurenmnolan made this video for #SpeakingInDance, our weekly series exploring the world of #dance.
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