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Sappho Island, 2011. Photo: Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine
Yes, I'm still in Paris. No, I haven't forgot about Los Angeles. And just to show how much I care, I sent gadfly and maestro of the bon mots, Ben Vanaman, over the REDCAT this week to take a look at one of their most anticipated shows of the summer from Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine. Don't say I never did you any favors.

In 2009, L.A.-based actor/activist Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine (Biro) travelled to his native Uganda to interview a variety of remarkable men and women in that nation’s LGBT community. At the time, Uganda became a world flash point of anti-gay politics following the passage of its notorious Anti-Homosexuality Bill that same year penalizing homosexuality by imprisonment and “aggressive homosexuality” by death. From these interviews, Mwine has assembled a captivating one-person show titled A Missionary Position that is playing this weekend at the REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles. During the course of the performance, Mwine portrays a soldier of the government, a sex worker, a priest, and a lesbian pressed into activism. Although the performance skirts agit-prop, this inclination is balanced if not undone by the actor’s total immersion in each character as he slips seamlessly from one role to the next.

A Missionary Position twines Mwine’s impersonations with actual footage from Uganda adroitly orchestrated by video designer Carole Kim. It begins with a narrator asking, “This is Uganda?,” and concludes with an on-screen assertion that one could never leave Uganda because it’s home. This conundrum, of leaving/staying, flight/resistance, is resolved in words from the priest stressing the African idea of “Ubuntu,” meaning “I am, because we are,” a riposte to the self-serving individualism of Western democracies. The idea, made both implicit and explicit during the evening, is that Uganda is worth fighting for, a fight that makes the accounts of those on the front lines blisteringly affecting.

The performance begins cheekily with Mwine dressed in military garb as a Ugandan soldier named BigamAnus whose “unwitting” sexual double entrendes deconstruct the language of bigotry with caustic effect. Patrolling the stage in swaggering opposition to an audience of spectators he rightly assumes are unsympathetic to his country’s heinous mission, the soldier soon begins to undress, during a breathtaking transition, into Serena, a transgender woman sex worker whose tale of victimization and survival –many of her fellows meet untimely ends- is harrowing. There was a particular moment, where Serena describes the melee that ensues when she’s caught servicing a “john” in a public rest-room, that perfectly encapsulates the duality of bleakest farce and sheer horror that characterizes the razor’s edge insanity of this nation’s anti-gay program.

Disappearing through a curtain behind the main stage, Mwine soon returns as a man who, kept in a zero-sum relationship with a German named Klaus in Rome, returns to Uganda via Tanzania, is reunited with an old boyfriend who’s joined the brotherhood, then himself becomes a priest, refusing to contradict his parishioners who refuse to believe the rumors about him being gay. Emotionally riven by his own closeted-ness, the priest’s anguish is laid bare at news that defiantly “out” activist Bob Kato has been murdered. This crime becomes a rallying cry for Uganda’s LGBT community, leading to Mwine’s final portrayal, of a lesbian who opened Uganda’s first public gay bar, Sappho Island, its later forced closure bringing the evening to an ambiguous conclusion.

Under the steady hand of director Emily Hoffman, Mwine, through each guise, addresses the audience with such measured elegance that one is transfixed by every utterance he makes. By turns combative and reflective, flamboyant and circumspect, Mwine lays bare the tragedy of his subject. One point that was particularly jarring: the dedication of American evangelist Scott Lively in fomenting Uganda’s anti-gay zealotry, and the equal commitment of those opposing the legislation crafted in his wake, from outsiders like Gordon Brown and Hilary Clinton to the real heroes of the Ugandan LGBT community, still living and working, playing and loving in a country that would do well to heed the true meaning of “Ubuntu.” One’s only regret is that the evening didn’t last longer, that Mwine didn’t bring even more of these heroes to life.
2 years ago | |
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Andrea Hill and Jaël Azzaretti with chorus Photo: Opéra national de Paris / Agathe Poupeney 2012
I started my European opera tour this summer in Paris where the young guys are all coiffed like Usher circa 2001 and wear high-top sneakers. It’s a look, regardless of whether or not its au courant, and it works for many of them. Which is kind of how I felt about the first opera I saw on my current European trip, Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie at the Palais Garnier. Of course, the similarity in the above comparison falls apart when it comes to the “works for them” bit since Ivan Alexandre’s production, which is new to Paris after being created for Toulouse, is a throwback to something that may not be worth revisiting.

Rameau’s first opera is a Baroque gem filled with mythological characters including gods, sea monsters, and young lovers. It revisits the story of Phèdre and her love for her stepson Hippolyte. He meanwhile has a chaste love for Aricie, which is blessed by the goddess Diane, but is also put in jeopardy by his father Thésée. Alexandre and the design team have gone for something old-fashioned. Very old-fashioned, in fact, in their attempts to recreate the look and theatricality of an 18th-century opera production from the costumes, to the painted backdrops, to the gods who are lowered from the fly space on clouds suspended by ropes. The flat lighting mostly from the foot of the stage reinforces this visual style. It’s pretty to look at, and despite its contrast with the Garnier’s hyper 19th-century surroundings, it looks at home on the stage. Sweet Jesus, is it ever boring, though. In another throwback to the period, principal performers come to the foot of the stage, strike poses and stay there. They’ve got singing to do, but none that requires pesky movement. Even the stage trickery used to create mild surprises here and there fell mostly flat.

What’s worse, this notion of an ersatz recreation of a 18th-century staging isn’t even a new idea in the last thirty years. The Metropolitan Opera regularly trots out a few of Jean-Pierre Ponelle’s productions from decades ago that are essentially the same thing. Those shows (and I’m talking to you here La Clemenza di Tito) are painfully dull much of the time, and Alexandre does an amazing job of recreating that sensation in this Hippolyte and Aricie. Blogger Zerbinetta has had some great points to make recently about production teams not taking Baroque Opera seriously enough to really make it work well. And while gag-filled cynicism some Baroque operas face today can kill them (And I'm talking to you here The Enchanted Island), this kind of almost perfectionist reverence for something that may have never been in the first place isn't doing the genre any favors either. Alexandre and his team need to take Hippolyte and Aricie by trusting the drama at the material's core in order to actually interpret it instead of simply turning it into some kind of museum piece or treating it as something that needs to be apologized for.

It’s not totally a lost cause, though. Emmanuelle Haïm and her Le Concert d’Astrée give a lively period-informed performance of Rameau’s score. She makes room for the vocalists without being overindulgent and produces a great dynamic range with this kind of ensemble. The vocalists themselves were a mixed bag. The best was Stéphan Degout’s Thésée who was sizable and certain enough for a king. The other big name in the cast was Sarah Connolly who sang Phédre with lovely tone and enough fire to bring Racine to mind. Jaël Azzaretti had some lovely detail in her passages as L’Amour and got a warm ovation at the curtain calls. Anne-Catherine Gillet and Topi Lehtipuu were the lovers Aricie and Hippolyte respectively but weren’t particularly engaging and had sloppy attacks here and there. Despite some good musical moments, it wasn’t enough to shoulder the weight of a strange, almost willfully naïve staging that mired everything down for the long evening. The show has four more performances in Paris through mid-July.
2 years ago | |
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Quinn Kelsey, Diego Torre, Feruccio Furlanetto, and Lucrecia Garcia in Act III of Attila Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2012
There is a lot of crumbling in San Francisco Opera’s current production of Verdi’s Attila. It’s a co-production that comes by way of La Scala and director Gabriele Lavia, but the debris and decrepit facades that fill all three acts of this show look like they could have just as easily been leftovers from the company’s recent Ring cycle with its abandoned freeways and littered riverbeds. What any of the the crumbling facades now onstage have to do with Attila the Hun, either the historical figure or the mythological one Verdi uses in his opera, is anybody’s guess. Lavia notes the metaphor of destruction is central to the opera and that each act, set in a different time period, reflects such destruction being acted out on one of a series of theaters. In Act I, Attila and his 5th Century army occupy the ruins of a Roman amphitheater. In Act II, the stage is partially surrounded by a three-tiered remnant from a 19th Century European opera house complete with audience and updated soldier costumes for the hordes. And in Act III, the pieces of both of these previous sets are mixed in with an abandoned movie theater complete with damaged screen where scenes from two different films about Attila the Hun, including the 1954 Jack Palance vehicle Sign of the Pagan, are projected. Got it? Me neither. The destruction of the theaters over an open-ended imaginary time frame may be a metaphor for the destruction of Attila himself, or Attila’s desire for the destruction of the Roman empire, or for the destruction in the many lives of the other characters in Verdi’s opera.

Which, if any or all of these, is the case isn’t clear, but no matter how you slice it, the ideas behind this production are bigger than the inept execution of them on stage. Lavia manages to fill the stage with interesting baubles, but then instructs the cast to go out of their way to ignore them. In the end, SFO’s Attila is little more than everyday ordinary stand-and-deliver opera. The vocalists could be standing anywhere singing anything among this particular rubble and it is the lack of integration between players and the physical space they inhabit that is most disheartening about the show. It's 2012 people - you've got to give audiences more than a string of ideas and lovely sets no matter how unusual they may be.

Luckily, the company has managed to gather together a remarkably good cast and with music director Nicola Luisotti in the pit, there was some lovely gutsy Verdi playing to listen to. The star is Feruccio Furlanetto as the Hun who is both a destroyer and the sympathetic heart of the show. Perhaps the most sympathetic interpretation of this mess of a show is that Attila, despite his warlike nature, in the end is himself a victim of the march of history, destined to be forgotten other than as a warlord stock character for Hollywood films. Furlanetto certainly is capable of injecting major amounts of pathos into a character with his voice and he does so brilliantly here even in a part that doesn’t quite always get as much of the center stage as it should. The biggest new surprise for me was Venezuelan soprano Lucrecia Garcia as Odabella. She blazed through this role with a dark, lustrous rich Verdi sound with evenness and agility throughout her range. See her now folks, she's going to be an increasingly familiar name on opera stages and i for one can't wait to hear her again. Quinn Kelsey had his shining moment as well, particularly at the front of Act II as Ezio the Roman general bent on the Hun invaders destruction as much as anyone in this decidedly dark assemblage of characters. Diego Torre's Foresto was a little less certain, but in no way a deterrent to the rest of the proceedings. Of course he, like the rest of the cast, appeared to be largely on their own among the ruins of so many centuries.
2 years ago | |
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August Strindberg
While I've been here and there this month, fellow OWA correspondent Richard Valitutto has been busy celebrating the 100th anniversary year of August Strindberg's death in Orange County and filed this report.

After a successful New York run in January earlier this year, Robert Cucuzza’s off-kilter adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie returned to the West Coast for a third brief appearance this past weekend as part of the South Coast Repertory’s studio series. In L.A., Cattywampus was previously presented at Son of Semele Theater in August 2011 and again at REDCAT’s NOW Festival in September 2011. I saw it this Friday, opening night at SCR.

Though it would seem safe to assume that writer/director Cucuzza is laying low while his show is presented for a fourth time, this would be a mistake. Cucuzza has been fiercely involved with the continued development of the work with small rewrites and edits, not least of which being the renaming of Jean’s counterpart, the car-detailer, from Donnie to Jodie (an adjustment whose parallelism, if only for alliterative purposes, pleases me more). This in addition to the fact that the SCR Studio performances featured fresh, new actors playing both Jodie (Jacob Loeb) and Julie (Lola Kelly), though still just as well-directed and acted as their predecessors. Loeb brought to the role a fantastic kineticism, matched well by Kelly’s execution of neo-Julie’s profoundly weird sexuo-deferential entanglements. Jenny Greer once again convincingly played the true down-n-out yinzer Chrissie. Combined with the subtle and polished bluegrass lounge-rock continuous underscore – performed with joyful ease by composers Juli Crockett (guitar) and Michael Feldman (electric organ) – and the keen, economical design elements, the show’s energy was palpably crackling: pratfalls, F-bombs, Pittsburghese, and all.

Cucuzza’s tragicomedy still remains true to a lot of what is already written about its previous runs. Like Strindberg’s 1888 tragedy, this version is lean, antipodal, provocative, and weird. Cleverly adapting the work to present-day Pittsburgh pauperdom, Cucuzza is a master of parallelism. Calling it an adaptation is actually slightly inaccurate, as the rewrite follows Strindberg’s plot details and dialogue so closely it feels more like a very thorough translation done by an academic Myron Cope. This “mirror effect” sometimes lends itself to hilarious conflagrations, such as when Jodie reveals his 10-year plan which will ultimately lead him to the same object of 19th-century Jean’s desire: Roumania. But it also has more abstractly poetic parallels as well: Julie’s caged finch is now a Phoenix-emblazoned kite. One element from Strindberg’s play which was curiously absent (though not conspicuously so) was the fascinating explanation of Julie’s family troubles stemming from her mother’s failed attempt to challenge gender norms, the continued repercussions of which are evident in her and her father’s behaviors.

The one thing that does not readily correlate is the element of class-struggle in a naturalist’s deterministic society. It is a bit hard to accept that Julie and Jodie are as socially and morally conflicted as Julie and Jean. But as one translator of Strindberg’s play Edwin Björkman explains in his preface, the title “Miss” in “Miss Julie” really is just that (originally the Swedish fröken, like the German Fräulein), despite her being the daughter of a count. She is no royalty, just a fatefully positioned person of privilege. If anything, the transferral to American life may be most successful in that where Strindberg’s characters display seditious undercurrents influenced by and contributing to changing socio-economic conditions in the Swedish post-monarchy, Cucuzza’s characters are borderline sociopaths symptomatic of a failed cultural and economic system. In short, Cucuzza’s show is just that much crazier. The emotional extremes of the show were not necessarily virtuosically executed, but they communicated the spirit of passion and confusion which I’m sure Strindberg would have enjoyed. And as all good translators and interpreters know, the spirit of the word, not the word itself, is everything.
2 years ago | |
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Chen-Ye Yuan, Maria Kanyova, and Brian Mulligan Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2012
It took 25 years, but John Adams’ Nixon in China finally made it to the stage of San Francisco Opera this month. It’s an unusual oversight considering that Adams, a composer with deep roots in Northern California, has had other major premieres here already with The Death of Klinghoffer (which SFO helped commission and originally staged in 1992 after runs in Belgium and New York) and Doctor Atomic in 2005. But Nixon in China, Adams’ most known and revered work, had to wait until SFO General Director David Gockley, who commissioned the work originally for Houston Grand Opera in 1987, decided to bring the opera here. Gockley has perhaps the greatest track record for commissioning new operas, often from young, first-time, American composers both in Houston and San Francisco. That’s noble and important work, though frequently fraught with failure. But Gockley’s risk on a young, untested creative team including Adams, librettist Alice Goodman, and director Peter Sellars, will likely make Nixon in China his greatest legacy to the world of opera after all is said and done.

On Friday night, I saw the fourth of seven scheduled performances of Nixon in China and would agree with many others that Gockley and his company have brought a near perfect production of this landmark of musical theater to the stage. The 2010 production is from Vancouver Opera and was designed and directed by Michael Cavanagh. It’s the kind of opera whose time and setting strongly dictate the physical look of the show, but Cavanagh and production designer Sean Nieuwenhuis have created something absolutely thrilling to watch despite the inevitable giant portraits of Mao, red furniture, and giant Boeing VC-137C. Like so many opera productions these days, there is copious use of video projections. But unlike most, the video, designed by Nieuwenhuis is spectacularly done, functioning as much more than scenery. At times the images reflect unseen action going on in other parts of the scene. At other times they contain images of the characters themselves as if projecting their own internal thoughts while the story unfolds. The images arrive in unexpected places and don’t just fill a backdrop that here is often comprised of swirling interlaced Chinese and U.S. flags. Note to Robert Lepage - this is how video on stage is done.

But I digress. All this video would mean nothing if it weren’t for another young gun of new(ish) operas, conductor Lawrence Renes. He did himself and San Francisco proud with Adams’ most doctrinaire minimalist score. (Yes, I’m making that last bit up.) The orchestra and vocalists are tightly controlled and in sync throughout despite the score’s frequent repetitive elements. The vocalists are all excellent. Who wouldn’t be in love with Brian Mulligan after his performance as an ebullient almost child-like Nixon. He’ fully engaged and is well paired both with the Mao Tse-Tung of Simon O’Neill and Patrick Carfizzi’s Henry Kissinger. Carfizzi has some of the most brutal stuff in this opera especially in the Act II ballet sequence where Pat Nixon imagines he has become part of the ballet being performed, taking over the role of the cruel, sadistic overlord. Maria Kanyova gets some of the best arias in the whole opera as Pat Nixon, and she made all of these highlights special. When Hye Jung Lee’s Madame Mao shoots Kissinger in the head in this feverish dream sequence, there were at least two shouts of support and applause from this mostly silent and mostly liberal audience. Ms. Lee, of course, get the big Act II closer, “I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung” and she milks it without any strain or uncertainty. A spot-on performance. But as usual, I was most taken with the character of Chou En-Lai, the Chinese Premiere who was played here by baritone Chen-Ye Yuan. Yuan’s phrasing was superb for Goodman’s gorgeous, poetic libretto.

There were issues that kept the show from being 100 percent on the mark, though. The nasty business of amplifying the singers was one. I’m not opposed to such amplification generally, but I do think that if one is going to do it, the amplification should actually help the balance of sound and not make it worse. The chorus was strangely inaudible for the first thirty minutes and by mid-point the soloists were a bit too loud in contrast to the orchestra. Cavanagh’s directorial choices weren’t always on target either. One of the best parts of Nixon in China is the way Goodman’s lovely libretto slowly pushes the described events into a world of dream-like surrealism. People start to lose it, but they don’t start out that way. Cavanagh, however, couldn’t resist a fair amount of jokiness in the first act, however, with Nixon deplaning with almost cartoonish energy and mannerisms. The table spinning drunken brawl at the end of Act I plays many of the opera’s cards way too early, killing the slowly developing tone of the piece. Still, successes of this size have been rare at SFO this season and the long awaited arrival of Nixon in China is not to be sniffed at. It’s a show worth seeing more than once and it runs through July 3.
2 years ago | |
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While last weekend brought a memorable performance from one example of those most modern of musician collectives, the percussion quartet, this coming weekend has me thinking of another. With the explosion of music written for an ever-increasing array of percussion instruments both foreign and domestic, ensembles of percussionists have increasingly struck out on their own, commissioning new works from composers happy to do so and building careers out of playing them together.

Perhaps the most prominent of these ensembles on the West Coast is the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, which is now entering its fifth season with its original line up of Matt Cook, Justin DeHart, Nick Terry, and Eric Guinivan. The group has played 20th and 21st-century works on most of the major stages around town but they passed a new landmark recently with the release of their first major label recording on Sono Luminus entitled, Rupa-khandha.



The recording is notable for many reasons, but first and foremost because it is focused heavily on the legacy that West Coast composers have left on the percussionists' art. Ensembles like Brooklyn’s So Percussion have made a name for themselves commissioning works from the likes of New York-based composers Steve Reich and David Lang. And while the LAPQ are no strangers to this work, the material on Rupa-khandha is decidedly different, featuring four newly commissioned works from composers working on the West Coast with an eye toward the percussion legacy left by those California giants of 20th-century composition Harrison, Riley, Harry Partch, William Kraft, and others.

One of those legacies is an interest in Eastern percussion instruments and their use in religious and folk settings. The first two pieces on Rupa-khandha refer to those elements in direct if not always specific ways. LAPQ member Eric Guinivan’s Ritual Dances imagines music for folk rites of some imaginary tribe of the Pacific Rim. African and Arabic drums are joined by “found instruments” over five movements that emphasize the ritualistic sounds of ceremonies both solemn and celebratory. This is immediately followed by a similar companion piece from Sean Heim, Rupa-khandha. The title refers to the first of Five Aggregates or “khandras” that constitute the human being in Buddhist philosophy. The allusions in this single movement are taken from a variety of other cultural traditions including the notion of the five basic elements and Native American musical traditions. The music evokes a sense of spirituality separate from the kind of urban transcendentalism common among works coming out of the late 20th century school of American Minimalism.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s current Principal Timpanist and composer Joseph Pereira follows suit with Repoussé, four movements inspired by his travels and instrument collecting while still playing with the New York Philharmonic. The title here, and those of the four separate movements refer to techniques of production in visual arts. Repoussé specifically refers to hammering out low-raised decorative embellishments in a malleable metal. It's an intriguing piece and it speaks to Perira's increasingly higher profile in this region as a composer. The recording concludes with a single movement from Jeffrey Holmes, Occasus.

2 years ago | |
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So Percussion play David Lang at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis Photo: mine
Music critic Alex Ross, among others, has noted the strange disconnect in the public’s mind when in comes to 20th-century art forms. As he so eloquently argues in The Rest is Noise and elsewhere, while art forms of many genres became deeply involved in various abstract and conceptual movements in the 20th Century, visual arts from the period now fill top tier museums selling tickets to legions of adoring fans, while Western art music has taken a very different course. Those same decentralizing, avant-garde trends that are beloved in the visual arts are seen by many in the public as anathema when it comes to music. Classical music audiences in the U.S. are still prone to prize works of the 18th and 19th Centuries above all else, although many in those same audiences would have no problem waxing poetic on the beauty of a Pollock or a Donald Judd sculpture.

So it was with great joy that I attended two of three programs while in St. Louis last weekend as part of Retrospectives and Innovations: A Celebration of The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. The mini-series was a look back at 8 years of music programming sponsored by The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in their Tadao Ando-designed museum in the heart of St. Louis. The music programming at the Foundation sprung from the mind of Richard Gaddes who recognized an acoustically desirable space in the museum’s galleries at the bottom of a wide descending staircase positioned strategically in front of Ellsworth Kelly’s Blue Black, a painting commissioned by the Foundation in 2000. With the support of the Foundation’s Emily Rauh Pulitzer, the museum’s board approached the St. Louis Symphony and their musical director David Robertson about a 20th-century and newer music series to be held in the galleries of the museum dedicated primarily to 20th-century and newer art.

David Robertson, of course, a brilliant music director and advocate of music from that period, jumped at the chance to bring more of this kind of music to St. Louis audiences. Robertson is one of the great American maestros and he was central to last weekend’s concerts which revisited works from concerts over the last ten years since the Foundation's physical space opened in 2001, while also including works new to the series and St. Louis. It was an inspiring set of shows not necessarily because of the specifics of any of the particular pieces or performances, but because of the unavoidable connection being emphasized in the galley between movements in both the visual and musical arts of the 20th Century. It was about an arts organization supporting art music from the same period without apology, a more revolutionary idea sadly than it should be in this country.

On Saturday evening, the series welcomed visiting percussion quartet So Percussion, who performed Steve Reich’s landmark works Clapping Music and Four Organs, as well as two of their own commissions: Reich’s Mallet Quartet and David Lang’s the so-called laws of nature. Robertson himself joined in on the clapping after some introductory comments welcoming the players to town emphasizing his personal involvement in the curation and presentation of the music programming at the Foundation. It was a show that not only highlighted percussion’s meteoric rise to prominence in Western art music in the last century but also captured both the raw primacy of the earliest minimalist works alongside the legacy those works left behind. Lang’s three movement piece which finds the ensemble moving with their mallets from blocks of wood, to metal tubes, to flowerpots and teacups was both witty and inspiring in its everyday resourcefulness. Lang has the four percussionists play identical patterns throughout the piece which each movement using a different set of mostly handmade instruments in a sort-of musical science experiment about the sound of different objects played under identical circumstances.

The following Sunday afternoon headed off in a much different direction with players from the St. Louis Symphony who began the final program with Donatoni’s equally cat-and-mouse game of a string quartet, La Souris sans sourire. This “mouse without a smile” alludes to Boulez Le marteau sans maître with an ironic if still reverent sneer as cellos and violas moan with decaying tones which are less Tom and Jerry and more Felix the Cat. The show ended with one of Olivier Messiaen’s monumental works, Visions de l’Amen, played by pianists Peter Henderson and Nina Ferrigno. This was muscular sounding Messiaen with the skies crying out from above that made the most of the indeed excellent acoustics of the Foundation’s space. But perhaps the most intriguing piece on the program that afternoon, and a highlight of the festival was Unsuk Chin’s Fantasie mécanique from the mid 1990s. Robertson conducted the small percussion, piano and brass ensemble, as he noted, less because of interpretive issues and more for simple guidance for a work that rapidly swerves and changes as it goes along from pounding machine like forces to bare stripped cries from various corners. As Robertson also pointed out, it reflected many of the same musical qualities that recommended the composer’s concurrently running Alice in Wonderland across town at Opera Theater St. Louis. It was exciting playing from members of one of America’s great if underrated orchestras. It, and all of the weekend’s shows, was also a testament to the great and forward-looking work that David Robertson is doing in St. Louis and around the country. And all in a singular, lovely architectural space in a city known for its singular artistic gestures.

2 years ago | |
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Simone Dinnerstein
The Philharmonic Society of Orange County closed its current season on Monday with a wild card – pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Much has been made of her rather DIY career trajectory. She came to wide acclaim, at least among the recording and ticket buying communities, following the release of a self-financed disc of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 2007. More conventional success in the classical music field followed with a recording contract from Sony and appearances all over the globe. She has remained popular, and for good reason, more often than not as a solo performer who makes appearances on an eclectic group of stages both big and small. Monday was the first time she had appeared on a major stage in Southern California and it was to a mostly full house at the Segerstrom Concert Hall.

The program consisted entirely of her beloved Bach, French Suite No. 5, English Suite No. 3, and Partita’s No. 1 and 2. The French Suite here was one that I’d previously heard her play at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 2010, a more intimate venue that played more to her strengths. She’s a quirky player and her performances do lie outside of the mainstream for most world-class soloists. She is unique, but her playing is also rather mannered. On Monday she exhibited neither an academic restraint that favored clarity nor a period sensibility that brought out the dance rhythms underpinning each movement in all the suites. Instead she takes an impressionistic tack that views Bach’s line as broad strokes of color as if it was something Debussy had written that was long since overlooked. At times, particularly in the faster movements, this approach can verge on cacophonous distortion towards unclear ends. At other times there is a beautiful glow and warmth although never much of a sense of stillness. Ironically this penchant for broadly colorful impressionistic playing may seem last suited for the music of the composer she is best known for. But it is also one of the things that sets her apart from the pack and keeps her so popular with audiences.

2 years ago | |
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l-r: David Trudgen, Ashley Emerson, and Aubrey Allicock Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2012
In 2007, James Robinson, the current Artistic Director of Opera Theater of Saint Louis, had the good fortune to see the world premiere of Unsuk Chin’s opera Alice in Wonderland while on a visit to Munich. According to his own report, he was mightily impressed and became convinced it was one of the most important operas written in the first decade of this Century. I was there too, and shared his convictions about this daunting, beautiful opera, which had been slated to premiere in Los Amgeles, but was later redirected with then music director Kent Nagano’s departure from L.A. to Munich. Fortunately, Robinson was soon in a position to get Alice to the U.S. and after asking Chin to adapt the opera for markedly smaller forces than those called for in the German premiere, the Saint Louis debut was set.

I was thrilled when I first hear about this, though admittedly before seeing Sunday’s performance, I had grown wary of the potential outcome. The world premiere of the opera had been staged by German artist Achim Freyer and was filled with his trademark visual tricks, masks, and perilously raked stage. It was a perfect fit for Chin and her librettist David Henry Hwang’s take on the story which focuses exclusively on the dream material of Lewis Carroll’s story eschewing Alice's life outside of Wonderland entirely. Freyer’s vision, which reportedly was not well-liked by Chin herself, was as vivid and visually powerful as a dream and looked nothing like you’d expect from a century’s worth of Alice adaptations. Freyer used the story as a springboard to talk about the lost innocence of youth which evaporates not unlike the most fantastic of dreams. In contrast, Robinson and his design team are't plumbing such great depths. Despite protestations to the contrary, Robinson and his collaborators have gone with a show that looks and feels very much like the Victoriana you’d pick out of dozens of films or printed versions of Carroll's story. Furthermore, the questionable marketing of the show focused on the performances as being something that the whole family might enjoy. Which I suppose could be true if you’ve got the kind of 12 year-olds who go to summer camp at IRCAM.

But, I’ll admit I was pleasantly surprised at first to hear and see this production of a musically adventurous and very smart opera. The set is filled with giant cupboards and dressers that are painted gray, but open to reveal any number of more fantastic rooms and interiors for characters to pop out of. All of the closed surfaces are used for elaborate filmed projections that indicate the most difficult events in the opera to stage such as Alice swimming in a pool of her own tears or her dramatic post-prandial size changes. The contrast between Chin’s amusing but very modern, dark score and a visually accessible and familiar staging was a brilliant contrast in the end. Robinson uses moments of pantomime and physical humor in clever ways to bring characters like the caterpillar to life as well. But this is a long show, with a fantastic and episodic plot and while Robinson leads the audience down the rabbit hole he doesn’t know what to do with them once he gets them there in this intermissionless two hours. The second half of the opera nearly unravels with bad decisions suggesting Robinson may have lost the strength of his convictions. The large crowd scenes toward the end of the show including the Knave's trial are far too big for the tiny cramped Loretto-Hilton Center stage. The cast is reduced to waving their hands about for acting and the dreamy flow of the show freezes up. Worse yet, signs of desperation set in and Robinson allows some characters including the dormouse and the Duchess to engage in mawkish pandering by serving up the kind of clichéd hip-hop inspired movements and delivery that produces applause and perfunctory laughter but kills the show by betraying trust in the source material’s ability to do its job without cheap stunts.

Chin’s reduction of the score continues OTSL’s recent string of successes of very listenable reduced versions of larger modern works including Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles and Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer. Michael Christie, the show’s conductor, continues here to build his reputation as one of America’s foremost advocates for contemporary operas. He easily maintains focus through turns in the score that go from sparse and economical to huge walls of black shimmering night. The whimsy is there too including the extended bass clarinet solo which serves as the voice of the caterpillar and Chin’s take of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” for the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. The huge cast is fronted by St. Louis favorite Ashley Emerson as Alice who is nimble and projects a necessary child-like pluck and sense of adventure. She handles both the sung and Sprechstimme passages convincingly. David Trudgen excels in the countertenor parts of the White Rabbit and March Hare. And that vanishing Cheshire Cat is never overlooked onstage as sung here by a winning, feline Tracy Dahl. When these performers are onstage in small groups with one another and the visual expanse of the dreamscape is given room to breath, the show is absolute magic. And that’s a big deal for an opera uninterested in presenting a logical narrative storyline, instead investing itself in the power of the illogical fantasized world of dreams. Chin’s Alice in Wonderland continues in Saint Louis through the end of next week and it’s a solid production worth seeing, especially for your hard-to-please Boulez-obsessed pre-adolescents.
2 years ago | |
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Rod Gilfry as Sweeney Todd Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2012
Sometimes, a new performance of a familiar piece of musical theater can be great for showing you something that you didn’t recognize before. But then again, there may be some things in this life that one really doesn’t need to know. Opera Theater Saint Louis is in the midst of their 37th season, and among the English-language Mozart and Carmen performances is Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd. The new production of Christopher Bond’s adaptation was directed by Ron Daniels and has a cast with Broadway star Karen Ziemba as Mrs. Lovett and Rod Gilfry as Sweeney Todd. The trend in staging this show in recent years has tended toward the lean, and very, very mean. Whether it’s Tim Burton’s movie or John Doyle’s bare bones mental ward, the show has gone creepy as can be. But not so for Saint Louis, where Daniels has cleaned up the streets of Victorian London a bit and gone for the big laughs. There’s nothing much changed with the text, of course, but while Daniels delivers something outside of the current practice, I’ll admit I’m not sure that the world needs a Saturday matinee type of chuckle-fest when it comes to the demon barber of Fleet Street.

Of course, it takes two to, well…, you know. And the audience I saw the show with on a self-same Saturday afternoon sounded ready for a good old fashioned musical and they weren’t about to have it any other way. I’d never noticed so many laugh lines in the opening number before, but there they were. In fact it wasn’t until Rod Gilfry got to the word “shit” (in reference to London and the world generally) that it seemed to occur to some viewers that this wasn’t The King and I. Even Sweeney’s eventual murders got big guffaws each and every time in Act II as the design team elected to go with forcefully spewing fake blood from the necks of his victims covering a good portion of the stage. The production is sparse, dominated by a back wall with an oven in it that is sometimes covered with a plastic blood-stained curtain. Even Sweeney’s infamous barber’s chair doesn’t quite function as it typically does with each body being pulled from the chair's farthest back reclined position by two costumed extras after each murder as the body is whisked offstage.

Karen Ziemba Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2012
But there are strengths here, particularly in the cast. At the top of the bill is Gilfry who can sound as warm and beautiful as he has at any time in his career. He glowers with the best of them, but the overall tone of the production sometimes works against him. (I’ll admit that it’s also somewhat strange that this particularly tall and devilishly handsome Sweeney is still so difficult for the denizens of his old neighborhood to recognize.) Ziemba, on the other hand, is lock-step in line with the show with a bubbly, attractive Mrs. Lovett who comes off as more whacky and bemused than predatory. She delivers a fantastic version of A Little Priest, however, and vocally was always up to Sondheim’s tricky, precision-demanding lyrics.

There were both veterans and new faces in the supporting roles. I was particularly thrilled about a young man named Nathaniel Hackmann who was a magnetic, sweet voiced Anthony Hope. He may be among the best I’ve seen anywhere in the role and came off sincerely earnest and in love. More of him, please. Deanna Breiwick was a clear, bright-voiced Johanna who stayed clear of some of the simpering and camp aspects of that thorny role. And Kyle Erdos Knapp, as the doomed young Tobias Ragg, gave an unnerving wiry performance of perhaps the darkest of all the show’s roles. Of the three, Erdos Knapp is a current Gerdine Young Artist. It speaks well of the company that they’ve amassed three such compelling performances in this staging.

The members of the Saint Louis Symphony that play in the festival orchestra continue to be one of the company’s biggest assets. Here they were conducted by OTSL music director Stephen Lord who could let things go a bit sluggish here and there, but the stage-pit coordination in this challenging score were always on target. And he did the most important thing in letting Sondheim’s most brilliant songs speak for themselves plainly and directly. You could do worse than this Sweeney Todd and if you don’t mind all the yucks in the middle of your Victorian bloodbath, it may be the show for you. It's onstage now through the 24th.
2 years ago | |
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