Sunday, August 14, 2016

Richard Ayoade's "The Double"

Just finished watching Richard Ayoade's The Double, based upon Dostoyevsky's novella of the same name (well, Dvoynik, actually). Yesterday, I attempted to watch while exhausted and gave up after about 20 minutes. Today, refreshed, I was captivated completely by everything from the performances, the score, the odd Asian pop songs, the sickly yellow lighting, the claustrophobic cubicle dystopian world these pathetic characters inhabit . . . all . . . every bit of it.

Most impressive of all was Jesse Eisenberg's performance in two wildly contrasting and difficult roles. Eisenberg and Ayoade wisely stick to what makes Dostoyevsky work, and establish the schlub, Simon, as the downtrodden hero, winning the audience to route for him over his extroverted, confident, loved and respected doppleganger, James. It's an actors feast and Eisenberg, up to every challenge, eats his way through, succeeding making me believe him as both of these men.

Mia Wasikowska is equally remarkable, as the romantic interest, her interactions between Simon and James leading to wrong choices and near disaster, breaking nearly every heart, mine included.

Wallace Shawn in a tailor made role lends great comic relief as Mr. Papadopoulos, everyone's boss in the oppressive factory where much of the tale takes place.

Andrew Hewitt's all-over-the-map score is easily one of my favorites of any recent film, Recalling Vivaldi, Prokofiev and Bartok its it is spiked throughout with original faux-cowboy tunes like East Virginia and the aforementioned Asian pop songs like Sukiayki.

Ayoade is early in his career as a filmmaker, but he's winning me over quickly.

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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Holy Smoke: It's Carmen!

PORTopera opened its new production of Bizet's time-honored Carmen in a modest, but effective production, the emphasis appropriately placed where it should be; on music, and drama. I always cringe a a little when a company chooses the Guiraud version instead of Bizet's original, feeling it robs a good deal of the bite and spice the dialogue can add. That being said, most of the music making was strong. Maestro Stephen Lord started things off with a briskly paced overture setting the tone for all that followed. There were a few moments of loss of coordination between stage and pit, most notably the middle of the Smugglers quintet, which found its way back on track and finished with sizzle. Lord is a singers' conductor who strikes the right balance between singers and band, never overpowering, but letting the big orchestral moments pop. In this regard, he's also an audiences' conductor, and that's always a good thing.

Judy Gailen's unit set of a large, curved stucco wall served for all four acts with slight variances (dangerous steps, an enormous table for Carmen to dance and seduce Don Jose on at Lillas Pastia, etc.) for each.

Dona D. Vaughn led a generally excellent cast, starting with the leading lady, Israeli mezzo soprano, Maya Lahyani. With striking good looks, physique and a physical force Lahyani's a natural Carmen, comfortable with her body and unafraid to use it to seduce, or as a weapon. The voice is rich, with an old-fashioned lushness that projected throughout the house beautifully. Wonderful in her early arias and the first two acts' lighter moments, Lahyani truly came into her own in the card scene, reaching into the story's darker side and taking us along Carmen's grizzly ride to Doomsville.

Adam Diegel took a bit of warming up, but earned the first real ovation of the night with the Flower aria, the sweetness of his voice blooming beautifully for the finish. He was at his best in Jose's deadly showdown with his ex where things got good and ugly. He's an agile singer and moved like a dancer, though at other times stiff, which is not, I suppose, against character. One got a small sense of this character's dangerous, but not all (Carmen isn't his first kill). He and Lahyani were appropriately passionate, right up until, well, you know.

Conversely, I was not quite convinced by Edward Parks' turn as Escamillo, With a rich, beautiful mid range, upper notes widened a bit, while the lowest notes (particularly in the Toreador aria) nearly disappeared. His third act appearance reminded me more of Ross Martin's Artemus Gordon from The Wild, Wild West, than a dangerous bullfighter. In the final act he became the victim of an unfortunate costuming decision.

Amanda Woodbury took on, Micaëla, the only decent person in sordid story, and did so marvelously, nowhere more so than in her Act Three aria that, when beautifully sung (as it frequently is, since its Micaëla's only big moment) steals the show. It happened again last night.

Comprimario roles were, to a one, as good as it gets, and the choruses, both children and adult, were magnificent. Once again, When it comes to crowd scenes, Ms. Vaughn once again shows her had as one of the best in the business. Her endless, silhouetted parade of gypsies climbing the mountain pass, then down steep, dangerous steps was stage magic. Vaughn did away with the parade at the bull ring, while the choristers made me believe (vividly) they were seeing it, so much so that I occasionally looked across the balcony expecting to see an army of banderilleros, picadors and matadors. Nice touch.

Getting older, and a touch jaded, I sometimes resist attending operas I've seen countless times, but when I give in, I'm reminded why I fell in love with them in the first place, and so it was this evening. I wasn't alone, the audience, young and old, loved it, and a friend, attending his first opera, can't wait to start going to more. Carmen can do that.

(Photo Credit: John Ewing for

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Monday, July 4, 2016

Requiescat in Pace, Penny Dreadful.

As I do when finishing up any work of literature, art, film, music that has grabbed hold of me for a spell, I spend a good while ruminating on it, and so it's been today with Penny Dreadful.

As has been made too, terribly clear, ours has become a society populated more and more by people who think they know better than the creator of a story, how that story should go. It happens, most notably, in great television series such as this one.

Since the airing of its series finale, there have been dozens of online articles, op-ed pieces, in all the usual (and not so usual) online sources (Variety, Wired, etc.) by outraged fans complaining (more like whining) how they feel cheated by the (pick one) rushed, hasty piecemeal, end of the series. There have been outcries of how many loose ends there were with certain characters, how Vanessa should not have been killed off, or if she had to be, why not continue the stories of Sir Malcolm and Ethan and everyone else still alive at the tale's end.

This is the stubborn, limited rationalization by those who want a thing to go on forever at any cost to keep their favorite characters going and relevant. The show no longer really becomes about "the show" but the characters one falls in love with and/or identifies best with. I take issue with this kind of thinking.

For myself, I thought it ended wisely . . . brilliantly, even. The shows creator and principal writer, John Logan said he saw Vanessa's demise while still writing Season Two, stating at the shows heart it is about Vanessa's struggle with faith, her eternal wrestling between God and the Devil. In this sense I believe there was no choice but for Vanessa to die, but not owing to some moralistic Victorian thinking on a "woman's place," but rather as the necessary sacrifice in order for good to triumph over evil.

I'm not a religious man, but Vanessa's final words "Oh, Ethan . . . I see our Lord!" had me choked with emotion, because THIS was what she wanted from the beginning. Those who would argue otherwise, clearly haven't paid attention to what her struggle was all along, beginning with the very first image we see of her in the pilot: kneeling before a crucifix praying fervently, as one possessed.

Logan himself stated that he was not tempted to write anything beyond Vanessa's burial, and the peroration by The Creature, reciting a verse from Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality . . . " would be a betrayal of her story. I think he knew what he was doing and thank him for Vanessa was a character created to break our hearts, and hearts do not break up neatly or easily. They weren't meant to.

The complaints aren't just coming from average fans and viewers, but also renowned writers and critics who felt as though the series played a joke on all of us by not allowing us to know this was the finale, Mr. Logan's response to this was that if audiences knew going in this was the end of the season, it would have spotlit the ending. spoiling it. This kind of audience selfishness offers further proof of a public more obsessed with self-gratification than in comprehending the fact they've been offered a beautiful gift, little different different than complaining the chef didn't serve you six lobsters but only two..

There is so much to praise in this series, from Owen McPolin and company's amazing lighting design and stunning cinematography (at several points reminding me of Patrice Chéreau's Bayreuth production of "Der Ring des Nibelungen"), Abel Korzeniowsk's powerful, theatrical score, Jonathan McKinstry's atmospheric production designs, and the rest of the team. I can only applaud all of those involved in bringing this fascinating, beautiful, complicated tale to the small screen.

Requiescat in Pace, Penny Dreadful.

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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Bieito Stages Powerful La Juive for Bayerischen Staatsoper