Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Fly: The Opera

I haven’t been so excited about a world premiere of an opera in a few years as I have been on “The Fly” – which received its world premiere in Paris (at the Chatelet) last night. David Cronenberg and Howard Shore have re-fashioned the gorgeous nightmare of the 1986 film blending sci-fi and horror and added opera singers and stage limitations and Placido Domingo (yes, the granddaddy of opera) into their magically delicious macabre party mix.

I’m an optimistic son-of-a-gun and am hoping that the lack of reviews in today’s Parisian papers means “good news” . . . . but the silence can also mean last night’s prima was a critical flop. They spent a boatload of money on the physical production, Shore has composed some of his most inspired and tuneful music, Domingo is involved in another world premiere (this time as conductor) and there isn’t a single review out? I’d wager that if the thing had been a hit with the critics, the presses would’ve been rolling out “special editions” by now. I’m kidding (about the special edition business) I know how the press works these days, but I would have expected that at least something would’ve appeared in online versions. Instead the Daily Telegraph and other British news journals have written “about” the work today, but not one of them has provided a real review.

I’ve been able to sneak peaks into several blogs which were mixed at best, but mostly written by not opera-savvy youngsters who basically were cult-like fans of the ’86 film.

The clips and photographs I saw look absolutely incredible and the music I heard (less than 5 minutes worth) sounded approachable and eerily beautiful.

Shore (who composed the original score for the film) said he envisioned “The Fly” as an opera from the moment they began working on the film in the 1980’s. I thought it was enormously operatic when first I saw it back in my early 20’s and I’ve been very excited about this one (not so excited ‘bout the Brokeback opera from Chuck Wuorinen scheduled for City Opera, nor some other film-to-opera projects I’ve heard about.)

With all of the updated stagings occurring in the world of opera these days, Mr. Cronenberg has moved his “present day” tale BACK in time to the 1950’s – the heyday of the great sci-fi/horror flicks and the photos reveal a production that is absolutely stunning in every regard.

Check out the website for photos, video clips, production notes and design plans, etc.

I would love to get to Paris for this. Hell, I may fly to abysmal Los Angeles for this in a couple of months!

Hopefully, as with many much publicized European productions these days, this one will find a release on DVD. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this – one of my favorite movies from the 80’s – really “crosses over.”



Hooray for Heroes! NBC Series is a Wonder!

Perhaps one of the most ambitious series in 21st century television, NBC took an enormous risk here and no gamble could have seemed more unlikely a success story than “Heroes.” Because of its episodic comicbook nature, Heroes might have fared better starting off as a miniseries (or that dreaded phrase “a television event” ) playing two episodes several nights in a row to speed its audience past an unusually long introductory period where one is still trying to identify myriad characters over a not-very-clear plot line. Nonetheless, those who stuck with it were rewarded with one of the most satisfying network series debuts since “24.”

The Heroes populating this stunner include a shapeshifter, a Japanese worker who has mastered moving through the time space continuum, a cheerleader who can recover from any injury – including death, a mindreading cop, an invisible man, a dual-personality stripper with the ultimate good/evil split, a man who can move through solid objects, a child who communicates with machines, a heroin addicted artist whose paints the future of the world, a politician with the ability to fly and his younger brother who absorbs the super powers of every hero he comes into contact with. There are more to explore and each adds unexpected nuance and richness – as well as endless possibilities – to the story.

All of these people have been tracked down during a lifelong study by a professor from India forced to abandon his family and move to New York for the final part of his research: contact. When he’s mysteriously killed, his estranged and embittered son, through a series of intense epiphanies, bedraggedly becomes involved in discovering who these extraordinary people are and the reason for their existence.

With more plot twists, turns and confusion than a night at the Chinese Opera, “Heroes” manages a balancing act of ancient grand guignol theatre, action/adventure, combined with all in an epic broth. In the best “bad guy” tradition, “Heroes” offers up villains that, on the surface, seem little more than scenery chewing cardboard cartoon characters – but ah, get to know them, and they are multi-faceted, complex and deliciously rewarding as your favorite villains of yore.

The very best entertainments draw you out of yourself and into another world; they are able to create a feeling that engages your imagination and, even in their darkness, they beckon us to stay and explore. I can think of no show that has done this better than have the creators of “Heroes.”

What is most remarkable about this large cast of characters is their very ordinariness. In the very best superhero tradition, each lives an ordinary, mundane existence and when confronted with their extraordinary abilities, must figure out a balancing act to incorporate these abilities into a normal existence. This, of course, ultimately proves impossible and the deeper reasons for why they are they way they are emerge, eventually bringing all together to prevent – or cause – a catastrophic event that will destroy or save the world.

While the entire ensemble of actors provide uniformly satisfying performances, there are, several standout performances: Masi Oka, as the unlikely “Hiro” – our endearing time traveler who (literally) comes straight from the pages of a comic book learning, ungracefully, how to bend time and space to accomplish his mission. Hayden Panettiere as “Claire” the indestructible cheerleader who, despite her amazing abilities must be “saved”; Milo Ventimiglia as “Peter” – the confused, soft spoken nurse to whom is given the great task: “Save the cheerleader, save the world.” Then there is Zachary Quinto as “Sylar” the darkly handsome brainsucker and ultimate boogeyman. But again, trust me, singling out these particular heroes in no way diminishes the potency and brilliance of the rest of the cast – all integral to the telling of this most amazing tale.

“Heroes” debut season ended – quite literally – with a bang, and even just a peak into next season makes me hungry for more. Lots more!

Liceu Does Wozzeck: Bieito Gets it Right!

It's the day after, and I'm still reeling from watching Bad Boy Bieito's production of Wozzeck from the Liceu. This release, will - to be sure - anger as many as it will entice, but rarely - if ever - have I seen an opera updated to better effect with the resulting music drama as perfect as a stage work can get.

This production - as typical with this director - has divided audiences probably more than any other work he's done. While many of the ideas I've heard for his productions of Seraglio, Butterfly, etc., have repulsed me and seem like cheap effects for shock value, watching this Wozzeck was like watching something new. Somehow - and with a minimum of conceited directorial shoehorning, Berg's masterpiece fits this new scenario as though there were no other way to perform it. The score's otherworldliness matches the visual components given here in a futuristic, almost sci-fi manner that feels perfectly natural. It's astonishing, really.

Bieito's cast is uniformly strong - top-to-bottom. Franz Hawalta's title character not only embodies the awkwardness of Berg's anti-hero, he embraces it, convincing one he may be the only sane and still human person in this tale. Where Alan Held last year destroyed me by his pitiable Wozzeck who felt like an outsider in an unusually cruel world, Hawalta's Wozzeck is an outsider - someone hanging on to the last vestiges of his humanity in a post-apocalyptic world where there is no hope.

The stage design is simply mindboggling (well, not so much "simply"). The endless labyrinth of pipes and pipe heads, is here, "the belly of the beast." There is steam, liquids, gunk and filth pouring, breathing, filling the stage, yet somehow, there is also beauty.

The Wozzecks seem to live in an enormous corrugated metal container, or box car which descends from the flies, it's harsh, inhuman florescent lights washing out nearly all color and hope. When we witness first the home's descending, it features Wozzeck watering a small green garden and the imagery, the symbolic nurturing of his garden in this hopeless place was so beautiful and meaningful so as to nearly stop my heart. It is an image I will never forget.

Nearly everyone in the cast is in identical orange, work jumpsuits, everyone covered in grime, women with hair clipped short, Wozzeck and Marie's child, a sickly, bald, bruised waif, forced to wear an oxygen mask at all times, the tanks strapped to his weak, failing back. It is a heartbreaking vision, and the child is onstage for much of the opera, his symbolism cannot be missed, yet never once feels forced or false. The Doctor, Drum Major, Captain and Fool are the only ones given different costumes, for obvious and well thought out theatrical reasons.

Ms. Denoke does not go for the sympathy vote with her unique take on Marie. This Marie is a feisty, slightly opportunistic factory worker: a little cold, a little less thoughtful and refined in her thinking and thus a little less pitiable. The bible-reading scene then becomes the embodiment of Marie's great catharsis; a dramatic realization which becomes, here, an epiphany of the horror of her plight - everything, becoming somehow, for the first time, real. Wozzeck, having been brutally beaten, and humiliated by the other men, lies before the house at the beginning of the scene, with Marie wondering where he's been for two days. It completely changes this intent of this scene from every other production I know. When she jumps from the house, she's clutching the oversized bible, and begins tearing it violently to shreds, before seeing Wozzeck's bloody, broken body which has been there the entire time.

While there is nudity, Bieito's use of it here is restrained. For most of the opera, the only nudity is that of corpses which the Doctor dissects, and seems far too interested in both carnally and clinically. One of the most arresting and disturbingly beautiful images occurs during the final interlude as nearly the entire company appear - all nude, and slowly - walking in barely discernable steps, toward the stage apron, as what appear to be disinfectant perhaps showers of purification rain down upon them. The effect and its meaning completely overwhelmed me and thinking of it now . . . well, I'm writing this shaking my head in near disbelief. It is not at all a provocative or sensual image, but the beauty of it - the perfect matching to the music's mood seems haunted by genius.

Everything about this Wozzeck is new, alarming and ultimately powerful. Wozzeck's early interactions with Andres have a naturalness about them convinces these once were good friends. It was a joy to see David Kuebler, a singer I've always liked, giving such a strong presence to an almost thankless role.

Reiner Goldberg - a singer I've always been divided on (and who has got to be getting on in years) is marvelous as the Drum Major in his Elvisy-glitz and gold hair.

Vivian Tierney as Margret, Johann Tilli as the Doctor, and the diminutive Hubert Delamboye as the Captain all offer well thought out and vivid portrayals of these roles.

No Wozzeck, of course, cannot work without the score being as well played and sung as possible and the German maestro, Sebastian Weigle, seems to have spent his life with this score. The delicacy of certain sections are as beautiful and illuminating as any performance or recording I've ever heard. He emphasizes as well as the best, the dance rhythms of Berg's amazingly diverse score. As delicate and chamberlike as some of the score is, the moments of bombast are, here, as devastating as they can ever be. Combined with the images of Bieito's dazzling and harrowing production, the effect is as total - and new - as a Wozzeck can be. The playing and singing from the Liceu forces really is about as good as it gets.

The sound engineering of this product is astonishing, at the right volume level, everything is caught as cleanly and as clearly as one would experience in a great opera house (though, necessarily and, of course, without that live spatiality).

There is an interesting 18 minute documentary offering insights into Wozzeck, including Bieito's take on the story, and Maestro Weigle's pocketbook analysis of the score.

This DVD jumps to the top of my favorites pile and I look forward to being destroyed on many repeated viewings

DVD: Glyndebourne and the Pelleas of One's Dreams

In his production for Glyndebourne Graham Vick exchanges Debussy's murky forests and casts for a massive Edwardian mansion dominated by an enormous curved staircase and a glass floor under which seem to be millions of chrysanthemums. Despite the lack of traditional locations, the story works handsomely bringing out Maeterlinck’s symbolism in sometimes astonishing fashion . . . . visually stunning, (e.g., flames silently engulfing a massive staircase, etc.)

I love Vick's work with singers and the cast here responds to him in the manner one might expect from the finest stage actors. Richard Croft's remarkable performance as Pelleas begins barefoot and in short pants establishing (for once), the character's youthful aimlessness. This image is further enhanced with the introduction of Yniold almost from the start the two playing by the water's edge. Though uncle and nephew with a wide-edged gap in ages, both are still boys.

Croft’s plangent tenor offers the role gorgeous, youthful sound, warm and bright making case can be made that this role is now best suited to a tenor, which serves also to intensify both drama and distinction between the brothers. Croft's facial expressions, his ability to swing between ecstatic exhilarated joy and crushed devastation is sensational . . . overwhelming at times. Take that voice and combine it with the physical intensity of his actions and this is clearly today's Pelleas of choice. (Maestro Boulez certainly seemed to think so, too!)

Christiane Oelze is a stunning, complicated Melisande; a bit of a natural born troublemaker. The famous "Tower scene" finds her hanging upside down from an immense chandelier, endless hair cascading from it, beneath her a supine Pelleas. As the chandelier lowers Pelleas covers himself with her hair and the scene nearly erupts into an almost unbridled show of eroticism, Pelleas barely able to control himself and Melisande leading the way. As sensual as she is physically, Oelze's voice throughout is liquid and exquisite, capturing nuances the best interpreters of this role find in it.

John Tomlinson is a rougher than usual Golaud, his bent towards violence portending trouble early on. His using Yniold to spy on the couple is chilling theatre as violently he kicks, smashing one of the glass tiles of the floor. He is nothing less than brutal in his handling of his young son. It is a terrified Yniold who flees him, hopelessly banging on the doors for someone to release him from this nightmare. Golaud's violence, of course, extends to both brother and wife, yet following each episode his remorse seems genuine and heartbreaking. Tomlinson presents a Golaud who unravels before our eyes, a man who simply cannot cope. It is chilling.

Glyndebourne Music Director, Andrew Davis moves things along to a good, flowing tempi and the London Philharmonic responds with breathtaking sound, alternately dense and diaphanous. This is, quite simply, one of my favorite performances of any opera and haunting, tragic lyric theatre at its very best.