Monday, February 28, 2011

Welcome to the master race - would you like a juice box?

Carolyn Baeumler and Catherine Eaton get to know each other in The Exceptionals.

What do you do when your best parenting instincts prod you toward a vision of eugenics that the Third Reich might have approved?

That's the queasy question posed by Bob Clyman's The Exceptionals, at the Merrimack Rep for just one more week. Or rather that's the question that's almost posed by The Exceptionals - the playwright tiptoes up to it but isn't quite sure how to seal the deal on that troubling proposition.  And with good reason - he's clearly leery of letting his clever play slide toward the pulpy territory of, say, The Boys from Brazil or They Saved Hitler's Brain.

But Clyman doesn't even go as far as, say, Brave New World, and that means his play somehow feels as if it's still in development (we can sense its thematic conclusion is simply missing).  The Exceptionals is still pretty exceptional, though - it's certainly the most interesting political play I've seen in some time, and glints with a dismayed, yet sympathetic, sense of comedy in Charles Towers's smoothly disturbing production.  Clyman's deep insight is that with the new capabilities of our fertility clinics, a vision of a master race can rise just as easily out of Parenting Today as it once did out of Mein Kampf - and the Merrimack cast (and particularly the gently manipulative Judith Lightfoot Clarke) capably put over that idea as implication if not statement.

Clyman's conceit is at first glance utterly believable - a huge "longitudinal" study is underway of very intelligent women who have sought out equally intelligent sperm donors at a gleaming new fertility clinic (that kind of match-up goes on all the time, even now; I think there's actually a list of Nobel-prize-winning sperm donors available to serious IQ-climbers).  At the start of The Exceptionals, two very opposed women have met at the clinic to discuss with the staff counselor Claire (Lightfoot Clarke) the futures of their two gifted offspring.  Gwen (Carolyn Baeumler) is a tense striver; Allie (Catherine Eaton) a more laid-back slummer - a woman who, perhaps out of affection for her blue-collar roots, has never "made good" on the promise of her potential, but instead prefers to kick back with a paperback by Danielle Steele.  Gwen has no husband; Allie has an infertile, "average" one (Joseph Tisa) - a nice guy who's already uncomfortable with just how bright his kid has turned out to be (he's doing quadratic equations in kindergarten; already Dad can't help with the homework).

As the play progresses, however, these parents' wishes slowly take a back seat to the clinic's wishes - and those of its unseen director, "Dr. Vorsiff" - and we begin to perceive a creepy, unspoken agenda operating behind the frosted glass and floral arrangements of these sleekly appointed digs (perfectly realized by designer Judy Gailen, btw).  Said agenda includes slowly separating little "Ethan" and "Michael" from their respective parents and enrolling them in a 24/7 program that will ensure their full intellectual bloom, like "beautiful roses," as Claire coos to the audience.  This horrifies both mothers, to be sure;  but if making sure your child got the very best meant he or she had to join the Hitler Youth Boarding School - well, what would you do?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The standard-bearer?

In today's Globe, theatre critic Don Aucoin bemoans the decline across the culture in standards of excellence.  In every area of public life, it seems, our awards (or the number of nominees for those awards) are proliferating. "From the Oscars to sports to Idol," Aucoin sighs, "We’ve become a little too all-inclusive." Indeed, he frets whether 'lowering the bar' "[might] also reflect an underlying uncertainty . . . about what constitutes excellence nowadays."

Hmmmm. Deep thoughts, surely. And to be honest, I agree completely with Don! But I had to wonder - where does he himself fall in this 'all-inclusive' critical culture?

Let's find out!

Opening up my trusty Excel app, I decided to plot my own reviews against Don's for every show we both covered in the last few weeks (I wrote about several more shows than he did, but maybe that's because I'm a little more inclusive on that score!).

The results are at left, tabulated two ways - one with a smooth curve reflecting my sense of increasing quality, and the other a smooth curve reflecting Don's.  (Needless to say, a certain subjectivity was involved in reducing the reviews to numbered rankings, but I think if you read them all - and you still can, online - you'd roughly agree with my assessments.)

Not surprisingly, we pretty much concurred on the best shows of the winter (In the Footprint, The Cripple of Inishmaan, and Psy, all at ArtsEmerson, and Ruined, at the Huntington).  I, however, ranked several of the lesser shows quite a bit lower than Don did - which may, of course, have merely been a matter of personal taste.

But look at the scales involved.   On a scale of 0 to 5, I rated shows all the way from 1 to nearly 4.5.  Don kept to merely half that range - only the ART's Ajax dropped below a "3," which I roughly think of as an "average" show, i.e. "flawed but could be worth your while."  Seen that way, Don thought every show but one of the winter season was worth your while, where I only thought about half of them were.

So while I can agree with Don's assessment of the culture at large (in which, as the Dodo told Alice, all must have prizes), I do wish he'd look in the mirror just once, and ask himself whether he's really bucking that trend or not.  In his reviews, everyone may not win the prize, but almost everyone is nominated.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Mr. President, with all due respect - it's time to bomb the muthafucka

An F-15 Striking Eagle.
I don't usually write directly political posts here at the Hub Review. And I'm by nature a pacifist (believe it or not).  But I'm sorry, it's time - past time - for real solidarity with Libya, and by extension the rest of the Middle East. And that means military action against the Gaddafi regime (which even now is murdering its own citizens in Tripoli).  We sat on our hands as the Iranian revolution failed. Are we really going to do it again? Isn't there some way to push a resolution through the UN Security Council and quickly have some F-15s on their way to military targets (military targets only, not cities, not civilians) in Libya?  History has HANDED us an opportunity to re-align ourselves with an entire region (and with Islam), and we are, excuse me, so far blowing it.  The Middle East needs us now, and we can help its people achieve democracy - or at least a chance at a better life - with minimal risk to our own forces.

As for the usual fears regarding direct military action - yes, there are risks.  There are ALWAYS risks.  But this time the popular will would be behind a limited intervention, not against it, and that would make all the difference.  As for handing regional dominance to Iran - please; the Iranian regime is itself fragile.  Who knows if the fall of Gaddafi might bring about a renewed revolutionary spirit in Tehran, too?

And in the meantime - can you just imagine the faces on the fucking Tea Partiers and birthers - not to mention that idiot Glenn Beck and the disgusting Rush Limbaugh - if their arch-enemy brought down Muammar Gaddafi?  When Barack HUSSEIN Obama was behind the destruction of one of America's longest-standing enemies, the nutjob who outwitted Reagan and both Bushes?  I confess that would be a sweet, sweet day - almost as sweet as the fall of the Libyan madman would be to his own oppressed people.

Well met by Moon-light

The view from Moon.
As you might imagine, I rarely have time to go to the movies - most of the films I see now I catch late at night, via those little red envelopes from Netflix (curse them for trying to get me to stream!).  This week turned up a genuine gem - Duncan Jones's Moon from 2009, a small-scale throwback to the paranoid SF of the 70's, featuring an equally small-scaled, but quite moving, performance by Sam Rockwell.  The movie takes place on an isolated mining operation on the dark side of (naturally) the moon.  The base's lone occupant Sam (Rockwell) is responsible for mining Helium-3 from the lunar surface - where, actually, it's theorized to be abundant - and shooting it back to Earth for use in the booming nuclear fusion industry (yeah, right).

Sam's at the end of a three-year stint, with only the HAL-like computer "Gerty" (voiced not by Drew Barrymore, which would have been a nice touch, but by Kevin Spacey) alleviating the isolation of his long stay in solitary; to make matters even worse, the live communication link to Earth has been down since who knows when.  And clearly Sam is beginning to show signs of strain; he's prone to rambling discourses to himself, and at one point hallucinates that there's a young girl loose on the base.

While servicing one of the roaming He-3 "harvesters," he has a similar, seeming hallucination - is that another astronaut he sees wandering across the lunar surface?  Distracted, he suffers a crash against the harvester, and passes out - only to seemingly re-awaken back in the base, under orders to never venture outside again.  But why?  What's out there? (SPOILERS AHEAD.)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Christophers and his chorus in previous action - photo by Stu Rosner.

I looked at my partner after the Handel and Haydn performance of Israel in Egypt last Sunday and simply said, "I think it's official." He nodded slightly.

"They're the best chorus in New England," we said together.

I know, the BSO's Tanglewood Festival Chorus is bigger - and given its size, admirably precise. The Boston Baroque chorale can be more personal and intimate. But for sheer eloquence and - how to put this - artistic firepower (?), I don't think the Handel and Haydn chorus has a peer these days.

The true begetters of this accolade are, of course, the singers themselves - pound for pound, these professionals are, I'd argue, the strongest group of vocalists in the region.  But of course their conductor, Harry Christophers, has had something to do with whipping them into such tip-top shape.  Way back in 2007, when I first heard Christophers (just before he was anointed Artistic Director of H&H), I was stunned by his facility with the chorale.  I continue to be stunned.  The man is a magician, that's all there is to it.

And Handel's little-heard oratorio Israel in Egypt gave him quite the stage on which to work his magic.  Christophers chose an early version of the 1738 composition (there are always various extant scores for Handel's oratorios, as he tweaked them over time), one that favored the choruses over the arias (you see Christophers knew both the work's central strength, and his secret weapon).  And then he went to work, drawing every shade of vocal color possible from Handel's palette.

It's quite a palette (in a way it's two palettes, as Handel often divides the chorus in two, like the Red Sea, and has it sing antiphonally with itself).  Other critics have cited the current political relevance of the piece; it was a political hot potato back in the day, too, for reasons of royal succession that are obscure now, just as the current parallels with Hosni Mubarak will be obscure in a few years' time.  Because amusingly enough, the oratorio itself isn't particularly political - unless you find the idea of freedom somehow controversial.  It is, instead, a gigantic tone poem, in which Handel's musical "image-painting" in Part II is perhaps the freest and most inventive of his entire career.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What's so funny about peace, love and the Venetian baroque?

An Il Giardino jam.

Imagine Elvis Costello and the Attractions tearing through the Venetian baroque, and you've roughly got the idea of Il Giardino Armonico ("The Harmonious Garden"), which held a Boston Early Music Festival audience pretty much spellbound last Saturday at Sanders Theatre. The Gardeners essayed their program ("A Venezia!") in stylish, slightly-kinky duds that reminded me of the skinny ties and sharp suits of the New Wave of my youth; lutist Luca Pianca, for instance, was dressed in what looked like black satin, while lead violinist Enrico Onofri was draped with a long white scarf (which doubled as a chin rest for his violin).  And of course they had the hair: when conductor Giovanni Antonini finally appeared (to lead Vivaldi's Concerto in C Major for flautino), he arrived sporting a windswept millennial pompadour teased up in rock-nerd splendor (below left).

If anyone doubted, in short, that period music is going pop, Il Giardino Armanico was here to lay those doubts to rest. These guys apparently consider themselves period pop stars, playing period pop music;  and maybe they're not wrong - the Venetian baroque just happens to be a lot older (and a whole lot better) than the pop music we've got today.

Even his hairstyle is baroque.
And if I was deeply amused by this whole conceit (in both senses of the word), I have to admit, most of the pieces the Gardeners played were essentially songs, and were studded with the kinds of solos that Keith Richards or Eddie van Halen would have killed for (and these musicians leaned back in basically the same rock-god stance as they tore through them; all they needed were the bandanas and the pirate boots, and we might have been in the Worcester Centrum).  Then again, the baroque masters no doubt improvised back in Venice; so why shouldn't their modern-day interpreters do so now?  And nothing really matters as long as the players have the chops, does it?

And rest assured these players do have the chops.  Pianca, who founded the group with Antonini in 1986, is (simply put) the best lutist (by far) I've ever heard in my life.  Onofri is likewise a superb violinist; dazzling, in fact (as was second violin Marco Bianchi).  These guys can play in their pajamas for all I care.

Some non-aficionados might have had a few quibbles with the way the Gardeners played their program, though; they ran through their first pieces without a break (two sonatas by Castello, interlaced with both Merula's "La Lusignola" and his familiar "Ciaccona").  This was a lovely mash-up - and what's more, Pianca seemed to be shifting his accents here and there, so it felt a bit like a jam, believe it or not.  The segues back and forth from one composer to another, however, may have been slightly confusing to some in the audience (luckily, I knew the Merula well enough to figure out roughly when I was listening to what).  The presentation fell more into conventional place for the rest of the concert, highlights of which were that Vivaldi concerto - played at supersonic speed (which, perhaps resulted in a few lapses in control by Antonini on the "flautino" - here a sopranino recorder), a poignant sonata by Giovanni Legrenzi, and the exquisite opening movement to the now-obscure Baldassare Galuppi's Concerto in G Minor.  In fact, one left the concert marveling at just how much gorgeous music has fallen into obscurity over the centuries.  Luckily, we have Il Giardino Armonico to tease it back into bloom.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Weavers of gold

András Fejér, Edward Dusinberre, Geraldine Walther and Károly Schranz - The Takács String Quartet.
Takács in Hungarian means "weaver," which has always struck me as the perfect moniker for the Takács String Quartet (which was founded in Budapest nearly 36 years ago, and visited Jordan Hall last weekend under the aegis of Celebrity Series). True, the quartet is named partly for its founder, Gabor Takács-Nagy, but somehow it seems worth noting that "weaver" is such a straightforward word - hardly arty or sylvan; and yet we understand precisely what it means in terms of a string quartet. These guys thought of themselves as weavers. Weavers of something exquisitely beautiful, of course! But still - just weavers.

And Hungarian weavers, at that. For somewhere deep in the weave of the Takács sound, you can still hear, I think, the lilt of Romany life, a dash of country spice, perhaps even a flicker of gypsy fire. This although only two of its founding members, Károly Schranz on second violin and András Fejér on cello, are still with the quartet. Time's vicissitudes, and even death, I'm sad to say, have taken other members; the current ensemble includes Edward Dusinberre on first violin and Geraldine Walther on viola. Neither, you might guess, is Hungarian; Dusinberre's British, and Walther American. Yet both these virtuosos have (yes) woven themselves superbly into the quartet's core sound while hinting here and there at their own distinct musical personalities (Dusinberre - eloquence; Walther- swoon).

Monday, February 21, 2011

Barker's bark, and his bite

Does it make sense if my current critical position is "We need more classics - just not the really impossible ones?"

Let me explain. As the meanest critic around, my usual song of woe is that I'm stuck watching talented actors try to breathe life into sludge like Afterlife, or clever-but-empty sitcoms like The Understudy. We've now got the local chops to take on greater challenges, I find myself droning over and over - so why not try?

And to be honest, a few troupes have tried of late - only with texts like Ajax and Cymbeline and Henry IV, Part II. Texts that are obscure, frankly, for a reason - they're the "classics with issues"! Worth doing, yes (of course), but as part of fulfilling a whole program rather than just filling a slot in a season. A company commits to scripts like Cymbeline or Ajax when it has a core of actors who are highly skilled, and conversant with the idiom, and familiar with one another.

In other words - you have to learn to walk before you run the marathon, okay?

Which brings me to Whistler in the Dark's new production of Howard Barker's The Europeans - a play that isn't quite a classic (and might never achieve the status, say, of Barker's Scenes from an Execution or The Possibilities), but shares with gnarly texts like Cymbeline a level of intellectual challenge that the vast majority of "new plays" never aspire to.  In point of fact, Whistler consistently operates at the highest level of intellectual accomplishment of any troupe in the Boston area (yes, well over the heads of Harvard and B.U.).

Indeed, The Europeans is almost nothing but intellectual challenge; it's even a challenge figuring out what the play itself is about - because "What should this play be about?" is, in a way, Barker's theme.  Or rather "What should Europe be about?" is his theme - or maybe "What do you think Europe should be about?" (followed by the inevitable rejoinder "Well, you're WRONG!").

For this Howard Barker (at right) is an argumentative fellow; not for nothing was his theatre named "The Wrestling School."  His dramaturgy is all about pedagogy of a sort - that is, of the cruelest, most contradictory sort.  Barker likes to call his style "The Theatre of Catastrophe" because he repeatedly hurls his characters into extreme circumstances, in which they must make the harshest choices imaginable - but always without moral context, or anything like complete knowledge of the meaning of their decisions. In short, their situation is that of real life - moral paradoxes pondered in ignorance (while God looks on) - only intensified and made ruthlessly abrupt.  Barker's characters must make their way in the dark - they are, in fact (need I say it?) "whistlers in the dark" (indeed, it's from a bit of Barker verse that the Whistlers derive their name).

Debating the point of debate in The Europeans.
But The Europeans (at left) is pitch-black even by Barker's standards; it operates more as an ongoing interrogation of itself than a drama per se.  And needless to say, a script committed to self-questioning requires the kind of confidently charismatic acting that operates independent of "character" and "plot" (since both concepts are under continual assault).  That the Whistlers come up with one or two performances of this caliber is remarkable in a fringe troupe; still, I'm afraid the cast of The Europeans is variable enough that a good chunk of the script slides into obscurantist badgering, despite the best intentions of everyone involved.  (Sometimes, in this nightmare of the dark, all of Barker's dogs seem to merely bark.)

Unlike most of the playwright's dramas, The Europeans opens right after a catastrophe: in its first scene, the dazed citizens of Vienna awaken to the fact that the long siege of their city in 1683 has ended, and that they have triumphed over the Ottoman Turks.  They have "saved" "Europe."  But what is "Europe" - or rather, what could, or should it be, beyond a collection of territories held together by bayonets?

Clearly what the Viennese fought for wasn't worth saving - their rulers are cowards, and their clergy is corrupt.  And the horror of the conflict is still omnipresent - people now babbling about culture have recently been dining on rats, and in the local parks picnickers treat severed heads as playthings.  Meanwhile the Turks have merely fallen back to positions a bit further from the city walls.

So nothing is stable in this dehumanized environment, but suddenly anything is possible, and that's Barker's point as he sends two key characters through its maze of contradictions - Starhemberg, the military hero who is himself a kind of cipher; and Katrin, a "citizen" who survived a brutal rape by the Turks (during the course of which her breasts were cut off, in a classic Barker flourish) only to find she is now heavy with child.

From this pregnant (sorry) set-up the script lurches forward as a kind of moral gross-out crossed with a digressive dialectic. But Barker's larger point slowly comes clear: that pain must be the basis of any honest form of art (his own M.O., conveniently enough).  And at the level of bald statement, the Whistlers do put this over.  But at the same time the author clearly intends for a dramatic focus of sorts to form around Starhemberg and Katrin as their paths intertwine - and at this I'm afraid the Whistlers (and director Meg Taintor) are less successful.  As the military hero moves from interrogation to action, he is slowly revealed as Barker's personal factotum, as well as a quasi-mystical puppet master, with Katrin and her child serving as unwitting pawns in his plan to both resolve history and escape from it.  (That this "reconciliation" should prove as cruel as anything that has come before should surprise none of Barker's fans.)

But I'm afraid as Starhemberg, actor Curt Klump limns little of these developments; Klump has done solid work in the past, when he has had less ambiguous material to work with; but alas, his Starhemberg isn't so much a cipher as a blank.  Which is too bad, because he's working against a brilliant performance from Jen O'Connor as Katrin.  This Whistler mainstay by now has Barker in her blood, and her battered, defiant Katrin seems to channel the playwright's manner with deadly accuracy.  Meanwhile, as the absurdly corrupt priest Orphuls (who longs to off his own repellent mother), the usually-reliable Scott Sweatt goes slightly wrong in his purring sensuality; this guy should just be funnier, oddly enough, and somehow Sweatt never finds the correspondences with Starhemberg that Barker seems to be hinting at.  Around the edges of the production, there's a fine cameo from Elizabeth Rimar as that disgusting mother (by far the best work I've seen this young actress do), and as Katrin's sensible sister, Marie Polizzano (who was so subtle in Circle Mirror Transformation) finds good moments here and there, but still seems to think she's working at Annie Baker's scale (which she's not).  Elsewhere there's solid work from Nate Gundy as the fatuous Emperor Leopold, and an amusing turn from Dakota Shepard as his Empress (although she misses the fact that while the lady's crazy, she's made of solid steel).  Meanwhile Evan Sanderson made a good impression in a variety of smaller roles.  But alas, Dan Grund didn't make much of an impression at all as the Court Painter - a serious gap in a play with a particular focus on what art can mean when we're all in the dark.

Barker skeptics may find this acting patchwork evidence to support the growing consensus that the playwright is a bit of a poseur - a self-appointed Grand Inquisitor with a slightly-dated outlook of outrage whose obsession with incoherence gets him off the hook of having to develop a coherent play.  But the Whistlers do mine enough dramatic gold here to convince me that Barker's bark still has bite - in the abstract, at least - and intermittently, The Europeans is certainly gripping (whether or not we like what we see in its dark mirror of history).  Intrepid theatre-goers, who wonder at what new ideas this ancient form can offer, won't want to miss it.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Ajax goes AWOL

Brent Harris and Mesafint Goldfeld in Ajax.
The news isn't good from the A.R.T.'s production of Sophocles's Ajax (now through March 13), but at least the news isn't irritating. The production doesn't work, but it also doesn't feel like a fraud the way The Blue Flower and most of Diane Paulus's work has. Ajax feels basically like an old A.R.T. show - indeed, Robert Brustein and Jeremy Geidt are even in it, as part of a video chorus - but, like the vast majority of old A.R.T. shows, it's kind of a pseudo-intellectual bore.  But this time the boredom feels somehow comforting; it's almost like a nostalgia trip.

It's true that director Sarah Benson (of Soho Rep fame) has some interesting ideas about the play - or at least they're interesting on paper; they don't gel on stage, for complex reasons.  Not all the performances are strong (although a few are), and Ms. Benson strikes such a distant stance toward the material that the modern resonances she seems to be looking for (she has updated the action to Afghanistan or Iraq) never actually come clear.  Is Athena supposed to be Condi Rice?  Is that Obama as Odysseus? We wonder such things vaguely at times, but mostly we're thinking, Do I care?

And mostly no, you do not care - although sometimes you do.   Brent Harris looks and sounds great as the gonzo Ajax, for instance (above), and brings a welcome jolt of whiteboy-freakout to every scene he's in.  Still, he doesn't convey Ajax's actual arc - because he, and the production, seem to want to half-pretend Ajax is falling apart because of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Unfortunately, that's not what Sophocles is saying; Sophocles is saying that Ajax is a professional killer who has finally gone off his leash ( he attempts to murder Odysseus and the other generals, but due to a delusion brought on by Athena, only succeeds in torturing some livestock).

What society owes such a killer for services rendered is the fundamental question of the play.  And when Benson and Co. finally get around to it, the production finds something like its footing, thanks to a passionate turn by Nathan Darrow as Teucer, the sole defender of the once-glorious, but now suicidal Ajax, and some solid work from James Joseph O'Neil as Menelaus and (believe it or not) Thomas Derrah as Agamemnon.  But up till then the production is consistently undermined by weaker work from Linda Powell (daughter of Colin Powell) as Ajax's captive consort, Tecmessa, and Ron Cephas Jones as a strangely blank Odysseus.

Ajax and his chorus line.
We can sense some of these acting problems are due to a certain absence on the part of the director - she's clearly not quite sure what to make of the matter-of-fact machismo of the play.  But alas, some of the show's conceptual problems are due to her presence.  Benson has decided to place the Chorus of the tragedy up on video screens (kind of like the title sequence for The Brady Bunch) with almost all the lines Sophocles wrote for them given over to Remo Airaldi (who's physically onstage, above).  With most of its actual dialogue missing, the Chorus instead mostly ad-libs lines like, "Whoa, too bad about Ajax going postal, dude."  The results are both banal and weirdly disconnected from the action (perhaps that's the point, but it doesn't work dramatically).  And it's amusing to ponder the number of well-known Harvard profs and hangers-on chosen for this "Chorus" - I guess this is the A.R.T.'s idea of "the common people."  Like the rest of the production, it feels out of touch with reality.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Visualize this

Papa, can you hear me?  (Guess not.)
I had the strangest feeling at My Name is Asher Lev (left, at the Lyric Stage through March 12); as both a lapsed Catholic and an admirer of Judaism, I felt I was being insulted at one remove- twice. Let me explain: Asher Lev - drawn from Rabbi Chaim Potok's novel of the same name - treats the world of the Hasidim, the mystical, revivalist branch of Orthodox Judaism. In the book (which I haven't read), it seems Potok explores the conflict between Hasidic precepts and the world of art - young Asher is portrayed as a brilliant artist, an idealist whose obsession with the visual flies in the face of his spiritual tradition (which has long viewed all artistic representation as a form of the "graven images" forbidden by "HaShem").

So far, so good; I'm all for critique of everything, including Judaism; and obviously I'm greatly concerned with the visual arts.  And at first glance, you might imagine that My Name is Asher Lev engages with the flowering of Jewish art that occurred with the triumph of modernism.  Indeed, Jews are all but absent from the Western artistic tradition until the twentieth century (the only one I can think of offhand from the earlier century is Camille Pissarro - and nobody comes to mind before him).

Once modernism - a sensibility largely forged in a Jewish salon in Paris - had established itself as a cultural force, Jewish artists began to make themselves known.  And tellingly, the more abstract modern art became, the more Jews dominated the scene - indeed, almost every major follower of abstract expressionism (which flowered during the period of Asher Lev) was Jewish: Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Helen Frankenthaler, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston and Morris Louis were all Jewish, as were later artists Roy Lichtenstein, Sol LeWitt, Julian Schnabel - the list goes on and on.  Surprisingly, however, Jews dominated figurative art of the period as well, at least in pop form: Jerome Siegel and Joe Schuster, the creators of Superman, were Jewish, as was Bob Kane (creator of Batman), and both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, X-Men, et. al.); American comics are essentially a Jewish tradition.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Stephen Thorne and Angela Brazil in The Crucible.
These days it seems it's Miller time on American stages. That's Arthur Miller I'm talking about, the once-celebrated writer of Death of a Salesman, All Our Sons, and other earnest contemplations of American politics, money and immorality. Our new playwrights studiously avoid that kind of thing, of course, so - how to put this - they're not much use in the current political environment.

But Miller's sturdy melodramas (okay, maybe they're tragedies, I certainly don't mind if you call them that!) once again seem startlingly apropos, and are popping up in theatres across the country. Because guess what - the corruption of the Iraq War wasn't all that different from the seamier side of World War II (All My Sons).  And every day the greedy, self-absorbed boomer generation looks more and more like Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman).

And then there's The Crucible (now at Trinity Rep through March 13), Miller's lengthy contemplation of the Salem witch trials.  Once thought a metaphor for the McCarthy "witch hunts," (and specifically, a critique of Elia Kazan's famous naming of names to HUAC), it now resonates with parallels to the mob mentality of the Tea Party and Fox News.

Trinity doesn't press this angle, however (although a few bleached-blonde news anchors breathlessly reporting the latest from Salem might have been fun).  Instead director Brian McEleney (who after Twelfth Night and Absurd Person Singular has begun to look like Trinity's most reliable director, and perhaps its next artistic director) allows us to draw our own parallels with the present day, even if it's very present in Eugene Lee's ingenious set, which fills the Chace Theater with a huge blow-up of Providence City Hall.  Before this suggestive backdrop, on bare wooden platforms, McEleney offers a bare-bones take on Miller's script - which, as you'd expect, highlights both its strengths and weaknesses.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Great Recapitulation

Hardman and Grant in Cymbeline.
Once you get to be my age, with decades of watching and pondering Shakespeare behind you, the whole canon can begin to seem like one very long play. And when I consider Cymbeline, I sometimes think the Bard himself might have begun to feel the same way.

For Cymbeline, written late in Shakespeare's career, is a strange enormity, and one that all but cries out for explanation. It's one of Shakespeare's longest plays, and certainly his most variegated - whenever I think of it, I'm reminded of Polonius's hilarious description of the players in Hamlet, who specialize in "tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited."

Cymbeline, I suppose, counts as "tragical-comical-historical pastoral" (unless it's "poem unlimited"). At bottom, it's a national foundation myth - it concerns a legendary war that separated Britain from Rome. But literally a dozen different plots and modes flower briefly within that frame - the play opens with an unequal marriage that seems a variant of the one in All's Well that Ends Well, but it soon morphs into a miniature Othello (with a villain named "Iachimo," or "Little Iago"), before transmuting itself into something akin to As You Like It, with a subplot borrowed from Romeo and Juliet. And this is before we even get to the tropes lifted from Twelfth Night, Comedy of Errors, and King Lear. It's hard, actually, to think of a play by Shakespeare that doesn't have an echo in Cymbeline (maybe Henry VI), which is why I sometimes call it "The Great Recapitulation."

But why a recapitulation at that stage of Shakespeare's career? Well, Cymbeline does stand at a key juncture in the canon - after the great tragedies, and the "problem plays," and just after the odd patchwork that is Pericles - the latter half of which is almost certainly by the Bard, the first half of which is almost certainly by somebody else. But that latter half - in which a daughter is restored to her father, and a family re-united - would prove the inspiration for Shakespeare's final period, the "romances," with their uniquely haunting combination of tragedy and comedy. The greatest of these, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, take two opposed tacks to the structural problem of a tragi-comic synthesis. Cymbeline, by way of contrast, is something of a pile-up; watching it, it's tempting to guess that, armed with a new motif that he felt could serve as the culmination of his life's work, Shakespeare's first impulse was to stitch it into a vast recapitulation of his entire oeuvre. In a way, with Cymbeline the Bard took a very, very deep breath before saying, "And now for something completely different."

Monday, February 14, 2011

It's St. Valentine's Day, and so thoughts turn inevitably to whom - and what - we love.

And one of the things I love is theatre - but I have to admit, the poor old thing's been having a rough time of it lately. Some would even argue she's on her last legs; luckily, however, everybody's got a remedy for her. If she'd only drink this elixir, or drop that habit, she'd be back to her old self in no time.

To be honest, just last fall Boston theatre seemed, indeed, to be hale and hearty; in October we even seemed to be enjoying a golden age of sorts. But lately the news has not been so good - perhaps it's just the cycles of the moon, or El Niño or something, but I've sat through one weak play after another for what seems like weeks. Oddly, performances and production values have remained strong - it's the actual plays themselves - the new plays, the supposed engine of the whole enterprise - that seem to be conking out.

I know many playwrights reply to this kind of claim with the counter-claim that no, it's the critics who are conking out, that we "hate" theatre, or are out to stifle innovation, or are racists or I don't know, whatevah (you can check Parabasis for the latest revision of this meme!).  I only wish these people could spend an hour or two at one of the contentious meetings of the IRNE committee, in which critics go head-to-head for the shows they believe in and care about.  Such fracases are hard to square with the vision of reviewers as hostile to theatre, trust me.  Indeed, you leave such meetings convinced that critics actually care too much, that we're the last constituency that really and truly loves the theatre in and of itself.

So it strikes me that it will not be the critics who undo the theatre - instead, it may be all the other people who insist they love the form who actually may be loving it to death.  At any rate, it seems most observers already feel reviewers are tangential to the whole declining enterprise.  One need look no further than the ongoing imbroglios over Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark - critics finally descended on the production after weeks (and weeks) of previews, and rendered a devastating verdict.  But most of the commentary on the web has centered on the ethics of reviewing a "preview" (even when it's not, obviously, really a preview), or has questioned whether even the combined forces of the entire New York press can stop Julie Taymor and Bono's juggernaut.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Foxy lady

Vixen Sharp-Ears and her brood. Photo by J.J. Bates.
I'm always torn over productions like Boston Opera Collaborative's The Cunning Little Vixen (at left, through Sunday at Mass. College of Art). On the one hand, Leoš Janáček's opera is a wonderful one, and surprisingly, many of its deepest themes come clear in the BOC version. On the other hand, I have to admit the singing is adequate but uneven, and so is the orchestral playing.

So you have to go in appreciating the constraints of an ambitious, but still basically volunteer, organization like  Boston Opera Collaborative.  When a company's reach exceeds its grasp, I feel I have to say so.  But - and this is rather a big "but" - I can't pretend I didn't enjoy The Cunning Little Vixen.  Those who know the opera (as well as those who don't) will appreciate that its spirit is captured eloquently here, despite the variable technique of some of its performers.

The Cunning Little Vixen may be the only great opera adapted from a comic strip - but either comic strips used to be a whole lot more profound than they are now, or Janáček worked a miracle with his source.  For while Vixen certainly plays well as a whimsical piece for children, it's also a haunting meditation on mortality for adults.  Indeed, for the great Janáček, who was seventy-something when he wrote the score, the adventures of "Sharp-Ears," as she's known in the original strip, clearly formed the basis for a fond farewell to the joys of romance and youth (and maybe life itself).

That strange yin-yang of youth and age floating in the opera's atmosphere makes it unforgettable (and the hummable melodies that Janáček penned for Sharp-Ears don't hurt, either).  The surprise is that stage director Roxanna Myhrum captures nearly perfectly this rueful mix.  She's helped immensely by witty costumes and puppets provided by costume designers Deirdre McCabe Gerrard and Lauren Sack, and scenic designer Olivia Brownlee.  And while Myhrum's cast is variable, she has solid sopranos in her leads, Erin M. Smith and Natalie Polito - and Ms. Smith, it turns out, is  also a stylish actress.  There were other good acting turns in the company - I was amused by Daniel Schwartz's Badger, for instance - but fewer outstanding vocal performances.  To be fair, however, the Tower Auditorium at Mass. College of Art is a hideous place to sing, and the performers had to project over an orchestra playing without a pit.  Meanwhile the dance numbers (yes, there's dancing too!), choreographed by Gabrielle Orcha, were sweetly performed but a little repetitive.

Down in that non-pit, music director LidiyaYankovskaya did give a good account of the score (and the orchestral reduction she was working from is a lovely one), but the playing didn't always cohere - as is often the case with volunteer orchestras, she had a solid string section,  but more variable winds and brass.  Such gaps may ruin the experience for operatic elitists, but for other fans, a chance to see a solid version of this charmer may outweigh those concerns.  And certainly this production serves well as an introduction to the form for children - even its bittersweet ending (warning: poor Sharp-Ears meets an untimely end) will give them a hint that, you know, things don't always turn out that well at the opera.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

End of the line

Are we dead yet?  The cast of Terminus.
You keep thinking it has to be a joke.

You think that when the heroine pops out the eyeballs of the crazed lesbian abortionist who's brandishing a sharpened spear.  And you think it when she wakes up (after having been knocked out cold with a folding chair) to find a guy masturbating over her, ready to shoot.  You think it when the other leading lady reaches orgasm with a flying demon made of worms.  And you really, really think it when the serial killer is strung up by his intestines (which have been pulled out through his arsehole), and swings face-down from a construction crane, singing (I'm not kidding) "The Wind Beneath My Wings."

But it seems it's not a joke.  Indeed, it's deadly serious (even though the audience every now and then breaks out into guffaws).  "It" is Terminus, a new play by Mark O'Rowe, in a touring production by Dublin's Abbey Theatre, now at the Paramount as part of ArtsEmerson's Irish Festival.

And what I can say but - either you want to stay very far away - or you don't want to miss it.

The title alone tells you that Terminus is about the ultimate, the finale, the end of line.  And the play certainly stands as the ne plus ultra of pretentious bad taste.  It's a braided trio of monologues about horror and death, and hell and more horror and death, and more horror and death and hell.  Did I mention mental suffering and abject squalor and physical torment?  Maybe I did already.

And what's more, Terminus is also a rap.  Yes, hipsters - Irish rap!!!  Okay, it doesn't have an actual beat, but playwright O'Rowe is constantly bustin' rhymes of the "Christ/shite" and "fuck/truck" variety during his lurid descriptions of urinating lesbians and grotesquely deformed fetuses (since he keeps no steady rhythm going, however, this is pretty easy).  Yes - imagine the love child of Harlan Ellison and Dean Koontz working with Dr. Dre, and you've got Terminus.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The dis-illusionist

The Illusionist faces the end of illusion.
Like a lot of grown-ups, I felt Sylvain Chomet's The Triplets of Belleville was the best cartoon I'd seen in years (if you haven't seen it, do), and briefly Choment was the "it" boy of high-brow animation. Since then, however, his career has been plagued by controversy - there were charges of plagiarism from a former colleague; Hollywood threw a big project his way (The Tale of Despereaux) but then replaced him; the funding for another movie fell through; and even The Illusionist (above), released seven years after Triplets, has arrived trailing a kerfuffle over its dedication to one of Tati's daughters (it's a long story). Given these travails, perhaps it's surprising that The Illusionist has arrived at all, and I advise you to see it while you can; it's perhaps not in the same edgy, original league as Triplets, but it's nevertheless one of the best movies of the year.

Drawn from a screenplay by Jacques Tati, The Illusionist finds Chomet in a nostalgic mood; he clearly identifies with the silent, subversive wit of the great filmmaker, and not only makes his star, a stage magician facing declining fortunes, a dead ringer for Tati but bequeaths to him the Frenchman's birth name as well ("Tatischeff").  The comedian even makes an appearance on a movie screen halfway through the picture (in a clip from Mon Oncle, I think).  Of course beneath the frisky grotesquerie of Triplets many of the same themes resonated: in Belleville, real joy was only found among loyal old ladies who loved dogs, frog legs and jazz.  It seems that to Chomet, modern pleasures are by way of contrast false and destructive, and driven by egoistic delusion - he ridicules the rock band ("Billy Boy and the Britoons") that pushes poor Tatischeff off-stage as phony poofters, for instance, and their screaming teen-age fans are portrayed as deluded children (Tati, who relentlessly parodied modernism in movies like Playtime, would no doubt have agreed).  Still, the times (the 50's) they were a'changin', and charming as his act may be, the Illusionist finds himself playing to little old ladies at deserted matinees (above), or to the occasional drunk (if hearty) Scotsman - who, in the best Chomet manner, at least knows how to have a good time.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Bell epoque

Joshua Bell plays Bach in the Washington subway - to at least one appreciative fan.

Above is a clip of perhaps the most famous violin performance of the past decade: the morning Joshua Bell stood in the Washington D.C. subway (the L'Enfant Plaza stop) and played his Stradivarius for spare change.  As you can see, he was largely ignored (although over three quarters of an hour, he did pick up around $50 in tips; not bad, if you ask me).

Needless to say, context is everything in the arts; Bell received quite a different welcome at his Celebrity Series appearance here last weekend.  Indeed, the crowd that filled Symphony Hall listened in something like rapture as Bell - who looks much as he has for the past, what, two decades - performed a suite of late-nineteenth century duo sonatas (with Sam Haywood, himself a remarkable talent, on piano) that showcased what he does best: the smooth, singing line that is as much his trademark as that famously sun-ripened tenor was Pavarotti's.

The ongoing critical debate over Bell amounts to the question: is there more to him than that glorious bel canto sound?  His fans argue, "Isn't that enough?," and I'm inclined to agree; at any rate, even if Bell's no musical intellectual, he's nevertheless intelligent (not quite the same thing as being intellectual), and he holds his programs to a high standard; he simply chooses serious music that plays to his strengths.  And there's no better place to find such music than in the (mostly) late romantic period - the Bell epoque, if you will. The program last Friday, for instance, was the Brahms Sonata No. 2 in A Major, the Schubert Fantasy in C Major, and the more-obscure Grieg Sonata No. 2 in G Major - all for violin and piano.  This is serious (and certainly self-conscious) stuff, but like much of the late-romantic repertoire, it's loosely structured, and heavier on melody than development; the Brahms in particular is a long collection of songs (and I mean that quite literally - a good part of the piece is drawn from the composer's lieder).

Monday, February 7, 2011

Beau Derek

Jacobi on the heath at Dover in King Lear.
In between operas last week, I managed to catch the simulcast of Derek Jacobi's King Lear from London's Donmar Warehouse to our own Coolidge Corner. I have tickets to see the production again, at BAM in May, but I thought I would take this opportunity to compare the simulcast experience to the "live" one.

Alas, many of the issues that have been discussed in the Met Opera simulcasts are evident in the National Theatre simulcasts, too. The "show" began abruptly, and was somewhat mistimed so that we missed the first two or three lines of the play. And despite the intimacy of the Donmar (it's only 250 seats), the actors were miked, and also slightly amplified, which gave some exchanges a boosted, ringing quality, and made it hard to tell who had vocal chops and who didn't (Jacobi does). There were also a few electronic blips, and the simulcast seemed to skip a beat when the satellite wobbled or something. The camerawork, however, was restrained and mostly apt - it generally followed what you would expect a spectator's eye to track, along with a few appropriate flourishes (the slow pull-back from the Fool as he disappears from the play was particularly effective, as were the storm sequences - brilliant lightning effects, and a flexible soundscape, allowed Jacobi to whisper his most famous lines from what seemed to be a kind of psychological bubble).

The digital hiccups were mostly minor irritations, however, in the transmission of a production that, if not quite great, was still quite good, and certainly better than the Christopher Plummer or Ian McKellen versions that have recently passed through New York.  Director Michael Grandage has said he considers Lear to be "a political play," and this was evident in his concise cutting of the text; in this version (unlike in so many others!) you always understood just what the balance of power was between the ruthless junior royals.  Beyond that, Grandage doesn't seem to have had any big new ideas about the play, but he has a lean, driving style that served it well, and a directorial habit (a good one in popular versions of the classics) of making each transition a clean statement (at the moment that Lear's mind broke, for instance, Jacobi let out an impressively deranged scream).

At first, however, Jacobi seemed to make a rather lightweight Lear; this was no knotty oak, much less a human Everest, and in the early scenes his anger sometimes sounded more like pique.  But as this particular actor has made a dramatic specialty out of the sympathetic investigation of human weakness, he had a special angle on Lear's crack-up, and his well-known way with delicacy and tenderness made his reconciliation with Cordelia quite moving, and the terrible finale truly heart-breaking.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The cruel truths of Martin McDonagh

Tadhg Murphy ponders his fate as Cripple Billy.
Martin McDonagh, I think, will always be known as the very good playwright who was never quite a great playwright. And the reason is clear: his vision is compromised by his personality. McDonagh's great theme is sadism. But he also seems to be a sadist.  And that tends, you know, to compromise his perspective on his material.

Which is too bad, because he's certainly clever and funny as hell (if hell is made of ice rather than fire). And certainly The Cripple of Inishmaan - now at ArtsEmerson's Paramount through Sunday - shows off both McDonagh's misanthropic wit and his ability to build metaphor through the barest of means. What's more, Cripple even glints here and there with daubs of conventional sentiment; not everyone in it is a terrorist, for instance, or gleefully torments the helpless.

Of course some of them do; but then this is practically the sine qua non of the McDonagh manner, which is most notable for the importation of the kind of scenes we'd expect to find in the bondage cellars of Quentin Tarantino's skeezy L.A. onto the windswept shores of Ireland. Not that McDonagh is himself Irish; he's English - but born of Irish parents; thus, perhaps, the icy, child-like dissection of Gaelic mores that serves as the backbone of almost all his plays (unsurprisingly, he has never set a single script in his hometown - London - or among his own social set; all his work is a projected teen fantasy of resentment).

As for the Tarantino part - well, McDonagh has all but admitted he was pretty aimless until he saw his first Tarantino films in the mid-90's. Sensing a kindred spirit in the lantern-jawed torture-porn auteur, and grasping that movies like Pulp Fiction had opened up a cultural space in which the spoiled jadedness of Gen-X could slide into "ironic" cruelty, McDonagh promptly sat down and penned virtually his entire ouevre in a matter of months.  And his haughty sense of craft - at least when it comes to dialogue and shorter scenes, if not larger structures - soon made him a star in a field hungry for any author with old-time dramatic flair, however coldly rendered. (It didn't hurt that McDonagh's plays were a frank imitation of the coolest trend in movies, either.)

The Cripple of Inishmaan has some pride of place in this achievement - it's not as vicious as The Beauty Queen of Lenane, not as pretentious as The Pillowman, and not as brutally empty as The Lieutenant of Inishmore. It may represent the playwright's peak, in fact, and is chiefly interesting for the way it see-saws between two emotional and moral abodes - the author's usual charnel house/abbatoir, and some place more humane, at times even cozy.  Its central character, Cripple Billy (Tadhg Murphy, above left), whose parents died under mysterious circumstances when he was a babe, has been brought up by two eccentric "aunts" (Ingrid Craigie and Dearbhla Molloy) who run a run-down grocery on Ireland's coast that seems to sell only eggs and peas.  Poor Billy is afflicted in many ways - not only must he bear up under twisted limbs, crossed eyes, and a speech impediment, but he's also in love with the beautiful, cruel Slippy Helen (Claire Dunne), and so bored he sometimes finds himself staring at cows (then again, one of his aunties talks to rocks).

Friday, February 4, 2011

Life and death in the Third Reich

Kaiser Überall in his bunker in The Emperor of Atlantis.
Okay, folks - this one is important.

If you care about twentieth-century opera (or opera in general); if you care about Jewish history and the Holocaust; if you care about World War II; hell, if you care about the old "human spirit," then you must see Viktor Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis, which is currently holding court in a mostly brilliant production from Boston Lyric Opera, only through this weekend at the Calderwood Pavilion.

The big news here is simply the opera itself, which feels like an incredible discovery.  Even though most opera buffs have at least heard of it, few have seen or heard it (myself included) - due to its short length, fragmentary nature, and curiously whimsical tone, it has rarely been seen in the United States, or indeed anywhere.

Yet it's certainly one of the major cultural documents of the Holocaust, and perhaps one of the major operas of the twentieth century.  I know, I know - you think I'm hyperventilating.  Just go see it and then tell me I'm hyperventilating.  (I don't think you will.) [Update - unfortunately, the production has completely sold out.]

First, though, a warning - you may want to come late.  As if the first New England production of this rarity wasn't challenge enough, BLO has also commissioned a companion piece to fill out a full evening of performance (Emperor reigns for only about an hour). The idea - a very worthy one - was to add to the marketability of the opera by creating a handy companion piece for it.

But alas, the evening's prologue, Harvard composer Richard Beaudoin's "The After-Image," though pleasant enough in an earnest way, is a bit attenuated and tedious. The piece is a meditation on the meaning of a photograph, and as it's based on texts from Rilke and Rückert, it hints (or half-hints) at all sorts of intriguing intellectual issues regarding history and the transmission of meaning. But somehow this "tableau for two voices" never quite coheres; if you can imagine Susan Sontag warbling along to the Quartet for the End of Time,  you've got roughly the idea. And things weren't helped much by silly performance art flourishes from director David Schweizer that obscured, rather than illuminated, the overall arc of the evening.

Still, I suppose there's no use crying over spilt Rilke, and once the far-more-robust opera proper gets going, everything is suddenly imbued with the strange fire of a wild poem written in one's last hour, in which one attempts desperately to convey everything one knows about life and love before the final curtain falls.  That sense of poetic urgency is so palpable because the composers of The Emperor of Atlantis were, indeed, facing annihilation: Ullmann and his libettrist, Petr Kien, composed it from behind the barbed wire of the Terezín concentration camp, which was the "showplace" of the Nazi work camps (designed to fool the Red Cross into believing the camps were habitable). At one time four concert groups operated within the walls of Terezín, and Ullmann composed some twenty works during his time there; he never saw Emperor of Atlantis performed, however. Sensing its piercing allegory, the authorities shut it down during rehearsals, and Ullmann and Kien were soon transported to Auschwitz, where they were quickly murdered.

The dance of death in Emperor of Atlantis.
This was the official reaction to the brilliant allegory at the heart of Kien's witty book, in which the mad Kaiser Überall (that's him up top, mustache, epaulets and all) has declared a war to end all wars - indeed, its only real purpose is to kill every single person on the planet.   The carnage becomes so great, however, that Death himself is affronted, feeling he is being treated like a kind of mechanical lackey - and soon he's on strike, leaving the Emperor practically apoplectic as more and more people are unable to expire on schedule.  Executions grind to a halt - they're pointless - and on the battlefield, soldiers lay down their useless weapons and begin to sing to each other of love.  Clearly this can't go on; but Death only relents, and agrees to pick up his scythe, on one condition - that the Kaiser be the first to fall to it.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Il ritorno d'Ulisse in puppetry

Ulysses takes down the suitors who would have Penelope's hand in The Return of Ulysses.
As I took my seat at the Cyclorama last weekend to take in Bread and Puppet's version of Claudio Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses (original title: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria) I knew I was about to witness a car crash. For Peter Schumann, the shaggy guru of Bread and Puppet, is all about "cheap art." But Claudio Monteverdi, the guy who practically invented opera, was all about (shall we say) expensive art. Think of Schumann, and you imagine brass bands in the great outdoors. Think of Monteverdi, and you hear chamber music - or even sacred music. Schumann - broad. Monteverdi - subtle. Schumann - protest. Monteverdi - acceptance. You can't get further apart than these two auteurs.

But if I expected a car crash, what I got was a train wreck. Schumann did exactly the opposite of what he should have done, IMHO - he didn't really listen to Monteverdi at all, or even pay attention to the themes of his source. For the story of The Odyssey should have proven fascinating new terrain for the crunchy Bread and Puppeteers. It is, after all, a tale of the re-integration of the military man back into domestic society - even back into the marriage bed (fighting all the way, btw).

But how does a grizzled war protester even begin to treat the humanization of his longtime nemesis? Well, I guess he doesn't. Instead, Schumann tried to yoke Ulysses to our current egregious misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. The calmly rendered scenes of slaughter of the local populace by American soldiers (with audio drawn from Wikileak-ed tapes of the conflict) were indeed chilling in their deadpan jargon and banality. But their connection to the tale of Ulysses was, at best, oblique. And the imposition of a brass band onto Monteverdi's delicate score - well, of this let no more be said; aside from a few appropriately raucous blares, instrumentally the piece was a defiant disaster. The soloists were a bit better, but were clearly stretched beyond their limits (and the dreadful acoustics of the Cyclorama did nobody any favors). Surprisingly, however, the choruses came off rather well - largely thanks to the direction of the unbelievably versatile Greg Corbino (who also sang and played trumpet and accordion). The choruses weren't polished, mind you, but had a rough lyricism that gave a hint of what a Bread and Puppet/Claudio Monteverdi mash-up might have been like if Schumann had made a more honest attempt at one.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

From Berlin with love

The Philharmonia Quartett Berlin (at left) really needs no introduction, given the orchestra referenced by its name - these are four players on holiday from what is probably the best (and certainly the most prestigious) symphony on the planet.  Be that as it may, however, they're still orchestra players - who are often known more for sublime craft than for electricity or passion.

Which isn't to say the Philharmonia only colored within the lines at their Celebrity Series concert last weekend (their Boston debut) - they just rarely let rip.  But at the same time, they undemonstratively demonstrated something far more than craftsmanship (even far more than the finest craftsmanship).  Their readings of the Shostakovich Quartet No. 13, Beethoven's "Razumovsky" and Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" revealed superb insight and an unfailing musical intelligence.  I'm glad I heard them. But at least until the Schubert,  a sense of over-arching musical meaning often eluded these expert players, perhaps because they seemed to prefer attention to detail to construction of a grand statement.  Having shed their conductor (these days the erstwhile Simon Rattle), you sometimes got the feeling they still needed one.

The Shostakovich quartet - a late one - proved most problematic.  In it the Russian master faces death squarely, like Beckett, and without illusion or even hope; still,  despite its bracing honesty, the piece clearly is keening at times - other moments come off as paroxysms of sheer terror - and the composer's characteristic wicked scratch still has a little life left in it.  Even more to the point, the quartet closes with a seeming scream, and then a few clock-like ticks: the last seconds of life are dripping out.  Yet the Philharmonia's studious approach seemed to bring out every facet of the work without conveying either its grief or its sense of bitter acceptance; thus it was absorbing as a musical demonstration without being gripping as drama.

Better was the Beethoven "Razumovsky" - even though again the Philharmonia's devotion to detail seemed to undo the kind of impression the piece can make in other hands.  But to be fair, this time the problem lies right in the music: the "Razumovsky" seems to steadily pose brilliant, even grand, ideas, only to diminish them, even fritter them away - and the Philharmonics (that's what I'll call them from now on) refused to fudge on that; they followed Beethoven's instructions to the letter.

The best, fortunately, was yet to come: the famous Andante con moto of "Death and the Maiden" was just about everything it should be: sublimely lyrical, yet delicately poised and effortlessly balanced.  This music, of course, lies near the beginning of the long sweep of nineteenth century music that is the Berlin's specialty, so it was no surprise the quartet should have such a nuanced understanding of it.  But I was almost shocked by what came next (as an encore): a really stunning reading of the slow movement from Debussy's single string quartet; in a way, it struck me as the best playing of the night.  But then Debussy is all about texture, about atmosphere, rather than statement; and this offered the Philharmonics' wonderful craft a special opportunity to shine.