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Sunday, January 13, 2019

Stinney: An American Execution is Jolting and Traumatic

George Stinney Jr.
In March 1944 two girls in Alcolu, South Carolina were murdered. One was raped. Fourteen year old George Stinney Jr. told the police that he had seen the girls picking wildflowers. By June 14, 1944 George Stinney was executed. He was so slight that the electrodes could not reach him and he had to sit on a Bible in order to be properly electrocuted. The jury deliberated for 10 minutes. In 2014 a South Carolina judge vacated the conviction, citing a lack of evidence -- there was no written confession, just the insistence of a local police chief. Stinney's trial lawyer was a tax commissioner. He was questioned alone without a lawyer.

This horrifying, egregious miscarriage of justice is now the subject of an opera that was presented at New York's Prototype OperaFest, an annual festival of contemporary and experimental opera. Indeed, Stinney: An American Execution is not even presented as a complete work. The program says it's a "work-in-progress." Composer and librettist Frances Pollock wrote in the liner notes that she first presented the work in 2015 in Baltimore and insists that this is still a "reading." The opera (about 2 and a half hours) was done as a semi-staged concert, with orchestra, chorus and soloists sitting in rows on a small platform stage. One of the more disconcerting parts of the performance was that the background gave subtitles AND the libretto's stage directions, but the stage directions were only intermittently followed by the performers.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Adria-anna Lecouvtrebko

Anna Netrebko, Piotr Beczala, and Anita Rachvelishvili, photo @ Ken Howard
In 1937 the legendary soprano Rosa Ponselle was losing her upper register. She had stage fright and also wanted to act in movies. She asked Met general manager Edward Johnson to mount a new production of Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur for her. Johnson refused. Ponselle never sang in staged opera again. She was barely 40.

Tebaldi as Adriana with a young Domingo
In 1963, beloved Met diva Renata Tebaldi was also dealing with a receding upper register, and demanded that Rudolf Bing stage Adriana Lecouvreur for her. Bing reluctantly agreed. Tebaldi sang six performances before vocal troubles overwhelmed her and she canceled the rest of the run. In Bing's memoir he recalled the incident with such bitterness you would have thought Tebaldi had personally murdered Bing's beloved dachshund with poisoned violets.

Therefore the new production of Adriana Lecouvreur that was mounted for Met superdiva Anna Netrebko breaks a sort of curse. Netrebko is not singing Adriana because she is losing her upper register. This is not the desperate demand of a soprano with rapidly disappearing high notes. Netrebko's Adriana is a symbol of her power -- in Peter Gelb's Met, what Anna wants, Anna gets.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Comparing Nutcrackers Across the Pond

Battle of the Nutcrackers: U.S. vs. England

This December season I had my usual annual ritual of putting aside money for two extremely crucial things -- a Christmas bonus for my building super and money on Nutcracker tickets. NYCB's Nutcracker is my annual Christmas binge -- every year I check out some new dancers, and see my old favorites. This year I saw four different SPF/Cavalier pairings. Truth be told, only one was the kind of transcendent, joyful complete performance that made me leave the theater on a high. The others all had some major flaws. But still, for the joy it brings me year after year, Balanchine's Nutcracker is unrivaled.

Balanchine's classic version
However this year I also decided to sample a Nutcracker cinema relay from across the pond -- Sir Peter Wright's Nutcracker for the Royal Ballet. The Wright Nutcracker this year starred Gary Avis as Drosselmeyer, Anne Rose O'Sullivan and Marcellino Sambé as Clara and Nutcracker Prince, and Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov as the Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier. So who won the battle?


Both Balanchine and Wright are obviously working from the same choreographic and narrative text -- the original 1982 Ivanov production. Neither of them have added anything "weird" to the story.  Twas the night before Christmas and at a Christmas party a magician named Drosselmeyer gives his favorite niece Clara/Marie (Balanchine calls her Marie, probably because in Russia she was called "Masha") a toy Nutcracker. Her mischievous brother Fritz breaks it. Clara/Marie has a dream that her Nutcracker comes to life and becomes a Prince helps her battle an army of mice. Marie finally wins the battle after throwing a shoe att the Mouse King. After the mice are vanquished Clare/Marie and the Prince head to the Land of the Sweets where they entertained by the Sugarplum Fairy and watch an array of divertissement dances. The end.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Monday, December 10, 2018

Anna's Day and Night: When More is Less

Netrebko and her pianist Malcolm Martineau
Anna Netrebko is everything a diva should be. She has a voice that is probably unparalleled today for sheer quality and skill. Where other sopranos falter, she breezes -- I saw her Aida where she made that treacherous ascent to the high C in "O patria mia" seem like child's play. Offstage she is larger-than-life, quirky, and makes no attempt to be normal. Her Instagram page makes her life seem like a continuous stream of wacky outfits, mouth-watering meals, fun sight-seeing, and of course, adoring crowds.

Therefore it wasn't a surprise that her Carnegie Hall debut recital was sold out months in advance, and was accompanied by a breathless NYTimes profile piece. Every time she sings it's an Event. There were people who traveled far and long just to hear her for one afternoon.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Met Traviata: Something Old, Something New, Many Things Borrowed ...

Violetta on her deathbed, photo @ Jonathan Tichler

The Michael Mayer production of La Traviata ushered in a new era at the Metropolitan Opera: it was the first official assignment of new Met musical director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who was fast-tracked to the position after James Levine was fired earlier this year. The opening night of Traviata (on December 4) had YNS pelted with confetti and the orchestra was brought onstage to salute the new boss.

But in many ways Mayer's production is also bringing back the old: the spartan, clincial Willy Decker production (otherwise known as the Clock Production) that premiered in 2010 and was played more than 50 times with many different Violettas donning the little red dress (including Diana Damrau in 2013) was shelved in favor of a production that mostly plays it safe and traditional. Christine Jones' set and Susan Hilferty's costume place the opera in the 1850's-ish era, with the women wearing big hoop skirts. Violetta's boudoir is decorated with the sort of upper-class luxuries that a high-class courtesan in Paris might have fancied: a baby grand piano, an ornate upholstered bed, an antique desk, colorful draped curtains, champagne everywhere.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Il Trittico Shows Which Voices Have Staying Power; Netflix's Dogs

50 years at the Met, photo @ Sara Krulwich
At the November 23 opening night of the Met revival of Il Trittico there was an onstage celebration of Placido Domingo, who with his role in Gianni Schicchi is celebrating 50 years at the Met and his 150th operatic role. I wasn't able to be there for the opening night but did go to the third performance last night.

Domingo was onstage with colleagues decades younger than him. Some had great voices (Stephanie Blythe) and some had very good voices (Amber Wagner's firm, rich soprano as Giorgetta, George Gagnidze as Michele). And Domingo is not a natural baritone. He's not a natural comic either -- I remember seeing Alessandro Corbelli do this role and he had everyone in stitches. But not a single voice had as much sense of maximizing one's potential as Domingo. When you take away the sentimentality, the audience attachment, what you have is a singer who still has much to offer.

Stinney: An American Execution is Jolting and Traumatic

George Stinney Jr. In March 1944 two girls in Alcolu, South Carolina were murdered. One was raped. Fourteen year old George Stinney Jr. ...