Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Circa opens tonight

Circa, another boundary-pushing circus act (this time from Australia) opens at the Paramount tonight, as a joint presentation of Celebrity Series and ArtsEmerson. I feel comfortable promoting the show prior to seeing it as I caught Circa two summers ago at the Edinburgh Fringe - where they were pretty easily the strongest act I saw. Not for everyone, these acrobat-jock-dancers can be blithely cruel, and often take the circus into the darker corners of human relationships, both social and sexual.  One particular acrobatic meditation on sadomasochism - done, of course, in spike heels - is pretty much unforgettable.  Through Sunday.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The inevitable next step for Jean Dujardin

Is the BSO in free fall?

As one of our occasional forays over to the BSO these days, the partner unit and I caught Beethoven's Missa Solemnis on Saturday night, because we're big fans of Christine Brewer, one of the soloists.

And what can I say but - hoo, boy. This was a disaster for the history books; we were there on a night that will no doubt live in artistic infamy.  There's a looong debate going on over at the Musical Intelligencer right now over just precisely how bad it really was, but there's no denying it was way bad. The sopranos in the chorus got shrieky (under the admittedly constant strain of the piece) and hit a few wrong notes here and there (although again, to be fair, the rest of the chorus stayed pretty focused), the soloists - a star line-up - seemed to be on different stylistic planets (and, standing at the back of the stage, struggled to achieve clear vocal profiles), and the orchestral playing hadn't really been shaped or interpreted at all.  And I mean not at all.  Missa Solemnis has a tendency toward mystical drift, but this one didn't even drift; it just sank.  There was one good violin solo from the concertmaster.  That was it. I almost fell asleep, while my partner fumed.

So how did this Missa miss the mark so badly?  Well, as you may have heard, conductor Kurt Masur (who is 84) backed out of the assignment, citing health issues, at the last minute - indeed, just after rehearsals had begun.  Caught in a bind, BSO management gave the concert over to John Oliver, their long-time chorus master (who had already prepped the chorale).  Oliver has my sympathy, but I can't pretend he pulled the concert together - or even tried to.  Indeed, on Saturday night he did little more than keep time; he offered few, if any, cues to his performers.  Everybody was on their own.  Including the audience.

I don't really blame him, however.  This was a disaster waiting to happen. Masur is only the latest in a line of major talents who have pulled out of BSO engagements (before Masur, maestros Andris Nelsons and Riccardo Chailly canceled, who were of course being considered as replacements for James Levine, who canceled out of everything last spring).  Not all of these no-shows have been aging, over-the-hill maestros, it's true (youngsters can get sick, or have babies) - but given the BSO's predilection for elder statesmen like Masur, it's now beyond obvious that they should always have a back-up plan whenever they hire one.

For John Oliver, God bless him, is just not an orchestral conductor; that much was obvious.  Indeed, it's hard for me to believe that with any real artistic director in place, this could have been allowed to happen.  And to put it bluntly, the BSO does owe its patrons, in the inevitable case of cancellation, something like a best-faith attempt at a fair trade; they at least owe their audience a real orchestral conductor.

What made the evening vaguely alarming was the incipient sense that it represented the BSO in free fall.  I predicted from the beginning that the Levine regime would end badly - but I never guessed it would end this badly, with conductors canceling left and right and the orchestra basically in disarray.  The only hope I have is that this Missa represents rock bottom for the symphony.  Honestly, there's no where to go but up.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Just because I like this picture . . . not to mention hot gay Marines . . .

US Marine Sergeant Brandon Morgan greets his partner Dalan Wells at his homecoming. Just btw, now there's a Gay Marines Facebook page.

More thoughts on Medea

Last night I came home to an unusual comment on my recent review of Medea at the Actors' Shakespeare Project. Here it is in full:

I have just seen the performance of Mrs Israel. Well I liked it. It was kind of a modern Medea : a Medea that transforms her passion which should normally be viewed as something very shamful (it's an understatment), to something very intellectual and logic. We are all reassured by these "scientific" almost and very eloquent arguments. Could the spectator not see the children , we would willingly believe that Medea's murder is no more than a kind of abortion... oh sorry I must have hurt the pro choice people. Medea is a very modern woman.

What leapt out at me was the mention of abortion - along with the grammatical and spelling misfires (which often signal that something has been typed in passion, as I myself can attest).  It's rare that anyone mentions abortion at all in the theatrical sphere, of course - there's a kind of cultural lacuna in operation around it - and even rarer that someone should criticize abortion rights (at least implicitly).

But I was also jarred by the fact that I had simply edited out of my own consciousness, while writing my review, the fact that Ms. Israel was also the first visibly pregnant Medea I'd ever seen.  Without even realizing it, I had turned a blind eye to what seems to have been the salient artistic statement of the production for my commenter.  And which of course puts a destabilizing spin on the idea of a "modern" Medea.  To my commenter, I'd guess, Medea wasn't unusual at all; he (probably, but perhaps she) may feel that this child-killing character is the new female norm.

But before I thought about that, I realized I had to interrogate myself; why had I "forgotten" that Ms. Israel was visibly pregnant as she mused about killing children?  There's one easy explanation - to put it awkwardly, I realized I had assumed that her pregnancy wasn't part of the "planned" show.  (I know, it's rude to speculate on these kinds of questions, but I'm afraid right now I have to.)  And I'm used by now to seeing female artists, particularly musicians and singers, perform while expecting.

Still, I'd also put out of my mind the fact that Ms. Israel sometimes stroked her "baby bump" during her performance - she seemed to be consciously putting her own condition into artistic play; Medea was musing on her own pregnancy, not Ms. Israel's.  But again, I'd ignored that - probably because I just couldn't understand how the actress's condition could be brought into artistic play without raising all sorts of ugly political arguments with which I disagree.  I really wish she hadn't done that.

But she did do it, so you see the problem.  If I'm opposed in general to the practice of replacing theatrical art with liberal propaganda, what's my reason for ignoring these aspects of this production?  I'm afraid I can't really come up with one.  I may disagree with my commenter politically, but I have to admit - he or she has a point, there's a disturbing, if perhaps unintentionally invoked, political dimension at the center of this version that has been clumsily half-disguised (and half-declared).  To be blunt, if the production had been self-consistent, it would have ended with Medea at least attempting an abortion at its climax, after killing her other children.  Why would she not?  Why would she drive off in her dragon-drawn chariot with two dead babies, but a live one on the way?  I suppose you could posit that Jason might not be the father of the child she's expecting - but that kind of undermines her righteous fury at his own faithlessness, doesn't it; if she herself has been unfaithful, then in some ways she's even more horrifying than she is already.

I have to confess I think it might be an interesting, if potentially blood-curdling, experiment to see whether Euripides' text is actually tenable in an explicitly pro-abortion political environment.  Perhaps there's even some theatre company out there that is gonzo enough to try that; but I think it would throw into weird relief the proto-feminist stance that some people - including the Globe's Don Aucoin, who wrote about the production in the Sunday edition - have been reading into this Medea.  I know, I know, Aucoin is just trying to make hay out of the current Republican wing-nuttery over contraception, which I, like every right-thinking person, of course oppose.

Still, if we begin to think of Medea as a feminist symbol, does that mean we're okay with viewing children - born or unborn - as simply collateral damage in the war between the sexes?  Does sexist oppression really grant a mother some sort of implicit sympathy in the killing of her child?  I think Euripides says no.  But I think Israel, her director, and the Actors' Shakespeare Project are saying yes.  Or at least they're half saying yes.  Whether that's an honest approach or not I leave up to you.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

"Eroica" at Handel and Haydn Society

Detail from David's Napoleon Crossing the Alps.

Beethoven at Handel and Haydn is always exciting these days - indeed, a few of their recent performances of the symphonies have been nothing less than revelations, even transformations, I'd argue. I'll never forget Norrington's Sixth, or Egarr's Eighth, for instance; both seemed like virtual re-inventions of the familiar musical texts.

So the bar was high for Canadian conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni (below left) last weekend, when he essayed both the Third ("Eroica") and the Egmont Overture, which shared the program with Haydn's "Maria Theresa" Symphony (No. 48), as well as a special performance, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of H&H's Collaborative Youth Concerts, of the "Gloria" from Mozart's Coronation Mass by local high school students.

I'm happy to report, however, that Zeitouni more than met H&H's high standards for Ludwig van, even if perhaps his "Eroica" wasn't the kind of transfiguration that Norrington and Egarr conjured in previous seasons.  "Eroica," of course, represents Beethoven's own transfiguration of the symphonic tradition - it's his "breakout" symphony, but not, perhaps, entirely of a piece; it sprawls, and is ungainly in places; what's thrilling about it is not its high finish or subtle structure, but rather the way it heaves the symphony into new arenas of emotional and political salience.

For notice the number of political names cited in this particular program: "Eroica," or "Heroic," was of course famously first titled "Bonaparte" (before Napoleon declared himself emperor, and Beethoven scratched his name out of the dedication), and Egmont is an overture to Goethe's paean to a valiant, doomed Flemish nobleman who fought the good fight against  oppression (the play, like almost all of Goethe, hasn't lasted, but Beethoven's incidental music has).  Meanwhile "Maria Theresa" was, of course, one of the great doyennes of the Hapsburgs - the only female ruler of their empire (for some forty years), as well as the mother of Marie Antoinette (among 15 other children).

Zeitouni didn't truly limn (or critique) these contrasting political dimensions, however; he concentrated on purely musical expression.  Perhaps that's because I'm not sure this conductor has, or cares to project, a particular intellectual profile; he has instead a style - generally hearty and muscular, with expressive phrasing and a taut musical line, but also marked by beautiful clarity, even transparency, and a striking range of dynamic ("Eroica" ran the gamut from whisper to battle cry).

Jean-Marie Zeitouni
None of this was quite enough, however, to save him from the dangers that lurk within "Maria Theresa," which of course has its charms, and is in spots quite brilliant; but more often, I'm afraid, it's meandering and repetitious.  I'm not sure why this particular Haydn opus retains its popularity, in fact; perhaps because its incipient sense of senescence seems so very Old World?  Possibly.  At any rate, the strings and woodwinds sounded exquisite, but the Adagio in particular seemed to grind down over time.  Things picked up in the final movement, but perhaps not quite enough.

Egmont, however, seemed to blow away all those sonic and political cobwebs, and surged with excitement and democratic life just as it should.  The strings were once again in fine form, and the woodwinds were more elegant than ever; Zeitouni kept the overture's "story" in focus, and the finale was suitably thrilling.

"Eroica" perhaps didn't feel quite as focused, but was nonetheless deeply satisfying.  It opened well, and the second movement (the "Funeral March") was deeply felt - but the Scherzo, always a bit surprising given what has come before, seemed a bit brisk, and lacked clarity.  The finale, however, like that of Egmont, was an inspiration, with vigorous, if not entirely clean, fanfares from the horns; the sense of surging triumph was more than enough to bring the audience to its feet.  If Zeitouni hadn't in the end re-defined "Eroica," he had nonetheless brought it off with power and grace.

I will also add that the student choruses who essayed the "Gloria" from Mozart's Coronation Mass were in fine form as well, and sang with persuasive feeling (under the direction of the reliable John Finney).  Indeed, their sound seemed to swallow the professional soloists accompanying them; only Teresa Wakim's radiant soprano managed to hold its own against their youthful exuberance.  The Society will perform the entire Mass at the end of April; I'm looking forward to it.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Well met by moonlight . . .

Above and below are long-exposure photo mosaics of Japanese fireflies by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu, taken outside his hometown of Okoyama City, Japan. These images have been lighting up the web of late (for more photos, and more about them, check out this post on Wired).  I'm posting them on the odd chance that someone somewhere may be looking for inspiration for a new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.  As Gertrude Stein might have said to any future Oberons, Pucks or Titanias: look, and long.

Tennessee topless

Erin Markey and Alan Brinks in Green Eyes.
I did want to mention that I managed to catch Company One's import (by the New York company "The Kindness") of the recently-discovered Tennessee Williams one-act Green Eyes, at the newly-refurbished Ames Hotel over the weekend.  And I'm not quite sure what the fuss has been about regarding this production.

Well, actually, I do understand what the fuss has been about; the audience is in close quarters (in a hotel room) with a hot topless lady and a ripped guy in boxers for almost an hour, as they declaim bad Tennessee Williams.  Now I want to state up front that I am all for hanging out in hotel rooms with attractive, half-naked young people; I wish I got to do that more often.  (Or ever.)  So in one way, the production was definitely a success.  (And I think the straight men in the audience were secretly giving it a standing ovation throughout.)

If only the play were a success - but alas, it's clear why this one wound up at the bottom of Tennessee's underwear drawer.  In it, he gropes about in an effort to extend his usual format of sexual tease (and  hysteria) into the political realm of the Vietnam War and its associated issues.  And I suppose you can't blame him for trying; but seriously - can sexual hysteria explain everything?  Somehow I don't think so, and it looks like in the end Tennessee agreed.  If only he'd found some way to align his usual concerns with a new dramatic mode (as he successfully found common ground with the Theatre of the Absurd in the far-superior Rooming House of Madame LeMonde), the play might still be of interest.  But no dice; and  Green Eyes doesn't even offer much in the way of Williams' distinctive dramatic language - and in case you haven't noticed, basically all the Williams plays that have remained securely in the canon are distinguished by the fact that in them his poetic cadence is at its peak.

In the end, the play (it's really more of a sketch) is basically a riff on the amusingly dirty-minded, but artistically only so-so movie Baby Doll (which in turn was derived from the so-so 27 Wagons Full of Cotton), so it's no surprise that the lovely Erin Markey capably channels Carroll Baker from that film, only in air quotes and slow motion (which helps to stretch out the running time).  She does manage to convey more real minx, however, in her languid drawl than we've seen in other local Williams productions, which is of some formal interest (actresses take note - Blanche and Maggie should have claws like these, too).  And she's totally un-selfconscious about being half naked throughout, which I'm sure many in the audience appreciated.  As her tormented husband (a soldier on leave from "Waakow"), Alan Brinks fares less well, however - he throws himself into the part, but it's terribly underwritten, and all but leaps from one overwrought reaction to another, and so the performance comes off as forced.  (Here you think director Travis Chamberlain might have lent Brinks a helping hand, but again, no dice.)

Then again, the script is such lurid malarkey - a split condom in the toilet, big bruises on bare breasts, plus maybe a rape, or a seduction, by a stud with "HUGE green eyes!" - that I'm not sure what more I could have reasonably expected.  Add a whole lotta potted palms, and sound effects from the Tet Offensive, and all you need to make this turkey fly is a big bag of popcorn with extra butter.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Medea, Actors' Shakespeare Project

The heroine of Euripides' Medea is half martyr, and half murderess - and not just any murderess, but a killer of her own children. This makes her - special, shall we say.  But these days we like to dwell on the first of her personae, while only half-acknowledging the second.  Which may be understandable given our current theatrical politics - we have trouble gazing directly upon women capable of filicide, and resist even the suggestion that we could grant one our theatrical sympathy; but in the end I'm afraid this basically emasculates (sorry) Medea as tragedy.

Which may be why the new staging by the Actors' Shakespeare Project feels simultaneously ferocious and somehow unfocused.  The actors give it their all, and so there's always one kind of intensity on offer.  But it's a vague, misdirected intensity - it seems to have been imported from some other play - largely because in the title role, Jennie Israel is all martyr, and no murderess - even though she does off her kids in a splashily gory manner.  Too bad we can still see. despite all the stage blood, that she has closed herself off from the act internally, and is unable to allow herself to experience her crime as the "triumph" it is.

This is probably a compliment to Ms. Israel, of course; for the actress who successfully limns Medea must find her way to, and back from, emotional places it's generally ill-advised to contemplate or speak of, much less experience.  Not that she's a mystery; indeed, perhaps we understand her all too well.  The character has certainly been wronged by her husband Jason - for whom Medea gave up literally everything in her former life, but who now has abandoned her for a younger wife.  So she has our sympathy, and there's a clear way for an actress to enter her frame of mind - until she begins to plan her revenge.  For Medea is bent not on wounding her betrayer himself, but instead in triumphing over him, "destroying" him figuratively - in winning, and being seen to have won; and thus she plots the deaths of those around her former hero, including, yes, her own children by him.

Such a choice means Medea has to be more than a little crazy - or rather demonic, in the old sense of the word; she's a witch, after all, and makes her final exit in a chariot drawn by dragons; she's in touch with literally supernatural forces of passionate ego. And perhaps it's worth mentioning that in earlier myths, Medea is a murderess several times over before Euripides picks up her story (she even killed her own brother, in some accounts, for Jason's sake).

Photos: Stratton McCrady
So Medea is bad news, and this makes her in many ways a problematic tragic heroine.  She doesn't even die at the end of her "tragedy" - instead, she gets away with a horrific crime.  So it's no surprise I've only seen the play work as tragedy one time - and that was when the actress devoted herself to her own horror at what she knew she was capable of, indeed was even planning.  This gave the script a remorseless momentum - and tellingly, at the finale, in her triumph over her faithless husband, this Medea seemed to be literally out of her mind.  Her own personality had driven itself over the edge; in a way she had died.

But none of this kind of intensity is forthcoming, I'm afraid, at Actors' Shakespeare Project, which under the stylized direction of David R. Gammons is something of a conceptual muddle - even if it looks terrific.  The set is a house straight out of Leave it to Beaver (it even splits apart on cue), but the chorus seems to have wandered in from a Stevie Nicks concert; meanwhile Medea mopes around in mourning (at left), while her husband is dressed for his wedding.  And did I mention the blinking chandelier?  There's a justification for all these choices, actually, but somehow these variegated visual gambits never seem to cohere.  And it doesn't help that director Gammons - who was a designer before he became a director - tends to resort to dumb show to put over what the actors should be conveying in their performances.  (When Jason first appears, for instance, he and Medea do an awkward roll in the hay to communicate that there's still sexual tension between them.)

There are good moments in several of the performances - including Israel's - but perhaps only Joel Colodner's amusing turn as Aegeus really comes together (Nigel Gore does his best as the smarmily calculating Jason, but he's miscast; he's simply not slick enough).  But I don't really expect a Gammons cast to do their best work, I'm afraid - at least not in a piece as thorny as Medea. This director is always busy around town, I know, but behind the visual flash of his productions, I too often feel a dramatic void. I know for a lot of people the flash is enough; I'm just not one of them.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The best show in town is out of town again

Robert Adelman Hancock and the adorable Megan McGinnis in Daddy Long Legs. Photo: Meghan Moore.

This is just a quick note to let you know that by far the most enjoyable show in town right now is Daddy Long Legs, up in Lowell at the Merrimack Rep.  I won't make any false claims as to its depth or artistic greatness - it's just a sentimental, charming evening out.  But what charm it has got. Sometimes, you know, it's enough (more than enough) to simply see a show in which everything is as it should be, in which everything has clicked precisely into place.  Perfect script, perfect direction, perfect cast, perfect set - it's a special kind of theatrical pleasure.  I admit the music's so sweet you may get a cavity, but you will leave smiling nevertheless (that's a guarantee).  I'll save a full review for later, but I thought I'd let you know as I've heard good seats are already hard to find for this one, and it only runs through March 4.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Are we promoting the wrong women?

I bumped into an acquaintance the other day who's on the "inside" of the classical music funding world, and he repeated what I've heard in several emails about the Opera Boston debacle - that Lesley Koenig had so alienated the Opera Boston Board that she was largely to blame for the company's demise.

Now, I have no way of assessing the truth of that statement, but I will say it seems to have many partisans. And as I walked away from the conversation, I began to mull what I realized might count as a recent trend in the Boston arts scene:

The women we choose to lead our arts organizations too often flame out.

Koenig's case is hopefully the low point of the trend: her organization did not even survive her tenure. But only a year or so ago Kate Warner fled the New Repertory Theatre, practically in the middle of the night, after a season of declining revenues, rumors of pay cuts for staff, and a predilection for leaning on old friends from her previous job for artistic content. And then there's Diane Paulus, before whom everyone bows in public, but rolls their eyes about in private; she turned her second stage into a bar run by her husband; almost all her staff quit, and she packed the empty posts with cronies; and she openly uses the Loeb as a launching pad for her own Broadway ambitions - the last of which was a brazen attempt to extend the Gershwin estate copyright on Porgy and Bess under the cover of fighting racism.  She's definitely the worst of the lot, but perhaps only because thanks to her friends and the bucks she generates for Harvard, she has managed to hang on.

So that's three disasters in almost as many years.  Which doesn't mean there haven't been women distinguishing themselves in leadership positions around town - there's Kathleen Fay at the Boston Early Music Festival, for instance, and Esther Nelson at Boston Lyric Opera, and of course Jill Medvedow at the ICA (I'm not really a fan of the programming there, but anybody who got a building built and oversaw the vast expansion in attendance that Medvedow presided over is by most people's definition a success).  And perhaps (kind of) balancing the equation is James Levine's slow decline and disappearance at the BSO, which was so badly managed it would have been funny if it weren't so sad.

Still, you have to ask yourself - what's going wrong?  To put things generally, there was a big push to promote women into leadership positions three or four years ago, and it hasn't worked out so very well.  Medvedow is still probably the only woman in the city whom you could point to as matching the institutional successes of people like Mikko Nissinen and Malcolm Rogers. So what's the issue here?  I don't subscribe to any sexist notions about women's abilities (that's why I feel free to criticize them) - so are we simply promoting the wrong women?  Is a certain political profile - and the ability to manipulate that profile - too often obscuring deficits in vision and personality?  (That's my guess, btw.)  If that's the case, hopefully the problem will work itself out over time - but only if we admit to ourselves that we have made some pretty big mistakes.  Now it would be sad to see a backlash take shape, with men taking back our cultural leadership; but I also think we don't need to double down on the urge to hire a woman, no matter what (and the more politically liberal the better!) - because maybe that attitude is one reason why we've been hiring so many of the wrong women.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

So Emily Rooney thinks it's funny to "smack the ish" out of gay men . . .

As you may have heard, CNN anchor Roland Martin was recently suspended for tweeting the following during the Super Bowl:

‘If a dude at your Super Bowl party is hyped about David Beckham's H&M underwear ad, smack the ish out of him!’

His managers (quite correctly) surmised that what Martin meant to communicate to his many followers was something like, "If there's a gay guy at your Super Bowl party, you owe it to yourself to beat the shit out of him!"

Well, GLAD immediately protested, and Martin has been off the job ever since - even though he insisted that his tweets were only "a light-hearted joke."

Yeah, right.  But guess what - WGBH's Emily Rooney agrees with him.

Actually, Martin at least wised up and later made something of an apology on his website, where he wrote:

'To those who construed my comment as being anti-gay or homophobic or advancing violence, I'm truly sorry. I can certainly understand how someone could come to a different conclusion than the one I meant.'

But on tonight's edition of Beat Off the Press - oh sorry, Beat the Press (which I was only watching because I couldn't reach the remote) - when guest panelist Kara Miller hailed CNN's management for taking action against Martin, Rooney loudly disagreed, stating that she "would not have in a million years determined that to be somehow anti-gay."  (You can watch it all toward the end of the clip at top.)

To which I can only say -

OMG, it's an incitement to violence!  (The offending ad.)
Is she fucking kidding?

For the record, Callie Crossley seemed to agree with Emily; she felt the case "wasn't quite that clear."  Yeah, right.  Somehow I think if Martin had been tweeting about "smacking the ish" out of women - or people of color, Crossley would have had a conniption.  But the idea of a black man tweeting about beating up a gay man . . . well, maybe she's half-down with that.  Or at least, she felt CNN needed "a more consistent policy." Maybe one that named every protected group specifically, I suppose . . .

As for Rooney, she rambled on that the tweet was indeed "Dumb . . . " then added with a knowing leer, "But he was probably having a few brews!!"  Uh-huh.  Tell us about it, Emily.

Okay, so Emily Rooney gets a kick out of open anti-gay bigotry, as long as you're drunk when you say it.  And so does Callie Crossley, unless there is a specific policy in effect against it.  Good to know!  And it's certainly interesting that WGBH's standards of hate speech are actually lower than CNN's.  (Because if Rooney and Crossley were working there, they'd be out of a job right now, wouldn't they.)

Still, all I can say is - it's really too bad Jared Bowen wasn't on the show that night!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Boston Ballet's "Simply Sublime"

Photo above and at top: Gene Schiavone.

In a way, Boston Ballet's current program "Simply Sublime" (through this weekend at the Opera House) is a milestone, because nothing in it is really new, and that's kind of the point.  The company has been edging for years toward a standing repertory that it could simply dip into for an evening's programming, the way other world-class companies can.  The idea is to see how the work in question has settled on the company, to assess how it has grown since its premiere.

And that's perhaps the central pleasure of "Simply Sublime" - the works have settled well on the Ballet's dancers, and have grown in power and subtlety; although, okay, the company hasn't done Les Sylphides since 1976, so the current dancers can't be familiar with it (few of them were even born in 1976).   But the steps of this Michel Fokine classic (at top) are so familiar, so built into our basic understanding of "ballet," that in a way you feel every major company already has the piece as a part of its artistic DNA.

Not that I'm a fan of Les Sylphides, however.  I know it's a classic in formal terms - it's the first so-called "ballet blanc," in which dance skipped away from story and became a pure meditation on music and mood.  The trouble is that the ballet's formal innovations are now all commonplaces - its sense of purification is old hat - and its "variations" hardly vary in tone (and it smooths a series of dizzingly different Chopin waltzes into one long, labored sigh).  Indeed, its content is one long sentimentally dated cliché; all these "sylphs" do is flutter and pose in attitudes of virginal melancholy, that is when they're not being half-heartedly chased by a dreamy "poet."  The girls even wear wings on their backs, for chrissakes (are they fairies? fireflies?).  I know this is the kind of ballet that makes little girls want to become ballerinas.  The trouble is that I'm a big girl now.

Indeed, I confess I've never seen Les Sylphides come off - and I still haven't, not quite.  The Ballet got closer than most companies, I suppose - the corps was certainly fine, and all the company's leading women could do these steps with their eyes closed.  But alas, as the poet, Nelson Madrigal too often landed with a clunk, and the brilliant Whitney Jensen just seemed too coolly self-possessed for this kind of fluff; and to be honest, watching the great Lorna Feijóo bourrée around and bat her eyes is like watching a jungle cat pretend it's a kitten.  Only the lovely Erica Cornejo had the right kind of dreamy presence for Les Sylphides; gently diaphanous romance is her forte, and she was ravishing throughout.  Which only goes to show you that there's no choreography so silly that some dancer somewhere can't make it seem transcendent.

Photo: Eric Antoniou
The program then leapt decades, to Christopher Wheeldon's celebrated Polyphonia (at left) which proved the triumph of the evening.  In one way, the piece seems a world apart from Les Sylphides; the Fokine is all curves, the Wheeldon all angles.  But seen from another perspective, the two are almost like twins separated at birth (by almost a century) - or rather Polyphonia feels like the latest branch in the Fokine family tree.

This is because Polyphonia (the name means "many voices") channels and re-focuses bits and pieces of the "white ballet" tradition into a stunningly harmonious - if slightly cold - new whole (only this time the ballet is violet, not blanc, as at left).  When I first saw this dance a few years back, I imagined (like a lot of critics) that it was essentially derived from Balanchine - perhaps because the costuming reminded me of the great Mr. B. at his most abstract.

But as it has settled on the Ballet, Polyphonia seems to have opened up into a cornucopia of references to everyone from Pilobolus to Mark Morris (even Petipa gets a nod). Yet intriguingly, like Les Syphides, it maintains for its many entwined couples a single mood - alienated, ironic, perhaps post-romantic but not actually unromantic - even though (again like Les Sylphides) it's drawn from various piano pieces from a single composer's career (in this case the great György Ligeti).  This time, however, each piece is allowed its own integrity (and each was played astoundingly well by the talented Freda Locker).  And all the dancing was exemplary - my eye was caught again by Paul Craig and Dalay Parrondo, as well as Adiarys Almeida and Jeffrey Cirio.  But the dance belonged to the calm contortions of Kathleen Breen Combes, whose duets with Yury Yanowsky were always serenely disturbing.

Last up was Mr. B. himself - his sprawling Symphony in Three Movements, to the Stravinsky score of the same name (and that composer's first major work after his emigration to America).  Balanchine's dance dates from some three decades later - and thus perhaps the strange, parodic edge he seems to have given  his fellow Russian's attitude toward his new home.  Symphony was seen back in 1945 as a neoclassical tribute to the fight against fascism, but in Balanchine's hands it turns into a sardonic smile at all-American "drive" and "energy," with squads of bathing beauties in Esther Williams swimsuits (see masthead) lined up to dive into invisible swimming pools, as athletic boys bounce back and forth on a virtual basketball court.  It's fun, but I'm not convinced it's actually major Balanchine; it's all variation with little real development - the dancers are divers, then pilots, then maybe some kind of giant machine, but who knows why or wherefore - and the cornucopia of movement sometimes feels crowded on the Opera House stage.  Still, once again the Ballet's performance of the work had clearly matured since the last time we saw it, and Lia Cirio, Dalay Parrondo, and especially Isaac Akiba (one of the Ballet's best jumpers, and happiest athletes in general) all acquitted themselves exceptionally well.  Still, the piece's relationship to what had come before felt at best oblique.  Neither attuned to its score nor its true period, Symphony in Three Movements seems to dance to a political rather than emotional or aesthetic beat.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Biber's Mystery Sonatas

The talented Christina Day Martinson.

We're so accustomed these days to what is essentially an academic approach to sacred music that we almost seem to have forgotten a central question about it: how intrinsic is the spiritual context of such music to its artistic content?

That issue seemed to almost loom, however, over last weekend's performances of Heinrich Biber's Mystery Sonatas, by Christina Day Martinson and Boston Baroque.  For this remarkable collection of pieces - by perhaps the greatest violinist of the seventeenth century - is clearly meant to embody a certain strand of the Catholic mystical tradition - in short, its focus on the achievement of transcendence through physical torment (an obsession of too many Catholic saints to count).  That artistic goal is so apparent, in fact, that mimicking Biber's effects in a secular environment seems - well, hardly sacrilegious, but at times almost hopelessly opaque.  These sonatas are meant to conjure something like an artistic analogue to the tenets of Catholic gnosis - but frankly, without a grounding in that tradition, I'm afraid these "mysteries" just seem mysterious, even in an often-dazzling performance like this one.

I imagine I should explain a bit further, because the case of the "Mystery" Sonatas is practically unique in the literature.  The works are sometimes called the "Rosary" Sonatas, because there are fifteen of them - as there are fifteen "decades" of prayer beads in a Catholic rosary - and what's more, they are forever associated with the "Mysteries of the Rosary" (which are to be contemplated during that ritual) due to their earliest extant edition, which illustrated each work with an image depicting the Annunciation, the Nativity, etc. (image below).

But Biber clearly didn't intend his sonatas as mere Marian fetishes (even if they were dedicated to an obsessive Marianist, the Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph), for their climax focuses not on Mary, but on the Passion of her Son - indeed, Biber obviously (obviously) intends the violin itself as a concrete analogue for Christ's body (perhaps even for the Host).  How do we know that?  Well, the composer explicitly instructs the violinist to tune his strings differently for each piece, so that no two sonatas are tuned to the same set of notes (the technique is known as scordatura).  And these variances grow more painful for the instrument as the sonatas progress; indeed, the stress in some cases - such as during "The Agony in the Garden" and "The Crowning with Thorns" - is enough to make its strings occasionally snap, as Martinson attested to from the stage.  Indeed, in one tuning, the strings are re-strung so they actually cross - the symbolism couldn't be balder.

And once crucified, as it were, the instrument does shiver with strange new sonorities; indeed, the performer quickly discovers that the sounds coming out of his or her violin are not actually the ones written down in the score!  These new resonances, floating free from their earthly frame, are a clear metaphor for the grace many Catholics once believed came only from the mortification of the flesh; yet oddly, when Biber is most obviously torturing his instrument, his writing is often at its lightest; indeed, "The Crowning of Jesus with Thorns" actually includes a gigue (that's a jig in the vernacular of the peasantry).

This is because another key tenet of Catholic gnosis is that physical torment releases its own form of joy in the victim's appreciation of his closeness to God -as in the case of the penitents on the seven terraces of Dante's Purgatorio, who sing and dance even while they're being burdened with stones, or their eyes are being sewn shut.  They know the pain of their purgation is only bringing them closer to the Godhead at the glowing core of Dante's Multifoliate Rose.

The famous illustrated edition of the Mystery Sonatas.

Okay - that's a lot, and I only know it all because I'm a lapsed Catholic.  But without all that background, I'm afraid Biber's sonatas can often be quite mystifying - they sometimes seem like merely sad dances in funny keys.  And yet even with all that background, how can a non-believer truly enter into Biber's artistic world?   I'm not quite sure - although I'm certain some sort of secular analogue is possible; after all, what is the current obsession with body piercing but a variant of Christ's trial on the cross?  Pain as a means of transcendence is a force in almost every spiritual tradition (it simply reached a particularly ripe bloom in Catholicism), and as a general mode of initiation it is all but universal.

But here's the other rub - Christina Day Martinson is certainly a wonderful violinist, but she's not really a mystic - much less an ecstatic!  Indeed, she rarely projects what you'd call an outsized musical personality; Martinson is instead a brilliant, if earnest, craftsman (or woman) who has attained the highest order of skill.  That level of craft is what made her a natural for Biber's fiendish technical challenges, and Martinson certainly brought off the pieces, and then some - her brisk passagework in particular remains a dashing wonder - but the overall arc of the concert simply seemed to be missing; the performer herself didn't always appear sure, really, what these pieces were about, except in their moments of obvious scene-painting, such as the lamentations of "The Agony in the Garden" or the terrible severity of "The Crucifixion" (in which you can practically hear the nails going in).

The original body piercing (from the Isenheim altarpiece).
Here Martinson gripped us, of course, and there were other exquisite moments scattered throughout her performance - the mournfully sweet Ciacona of "The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple," or the elegant Sarabande of "The Finding of Jesus in the Temple."  But there were other odd hesitancies here and there, too, along with a few squeaks and scratches in such early sonatas as "The Visitation," in which Martinson was first settling into the new tunings.

I had a few more caveats - the accompaniment (cello, theorbo, harpsichord and organ) wasn't always balanced, for instance (the organ tended to dominate early on); but the mix seemed to improve as the performance progressed, and I admit the concert grew on me.  In some ways this may have only amounted to the successful execution of a fascinating technical challenge, of the kind that's catnip to academic musicians; but is that so wrong?  And the performance did at least hint, I suppose, at some sort of "spiritual" vision that the program illustrated as a holy light streaming through a church window.  Hmmmm.  I'm afraid a detail or two from the Isenheim altarpiece (above) would have been more appropriate, but somehow I got the impression that unashamed grappling with the Catholic content of these pieces was a kind of unspoken taboo for Boston Baroque (even though, yes, they dutifully mentioned the Mysteries of the Rosary in the program notes).  They're talking about coming back with the rest of the 15 (we only got nine this time around); but I'm not sure they'll penetrate Biber's musical mystery until something in that attitude changes.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Richard Egarr at Boston Early Music Festival

Local early music aficionados know that Richard Egarr is one of the most exciting conductors alive - his recent interpretations of Haydn's "Clock" Symphony and Beethoven's Eighth (at Handel and Haydn) have been nothing short of electrifying. He's the kind of conductor who somehow balances dynamic spontaneity with real intellectual rigor; he doesn't merely conjure rarefied emotional "colors;" he instills ideas in his performances. At an Egarr concert, you can often feel the whole audience on the edge of its collective seat, wondering with delighted anticipation what exactly is going to happen next, what new perspective is going to be revealed - even in pieces everyone practically knows by heart.

So my hopes were high as I settled in for last week's Boston Early Music Festival evening of seventeenth-century harpsichord pieces performed by this daring musician - who got his start as, yes, a keyboardist.

But is it fair or unfair to say that I was slightly disappointed, because the performance wasn't thrilling, but merely very fine?  This is a problem most artists would like to have, I suppose - the problem of past achievements raising expectations to an extraordinary degree. Still, it feels mean-spirited somehow, doesn't it, to carp over quality that is merely rewarding and not as dazzling or thought-provoking as you'd hoped.

Then again, it seemed odd that Egarr's conducting dazzle was often slightly lacking in his own playing, as he himself pointed out that the musical notation of the harpsichord's heyday allowed performers enormous room for improvisation.  (Which is absolutely true - early music notation is sometimes so open it's reminiscent of jazz.)  Perhaps there was simply something a bit constricted about several of the pieces he played, fine as they were; or perhaps Egarr gets most fired up by intellectual, as opposed to simply musical, content (they're not exactly the same thing).  Indeed, I noted that when he turned to larger canvases - when he played the songs of Purcell, or limned the dense fire of Froberger - Egarr seemed to re-gain some of the edge I remembered from his conducting.

Or maybe my dissatisfaction stemmed from the fact that I wasn't quite buying what Egarr was selling in his many comments from the stage (charming and companionable as these asides were).  Egarr likes to point out the many similarities between the harpsichord and the lute - and don't laugh, he's quite right in many ways; both are "plucked" instruments, of course, and early music written for harpsichord looks a lot like music written for lute, with unmeasured stanzas practically free of rhythmic cues.

But is a harpsichord really a giant, mechanized lute, as Egarr quipped?  Somehow I don't think so.  As soon as you listen to a harpsichord, you realize that comparing it to a lute is a bit like pointing out that a sax is just a brass clarinet; perhaps, but this doesn't tell you anything you really want to know.  Not only is the harpsichord's timbre utterly unique - that silvery, melancholy creak that famously has been compared to skeletons dancing - but something of the nature of the keyboard (a kind of geometric abstraction) inevitably seems to manifest itself in its music.  In some deep way it's just not a lute.

Oh, well!  Despite all these quibbles and caveats, I must admit that Egarr is always a subtle and probing performer, whether he thinks he's playing a harpsichord or a glockenspiel.  Alas, he didn't inspire in me the love he clearly feels himself for Louis Couperin (despite the solemn charms of the famous Tombeau de M. de Blancrocher, as well as the richly-wrought Chaconne that Egarr saved for last); for me, in the end, the ornamentation has gotten so encrusted in Couperin that I can't always quite scan where the ornament ends and the actual theme begins. But I was quite taken with Egarr's readings of Purcell - but then I'm always taken with Purcell; what was strange here was to discover the composer's familiar voice "singing" even in pieces such as A New Ground, which are essentially patterns of higher notes moving like lattices over patterns of lower notes (i.e., the "ground").

Even more intriguing were the pieces by Johann Jakob Froberger, a pioneer of program music who doesn't have nearly the modern profile he clearly deserves. His Toccata II in D Minor was compellingly impacted and thorny, while the grimly funny Tombeau fait à Paris sur la mort de Monsieur Blancheroche sparkled with a glints of a peculiarly sardonic sympathy.  Poor Monsieur Blancheroche (whose death inspired Couperin, too) was a famous virtuoso of his day who perished after a drunken tumble down a flight of stairs.  Froberger was actually present at the tragedy, but his elegy comes off as something more like a grimly ironic chuckle; it even closes with a scale that plunges head over heels down into the bass.  M. Blancheroche reportedly gave up the ghost before a priest could administer last rites, so who knows where his poor spirit is lodged now - which only gives a final twist to Froberger's tumbling little joke.  Ah yes - somewhere skeletons are definitely dancing to this one.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Boston Lyric Opera lights up The Lighthouse

Alone in The Lighthouse - photos: Erik Jacobs
Opera is meant to be a synthesis of every art form, but most opera lovers care about one thing and one thing only: the star voices at the center of the whole shebang.  I've had more people than I can count swoon over the evocative power of a particular larynx, but then stare at me in incomprehension when I offered my thoughts on the production in which that larynx was embedded.

Which isn't to say that Boston Lyric Opera's current production of Peter Maxwell Davies' celebrated The Lighthouse (today is the last performance, so hurry) doesn't offer some fabulous singing; it does (although nobody in the show is yet a star).  No, what instead distinguishes this version is its conception, its physical production, its landscape, if you will - for as part of its new "Annex" program, BLO has set up digs in a conference room at the JFK Library, out on the rocks of Columbia Point, before a giant window with a sweeping view of the harbor.

So yes, BLO has literally put us in a lighthouse for The Lighthouse.

I suppose on paper that sounds crushingly literal, but in performance the effects this inspired setting allows the BLO production team are nothing short of astounding.  Before this vast view, director/designer Tim Albery and set designer Camellia Koo have built the skeleton of the title sentinel - which appropriately enough recalls a scaffold, and which is "haunted" by the reflections the players cast in the glass behind it.  What's more, they've built up their own evocation of the rock on which the light is planted, as well as the mizzenmasts of the ships that visit the forlorn outpost of Davies' scenario.  There's even a searchlight rotating outside the hall, which conjures a moment of musical (and dramatic) "time travel" that's pure genius. To be blunt, this isn't a "set," it's a geography as well as a state of mind.

But then if you know something of that previously mentioned scenario, you may already have some idea of just what a conceptual bull's-eye all this represents.  Davies based his best-known opera on a famous incident recorded in 1900, in which a ship discovered the lighthouse on Eilean Mor in the Outer Hebrides (below) had been abandoned, and seemingly in a hurry - beds were still unmade, and there were dishes on the table.  But where its three keepers had gone - indeed, how they had gotten off their remote island - has remained a mystery ever since.

The lighthouse on Eilean Mor endures, as does its mystery.

Now this is agreeably spooky stuff, but Davies is after far more in The Lighthouse than some operatic Twilight Zone episode. He both imagines a plausible explanation for the disappearance of the keepers, and at the same time conjures a powerful statement about the entwined nature of paranoia and hostility - and how we humans try to stave off, through art and artifice, "the beast" that lurks within us.

For in his frame story - the questioning of the three sailors who discovered the empty light - Davies has settled on a dissonant chromaticism somewhat in the mode of late Britten, only without the dreamy, glittering eroticism; the score is not actually "atonal" (as many in the audience I saw the show with seemed to think; why do people always imagine challenging music is atonal??), but it's unsettling and unstable; its tonal center moves around - something frightening always seems to be looming out of it, before disintegrating.  In short, it's paranoia in musical terms.

This metaphor is clever enough, but director Albery embeds it in another brilliant stoke of staging: his three sailors -  tenor John Bellemer, baritone Christopher Burchett, and bass-baritone David Cushing - are "interrogated" by a mournfully officious horn at the back of the house; under its cross-examination, they re-live their terrible discovery, entering via three separate sailing rigs before creeping up a dark "path" toward the lighthouse itself.  Once their tale has been related, however, it's barely probed; the investigation abruptly closes down with a verdict of "death by misadventure" for the lighthouse's vanished occupants.

But then Davies turns back the clock - as the lighthouse's "robot lantern" silently rotates, its ghosts all "shut tight inside" its tower; his three rescuers are transformed into the doomed trio themselves; and we discover exactly what happened on the fateful night of their disappearance.  Here Davies turns to another wily compositional technique - as the men of the lighthouse battle off madness, they sing one form of sentimental (completely tonal) music after another; but their songs all disguise sinister undertones, and the piano accompanying them is (intentionally) out of tune; Davies is parodying their taste, as well as pitying it.  He knows that the dissonance of "the Beast," as one of the men puts it, can't be denied in the stifling isolation of their prison.

The Beast attacks its keepers.
But it's here, I'm afraid, that BLO falters - not musically, but dramatically.  Albery's cast, at least on the night I attended, were all convincingly stolid as the first trio of sailors, but they couldn't quite pull off the psychological breakdown that the second trio must undergo in the final scene.  Bass David Cushing in particular sounded wonderful, but acted too woodenly, particularly at the moment of his crack-up, when alone up in the tower, "the Beast" at last takes over.  The singers' renditions of their respective favorite tunes, however, were quite amusing, and often suitably desperate, with Christopher Burchett and John Bellemer getting close to the right kind of rising hysteria.

Ironically enough, this dreadful climax was the only memorable moment from the 1983 Peter Sellars production, which I caught years ago at the Boston Shakespeare Company (which Sellars was then in the process of wrecking).  Sellars relied on a rather cheap trick to help along the transition - as his characters sang of "the Beast," one of them revealed that his hands had been transformed to claws; talk about The Twilight Zone!  Still, like a lot of cheap effects, the trick was pretty damn effective.

In every other way, however, this is by far the superior production, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit it often gave me chills - and that in its conception and design it seemed to almost perfectly channel Davies' intents.  Be warned, of course, that the conference room setting has a few acoustical issues; some things seem to carry extremely well - too well, perhaps - others not so much.  Conductor David Angus has ameliorated much of this through subtle "voicing" of the orchestra (the players all turn in highly committed performances, by the way), but I admit there are still a few gaps.  But then again, if you're going to take opera out of the concert hall, do you really have a right to be surprised if you have - well, taken opera out of the concert hall?  I don't think so.  In its "Annex" productions, Boston Lyric Opera has been rolling the dice on big gambles - and the previous two, The Turn of the Screw and The Emperor of Atlantis, have both been triumphs.  We can add The Lighthouse to that distinguished list, I think; it sets a standard for opera in found spaces that I believe few other local productions will ever match.  To give you some idea of the intellectual depth of its design - when I looked more closely at the "path" leading up to the lighthouse/scaffold, I realized it was made of heaps and heaps of sailor's coats.  This story, the designers were telling us, had happened before; indeed, it had happened over and over again; the "island" itself was built of the remains of similar deaths.

And it was then that I thought to myself - you know, in the old days, BLO was the big, soft-headed suburban opera company; but all that has completely changed.  Honestly, these Annex productions are the smartest opera that Boston has ever seen . . .

Saturday, February 11, 2012

So it's Jim Petosa at the New Rep . . .

The announcement came in yesterday, but I didn't open it till this morning.  Jim Petosa of BU, who helmed the New Rep's recent success Three Viewings, and also directed Opus there, has been named the theatre's new Artistic Director.  I don't have time this morning to think this through (I've got laundry to do, then Wagner), although my reaction is generally positive.  The press release follows:

[WATERTOWN, MA, February 8, 2012] – Today, New Repertory Theatre names Jim Petosa, nationally-known, award-winning theatre artist, educator, and leader as its new Artistic Director.
After a nation-wide search, New Rep Board Chair Daniel Newton says, “I am excited that New Rep is bringing on board such an eminently qualified, visionary leader as Jim Petosa for this critical role. As a guest director at New Rep, Jim has been involved with our artistic family for years. I am confident he will ensure the continued production of the highest quality theatre our audiences have come to expect.” 

Petosa served as Artistic Director of Olney Theatre Center outside of Washington D.C. (Montgomery County, MD) since 1994. High notes of his tenure include expanding the company from a summer theatre to year-round; growing the company into a theater-center campus, including a new theatre lab and amphitheatre; and earning many local, regional, and national awards for the institution and his directing, including the Helen Hayes Award. He will finish out Olney’s 2012 Season.
Additionally, Petosa will continue to serve as Director of the School of Theatre, College of Fine Arts, at Boston University, a position he has held since 2002. In this role, he also established the Boston Center for American Performance, the professional production extension of BU’s School of Theatre.
While Petosa’s New Rep appointment officially begins August 1, he says, “I’ll become involved immediately in the remainder of New Rep’s current season, as well as plans for the 2012-2013 upcoming season. Every day is an opportunity to share ideas and build relationships.”
Petosa plans to encourage “an era of collaboration that strengthens New Rep. He says, “It’s an exciting time for regional theatre in our country. We need to examine current models and make them relevant for the future. I have an incessant belief in the power and possibility of the theatre, and a deep desire to foster dialogues of discovery that continue advocating for its relevance and meaning.”
“Having directed three productions in three years at New Rep,” he continues, “I came to understand the organization’s commitment to quality, intelligence, and revealing human truths through thoughtful story-telling.” Petosa most recently directed Three Viewings this season, called “compelling” by The Boston Globe.
“I am truly looking forward to partnering with Jim,” says Managing Director Harriet Sheets. “Since his directorial debut ofOpus with us in 2010, he has proven to be an effective team-player. With Jim, I expect to develop an inviting creative home for our artists.”

New Rep plans to celebrate the announcement of its 2012-2013 season next month at its Premiere Party, where patrons may personally meet Petosa.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Whither "wandas" the gay play?

I suppose David Valdes Greenwood's Wandaleria (through this weekend at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre, presented by Argos Productions) technically isn't a "gay play" - everybody in it is straight - but it feels like a gay play in drag just the same.  Its heroine, Wanda (full name: Wanda Mae Pretty), is simultaneously sweet, pathetic, and ridiculous; she's a kind of taste-challenged loser/shut-in (at left) who lives a life of quiet desperation through various fantasies and pen pals - one of whom (a convict who seems even sweeter than Wanda) manages to break out of the Big House and then threatens to turn up on her doorstep in the flesh, much to the chagrin of her roommates and misfit pals - not to mention her fantasy friends.

Sound familiar?  I'm afraid it does; far too familiar, in fact.  Valdes Greenwood manages a few unusual variations on his second-hand themes (the object of Wanda's fantasies turns out to be something of a fantasist himself), but none of his gambits are striking enough to make us forget that the freshness date on this basic set-up is something like 2003.

Not that anyone in the cast seems to have noticed; they carry on as if they're in some kind of Off-Off-Broadway time warp.  In fact the Argos production is generally quite strong, and within fringe budgetary limits, everything looks about as it should.  (That's part of the problem, though; we already know how every moment should look and play in this show.)  Kate deLima (above left) makes a natural and appealing Wanda, and Peter Brown is a believably sensitive (ex?) con.  There's sharp work around the edges of the production by Craig Houk and Terrence Haddad as two of Wanda's most persistent fantasies, although the usually-reliable Shelley Brown can't always make us forget the thin excuses Valdes Greenwood provides for her character's behavior.  The find of the show, however, is young Caitlyn Conley, who as Wanda's quirky buddy isn't merely lovely but also shows signs of perhaps being a gifted comedienne.

These folks keep you caring - but not so much about their characters as about them, themselves, as in - why can't these talented actors find better gigs?  Oh, well.  Director Brett Marks keeps things moving smoothly, and I applaud him for putting together such a solid cast - I'm just beginning to question his taste in projects!  This is certainly better than one of his previous discoveries - the notorious Cherry Smoke -  so maybe things are looking up for this particular local director.  I certainly hope so.  As for David Valdes Greenwood - well, Wandaleria is a pretty good "apprentice" play - it shows this author can paint in the numbers on a pre-existing grid.  But now it's time to break out on his own, with a fresh canvas.

Visit The Lighthouse this weekend

It's a busy weekend for arts fans, but the do-not-miss event is Boston Lyric Opera's production of Peter Maxwell Davies' The Lighthouse (above), at the JFK Library, through this weekend only.  I have a few caveats about the production (don't worry, the singing and musical direction are both strong); but simply put, it represents the most brilliant integration of opera into an existing space that I've ever seen in Boston.  Designer/director Tim Albery, with set designer Camellia Koo and lighting designer Thomas C. Hase, take every advantage of their striking setting on Boston harbor (and devise a few fresh coups of their own) to conjure Davies' brilliant vision of isolation, paranoia and madness. Inevitably, in a room not designed for opera, there are a few acoustic hiccups, and the cast doesn't quite reach the dramatic pitch that they achieve vocally.  But the overall impression is nevertheless exciting, at times almost overwhelming.  After a misconceived Macbeth last fall, and the recent Opera Boston debacle, it's wonderful to see BLO back on track, and working at such a high intellectual and conceptual level.

Elsewhere, however, there's also plenty to see.  Here's what I'm going to try to squeeze in: tonight there's the delightful keyboardist Richard Egarr at Boston Early Music; tomorrow, I'm wrapping Lepage's Ring Cycle with the six-hour-plus Götterdämmerung at the mall, followed by Boston Ballet's "Simply Sublime" (which should be just that). Then Sunday, I'm catching the Actors' Shakespeare Project's new production of Medea, then dashing over to Boston Baroque to hear the great Christina Day Martinson work her way through the Biber "Mystery Sonatas."

And then I'll tell everybody what I thought of everything.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Europa Galante at Boston Early Music Festival

By now it's obvious that period performance has begun to fracture into different national schools. And if last Sunday's concert by Europa Galante at the Boston Early Music Festival was any indication, the Italian school is all about sweet, stylish warmth. Led by the brilliant violinist Fabio Biondi (above, looking almost too suave), the string ensemble (plus harpsichord) sailed through a program dubbed "New Faces and Old" which left the audience perhaps unruffled, but also beaming with pleasure.

The "old" faces on offer I suppose were Vivaldi, Bach, Handel and Haydn; the "new" ones were Antonio Brioschi and Angelo Maria Scaccia, both pretty obscure to the non-specialist.  Of these, the Scaccia piece - a violin concerto in E-flat major - was by far the superior, as it boasted a plaintively intriguing (and richly ornamented) Adagio.  The brisk Brioschi was charming and lively, and punctuated by lightly descending arpeggios, but to be perfectly honest, at this point I can barely remember it; it tasted delicious going down, but now it's gone.

Europa Galante is capable of quite more than that, to be sure (although sometimes it did seem that empty musical calories could be their default mode).  The musicians play standing up, as Handel and Haydn does now, which allows for more lilting rhythms, and a comfortably loose (but not too loose) sense of ensemble.  Biondi had a generous stage presence, but took almost all the solos - he's clearly a bit of a ham, but frankly it's pretty tasty ham, and sliced delightfully thin (his technique is impeccable, his intonation utterly secure, and his sense of musical drama is always in evidence).  Not for Biondi the lingering, intellectualized dissonances and occasional rasps of the English style - his Vivaldi, for instance, was unabashedly lyrical, almost bel canto in fact, and far more melodic than H&H's Four Seasons had been a few weeks back.  No, Europa Galante's sound is always glowing and sleek; sometimes oaky perhaps, but never dry.

The ensemble did seem to have a something of an Achilles' heel in harpsichordist Paola Poncet, who played cleanly enough, but plinkingly - indeed, she was all but overshadowed by Biondi in Haydn's complicated Concerto for Violin and Harpsichord in F Major.  The other duet on the program was far stronger - violinist Andrea Rognoni joined Biondi for a ravishing reading of Bach's Double Violin Concerto; indeed, this time it was the ensemble's leader who seemed to occasionally be standing in the shade.

The concert closed with a suite from Handel's Rodrigo (again, we'd heard the overture to this at H&H two weeks ago, just as we'd heard the Bach Double Violin Concerto at Boston Baroque before that).  The suite is a charming series of dance-based movements (a gigue, a menuet, even a "matelot") which only perhaps achieves true distinction in its languid Sarabande and its finale, a richly embroidered Passacaille.

Of course there was a standing ovation, and of course there was an encore - Biondi joked that he had something up his sleeve "for winter," but it turned out to be the "storm scene" from the "Summer" concerto of The Four Seasons.  Again his intuitive feel for drama came to the fore, however, and the gales of Vivaldi's tempest blew with convincingly windy rhythms.  It was a delightful capstone to a delightful concert; those who doubt period performance can be utterly audience-pleasing would do well to catch Europa Galante at their next Boston outing.

Pieter Wispelwey at Celebrity Series

The house for Pieter Wispelwey was only about two-thirds full last Friday night at Celebrity Series - I suppose because Yo-Yo Ma is the only cellist people have heard of in these parts.

Ah, but we few, we lucky few!  I'd heard from friends who had caught the Dutch cellist in earlier local appearances that he was a sensation, and by the end of the concert you might have heard me wondering, "Yo-Yo Who?," so transporting was Wispelwey's mastery.   Because of the odd ways celebrity works in this country, though, I suppose Wispelwey may never "break out" into the kind of celebrity Ma currently enjoys.  But damn, he deserves to.  And there's no reason why he and Ma couldn't occupy opposing niches of musical fame: Ma could handle the warm, beaming, broad stuff, leaving Wispelwey all the cerebral, knotty, haunting stuff.

Not that I didn't leave the concert with the impression that basically Pieter Wispelwey can play the hell out of anything he wants to.  Although come to think of it, what he seems to really want to play is the violin!  Almost everything he performed last Friday was a transcription from that instrument.  I'm not sure what a violinist might have made of those choices - or what a cellist might have said about the snub given to the instrument's own literature - but Wispelwey himself made his selections ceaselessly compelling.

To be specific, most of what Wispelwey played were transcriptions of violin and piano duets - the wonderful Paolo Giacometti was his accompanist - and there's often a problem with this kind of transcription, as the violin line is inevitably transposed down for the cello, but doing the same thing to the piano part would leave it thudding around at the bottom of the keyboard.  So the two "halves" of the duet are closer harmonically than they were originally, and as the piano is quite a bit louder than the cello, there's always a danger of the keyboard drowning out the strings.

This was only occasionally a problem, however, during the opening Brahms Sonata in G Major, Opus 78 ("Regen," or "Rain"), in which the great German composer's intertwined piano textures seemed occasionally to overwhelm the cello.  Or was that the idea, that the cello was meant to vanish into the piano, as a comment on the piece's very density?  I entertained this thought with some sympathy, as it seemed an apt metaphor for something indescribable about Brahms, and because the performances of both cellist and pianist were really quite wonderful, and seemed somehow braided; Giacometti's constant pedaling and careful phrasing kept the piano always encroaching on, but never quite overcoming, the cello.  The results were subtle and introverted, yet still somehow lyrical; "Brahmsian" in a very deep sense indeed.

What came next was still more wonderful - Schubert's Fantasy in C Major, Op. 159.  Inspired by a Paganini performance the young composer once witnessed, the piece is a showstopper, building from a haunting opening tremolo, through a set of light-hearted phrases tossed back and forth between the players, to a virtuosic set of variations on one of Schubert's own early songs.  The performance here was so inspired that I felt tempted to call it "definitive," even though I knew it couldn't be (can a transcription ever be "definitive"?)  Still, Wispelwey and Giacommetti seemed to capture the sweet spirit of this great genius in a way I've heard few other performers manage to do.

The rest of the evening was perhaps less ravishing, but always rewarding.  The one piece on the program originally written for solo cello was George Crumb's Sonata from 1955, but this short, rather over-thought piece (generally counted as Crumb's first mature work, although you could mistake it for juvenilia) amounted to little more than an earnestly furious scribble.  Wispelwey did what he could with it, though.  Far better was Stravinsky's Suite Italienne (after Pulcinella), for which pianist Giacometti returned to the stage.  This is an odd little work, a cross between Stravinsky and Pergolesi, of all people; it's certainly piquant and alive with a weird kind of verve; and its slightly-acid Italianism is probably unique.  Perhaps it only seemed slightly flat after the riches evident in the Brahms and the Schubert.  Luckily there were still two encores (thanks to a standing ovation) - a "calm" (according to Wispelwey) bit of vocalise, transcribed from Fauré's Après un rêve, and a "not so calm" version of Chopin's tripping Grande Valse Brilliante in E-flat Major. The first encore had lustre; the second sparkle.  I could have happily stayed for a dozen more.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Wow, you think I'm tough?

How about an Australian theatre blog called "Shit on Your Play"?

Roman Polanski's Carnage

Polanski in close quarters with his stars.

Now that the Huntington's production of God of Carnage has closed, I think it's safe to let you in on the secret that there has been a better version of Yasmina Reza's notorious four-hander playing in town all along: Roman Polanski's Carnage.  I know the script isn't actually a great play, but it's a better play than the yuppie critics who look down on it like to pretend it is, and so you may want to check it out (if it has actually already left the Hub's movie screens, it will soon be available on Netflix). I like Yasmina Reza, basically; I find her chilliness refreshing in a world of synthetic theatrical (and cinematic) emotional warmth - I'd even describe her as bracing. I think if she can carry her gimlet-eyed predilections through a larger structure, Reza might come up with something quite striking someday.  And Polanski - unlike the director at the Huntington - does seem to understand the structure of the piece, and how it should unfold; even if, intriguingly, he's not quite the "natural" for the material that you might imagine.

For the conventional wisdom regarding this director is that he was just right for this particular job because he's the god of small spaces - after all, Polanski has made a career of filming paranoia in a variety of modes, in a variety of confining environments, from Knife in Water to Repulsion to Rosemary's Baby to Cul-de-Sac (perhaps his most apt title, if not his best movie) to The Tenant and The Pianist (even in the epic Chinatown, all of L.A. felt slightly claustrophobic).  The trouble is - and almost every film critic has missed this, because they just don't think this way - the enclosing apartment of God of Carnage isn't a naturalist conceit at all; it's essentially an abstraction of social attitudes; indeed, the highly effective New York production rendered it as an island of furniture on a symbolically blood-red sea, before a wall of scorched earth (below).  The set's imagery only made the slightest nod to naturalist chic; no real apartment could or would look this way; it announced itself instead as a symbolic battlefield; and yet the actors before it could easily conduct a comedy of manners in a naturalist mode.

It's funny to realize that film doesn't have a readily-available model for that kind of double valence; thus it's hard to create a filmed environment that is evocative in the way that great theatre sets regularly are.  Indeed, it's tricky making film sets "heightened" or evocative at all without making them operate in theatrical quotes (like the highly-keyed fantasias of Michael Powell); objects on film just seem to immediately nail themselves down as what they are, and when actors carry themselves in a stylized fashion before a "realistic" set,  everything suddenly seems vaguely ridiculous.  Thus even film fantasy is literally rendered; a movie can take you to the center of the earth, or the moon, or even to heaven, but it's always literally the center of the earth, the moon, or heaven, never the idea of it. (If you think about it, sound is what makes the film medium feel so over-determined; silent films can be far more fluid than talkies, and directors who have successfully trafficked in symbols, like Bergman, Fellini, and Kubrick, tend to conjure them with a naturalist excuse, and in silences, or baths of background sound.)  This penchant for childish literalism infects even the smartest film critics; the Times's A.O. Scott, for instance, railed against the fact that the setting of Carnage was clearly not really Brooklyn, as the actors claimed; the idea that the setting could be Paris and Brooklyn at the same time simply didn't seem to occur to him, because his unconscious preference for verisimilitude blinded him to that possibility.

An easy mix of expressionism and naturalism: God of Carnage on Broadway.

So watching Carnage, you slowly realize that Polanski's accurate, naturalistic eyes and ears are going after some of the wrong things; the dogs barking in other apartments and the distant traffic sounds, the elevator doors almost, but not quite, allowing escape - all these subtly observed details never really build in their effect because that's not how this play works; we're not supposed to feel things closing in on us, instead we're supposed to sense the action undergoing an expanding re-iteration of its central theme (thematic expansion is another stage commonplace that film struggles to convey, btw).

Thus, funny as it sounds, God of Carnage, as simple as it seems on paper, may be unfilmable.  Still, Polanski's technique offers up some of its usual pleasures, and allows for at least one hilarious in-joke - the director  himself makes a brief cameo as a neighbor overhearing the angry harangues through a half-open door; it's both a quote from Repulsion, and, I think, a wittily self-aware reference to his own methods.

And to be fair, film does allow for a quick, pin-point-accurate directorial shorthand that the parameters of the stage often frustrate.  In Carnage, for instance, we immediately register (because close-ups pluck them out of the mise-en-scène) the meaning and psychological import of objects like Penelope's Kokoschka limited edition, and Nancy's compact and handbag.  And Polanski remains, as ever, a master of camera placement; over and over again, we sense the intensity and meaning of a character's response simply from where he positions his lens in relation to them.

In film, we can sense the psychological import of make-up in a handbag from the get-go.
The play, of course, concerns the meltdown into petty violence of four adults who have gathered to discuss their children's previous meltdown into petty violence.  (Polanski frames the main action with two vignettes from the playground - staged between two withered trees that look like protesting hands - which I didn't think would work, but actually comes off as fairly witty.) As the action is therefore fairly repetitive, the script depends on the ability of its stars, and Polanski has drawn at least two great performances from his quartet of actors: Kate Winslet is as good as she has ever been as the nervous, tormented Nancy, and John C. Reilly is better than he has ever been as the easy-going, but just-as-easily-belligerent, Michael.  These two alone are probably reason enough to see the movie.  Alas, as the slimy Alan, Christoph Waltz is certainly on the right track but a bit too snaky and recessed, and his Austrian accent, though carefully suppressed, still rings falser than anything in the set design or dialogue.  Or perhaps the basic problem with his performance is that while his performance makes sense as a strategic response to his attackers, he hasn't ratcheted his energy up to the bizarre heights Jodie Foster reaches as his antagonist Penelope, in a performance that's so alarmingly stricken and bug-eyed that I'd call it hilariously broad if it weren't so neurotically over-worked and calculated.  Did Polanski have it in for this particular character, and the type of liberal femininity she represents?  I don't know; but Foster's miscalculations repeatedly threaten to sink the movie - good thing the rest of the actors are there to save it.

Thus despite Foster, many of this quartet's nasty exchanges snap with a pleasantly acid rhythm, even if in the end, Polanski can't quite translate the play's sense of extrapolation onto film, and his action therefore peters out rather than reaching a curiously natural end.   The Huntington production, by way of contrast, did conclude with a surprisingly appropriate coup.  In the film version, Kate Winslet simply tosses apart the set's central bouquet of tulips (from the peaceable kingdom of Holland) in a kind of frustrated fidget; but at the Huntington, the actress playing her role (the amusing Christy Pusz) transformed this gesture into a grand fuck-you to even the idea of peaceful negotiation; in a fury of disgust she sent individual tulips soaring all over the stage.  It was hilarious, and made you realize something about her character that Winslet has missed, I think.  This woman retches and even vomits at key junctures in the play; but is she doing it because she's disgusted by the aggression she is witnessing - or by the repression of aggression that civilization insists upon?  Is childishness sickening - or is it maturity that's really disgusting?  Perhaps the kids are right just to get things over with and smack each other in the face?  This is the kind of question that Reza likes to bury in her scripts, and on which, I think, Polanski actually realizes God of Carnage pivots (given his playground framing).   But he hasn't managed to embed that question into his main action. And a really great production - or a really great film - of Reza's text I think would hint at an answer to that question.