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Sunday, January 7, 2018

Tosca as Comfort Food

Grigolo and Yoncheva, photo @ Ken Howard
There exists a "live from the Met" recording of Tosca made all the way back in 1903. These Mapleson cylinders have horrible sound and are mere snippets of a performance. Nevertheless a recording of an opera made only three years after the premiere is sure to tell us something about how Tosca has evolved over the years, right?

Wrong. Even though the singers in the recording (Emma Eames, Emilio de Marchi and Antonio Scotti) have voices that today don't sound like natural fits for the opera, the most revealing thing about those Mapleson cylinders is how unrevealing they are. You can imagine everything that's happening onstage just from what the singers are singing. Eames screams at the exact moment you expect her to scream -- when she realizes after the third "Mario" that the execution was real.

Puccini's "shabby little shocker" is choreographed down to the minute. That's it's greatest strength and biggest limitation -- Puccini makes the trains run on time to such an extent that there's very little room for interpretation and creativity. Luc Bondy's 2009 production was an attempt to try something new -- he took away the usual trappings: the ornate Roman church, the candles and crucifix at Scarpia's body, the famous leap into a mattress that all Toscas since time immemorial have taken in the final moments of the opera. Unfortunately he replaced the traditional Tosca with a dreary, industrial, boring production. The best experience I ever had with that production was when Angela Gheorghiu showed up with her own costumes, and completely did her own thing. There wasn't a single Bondy direction she followed. It was great.

Why is he painting in such a white shirt?
What Gheorghiu recognized was that behind the blood and guts story Tosca is really comfort food opera. You go to Tosca to NOT be surprised. A good performance should be like a well-oiled machine where the soprano, tenor, and baritone all do their thing and have their moments and everyone goes home happy. It's no wonder Andrew Lloyd Webber borrowed so liberally from Puccini. They are brothers from another mother.

David McVicar's production which premiered New Year's Eve put Tosca squarely back in the comfort food zone. The production had maybe the highest turnover of any Met new production in recent history -- by the time opening night rolled around we were on our second Tosca, second Cavaradossi, second Scarpia, and third conductor. Yikes. Despite the changes what I saw on the third performance was a perfectly competent, professional performance. As I said, Puccini really makes the trains run on time.

McVicar's production has traditional, opulent sets by John MacFarlane (despite an oddly sideways raked stage) and mostly traditional blocking. The most daring thing about it was the slightly modern twist on Tosca's clothing and mannerisms -- she doesn't wear a veil while entering the church, and her dress in Act 2 is a low-cut evening gown that shows quite a bit of cleavage. She also has a more extended makeout session with Cavaradossi in Act One than is normal. Since this is Opera Life and not Real Life, I was only mildly perturbed by the fact that Cavaradossi was painting in a puffy white shirt in Act One. Uh, I've never seen a painter in such a bleached shirt. A little more bothersome was the fact that Scarpia had a roaring fireplace in a Roman summer, and that there was light streaming through his windows when the whole of Act Two takes place after Tosca's evening performance. Oh well. As I said, Opera Life, not Real Life.

Yoncheva and Lucic, photo @ Ken Howard
The three principals were varying degrees of competent/professional. The most inspired was Sonya Yoncheva. She's new to the role, but handled the vocals with admirable ease. Her voice is now large enough to handle the heavier Puccini orchestration, and she even has a surprising chest voice. The only alarming things: her timbre, once so plush and beautiful, now sounds much harder and slightly bottled, with some unsteadiness in the upper register. Her acting was not the fiery diva -- she in general doesn't do "fiery" well. More of a terrified #metoo victim. I thought she handled the long scene with Scarpia in the second act very well -- the high C's were secure, she has fairly good diction for a non-Italian singing verismo, and she strongly conveyed the fact that Scarpia was making her skin crawl. Oddly "Visse d'arte" was her weakest moment -- it was just a little too placid and the sustained B-flat was not her loveliest note. In Act Three she had just enough desperation in her voice to make one think that Tosca had her own doubts about Scarpia's promise. Her dive off Castel Sant'Angelo was great -- she stretched her arms and fell like she was embracing this meeting with Scarpia before God. Overall well-sung, well-acted Tosca.

Final tableau for Act Three, photo @ Ken Howard
Vittorio Grigolo was the ying to Yoncheva's yang. Yoncheva relied mostly on her large voice to make her effects. Grigolo stretched his considerably leaner tenor into a baby-spinto and for most of the opera it worked. "Recondita armonia" even had a nice degree of Mediterranean sunshine. And when he simply did not have enough voice for the music ("Vittoria," "E lucevan le stelle") he relied on some shouting, crooning, whispering, and other popera effects. However all the vocal effects couldn't hide that where you wanted to hear a trumpet you heard a bugle. His acting was his usual ball of energy. You admire his always giving 100%, even if his 100% is not exactly what the opera needs. For instance when he saw Angelotti (Christian Zaremba) he embraced him with the same passion as he had for Tosca. But it was good that he was paired with Yoncheva -- I think she needed someone considerably more frenetic to shake her out of her default passive stage persona.

The most disappointing was Željko Lučić as Scarpia. It's not that his voice is inherently wrong for the part -- it's sort of wooly and rough around the edges but Scarpia is the definition of creep so an ugly voice isn't a detriment. It's not that his acting is uninspired -- in Act Two he definitely gave off a very Harvey Weinstein vibe with the way he constantly tried to invade Tosca's personal space. It's that his overall performance has moments where it just seems like he doesn't much care what's happening. For instance in Te Deum he dropped out of bars and bars of music and seemed to simply mime the words. Was he losing his voice, or simply saving it for the Act Two marathon? Considering that after the intermission his voice was 100% back, I think I know the answer. 

Emmanuel Villaume was shoe-horned into the production on short notice and the lack of preparation and rehearsal time was apparent. He sounded better than opening night but overall he just didn't seem to know Tosca's train schedule. His default style is ponderousness and Tosca calls for nonstop urgency, tension, suspense. I'd hate to see him conduct any of Bernard Herrmann's scores. 

But the audience went away happy and so did I for the most part. The fact that Grigolo's curtain calls now include him cupping his ear at the audience as if to say "louder, I can't hear you" is just part of the comfort food experience. 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

A Post-Martins City Ballet

Email I received about Martins' resignation
Peter Martins' long tenure as the Ballet Master of New York City Ballet came to an abrupt, unpleasant end on January 1, 2018. He rang in his new year by submitting his resignation and the Board accepted. Since his departure many NYCB dancers have taken to social media to express their dismay at the regime change. These people ranged from corps members like Alexa Maxwell to soloists like Megan LeCrone to principals like Tiler Peck. Martins resigned amid allegations of physical abuse and sexual misconduct, with most of the allegations from former members of the company. He was also recently arrested for yet another DUI. I completely believe the testimonials from the current dancers that he was a supportive boss who took the company to new artistic heights especially in the last decade. I also completely believe the allegations of physical abuse and sexual misconduct from former dancers. His resignation/dismissal was justified if all the allegations of physical abuse are true. At the same time life is in shades of gray. Peter Martins did a lot of good for the company, and it would be foolish not to acknowledge that.

It took me awhile to gather my thoughts on this whole ordeal. First of all, NYCB is the arts institution I love more than any other. I often joke with my friends about how many tickets I buy over the course of the season. I just went to Nutcracker seven times in six weeks. I want the company to flourish. I believe that they have the most valuable ballet repertory in the world -- a treasure trove of ballets from Balanchine and Robbins, as well as more contemporary masterworks from Alexei Ratmansky (who does his most inspired, consistent work with NYCB) and Justin Peck (whose Times Are Racing is IMO the ballet anthem of the 21st century).

With that being said, I remember my beginnings as a watcher of New York City Ballet. They weren't so felicitous. I went to my first performances maybe 17-18 years ago. It was a Nutcracker (isn't it always)? It was a frankly awful experience. The poor Sugarplum (a long-time principal who always suffered from severe nerves) fell off pointe at the beginning of her variation and slogged through the performance looking as if she were about to burst into tears. The Snowflakes were a mess. Dropped wands, two slips, hands splayed to an absurd degree. This was the famous, magical, wonderful Nutcracker that everyone raved about?

From 2000-20004 I went to NYCB sporadically but was present at the creation of several "masterpieces." I distinctly remember being at the premiere of Christopher Wheeldon's Shambards, a screechy unlikable thing that is so different from Wheeldon's slick but empty works of late. I was also at the premiere of Boris Eifman's Musagete, an endless atrocity "based on" George Balanchine's life. Alexandra Ansanelli was the "Tanny" figure, Wendy Whelan was the cat Mourka, Maria Kowroski was the "Suzanne Farrell" figure, and Robert Tewsley played the calm, placid "Mr. B" as a tortured, moody emo artist. I also remember many "new Martins" pieces, but don't ask me the names. I forgot them. I just remember them being unmemorable. Reviews for the company in those days was savage.

I went to repertory programs too -- I remember a Diamonds where the ballerina fell over just as the curtain was about to come down. I remember a Midsummer's Night Dream where the Titania shook constantly. A La Sonnambula where the Sleepwalker visibly crumpled over while trying to carry the Poet. One of the few good memories I have is a Symphony in 3 Movements where Wendy totally kicked ass, as she always did. At the same time, I was going to ABT and back then that was more my thing. Nina! Angel! Marcelo! Irina and Max! Alessandra! Gillian! David! Diana! Those full-lengths with those Big Deal Stars were easier to absorb than Stravinsky leotard ballets. I was young and foolish. Back then Romeo and Juliet was the pinnacle of ballet. Today I can barely stand the thing.

Then from 2005-2007 I moved away from NYC and saw very little ballet. I moved back to NYC around the end of 2007 and quickly resumed my ballet-going activities. But I returned mostly to ABT. Again -- David! Marcelo! Diana! And then there were new stars -- guest artists like Natalia Osipova and Alina Cojocaru. You get the picture. When I went to NYCB, it was usually to see the Nutcracker. I do remember my first Nutcracker after my move back to NY as a revelation -- this time Wendy Whelan was the Sugarplum Fairy and she was magical. I also remember seeing Symphony in C around 2008 and thinking, "Wow, they are good." I think Sara Mearns danced the second movement, and Megan Fairchild and Joaquin de Luz the third. Then a Coppelia with Tiler Peck and Sleeping Beauty with Ashley Bouder where again, I thought "wow, they are great."

The ballet that changed everything for me
But I didn't become a hardcore City Ballet aficionado until January 22, 2011, when I bought a ticket to one of those "Saturdays At the Ballet With George." Totally on a whim, expected nothing. NYCB used to celebrate George Balanchine's birthday with all-Balanchine programs. The program I saw was Mozartiana, Prodigal Son, and Stars and Stripes. I have no idea what it was about this program that clicked for me. Maybe Ashley Bouder's Liberty Bell along with Andrew Veyette's delightful El Capitan? Maybe Daniel Ulbricht leading the Third Campaign with a dazzling display of pyrotechnics? But I remember thinking "I could watch Stars and Stripes for the rest of my life." I was on such a high after the performance that I think I bought five or six tickets on the spot for future performances and started attending regularly. That fizzy, joyous high was not like a drug-induced high. It never went away in the coming years. I never developed a "tolerance." I would often walk out of the D*v*d K*ch Theatre and it would be snowing/icy/sub-zero, but I would be smiling ear to ear from the explosion of dance I just saw. NYCB lifted me up when I was at my lowest -- unemployed, uncertain about my future. When I finally got a full-time job after a period of unemployment the first thing I did to treat myself was to get a subscription package.

La Sylphide was proof that NYCB could do full justice to the "classics" 

You see, all the years I had been so unimpressed with NYCB, Peter Martins had slowly been laying the groundwork for a great company. In 2000 he accepted a spunky little dynamo named Ashley Bouder into the company. In 2001 a tall leggy blonde Tess Reichlen. In 2002 the perky, sweet Megan Fairchild got in, and in 2003, another petite wonder named Sterling Hyltin joined the company. In 2004 Sara Mearns. In 2005 Tiler Peck. To say that these six principals have been the bedrock of the company for the last decade or so is an understatement. They're not perfect in everything they do, but my, can they dance! They're versatile, they're unique, they combine great technique with musicality and artistry. And they can now go toe-to-toe with ABT's ballerinas in the full length "classics" -- this fall the NYCB ballerinas did a better job with those famous fouettes in Swan Lake than ABT's roster. Sterling Hyltin's Sylph was the kind of performance you'd expect from someone who had been dancing Bournonville her whole life -- light, airy, enchanting. Last summer in the very hyped Superjewels the NYCB contingent won over the Russo-phile/tourist crowd with their stunning renditions of Rubies and Diamonds. Many in the audience came to see the Bolshoi and the Paris Opera Ballet; they left screaming for Tess Reichlen's Tall Girl.

Peter's greatest accomplishment has been his cultivation of talent for the past decade or so. Many revered older dancers retired (Wendy Whelan, Kyra Nichols, Damian Woetzel) and some talents did not last. Kathryn Morgan departed due to health problems, Alexandra Ansanelli went to the Royal Ballet and then premature retirement, Robert Fairchild just left to pursue a career in Broadway, prominent soloists Carla Korbes and Seth Orza decamped to Seattle. But the talent was constantly replenished and so ballets did not just die because one dancer was injured or unavailable. One example: Robert Fairchild was an excellent Apollo but took a leave of absence for a Broadway role. The other company Apollo (Chase Finlay) was injured. In steps Adrian Danchig-Waring and his Apollo was one of the most memorable performances of my ballet-going life. The talent pool is still being replenished. I look at soloists like Joseph Gordon, Harrison Ball, Unity Phelan or Indiana Woodward or corps members like Ashley Hod, Claire Kretzschmar, Roman Mejia, Harrison Coll, Preston Chamblee and Aaron Sanz and think the company has a great future.

Martins in the past few years also tacitly acknowledged an unpleasant but undeniable fact -- that he was not a good or even mediocre choreographer. The "new Martins" works decreased to almost nothing -- his last new work for the company was a straightforward adaptation of Bournonville's La Sylphide. He also drastically cut the number of Martins ballets in season programs. To see a Martins ballet on the playbill (often sandwiched between two Balanchine masterpieces) used to be a regular thing -- now, it's a rarity. In the upcoming winter season there are only two Martins ballets programmed -- Red Violin and Romeo + Juliet. In the spring season that number drops to zero. It took self-awareness for Martins to realize that choreography was not his thing.

Ashley Bouder in Ratmansky's Concerto DSCH. IMO it's his masterpiece
At the same time he started to test out new choreographers. Christopher Wheeldon's contributions to the company tapered off after he left the position of Resident Choreographer in 2008. Alexei Ratmansky turned down the offer to be Wheeldon's replacement, but his work for NYCB is by far the best work he's ever done, anywhere. Russian Seasons, Namouna, Concerto DSCH, Pictures at an Exhibition, and Odessa are all masterpieces or near-masterpieces. Justin Peck's oeuvre has been more uneven -- amazing highs (like The Times Are Racing and Rodeo) with some lows (The Most Incredibly Thing). But he's not even 30 yet, and he's already making his mark not just in New York but around the world. Another promising choreographer is Lauren Lovette -- For Clara and Not Our Fate are both compelling, coherent ballets with a strong choreographic voice.

Not every choreographer was a winner -- Benjamin Millepied's ballets are an automatic "skip" for me, as are Troy Schumacher's creations (The Wind Still Brings is 20 minutes of my life I'll never get back).  I have painful memories of such gems as Miles Thather's excruciating Polaris or Lynne Corbett's The Seven Deadly Sins which managed to make Wendy Whelan look uninspired and Patti Lupone sound bad. How is that even possible? Wheeldon still comes back now and then, each creation being ever slicker and emptier. The Here/Now programs in Spring 2017 exposed just how many mediocre ballets sit in the NYCB vault. But still, the "new works" no longer cause dread among City Ballet aficionados. A typical NYCB season now finally has the right balance of repertory staples, new works, modern masterpieces, and box-office-friendly full lengths. And there's a high level of consistency and quality among all the types of works in the repertoire. I even saw Preston Chamblee and Tess Reichlen make something semi-sexy out of the dreadful Red Angels, bless their hearts.

Reichlen, Hyltin, and Peck
Even though I saw Peter Martins many times (he often could be seen racing up and down the stairs during performances), I never spoke to him, and he remained an elusive, mysterious figure to most balletomanes. I knew about the DUI arrests, the 1991 domestic violence arrest, I heard rumors that he had a temper, there were jokes about his love of "tall blondes." He had a reputation for being spiteful and possessive about letting former Balanchine dancers coach the company. How wonderful would it have been for, say, Mikhail Baryshnikov to coach Other Dances, or Patricia McBride and Jacque d'Amboise Who Cares?, or Patricia Wilde Square Dance or Allegra Kent La Sonnambula? Alas that wasn't the Martins way. But I didn't know enough about him to make a judgment call. I still don't know enough. As I said, shades of gray. Wonderful people can have drinking problems. Wonderful people can have scary tempers. Wonderful people can do horrible things. I know it because I've lived it. I hope Martins takes this time to get help for some of his personal demons.

Martins leaves behind a company that is strong on all levels -- principal, soloists, corps, even apprentices are making their mark -- during the Nutcracker season a beautiful apprentice named India Bradley immediately caught my eye as one of the dolls. So as NYCB enters this new chapter, with no named successor as yet. But I firmly believe that the company can weather this catastrophically disruptive storm. Perhaps that's Martins' legacy -- a company that no longer needs him to survive and thrive.