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

The Best (And Worst) of 2018 (with video clips as evidence!)

Oh what the hell. These lists are cheesy but everyone (including the NYTimes) does them, so why not? So here, in no particular rhyme or reason, were some of the highlights and lowlights of 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.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Florez Recital a Free-wheeling Lovefest, Chorus Line Compelling But Dated

A tenor and his guitar
I have seen Juan Diego Flórez in a variety of operatic roles for over 16 years and I've always associated this tenor as being supernaturally disciplined. If he needed to hit a high C, he hit it (or, in the case of Tonio, he hit 18 of them in "Ah mes amis + encore). He insisted on looking good -- in Le Comte Ory he famously refused to wear the nun's habit into the "bed trio."  He was remarkably consistent -- you always knew what you were going to get.

So I thought a Flórez recital would be very much the same. Disciplined. Consistent. A bit stiff. Well I was wrong. Yesterday's recital in Carnegie Hall was one of those freewheeling occasions where anything goes and anything went. It was as if he had temporarily switched personalities with Vittorio Grigolo.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Mefistofele is Devilishly Fun

The devil's work, photo @ Karen Almond
It's one of those sacrilegious facts of life: the devil inspires great literature. Milton's Paradise Lost. Dante's Divine Comedy. On the musical front the devil inspires composers to have fun. Every single "devil's" work in music I can think of is a guilty pleasure. Maybe the best example is Gounod's Faust, in which the constipated Victorian soap opera of Faust and Marguerite is offset by the prancing of a delightfully insouciant Méphistophélès.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Alexander Elliot is a Pearl of a Baritone

Baritone Alexander Birch Elliot made a spectacular last minute debut
Tonight at the Met the curtain fell on a rather hum-drum first act of Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles. No one was exactly bad, but it wasn't very exciting either, AND the opera's two big hits ("Au fond du temple saint," the tenor-baritone bromance national anthem, and "Je crois entendre encore," the falsetto national anthem) were already over and done with. So I expected the performance to chug along at the same low-energy pace to its conclusion.

Mariusz Kwiecien (Zurga) was nappy and a bit raw, with a few near cracks. Javier Camarena was strangely muted in affect. Pretty Yende didn't have much to sing in Act One, and what she did sing ("O Dieu Brahma") had a nice trill but uncertain intonation. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume conducted at such fast speeds that there was no stretching of the vocal line in "Au fond" or "Je crois." Legato became staccato.

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)

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.

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."

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

ABT's Don Quixotes Chart a Path for ABT's Future

Boylston/Simkin, Abrera/Royal, Forster/Agoudine
Handwringing over ABT's weak principal roster has come to an all-time high this season. In short: Daniil Simkin will be dividing his time between ABT and Berlin next year, Jeffrey Cirio is leaving to English National Ballet, David Hallberg after years of injuries needs a reduced workload, Roberto Bolle is aging and dancing only once or twice a season, which leads us with three full-time male principals: James Whiteside, Herman Cornejo (who also has suffered many injuries) and Cory Stearns.

Yet this week's run of Don Quixote's chart a path for ABT to become a successful company in the future. I saw three performances and at every single one there was raw new talent that made you sit up and mark down names.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Theater Diaries: Mean Girls The Musical That's a Great Play, and Boys in the Band

Cady meets the Plastics, photo @ Joan Marcus
I saw two great plays on Broadway this week. They were funny, witty, insightful, with lines that had that sharp ring of truth that only great wordsmiths can create. Except one was technically a musical.

Mean Girls is a musical adaptation of the 2004 movie. Tina Fey (30 Rock, SNL) wrote the screenplay and adapted the screenplay into a book musical. If I were to judge Mean Girls strictly as a play, it's one of the best plays I've ever seen. Yes much of the book is recycled from the movie, but Fey has updated and tweaked the screenplay into a great stage play. Predictably social media is now a big part of Mean Girls, as are some ad-libbed lines that reflect current popular culture. There is one about J.R. Smith "stepping it up for Lebron" that had the audiences rolling. But the emotional truth of Fey's writing is what makes Mean Girls worth watching. Fey understands adolescence, and understands the terrors that are a part of any high school experience. It's that core of empathy that makes Mean Girls among the best musicals about adolescence. It's certainly better than Grease.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Hamilton: The Great American Musical

Michael Luwoye as Hamilton
June 8, 2018 is the day that I will always remember as the day I became a "rich person." Not because I make a lot of money, but I became one of those people who saw Hamilton on Broadway. And short of actual income bracket, I'll take this bump up of my social standing.

So ... how was it? Was it worth the three year wait? (Seriously, it took me 2 years just to get that Ticketmaster pre-sale code that allowed me to buy tickets). The long and the short of it is that Hamilton is a very, very entertaining, well-crafted musical. Lin Manuel Miranda mixes contemporary hip-hop with R&B, jazz, and classical musical theater styles and crafted a musical that is intelligent, funny, and thought-provoking.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Ratmansky's Harlequinade: Petipa in the House

Boylston and Whiteside, photo @ Alan Alejandro
Alexei Ratmansky's reconstruction of Marius Petipa's Harlequinade had its premiere in the fourth week of ABT's spring season. For dance historians this was the event of the spring season. After all, although there have been occasional revivals of Harlequinade this is one Petipa ballet that is mostly relegated to excerpts at a gala. Perhaps the most complete version was Balanchine's adaptation that he set on NYCB in 1965. There is a grainy video of the complete Balanchine here. So as the lights went down I wondered, so what does Petipa's version look like?

Act One scene design, photo @ Rosalie O'Connor
The short answer is: hard. Cruel. Commedia dell'arte where humor is conveyed by slapstick (literally -- Harlequin's magical weapon is a hard stick), and a man being thrown down a balcony, "dying," and his body parts thrown around the stage is supposed to be funny. Harlequin wins his bride by beating up all his opponents and then finally paying off his bride's intractable father. It's no wonder this ballet didn't really take after Petipa was gone -- there's no Lilac Fairy beckoning forgiveness, no divertissements like Dawn and Prayer as there are in Coppélia that hint at a brighter future.  There is a Good Fairy but she only gives Harlequin power in the form of a stick and money. In the world of commedia dell'arte, might (and $$$) makes right. There is something quite fascinating about seeing this Harlequinade compared to Balanchine's version. You can see where Mr. B made the story more palatable to modern audiences, and to see the actual thing is eye-opening.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

SAB Workshop Ushers in New Stars while NYCB Ends Season

View from the 4th Ring for Concerto Barocco
Sunday June 3 was a bittersweet event for NYCB fans as three senior members of the company gave Long-time soloist Savannah Lowery and senior corps members Cameron Dieck and Likolani Brown all retired today. It's a happy occasion: all three dancers are headed towards
second careers but for dance audiences when senior members of the company leave it's always a loss.
Lowery as a farewell present was given two assignments -- the second violin to Ashley Laracey's first violin in Concerto Barocco, and the Agon pas de trois. I will miss Brown, who often led the Flowers in Nutcracker. You could always pick her out of a crowd with her dark hair and sweet face. I will also miss Dieck, who was one of my favorite Bottoms. Dieck's final turn onstage was as Theme 3 in Four Temperaments. He was dancing with his off-stage girlfriend Unity Phelan and the orchestra actually slowed down the tempo considerably, probably to allow Dieck to savor his last moments as a dancer. The crowd cheered loudly for Lowery during curtain calls. I wish she had been allowed a solo bow but oh well.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Balanchine's Coppelia and Makarova's Bayadere: "After" Petipa

Generations of Swanilda: Danilova, McBride, Hyltin
After a very successful three week tribute to Jerome Robbins NYCB this week returned to one of Balanchine's most charming creations: his version of Coppelia, which he and Alexandra Danilova reconstructed from their memories of the Imperial Ballet. This is Balanchine at his most "after Petipa" -- there is none of the abstract minimalism that was his calling card. His Coppelia is a full-blown three act story ballet with carefully articulated mime,  several folk/character dance numbers including a mazurka and czardas, and an unabashedly old-fashioned quality. The sets and costumes by Rouben Ter-Artunian are a shock of pastels that match Leo Delibes' lilting, gentle score. It is literally a world viewed through rose-colored glasses. Balanchine might have re-choreographed some of the steps (mostly in the third act -- the first two are very standard Coppélia choreography) but he clearly loved this ballet and that love is as important if not more so than following, say, Stepanov notations. Balanchine's Coppélia still delights audiences that sometimes sniff at anything that isn't a leotard ballet.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Robbins Festival Ends, SuperGiselle at ABT, and a Hiatus

Osipova and Hallberg in very enthusiastic curtain calls, photo @ Andrea Mohin
On May 18, 2018 every single seat at the Met was sold out for ABT's eagerly anticipated SuperGiselle. The leads: Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg, whose partnership had caused such a sensation in roles like, well, Giselle and Romeo and Juliet. But time and injuries had split the partnership. In this interview both dancers articulated why reuniting onstage was so important for them. In the audience was one of the greatest all-time Giselles, Diana Vishneva, who looked remarkably trim for someone who just had a baby 5 days ago.

So did SuperGiselle live up to the hype? Well yes and no. Considering how thin ABT's roster currently is it was probably the best Giselle of the entire run and the audiences loved it. About 15 minutes of curtain calls with the audience singing "happy birthday" to both of them (they share a May 18 birthday). But compared to their previous performances it was below par.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Something to Dance About: Robbins Centennial Kicks off at NYCB

Jerome Robbins in Circus Polka
Spring season is underway at NYCB. After a week of Balanchine and modern repertory (a few highlights: Ratmansky's Pictures at an Exhibition return to the repertoire, the flirty, playful duet between Anthony Huxley and Devin Alberda in the otherwise turgid dance odyssey, Sara Mearns making a radiant debut in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Sterling Hyltin and Tiler Peck leading very different but equally valid approaches as the lead girl in Symphony in Three Movements, Zachary Catazaro making a decent if not spectacular return to Apollo three years after his debut where he dropped the lute the Jerome Robbins' Centennial Celebration kicked off this week. The first program I attended mixed real Robbins' (The Four Seasons, Suite of Dances, and Circus Polka) with two Robbins' tributes: Warren Carlyle's Something to Dance About and Justin Peck's EASY.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Met Season Wraps Up with Tosca and Cendrillon

Netrebko, photo @ Ken Howard
Unless something major happens tonight was my last performance of the Met 2017-18 season. The role debut of Anna Netrebko in Tosca has created such hype that tickets are completely sold out for every performance standing room included. In addition there was buzz because the original Cavaradossi (Marcelo Alvarez) canceled and Yusif Eyvasov aka Mr. Netrebko was predictably the replacement. This is the NY debut of the Mr. and Mrs. together in an opera. In other words this was an Event. The people sitting next to me had traveled from Israel just to see Anna as Tosca.

So ... how did the performance stack up against the hype? Pretty well, all things considered. Anna Netrebko is a Superdiva and Tosca is a Superdiva and the singer and the role were well-matched both musically and temperamentally. Netrebko's voice has grown so much in volume and richness but lost a lot of flexibility. I saw a recent video of her Lady Macbeth in London and while it was exciting she struggled in the passagework of the role. Tosca makes no such demands. It allowed Netrebko to do what she does best, which is flood the auditorium with huge waves of sound. And her instrument is still a miracle. You can quibble with the suspect pitch, mushy diction, weird dipthonged vowels, and occasionally loosened vibrato. But to have a voice that can sing high, sing low, can fill any house with surround sound stereo volume, and with a gorgeous, plush timbre to boot -- that's God's gift.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Grand Slam: Lucia, Luisa, and Three Tall Women

Jessica Pratt as Lucia
Yesterday I went to the matinee performance of Luisa Miller. I expected it to be wonderful, and it was. Everyone had settled into their roles more than at the premiere, and the love of the audience seemed to give the singers an extra jolt of energy. The death scene between Sonya Yoncheva and Piotr Beczala was gripping and Domingo was so heartfelt and still offers a master class in Verdian style that one could forgive the occasional lack of, well, baritonal voice. It was a beautiful afternoon and I'm glad the performance was captured for HD.

Then after it was over I decided to impulsively buy a ticket for the evening's Lucia di Lammermoor. I'd heard good things about the Lucia, Jessica Pratt. And this was alas one of her only two performances this season. It was unlike Luisa Miller a gamble, as I really hadn't heard much of her besides a few Youtube videos. And I think most of the audience was unfamiliar with her too, as the auditorium was depressingly empty for a Saturday night.

Friday, April 13, 2018

A Tristan und Isolde Where King Marke Provides the Music-gasms?

Nylund, Kaufmann, Nelsons and Zeppenfeld
The hottest ticket in town this opera season was no doubt the Boston Symphony Orchestra's concert performance of the second act of Tristan und Isolde. By 8:00 Carnegie Hall had turned into several snaking crowds of ticket holders, bathroom visitors, scalpers, all converged into an auditorium that all of a sudden seemed tiny and cramped just because of the sheer volume of people present. The ambience of the audience resembled My Fair Lady's Ascot Gavotte:
Ladies and Gentlemen 
 Ev'ry duke and earl and peer is here 
 Ev'ryone who should be here is here. 
 What a smashing, positively dashing
 Spectacle: the Tristan op'ning night.
The hype was for several reasons: the elusive tenor Jonas Kaufmann was actually fulfilling his engagements (who would have thought I'd see him TWICE this year?), Andris Nelsons is a buzzy, rather hyped conductor, and Wagner ever since Peter Gelb took over has occupied less and less of a place in the Met's repertoire.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A Loverly Revival of My Fair Lady

The cast at curtain calls
About three weeks ago I saw the Lincoln Center Theater's revival of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady. Back then it was in the first week of previews. I saw a lot of promise and potential but it was obvious that the production was still in an embryonic stage. Actors were going up on lines, timing was off, and the pacing was slow and ponderous. The performance read more like a serious play than a classic musical comedy.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Easter is for Musicals: Carousel and Jesus Christ Superstar

Regular readers of this blog might know this already but every year I take my mom to a carefully picked, PG-rated, old-fashioned musical (the only type my mom will go to). I call them momsicals. We've been to Lion King, Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and Hello Dolly!. When I asked her what the next Momsical would be, she said "Carousel." She was adamant about it too, so on April 1 we went to see the new Broadway revival of Carousel.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Luisa Miller: Role #149 is a Keeper

Domingo and Yoncheva, photo @ Chris Lee
If there's one thing I wish I could change about myself it's this: I have no off switch when I attend a performance. I can't just sit back, relax, and enjoy. From the moment the lights dim to the last moment before the house lights go up I'm always mentally criticizing, taking notes, comparing, contrasting, weighing the positives against the negatives, until my program notes become one illegible scrawl. I'm probably an insufferable performance companion. I've know that I've missed many a great performance because I was too hung up on this or that detail.

At tonight's premiere of Verdi's Luisa Miller the same thing happened. I listened. I watched. My mind started racing. But at intermission, I found myself not fixating on all the merits and demerits of the performance. Just the opposite. I was actually just sort of chilling. It wasn't that I didn't hear the mistakes or that the performance was so superlative that I was overwhelmed. But I wasn't replaying the mistakes over and over in my head. And then it dawned on me why I wasn't doing this mental marathon: the three leads in the performance really know how to sing Verdi, and that's a skill that nowadays is so rare, and so special, that I better just count my blessings.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Spring Diaries: A Very British Rinaldo; A very grand Grand Hotel; My Fair Lady

Cast of My Fair Lady
"Spring" officially started on March 20. The next day the Northeast coast was hit with a Nor'easter that lasted for a good 24 hours and dumped a foot of snow in NYC. I had a snow day so obviously the thing to do was to trek to Lincoln Center and see Bart Sher's revival of My Fair Lady. The auditorium was about 2/3 empty and it's very early in previews. The fact that the singers had yet to settle fully into the roles was betrayed by Lauren Ambrose (the Eliza of the new production) and Jordan Donica (Freddy) going up in lines for a large chunk of the Ascot scene.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Semiramide Revival Has a Death by Baton

Ancient Babylonia, photo @ Ken Howard
You might have recalled that a month ago I was dithering about whether to see Semiramide or a second performance of Parsifal. Wagner beat out Rossini. The great thing about living in NYC though is that I had a chance to see Semiramide as well. Win-win I guess. So last night I was transported back to the magical world of ancient Babylonia ...

Oh who am I kidding? This revival of Semiramide was lifeless and uninspiring and didn't transport me anywhere except to constant glances at my watch. It wasn't really the singers' fault per se, nor was it the production's -- John Copley's 1991 production presented this opera seria with some picturesque tableaus and fabulous costumes. Instead the energy-killer last night was conductor Maurizio Benini.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Why I Walked Out of Angels in America UPDATED: Saw Perestroika!

The Angel, photo @ Sara Krulwich

At the end of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches I had a choice to make. I could either grab some dinner, and return for the evening performance of Perestroika, or I could go home. I decided to go home.

I shocked myself. I had been looking forward to seeing Angels in America for a long time. The production (a transfer from National Theatre Live) had racked up plaudits and awards all over the place. During Millennium Approaches I found Tony Kushner's writing alternatively funny, biting, insightful, thought-provoking. There were parts that in my opinion could have used some judicious cutting -- (one example: the opening monologue with the rabbi went on for way too long) but overall I was impressed with how little this play has dated. AIDS is no longer a death sentence and the artistic community is no longer losing so many talents to this dreaded disease but a good play is a good play. The many references to 1980's hot button issues also serve as a timely reminder about just how heartless Ronald Reagan was towards AIDS patients as nowadays many Democrats seem to view him through a gaze of nostalgia in comparison to Donald Trump.

Instead I walked out and decided not to return for the second part because I thought Kushner's play deserved a better presentation than it received. I don't think I've ever seen a production hampered by so many poor directorial and acting choices. (edit: I was also sick as a dog which is why I decided to see Perestroika later -- see below).

Monday, March 5, 2018

An Elektra With No Charge

Goerke as Elektra, photo @ Karen Almond
If there was one event at the Met that I was looking forward to all season, it was Elektra. I was certain that in an otherwise safe and dull season Elektra would blow the roof off the place. I wasn't basing this on mere conjecture. I was convinced that this Elektra would be absolutely elektrifying (sic) because in 2015 I heard Christine Goerke sing an Elektra at Carnegie Hall for which demented is too mild a word. It was one of those evenings where the oldest, quietest gentlemen in the upper rings of the balcony were screaming their lungs off. Surely when she sang Elektra at the Met it would be just as great, if not even greater?

The sisters, photo @ Karen Almond
So it was with these sky-high expectations that I went to tonight's performance. And things started promisingly. The cavernous, organ-like quality Goerke's voice made her opening phrases in the "Allein" monologue crackle with excitement. Just the way she bellowed "Agamemnon!" gave one a visceral thrill. But as the monologue went on and the tessitura went higher I began to realize that this was a singer in major vocal trouble. Her upper register is completely disconnected to the rich, contralto-like core of her voice. Her top notes are alternately thin, wobbly, shrill, and at times inaudible. I give Elektra bonus points because the relentless assaults into the upper register can be taxing for even the strongest of voices, but even with that "it's Elektra" mindset, there were times when the sounds Goerke was making wasn't music, but noise.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Winter Season Diaries: All Stravinsky Closes Season

de Luz and Fairchild in Baiser, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The true mark of a NYCB devotee is how much they look forward to the all-Stravinsky programs. The leotard ballets and spiky scores can still bring the jitters in people who adore Jewels, Serenade or Theme and Variations, but if just the thought of that diagonal of soldier-girls in Symphony in Three Movements gives you the tingles, then I'd say you're all in. So it's fitting that NYCB ended its winter season with an excellent all-Stravinsky/Balanchine bill of the rarely performed Divertimento From Baiser de la Fée and long with repertory staples Agon, Duo Concertant, and Symphony in Three Movements. For one, it's a test of the company's resilience. It's also a test of the audiences' loyalty. The dancers more than rose to the occasion. And the audiences' enthusiastic responses indicated that company loyalty among ballet-goers is still strong.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Parsifal Marathon #2

Cast of tonight's Parsifal

I attended my second performance of Parsifal this season. I did not come to this decision lightly. Originally I had a ticket for tomorrow night's Semiramide. But the thought of experiencing Parsifal with René Pape and Peter Mattei was tempting, and I agonized all week about whether to swap out my Semiramide ticket for Parsifal. This included making a poll on Facebook and drawing up pros and cons on an index card. Yeah, I know. But finally after listening to a less-than-impressive livestream of the Semiramide premiere and also armed with the knowledge that there were only 2 performances of Parsifal left while Semiramide is likely to improve during its run, Parsifal it was.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Parsifal Lifts the Spirits and Heals the Soul

Parsifal, photo @ Ken Howard

Five years ago I survived my first ever live Parsifal. I had a lot of problems with the storyline back then. Since that time I've seen the error of my ways, boned up on my Schopenhauer, and eagerly awaited a return trip to Richard Wagner's final work. And so with my Parsifal prep package of snacks, juice, a pen to take notes, and ipad to read during the 40+ minute intermissions, off I went.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Winter Season Diaries: The Groundhog Says Six More Weeks of Winter ...

Amazing Groundhog Day Four Seasons cast
February 2, 2018 - Groundhog Day. And according to the weathermen, the groundhog predicted six more weeks of winter! It was fitting then that NYCB's second week of the winter season showed a company getting its mojo back. The first week had a few uncharacteristic stumbles, bloopers, and sloppiness, but after the Groundhog Day performance of, fittingly, The Four Seasons, all felt right with the world. The fact that last night was one of those ART series performances where all tickets were $30 and they gave free beer and kaleidoscope glasses to everyone after the show sweetened the deal.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Theater diaries: Farinelli and the King; Return Trips to the Diner and Price&Son

King Philip's court, photo @ Sara Krulwich

In general I go to theater to enjoy it. I don't like to think that I spent my hard-earned money and time to see total "shite," as the Brits might say. Therefore I always am in a state of denial when I realize that I'm watching a total turkey. And so it was with Farinelli and the King.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Winter Season Diaries: All-Balanchine Programs Test the Company's Mettle

Finlay and his muses, photo @ Andrea Mohin

There was almost something perverse about the curtain rising on NYCB's Winter Season and the sight of the blond Peter Martins-lookalike Chase Finlay dancing Martins' trademark role of Apollo. One could almost imagine Martins' observing his performance in his usual seat in the rear orchestra except of course Martins wasn't there, the NYCB programs had been scrubbed of any mention of He Who Shall Not Be Named. The show must go on.

I caught four performances in their first week. NYCB's two all-Balanchine programs (Apollo/Mozartiana/Cortegé Hongrois and Divertimento #15/Four Temperaments/Chaconne) are the type of programs that would test the company's classical chops under any circumstances. But NYCB is now a ship without a captain, and in many ways the performances reflected both the company's depth of talent and how even the world's best dancers need a strong leader.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Jonas Kaufmann's Grand Return

To be a Jonas Kaufmann fan in the past few years has meant constant heartbreak. In 2014 he sang a sensational series of Werthers at the Met. During the last performance fans ripped up programs to shower him with confetti. The world was his oyster. Little did we know that he would not return to the U.S. to sing for nearly four years. He canceled Carmen, he canceled Manon Lescaut, he canceled Tosca. Therefore speculation was high about whether he'd actually show up for a Carnegie Hall recital. Fans feared for days that we'd get an announcement of illness. But January 20 rolled around, and he posted a photo of himself in front of Carnegie Hall. By 8:00 the old place was packed like sardines.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Tosca as Comfort Food

Grigolo and Yoncheva, photo @ Ken Howard
There exists a "live from the Met" recording of Tosca made all the way back in 1903. These Mapleson cylinders have horrible sound and are mere snippets of a performance. Nevertheless a recording of an opera made only three years after the premiere is sure to tell us something about how Tosca has evolved over the years, right?

Wrong. Even though the singers in the recording (Emma Eames, Emilio de Marchi and Antonio Scotti) have voices that today don't sound like natural fits for the opera, the most revealing thing about those Mapleson cylinders is how unrevealing they are. You can imagine everything that's happening onstage just from what the singers are singing. Eames screams at the exact moment you expect her to scream -- when she realizes after the third "Mario" that the execution was real.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

A Post-Martins City Ballet

Email I received about Martins' resignation
Peter Martins' long tenure as the Ballet Master of New York City Ballet came to an abrupt, unpleasant end on January 1, 2018. He rang in his new year by submitting his resignation and the Board accepted. Since his departure many NYCB dancers have taken to social media to express their dismay at the regime change. These people ranged from corps members like Alexa Maxwell to soloists like Megan LeCrone to principals like Tiler Peck. Martins resigned amid allegations of physical abuse and sexual misconduct, with most of the allegations from former members of the company. He was also recently arrested for yet another DUI. I completely believe the testimonials from the current dancers that he was a supportive boss who took the company to new artistic heights especially in the last decade. I also completely believe the allegations of physical abuse and sexual misconduct from former dancers. His resignation/dismissal was justified if all the allegations of physical abuse are true. At the same time life is in shades of gray. Peter Martins did a lot of good for the company, and it would be foolish not to acknowledge that.

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...