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Friday, December 22, 2017

Met's Hansel and Gretel is a Full Course Delight

The cast of Hansel and Gretel take a bow
I've come to accept that the Met opera seasons are like a curate's egg. You can't expect a consistent level of quality and inspiration anymore. But once in awhile, you might stumble upon a totally delightful performance. And such was the case with their holiday presentation of Hansel and Gretel. Despite a mid-performance substitution (Tara Erraught, the production's Hansel, sounded wan in the first two acts and was replaced after intermission by Ingeborg Gillebo) the overall performance was one of the best things I've seen the Met do in, well, quite awhile.

Erraught and Oropesa, photo @ Marty Sohl
Many of the Met's "holiday presentations" are slightly formulaic -- it's as if the Met knows that with NYCB's Nutcracker and Radio City Music Hall's Rockettes not many of the December tourists want to sit through a heavy three+ hour opera. But this revival of Engelbert Humperdinck's lovely work (the music sounds like a Wagnerian operetta) had a very strong cast. For one, Lisette Oropesa returned to the Met after nearly four years away. During that time she has sung Lucia di Lammermoor and La Traviata to great acclaim and her voice reflects it -- the sweet, fluttery soprano I remember has grown in both volume and body and now has more warmth. I think she's hitting her prime as a singer. BUT she has not outgrown Gretel. In fact her portrayal of the determined heroine was just awesome in every way. She was not "cute," but more of a tiny, determined terror and thus a formidable opponent of the witch. Her spastic dancing was delightful, and vocally she was superb -- soaring high notes, extended trills, and an intrinsic musicality that allowed her to make the music both funny and beautiful. Come back soon Lisette!

Siegel and Oropesa, photo @ Marty Sohl
Tara Erraught as Hansel was overpowered both vocally and dramatically by Oropesa but as she was unwell it's understandable. Ingeborg Gillebo carried the performance to the finish line and for that we can be grateful. It's unfair to compare her to Erraught who was sick but Gillebo had a pleasing, light mezzo that blended well with Oropesa. The rest of the cast was strong. I don't like tenor witches but veteran character tenor Gerhard Siegel worked well with the material. Dolora Zajick as the mother unleashed her still impressive voice. Too bad her English was complete mush -- without supertitles I never could have made heads or tails of what she was singing. Quinn Kelsey's sturdy, healthy-sounding baritone made a good impression as the father and he had excellent diction, no supertitles needed. The opera's most magical moment might be the Sandman's aria, and Rihab Chaleb sounded lovely. I wish I could say the same about Hyesang Park's rather nervous, charmless Dew Fairy. Donald Runnicles led a wonderful account in the pit -- he kept the right balance of the light and dark in Humperdinck's score. Enough Wagner and enough operetta present to make this, as I said, a Wagnerian operetta.

Children dreaming of food, glorious food, photo @ Marty Sohl
Richard Jones' production is another reason for the evening's success. The surreal, terrifying production puts the "grim" back into the Grimm fairy tales. This is not Disney. At the same time it has enough heart to make this appropriate as a family affair. I was sitting next to a family with a delightful young boy who was entranced. In one of the opera's best moments the children are put to sleep and they dream of a glorious feast with candelabras. It was a stark contrast to their hand-to-mouth reality and the quiet way the curtain descended on the children's dream had as much quiet power as Parsifal's Good Friday scene.

So if you are in New York, consider going to this revival of Hansel and Gretel. It's not just a holiday confection. It's a full meal's worth of opera. Performances run through January 6.

Here's a delightful clip the Met posted on its youtube channel:

Gomes as Widow Simone
In other news, the shocking downfall of many of the most prominent men in, well, the country has extended to Marcelo Gomes, the beloved veteran star of ABT. In a tersely worded statement ABT announced that Gomes resigned after an investigation was launched into allegations of sexual misconduct that occurred eight years ago. I'm in total shock -- Gomes has been the rock of the company, beloved by audience and colleagues, and not a whiff of scandal ever touched him. I can't believe I inadvertently caught his final performance on the Met stage -- at Veronika Part's hastily organized farewell he danced Ratmansky's Nutcracker Pas De Duex. I knew that he couldn't dance Onegin or Albrecht or Romeo forever, but I was looking forward to seeing him dance for many years to come as he had transitioned so well into character roles -- his Widow Simone was an absolute hoot. Details of the investigation are vague. For now I'm sad that I might never see one of my favorite artists dance again.

So I look for good news, something to show that good things still happen in this world, and I found it -- this emotional reunion of Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas. Basketball fans know about their long, painful estrangement and all the reasons. But to see the two of them reconcile warms the heart. Just see the way Isiah cries into his face when Magic apologizes for hurting him -- that's love. Happy Holidays and may 2018 be a better year for all.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Nutcracker Season: Sweets Amid Turmoil ...

The blindingly beautiful Snow Scene, photo @ Paul Kolnik

This year I went to an unprecedented seven (!!!) NYCB Nutcrackers. Don't ask how it happened, it just did. First of all, when I bought the tickets to the Nutcracker, I just wanted a happy, uncomplicated experience. But then, well ... #metoo happened to NYCB. It's AD Peter Martins was accused of sexual harassment and abuse and took a leave of absence from both SAB and NYCB. The charges turned more serious with accusations of physical abuse. I hope the board acts quickly to fully investigate these charges. With that being said I admire the company even more for carrying on with their level of professionalism and high standards amidst the turmoil.

There is an element of comfort food to Nutcracker season. Every year I laugh at the funny, skittish mice, I marvel at the beauty of Balanchine's Snowflakes, I go squishy at the adorable bunny pulling the tail of the Mouse King, blah blah blah. I also revisit my favorite dancers. So it's not surprising that I saw Sterling Hyltin/Andrew Veyette as the SPF/Cavalier twice, or Tiler Peck's Dewdrop twice, and made room for Ashley Bouder's Dewdrop as well. These are portrayals I know and love, and returning to them year after year is soothing and thrilling at the same time. It's remarkable how these dancers know how to transmit their magic in every performance.

But Nutcracker season is also a season of discovery, and I discovered so many previously-unknown desserts that I can't live without now. Just a run-down: Teresa Reichlen's Sugarplum Fairy, Emily Kikta's Coffee, Harrison Coll's Candy Cane, Preston Chamblee's Mother Ginger, India Bradley's Harlequin, and much more.

So here is a run-down of the six (!!!) casts I saw:

Cast #1:
Hyltin and Veyette, Emily Kikta as Coffee
(Conductor: Litton) SUGARPLUM: Hyltin; CAVALIER: Veyette; DEWDROP: LeCrone; HERR DROSSELMEIER: Suozzi; MARZIPAN: Pollack; HOT CHOCOLATE: Wellington, Scordato; COFFEE: Kikta; TEA: Hoxha; CANDY CANE: Huxley; MOTHER GINGER: Chamblee; FLOWERS: Brown, Gerrity; DOLLS: E. Von Enck, Bradley++; SOLDIER: Ippolito; MOUSE KING: Sanz; FRAU & DR STAHLBAUM: Sell, J. Peck

Sterling Hyltin and Andrew Veyette are probably my favorite Nutcracker pairing right now and they were their usual excellent selves, but the whole performance had a jittery quality as if the dancer were still getting the Nutcracker muscles to kick in. The discovery of this performance was Emily Kikta's Coffee. FINALLY, someone knows how to maximize this variation. Kikta's body helps -- she's extremely tall and curvy and most resembles Gloria Govrin, the originator of the role. Kikta's Coffee actually elicited gasps from the audience when she did that split and big backbend where her head touched her feet. And she even did the bent leg pirouettes in the finale. Another highlight: I loved Preston Chamblee's Mother Ginger. Probably the funniest that I saw. Megan LeCrone (a sub for Ashly Isaacs) was a Dewdrop without a jump, and thus made almost no impact in this role. India Bradley who is a brand-new apprentice was a very charming Harlequin. She's a real beauty as well.

Cast #2:
SATURDAY MATINEE, DECEMBER 2, 2:00 PM (Conductor: Sill) SUGARPLUM: Reichlen; CAVALIER: Janzen; DEWDROP: LeCrone; HERR DROSSELMEIER: Villalobos; MARZIPAN: Villwock; HOT CHOCOLATE: Kretzschmar, Applebaum; COFFEE: Lowery; TEA: Ippolito; CANDY CANE: Coll; MOTHER GINGER: Bolden++; FLOWERS: Manzi, Wellington; DOLLS: C. Von Enck, Staker; SOLDIER: Kayali; MOUSE KING: Knight; FRAU & DR STAHLBAUM: Sell, J. Peck

LeCrone, Reichlen, Janzen on top, Sarah Villwock as Marzipan
Teresa Reichlen has danced Sugarplum Fairy for many years but up until this season I'd never seen it. When I finally saw her and Russell Janzen they were so beautiful I decided a return trip was immediately necessary. Reichlen's Sugarplum Fairy was as regal as I'd expected, but I wasn't expecting so much sweetness and fun. From the moment she bourreéd onstage with that pink dress and wand I knew she was going to be special in this role. In the grand pas de deux initial nerves (shaking hands were a dead giveaway) were quickly calmed by the attentive partnering of Russell Janzen. In the final promenade with all those tricky hand-changes Reichlen did something I've never seen her do -- she turned towards the audience with a happy grin right as if to say "I got this." Sure enough, Russell kneeled and she snapped out her arms and held a beautiful, long-held balance that had the crowd roaring. I never saw Tess's SPF before, and now I can't live without it. Her and Janzen have a great partnership.

Another highlight was the Marzipan of Sarah Villwock. This variation is so difficult I rarely actually enjoy it as all I see is a ballerina grimly chugging through it without much joy. Villwock handled all the demands (the pirouette hops on pointe, the gargouillades) with a smile on her face. Harrison Coll's Candy Cane variation EXPLODED with huge jumps that the crowd loved.

Cast #3:
Mearns, Angle, and Peck
SATURDAY EVENING, DECEMBER 2, 8:00 PM (Conductor: Capps) SUGARPLUM: Mearns; CAVALIER: J. Angle; DEWDROP: T. Peck; HERR DROSSELMEIER: Villalobos; MARZIPAN: Segin; HOT CHOCOLATE: Wellington, Scordato; COFFEE: Mann; TEA: Kayali; CANDY CANE: Suozzi; MOTHER GINGER: Chamblee; FLOWERS: Brown, Adams; DOLLS: E. Von Enck, Bradley++; SOLDIER: Hoxha; MOUSE KING: Sanz; FRAU & DR STAHLBAUM: Anderson, Walker

I haven't seen Sara Mearns' Sugarplum Fairy in seven years -- back then I didn't regularly go to the Nutcracker and I thought she was pretty great. Upon a revisit I think her performance has many admirable qualities. Mearns certainly knows how to dance big. Everything was more swoony, more dramatic, just more with her. Every facial expression could project to the nosebleed sections. This can be exciting: in the moment when the Cavalier does a series of pirouettes with the ballerina ending with a long cambre with her backbend facing the audience, Mearns' backbend was, well, more bendy than the other Sugarplums. She's compulsively watchable and always compelling, even if sometimes I thought she was dancing Swan Lake. Jared Angle was a less-than-exciting dancer in solo variations but a very skillful partner and made all of Mearns' extravagant movements seem totally coordinated.

The highlight of the evening was seeing Tiler Peck's incomparable Dewdrop. Her speed and attack are phenomenal. She's so secure that she now plays with the role -- she adds off-center, blindingly fast pirouettes and somehow by the end of the pirouette she's back in a plumb line and holding an obscenely long balance. The audience applauded every entrance and exit. Her joy, freedom and expansiveness in this role are exquisite. She makes the Waltz of the Flowers (often a very pretty, pink dainty moment) blaze with excitement.

LeCrone, Hyltin, Veyette, Peck, Coll
Cast #4:
WEDNESDAY EVENING, DECEMBER 6, 7:00 PM (Conductor: Sill) SUGARPLUM: Hyltin; CAVALIER: Veyette; DEWDROP: T. Peck; HERR DROSSELMEIER: Villalobos; MARZIPAN: Pollack; HOT CHOCOLATE: Sell, Dieck; COFFEE: LeCrone; TEA: Kayali; CANDY CANE: Coll; MOTHER GINGER: Knight; FLOWERS: Hod, Phelan; DOLLS: Hutsell, Domini++; SOLDIER: Ippolito; MOUSE KING: Knight; FRAU & DR STAHLBAUM: Wellington, la Cour

Nutcracker #4 was maybe the dream cast. As a sign of how this was the Nutcracker for ballet nuts, four of my obsessive balletomane friends were at this performance. Sterling Hyltin's Sugarplum Fairy was more radiant than the performance earlier in the season and her dancing was freer.   She is simply the company's best Sugarplum in terms of characterization-- she's exactly the charming, benevolent fairy you'd want to meet in the Kingdom of the Sweets. Technically she is so masterful at showing the audience what she can do rather than what she can't. She's petite and sparrow-like but her dancing has majesty and grandeur from the way she fully stretches out her limbs. Super fast multiple pirouettes are not in her DNA, but in the coda she artfully hid this by starting the pique turns very slowly and then accelerating in her ménage around the stage so by the time she hit the wings she was flying.Andrew Veyette partnered her beautifully AND did wonderful, clean pirouettes a la seconde in the coda that ended in a perfect fifth position.

Tiler Peck's Dewdrop had an uncharacteristic slip at the end of the Waltz of the Flowers but it was one moment in an otherwise wondrous portrayal. Other shout-outs: Harrison Coll continues to be awesomely exciting as Candy Cane. It's rare to see such a tall guy do the hoop variation so well. He's bar none my favorite male corps dancer right now. Ghaleb Kayali was the cleanest of the Teas that I saw. As a sign of times, the Chinese pointed "fingers" are now gone from this variation. Magical performance, the type to make you float out of the theater on a cloud.

Woodward, Finlay, Kikta, Reichlen and the Marie and Prince
Cast #5:
THURSDAY EVENING, DECEMBER 7, 7:00 PM (Guest Conductor: McPhee) SUGARPLUM: Woodward; CAVALIER: Finlay; DEWDROP: Reichlen; HERR DROSSELMEIER: Suozzi; MARZIPAN: King; HOT CHOCOLATE: Phelan, Appelbaum; COFFEE: Kikta; TEA: Schumacher; CANDY CANE: Alberda; MOTHER GINGER: Bolden++; FLOWERS: Anderson, Gerrity; DOLLS: C. Von Enck, Staker; SOLDIER: Villalobos; MOUSE KING: Knight; FRAU & DR STAHLBAUM: Sell, J. Peck

Between Nutcracker #4 and #5 the shit really hit the fan. Peter Martins took a leave of absence as he became the latest high-profile leader to be accused of sexual harassment and abuse. And the tension was palpable among the dancers; for the first time, I felt like they were simply getting through the performance. Indiana Woodward is a lovely dancer with a winning smile and charm for days, but her Sugarplum was surprisingly earthbound. The partnering between her and Chase Finlay was tentative, and as a result the Grand pas de deux lacked that special magic that Tchaikovsky's music demands. Finlay had a sudden flub at the very end of his pirouettes in the coda. Tess Reichlen's Dewdrop is a joy to watch -- very different from the gyroscopic superwomen like Tiler Peck and Ashley Bouder. With Tess you just delighted in her huge jumps and queenly persona.

With that being said, Emily Kikta's Coffee is the best I have seen in, well, forever. It was even more astonishing the second time around, as I noticed how she alone among the Coffees moved her body slowly and sensually to the music. It was about more than shaking those bells. In the coda she again did those bent leg pirouettes (all others I saw simply did arabesques and a renverse). And I saw a different Marie/Prince tonight. Maria Kashvili and Tenzin Niles were smaller and ... well, sadder than Alex Eliza Grayson and Aaron Plous. Kashvili and Niles weren't the happy, bubbly children that this production usually favors. But somehow with the company currently without a leader and everything so up in the air, it felt appropriate.

Reichlen and Janzen, Ashley Bouder, and Robert La Fosse with Marie and Prince
Cast #6:
WEDNESDAY EVENING, DECEMBER 13, 7:00 PM (Conductor: Sill) SUGARPLUM: Reichlen; CAVALIER: Janzen; DEWDROP: Bouder; HERR DROSSELMEIER: La Fosse+; MARZIPAN: Pereira; HOT CHOCOLATE: Pollack, Knight; COFFEE: Manzi; TEA: Kayali; CANDY CANE: Ulbricht; MOTHER GINGER: Chamblee; FLOWERS: Anderson, O. MacKinnon; DOLLS: E. Von Enck, Bradley++; SOLDIER: Hoxha; MOUSE KING: Sanz; FRAU & DR STAHLBAUM: Wellington, la Cour

Nutcracker #6. My last. What a joy it was to see the company still so strong a day after more serious allegations of physical abuse were reported in the NYTimes. For one, Tess Reichlen and Russell Janzen's second performance together was superior to their first. They were even more beautiful and magisterial as the Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier. In the first performance Janzen stumbled out of his turns in the coda; there were no such bobbles tonight. Reichlen's Sugarplum is very different from Hyltin's sweet, bubbly confection, but it's just as valid of an interpretation and technically she was superb. Her variation had crisp footwork, surprising speed, and a real sense of authority. She does a double pique turn before the lunge into penchée in that tricky sequence. As a side note, Reichlen and Hyltin were the only SPF's I saw to do the bidirectional double pirouettes. It's a small detail that becomes very big once you see a SPF that does the turns in both directions and realize how much more musical it looks.

The performance was also distinguished by Ashley Bouder's Dewdrop. Bouder's Dewdrop is one of those modern classic portrayals that highlight all that can be done with this role.The height she gets on her jumps is astonishing -- she leaps high over the flowers and always looks like she's "sprinkling" them with some water. She doesn't do those off-balance pirouettes that have become a Tiler Peck specialty but again, Ashley's Dewdrop astonishes year after year, performance after performance. And after she came back from maternity leave she seems less in a hurry to show off, so her performances now have a soft glow to them. Daniel Ulbricht's Candy Cane is another remarkably consistent, excellent portrayal. Preston Chamblee's Mother Ginger continues to scene steal in the best possible way.. Erica Pereira was a very technically secure, charming Marzipan.

BUT the biggest game-changer of the evening was Robert La Fosse returning as Drosselmeier. He alone among the Drosselmeier's I saw this season understood that this role is not simply about wearing an eyepatch and twirling a cape. There has to be humor and a touch of the eccentric in him. His interactions with the children have to display genuine warmth -- constant eye contact, real affection in the body language. Watch the video of Mr. B as Drosselmeier to see how much you can work with this role. The party scene can truth be told be somewhat of a snoozer without a Drosselmeier to really run the party. Well tonight La Fosse showed the kiddos how it's done.

Cast for my 7th Nut
ETA: I unexpectedly attended a 7th Nutcracker.
Cast #7: SATURDAY EVENING, DECEMBER 23, 8:00 PM (Conductor: Capps)SUGARPLUM: Hyltin; CAVALIER: Danchig-Waring; DEWDROP: Bouder; HERR DROSSELMEIER: Villalobos; MARZIPAN: Pereira; HOT CHOCOLATE: Pollack, Nelson; COFFEE: Lowery; TEA: Kayali; CANDY CANE: Ulbricht; MOTHER GINGER: Chamblee; FLOWERS: Hod, O. MacKinnon; DOLLS: C. Von Enck, Staker; SOLDIER: Ippolito; MOUSE KING: Knight; FRAU & DR STAHLBAUM: Anderson, la Cour

Yeah, yeah, yeah. My 7th Nutcracker was a different experience -- I was sitting in the fourth ring. In a way if you want to see Balanchine's corps patterns it's the best place to sit -- you can see the geometry of ALL his formations. In the second ring, for instance, you couldn't tell that the whole Land of the Sweets line themselves in a triangle shape to greet Marie and the Prince. Unfortunately you also notice the mistakes more -- for instance in the Snow Scene there was one snowflake who was not quite in sync with her other snowflakes. In the orchestra you'd never notice. In the fourth ring it's the only thing you see. The performance had several highlights: I was seeing Adrian Danchig-Waring dance for the first time since his devastating injury last year, also thought Ashley Hod and Olivia Mackinnon were the best flowers I saw of this run. Savannah Lowery didn't have the sensuality of Emily Kikta but she was incredibly strong and she DID do those bent leg pirouettes. Erica Pereira's Marzipan -- wow! Wonderful performance from her. And of course Ashley Bouder and Sterling Hyltin's performances are always worth watching.

The real stars of the show -- the SAB students
Nutcracker would be nothing without the adorable SAB students who populate this production, as well as the tireless apprentices who chug through one snow scene night after night without showing any fatigue. Ben Griffin's Fritz stole the party scene with his holy-terror portrayal. The 8 Polichinelles handled the surprisingly intricate choreography (full of glissades and jumps) like pros every night. Even when the Angels take a spill (I saw it happen twice) it's cute to see how quickly they recover. It's important to remember how foreign the idea of having children dance for large chunks of the evening was when the ballet premiered. Critic John Martin said: "The indisputable fact is that it is an inferior ballet ... There is very little dancing in The Nutcracker. To make matters no better, it is played largely by children."

More than 50 years later these thoughts seem almost sacrilegious. The enduring appeal of Mr. B's Nutcracker is that it is a children's tale, told from a child's viewpoint. Even the mice are childlike rather than truly scary, and their cheerleading of the mouse king along with their heartbreak when the mouse king dies adds a very touching element to the story. In one of the saddest moments of an otherwise joyous ballet a mouse drags the Mouse King's sword offstage, face wracked with sobs. Marie and the Prince's happiness is tempered by the grief of these very cute, likable animals. And the audience eats it up year after year. They applaud every night when the Nutcracker takes off his costume and the Prince comes forward to bow to the audience in tendu. The moment has as much heart-stopping beauty as all the dancing scenes. Mr. B's Nutcracker still warms the heart and touches the soul. It is his eternal Christmas present. And in times of turmoil for NYCB, it's a reminder that the ballet company that Mr. B built is stronger than any one person. It's now an American institution.

And so after Nutcracker #7 I swear I am done. For one thing, my credit card can't afford another Nutcracker. But it was worth every second (and penny) -- my bank account might be empty but my heart is full.