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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Winter Season Diaries: NYCB's Academy Awards

Teresa Reichlen and Daniel Ulbricht in Prodigal Son, photo @ Andrea Mohin

The first week of Winter Season at NYCB is usually low-key. The company is tired from the Nutcracker marathon and also rehearsing for the inevitable world premiere of some new works. So the programming tends to be basic Balanchine. Stuff the audience knows and loves. Dancer-proof ballets.

And thus it was so this winter season. The first week was dominated by two excellent Balanchine triple bills: a "Balanchine Short Stories" program of La Sonnambula/Prodigal Son/Firebird and a more eclectic program of Allegro Brillante/Swan Lake/Four Temperaments. I saw one of the AB/SL/4T's performance and two "Short Stories." I don't need to tell you that Tiler Peck was amazing/super/stupendous in Allegro, and that her diagonal of consecutive triple pirouettes that was timed to end exactly with a CRASH in the piano chords gave me goosebumps. Andy Veyette was her fine, steadfast partner. Ashly Isaacs made an energetic debut as Sanguinic in the 4T's and Anthony Huxley's Melancholic was a highlight. He really has the contorted backbends and sudden shifts in poses down pat and what's more, make them look natural.

La Sonnambula, Prodigal Son, Firebird and Swan Lake were interesting as it required NYCB dancers to do something they're not accustomed to doing: acting. All four are short but intense story ballets and it's not okay to simply "do the steps, dear." I saw two separate casts and it's interesting how different dancers handled this demand to act. So, we now present the Academy Awards of Motion Dances, winter NYCB edition.

Nominees: La Sonnambula, Prodigal Son, Firebird, and Swan Lake

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Daniel Ulbricht in Prodigal Son. You could simply marvel in his technique -- huge flying jumps, series of triple/quadruple pirouettes that he decelerated as a show of control. But his portrayal was a success because he clearly made an arc in the Prodigal Son's development from an arrogant brat to a horndog lush to the humbled but mature man. His first and last interactions with his father (a wonderful Aaron Sanz) rang true. His chemistry with Teresa Reichlen's implacable Siren was hot. When the Prodigal Son crawled under the Siren's crotch there was a gasp in the theater. The Maria Kowroski/Joaquin de Luz by pairing by comparison was too PG-rated in energy to make much of an impact.

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Teresa Reichlen in Prodigal Son. When did Reichlen turn into such an actress? Her Siren was nasty, sexy, venomous. We all know about the Siren's famous snake coiling arm gesture, but she was the only Siren out of the three I've seen this year (Maria Kowroski and Veronika Part of ABT were the others) to use her cape as a boa constrictor. When she tightened that velvet around her neck and looked at the boys suddenly we were in an S&M club. When she kicked the beaten and robbed Prodigal Son it was delicious.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Zachary Catazaro's Prince in Firebird. Firebird is such a ballerina-dominated ballet. Who cares about the Prince and his insipid Princess? Well, Catazaro proved that it's possible to make something out of this role. Catazaro is the only Prince I can remember in recent memory who actually responds with surprise to the light at the back of the stage before the Firebird (AshleyBouder) makes her entrance. A tender glance here, a startled reaction there, and all of a sudden this becomes the Prince's story as well. In contrast Justin Peck merely let Teresa Reichlen to carry the entire ballet.

Sterling Hyltin and Chase Finlay, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Sterling Hyltin as the Sleepwalker. I know this is sort of cheating but Sleepwalker is a SHORT role. Most of the ballet is dominated by the flirtation between the Poet and the Coquette and the various interactions at the masked ball. The Sleepwalker flits onstage in her candle, flits offstage, and only returns for the ballet's gruesome conclusion. Hyltin's feathery light bourreés which made her seem like she was gliding across the floor, her mass of unkempt tresses, and the completely blank, soulless stare she gave her Poet (Chase Finlay) whenever he tried to touch her made a ghostly frightening impression. By contrast, Tiler Peck's very well-danced Sleepwalker was very much of this world. Because she's Tiler Peck she was technically clean as a whistle. But the ethereal feeling was not there. This extended to her perfectly straightened, set and sprayed hair which just didn't give off a Crazy Woman in the Attic vibe.

Honorary mention in supporting act go to Aaron Sanz as the Father in Prodigal Son, Daniel Ulbricht who brought down the house as Harlequinade in La Sonnambula.

And just for kicks:

Chagall's initial curtain
Best Production Design: Is this even a race? It's still Chagall's amazing Firebird backdrops. In fact, the trouble with this ballet is that the production can dwarf the actual dancing. Thankfully NYCB currently has Teresa Reichlen and Ashley Bouder, two strong Firebirds. They have different strengths -- Reichlen uses her long arms and back to create a soulful, majestic creature. Her Berceuse is a song of mourning. Bouder startles with the quickness of her jumps. But both are equally valid interpretations and the force of their personalities can battle Chagall. No mean feat.

Mearns and company in Swan Lake, photo @ Paul Kolnik
Best Costumes - Alain Vaes' costumes for Swan Lake. Yes, the red-headed stepchild of the Balanchine canon, his not-very-inspired abridged Swan Lake. The ballet he openly said was a "bore" and changed countless times (new coda to adagio, added variations, dropped variations, reshuffling numbers, you name it). The ballet itself despite some lovely choreography for the corps remains a odd duck -- as if someone had decided to choreograph to a 30 minute orchestral suite from a 2+ hour ballet. But, my oh my, the costumes! Siegfried and his hunters have real hunting bags along with their bows and arrows, and the corps de ballet is outfitted in these black feathery concoctions that look gorgeous. The image of the black swans surrounding their Swan Queen (decked in the traditional white tutu) is stunning. And in the Swan Lake I saw with Mearns and Jared Angle, the costumes were just about the only thing great in that performance.

Best Original Score - I don't know. Getting to be a Sophie's choice here. Stravinsky's Firebird is one of the most famous ballet scores of all time but Prodigal Son's score matches the action so well that ... We'll defer to Mr. B on this one. No doubt he'd pick Firebird.

Best Director - George Balanchine in Prodigal Son. Duh. And look at this picture. 'Nuff said.

Best Picture - Prodigal Son. Made in 1929 but has lost none of its dramatic power. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll blush. And if you're not moved by this, then ...

Now I'm signing off because I really don't want to hear any of these winners thanking their agents and publicists.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Obama, no longer president, but always My President

A photo posted by Ivy Lin (@poisonivylin) on

It's hard to believe that in less than 24 hours Barack Obama will no longer be POTUS. He's a man I admire so much as a person, as a politician, as a leader, as a role model.  He never lost his dignity, his cool, and (most importantly) his humanity. Other people have expressed their admiration more eloquently. I'll just say this: Barack Obama might no longer be the President of the United States, but he'll always be My President.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Roméo et Juliette - Shakespearean Tragedy is a Happy Night at the Opera

Grigolo and Damrau, photo @ Ken Howard
Romeo and Juliet are in the crypt. Romeo succumbs to the poison just as Juliet awakens from her self-induced slumber. Juliet stabs herself so she can die along with Romeo. Bodies slump over each other. Curtain. That's what happened last night at the end of the Met's new production of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. It's basically what happens at the end of any presentation of Shakespeare's play.

Tragic. Heartrending, right? But as the lights dimmed I felt something I haven't felt while attending an opera in a long time: happiness. Yes, happiness.

Why? Because the performance last night was pretty much perfect. Not perfect in the sense that there were no flaws with the singers (there were), or that the production by Bart Sher was mind-blowing (it wasn't), but the energy from the star-crossed lovers (Vittorio Grigolo and Diana Damrau) was such that all flaws and reservations were swept aside in by the force of their performances. They were extraordinary.

Grigolo has finally found a role where he can channel all his sometimes hyper, erratic energy. His Roméo brimmed over with life. During the balcony scene he leaped onto one of the pillars in an attempt to touch Juliette's hand. Did he succeed? No, but he got cheers from the audience just for the try. Vocally he was also on his best behavior. There was his usual fondness for exaggerated dynamics, and his tendency towards veristic delivery clashed with the traditional French style of singing. But my, what singing! The role lies in a sweet spot in his voice -- there was no strain, no yelping. His voice was ringing and clarion all night. He capped the Act Four ensemble with a huge high C, and in his numerous duets with Juliette it was his ardent voice that soared over the orchestra and into your ears. Moreover, he really lived the role, made this somewhat sappy, cardboard character into someone real and lovable.
Balcony scene, photo @ Ken Howard

Damrau was not as flamboyant as Grigolo. You could tell she prepared for this role -- she can sometimes be brassy but she took care to present herself as shy and reserved. Her voice took some time to warm up. It now has a slightly husky, colorless quality and trills no longer come easily to her. "Je veux vivre" didn't have the ideally youthful quality and her voice has lost some flexibility. But as the opera progressed she and Grigolo's partnership became symbiotic -- they pushed each other to greater heights. Her Potion Aria was surprisingly powerful. By the bedroom duet her voice was soaring along with Grigolo's. She was a ying to Grigolo's yang. They complemented each other beautifully. Will they become the New New New (Onstage) Love Couple?

The supporting cast varied from mediocre (Mikhail Petrebko's wobbly, hollow Friar Laurent) to promising (Virginie Verrez as the pageboy) to excellent (Diego Silva as Tybalt). But really, this is a two-person show. Gianandrea Noseda led a vigorous but taut performance in the pit -- perhaps this was the reason for Grigolo's vocal discipline. There was no Marco-Armiliato-like indulging of every singers' vocal whim.

Picture I took of the unit set
Bartlett Sher's production took no risks but also did no harm. The unit set (by his longtime collaborator Michael Yeargan) was a handsome stone court yard that was a believable Verona. Small onstage props indicated different scenes like Friar's church or the crypt. The costumes by Catherine Zuber were colorful and generally flattering to the singers. The only misfire was Sher's longtime love for huge fabrics as a scene changer -- he used it in Le Comte Ory, he used it in Fiddler on the Roof, and in Act Four the "bedroom" scene was yet again a large, stage-encompassing sheet that was laid out over the stage. It also billowed over the stage on occasion. I guess this gave Grigolo and Damrau more opportunity to roll around the floor. But in the crypt scene two stone slabs were brought out. So why no bed, in a production otherwise so literal? Oh well. Sher's production was pretty, it didn't intrude on the Grigolo Show, and it of matched the somewhat treacly vibe of this entire opera.

Some nights at the opera feel like "eat your spinach" exercises. Last night was a comfort food night. Beautiful music, beautiful voices, pretty sets, pretty costumes. It was like digging into a bowl of chili fries.

Here is Grigolo in one of his patented curtain calls. On anyone else I'd say "over the top." For him? Ange Adorable.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Candide - Not the Best of All Possible Presentations

Candide on paper looked like the perfect opera to revive for New York City Opera's "Renaissance." The old NYCO's Hal Prince production (adapted from his Broadway version) was one of the company's glories. Bernstein's lovable operetta was a perfect fit for the uniquely American sensibilities of the company. So to bring back that wonderful production, with the same revered director supervising, well, that was the best of all possible worlds right?

Wrong. For one, the limits of the tiny Rose Theater made it necessary to scale down Hal Prince's production to what looked like the Dollar Store version. Same familiar circus-performers concept, but tiny, cheap drops that wrinkled and flapped, an awkward miking system that made the voices sound thin and inaudible but the set changes and stage movement ear-splitting, and a cast that was obviously under-rehearsed. Prince (and choreographer Patricia Birch) seem not to have gotten the memo however -- the tiny stage was filled with a full set of dancers and extras and all the stage business of his old production. I've seen a NYCO telecast of the original. In a full sized theater those effects are wonderful. Here it just looked like nonstop onstage traffic jams.

Things started poorly when the orchestra (led by Charles Prince) gave a bumpy, poorly coordinated and out of tune rendition of the famous overture. The cast had talent, but not the right sort of talent -- experienced Broadway actor Gregg Edelman (as Voltaire and the various other authority figures) forgot his lines in several instances. Sometimes he just shrugged it off, but one time he did the all-time most obvious "oops" stage trick -- simply turning the back to the audience and making a jazz hands gesture.

Meghan Picerno (Cunegonde) has a cute stage presence and comic timing, but not nearly enough voice for "Glitter and Be Gay." Note values were approximate, high notes came out either pipsqueak, flat, or not at all. At least the audience seems to have liked her. In the title role Jay Armstrong Johnson (who's done some great work in On The Town) sounded nervous and the miking was odd -- he faded in and out. It also sounds like he was trying to beef up his light, pleasant voice with an overly intrusive vibrato. Linda Lavin (Old Lady) finally brought a dose of old-school vaudevillian "We Need to Put On a SHOW!" mentality -- her line readings weren't subtle but at least you could tell this was a pro who knew how to put on a performance no matter the circumstance.

Other performers who acquitted themselves well in their roles: Jessica Tyler Wright was consistently cute and funny as Paquette, Chip Zien as the Jew who shares Cunegonde with the Grand Inquisitor (Brooks Ashmankis).

Gregg Edelmann, photo @ Tina Fineberg
But in the end I don't think it's the fault of the performers that this Candide was not even close to the best of all possible performances. They all have talent. The lack of rehearsal, preparation, venue, and (let's face it) funds was obvious. The opening night crowd was a real mink-and-champagne crowd but even for this fundraising group the presentation was careless -- Hal Prince didn't even come out for a curtain call. There was no speech by Michael Capasso about the importance of this production in NYCO history. If NYCO is truly going to have a Renaissance, they need to let that garden grow more so they can put on performances that don't come across as a pale imitation of the company they once were.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

December Warhorses, part four: Cats, and Yet Another Nutcracker!

Cats! photo @ Richard Termine

Last year I took my mom to see The Lion King, which I decided would be the perfect momsical. This year I decided to extend the tradition. My mom will only see family friendly musicals. And so my mom, predictably, chose Cats (what else)? The reason: "I love cats." (She does.)

A picture of the junkyard set
So I took my mom to see Cats, and it was an even more perfect mom-sical. I never saw the original 1982 Broadway version but I've read that this revival (also directed by Trevor Nunn) hasn't changed much. The dancing and lighting effects do have a very 1970's disco jellicle ball feel to them. My mom has a hard time understanding dialogue in the theater. Cats is a pure song-and-dance extravaganza. There's almost no storyline or character development (even my mom said "I wish there was more of a story") but she loved the non-stop dancing numbers, the cool set (the stage and theater is decorated like an abandoned junkyard), and of course the big 11 o'clock number "Memory."

The dance numbers are very fun and the ensemble cast performs these numbers with high energy. It's a big cast but some standouts:  NYCB dancer Georgina Paczoguin as Victoria the white cat was quite the scene-stealer. All she had to do was lift her leg in a high developpé and she caught your eye. The musical has some charming, tuneful vignettes -- the duet between cat burglars Mungojerrie (Jess LeProtto) and Rumpelteazer (Shonica Goodman) is an earworm. The best dance production number is "Magical Mister Mistoffelees" (played by the stunning Ricky Ubeda). It's really just fabulous. Leona Lewis was the original Grizabella but her performance wasn't well received by critics and she left the show quickly. Now Griz, the old cat with memories of her days in the sun is sung by Mamie Parris. She did a decent job but her voice doesn't have the volume or power of this:

Is Cats a deep musical experience? No. Is it is a great musical? No. But once you accept it for what it is, it's fun. I enjoyed the show, and what's more important, my mom loved it. I'm already planning next year's mom-sical.

Claire Kretzschmar as Coffee, photo @ Paul Kolnik
I rounded out my December warhorse tour by seeing -- you guessed it -- another Nutcracker! In this case the SPF/Cavalier leads were familiar (it was the tried-and-true Hyltin/Veyette pairing), but I did get to see some new interpretations I hadn't seen previously. Emily Kikta's Dewdrop, for one. Kikta certainly has the power for the role, and her movements have the right amplitude. What she needs is some refinement -- the timings of some of her exits and entrances were a bit off with the music and her posture could be improved. But that will come with experience.

The dancer who blew me away was Claire Kretzschmar's Coffee. I've complained in previous posts that none of the dancers seem to have the flexible backs and sensuality to sell this variation. Well, look no further -- Kretzschmar's Coffee was exactly that -- sinewy, sensual, a bit of a tease.

Also, can Harrison Coll get some sort of trophy for the incredible amount of roles he's played in Nutcracker this season? I saw him as Drosselmeier last night, also saw him as Candy Cane and Mother Ginger. I didn't get a chance to see his debut as Cavalier. But in the roles I did see, he brought a wonderful energy and enthusiasm. It's hard to picture such a young guy as Drosselmeier but Coll made it work.

So I've attended a record four Nutcrackers in a season, here are just some random happy memories:

- The high quality of the Candy Cane variations. I saw Harrison Coll, Devin Alberda (twice), Daniel Ulbricht (last night). All the Candy Canes made it through all 12 hoop jumps, the double jump at the end, and more doubles in the coda without tripping.

- Noticing corps de ballet members I hadn't previously -- Olivia MacKinnon as the only Marzipan I saw who could really do the gargouillades, Claire Kretzschmar as Coffee.

- Ashley Bouder and Tiler Peck in a fierce neck and neck battle for the Greatest Dewdrop of Them All. Because I saw both this season and I couldn't choose. Of course Teresa Reichlen was also not far behind and Emily Kikta definitely has potential.

The 8 amazing Polichinelles of this year's run. Photo @ Andrea Mohin

- The amazing 8 polichinelles, who in every performance I saw danced like true Balanchine ballerinas. They danced with the speed, precision, and musicality that would make Mr. B smile. In three of the four performances I saw the girls were: Veronica Dronsky, Eliza Eder, Kate Eid, Camille Leveque, Manuela Lira, Caden Santander, Ada Sensoy, Brando Speach. Remember the names. They upstaged their excellent Mother Gingers every time (and this season, I saw some good ones -- Alec Knight, Harrison Coll, Aaron Sanz).

- The three Sugarplum Fairies I saw who ALL brought something special to the role. They were all very different. Sterling Hyltin is the twinkly, bubbly, charming fairy and her partnership with Andrew Veyette is long-standing and very special . For instance in the coda/finale of the ballet Veyette lifts Hyltin around in a menage of lifts before finally lowering her SLOWLY. Hyltin does small beats with her legs as she's being lowered. The effect is enchanting.

Ashley Laracey and Zachary Catazaro were the most elegant, classical pairing. Laracey has a natural regal bearing and epaulement. But there's also warmth in her portrayal and I definitely want to see it again. Tiler Peck's SPF is a technical wonder -- endless balances, effortless turns, such a strong core that you never for a moment think she'll fall over.

So that's a wrap. Mr. B's production is so beautiful, so perfect, that when Nutcracker season is over I'm always sad. No more Nutcrackers. The positive: next year I get to see them again!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

December Warhorses, part three: MORE Nutcrackers!

Shelly Anderson as the hostess of Nutcracker Rouge
My December chestnut tour ended up with ... more Nutcrackers. Also, a visit to the Trocks. I didn't really enjoy the Trocks as much as I thought I would (despite their very funny Passages in Space, a parody of Merce Cunningham). The Dying Swan number was cute, I guess. But it really wasn't my kind of thing.

So let's talk about those Nutcrackers. On December 22, I went to see Company XIV's wonderful Nutcracker Rouge. It's now in the Irondale Theater in Brooklyn (tucked away by a church) but it's still the same great show it was last year, with a few changes here and there. Austin McCormick's skill at putting together a cohesive entertainment from a company of such eclectic talents is amazing. There's been some turnover (Laura Careless is no longer with the company -- Allison Ulrich danced Marie Claire this year) but the mainstays are still there -- Shelly Watson as the hostest/cabaret singer, Marcy Richardson singing Sia's "Chandelier" while doing some jaw-dropping Pink-like trapeze artist moves. As usual, the Nutcracker score is mixed with Madonna, baroque music, even hip hop, and whatever else strikes Austin McCormick's fancy. The result: by far my favorite alternative Nutcracker, ever. Go see them. You'll have fun and become an instant fan of this quirky, wildly talented company.

Here are some videos I took of the evening.

Here is their beautiful snow scene:

Arabian Variation. This guy's skill with a hula hoop is astonishing. I've seen many Arabian variations in many Nutcracker versions and I have to say this one is my favorite.

Marcy Richardson singing Sia's Chandelier while hanging from the hoop is a huge audience favorite. People started cheering the minute they saw the hoop being lowered. Marcy Richardson is a talented singer period -- she later sang a Vivaldi aria with all the bells and whistles ornamentation.

The charming Mother Ginger variation in which the children were replaced by sexy French poodles. This is another audience favorite, with people clapping the minute the poodles came out. Again, a very clever take on this Nutcracker tradition.

And finally, the grand pas de deux in which Marie-Claire's dreams are finally consummated. Audience gave them a standing ovation. This video doesn't give an idea of how small the space was in which they were dancing. But it's a tiny stage, and so the big lifts and acrobatic choreography had a high-wire thrill -- were they going to fall offstage right into the champagne bottles?

More videos of Nutcracker Rouge can be found here.

Tiler Peck as Dewdrop, photo @ Paul Kolnik
The next evening I was back at NYCB for my third Nutcracker of the year. I went primarily to see a different cast -- Ashley Laracey and Zachary Catazaro as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier, and also to see Tiler Peck's amazing Dewdrop again. Ashley Laracey is one of the company's most graceful, lyrical dancers and she did not disappoint in this role. Her flexible back, gorgeous extensions, and lovely epaulement immediately made her a gracious, winning leader of the Kingdom of the Sweets. In the grand pas de deux she unfurled her long limbs and beautiful feet to create a majestic, serene impression. Her movement is so lush, so able to fill out the phrases of the music. This is a portrayal that's worth a return visit. This is my third Sugarplum Fairy of the year and they were all in their own way wonderful. Sterling Hyltin is the most graceful and charming, Tiler Peck the most technically secure, and Ashley Laracey the most lyrical. I love them all.

Zachary Catazaro had a bit of hesitation with the shoulder jump lifts but otherwise was a fine partner and his variation in the coda had fast, centered, pirouettes with the free leg alternating between relevé position and pirouettes a la seconde. And have I mentioned that he's very, very handsome? Tiler Peck's Dewdrop is a known quantity -- a modern classic. Every time she dances this she almost plays with the audience, either by holding a balance for eternity, or by slowly lowering her free leg to show off her strength. Her way of accelerating turns never fails to astonish. Like Ashley Bouder she can perform those pirouettes with leg in high attitude without ever lowering the leg. She had the audience roaring.

Overall,  a lovely performance despite the fact that there had to be a mid-performance Marie change (the dark-haired Maria Kashvili was subbed out for the red haired Emerson Tate Alexander in the second act), and another weird hiccup: Alexa Maxwell was doing a lovely job in the Coffee variation until she dropped a bell and it slid downstage. It was later picked up by Devin Alberda as he ran into the wings after his Candy Cane variation. This chivalrous gesture earned him a small ovation.

Here is an instagram picture of Ashley Laracey and Zachary Catazaro:

A photo posted by Ashley Laracey (@ashleylaracey) on

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Warhorse Diaries, part 2: More Nutcrackers!!!

Abi Stafford in Yorkville Nutcracker

My tour of December warhorses has predictably resulted in more Nutcracker-ing. I did another round at NYCB with a different cast, and then headed over to the Yorkville Nutcracker.

Yorkville Nutcracker first: Francis Petrelle's Nutcracker is one of those "locally-based" versions. In this case, it's set in 1895 in Gracie Mansion and all the characters are historical people. The heroine is "Mary Strong," daughter of NYC mayor William L. Strong. The dancers are culled from a variety of sources but the kids are mainly of Ballet Academy East. If you're expecting a super-professional high-calibre Nutcracker you're likely to walk away from Yorkville Nutcracker disappointed -- the students and professional dancers are at varying degrees of ability, the production values consist of three different painted backdrops, and the music is recorded.

But this version has its charm. It's a real family affair -- the students are culled from various ballet academies around the city and if they're not quite as disciplined as the SAB students their diversity is endearing. The local color is also cute -- Teddy Roosevelt shows up in the first act first as a teddy bear and then as "Teddy Roosevelt." Perhaps the highlight of the performance is the first act snow scene. It's set in a pond in Central Park and the corps simulate 1895-style ice skating as snow gently falls. Lovely. The performance was anchored by the wonderfully expressive Mary of Hara Schwarz and Michael Aromando as her brother Putnam (who in this version doubles as the Prince).

The second act divertissements (set at the New York Botanical Garden) are more traditional -- yes there's Mother Ginger, there's a slinky duet between two scantily clad dancers in the Arabian variation, and the Sugarplum Fairy is very, very pink. I loved the simple but effective choreography for the Waltz of the Flowers -- the flowers make various circular patterns and use their arms as petals.

Therese Wender and Maximillien Baud made strong impressions as the Snow Queen and King, and Tallison Costo (Snow Prince) stole the show with his crowd-pleasing series of jumps. Megan Dickinson was also a graceful Dewdrop. The Dewdrop in this version is not the jumping powerhouse of the Balanchine version, but rather a fairy-like figure who flits in and out of the circling flowers. NYCB vets Abi Stafford and Craig Hall as the SPF and Cavalier were by comparison disappointing -- Stafford wooden and charmless, Hall (who retired last May) struggling with the partnering. Hall is of course a classy and expressive dancer -- would love to see him dance Drosselmeyer (Noah Wheaton in this version).

But this is a fun charming Nutcracker. And the Kaye Playhouse is intimate and inviting.

I'm a Snowflake!

The December 9 performance of Nutcracker at NYCB was just excellence as usual. Tiler Peck as the Sugarplum Fairy was as commanding as you'd expect -- rock solid balances, squeaky clean double pirouettes, such a strong core that she can practically partner herself. The only thing she's missing is that last ingredient of gentleness and charm -- there's a seriousness about her Sugarplum Fairy that causes one to admire rather than love the portrayal. Her husband Robert Fairchild continued his struggle with the classical repertoire post-An American in Paris. He's no longer out of shape, but the strength and spark are not there anymore and at this point I'm afraid they won't ever return. He said on twitter that he hasn't danced the Cavalier since 2013 and the inexperience showed -- he missed the small timing tricks that can create such magic in the grand pas de deux. For instance, in those long diagonals that culminate in the shoulder jump lift he was unable to create the illusion of running towards the SPF and simply catching her on his shoulder. He stopped dead center stage and Tiler hopped on his shoulder. He also struggled with the final fish dive pose and Tiler could not hold that fish dive as long as she usually does.

Tess Reichlen as Dewdrop, photo @ Andrea Mohin
This was my first time ever (!!!) seeing Tess Reichlen's Dewdrop and although her extreme height and legginess make it harder for her to complete all that tricky allegro footwork her airy jump, gracious demeanor and the amplitude of her movements created a beautiful (if very different) effect from the smaller whizbangs like Ashley Bouder or Tiler Peck. Tess is not a fast turner but in the coda she completed a series of slow, controlled Italian fouettes. Harrison Coll made a very strong impression as Candy Cane -- all 12 jumps went off without a hitch, double jump at the finale caused a huge roar, and he got more roars for more double jumps in the coda. Olivia MacKinnon completed the Marzipan solo with impressive hops/pirouettes on pointe, pique turns, gargouillades, but try to have fun while you're doing it! Her face exuded fierce concentration rather than fresh charm.

It's so interesting how Balanchine's Nut is so predictable yet so different in each performance. The applause machines never fail -- the growing tree, the snowflakes, the Prince's mime, the candy cane variation, the SPF being pulled on the magic slide. But finding the right balance of graciousness, charm, and technical security is a secret not many Sugarplum Fairies can unlock. I have been very lucky this season to see two such amazing Sugarplums -- Sterling Hyltin and Tiler Peck are as different as chalk and cheese, but both inspire wonder and awe. AND both have inspired me to buy a ticket to see yet another Sugarplum tackle the role -- Ashley Laracey on December 23. Stay tuned.

In other news, I thought the NBC live Hairspray was by far their most enjoyable live musical presentation yet. Seems like NBC has finally figured out that it's better to hire people who can really sing rather than to go for stunt casting. I hope NBC keeps up this trend of enjoyable family musicals around the holidays. They're getting better and better at this.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Warhorse Diaries 2016, part one: Aida and Nutcracker

Latonia Moore as Aida, photo by Cory Weaver
It's Nutcracker season again! Actually to be more precise it's warhorse season in NYC. Thanksgiving-Christmas is not the month for artistic institutions to take risks. It's tourist season, and so this means lots of Messiah's, Revelations, Rockettes, and Snowflakes. This is cash-cow time.

With that being said the quality that companies maintain these warhorses can be a good measure of the overall health of that company.  I hope to catch Alvin Ailey's Revelations and a Messiah before the season is done. And maybe another Nutcracker. Thanksgiving week I kicked off my tour of the warhoses at the Met for their reliable warhorse Aida and at NYCB for their money-tree, Nutcracker.

The energy of these two performances could not have been more different. On November 22, everything about Sonja Frisell's 1988 production of Aida looked and sounded tired. The production still has its old-fashioned picturesque charm but it's clear that the singers are left to their own devices without direction or guidance. Marco Armiliato led a sluggish and painfully out of tune Met orchestra. Dmitry Belosselskiy and Solomon Howard at least had sonorous bass voices. Marco Berti is a reliable belter and that's how he sang Radames: he walked to center stage, planted himself by the prompter and yelled the role from the very first notes of "Celeste Aida" to the end of the Tomb Scene. Mark Delavan (Amonasaro) sounds like the epitome of a provincial, rote baritone. Ekaterina Gubanova who was a wonderful Brangane a few months back has neither the voice or temperament for Amneris. Her smooth, medium-sized mezzo ran out of gas well before the Judgment Scene. She didn't bother acting this part which can be so much scenery-chewing fun. Just watch Fiorenza Cossotto eat the stage alive in this video and you'll get a sense of all that was missing from Gubanova's portrayal.

Latonia Moore was the reason I dragged myself to this performance. A year ago she was absolutely lovely in NYCO's otherwise middling Tosca. Moore, who is visibly pregnant, has one of the most beautiful soprano voices on the scene today. You can get drunk from the sound of her glowing, warm, soft-grained voice. And the evening started off strong with lovely floated notes at the end of "Ritorna vincitor" and a voice that soared rather than shrieked in the Triumphal Scene. Unfortunately she came to total grief in the Nile Scene -- that ascent to the famously exposed high C started off shakily and got no better as she reached for a note that simply wasn't there. The long ensuing duets with her father and Radames revealed that this role requires more stamina and body that Moore's delicate, lyrical voice can provide. I can't help but feel that she's being unfairly typecast for a role that's not really suited for her voice. I can only speculate about the reasons she's not being given Mimi or Desdemona. It was a depressing evening.

George Balanchine's Nutcracker was the huge blockbuster hit the New York City Ballet needed in 1954  and over 60 years later it's still an automatic sell-out. The quality of Nutcracker performances has ebbed and flowed along with the health of the company in the years following Balanchine's death. I remember a particularly dire performance over 10 years ago where the unfortunate Sugar Plum Fairy looked to be on the verge of tears the entire time.

This afternoon I went to a performance that was fresh as a daisy. The cast was well-stocked with a mix of adorable SAB kids, brand-new apprentice members and veteran principals who were all eager to show their best to the packed audience. Robert La Fosse reprised Drosselmeyer with the right amount of cape-waving eccentricity. The snowflakes and flowers were all together. The mice were as skittish and funny as ever, and touching: when their Mouse King (Alec Knight) died, they gathered around him with real heartbreak. Devin Alberda nailed the double-jump through the hoops in the Candy Cane variation. The eight Polichinelles who ran out of Mother Ginger were absolutely the best I've ever seen. They articulated the joyful pas de chats with the speed and precision of a true Balanchine dancer. They're little kids but dancing like pros. These details are so important in a successful Nutcracker performance.

Sterling Hyltin, eternally beautiful as SPF, photo @ Andrea Mohin
There's really not more superlatives I can add to the Sugarplum Fairy/Dewdrop team of Sterling Hyltin and Ashley Bouder (pictured above). Both are veterans at their roles and their experience shows -- Hyltin knows exactly how to wave that wand and bourrée downstage as the beautiful Sugarplum Fairy. If you closed your eyes and imagined a Kingdom of the Sweets Sterling Hyltin is exactly the enchantress of your dreams. And, in a more technical way, her balances were rock-solid and her pique and chaine turns were lightning fast. In the celesta solo she had a way of bouncing her pointes in passé/relevé so that her feet twinkled with the music. Andrew Veyette as the Cavalier was an expert partner, knowing exactly when to let go to give Hyltin the illusion of total weightlessness or invincibility. Their pas de deux ended with a picture-perfect fish dive. Of course.

As for Bouder, she powered through the Dewdrop role with a fearsome determination. In that long diagonal where she "sprinkles" all the flowers all her jumps lingered in the air for a second before she charged forward. She prolonged every one of Dewdrop's exits with an extra-long-held balance in arabesque. Of course she chugged out a few fouettés along the way. It was as if she was showing the kids how it's done.

I actually love warhorse season. There's something comforting about the Rockettes kicking their legs for the umpteenth time or having an entire auditorium rock along to Revelations . But old horses need love and nourishment. One company (the Met) seems content to let its warhorses starve, while another company across the plaza treats its old faithful with the enthusiasm of a brand-new puppy. The results of this treatment are all too easy for the audience to see.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Anna Netrebko's Manon Lescaut Provides Huge Waves of Sound ... And Little More

Anna Netrebko, photo @ Ken Howard
Anna Netrebko's much-anticipated Met debut of Manon Lescaut was a dream if you're the type of opera lover who craves huge, unstinting waves of sound to flood the auditorium all evening. During "Sola, perduta abbandonata" she walked downstage, and simply released the flood-gates of her voice to the 4,000 person auditorium. It was glorious surround-sound. It was the high point of her portrayal. You just bathed in the aural experience. Netrebko is one of the few singers who can do this.  Her voice has even acquired a degree of flexibility it didn't have when she was younger -- she turned out a beautiful trill in "L'ora, o Tirsi." Netrebko has maybe THE finest vocal endowment on the opera scene, period. There's not much her voice can't do. The lushness of her voice, her effectiveness in projecting her instrument, along with her security at the very upper and lower ranges of her voice, are all amazing.

Considerably less amazing however was her interpretation and connection to the text. Netrebko's vocal instrument is definitely a Stradivarius but her portrayal of Manon was an awkward mix of coquette, femme fatale, and tragedienne that only scratched the surface of the character. In the first act she didn't even pretend to be young -- she was a knowing sexpot from the moment she stepped onstage. Her character didn't grow -- her situation became more desperate but I didn't feel her pain. Maybe the falsest note was when she makes her abortive escape effort with Des Grieux in Act Two -- Netrebko ran around the room with her fur coat clumsily stuffing and re-stuffing jewels into her pockets and purposefully dropping those jewels again for another re-stuffing. The audience laughed. If this were opera buffa it'd be cute.

There were little moments of carelessness that ruined the illusion -- for instance, she started singing "Tu, tu, amore, tu!" before she turned around to "see" that Des Griuex had snuck into her chambers. She sometimes snatched breaths in odd places, which took away from the bite and pungency of verismo phrasing. Also her emphasis on uninterrupted waves of beautiful sound meant she often dipthonged vowels to a ridiculous extent. "In quelle trine morbide" had gorgeous crescendos and diminuendos but also sudden snatched breaths that destroyed the legato of the music. I realize that there's not many active Manon Lescauts around right now, and Netrebko is certainly preferable to Kristine Opolais. But Netrebko's incredible vocal gifts make me wish that she could give up the rhythmic slackness, potato mouth diction and lackadaisical characterization. Imagine the Manon she'd be then!

Alvarez and Maltman, photo @ Ken Howard

Marcelo Alvarez (Des Grieux) gives the same sort of performance I've seen him give many times over many years -- serviceable, professional, unmemorable. His voice still has some sweetness, and despite a tendency to croon he also has fairly good control of his upper register. He's just so damned basic in his presentation and delivery. There's never an "a-ha" moment with him where you hear the music differently or see the character in a new light. "Tra voi belle" was jaunty, "Donna non vidi mai" was passionate, and from the second act onwards furrowed brows meant that the character was in constant sturm and drang. The chemistry between him and Netrebko was non-existent -- oddly, that sort of worked. This Manon Lescaut was so self-absorbed that to her, Des Grieux was just another jewel in her box. 

The supporting cast was excellent. Christopher Maltman (Lescaut) and Brindley Sherratt (Geronte) did fine work as the sleazeballs. Maltman really brought charm and joie de vivre to his role so one could fall for his hustler schemes. This revival however could have used the classy, controlled conducting of Fabio Luisi. This time it was Marco Armiliato at the pit and the difference was noticeable. The Intermezzo was marred by some poor timing with the strings, and Armiliatio simply can't push the music forward. He indulges his divas in their worst traits, and is really just a routinier. When he conducts the Met Orchestra also sounds routine.

Expiring in the comforts of Geronte's old home, photo @ Ken Howard

The production by Richard Eyre has been modified -- Netrebko as can be expected does her own thing and got a new set of costumes. The business with the whores in Act Three has been toned down considerably. Otherwise the production remains the same in that it's handsome to look at, but makes almost no sense. Why does the first act train station look like a recreation of the Roman Coliseum? Why would Manon be dancing a flamenco at the same time she's putting on a baroque parlor show? Why would wartime France be deporting women of leisure? And why would Manon and Des Grieux board an ocean liner only to go right back to Paris to die? 

But I don't think anyone in the audience last night was there for Eyre's production. Excitement level was high for Netrebko's Manon Lescaut. I wish I'd been able to be as spellbound and adoring as the rest of the audience was. Netrebko has said that she wants to move more into verismo repertoire. She certainly has the voice for it. But right now the phrasing and attention to the text is not there.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Company XIV's Paris

The adorable front-drop to Company XIV's Paris

This isn't a political blog, so I won't talk about the single most depressing night in American politics that I've ever experienced. Instead I'll just talk about Company XIV and their wildly entertaining Paris that I saw last night. Again, they take a familiar myth (in this case, the Judgement of Paris) and give it a burlesque twist that combines a little bit of everything -- ballet, ballroom dancing, pole dancing, classical music, pop music, cabaret-style comedy and the rest of the kitchen sink. Director Austin McCormick has a knack for: 1) finding talented singers and dancers; and 2) harnessing those eclectic talents into a coherent, focused, appealing show. They don't take themselves too seriously but they're always professional. The show is naughty but never for a moment trashy. These are extremely talented classically trained dancers and singers who are just putting on a fun show. I highly recommend seeing their upcoming Nutcracker Rouge.

The show was anchored by "Zeus/Fifi" (Charlotte Bydwell) who wore a clever costume that was half silk tails, half mermaid costume. She twisted her body both ways to show off her alter egos. Throughout the night she told cabaret-style jokes while loosely narrating the story. The show started with a drag can-can (of course!) then got to the heart of the story, which is the shepherd Paris and his apple. Paris was danced by the talented, handsome Jakob Karr.

The whole evening had so many memorable moments. I'm glad I was able to capture a few on camera (they encourage photography and videotaping).

Here are some videos I took of this evening:

The Paris-Mercury matador-style pas de deux performed by Jakob Karr and Todd Hanenbrink:

The core of the show was the display by Paris's three choices: Athena, Juno, and Venus. Each of the three goddesses put out their best moves in hopes of winning that apple from Paris.

"Athena" Marcy Richardson performs Adele's Skyfall while dancing on a pole. Marcy Richardson's acrobatics/singing has become a beloved staple of these Company XIV shows:

The amazing countertenor Randall Scotting as Juno. Scotting was hilarious as the goddess of home and hearth. He was outwardly masculine with a lovely pure countertenor voice.

Venus was the curvaceous Storm Marrero who sang up a storm and finally won Paris's apple.

Of course at the end Helen of Troy walks off with Paris and the rest is history.

This show is wonderful. This company is wonderful. Please support them in their future ventures -- you won't be disappointed! Company XIV is currently playing at the Irondale Theater in Brooklyn. It's about a five minute walk from BAM.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Mattila Returns to Met, Richard Tucker Gala

Mattila and Dyka, photo @ Ken Howard
Karita Mattila's return to the Met after a five year absence was basically everything a beloved diva (and the audience) could hope for -- a great role (Kostelnicka in Janácek's Jenufa), an adoring audience, and a voice that is intact and needs no apologies. No it's not a young voice and Kostelnicka is a role often associated with sopranos of a certain age but Mattila's voice actually seems to be undergoing an Indian summer. It's remarkably warm, steady, and full of volume and richness. There was no veristic screeching. And no one decided to sprinkle ashes during her curtain calls.

Mattila is one of those rare complete artists. Her voice was just a bigger part of her detailed, charismatic portrayal of this tormented woman. First of all, Mattila is still beautiful, so when Kostelnicka sang about how she was once the most desired woman in the village but frittered away her youth, you believed her. Second of all, the energy she put into her performance lifted the entire evening. She deserved her ovations, and I hope she returns to New York for many more evenings. She's wonderful.

Her colleagues were not on her level. Oksana Dyka (Jenufa) has a large, penetrating voice with a fairly large range. Too bad she's one of those singers who sings completely through the nose, so what comes out is a shrill, unpleasant whine. She has a wobble too. Her portrayal of Jenufa was that of a mopey plain-Jane type, so different from Mattila's own portrayal in 2003 (which I saw, and remember). Mattila was vibrant and sensual -- no surprise that Jenufa got knocked up so quickly. Dyka looked like a sad sack even before Steva abandoned her. Daniel Brenna as Laca was even more unappealing. His voice was sturdy but his characterization almost non-existent. A menacing scowl was the beginning and end of his "acting." Laca honestly seemed more creepy when the curtain fell than at the beginning of the opera, which sort of belies the hopeful, even joyous finale.

The smaller roles in the little Moravian village were better cast. Veteran mezzo Hanna Schwarz made a strong impression as the Grandmother. Joseph Kaiser as the village playboy Steva had the kind of slick, cheap appeal you recognize (and hopefully avoid) at bars. Ying Fang was lovely as Jano, and Clarissa Lyons as Karolka was pretty and fresh-voiced. Conductor David Robertson seemed to be going for a Straussian shimmer in the orchestra. Great, except the folk rhythms of Jenufa were lost. The production by Olivier Tambosi is most remembered for the gigantic boulder that takes up almost the entire stage in Act Two. There's really not much else happening. No idea why this particular production has made the rounds in stages all over the world -- in London, San Francisco, Barcelona, Hamburg, Helsinki ...

Carnegie Hall on October 30 was crowded up to the vertigo-inducing nosebleed seats (where I was sitting) for the annual Richard Tucker Gala. The winner of the 2016 Richard Tucker Award is Tamara Wilson, who should satisfy the voice buffs that complain about how singers don't have big voices anymore. If you want a loud ringing voice with an amazing top, Wilson's your gal. Right now she needs some refinement in terms of presentation and interpretation. Her "Dich, teure Halle" had none of the radiance that's so important in this aria. The Act One trio from Norma was screamed -- no other word for it. Lucrezia's prayer from I due Foscari  showed more than pure muscle. There's a voice in there, just think the overall packaging has to be improved. Or maybe she needed more rehearsal time.

A photo posted by @anna_netrebko_yusi_tiago on

This year's gala had only one cancellation (Mr. Netrebko I mean sorry great spinto tenor of the future Yusif Eyvasov) and a pretty verismo resistant lineup. Javier Camarena, Lawrence Brownlee, Jamie Barton and Joyce DiDonato are fine singers but they can't and shouldn't sing Cilea. This meant that the singers got to sing their music instead of bawling out the usual Tucker Gala-type blood-and-guts arias. Maybe for this reason SuperDiva Anna Netrebko had a mid-performance encore of -- wait for it -- Cilea's "Io son l'umile ancella." Her earlier effort was that other verismo staple "La mamma morta." Anna Netrebko's virtues were all there -- the volume, the plush timbre, the instinctual ability to know what her audience wants and to give it to them. Anna is opera's version of comfort food. An over-eager fan ran up to the stage between numbers to give her an oversized bouquet, which Anna accepted with the hauteur of, well, Adriana Lecouvreur.

Other highlights: Lawrence Brownlee and Javier Camarena trading high notes in "Ah, vieni, nel tuo sangue" from Rossini's Otello, Joyce DiDonato singing a piece that actually had been written for her (an aria from Jake Heggie's The Great Scott), Larry Brownlee's aria from Dom Sébastien, Jamie Barton and Joyce DiDonato in the very un-gala like duet from Giulio Cesare, Renée Fleming (about to make her stage farewell to opera in Der Rosenkavalier) bidding farewell to Manon's little table. All of them displayed a vocal refinement that's rarely on display in this gala. Jamie Barton also sang "Mon coeur." She's got talent in spades. Oh yeah, Kristine Opolais, Nadine Sierra, and Joshua Guerrero also sang. Opolais's selections (Song to the Moon, Un bel di) she could probably sing in her sleep. She looked great in her gowns, that's all I'll say.

So that's a wrap. And to think ... I really might not hear any Cilea until next year's gala.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

ABT Fall Season

Blaine Hoven, Calvin Royal, Gabe Stone Shayer in Serenade After Plato's Symposium, @Andrea Mohin

The ABT's fall season is  so different from their overstuffed, predictable spring season. Their brief, eclectic fall season is always interesting, often amazing, sometimes frustrating. You can admire the diversity of their fall repertoire compared to their spring season and still wish that they mastered one style instead of tackling so many. I caught two performances this season. Wanted to catch more, but oh well.

Good news: Ratmansky's Serenade After Plato's Symposium is a keeper, one of the best things he's done for ABT. The ballet has structure, it has a a theme, and most importantly, it has charm and musicality. The score (Bernstein's 1954 violin concerto) is a beautiful piece of music. Ratmansky captured the spirit and camaraderie of this philosophical society perfectly. The male-male partnering was playfully homoerotic without ever crossing the line from (forgive the pun) platonic into erotic. Ratmansky did cater too much to the trickster tendencies of the ABT dancers by putting a bunch of virtuosic steps for each of the men, but even that had a purpose -- it brought a sense of competition to this otherwise utopian community. When the lone female (Devon Teuscher) appeared onstage it felt like a complete disruption of the harmony of this group. She danced briefly with Marcelo Gomes and left as soon as she arrived. The other men seemed to resent her presence -- bros before ho's.

The finale of Symposium is a joyful celebration of this little society. The men each take turns with mini-variations. One guy (Danil Simkin the first night I saw this, Jeffrey Cirio the second night) wowed the crowd with super-fast barrel and chaine turns. The seven guys lined up downstage center, shrugged their shoulders, the girl reappeared at the side, and curtain. These boys will be okay. Ratmansky is always great at drawing out performances from dancers -- Calvin Royal in particular stood out for his regal, imposing stature, and Gabe Stone Shayer had maybe the most impish goofy part. But really, the whole cast of boys was great. Devon Teuscher didn't have much to do except look hot in a toga.

Cast of Monotones II, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Other welcome returns to the repertory: Ashton's Monotones I and II. These two brief ballets are set to the haunting music of Erik Satie and have none of the trademark Ashton quaint charm. They demand total muscular control and a willingness to dance in a spacesuit. It's about shapes, poses, geometry. ABT's performance wasn't perfect. ABT's dancers aren't trained for the exposed adagio dancing of these mini-masterpieces. I saw some wobbly legs from both the Monotones II trio (Isabella Boylston, Stella Abrera, Joseph Gorak) and the Monotones I trio (Veronika Part, Thomas Forster, Cory Stearns), but the dancers treated this ballet with respect and were able to transmit the beautiful, mysterious otherworldliness of the ballet.

Moira Shearer, Margot Fonteyn and Pamela May
I wish I could say the same about their revival of another Ashton masterpiece, Symphonic Variations. The sextet of dancers, good as they were, just weren't able to capture the lean, taut severity of Ashton's choreography. Here is a picture of the original cast. Look at Moira Shearer, Margot Fonteyn and Pamela Mays' posture. They could be dancing a Balanchine B&W leotard ballet. Fonteyn in particular has the stern, implacable look of a Greek goddess. ABT's dancers got through this ballet but treated it like they'd treat Fille mal gardee: they smiled throughout, their arms were held daintily as if this were Les Sylphides. I was surprised that Wendy Ellis Somes was the stager -- you'd think she would have coached the dancers to harden their look. The girls (Luciana Paris, Christine Schevchenko, Cassandra Trenary) were worse in this regard than the boys (Cameron McCune, Calvin Royal, Alban Lendorf). The steps were there, but the minimalist flavor of the ballet was gone.

Balanchine's Prodigal Son also returned to ABT's repertory. This early masterpiece on paper looks to be a good fit with ABT -- unlike so much of Balanchine's canon it's an overtly theatrical work. Some acting details that tend to get lost at NYCB were so vivid here. For instance, the shenanigans of the Son's buddies were more individualized and striking. But ABT and Balanchine are still an odd fit. Even though Prodigal is story and character-driven, it's still Balanchine, which means it demands a kind of on-the-note musicality that ABT's dancers simply don't have. Danil Simkin wowed with his jumps and acted the role well. His crawl back to his father was as debasing and humiliating as it's supposed to be. And Veronika Part's long legs and movie star looks were definitely sexy to watch. But both of them were occasionally rhythmically slack and also didn't have the taut musculature that's so important in Balanchine. I admired Part for the way she used her arms in the Siren's signature coiling motion and she obviously rehearsed a long time with that cape. However her phrasing is too slow and deliberate -- the slicing through the air of the Siren's legs failed to make their full effect as a result. They get an A for effort.

I didn't get to see as much as I wanted this fall. I missed Jessica Lang's Her Notes and Benjamin Millepied's Daphnis and Chloe. ABT is a company best taken in small doses though. When asked to dance choreography designed on other company styles you realize they really are a jack of all trades, master of none.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

A Tell That Doesn't Tell the Tale

Tell's final tableau, photo @Marty Sohl

So last night I went to the Met's new production of Guillaume Tell and it was glorious, fantastic, everything I'd ever want in a staging of Rossini's masterpiece ... eh, who am I kidding? It sucked. Rossini's opera has some of the greatest (if vocally demanding) music ever written, but it needs a production that respects and advocates for the opera as a viable stage vehicle. Pierre Audi's production is terrible in every way. It's a total disaster.

Audi apparently decided that this opera about how We're Starting a Revolution (!!!) needed the black and white minimalist treatment. Costumes by Andrea-Schmidt-Futterer are mixed and matched across a variety of eras but the long skirts on the women mean "in the distant past." White for the peasants, black for the conquerers. Mathilde is wearing a black Victorian bustle gown in the beginning because she's a Hapsburg! When she joins the revolution she changes to a white gown! Surprise surprise! Set designer George Tsypsin populated the stage with some styrofoamy fake rocks, an upside down cow, a big suspended ship/crossbow (???), and several tubes that light up during the finale (see above picture). Current fashion dictates that it's absolutely unacceptable to have painted backdrops so we had a mirror that reflected an ice blue. I guess it's Lake Lucerne?

The suspended boat and mirror lake, photo @ Marty Sohl
There wasn't any aesthetic sense in the sets and costumes, but all of this might have worked had their been any direction of the large cast and chorus. Alas, there was none. The large cast and chorus shuffled on and offstage with no discernible reason -- onstage bars and bars before they had to actually sing, and often they lingered onstage with absolutely nothing to do. The first scene is supposed to be a village festival. The chorus shuffled to center stage and stood mirthlessly. There was a complete disconnect between the rousing music and the unrelenting dullness onstage. The opera is long but it's not exactly action-packed, and somehow Audi didn't even make those "big moments" register. For instance blink and you might have missed when Tell has to shoot an arrow through an apple instead of his son Jemmy. Oh by the way there's no attempt to make Jemmy look like a boy here. Not sure whether that was a choice or it was because the Jemmy (Janai Brugger) simply was too curvaceous to attempt the in travesti look.

Okay, so the production wants to be boring and inoffensive. I don't have a problem with that. Alas, Audi wants to be "edgy" as well. In the third act choreographer Kim Brandstrup's ballet is some Hapsburg women in black leather S&M'ish tutus forcing the poor peasants to dance. The Hapsburgs have whips, y'all. It was more ridiculous and repetitive than anything else but it triggered a few audience members to boo. They might have been letting off steam about the awfulness of the production. I would have too had I cared more.

Finley as Tell, photo @ Marty Sohl
This is a shame because the cast of Tell mostly did justice to this demanding work. Gerald Finley was magnificent in the title role. His baritone is warm, smooth, and he sang his music with a real sense of legato. "Sois immobile" was a vocal highlight. He was also the only singer to attempt any kind of "characterization" -- his Tell is the quietly charismatic type of leader. They start a revolution by reassuring that it's going to be okay. Think Obama, not Trump.

In the demanding role of Arnold Bryan Hymel certainly had the stamina and the upper register to get through the opera. He's of a very strong constitution and is specializing in these heroic French grand opera parts. He sailed through the big double aria "Asile héréditaire" and "Amis, amis" without any obvious strain. Unfortunately Hymel's actual voice is ... ugly. No other way to put it. Yes it has an extremely secure upper register with a lot of ping on those high C's, but the rest of the voice is pinched, bleaty, and without any beauty or warmth. It's as if the Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music and the goats started to sing.

You could say "Well who else can sing this better?" Except the cover for this run (who sings November 2) is John Osborn,  who in my opinion sings with way more beauty, if not security in the upper register.

Compare and contrast Hymel with Osborn:

Rebeka and Hymel, photo @ Marty Sohl
Marina Rebeka is an old hat at the role of Mathilde. She's sung this role in Pesaro, Amsterdam, and Munich. Her bright, shimmery soprano can float over the large choruses and has enough flexibility for the role. "Sombre forêt" sounded more hard-pressed than lyrical and some of her coloratura has a mechanical, machine-gun feel. But this is a quality lyric soprano, and compared to Hymel her voice is pleasing to the ear. Janai Brugger as Jemmy also had a bright, shimmery kind of voice. I wish she'd made more of an attempt to actually portray a boy but that might have been the director's choice.

The rest of the cast was a mixed bag. Maria Zifchak is a veteran mezzo and performed the part of Hedwige admirably if without a hint of engagement in her role. Kwangchul Youn has a big beefy bass and a nice patrician air. John Relyea also did some fine work as the villain Gesler. Michele Angelini's Ruodi started off the evening with an aria that was long on high notes but (like Bryan Hymel) short on vocal beauty.

The stars of the evening were the chorus, who despite being given almost no stage direction were musically always alert, sensitive, and really carried this opera through from the opening festivities to the radiant finale. "Go sing in the chorus" is often used as a put-down to aspiring singers but in this case, the chorus deserved as many flowers and bravos as anyone else onstage. The other star was the Met orchestra, led by the soon-to-be-departed Fabio Luisi. They were fantastic, and Luisi's conducting is always classy. Some of the newer "hot" conductors at the Met have conducted this sort of music without a hint of elegance. It's push push push towards the cabaletta. Not Luisi. It's New York's loss.

Energy and enthusiasm was low the entire evening. There were a depressing number of empty seats in all sections of the house, polite golf-clap applause after numbers, and, as I mentioned, even some booing during the ballet. This goes back to my original point about this opera needing a strong advocate. It hasn't been presented at the Met since 1931, and even though the music is great it's not an easy opera. It's long, it's demanding on the audience's stamina. Pierre Audi's production makes the worst case for this opera. Productions like these need the Lone Ranger to run them out of town.