Best (and Worst) of 2019
BEST OF OPERA - the Met's revival of Porgy and Bess. It was not a perfect cast nor a perfect production, but this great American opera finally returned to the Met. So many operagoers experienced this masterpiece for the first time live (myself included). Tickets sold like hotcakes, to the point where the Met added three additional performances in February. Angel Blue as the troubled Bess and Latonia Moore as the righteous Serena were simply radiant. Everyone I knew who saw this Porgy and Bess was deeply moved by the humanity in George Gershwin's score and Dubose Heyward's libretto. The winter run is completely sold out but three additional performances go on sale this Saturday. Beg, borrow or steal to get a ticket.
Honorable mention goes to the Met's revivals of Dialogues of the Carmelites and Queen of Spades. Both have old but classic productions that work incredibly well. Carmelites was incredibly moving even with a less than perfect cast. The Queen of Spades revival had a lot of cast changes including a last-minute drop-out by Aleksandrs Antonenko, but it ended up being an extremely strong overall cast.
Mostly Mozart Festival's presentation of Barrie Kosky's The Magic Flute also brought the magic back to this overdone opera.
And the worst - opera singers behaving badly. Both Placido Domingo and Vittorio Grigolo were fired from multiple engagements amid allegations of sexual harassment and lewd, inappropriate behavior. Domingo later explained his behavior as being "gallant gestures." Ok, whatever, lech.
BEST OF THEATER - Hadestown. Anaïs Mitchell's concept album was transformed into an entertaining, exhilarating adaptation of the classic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Director Rachel Chavkin has reimagined Hades as capitalism-run-amok. but the heart of the musical is one of the most timeless of love stories. There were some epic performances from Patrick Page as Hades, André de Shields as Hermes, and Amber Grey as Persephone. "Wait for Me" and "Why We Build the Wall" are show-stopping anthems. Hadestown is slickly packaged but always has a beating heart. This musical deserved all the accolades it got.
And the worst - I didn't know Richard Rodgers was capable of writing a bad musical until I saw the Encores! presentation of I Married An Angel. Two hours of my life I'll never get back. The only redeeming feature was NYCB star Sara Mearns as the Angel. Mearns was funny and charming, and of course, could really dance.
BEST OF DANCE - Merce Cunningham's centennial year brought a slew of tributes and revivals. There's even a film appropriately entitled Cunningham. There was the Merce Cunningham Celebration at the Joyce, the ultimate Cunningham Event called Night of 100 Solos where dancers in New York, Los Angeles, and London all paid tribute to the modern dance master, and NYCB revived Cunningham's classic Summerspace. As a result, this most cerebral of choreographers became cool and hip again. Cunningham dissolved his own company upon his death but judging from the various Events in his centennial year his legacy seems secure. And I became obsessed with trying to do the "Merce balance" (one leg on high demi-pointe, other leg outstretched in developpé) at home. It did not end well.
|Charlotte Nebres as Marie|
1) The bittersweet performance of Esplanade that marked the retirement of five beloved Paul Taylor dancers -- Sean Mahoney, Robert Kleindorst, Michelle Fleet, Jamie Rae Walker, and Parisa Khobdeh. These dancers were dancing as well as ever. Truly the end of an era.
2) Sara Mearns absolutely tearing up the stage in the Gypsy Rondo of Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet. She was exciting, she was joyous, she was a fireball of energy. People who were at the ballet's premiere said Mearns was the best they'd ever seen.
3) Ballet has a serious diversity problem, but slowly the barriers are coming down. This year New York City Ballet cast its first black Marie for their holiday warhorse Nutcracker. I saw Charlotte Nebres in a performance. She was luminous and adorable.
4) In terms of new works: Ratmansky's sprawling, occasionally overstuffed The Seasons also has some of the finest choreography he's ever done. The pas de deux between Corn and Zephyr is classical ballet at its finest.
And the worst - ABT's debut of Cathy Marston's Jane Eyre. It was a damp, dreary, cheap MacMillan-knockoff ballet that only showed how little the choreographer understood Charlotte Brontë's novel. Coming close behind is Twyla Tharp's Gathering of Ghosts, a convoluted overdone tribute to Herman Cornejo. And another dishonorable mention goes to Mark Morris's Sport. By the time he got to synchronized swimming I was out.
BEST OF TV: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is simply the most trenchant half hour of news commentary on TV. Oliver has no fear of getting into the technicalities of rather obscure issues nor does he shy away from scathing analysis when it's needed. His show is funny and entertaining but most of all it's informative. I can't recall an episode where I didn't learn something.
Here is John Oliver breaking down the bits and pieces about the census:
Leaving Neverland. Michael Jackson groomed vulnerable young boys to be abused, and he found the perfect candidates in Wade Robson and James Safechuck. Robson and Safechuck came from families you can barely believe exist -- one mother moved her family from Australia to LA so her son could have nightly sleepovers with Michael Jackson. Another admitted that Jackson paid for her house to "buy her silence." Robson and Safechuck tell a harrowing tale of sexual abuse by Jackson who at best comes across as a deeply troubled soul and at worst a sinister sexual predator. This documentary got the usual condemnation from Michael Jackson fans but the evidence presented is compelling. Michael Jackson fans owe it to themselves to watch this documentary. You will never look at the King of Pop the same again.
ETA: Saturday Night Live has become hit or miss but Eddie Murphy's return on 12/21 was undeniably a hit. It's 35 years later but Murphy's mannerisms, energy, and infectious giggle were all there as were his most famous sketches like "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood." He was as funny as ever and was living proof of the adage "grow up, but don't grow old." What a great episode.
And the worst: The final episodes of Game of Thrones. The show managed to alienate the entire fanbase by massive character assassination of Dany, settled on the very worst pick to lead the Seven Kingdoms (Bran should be king because he is the "keeper of all our stories"???), and to top it off the final spoken scene was a disgustingly cynical “Council” where King Bran, Tyrion, Bronn, Davos, and Samwell joked about sex and brothels. So much for breaking the wheel.
The only positives I can say about the final season are that at least Theon and Sir Jorah died heroic deaths saving the people they loved, and Brienne of Tarth broke all hearts when she loved and then lost Jaime (who comes in second to Dany in terms of totally unnecessary last-minute character-assassination by the writers).
Let us never speak of Season 8 again. At least Sesame Street did a great spoof of the final season:
BEST PERFORMANCES - One could quibble with the wobbly middle, the cloudy vowels, and the occasional rhythmic slackness, but there is no doubt that Anna Netrebko had hauteur, glamour, and charisma in spades and thus her Adriana Lecouvreur again became the kind of old-fashioned diva vehicle that left opera fans breathless. It reminds one of Oscar Wilde's words about the 19th-century diva Adelina Patti: "You must come and dine with me, and afterward, we will look in at the opera. It is a Patti night, and everyone will be there."
1) Angel Blue's fiery Bess. What a beauty, what a voice. Blue has all it takes to become the American diva of the new generation.
2) Patrick Page using his thundering bass to strike fear in the hearts of all inhabitants of Hadestown.
3) Leonardo Dicaprio and Brad Pitt purposely cast against type in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Tarantino's film is sprawling and uneven. The Charles Manson plot always felt contrived. The best parts were watching Leo and Brad do their thing. Leo plays a washed-up B-movie actor and Pitt his even more washed-up sidekick. Think it doesn't work? It does. Leo tearfully reading a novel about a forgotten cowboy while getting acting tips from a precocious 8-year-old child actress (Julia Butters) is one of the most priceless acting scenes in recent memory.
WORST PERFORMANCE OF ALL TIME??? - Prince Andrew's interview for the BBC. Words cannot describe its awfulness. The arrogance, the entitlement, the lack of empathy for Jeffrey Epstein's victims, the mind-boggling excuses (Virginia Giuffre's accusations must be wrong because Prince Andrew doesn't sweat), and the unbelievable lines (he said he stayed with Jeffrey Epstein for four days after Epstein's sex-trafficking conviction because he had a "tendency to be too honorable" and "it was a convenient place to stay.")
The fallout from the interview was swift. Twitter responses were savage. Here is one:
The royal family acted quickly -- within days Prince Andrew was withdrawn from royal duties. Cancel culture finally hit the royal family, and they canceled Randy Andy. Here is the interview in all its disgustingness:I expected a train wreck.— Charlie Proctor (@MonarchyUK) November 16, 2019
That was a plane crashing into an oil tanker, causing a tsunami, triggering a nuclear explosion level bad.#Newsnight #PrinceAndrew
BEST BOOK - No Visible Bruises by Rachel Louise Snyder is the book about domestic violence EVERYONE needs to read. The topic is painful and very complex, but Snyder dives into all the grisly statistics and stories while offering surprising empathy for the abusers themselves and hope that some of them can be rehabilitated.
One thing about the book hit home -- Snyder wrote that women often recant their testimonies about abuse when their partners are released on bail because they feel they are in more danger if they insist on pressing charges. Then I read this awful news story that echoed Snyder's book to the letter -- a woman had her abusive partner jailed for attacking her with a knife. He was released on bail. She recanted her testimony. A week later he stabbed her to death and stuffed her body in the trunk of his car. How can we stop these tragedies? Snyder doesn't pretend to have all the answers, but she provides a treasure trove of insight.
BEST PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT - 2019 was the year I "went pro." I started reviewing dance for bachtrack. All my published articles are here. This has been a wonderful experience as I got to review so many dance events that aren't normally in my wheelhouse -- the Merce Cunningham Centennial celebration at the Joyce Theater. I learned how to compress all thoughts into 800 words or less. I also saved money from getting press tickets for performances I would have wanted to see anyway. Win-win.