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Out West Arts
Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
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from Dr. Dee at ENO
Damon Albarn is not the first British pop or rock star to venture into the world of musical theater, or opera if you must. He won’t be the last either, I wager, but he has shown some tenacity in the medium having provided music for at least two collaborations that have come to life at the Manchester International Festival and received subsequent stagings at English National Opera. The last of those Monkey Journey to the West was so successful, that Albarn teamed up with stage director Rufus Norris for a piece of his own inspiration, Dr. Dee, which just finished its run at ENO this week. While still a collaboration, Albarn had much more overall input into Dr. Dee. He is credited with the music and as “co-creator,” a title shared by Norris who is also the director.

You may have noticed the lack of a writing credit. I did as well, though I learned about it the hard way in actually seeing the show. On the good side, Albarn has an eye for interesting subject matter. Dr. Dee is about John Dee, a 17th-century mathematician and expert on the occult who was an advisor and political consultant at times to Queen Elizabeth I. The opera portrays a meteoric rise to power for Dee which is paired with the inevitable downfall. In the story, his troubles begin when he becomes increasingly involved in his real life project of deciphering the language of angels that was passed onto him through a medium, Edward Kelley. Kelley eventually tells Dee that an angels has demanded that Dee share his wife with him. In Dr. Dee, the court tires of his useless decoding work and he soon falls from favor. If all this sounds familiar, it should. The figure of the real life Dee is thought to have had some influence both on the figure of Marlowe’s Faust and Shakespeare’s Prospero.

Neither Albarn nor Norris has quite those talents, though, and Dr. Dee falters both in its rather pedestrian musical score, and an overreliance on 20th-century clichés about faith and love. The music isn’t unpleasant, mind you. It’s a string of pop songs, many of which Albarn plays along on during the show tinged with Elizabethan musical instrumentation. There is very little padding between the songs making the show a bit less of an opera and a tad more of a musical theater piece. The songs are sung by Albarn as well as some members of the cast including Paul Hilton who sings John Dee and Christopher Robson who sings the role of Edward Kelley. I can’t say much more about the songs in that the acoustics of the show were plagued with the problems pop shows usually are. Amplification was used for all the sound, and in this setting, it meant voices were so distorted as to be indecipherable. For some inexplicable reason, the house which uses supertitles despite performing everything in English chose not to use them for Dr. Dee helping no one.

The strongest parts of the evening come from Norris’ sharply designed and directed staging. A large, stage length room resembling a meeting hall fills much of the stage when things begin. The room contains a band with period instruments as well as Albarn but before long the room elevates revealing a large space where Dee and his fellow Elizabethan’s will act out the depicted events. There is ample use of video to highlight Dee’s mathematical and supernatural work. The images sweep along in a pleasant way and there is clever use of large paper screens to escort players on and off stage in a manner reminiscent of Japanese theater. There are even live birds that fly from the theater balcony onto the stage at one point that created a lot of excitement.

But at the core, and despite it’s good looks, Dr. Dee is hollow. It attempts to dredge up drama from the rather banal conflict Dee feels about the idea of “sharing” his wife with Edward Kelley. And when its not doing this, the story feels more like filler than anything else. Of course, other British pop and rock acts have turned stranger and more esoteric music theater pieces into gold, so who's to say what Albarn might get to next or what Dr. Dee might look like over time. Now it just looks dull.
3 years ago | |
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Benedict Nelson as Billy Budd Photo: Henrietta Butler/ENO 2012
There are so many beautiful things about the operas of Benjamin Britten. Perhaps my favorite is the inherent ambiguity. The things that are assumed and acted upon by the characters in his stories without them ever being explicitly stated. I know more than a few opera fans who dislike his operas for this very reason – particularly when it comes to male homosexuality. The idea being that the undercurrents of unspoken male desire, or the stand-in conflicts that are sometimes meant to be thinly veiled storylines about the destructive effects of homophobia, strike some of these folks as timid and passé. And yet, I doubt that any of these folks would be much more pleased with the manner in which director David Alden has chosen to deal with these finer points of subtlety in the new production of Britten’s Billy Budd, which is wrapping up its run at English National Opera this week and which I saw on Tuesday.

Actually the performance, conducted by ENO’s musical director Edward Gardner, doesn’t so much deal with fragile emotional ambiguity as do away with it almost entirely. In fact it pretty much does away with the sea and the boat of Melville’s original entirely. Outside of the scenes in Captain Vere’s quarters, all of the action takes place in front of or on one of two giant steel hull walls. The Indomitable may be at sea, but if it is there, it’s as a mid-20th Century German U-Boat. The residents of this submarine are dressed for the occasion as well with all the stocky, bearded officers in enough black leather boots, caps, and floor length trench coats to take one back to L.A.’s Faultline on a Saturday night. But this isn’t just about décor, it’s about Alden’s need to amp up the show by treating Claggart and his henchmen in particular as more clearly the arm of some fascist military repressive force complete with billy clubs to beat back the ship’s crew. Claggart himself, sung by the vocally lovely Matthew Rose, never stops walking in this production, pacing slowly in broad, right angle sweeps often away from the action and other characters he is supposedly interacting with like some uninvolved sentry. Claggart’s aria, “Handsomely done…” is staged like some melodramatic Hollywood mad scene where he mangles a floor mat. It’s almost as strangely wrong minded as the decision to play the Novice, here sung by Nicky Spence, as a man driven mad under Claggart’s harassment. And if all of this doesn’t beat the obvious into you, you can always put Vere in all white and Claggart and all the rest of the officers in black. Subtlety, thy name is not David Alden.

In the moments I wasn’t trying to figure out what the huge glossy black barrels the crew were moving around were doing on this man of war, I did find time to admire some of the musical performance. Edward Gardner continues to provide exciting musical direction, and his leadership of the orchestra this evening was fully realized, digging in with the players for some thrilling scenes. The chorus, always a key element to a Britten opera, was fabulous as well. Alden’s production served one good end here by using the large curved reflective surfaces to reflect the sound out into the auditorium. I rather liked Benedict Nelson in the title role. He wasn’t as large voiced or warm perhaps as you might like, but he was convincing with a young spirited energy. Kim Begley sang Captain Vere and, though he sounded somewhat unsteady to me when he was most exposed in the intro and the conclusion, he fit in well with the cast and proved a plausible, flawed leader struggling with regrets. He, like all involved parties, used the rather minimal set to maximum effect, but they really did deserve a bit better here. It’s not so much the modern updating of the show or even the change of setting that is so much of a problem, it’s more the desire to stamp out the tender ambiguities and conflicts in Britten’s opera that sinks this Indomitable. Billy Budd continues through July 8 at ENO.
3 years ago | |
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Eva-Maria Westbroek and Bryan Hymel Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH 2012
When the curtain rises on David McVicar’s new production of Berlioz’ masterpiece Les Troyens, promoted as a highlight of the Royal Opera House season in London, my immediate thought was, here we go again. The audience is immediately greeted with that sort of monstrous pile of darkly lit, post-apocalyptic rubble and walls mixed with somber costuming straight out of the Crimean War. (It’s always the Crimea isn’t it?) If you’re one of those people still wondering if McVicar is running out of ideas, his short-sighted muddled vision of Les Troyens should settle that once and for all. It’s not the updating of the action or even the now predictable visual look of the show that is so much the problem, it’s a lack of interpretation and often a plain understanding of some events in the libretto that can sink this very long performance over and over again despite some wonderfully coordinated musical performances.

Of course, going in to the run, the big story was Jonas Kaufmann. Originally booked to sing Enée, Kaufmann pulled out due to health issues weeks before the show was to open. His image is still festooned all over the house and town as his appearance was a major calling card for the company this Olympic summer, and ads show him in the corner of a boxing ring dressed in a tuxedo. Oddly enough, as much as I love to hear him sing, in the end, his presence on this team wasn’t missed as much as one might have thought it would be. The reason why is tenor Bryan Hymel, a rising American lyric tenor. He’s had bigger and bigger assignments lately, including the role of Gounod’s Faust at Santa Fe in 2011 and an appearance in the ROH’s recent run of Rusalka. Something big has clicked for him in the last year, and on this particular Sunday afternoon he sounded amazing, with easy top notes and big volume for the house. He’s not in an easy corner of the vocal repertory to pull it off all the time, but admittedly his bright, light voice in the end was preferable, I’d argue, to the kind of darkened baritonal sound Kaufmann is known for.


Anna Caterina Antonacci Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH 2012
Hymel did much more than keep up and hold a place in the show. Which is saying a great deal for the quality of performances given by the two other major principals in the show. Eva Maria Westbroek continues to startle world audiences and she did again with the her grounded, accessible take on Didon. She kept her stamina up in this long sing right through the concluding aria. Granted, the chemistry between her and the other principals in the cast could be iffy, but vocally it was a solid, admirable performance. Meanwhile the Cassandre, Anna Caterina Antonacci, demonstrated why she has such an ardent following for a singer who is careful about vocal assignments and how much she travels. The intensity she brought to the first two acts of the evening was up in the Waltraud Meier range. Cassandre’s rage and resolution was captivating and frankly her singing alone made the whole show worthwhile. She was well paired with the Chorèbe of Fabio Capitanucci, although again they weren’t always acting together as much as alongside each other. All these superstars got a performance from the ROH Orchestra and music director Antonio Pappano that was nothing short of spectacular. He dug in for rich, solid, warm sound throughout that rivaled anything I’ve personally heard him conduct in the house despite some indulgent tempi here and there.

That the cast was let down by the production is an understatement. There are so many distressing elements, it’s hard to know where to begin. Perhaps the surest sign of weakness were the numerous poorly choreographed and dramatically ignored ballet sequences. I’m not intending to lay blame on choreographer Andrew George, although he could let things get a bit silly at times. The issue is that McVicar treats them as dramatic time outs resulting in endless moments of goofy sailors, amorous slaves, and happy peasants jumping around the stage for minutes on end. Berlioz intended the dance sequences to move the story forward in the way that everything else musically in the opera does, and McVicar’s repeated sloughing them off is a disservice. There is a giant replica of Carthage used in Act III onwards that Didon walks about on and then in subsequent acts is lifted above the scene and finally destroyed. It’s tired and heavy handed symbolism that didn’t look so great when Francesca Zambello used it, if my memory serves, in her own vision of the opera many years ago. There is also that Technicolor happy, happy, joy, joy business in Act III which appears as a set from Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World After All” ride only this time the audience is not in motorized fake boats. As the opera wore on, the production’s inability to maintain a consistently dramatic tension became more and more of a problem. And when a giant mechanized figure, which I assume was Hannibal as referenced in Didon’s concluding passage, rises above the stage, you can already envision the stage hands struggling to get the flames out on cue with the darkened stage at the final note that you know is just around the corner. The audience shouldn’t be thinking about that, and the fact that McVicar hasn’t put something like that out of everyone’s mind after over four hours of music and a performance by hundreds of people is a sign of the underlying mediocrity of it all. But you’ll be able to judge for yourself in the near future at both Vienna and La Scala before arriving at some point eventually in San Francisco. Don't get me wrong, if I were here through the end of the run on July 11th, I'd be seeing it again. This is a big show and not an everyday occurrence with a remarkable cast. But one hopes by the time it arrives in San Francisco, the kitsch factor will be dialed down a wee bit.

3 years ago | |
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Renée Fleming Photo: Opéra national de Paris / Ian Patrick 2012
The streets of Paris were crowded and alive with young revelers on Saturday. It was gay pride weekend and the carnival atmosphere filled the Place de la Bastille with men and women in colorful attire that could leave more or less to the imagination. As tempting as joining the party was, I soldiered through the crowd to the international airport terminal that is Opera de Paris’ Bastille opera house to watch Strauss’ Arabella hand that proverbial glass of water to her intended. That’s not kink, it’s simply a moment of bizarre understatement which those who love opera love almost as much as grand spectacle and dramatic excesses of all kinds.

Of course, this doesn’t just happen on its own. It takes hundreds of artists to make some of these most basic of opera moments work, and in Arabella that challenge is particularly great. The story is a wisp of a thing about a titled Viennese family on the brink of bankruptcy whose only hope to survive is to marry their oldest, Arabella, sung in Paris by superstar Renée Fleming, off to a wealthy suitor. Her father has taken steps to ensure this including soliciting potential grooms via the mail and dressing the family’s youngest daughter Zdenka, here a radiant Genia Kühmeier, as a boy to cut out the competition and reduce cost. Arabella meanwhile is the belle of just about every ball until almost against all expectations her father's plans come to fruition when she falls for Mandryka who has responded to his dead uncle's solicitation as a suitor. The drama arises from everything not working out quite as simply as it is supposed to, though this is an opera at times blissfully free of event.

But the Opera de Paris placed some very good bets on a team with a great track record with the more delicate and ephemeral of Strauss’ operas. In 2008, a nearly identical team fashioned a superb staging of Capriccio for the Vienna State Opera, which was one of the highlights of my recent opera going career. This Arabella wasn’t quite that good, but it was spectacular in its own way nevertheless. Ms. Fleming lives up to her star billing in her core repertory here. Granted she may not look like a woman celebrating what her character calls the last night of her childhood, but she certainly can sound like it, all bright, lush and beautiful. There is a warmth and inherent melancholic edge to her sound that fits so perfectly with Strauss that it is hard to pay too much attention to whatever legitimate criticisms one might raise on finer points of vocal technique. She is again placed among a stellar cast including one of the most outstanding of current German baritone’s Michael Volle as Mandryka. He portrays a rough-around-the-edges masculinity that imbues the whole opera with an internal logic that sustains it during even the thinnest moments. And while on the topic of vocalists, I must mention another artist whom I’m eager to see on American shores much more frequently , soprano Genia Kühmeier who stepped into this run with this performance as Zdenka. Her Act I duet with Fleming was so achingly beautiful you could wrap yourself up in it for days. Kühmeier's easy and bright ringing tone is a joy and she adds further depth to an already great cast. Kurt Rydl sang Arabella’s father Waldner a bit on the bombastic side and Joseph Kaiser, who was announced as ill before the performance but sang anyway, managed a respectable Matteo.

Also on board again as with the Vienna Capriccio was Paris’ music director Philippe Jordan who manages again to give Strauss a quick-on-his-feet sweep. He kept the pressure on the cast volume-wise, but never to the point of forcing anyone to go beyond where they were comfortable from the sounds of it. The design team also returned again under director Marco Arturo Marelli who employed a similar mobile, dream-like set to maximize a sense of time flowing by like a ball or a party. Set elements entered and exited the viewing area on a large circular rotating stage bisected by several panels that each rotated on their own axis to reveal either the paneling of a 19th-century parlor or a burnished silver wall. At one end, the parlor wall gives way to a painted view of a partly cloudy sky. But the color motif here is the steely blue of Arabella’s gown. It matches the curtain used to close Act I and outside of white and a few dashes of pink or purple, it dominates the stage. In one of the more stirring passages, its that same gown that is worn by numerous imagined Arabella stand-ins that haunt Mandryka’s understandably jealous mind in Act II as he sees her dancing and kissing any number of young, handsome bare-chested men as the couples wheel and dance across the stage in pairs.

The tone is perfect throughout without ever managing to take all these events too seriously and keeping things dreamy and romantic. The pair of duets between Mandryka and Arabella anchor the show beautifully and can—and do—bring tears. To be fair, despite its strengths, though, this Arabella is not a revolution in opera. But what it does represent, I think, is exactly the kind of production and success that a company like Peter Gelb’s Metropolitan Opera has been searching around in the dark for. It is decidedly not an old-fashioned grade school diorama of a show. It looks modern, and pretty as well. But it is also not radically reinterpreting or sharply investigating the source material either. It's the kind of show that might trick you into thinking its something daring, when in fact, its just he latest update of something that's good, but decidedly familiar. However as New York audiences have found out in the last few years, wanting something like this and getting something like this are two very different things. In the meantime, Paris has a wonderfully sung Arabella that runs for three more performances in Paris through July 10.
3 years ago | |
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Brian Jagde Photo: Arielle Doneson
Tenor Brian Jagde is having quite a year. The young vocalist is in his third year as an Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera and recently he’s racked up two high profile notices. He received one of the top prizes just last month at Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition in China. And his summer just got a lot more interesting when he was tapped to step in for an indisposed lead in Santa Fe Opera’s production of Tosca which opened on Friday. He’ll be singing Cavaradossi throughout the run there opposite a number of stars including Amanda Echalaz, Raymond Aceto, and Thomas Hampson. He’s an exciting young singer and one with a schedule that is already filling up with engagements around the world in a variety of Italian and French roles. Luckily, he’s also a very nice guy and took time before his big debut in Santa Fe to ponder the often imitated but never duplicated 10 Questions for Out West Arts.
  1. What role would you most like to perform, but haven’t yet?
    There are so many great roles in the repertoire. Singing Cavaradossi in Santa Fe is especially significant because it's the dream role I've had my sights on for a while. I guess I'd say the next role that I'd like to perform the most would be Riccardo from Un Ballo in Maschera.
  2. What role would you never perform, even if you could?
    I don't have an answer for that. If I am capable of performing a role, and it's appropriate for me and my voice type, I can't think of a reason I wouldn't perform it.
  3. You’ve already worked with some of the greats in the opera world in that last few years during your time as an Adler Fellow with San Francisco Opera including Renée Fleming, Karita Mattila and conductors like Nicola Luisotti. Who haven’t you worked with yet, that you’d most like to?
    One of the best parts of being in this business is getting to meet many different artists and getting to collaborate with them on the stage. I enjoy working with all different types of artists. I think the people I'd most like to work would be a toss up between Maestro James Levine or Maestro Riccardo Muti. I think that each of their wealth of knowledge could serve me for an entire career.
  1. You recently won one of the top prizes at Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition in China. How important is such an achievement for your career right now?
    I've never considered myself a competition singer. I feel very lucky and honored to have been awarded prizes, and especially amongst so many talented singers. How could winning ever come at a bad time? Winning one of the top prizes in Operalia seems to be one of the first major achievements this year, towards what I hope is a great career! All of these things are important. Without a doubt, the competition has helped me a great deal to step into a category of singers I am honored to join.

    This career is like walking a tight rope - you just have to stay balanced on that fine line and enjoy the ride, and that is what I am doing this year. So far I've debuted at a few regional houses, been to Beijing and had an amazing experience working with the great Placido Domingo, which resulted in some unexpected prizes. Now I'm going on stage to sing my first Cavaradossi with Santa Fe Opera! Later this year I am going to Munich for the first time to reprise La Bohème in Concert form with Maestro Maazel at the Munich Philharmonic, and then singing Tosca with Patricia Racette at The San Francisco Opera! I am walking that tight rope and am so honored by all the opportunities that these represent.
  2. You’ve already booked engagements all around the world in the next few years. Any tips for dealing with jet lag?
    I am always excited to share my tips for dealing with jet lag. There are a few products I highly recommend for flying that allow me to feel no jet lag when I step off a plane, and I love to share them with other singers who can benefit.

    The first and most obvious is water. A lot of people think jet lag is due to lack of sleep, but mostly it is due to a lack of hydration. I go by the rule that If I'm on a 5 hour flight, I bring 4 liters of water on the plane with me, and I alter those numbers based on the length of any flight.

    Probably the most important find of my career is The Humidiflyer. The Humidiflyer looks like an oxygen mask you would wear in intensive care. What this product does, besides make you look funny, is filter the air from other peoples germs, and it saves the condensation from your breath, keeping the air moist. The makers originally made this for business people to help them with jet lag, but I think this should be in EVERY singer's bag. They say to wear it for at least half the flight. I usually put it on after take off and remove it just before landing.

    I put Peppermint Oil under my nose about 2 times during a 5 hour flight. This keeps my airway open, and supplements the moisture. To help with the sleeping, I always take 1 or 2 Advil PM, depending on what time I am starting my day at my destination. I've been able to sing almost immediately after stepping off the plane by sticking to this regimen.
  3. The role of Tosca’s lover, Cavaradossi, figures prominently for you this year both in San Francisco and in Santa Fe where you’re stepping into this starring role on somewhat short notice. What’s the trick to getting this young lover exactly right?
    Cavaradossi has proven to be a bit harder than I thought. It didn't help that I haven't had a ton of time to be in his shoes before going up on stage, but there are a few things that I understand very well.

    Cavaradossi is an artist, a revolutionary in a time where Italy is in constant back and forth struggles with outside and inside powers. He is a strong individual, both physically, mentally, and emotionally. As a lover, he knows exactly what Tosca needs to hear so that she will be satisfied. He is understanding even after they have their little spats, and can always overcome her ability to agitate him because all the things he can't stand are the same things he loves about her. Isn't that something we can all relate to in long term relationships?

    He is a committed and faithful man, demonstrated by the fact that he moved to Rome for Tosca, a highly dangerous environment for a revolutionary of his kind. His honor and courage are demonstrated through his help to Angelotti, his fellow revolutionary comrade. He's very proud, a hard worker, extremely passionate, and he is a real stand up guy.

    I think there isn't any more of a trick to getting into the soul of this character than others in different operas, it's more a matter of trying to put yourself in their shoes, and trying to embody their nature. Cavaradossi proves hard when it comes to becoming an Italian man. I am an American, and I look like an American. How do I make the audience forget that, and have them see a man who is true blood Italian? I have been studying the way of the Italian people daily, and hope to make this evident in my acting on stage and become increasingly convincing as I go through my career.
Brian Jagde as Cavaradossi Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2012

  1. Your iPod is destroyed by a vengeful mezzo. Which lost tracks would you miss most?
    Darn those vengeful mezzos! I have to say that this would not throw me off my game, as I have all my music backed up in numerous sources so those Mezzos would never have a chance of making me lose a track. We have the cloud now!

    But, if for some reason every backed up version of my music went missing, I'd miss tons of tracks. I have all kinds of recordings of others, of myself, in different genres like pop, rock, classical, alternative, jazz, oldies, and opera, so to choose one track would be hard. When it comes to recordings I have of myself, I think someday I'd like to listen to my journey as a singer and how I've developed, so maybe I'd miss those the most, because I wouldn't be able to replace them.
  2. What's your current obsession?
    It has been and seemingly always will be watching TV - I am an addict! I think in a standard calendar year, I watch 40-45 seasons of shows in their entirety. I'm obsessed. My newest brand new show that I think will be the biggest hit of the year is The Newsroom on HBO. Brilliant writing, and acting.
  3. With which of your operatic roles do you have the most in common?
    I try to find things in common with all the roles I perform, because that way I can tap into parts of myself that aren't at the forefront. I connect most easily with passionate, honest, faithful, romantic, strong-willed, hard-working characters because that is who I am.

    Then there are the extreme character traits that I can build off of things about myself. For instance, I am not a killer, but in Carmen, I have to play a man who has killed and who eventually kills again. How can I do that if I've never done that? This is where my job becomes a lot of fun! I have to tap into parts of me that I either used to be, or never thought I was like in order to play Don José, so I go back in time to a Brian who was obsessive. When I get that obsession out there, I can see how Don José feels towards Carmen. Then I can research people who kill people, how they do it, the psychology behind how and why different types commit murder, and go from there.

    Knowing that Don José is a man who doesn't know how to resolve a problem without getting physical is key. Then we can explore the sexual frustration, and other psychological reasons, and see why stabbing her finally gets him a release he never got while with her. Now, I, Brian, don't and haven't had to deal with that, but I have to be able to play that person. This is why it's fun to be other people for a few hours a few nights a week. There are so many roles I have things in common with, but sometimes the most fun are the ones I don't!
  4. What’s next for Brian Jagde?
    I mentioned the future appearances this year, and I also am making my Berlin Deutsche Oper debut next year, which I am looking very much forward to. My plan is to stick to a core set of repertory that can sustain a career. I really want to sing Lyric repertoire as long as I can. I'd love to continue to sing roles like Rodolfo from La Boheme, Pinkerton from Madama Butterfly, Cavaradossi from Tosca, as well as Don José from Carmen, and the title role of Werther. I'd like to add other lyric roles like Alfredo from Traviata, De Grieux from Manon, Romeo from Romeo et Juliet, the title role of Faust, Edgardo from Lucia, and definitely Riccardo from Ballo. These are what I'd like to see, and I am seeing for the next few years for myself. Right now, all I know for sure is that I love learning new roles, and I'm excited to see where the future takes me!
3 years ago | |
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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.
3 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.
3 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.
4 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.
4 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.
4 years ago | |
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