Monday, June 22, 2015

That Other Salome: 1923 Silent Classic

After what seemed like forever I finally got my hands on a copy of this now classic silent starring the then 44 year old Alla Nazimova. With amazing designs by Natacha Rambova (aka Mrs. Rudy Valentino) it is inspired by Beardsley's famous drawings. Yes, at times Nazimova at times looks her age, but then melts into a bizarre girlishness appropriate to the insanity of her charactedr.

In amazing physical shape, Nazimova often isn't wearing, sometimes bringing focus to her wig with that crown of bobbing lights. It is one of the coolest headdresses created for film. She is never subtle, but what would be the purpose of that in a silent film? What she is is electrifying, captivating even when standing still and striking one of her trademark poses, evoking, at times, Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (perhaps even inspiring Ms. Swanson?).

Earl Schenck is both beautiful and bizarre as Narraboth, in his harlequin painted tights, silver nipple discs and a necklace of beads as big as golf balls. He moves like a dancer.

Arthur Jasmine as The Page is about the feyest creature I've ever seen on screen and like everything else about this Salome, completely over the top.

No one, however, is more over-the-top than Rose Dione's termagant Herodias. Clawing, kicking Narraboth and her slaves, drunkenly flirting with a table guest hers is a frightening comical presence. She is not helped by her cave-woman hair and the most garishly painted tights in the film. Dione would later gain her "real" fame as the wonderful Madame Tetrallini in the film classic Freaks. There were moments where I thought "Cher as Morticia Addams."

Nigel De Brulier's Jokanaan seems to be modeled after Wilde himself. Nearly naked (as is much of the cast) he is positively sepulchral, his white, white skin almost glowing blue.

Interestingly there is a choice of soundtracks and I couldn't settle on one. Ultimately I ended up preferring the electronic score with "Invisible Orchestra" - a two man operation of keyboards and percussion, over the somewhat Strauss-lite, and flute heavy chamber orchestra accompaniment.

The famous dance is mesmerizing, Nazimova barely moving but riveting the attention. After the dance and execution, Nazimova's Salome is transformed by the most elaborate costume of the show, an eye-poopping gown worn beneath an enormous Turandot-like robe, completely with a stage filling train, her eyelids painted and topping everything off with a turban. Straight out of Beardsley, and a hell of a lot of fun.

Even more fun - and more visually impressive - was the bonus feature accompanying the film: Lot in Sodom. Lots of bared flesh, time-lapsed photography creating breathtakingly modern images for a film of its time.

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Monday, May 25, 2015

Wuorinen's Brokeback Mountain

Earlier I'd read an in depth review for the DVD of this opera, its critic asking if a composer known primarily for writing "dense, angular, and discordant music," could adapt his style to fit this story. His response was a resounding, "no," citing a complete lack of tenderness or warmth between the two central characters.

Today I watched the DVD of Wuorinen's opera, and must admit to feeling quite differently from what I'd read. This may be, at least in part, because I didn't feel it necessary for the composer to adapt his style for any reason; this is the musical language in which he speaks, and speaks it very well.

Despite the romance at its heart, I don't see Brokeback Mountain as "just" a gay love story, and while I admired Mr. Lee's film, feel Proulx's story to be more of a period piece, set in a time not long ago where being queer could (and obviously did) get people killed.

These two men (particularly Ennis) live in perpetual fear of being discovered resulting in a chilling denial of who they are. They inhabit a world that, more frequently than not, terrifies the hell out of them. Wuorinen captures this world, as well as these boys and their emotions, with chilling conviction and expressiveness.

Where Jack (a marvelous portrayal from Tom Randle) imagines the pair of them starting a life and owning a ranch together, Ennis is paralyzed by his fears to the point of inaction, and watches his life dissolve before him, impotent, angered and rendered incapable of doing anything about it. Again, Wuorinen's score conveys all of this, cutting brilliantly to the bone with an appropriate, tragic gravitas.

I've read assertions the creators do not allow us to witness any tenderness between the two men, either musically or dramatically. I disagree. To cite one example; their last night on the mountain opens with Jack standing alone, Ennis coming up from behind him, enveloping him in his arms, singing tenderly (including part of his wordless vocalise heard earlier). Here, he expresses his disappointment at having to leave Jack for the mountaintop, before being convinced to spend their one last night together. The staging here makes for great theatre and is filled with symbolic implications for all. We watch as the tent is lifted off of them as the stage transforms into the almost disjointed jumble that will be their lives for the next four years (and much of the rest of the opera).

While the score is typically angular and frequently dense, Wuorinen does provide beautiful moments to break up the harshness. Some feel such moments are too few, but they serve precisely what the composer and Ms. Proulx saw as their project, which is a different beast than the touching film from Mr. Lee. It is much closer to the author's original short story, which will not sit well for those who prefer the film's sentimentality. One of those moments is Jack and Ennis' final meeting, infinitely touching, as we witness frustration, grow into anger before transforming into an ultimate sense of foreboding; the realization that grief and continued loneliness shall be their only future they may share. Here, orchestra, singers, staging and libretto come together so masterfully I confess, I was, as Ennis later admits, choked with love." It's what (for me) opera is all about.

The remaining (rather large) cast, are fully committed to their (often) minor roles, with Heather Buck standing out as Ennis' young, frustrated wife, who over the course of their marriage reaches the point of no return. It's a tough sing with a lot of high notes and almost from the beginning, a fever pitch intensity. As Lureen Hannah Esther Minutillo, has a sometimes oddly accented English, but convey's her characters coolness and ambition convincingly. With probably the least amount of stage time, Jane Henschel turns in a touching portrayal of Jack's mother, her cameo feeling like a genuine star turn.

The final scene finds Ennis, alone at at the mountain, caressing their two shirts which Jack had secretly held onto for 20 years, pouring out his grief, admitting his great love, was emotionally shattering. You sense this man will be alone for whatever days he has left, the sentiment confirmed by his closing line, as those two shirts, along with any dreams or hopes, float away, upwards towards the peaks. "It was only you in my life, and it will always be only you. Only you. Jack, I swear." Here, after listening to all the density of orchestral layers building on top of one another, Wuorinen wisely ends the opera, with Jack holding one final, unaccompanied, ending his opera in silence. The effect is heartbreaking storytelling of the first order.

Towards the end of the review I'd earlier mentioned, its author of wrote:

"Thus, we are left with the message that love between men is no different from an encounter in a rough-n-ready porn flick, where grunts, slaps and lots of gritty sounds take the place of warmth, tenderness, and open-hearted embrace."

I felt no "porn" sensibility of any stripe at play here, the gentleness expressed between the dual protagonists being felt throughout the opera, a shocking counterpoint against the brutality of their realities. That warmth extended, too, through the final curtain as Mr. Okulitch, basking in a sea of applause, awaits his partner to join him, the two sharing a big embrace (how often do we see artists hugging during bows?) and a warm ovation.

I can see how Wuorinen's score, led here by Titus Engel, might be tough for some audiences to warm up to, but it is, in its often brutal way, beautiful, with the sense of the mountain felt strongly through the entire opera. .

I'd like to believe this score, and this fascinating production by Ivo van Hove, will be seen again on other stages, but whether that happens or not, am grateful for the commitment of Mr. Mortier the Teatro Real for producing it and the resultant DVD.

Hours later, I'm still a bit rattled by the experience, something I find the best of art always does to me.

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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Covent Garden's Glorious Król Roger

Hands down Royal Opera's HD webcast of Król Roger was the easily most fascinating and beautiful HD of any performance I've watched this season.

Kasper Holten's production (along with his lighting, set designer and costumers) laid to rest any notion that Syzmanowski's work is "more oratorio than opera." Here was a compelling drama drawing one into this incredible score and into the head (literally and figuratively) of its protagonist. Within the "stage" area of an ancient ampitheatre, designer Steffen Aarfing created an enormous, three-story, head wherein the opera's first two acts (mostly) occur. Subtlety here was both unnecessary and unwelcome to the symbolism, though one didn't feel as though being banged over the head with obviousness.

Georgia Jarman's strong good looks, her blonde locks pinned under a Louise Brooks bob, created a stunning Roxana, compelling in action and gorgeous vocalizing (indeed, much of Roxana's music in the second act is a wordless vocalise).

Kim Begley's voice has a bit more of a spread to it these days, but his Edrisi was a powerful force in the staging, both as participant and commentator.

The casting and direction of Saimir Pirgu as The Shepherd was a stroke of genius and one of the strongest reasons for the success of this production. Almost glowing in his orange coat/robe and white trousers, his very presence was welcoming though one could easily see why Roger would be threatened and wary. The sometimes high flying role presented little in the way of problems for Pirgu who sailed through the score with ease earning a hearty applause at his curtain.

The dancers - a troupe of mud smeared, men in tighty-whitey's at first bothered me (just a bit) but fit into the action bringing a hypnotic quality to eh proceedings that was as unavoidable as Roger's journey.

As Roger, Mariusz Kwiecien, if not in his absolute greatest voice (he was ill during some of the run) nonetheless gave a performance of such searing intensity, and beauty putting before us a frightened, tormented ruler who held out his resistance until the end. only reluctantly - almost entirely against his will, but unable to do otherwise, became accepting of the message of The Shepherd (who is revealed to be a power-hungry monster). In Act two he sings, "The King has become a pilgrim." Later, "The King has become a beggar."

Antonio Pappano - easily the greatest cheerleader for Szymanowski's opera - leads the Royal Opera forces (including a marvelous schoolboy choir) in a powerful performance, likely as strong a reading as one is going to encounter (and making me regret not being in London, or in Boston for what was apparently another great performance from the BSO). During the intermission, he gave an illuminating discussion from the piano analyzing and explaining the score that should also not be missed.

The final scene, played out before the ampitheatre, the head now gone, (more symbolism) and smoldering fires, flames shooting in the dark, as Roger (no pun intended) "see's the light," was pure heart-in-your-throat theatre. Here, Kwiecien's Roger, beaten (literally and figuratively) rises, for the king's last line "And, from the lonely depths of my power, I pluck my pure heart to offer to the sun in sacrifice," hanging onto that final, powerful note longer than the orchestra, as blinding light explodes across the stage. The effect, the singing and general music-making causing the audience to erupt into cheers, shouts and applause while the music was still hanging in the air. When the curtain rose on Kwiecien alone, it was one of those moments one sensed that neither he, nor the audience will ever forget. I certainly won't.

If you did not catch this, I recommend you remedy that problem immediately by watching the performance while its still available (for free) on youtube in superb quality.

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Saturday, April 11, 2015

Don Carlos: As It Should Be (mostly)

Verdi: Don Carlos
Theatre du Chatelet
Antonio Pappano, Conductor/Luc Bondy, Director
Roberto Alagna, Karita Mattila, Jose van Dam, Thomas Hampson, Waltraud Meier

Pappano leads an almost achingly beautiful effort from his soloists and the Chatelet orchestra and chorus. Perhaps my favorite Verdi opera, this is also regarded as one of his most unusual and problematic scores - often sounding simultaneously traditional yet somehow remarkably modern for its time. Pappano brings out all of these elements and his pacing of the entire long evening is beautiful, near perfection never once feeling either dragged out or rushed.

I've had ups and downs in my listening experiences with Roberto Alagna, but here, vocally and dramatically he perfectly captures every nuance, and every heartbreaking weakness of this character, taking a weak, problematic "starring role" and somehow turning him into Hamlet. It doesn't hurt that he is in astonishingly beautiful voice, his tone ringing and with a remarkable sheen. His ability to shade the voice in a variety of colors and dynamics made this an uniquely individual portrayal. He is not the "hero" Don Carlos some old-timers may wish for, but I hold this role to be almost the antithesis of heroic.

The production is simple effectively emphasizing the story telling and Verdi's music. Clearly well rehearsed, Luc Bondy's production has not a false note throughout its considerable length, every detail, every movement flowing with a rare and natural ease. In Gilles Aillaud's sets, Moidele Bickel's costumes and Vincio Cheli's beautiful lighting, every frame looks like a Murillo or El Greco masterpiece coming to life. Two particularly arresting images stand out in the St. Just scene; the first, just before the the entrance of Philip and Elisabeth - Carlos accepts Posa's request to return with him to Flanders, as Carlos kneels, Posa rests his head Carlos's shoulder. The second such moment follows the King and Queen's procession; Carlos extends his right arm out towards the now offstage couple as Posa grabs his other arm preventing his friend from following; creating a canvas of tortured angles: all arms, necks, heads, legs, backs, walls and shadows - all transformed into a tragic tableau of pain and comfort rejected.

The Fontainebleau scene (the opening cut a bit) is remarkably done and should convince any naysayers that it must be included to make the rest of this difficult work make true sense. In a barren forest of white birch, Carlos and Elisabeth draped in deep crimson, become as a single heart beating in this forest of death. Karita Mattila brings a dramatic quality that I've never before encountered in this role; at first coltish, tom-boyish, as Carlos lights the fire in the woods. Then, as he mentions that she will marry the son of Philip, becoming girlishly nervous. In only a few moments she establishes a bewitching and compelling character. In true princess manner, this Elisabeth is slightly vague yet clear she is smitten by and flirts with Carlos, her outward strength a facade - clearly a girl raised at court, aware she is but a pawn and dutifully plays the part she's given. At the news Elisabeth is to marry Philip instead of Carlos , the young lovers are crushed as the chorus, in ghostly white, enters singing her praises, lifting her into the air, placing her on a white horse and led away, knowing she is not leaving behind not only home and family, but any dream or hope of happiness as all turn away from Carlos who, alone, falls onto a rock, utterly destroyed. "Destiny has shattered my dreams." Having seen the Fontainebleau scene scene so staged I can't imagine its being left out of any production again.

Throughout this production Bondy and Pappano have encouraged their singers to live these roles and the electricity between all of the characters is stunning. Here is a theatre director who understands opera, and makes enormous use of music's ability to expand emotions in a unique way. Another example of his vision is the sheer physicality of the scene between Carlos and Elisabeth outside of the convent which takes on a desperate, violent quality that is, to say the least, startling to experience in an opera house.

As Rodrigue, Thomas Hampson gives what one of the best performances of his career. Combining humility, loyalty, compassion, pride and a sense of justice, his Posa is remarkably complex, and by far one of the most interesting good guys in all of Verdi. The voice is never big, but rich, well controlled and his sense of phrasing and attention to detail nothing short of remarkable. He also has a wicked good trill. At times, especially in his big scene with Philip, Hampson's voice seems to take on a tenorial quality - a remarkably lyrical Rodrigue, but with a sure sense of strength of purpose.

Mr. Van Dam's Philip is firm of tone, every word distinct, filled with meaning. The role, at times lies a bit low for him, but for the most part fits him like the proverbial glove. I have always want to despise Philip, but Bondy and Van Dam have made him more pathetic, a mere pawn of the Inquisitor, and Van Dam pulls off this vulnerability without once
sacrificing the strength of his character. A most complex, interesting characterization.

Waltraut Meier couldn't have been anybody's idea of an ideal Eboli, yet, she inhabits the character so fully turns in a magnificent performance, and looks damned stunning in doing so. Her vocalism in the Veil Song was kind of bizarre - it had a "warble" like quality that made it difficult to tell just what pitch she was actually on, yet she was beguiling and pulled it off. Once that was out of the way, everything else came from strength. I do wish that this mezzo would cultivate some chest voice. Her low notes seem to be her weakest and they sound exactly (except nearly inaudible) as her middle voice.

As Elisabeth, Mattila is, quite simply, a wonder. A voice capable of so many colors while retaining a unifying, individual sound. Having previously heard her in so much of her native music and Mozart, it's a tough voice to categorize, capable of riding the orchestra and cutting through it with laser like clarity, yet retaining a youthful sweetness most unusual to the typically "steely" type of voice we associate with that type of singing. Her sustained, high piano singing is nearly miraculous, a thin thread of sound perfectly placed, as clean as can be imagined then producing an effect that sounds as sensuous as silm gauze feels (two examples: her farewell to her lady-in-waiting, and reminding Carlos she is now his mother). It's all sung piano, yet she makes these moments sound entirely different. This is singing rare and refined. And remarkable. Every movement, gesture and sound came directly from this Elisabeth straight into my heart.

With the least amount of stage time, Eric Halfvarson's twisted, crippled Grand Inquisitor truly becomes a dominant central figure; the very physical embodiment of evil setting a tale of corruption, politics and religion already near chaos and spinning it completely out of control.

Nearly every scene in this long work is filled with heartbreaking magic and beauty, making it difficult to single out one scene in particular as standing out from the rest, though Posa's death perhaps takes place of honor in an evening filled with memorable music making and drama.

As one would imagine, the Chatelet audience responds with a thunderous and extended ovation, making me wish, even more, I'd been there.

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