Monday, November 7, 2016

A Chilling Bluebeard's Castle from the PSO

The Portland Symphony celebrated All Saints Day/Dia de los Muertos with two works seemingly at odds, the Bach Concerto for Two Violins in d minor, and Bartok's short, powerful opera, Bluebeard's Castle.

With a paired down chamber ensemble playing period style, the Bach glittered sparkled and reminded one of this composer's enormous genius never feeling academic but instead almost dance like. Maestro Moody gave the outer movements a brisk, almost breathlessly athletic pace, while in its gooey center movement he revealed Bach's genius at writing long, exquisite melodies, as the two violins wrapped around each other's lines in an embrace that makes it one of Bach's most beloved works.

Keeping it within the family, the soloists were PSO violinists Amy Sims and Sasha Callahan, each playing with beautiful baroque style and stunning virtuosity. They were rewarded with a glowing ovation from their hometown audience . . . all of us feeling the love.

Following intermission came the Bartok. I've loved this difficult (in many ways) opera since my teens, have enjoyed several live performances and most available recordings, but here, in a stripped down concert staging, it worked in a way few staged performances are capable of. Having Bartok's massive orchestra onstage allowed it to become an even greater part of the drama than from a recessed pit.

Once Moody took the podium, the house and stage lights went out, plunging the hall into darkness. Though no lighting designer or stage director was credited, one sensed immediately both lights and "action" would be part of the show. In the dark, a sounding narrator welcomed us with the Prologue of the Bard (spoken in English) as the haunting opening strains began. Dim light allowed us to see Bluebeard, Alan Held and his new bride Judith, Michelle DeYoung, enter his castle. The pair played superbly off of each other, DeYoung's Judith an enchanted young bride, reassuring her dark-souled husband of her love, while Held's Bluebeard tested her loyalty, offering her opportunities to return to her former life. Both singers were in superb voice, deftly projecting over Bartok’s dense, lush scoring even when Moody had the orchestra pulling out all the stops, including those of the mighty Kotzschmar Organ

The meat of the opera is comprised of seven closed door, each hiding a secret of Bluebeard is unwilling to reveal, until Judith demands them be opened. Bartok's tonal palette and gift of orchestration gives each of the rooms a unique sound spectrum, beginning with the first, a torture chamber. This production also had a recorded, piped in, most unsettling groan/sigh that chills both Judith and the audience. The theatrical highlight for many, including me, is the opening of the Fifth Door which reveals the vastness of Bluebeard's kingdom the organ and orchestra letting loose at fortissimo as Judith belts out a high C. The effect was heightened as from near darkness, the lights flashed on bathing the entire house in a sea of white as Ms. DeYoung, arms raised in awe, capped everything with as great a high C as I've heard, producing gasps from many in the audience. Brilliant.

At the final door, we meet Bartok's three, still very much alive former wives, representing morning, afternoon and twilight, Judith - who is midnight - must now join, leaving Bluebeard,. as he has been most of his life, alone in the dark.

I'm happy to see and hear Bartok's gem being programmed more than in years past (the nearby Boston Symphony also performed it last week), particularly when so ravishingly played as it was here. It was a highlight of Maestro's tenure so far with this organization, and a night that will not soon be forgotten, or bettered.

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Monday, October 3, 2016

On Singers and Size

I recently had a conversation with a friend on the appearance of opera singers, a conversation prompted by the idiotic remark of a currently popular singer who stated today's singers must be "beautiful and thin, and very fit . . ." Sorry, but I’m calling “bullshit."

Opera is art . . . storytelling on the grandest of scales and has precious little to do with reality. Weight has nothing to do with artistry nor one's ability to relate a story. Regardless of race, weight, body size, a good storyteller must do one thing: conjure a world of intrigue and fantasy that can draw an audience into believing his or her story. Most of us (I hope) have experienced one-man-shows where, with neither set nor costume, someone has pulled us in, and engaged us in a way where what surrounds us is altered completely until the lights come back up and we realize we've been on a remarkable journey. Those uncomfortable with body size that isn't (in their estimation) perfect simply lack imagination or any ability to accept the fact that people come in all sizes, shapes and colors. Over the years I've found it interesting that it isn’t necessarily younger audiences who have a difficult accepting opera-sized opera singers. If one has a problem with fat singers, don't go. It's really that simple. Conversely, I've seen far too many "sexy" singers who are lousy storytellers and who couldn't act their way out of the proverbial paper bag.

In 2010 attending the first Met HD “Aida” our local cineplex sold out several theatres. The one I watched in was filled mostly with Bowdoin college students fulfilling a class requirement, including a large segment of the football team. Violetta Urmana, Johan Botha, Dolora Zajick, and and Jennifer Check were among the plus-sized principals that day. None of the kids, most seeing their first opera, seemed to have any problem getting right into the story and cheering and responding to the goings-on of Verdi's tale taking place near and on the Nile. I was seated next to a couple of the football players and, as the intensity of Amneris’ Judgment Scene began, the one next to me leaned into his buddy and whispered, "Ah, this is my favorite part . . . where the Pharaoh chick loses her shit!” My heart exploded.

Yes, it’s nice to have beautiful gifted singers who can also act, but what’s most important to this opera lover are smart singers, a director both aware and sympathetic to his singers' needs and abilities, and a damned good conductor; the music and my imagination do all the rest of the work. I know, Weird, huh?

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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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