Sunday, December 20, 2015

December Chestnuts - Rigoletto, Alvin Ailey, Nutcracker

Nadine Sierra as Gilda, photo as Jonathan Tichler
If last week was a whirlwind of Nutcracker adventures, this week I went to three tried and true warhorses: Alvin Ailey Dance Company on 12/15, Rigoletto on December 17, and one more look for the year at the NYCB Nutcracker on Sunday afternoon.

Usually mid-week revivals of the Met's "Las Vegas" Rigoletto can be dull affairs, but last night's performance had some fresh faces and voices (to New York at least). Jean François Borras first made his Met debut in a last minute substitute Werther almost two years ago. I was immediately bowled over by the beauty of his singing. Since then he's made a return to the Met last season for some Rodolfos and sung Werther and Des Grieux in Vienna.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Nutcrackerthon Diaries - Nutcracker, Buttcracker, Nutcracker Rouge, Hard Nut

Hyltin and Veyette, photo @Andrea Mohin
By a mix of chance and calculation I ended up seeing five Nutcrackers in one week. Strike that. I ended up seeing two Nutcrackers proper and three Nutcracker-inspired shows in one week. It was an ambitious undertaking but I survived and am still alive to write about it! Here are the Nutcracker diaries I kept for this week:

December 5, 2015 - NYCB Nutcracker - I'm at the alpha and omega of Nutcrackers (and let's face it, NYC Christmas-themed shows), Mr. Balanchine's ageless take on Tchaikovsky's ballet. The theater was packed with a good mix of hardcore balletomanes and families. The performance demonstrates NYCB's current strength as a company -- it's the middle of the chaotic Nut season, and they can put together such a strong cast from the principal roles to the soloist variations to the corps de ballet to the SAB children.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Lulu, the Modern Art Exhibit

Pre-curtain tableau, snapped by me

What does it say when your feeling at the end of a four hour evening at the opera is simply exhaustion? Not boredom, because Alban Berg's Lulu is one of the most compelling storylines ever set to opera. Not disdain, because everything put onstage was thoughtful and intelligent. Just exhaustion, like, okay, it's over, I want to go home.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Angela Tosca

Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca, photo @Ken Howard
Angela Gheorghiu's Tosca shouldn't have worked for a million reasons. Her soft-grained lyric voice is now even more under-powered, and she admitted in an interview that she didn't like Luc Bondy's production. But her return to the Met for just two performances of Tosca last night was a triumph. Yes her voice occasionally didn't have the reserves of power to ride over the orchestra, yes her acting was sometimes a touch mannered, but Gheorghiu is like many great singers in that she draws attention to what she can still do, rather than things beyond her ability.

Luc Bondy's production was a conscious reaction against the "traditional" Tosca productions. It was booed vociferously when it first opened in 2009. But over the years it's "evolved" in that different singers have changed the blocking, subtly or unsubtly, to suit their own tastes. Gheorghiu arrived onstage in Act One and it was obvious that she'd gotten a new set of costumes (the train in Act Two now resembles a royal wedding train) and that her Floria Tosca was a much softer, more coquettish personality than Bondy's original conception of the role. She ignored some of the original blocking, like fanning herself after she murdered Scarpia, or slashing Cavaradossi's painting.

Photo by Ken Howard
Bondy's production does seem to favor voices -- Gheorghiu was audible all night. A few of the C's in the second act were flat, and her bottom register has sort of dissolved into vapors, but she really knows how to sell the big moments. Her duet with Scarpia was intense, desperate, and she also knew how to save up her voice so it wasn't overpowered by the orchestra. "Visse d'arte" was performance art at its finest -- she ended the aria on one knee, head bowed to the audience. The audience ate it up. Her naturally soft, sexy voice gave the duets with Cavaradossi a real intimacy. She also knows some classic stage tricks, like finding the center of the spotlight during ensembles so attention is always drawn to her, and turning to the side during duets so audiences can admire her tailored gowns.

Roberto Aronica (Cavaradossi) has a large if somewhat muscled voice. It's not very beautiful and unlike, say Franco Corelli or Luciano Pavarotti he isn't able to float soft notes in "Recondita armonia"  or "E lucevan le stelle." He's not a star, but the performance was professional and competent, and I'll settle for that. He does have squillo.

Željko Lučić must be one of the most over-exposed singers on the international scene. Heavy hitting baritone role? He's there. His voice really isn't to my taste -- it tends to get stuck in his throat, but he did seem more engaged as Scarpia than is the norm with him. I liked the staging during "Visse d'arte," where Tosca is singing her heart out and Scarpia is sleeping on the couch. Otherwise, Scarpia no longer does much of the original blocking -- no more dry-humping the Madonna statue in Act One, and the business with the hookers in Act Two is now more of a casual hang out rather than active servicing. Eh. He gets the job done.

The minor roles were better than usual. John Del Carlo (Sacristan) is now king of comic comprimario roles I guess. Conductor Paolo Carignani got a huge smooch from Gheorghiu during the curtain calls. He's her kind of conductor - when she wants to be ahead of the beat, he indulges her. When she wants to fall behind to do some classic Gheorghiu note-spinning, he puts his baton down. 
Overall the evening was one of the better Toscas I've attended in all my years of operagoing. ISince Gheorghiu now limits her performances so severely, I'm happy when she showed up last night she gave it her all. Maybe she does live for love and art after all. And clothes. She definitely lives for those tiaras and gowns. But hey, when you've got it, flaunt it.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Elektrifying Elektra

Photo by Chris Lee
Last night's Elektra (courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall) was one of those nights where the audience was screaming and stomping, like a gladiator arena. It was by far the most exciting, visceral opera performance of recent memory.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

NYCB Fall Season

Huxley and von Enck Photo by Paul Kolnik
For many reasons I was only able to attend two performances of NYCB's Fall Season. An earlier mixed bill found Megan Fairchild back in that short but challenging powerhouse Tarantella. Welcome back Megan. Her brother Robbie Fairchild was taking a night off from An American in Paris to dance the Hoofer in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. He was charming, if a little too slick by half. Teresa Reichlen as the Stripper had the Legs and the Hair but not the Sass. Come back soon, Robbie. NYCB misses you.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Otello - when NP stands for "Non Production"

Photo by Ken Howard

The 2015-16 season of the Metropolitan Opera opened with Bartlett Sher's "new production" of Otello that would have been more appropriately labeled as a "Non Production." The set by Es Devlin was a bunch of plexiglass panels that slid back and forth mostly for the purposes of ushering the chorus on and offstage. The stage was bare except for an Ikea-upholstered bed at the end of Act 2 and Act 4. The blocking and person-regie was barely existent. A singer could have read the libretto for five minutes and come up with the same movements. Onstage, offstage, cower in fear, ball fists to look mad, collapse in a heap on the floor to look dead.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Returns and Debuts at the Met Opening Week: Il Trovatore and Anna Bolena

Dima, photo by Marty Sohl

The Met 2015-16 season might have opened with a new production of Otello but the first performance of Il Trovatore was by far the most emotional, exciting start to the season. Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky announced in the beginning of the summer that he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He has returned to the Met as di Luna for three performances in the fall before he'd resume his treatments.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


Almost everyone knows how Go Set a Watchman got published -- Lee is now infirm and rumored to no longer be of sound mind. Her lawyer "discovered" this lost manuscript. In fact Watchman was a first draft of the novel that was sent to editor Tay Hohoff in 1957. Hohoff rejected the manuscript and suggested many changes and eventually all those changes and rewrites became To Kill a MockingbirdWatchman is not a sequel to Mockingbird. It is not an alternate version. It's a first draft, and one can argue about the ethics about publishing it altogether -- would Beethoven have wanted his initial scribblings of his symphonies published and played by orchestras?

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Still Loyal to the Royal

Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae, photo by Andrea Mohin

It used to be that the Royal Ballet's tours to the U.S. were guaranteed sell-outs and their stars had rabid followings across the pond. Margot! Rudi! Sibley and Dowell! Lynn Seymour! Their versions of the "classics" were considered superior to any American company's. This was true even 10 years ago -- I remember the last time the Royal Ballet toured NYC it played at the Metropolitan to packed houses. They presented a wonderful tribute to Ashton ballets, and several ballerinas on their roster were internationally acclaimed dancers (Alina Cojocaru, Darcey Bussell, Sylvie Guillem, Tamara Rojo). I remember seeing, among others, Syvlie Guillem in Marguerite and Armand, and absolutely beautiful The Two Pigeons by the Birmingham National Ballet, and Symphonic Variations.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Romeo and JULIET

Photo by Nigel Norrington
Evgenia Obraztsova was only 19 when she performed her first Romeo and Juliet at the Mariinsky. She was an instant sensation. It's not hard to see why. She looks like the Juliet of your dreams -- the huge saucer eyes, the radiant smile, the flowing Renaissance locks. For several years she seemed to be on a path to becoming a Mariinsky prima ballerina -- she was given roles in reconstructions of Ondine, The Awakening of Flora, and Shurale. I saw her in Little Humpbacked Horse and Symphony in C when the Mariinsky toured the U.S. about four years ago. She was adorable.

But then ... the roles stopped. Why this happened, no one knows. In 2013 she finally left the Mariinsky for good and became principal at the Bolshoi Ballet. The Bolshoi Ballet doesn't currently have a Romeo and Juliet in its repertoire so chances to see Obraztsova in her signature role are big events indeed.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sleeping Beauty, Take 3

Diana Vishneva, photo by Gene Schiavone
I caught the final Sleeping Beauty in ABT's highly successful run. Alexei Ratmansky's new-old Sleeping Beauty has no doubt been the box office hit of the season -- today's performance was completely sold out (I stood). And I'm glad, because this performance was (overall) the best performance of the run. Saving the best for last, if you will.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Sleeping Beauty, Take 2

Photo by Rosalie O'Connor
Last night I saw a second cast of Alexei Ratmansky's much-talked about Sleeping Beauty. And again, I was amazed at how Ratmansky demanded (and got) all the ABT dancers to drop their usual dancing instincts and to dance his way. Again, you noticed the lower free leg in passé, the chaine and pique turns in demi-pointe, the very specific, rounded, modest épaulement, the low extensions in developpé, attitude, and arabesque, and the lack of overhead lifts. The mime was all there, meticulously articulated by Carabosse (Nancy Raffa), the King and Queen (Victor Barbee and Kate Lydon), and Catalbutte (Alexei Agoudine). All this could never have happened without much rehearsal time, coaching, and a strong artistic vision. And for that, I thank Ratmansky.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Midsummer's Night Dream - Exciting Debuts

A Midsummer's Night Dream has become the traditional way to close the NYCB's spring season. Because the ballet requires so many moving parts (a huge cast of soloists, the entire corps de ballet, plus a large contingent of SAB students) sometimes casting for this ballet can be a bit stale. If it ain't broke, why fix it?

Thus, there was a bit of a shockwave when casting for MSND and cast as Titania in the final performance of the season was one Miriam Miller, who is not even a corps de ballet member yet. She's only an apprentice. The final performance of the season suddenly became a hot ticket, as everyone was curious about Miriam Miller.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

La Bayadere Brought to Life

Photo by Gene Schiavone
There are certain performances where you go in with low or no expectations. I've sort of come to accept ABT's La Bayadere as a weak-tea version of Petipa's grand ballet. The corps formations in the Kingdom of the Shades are simplified, the variations are often a mess, and sometimes even the biggest stars can't keep the flame alive. I wasn't even planning on attending last evening's performance of La Bayadere. It was a last minute decision.

Well, despite many faults, I ended up liking this performance way more than I expected. Credit goes almost completely to Alina Cojocaru, the tiny, waiflike dancer whom I saw in this role more than 10 years ago. 10 years later, Cojocaru has suffered injury after injury, and you can sometimes tell with her occasionally shaky pirouettes and balances. But it's remarkable how much Cojocaru still has to offer in this role.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Ratmansky's New New Old Sleeping Beauty

Photo by Gene Schiavone
I don't exactly understand why this is, but it seems as if ballet companies and choreographers delight in presenting us with their "original" takes on Swan Lake or Nutcracker but when it comes to Sleeping Beauty, they become obsessed with authenticity, original notation, and even recreation of vintage sets and costumes. The ABT (and more specifically Alexei Ratmansky) just debuted yet another "new old" Sleeping Beauty with sets and costumes that are supposedly inspired by Léon Bakst's 1921 Ballet Russes production. And yet again, there are assurances that the choreography is carefully reconstructed from notations.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men Finale

The image I'll take away from last night's Mad Men series finale isn't the Coke commercial that Don apparently dreamed up after he found peace in a California commune. It isn't Joan kicking ass and starting her own company and also getting rid of that rich retired guy (although that was wonderful). It isn't Stan and Peggy getting together (although that was nice too).

I think the most remarkable scene last night was the final one with Betty and Sally. Sally is in the kitchen, cooking dinner for the family, and Betty, dying of terminal lung cancer, is grimly smoking a cigarette. Her back is turned towards Sally.

I loved that moment because Mad Men refused to do to Betty what it often does to beloved characters on a long-running series finale: go soft on them. This was shown to an absurd degree on the otherwise amazing Breaking Bad series: by the closing shot Walter White was practically a hero, and he died in his meth lab, ecstatic and at peace. But the final shot of Betty personified what the character has been for seven seasons: cold, closed off, unable to show affection to her kids, the ever-present cigarette a symbol of her own self-absorption.

There were a million reasons to feel sorry for Betty. Her husband Don was a monster. A very tortured, human monster, but a monster nonetheless. We knew her backstory -- modeling was her dream, before she gave it up for the 2.5 kids and the rich husband. She was deeply lonely and unhappy. It would have been easy to make Betty the poor, put-upon wife.

Instead January Jones and the Mad Men writers made Betty one of the most interesting characters of the show, a character who resisted easy sympathy at every moment. Betty wasn't warm. She wasn't affectionate. She was in her own way as self-absorbed as Don. And she had a mean streak a mile wide. Who can remember her screaming to Sally "You broke MY nose!" Or her disastrous attempt to chaperone a field trip which ended with her screaming at Bobby for doing the nice thing and giving a hungry girl food.

When Betty was diagnosed with lung cancer, I thought, oh man, they're going to finally make Betty sympathetic. She's going to show affection to Sally for the first time. She's going to make peace with Don. It will be Saint Betty. But that's not what they did at all. Betty's last conversation with Don was tense and strained, with her telling him he wouldn't get custody of the kids and then taunting, "You can see them on the weekends. Oh wait. When was the last time you saw them?"

And Sally came home from boarding school and decided to take care of the family even more than she's always taken care of her very damaged parents. But Betty seems oblivious to the sacrifice, to Sally's pain. So the last shot of Sally sadly cooking for the family, and Betty smoking a cigarette in the kitchen was just so appropriate. It was cold. It was selfish. It was Betty.

Bye bye Birdie, and goodbye to Mad Men, a show that for seven seasons made us care about monsters.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

NYCB Does Bournonville

I've now sat through three completely different casts of the NYCB's Bournonville program. It is strange how, as a rule, the Bournonville style manages to completely defeat many of NYCB's most excellent technicians, whereas some of their less experienced corps de ballet members have taken to the Danish master like ducks to a pond. I thought of why this might be so. I have a few theories, and the one I'm most fond of is the idea that many principal dancers and strong technicians are so confident in their abilities that they overlook the key to Bournonville style: modesty. It's hard for them not to snap their arms out to show off a spectacular jump, or to keep their arabesques beneath 90 degrees.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Elusive Muse

There was a moment in tonight's 2 hour talk with Suzanne Farrell at the New York Public Library where Suzanne was laughing, the audience was laughing, and the ice finally seemed broken. Suzanne was recounting how Mr. B taught them to dance, and she quoted him as saying, "You know, you're not only dancing for your mother." It was a fun, witty remark from the always-witty Mr. B. The audience (packed full of veteran dance enthusiasts and current dancers like Gillian Murphy) loved it.

I wish their had been more moments like that in what was otherwise a painfully awkward, unilluminating two hours. For one, the interviewer, Paul Holdengräber, had absolutely no rapport with Suzanne and seemed stuck to his cue cards all night. His interviewing style takes much like James Lipton of The Actors' Studio -- very starchy, dry, pretentious.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Un Ballo in Maschera - Saving the Best for Last

I'm looking over all my Met programs this season and I attended Macbeth (twice), Le Nozze di Figaro, La Boheme (three times!!!), Traviata (twice), Death of Klinghoffer, Aida, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Les Contes d'Hoffman, Iolanta/Bluebeard, CarmenLa Donna del Lago, as well as the Grand Finals of the Met National Council Auditions and a recital by Rene Pape. You might notice something though: all of those performances happened before March. That was when a real job (and a 5:00 wakeup time) kicked in. But today was the last day of the season and I was determined to see Piotr Beczala sing Un Ballo in Maschera.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Spring Gala at the NYCB: The New Yorkers Become the Danes

I usually despise the gala crowds. The cameras flashing, the women teetering in 6 inch heels (sometimes you can actually see the blood from their blisters), the listless, overfunded audience. This year was in fact the first spring gala I'd attended since, well, forever. And sure enough, the VIP's were there, the women in their back-breaking heels and the men drinking joylessly at the bar. But the reason I attended was because the ballet the NYCB was presenting was for once a true event: the NYCB premiere of August Bournonville's deathless masterpiece La Sylphide. The true balletomanes (squeezed for the most part into the third and fourth rings) discussed such important matters as: would the NYCB dancers erase memories of the Royal Danes? Could they master the endless series of beats and direction changing jumps? How much of the mime would be preserved? Do the men look good in kilts? And how adorable is Sterling Hyltin?

Monday, May 4, 2015

NYCB's New Apollo: Back to the Future

George Balanchine never stopped complaining about the atrocious conditions for the premiere of his first masterpiece, Apollo. Apollo was danced by Serge Lifar, a dancer Balanchine disliked both artistically and personally. But he had to be cast as he was Serge Diaghilev's lover. Balanchine's Terpischore, Alexandra Danilova, was shelved in favor of Alice Nikitina, due to Nikitina having been the mistress of a wealthy sponsor. Balanchine later would remark "If we were to go back to the premiere of Apollo everyone would be laughing his head off."

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Something Rotten!

There's something to be said for a musical that doesn't attempt to be anything more than a rollicking good time. Something Rotten!, which just opened at St. James Theatre after a month of ecstatic word-of-mouth previews, makes its intentions clear from the very first number, a catchy but shamelessly brassy tune called "Welcome to the Renaissance." It's belted out by Michael James Scott and he's soon joined by a cartoonish collection of Renaissance sights and sounds. It's high-energy, lowbrow fun.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

On the Town: Best in Show

This is going to seem like a PSA rather than a review but: run, don't walk to see the wonderful revival of On the Town that's currently playing at the Lyric Theatre. The show is so funny, so sharp, so well-directed and well-acted, that there was literally not a moment of down-time.

On the Town was composed more than 70 years ago, and you'd think parts of the show would seem dated. Not so. Betty Comden and Adolph Green's superb book and lyrics are funny, sharp, but also capture the loneliness of the New York metropolis. Leonard Bernstein's score would later be eclipsed by West Side Story in fame but for On the Town he wrote a helluva score. There's something to please everyone: jaunty production numbers ("New York, New York"), pretty ballads ("Lonely Town"), and character-driven songs ("I Understand").

Friday, April 3, 2015

The King and I

The King and I production that's in previews at the Vivian Beaumont Theater on Broadway is perhaps indicative of how many shows are nowadays: polished, professional, aesthetically pleasing. Bartlett Sher's revival does nothing radical with the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The iconic bits, like the long Jerome Robbins' ballet "Small House of Uncle Thomas" or the march of the King's children are lovingly recreated. Sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Catherine Zuber aren't really spectacular but they follow the outlines of, well, what you'd expect to see in a The King and I production. Zuber has gone to great lengths to recreate Deborah Kerr's enormous hoop skirts.

This is in many ways a good thing. The American in Paris attempted to do too much and the results were (in my opinion) tedious and pretentious. The King and I is a perfect evening for those who loved the original musical or the classic film adaptation. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll whistle a happy tune.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Met National Council Auditions: Grand Finals

What a wonderful afternoon! What a great thing to see young singers singing their hearts out and all that talent onstage. I was 4/4 with my picks. Only unsure about the fifth winner, who turned out to be tenor Joseph Dennis. And thanks to my friend Gerald Martin Moore I got to meet some of the amazing winners afterwards in the reception.
These were my predictions during intermission. I was 4/4. Unsure about the final winner.

The amazing Reginald Smith, whose voice really shook the rafters.
Elegant French mezzo soprano Virginie Verrez
Amazing bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee

An American in Paris

I actually hesitated before writing this review of An American in Paris because: 1. It's still officially in "previews" although the prices that are charged are the same as a regular show; and 2. maybe some time and distance will soften my stance on the show. But then I decided no, better to just lay it all out.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

A (Long) Chat with Danielle de Niese

Soprano Danielle de Niese, photo by Sven Arnstein
Opera lovers of today might know Danielle de Niese from her astounding output in the last decade: starting with her famous video of Giulio Cesare as well as her continued participation in the Glyndebourne Festival and for New York operaphiles, her recent performances of The Enchanted Island, Così fan tutte, and Nozze di Figaro. But de Niese actually made her Met debut in 1998 as Barbarina and has been singing ever since she was 8 years old! Unfortunately Danielle won't be able to sing in the may revival of The Merry Widow, but for the happiest reasons: she is expecting her first child! But Danielle was kind enough to take the time to talk with me about her very long, successful career. Thank you Danielle!

Here are some highlights:

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Winter Season Conclusion

Today was the first day of March but New York got hit with yet another snowstorm. It's okay though -- the New York City Ballet's final Winter Season performance was enough to put a smile on any balletomane's face.

The performance started off with a performance Square Dance that might be the finest performance I've seen at the NYCB all winter, period. Ashley Bouder was of course magnificent in the leading lady role -- crisp, secure, fast, with endless reserves of horsepower, but with enough delicacy that's appropriate for this extremely courtly ballet. She's still hands down probably the strongest allegro dancer of the company. Anthony Huxley matched Bouder beat for beat, jump for jump. His adagio solo was buttery smooth. But the corps behind them were with them every step -- it was just one of those performances where you got the sense of a happy dancing community, which is the key for Square Dance.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

La Donna del Lago

This is a weird way to begin a review but the thing I kept thinking of at tonight's premiere of La Donna del Lago was that Seinfeld episode when Kramer is driving with George's mother and in the middle of a casual conversation he "stops short" with the car. This causes much awkwardness all around.

What does "stopping short" have to do with Rossini? Well, Rossini is one composer that (if played right) never "stops short." Bellini was maybe a better melodist, Donizetti a better dramatist, but Rossini has an implacable momentum that is always musically impressing.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Winter Season at NYCB

NYCB had some bad timing during its winter season. The start of their season coincided with the sold-out Mariinsky gig at BAM. Since then, mother nature and injuries have plagued what is traditionally the NYCB's busiest dancing season. Ana Sophia Scheller and Rebecca Krohn are still out with injuries, and on Tuesday 2/3 Andrew Veyette joined the list of injured.

I caught one of their first week performances (a triple bill of Serenade, Agon, and Symphony in C) which was notable for several debuts: Erica Pereira's surprising quickness and security as the Russian girl in Serenade, and Ashley Bouder's glittering performance in the first movement and Brittany Pollack's whiz-bang turns in the 4th movement of Symphony in C.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Disruptor at the Met for Iolanta/Bluebeard Premire

Last night the delayed NP of Iolanta/Bluebeard was interrupted by this man. I reviewed the entire performance for Parterre Box.

The Met’s planned premiere of Iolanta/Bluebeard’s Castle was cancelled due to the Great Blizzard That Wasn’t. All ticket holders were given refunds and exchanges, and the premiere was moved to January 29. As a result the lobby of the Met pre-performance was a noisy zoo. The will call line spiraled almost to the basement stairs and my! all that fur (on both the men and the women). Outside was a small but noisy group of protestors. It’s understandable that the Met staff seemed a bit frazzled and overwhelmed. They came, they sang, they bowed. Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala are audience favorites, and so of course there were bravos and bouquets. Then, at the end of the performance a man just strolled onstage using the stage right stairs, and unveiled a poster of of the Ukraine flag with pictures of Valery Gergiev, Netrebko… and Hitler. The cast was clearly frazzled (although they were singing behind a production scrim) and the crowd began to boo the intrepid protestor. Almost as if on cue professional photographers ran down the aisle snapping pictures. And just as calmly, the man walked offstage. The protestor I think earned the
 Iolanta cast some sympathy points. That was handy, because the performance was sort of disappointing. Tchaikovsky’s last opera has been a favorite vehicle for Netrebko in concert, and she’s sung this role onstage in the exact same production. I won’t point out the link but a whole performance is easily searchable on youtube. Maybe it’s sentimentality that’s kept this role in Netrebko’s repertoire because at the point in her career neither her voice nor her stage appearance really suit the role of the sheltered, blind princess. Netrebko’s now rather mature looking and what’s more, acts mature. The youthful ebullience is no longer really there. When she rolled around on the floor and twirled it almost seemed like a nostalgic throwback to her earlier days. It didn’t look natural.
Her voice has also changed. She always had a dark, rich timbre, but in this rather lyrical role one noticed a thickness to her voice that sounded matronly. It had a slight but persistent beat on sustained notes. Her pitch sagged. What was most surprising was how often she seemed to be pushing. In the past, Netrebko didn’t have to strain to be loud. She just had reserves of volume. It was like she opened her mouth, and the sound filled the auditorium. Tonight in the duet with Vaudémont (Beczala) and in the final wedding chorus she was hunched over, fists balled, screaming. I really want to think this was just a bad night for Anna, because I’ve heard her in almost everything she’s ever sung at the Met and she’s never sounded this bad. And she was spectacular as Lady Macbeth this past fall.
Beczala is actually five years older than Netrebko but is still believable in these lyric prince roles. His voice is for the most part an incredibly well preserved light tenor. On the highest notes one can detect a thinning of the sound and some strain, but the core of his voice has stayed the same. More amazing is that he can still pull off the ardent lover schtick. If Netrebko’s voice is a bit like an aged fine wine, Beczala is more like amber. You can pull out videos from more than 10 years ago, and compare them with today. He hasn’t changed. And when you saw him smirking a little after the ovation for his aria it was so cute. Never change!
The low voices were distressing. Whatever happened to Russia’s lower-voiced males? They used to be the greatest bass factory in the world. Ilya Bannik (King René) was the understudy for an ailing Alexei Tanovitsky so one couldn’t expect too much, but he doesn’t have even a cover voice. He has a thin, wobbly comprimario voice.  Elchin Azizov (Ibn-Hakia) was almost as bad. Alexei Markov (Duke Robert) at least had a voice, although it wasn’t beautiful.
Gergiev has remarkably little feel for Tchaikovsky’s music. This is as much of a problem in the Nutcracker recording of his as Iolanta. He has a cold clinical style, which is absolutely against the grain of Tchaikovsky’s melodies. The final wedding chorus fizzled out to the point where when the curtain fell there was little to no applause.
Mariusz Trelinski’s production of Iolanta was the lesser of his two efforts. It’s set in a chilly hunting lodge, with some deer hanging on the walls and a dead deer that drips blood. I liked the austere look for most of the opera. It suggested a bone-chilling Russian winter. The stage blocking was formulaic and the “transformation” however pretty lame. Everyone just put on some wedding gear and held hands and belted.
After the intermission we got the grim aftermath to the fairy tale ending of Iolanta. Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle is not as easy and accessible a work as Iolanta. It has only two voices, and the story is dark and creepy. With that being said, I loved it. First, Trelinski apparently saved all his good ideas for Bluebeard. The production was surreal, imaginative, and almost cinematic. I won’t spoil many of the production’s effects (the way he handles the Seventh Key is a doozy) but let’s just say it’s a scene Ted Bundy might have approved of, in his sick sociopath way.
And what of the two protagonists? Well for Mikhail Petrenko (Bluebeard) I’ll repeat: what happened to Russia’s basses? This voiceless, wobbly dude is the best they can get? Judith was “soprano” Nadja Michael. Previously I had only heard on recording and in soprano parts like Lady Macbeth and Salome. The screechy white tone was cringe inducing. Well tonight I think I finally figured Michael out. I think she’s really a contralto. In the lower register (where much of the role lies) her voice has a richness and resonance that is (dare I say it) quite intriguing. It’s not beautiful, but it’s not the trademark caterwauling that one hears on the DVD’s. Only when she has to sing in the soprano tessitura does the white, shrill tone emerge.
Petrenko and Michael don’t have A-list voices but they did throw themselves into the production completely. This opera has a rather abstract libretto but Petrenko and Michael made the characters flesh and blood people. He bond between husband and wife was well developed. There was tenderness, sexual attraction, fear, and finally, a chilling acceptance. Bartok’s score is “difficult” but deeply rewarding. I loved how the music became less dissonant with each door. The seventh door music was almost like Tchaikovsky. Death never seemed so seductive. It was a wonderful musical experience, and what I’ll most remember from the night.
Trelinski said Alfred Hitchcock films inspired him when he planned these productions. With this insight in mind I’ll just say that Hitch would have called the Iolanta half (replete with the noisy protestor) the MacGuffin. The lush music, fairy tale marriage story, and curtain call antics were just a trick for the audiences to appreciate the bone-chilling story of Bluebeard and his doomed wives.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Call Me Debbie

The first thing you need to know when you read Deborah Voigt's Call Me Debbie is that she's a "down to earth" diva. I confess I have an allergy to people who label themselves "down to earth" -- it's my experience that genuinely down to earth people don't walk around with a "Down to Earth" advertisement.

That reservation aside Debbie Voigt's memoirs (we learn that "Deborah" was a stage name she chose to seem more formal) are enjoyable, easy to read, in an Oprah kind of way. I download this on my ipad this morning and by noon I was done. Those looking for gossip or insight into the cut-throat, competitive opera business will be disappointed. Jessye Norman required a personal assistant to spray her path with mist. There's unnamed Mezzo X and Mezzo Y who gave her a hard time but otherwise everyone is wonderful, fantastic, supportive, amazing. Luciano Pavarotti called her up one night to ask about gastric bypass. Leonie Rysanek cheered her on the first time Debbie sang Chrysothemis. Anna Netrebko gave Debbie pointers on how to signal to the prompter "I need help." Placido Domingo made her swoon with an onstage kiss. President Bill Clinton kinda sorta copped a feel. And so on.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Mariinsky Waves Goodbye

The final performance of Swan Lake at the Mariinsky was maybe the most old-fashioned of the three Swan Lakes I caught. Viktoria Tereshkina has a contemporary physique and line, but her facial expressions and portrayal owed a lot to silent movie acting. There was nothing subtle about it, but her Odile especially was tons of fun. The long-held balances, the doubles and triples thrown into the fouette sequence, and, finally, the old-fashioned milking of bows. She came forward for a bow whether the audience response warranted it or not. Her Prince, Vladimir Shklyarov, was the Siegfried with the most bravura technique. His boyish looks and spotlight hogging reminded me of the young Nureyev. He's one of those dancers that does that slow walk with his back to the audience before he begins a variation to drum up anticipation. Andrei Yermakov really camped it up for his last performance of Rothbart (the death scene convulsions!), while Vasily Tchachenko was by far the most appealing Jester of the run.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Mariinsky Swan Lake #2: A Turkey

There is a certain look performers sometimes have on their faces when things are just not going their way. There's a deflated look in their eyes, posture, and demeanor that makes it clear to the audience that magic is just not going to happen on this particular night, and they are being professionals by chugging through the remainder of the performance. That look was in abundance at tonight's performance of Swan Lake at BAM. The Mariinsky swans were as beautiful as ever, Andrei Yermakov was a terrifying Rothbart, the pas de trois was elegantly danced by Filipp Stepin, Nadezhda Batoeva, and Yana Selina (!!!), but the leads Ekaterina Kondaorova and Timur Askerov were just disappointing compared to last Friday's magical performance by Uliana Lopatkina.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Royal Danes

There exists a brief snippet of La Sylphide's opening solo as performed by Ellen Price in 1903 (see above). The film might be of low video quality but the lightning fast footwork, the effortless ballon, and the charmingly modest épaulement are immediately apparent.

How does one preserve the Bournonville hallmarks of charm, grace, fast and fleet footwork, and effortless elevation in a ballet climate that now favors big jumps and flashy pirouettes? This question has been plaguing the Royal Danish Ballet since time immemorial but the miraculous thing is, for the most part, the Bournonville tradition lives on. This was apparent in the Royal Danish Ballet's brief tour to NYC this week.

Mariinsky: Cinderella, Ratmansky Style

My second night at BAM was markedly different: it was my first time seeing Alexei Ratmansky's Cinderella. And the short version of the story is: I hated it. I usually find Ratmansky to be an interesting (if inconsistent) choreographer but this is one ballet I can put on the shelf and never see again.

To be fair, I didn't hate everything about it. I liked some of Ratmansky's ideas: the stark industrial look in Act One, the Prince (Konstantin Zverev) being a sort of Fred-Astaire-type dancer instead of the traditional dull-as-potatoes-cavalier, the Stepmother as an oligarch trophy wife.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Swan Heaven - Mariinsky Arrives in BAM

There are certain things you expect when you see an Uliana Lopatkina performance. You expect extreme beauty of line -- those endless arms, the tapered fingers, the mile-long legs. You expect a stately dignity -- I saw Lopatkina as Nikya maybe 10 years ago, and she was as glacial and remote as the highest Himalaya peak. It was as if her body was a temple. I also saw her in Symphony in C where her line was so exquisite that you sort of forgot how she sort of pulled the Balanchine choreography into a molasses crawl. Of course there was the Dying Swan where she flapped her boneless arms and the applause lasted longer than the dancing.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Opera Diaries: the Four Hour Bohème

So 1/15/15 marked what might have been a first: a La Bohème that lasted nearly four hours. Too tired to write much about the details, but after the first act the curtain fell and we heard a loud crash. Apparently the scenery had fallen apart. An announcement was made that there'd be a 20-minute intermission. That really was about 40 minutes, and every intermission lasted about 40 minutes, so by the time the opera was over it was like 11:30. Seriously.

Thankfully the performance was worth staying for -- and I met the cast afterwards!!!

The gorgeous Mimì, Kristine Opolais. She's one of those women that immediately make you feel mousy and plain by comparison. 

Marina Rebeka, who was such a wonderful Violetta, tonight made for an equally wonderful Musetta. The voice is really very special -- airy, like a bell, you can just listen to her all day. 

Finally, the tenor Jean-François Borras, who I saw last winter as a last-minute sub in Werther. He was amazing. One of the most pure, beautiful lyric tenors I'd ever heard. I thought, "I'll probably never hear him again." Well, his Rodolfo tonight was very different, but just as great. Now if you want Michael Fabiano-like squillo then you're better off uh ... listening to Michael Fabiano. But Borras has a very light, youthful, sweet sound. I was talking with someone at intermission that I really wanted to hear him sing with Marina Rebeka -- they both have this lightness to their voices that I think would blend wonderfully. And the good news: he'll be back again next season! Woo-hoo! But go listen to him next Monday or next Saturday afternoon (broadcast).

And last night I heard Sonya Yoncheva in what might have been the sexiest, most complete Violetta I've ever seen. I already knew she'd be great because I saw her earlier this season as Mimì and there's a Youtube compilation of a performance she did with Jean-François Borras two years ago. But she exceeded all expectations. Really just a special, special voice.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Les Contes d'Hoffman

I went to the Met's revival of Les Contes d'Hoffman last night and wrote a review for parterre. An excerpt:

A wise man once said: “It’s absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.” Vittorio Grigolo may be a narcissist, but at least he’s a charming one.

The above is the wonderful Erin Morley's Doll Song.

Balanchine's Nutcracker pops up ... everywhere

It's December 2020 and the world is going through a furious, deadly second wave of the covid pandemic. Most performances have been cance...