Sunday, May 27, 2018

Leontyne Price!

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

NBC's "Jesus Christ, Superstar" Live

I watched NBC’s annual foray into presenting live musicals on television, none of which have really been worth the trouble beginning with the loathsome, “hit ‘n mostly miss” “The Sound of Music.” Until Sunday night’s presentation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s groundbreaking rock opera, “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” (Along with "Evita" they really are the only two works of this composer I’ve ever grown to have any genuine love for). While NBC's production had some serious flaws, it's the best the network has done yet presenting a live musical.

The two worst parts were; (1) the bloody commercials every few minutes, but worse was; (2) the audience, who would never shut the hell up, screaming like banshees after every 2 or 3 chords. It was infuriating and nearly caused me to turn the entire thing off.

Mr. Legend's lack of acting ability was obvious from the get go, but he worked the music very well, even if it didn't always sit naturally in his voice. A couple of rough spots in the work’s greatest song/aria "Gethsemane" notwithstanding he pulled it off, for the most part with a voice that really does have some sweet spots.

Sarah Bareillis made the most demure, lady-like Mary Magdalene one could possibly imagine, and sang her songs very sweetly, interacted gently, but like Mr. Legend, relied mostly on her voice to put her performance over.

Brandon Victor Dixon (of "Hamilton" fame) impressed mightily as Judas, but sort of sounded like he was falling apart at the end – perhaps just in keeping with his character? Still, he rallied for the big title number and injected energy and some dance moves that shined as brightly as his final costume.

Ben Daniels’ Pilate owned the stage every time he stepped onto it. His attempt to save Jesus against the crowd demanding death was brilliant, wrenching theatre, with Loyd Weber’s writing for the chorus/crowd clearly drawing on the mob scenes from Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and Bach’s “St. Matthew.” I can’t think of many musicals that compare right at that moment.

The bottom reaches of Caiaphas’ contributions were tough going for Broadway veteran Norm Lewis, struggling to growl almost inaudibly even being mic’d. It (almost) didn’t matter as his words at those points were in unison with Jin Ha’s Anna, and the midrange of the rest of Lewis’ role – where most of it sits – were voiced majestically and with the hint of the menace necessary, He and Ha’s countertenor-esque sound playing perfectly off each other.

70 year old shock rocker Alice Cooper’s star turn as Herod in his brief solo, worked both nostalgically and in context of the circus atmosphere taking place at this part of the show.

The physical set was minimal: acres of metal scaffolding, fountains of flames, chairs, plywood tables, sheets, curtains and scarves, filling the massive stage of the Marcy Armory while the rear stage walls featured a mixture of modern graffiti contrasting with fading religious frescoes as might be seen in an ancient Greek church. All of it was positively eye popping.

For the crucifixion those walls split into a cross behind Jesus whose crucified body raised ever higher, than floated backwards into blinding light offering the ultimate “deus ex machine!” The effect was haunting and of deep spiritual significance regardless of one’s beliefs – and for once, an enormous stage effect kept the over exuberant crowd properly hushed.

I watched the entire thing again on Hulu, where it had been, blessedly, removed all of the commercial interruptions. I truly believe the commercials were the central reason many had issues with the show Sunday night, or at least, why I did. Continuity and momentum had been destroyed by the commercials breaking the show up into “bits,” rather than a whole. Performers, by training and, hopefully, a bit of instinct, know how to keep the intensity of a character. We've all had to do just that when we're not in scenes but have to return to the stage later just as "alive" as when we'd left no matter how many minutes or hours it's been since our exit. BUT, the breaking up of scenes in something not written for television makes it hard, if not outright impossible to "stay in the moment.” This is, I believe, particularly true when the pauses are long, irritating, and are trying to sell us toothpaste, toilet paper or car insurance.

Re-watching it again as a solid 1 hr. and 40 minute show I took far less notice, and neither minded nor concentrated on the blemishes, despite my knowing where and when they were coming, if only owing to the fact there simply wasn't time to dwell on them. To that end, Mr. Legend's performance - and everyone else's moved me far more than did last night. This may be in part because I lowered my expectations, but I think more so because the pacing was as it should have been and not broken into 7-10 minute vignettes.

I was once again impressed by David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski’s marvelous production, this time able to observe more details than I could absorb on a first viewing. After decades of all the overblown, Puccini-stealing, spectacles ALW’s career has come to be defined by, it was bracing and beautiful to return to his roots, remembering how he shook things up nearly 50 years ago with this single, beautiful work.


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Thursday, March 1, 2018

Beczala and Katz: Carnegie Hall Land of Smiles

I made the decision to forgo Semiramide at the Met for a recital I hadn't planned on attending. A decision that turned out to be unknowingly wise, for a truly thrilling, moving and lovely evening of singing and piano playing occurred last night in Carnegie Hall. The recital had been announced, long ago, as "Sold Out," and indeed, the sidewalk was bustling with people holding up signs asking "Need 1 Ticket!" Oddly, when the recital began, there were almost entire rows of empty seats. My row had only 3 people, me on one end and two at
the opposite.

Beczala selected fascinating and unusual recital for a star, no long evening of cycles, and few "standard recital pieces." The recital consisted of an all Italian first half, and and all Polish second. He began with four songs by Stefano Donaudy that showed him to be in stunning voice. I didn't recognize all of the songs by title, but when he sang them, I had several "aha!" moments. He ended the set with one I knew from an Arlene Auger album, "O del mio amato ben," and it was positively exquisite.

Next up; a quartet of songs by Wolf-Ferrari that were sung just as beautifully, even if in his voice they didn't sound particularly Italianate. The songs were wonderfully varied, with one, "E tanto c'e' pericol ch'io ti lasci," whose beginning and repeated theme sound nearly identical to the beginning of "America the Beautiful." It was here we first got to hear Beczala pump out volume that was nearly deafening. One doesn't typically think of this "sized" voice as "loud, but loud it was!

Six songs of Respighi followed and they need to be much, much better known than they sadly are.

The first half finished with a trio of songs by Tosti that could not have been more fitting, and allowed the tenor to "show off" again, his marvelous technique, thrilling top and his delicious manner of playing to the audience. Delightful.

Following intermission came the more serious matter of the songs of his native land. In reading the texts I could barely suppress a gale of laughter; the first half had been comprised of almost all "beautiful days of love . . . perfumed meadows forever in flower . .
kisses, and breezes," and the Polish half began with "wilderness, naked and yellowed, drags its groaning wings over they grey moss . . . your lips are cold . . . what sorrow, unfathomable, unbounded!"

Never mind the mood swing, the first set was Six Songs, Op. 2 of Karol Szymanowski, and Beczala sang them, as he did everything, nearly perfectly, with an added, palpable sense of pride.

Seven songs of Mieczyslaw Karlowicz followed this, and while less serious in most ways than the previous set, they were more in a traditional "lieder" format even though Karlowicz was only five years older than Szymanowski. Beczala once again lavished great artistry and poured out both volume and passion throughout. The last of these could have been a deleted aria for Lensky out of Tchaikovsky's "Onegin" - I can't imagine this not showing up on more tenor recitals, Polish natives or not. Stunning music.

Four songs of Stanislaw Moniuszko wrapped up the recital. All more lighthearted with an almost, the second an energetic almost "drinking song" quality where I had to fight the urge to clap in rhythm and shout "Hey!" at points that almost seem to call out for them. Beczala
spit out the words with energy and crispness that pointed up the song's fun nature.

Martin Katz remains the consummate accompanist, and, in particular, the Polish composers provided him with a thorough workout, most of the songs having long preludes and/or postludes that called for virtuosity and technique to spare. Katz never faltered (has he ever?) and was engaged as thoroughly as his singer. This was true chamber music making. Throughout the recital the strong rapport between these two masterful musicians who've worked together a number of times was made evident at the end of each set, Beczala clasping Katz's hand as the two walked off together, like a beloved uncle and nephew. It was touching to see.

Following the predictable ovation, came several encores, all in Polish, the tenor introducing them, like the first, "a favorite of mine, I hope you like." Like we did. After being called back several more times, Beczala ended with the most familiar encore of all time: Strauss' "Zueignung."

I told my friend, "The Met is nuts if they don't get on board quickly and mount a production of Szymanowski's "Krol Roger" for Mariusz Kwiecien and Piotr as soon as humanly possible. It would be another much needed hit!

As we all finally took our leave, one could easily have called Carnegie Hall "The Land of
Smiles," for that's all anyone could see.

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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A Met Parsifal to Remember

I was fortunate to be able to attend the final performance of the long awaited revival of François Girard's production of Wagner's Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera. Perhaps I should change the word "fortunate" to "blessed." Parsifal is my favorite opera, I've heard and seen it many times, in a number of productions and I have no hesitation in stating Girard's is, hands down, the most perfect, emotionally gripping productions in my experience so far. Everything about it spoke to me in a way that was as much spiritual as it was "theatre." And what gripping theatre it was. Mr. Girard was, of course aided by Wagner's masterpiece, so a lot of the work was already laid out for him. This does nothing to lessen his accomplishment, but, in tandem, Wagner and Girard worked magic on a level that is rare in any opera house, and the Met does itself proud by the production of this union.

I have watched this production many times in its HD and video format (shout out to Met on Demand, worth its weight in gold) but nothing could quite have prepared me for the effect it had - nor the spell it wove on me - experiencing it in the house. Girard may have updated this to another era, possibly even the future, but he filled it with symbolism, gestures and experiences that felt as ancient as the first humans to walk upright. He explored Wagner's text more thoroughly than any traditional production I've experienced, including our relationship to animals and nature. The stating was complex in what it asked of its participants, far more so than could be gleaned from video; the constant movement, gesticulations, bowing, hand and arm gestures were dazzling, and mysteriously moving in their effect. They were not just "show," but filled with purpose, a history that, even if one could only guess and still not understand (as was my case) added to the sense of awe and wonderment Wagner built in to his libretto and score. There was at times, especially when viewed from the balcony and higher levels, the look of a heavily choreographed musical, not in a cheap, or frilly way, but just beautiful, the concentric circles of the Knights, for example had a "June Taylor Dancers" quality about it that surprised me yet fit perfectly to the staging and story.

The constant changing of backgrounds, shifting with the mood and color of the music was never less than breathtaking, and, while some I know complained about them, I felt only enhanced and heightened what was happening in the pit and onstage.

Musically, things could hardly have been improved upon. Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the Met orchestra and chorus in a masterful way that belies his experience, the participants responding completely to everything he asked of them. The cast was about as fine an ensemble of singers as has even taken part in a Parsifal, going back to the beginning of anyone alive's memory.

Foremost in that cast was the first voice we hear, Gurnemanz, here in the person of Rene Pape. There have been other beautifully sung Gurnemanz - Salminen, Hines, Moll and Siepi spring to mind - but for me, no singer has approached the text as delicately and as meaningfully as Pape has, particularly in this run. Some say Pape is not a particularly good actor, but I will say, as Gurnemanz, I can't recall a singer getting as "into the skin" of this character as this man has. Every gesture, facial expression, tear and note was of a piece, creating a Gurnemanz of enormous emotional and spiritual wisdom and depth. As opposed to his first Gurnemanz - a true figure of authority - here was a man of great humility and complete service to his order. His phrasing throughout was as delicate and purposeful as a lieder singer. Moments were caressed and uttered with an almost otherworldly beauty, and phrases such as:

"Nun freut sich alle Kreatur
auf des Erlösers holder Spur,
will sein Gebet ihm weihen."

are burned forever into my memory. It was that kind of performance.

Peter Mattei was a surprise the first time he approached Amfortas, a surprise in the very best sense, indeed. With a timbre lighter than we are normally used to hearing in the role, this was a youthful King whose suffering made one pity him in the most honorable sense. Mattei, with that beautiful voice, was capable of making us not only sympathetic to Amfortas, he went so far as to break out hearts and share in that pain. It was nothing short of remarkable. His restoration at the opera's denouement made us feel that the title character's own painful journey, was worth the trip, both to the opera house, and Monsalvat itself.

In most performance I have always felt Klingsor was never as deliciously malevolent as Wagner painted him. All that changes in the performance of Evgeny Nikitin. Here was juicy, brutal, unhinged menace, booming of voice and owning his place in the dark realm. There were subtle touches unseen (by me) before, for example, in his short prelude, Nikitin's Klingsor is not only ringing his hands and painting himself with blood, but he mimics some of the gestures of the grail ceremony we'd witnessed in the first act, most notably the kissing of the fingers which previously was passed from brother-to-brother, yet Klinsor has no one to pass this onto. There was a sort of pain, then anger on his face as his hands reached out to . . . no one. The moment was simultaneously telling, touching and chilling.

He was matched in his movements in the brilliantly choreographed movements of the Blumenmädchen who moved as one and made for as spectacular a stage picture as one could hope for. The singing by these "girls" was sensuous and had a youthful femininity that seemed fresh and erotic - both welcome elements. These were not middle aged women in flowing caftans trying to lure a pudgy tenor dressed as a boy, but physically alluring, manipulative menaces using their wiles. It was, in a word; hot.

Evelyn Herlitzius, who made her company debut in this run, presented us with richly drawn, emotionally gripping
Kundry. Bolder and perhaps more wild than many before her both vocally and dramatically she "felt" like Kundry. There was not the beauty of tone of, say, Crespin (who compared in that department?) or Troyanos, and top notes were on pitch, though often lunged at, the effect was special and one just believed this was Kundry.

In the title role we were treated to a much lighter sounding Parsifal than anyone can probably recall . . . certainly in my memory there has been no tenor who made this same effect. The "boyish" timbre of his voice bothered some, but me, not at all. While the voice has a "thin" quality to it, Vogt projects it masterfully, and made me believe every moment. I'd heard criticisms that Parsifal should sound "older" in the final act, but I personally don't buy into that. Most of us have had the same voice quality since we were young, and, as a friend told me (paraphrasing someone), "your voice is your voice, you can't pick up another one up at the corner store" adding, "especially during a second intermission."

As one always hopes for every opera, particularly Parsifal, the audience was about as well behaved as could be, coughing was at a minimum (usually only when dust seemed to blast out of the air conditioning system), no applause before the music was finished, everyone seemed hushed and caught up in the moment. Indeed, at the ovation, everything that had been held in check was given ample opportunity to explode, and that's the correct word for what happened when the curtain rose for bow time. Every singer received sustained applause and cheers, the chorus was roared at as was the incoming Music Director, who, after working so hard for so long, could not contain himself, running to every corner of the stage, hugging and shaking hands with a youthful exuberance that bodes well for the company's future. All things came together in a way that was uniquely special, and I received what I always want from a Parsifal: everything in the world.

Photos by Ken Howard taken from multiple internet sources

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