Friday, May 31, 2013

Bard. James Bard.

Daniel Jones as Hamlet/Bond.
It's hard not to like John J. King's From Denmark with Love (through this weekend only at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre) - just as it's hard not to like the playwright himself, an infectiously friendly mainstay of the local scene (and, full disclosure, a friend of the Hub Review).

Like its writer, the show itself - a free-wheeling mash-up of Hamlet and the entire James Bond canon - is often the theatrical equivalent of a puppy: endlessly energetic, always ready for fun, and usually more than a little horny. Indeed, if you're the type to be offended by hearing a line like "O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt . . ." directed to a rigid feature of the male anatomy - well, then this is not the show for you.

So you've been warned!  On the other hand, if ironically "tasteless" sexual innuendo IS your cup of tea, then you'll be glad to hear that in From Denmark with Love, Hamlet's flesh is too-too solid practically 24/7; and his Mommy issues are hardly latent, either.  Ophelia is likewise hot-to-trot, Gertrude's always up for a roll in the hay, and as Claudius speaks with the crass accent of Arnold Schwarzenegger, you know what's always on his mind.  As a result, it seems all these characters are constantly struggling into or out of a kilt, thong, or something even skimpier as they scamper through vignettes from Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me, Dr. No, and . . . well, you get the idea.

Beyond that, I couldn't tell you much more about King's "plot" - frankly, it's so convoluted I couldn't follow it half the time; and most of the turning points are shouted in a thick Scottish burr, anyhow - I guess because Sean Connery is Scottish? Who knows; luckily the accent work is broad yet hilariously precise - particularly when the versatile Daniel Jones (who plays both Hamlet and Claudius, so at the climax offs himself) is responsible for it.  And if you're lost, you can always kind of figure out where you are by simply tracking the skits against Shakespeare's play (which, despite everything, the show roughly follows).

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The X Factor at BMOP

Composer Mason Bates
Ok, it's time to play catch up.  A vacation and a bad cold have meant little posting of late - my thanks to all those who have been showing up at the site anyway, hoping I might have something to say!

Of course I did have something to say, particularly about the Boston Modern Orchestra Project concert of a week and a half ago, dubbed "Gen OrchXtrated," which focused on three leading Gen X composers: the photogenic Mason Bates (yes, that's a composer, not a pop star, at left) as well as Huang Ruo and Andrew Norman (see below), two other rising stars who maybe won't make the pages of GQ, but deserve to be heard in the concert hall just the same.

"Gen X" is of course a famously loose term - and it may be worth noting that as this trio were all born at the tail end of the 70's, they're perhaps closer to "Gen Y" than "Gen X" in sensibility.  Certainly Bates and Norman - both winners of multiple academic prizes (Rome, Berlin, et al.) seem absorbed in the technological culture of the millennium; Ruo seems to harken back to older (indeed ancient) forms.

That none of these three - at least judging from the pieces on offer at BMOP - really has a distinctive musical voice is, I admit, somewhat troubling (especially given the accolades that have come their way).  But of course new voices are few and far between these days.  And to be fair, you can feel these young composers attempting to make new conceptual statements out of old musical parts (in a way their works feel more like criticism than art).  Bates and Norman seem absorbed in refurbishing minimalism with an ironic technical gloss, while Ruo, in his Path of Echoes: Chamber Symphony No. 1, has attempted to conjure a new form of aural landscape.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Coppélia's comeback

Swanilda teaches old Coppelius a lesson about living dolls.  Photos: Rosalie O'Connor.

Few ballets are as lovable as Coppélia, particularly in the Balanchine version, which Boston Ballet is reviving through this weekend at the Opera House.  Not that the great Mr. B really investigates the quirky subtexts of the ballet's libretto - which was inspired by one of the darker musings of E.T.A. Hoffmann, that peculiar font of nineteenth-century fantasy who's also the source of The Nutcracker and, of course, Offenbach's Tales from Hoffmann.

Indeed, the ballet all but ignores the darker corners of its source, and instead conjures a straightforward folk tale about a foolish village stud named Frantz (Jeffrey Cirio) who has fallen hard for the perfections of the mechanical Coppélia, the handiwork of nutty professor Dr. Coppélius (Boyko Dossev).

Never fear, saucy flesh-and-blood Swanilda (Misa Kuranaga, above with Dossev), Frantz's former squeeze, is on hand to shake him out of his delusion (even though she mostly shakes up the dotty old Coppélius instead). And the couple is happily re-united at the finale in a wedding scene that's lavish even by Balanchine's grandest standards. Perhaps that's because this extended divertissement is the only part of the ballet that's pure Mr. B - the rest is a gloss on earlier work by St. Léon, Petipa, and Cecchetti (although in several set-pieces, such as the peasant dance in Act I, we can feel hints of the master's mature complexity).

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A belated fanfare for the Ballet's "Next Generation"

The dancers and players of Fanfare - photo: Rosalie O'Connor.

I've been meaning to post a note about the Boston Ballet's "Next Generation" performance of almost two weeks ago (!), which probably counts as the most fun I've had at a dance concert in some time - or at least since the last "Next Generation" concert. This year, as always, the opening Les Passages sequence was adorable, and gave everyone a chance to show off what they can do, even though one or two students took a spill (as one or two students do every year, don't sweat it guys).  I was encouraged to see that once again it seemed more boys were making a serious commitment to dance; gone are the days when an ocean of young ballerinas had to be organized around only a handful of teen danseurs.

The contributions from Boston Ballet II were likewise compelling, although the excerpts from Jorma Elo's Lost by Last, alas, seemed a bit blurry; far more finished was the climactic pas de deux from Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty, here essayed by rising talents Dawn Atkins and Marcus Romeo. Both are elegant dancers, and both all but gleamed in their roles as Aurora and Prince Désiré. Mr. Romeo did seem to tire slightly, however, over the course of his solos, while Ms. Atkins seemed to only move from strength to strength in an elegant tour de force that was remarkable in a dancer so young.

I have to admit that the Ballet saved the best for last, however, with Jerome Robbins' captivating Fanfare, set to Britten's justly famous The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (itself a brilliant set of variations on a theme by Purcell), narrated with professorial bemusement by New England Conservatory's own Tony Woodcock - and played with confidence and freedom by the Conservatory's orchestra (under the baton of the Ballet's Jonathan McPhee).

The choreography was likewise delightful - Robbins organizes squads of dancers (all in fanciful unitards, with the instrument they represent emblazoned on their chests) into a kind of balletic half-time show that's never less than charming and sometimes flat-out hilarious.  And the Ballet's Next Generation danced it to the hilt, with just the right kind of tongue-in-cheek aplomb.  (The Percussion crew in particular - Beau Fisher, Andres Garcia, and Christopher Scruggs - put the audience into stitches with their deadpan slapstick.) The work's final fugue proved quite dazzling in its complexity, and wrapped the evening with a rousing burst of energy.  The crowd enthusiastically rose to their feet at the finale - proud parents, beaming dance fans, and even a few giggling critics among them.  And as the lights went up on the house, the future of dance looked bright indeed.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Thornton among the dinosaurs

I don't often catch student efforts, but I was intrigued by BU's recent production (it closed last weekend) of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, an extravaganza seen about as often as the prehistoric fauna that romp through its first act.  Indeed, I've only seen the script fully mounted once before, almost thirty years ago - for reasons obvious (mammoths and dinosaurs are required, along with a tidal wave and a glacier) and not-so-obvious (more on that later). In short, it's the kind of script you almost have to turn to students these days to see at all; and so its appearance at BU felt like the perfect cap to a local season largely given over to Wilder on stages both large (the award-winning Our Town) and small (the intriguing Little Giants).

Alas, the production (directed by BU éminence grise Sidney Friedman) slightly disappointed - which probably shouldn't have surprised me. On Broadway, it's true, it was a hit, but that was during wartime (it's about crisis, and depends on a crisis atmosphere) and with people like Tallulah Bankhead, Frederic March, and Montgomery Clift in the leads. Not that the kids at BU weren't talented - they were. But only two actors were exactly right for their roles, and others went wrong in ways that made me wonder if the culture isn't closed off to much of Wilder's curious meditation on human history.

There is, of course, a sense of timelessness hanging over his biggest success, Our Town - and questions of divine purpose likewise loom over the novel that put him on the map, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Wilder clearly had his eye on the long view (even the juvenilia of Little Giants hinted as much) and hence the cyclical "plot" of The Skin of Our Teeth stretches for eons, and mashes together the Ice Age, Noah's Flood, and World War II with something like the arch tone of a caveman cartoon in The New Yorker (or, if your prefer upper-lowbrow to lower-highbrow, an episode of The Flintstones).

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Mamet's masterpiece lights up Merrimack

David Adkins, Todd Licea and Joel Colodner in Glengarry Glen Ross.  Photo: Meghan Moore.

The Merrimack Rep is perhaps our leading example of a great theatre constrained by its budget. They consistently operate in the black, and enjoy a great deal of support from their community (indeed, up in Merrimack you feel an extraordinary bond between the theatre and its audience, closer and more trusting than just about anywhere else).  But you can also feel in their season, which is typically devoted to small-cast plays, a sense of financial (and hence to some degree artistic) limits. This perception is particularly acute given the fact that their "big" play each season is so reliably terrific. One guesses that with only a little more funding, Merrimack could mount seasons that would consistently rival, and possibly eclipse, the best being done on the regional landscape.

Certainly Glengarry Glen Ross (through this weekend only) is the most powerful show currently on the local boards.  It's true I've never seen David Mamet's balls-out potboiler fail; given a competent cast, its nasty mix of coiled masculine anxiety, frustration, and aggression always grips.  After all, it's practically an X-ray of the power dynamics of the locker room, where the stakes are always high, and the men always naked (at least metaphorically).

What's more, alas, the script also makes one reminisce for the days before Mamet lost his mind to the political and sexual paranoias one would associate with a denizen of one of his shark tanks. For Glengarry is not only perhaps his greatest play, it's also his last great play; in his next major effort, Speed-the-Plow, Mamet crossed over from sympathy with his bad boys to identification with them. Women became the Enemy, and thus the ironic finale of Glengarry, which dashes any hope of honor among his masculine thieves, would prove the last of its kind in the playwright's oeuvre.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Jephtha resurrected at Handel and Haydn

Harry Christophers leads Jephtha in Disney Hall. Photo: Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles Times.

I'm late with an appreciation of Handel and Haydn's stunning performance of Jephtha, Handel's final oratorio (and one of his greatest). I heard it over a week ago, in fact; but frankly, its impact still lingers.  Indeed, in some ways this Jephtha may have been the finest hour of artistic director Harry Christopher's already-remarkable tenure; it was a model of internalized tragic emotion expressed with exquisite musical poise.  And certainly it marked the most impressive roster of soloists I have yet seen grace the Society's stage - at last they have the people up front to match the people in back, i.e., their by-now-legendary chorus. This version also hinted at the overwhelming importance of rehearsal time - and, actually, performance time; Boston heard Jephtha only after it had toured the West Coast (including a touchdown at Disney Hall, above), and the consequent coherence and depth of the Society's interpretation was noted by many.

Certainly Jephtha deserves the extra attention. It has largely slipped from the active repertory (the Society itself hadn't performed it since 1867!), I suppose because it boasts only a few show-stoppers (although at least one aria, the ravishing "Waft her, angels, thro' the skies" is often heard in recitals, and others should be).  The oratorio makes up for its lack of superficial fireworks, however, in subtlety, dramatic insight, and (for lack of a better word) sheer profundity.  It tells the story of the Old Testament hero Jephtha (although the story is an archetypal one, and appears in many cultures), who rashly promises Yahweh that if he prevails in battle, he will sacrifice the first thing to meet his eyes upon his return.  That thing, of course, turns out to be his only daughter, the beloved Iphis.

Hence submission to the cruel demands of inscrutable Fate (be it of Jewish, Christian, or any other persuasion) forms the terrible crux of Jephtha.  And in an added twist of musical fate, Handel himself was struck down by affliction during its composition - his vision began to fail due to a botched cataract operation, and his original manuscript bears testament to a long pause after the completion of "How dark, o Lord, are thy decrees"(ironically enough) with the heartbreaking note, in the master's handwriting, "Unable to go on owing to weakening of the sight of my left eye."

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A post-mortem on Pericles: lost and found at sea

Paula Plum gets into the swing of things in Pericles.  Photos: J. Stratton McCrady

I was late getting to the Actors' Shakespeare Project's Pericles (which closed this weekend), but honestly, I wasn't in too much of a rush. This troupe has found their audience, certainly - and good for them (I mean that); but I don't think they have too much to say about the Bard that they haven't said already - and what they have said so far hasn't limned his depths. Their ensemble always offers a few striking performances (but never quite a whole play's worth), and certainly there's a sense of literate smarts about the troupe as a whole. But their productions usually misfire one way or another - certainly they never come together with the resonance that great Shakespeare achieves. 

This is the result of subtle, ingrown issues. The troupe's penchant for casting against type often costs them, and they still betray an inability to fully identify with the Bard's characters and tropes in their historical context, while forgetting their own patronizing, postmodern-collegiate frame. Thus they've almost proven the opposite of what their founding was intended to demonstrate; ASP's light, rag-tag, self-aware, actor-driven theatre has proven just as variable and incomplete as the pretentious director-driven dreadnoughts that it was designed to challenge. In fact, ironically enough, they're most prone to being led down the primrose path to artistic downfall by the wackiest, wildest directorial conceits. (So I guess now we know neither approach works, and that somehow they often end up in the same place.)

Well, so it goes. The trouble is that Boston seems to have given ASP credit for conquering the Bard anyway, and the rest of the theatrical establishment has been all too happy to hand Him over to them. And who's the wiser? Who has seen great Shakespeare in Boston? It's all but unheard of - certainly almost all the professors who jaw about it in town have rarely (or never) seen it; I can only think of one production in the past decade or so - Nicholas Martin's Love's Labour's Lost at the Huntington - that even came close to what the RSC or Canada's Stratford Festival can do at their best (and even those redoubts are beginning to flag in their ability, it seems to me; Shakespeare will go down, too, I imagine, as the general culture does).

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Another triumph at the Ballet

Patrick Yocum, Bradley Schlagheck, Whitney Jensen and Lawrence Rines in Symphony in C. Photos by Gene Schiavone.

At 49 years of age (yes, next season marks their big 5-0), Boston Ballet has become the most reliable arts organization in the city - hands down. I go there with more confidence than I bring to any other local venue, in any art form. When my partner looks at me and says, "What are we seeing tonight?" and I say, "The Ballet," he always just says, "Oh, good." (Well, sometimes in a rough week, he says "Thank God.") Indeed, among Boston's "Big Culture" behemoths, the Ballet's consistency leaves the BSO, the MFA, the BLO, and the Huntington (great as they often are) in the dust. At the Ballet, a reviewer never has to separate the wheat from the chaff - it's all wheat; one merely teases the tastiest grains from the rest.  It's the easiest critical gig in town. (In fact it's not really a "critical" gig at all.)

Right now the troupe is in the midst of a suite of performances that by its close will have stretched several weeks. Tonight wraps their startling pairing of Balanchine classics with Chroma, by edgy new talent Wayne McGregor; next Thursday brings more Balanchine (the master's luminous Coppélia). In between we were blessed with a treat from the Ballet's "Next Generation," which included a delightful version of Jerome Robbins' Fanfare.  And all this came after a sumptuous Sleeping Beauty last month. Needless to say, dance fans have been happy campers this spring.

But back to Chroma, which couldn't be more opposed in spirit to Balanchine's Serenade and Symphony in C - and so showcases the expressive range available to the Ballet today. Balanchine is ballet's Shakespeare, and like the Bard, he is enraptured by the feminine.  Indeed, often when the boy (sometimes a single boy) does show up in a Balanchine ballet, he's an obvious factotum for Mr. B himself - as is the case in the luminous Serenade, which opens (see masthead) as a kind of apotheosis of ballet class (it was actually written for all the girls in training with Mr. B at the time). They might be a choir of angels, but these maidens are in an attitude of chaste denial, until Balanchine begins to work elegant variations on their solitude (complicated here and there by an apparently disposable boyish partner) led by Ashley Ellis and Misa Kuranaga, and set to Tchaikovsky's famous Serenade for Strings.  

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Mostly Mozart at the New Rep

Tim Spears as Mozart reacts to Salieri's machinations.  Photos: Andrew Brilliant.

Peter Shaffer's biggest hit, Amadeus (now at the New Rep through May 19), a highly fictionalized account of the relationship between composers Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is oft described as a battle royale between genius (Mozart) and mediocrity (Salieri).

Which is good enough, I suppose, as far as it goes.  But it leaves out one crucial fact.  

Which is that playwright Peter Shaffer himself is - well, something of a mediocrity.  Smart but not insightful, learned but rarely wise, Shaffer made a career out of seemingly criticizing small-mindedness while all the time indulging it.

Thus Shaffer's play works as a kind of pseudo-intellectual stand-up, but never really gets anywhere as drama - for his Salieri is all bitter one-liners; he's a tragic character sans anagnorisis (that is, epiphany); and his Mozart remains clueless to the end, too. Indeed, once the playwright lays out his mildly clever premise (that the jealously aloof Salieri poisoned brilliant-but-boorish Mozart as some sort of cosmic revenge on God), he can only work more and more tedious variations on his set-up, and never really digs beneath his own assumptions. In a way, it's as if Shaffer has constructed one of those Nabokovian follies, like Pale Fire, in which the lead character is unaware he is creating a devastating self-critique - but unfortunately Shaffer leaves the audience in the dark about it, too.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Tomorrow night the "Next Generation" arrives at Boston Ballet

The members of Boston Ballet's Next Generation - Photo: Igor Burlak.

There is one dance season event I always look forward to - Boston Ballet's "Next Generation" performance, which showcases students from the Ballet's several schools in a one-night-only concert at the Opera House, tomorrow, May 8 at 7:00 pm.

That's right, these young artists get to perform on a professional stage (exciting enough in its own right) and with live accompaniment too, by the New England Conservatory's Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, this year for the first time under the direction of the Ballet's own Jonathan McPhee.

The performance always begins with an original work choreographed by the Ballet's faculty to demonstrate their students' skills (this year the piece, traditionally called Les Passages, is set to music by Ambroise Thomas, from his operas Hamlet and Francoise de Rimini).  This suite is reliably charming in and of itself (and not just to the proud parents beaming from the audience; the students' accomplishments are quite impressive), but what's more, it's always followed by more mature artistic statements - including works and even premieres you would be unsurprised to see in a full-fledged professional performance (and often featuring members of Boston Ballet II, more than half of whom have risen through the Ballet's schools).  

This year the program will include Jorma Elo's Lost by Last (set to spooky Hitchcock motifs by Bernard Herrmann) as well as the Grand Pas de Deux from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty (danced by the talented Dawn Atkins and Marcus Romeo, who were seen in the recent full production).  The concert closes with Jerome Robbins' Fanfare, an extravaganza set to Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra which deploys some 34 dancers. And as an added bonus, the Youth Philharmonic (which sounded terrific last year, just btw) is throwing in Bernstein's wonderful Candide overture.

You know, I'd like to say I go to "Next Generation" to support the future of dance.  But I'm not really that nice. The concert does support the future of the Ballet - but that's just the icing on the cake; I really go because it's a great evening of music and dance.  And I hope to see you there.

Boston Ballet's Next Generation 2013 from Boston Ballet on Vimeo.

It's always the right time for a time-lapse of our beautiful home

Time-Lapse | Earth from Bruce W. Berry Jr on Vimeo.

I never tire of looking at the Earth.  Particularly from space.  If I were younger, stronger, and quite a bit richer, I'd be in line for one of those commercial low-orbit flights that some screwball billionaire is always planning.  Just to look out the window for a while.  But till then, the Vimeo time-lapse above, from the International Space Station, will have to suffice.  And honestly it's not half-bad!  Enjoy (and go full-screen).

Monday, May 6, 2013

Two vocal stars on the rise

Soprano Susanna Phillips
I first heard the soprano Susanna Phillips (at left) four years ago at Boston Lyric Opera, as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. And I knew immediately I was listening to a star in the making; I raved over "a vocal bloom that would be ravishing in any role," and hoped that Donna Anna would become "a staple of her career."

So I was glad to learn that Ms. Phillips is singing Donna Anna at the Met in New York these days, and is now, indeed, on the cusp of a major career.  Which made me more eager than ever to hear her again, up close and personal, in a double bill with rising tenor Joseph Kaiser (below right) in last week's latest from the Celebrity Series "Debut" season in Pickman Hall at Longy.

It's wonderful, of course, to hear glorious young talents in such an intimate setting - although frankly, Phillips and Kaiser didn't always realize, I think, how large their voices seemed in this particular room.  Indeed, sometimes their vocal prowess felt overpowering; it all but wrestled you to the floor. This made it all the more surprising to  learn that Kaiser was battling the effects of a cold (although this may have accounted for a few strained top notes early on); he bowed out of a demanding solo in the second half in order to save himself for a climactic duet with Phillips from Gounod's Roméo et Juliette (the favored language of the evening was French - it even included a rare French text setting by Mozart).  But this proved only one small glitch in a generally ravishing program.

For her part, Phillips was in superb voice, and seemed to know it (she all but glowed in a ripe, elaborately ruched raspberry gown). Which may be why she missed the dark tone of the opening Mozart song, Dans un bois solitaire et sombre - a strange tale of love's pain re-awakened, which in Phillips' rendition was anything but sombre.  She was on firmer comic ground with Grétry's Certain Coucou, an amusingly acid sketch of a donkey judging a singing contest.

Tenor Joseph Kaiser
Kaiser, looking a bit self-conscious, then essayed a suite of songs by DuParc - and acquitted himself well despite his cold, I thought; only a few top notes were a bit thin, and the young tenor (whose rich sound probably stems from having started out as a baritone) seemed to have plenty of power, and fluently shifted from the heroics of Le manoir de Rosamonde and Le Galop to the limpid heartbreak of Chanson triste and especially Phydilé.  The singers' respective timbres did feel like an exquisite match, but in their first duet, Messiaen's intriguing La mort du nombre, Kaiser generally dominated, while Phillips mostly contributed mystical phrases from some otherworldly presence.

High points from the second half of the program included an expert rendition of Debussy's Apparition by Phillips, and a lovely rendering of Massenet's "Meditation" from Thaïs, played with light but expressive precision by violinist Andrew Eng and pianist Myra Huang (who was an exemplary accompanist throughout the concert). This interlude gave Kaiser some breathing (or sneezing?) room; and Phillips returned with a surprise, announcing that as the evening had so many slow numbers (true enough), she had decided to perform Juliette's first, dancing aria from the Gounod ("Je veux vivre") rather than her final number (from the tomb).  It proved a wonderful choice, for perhaps no other aria of the evening showcased Phillips' almost bubbling virtuosity quite so well.

The two finally faced off fully in "Romeo! qu'as-tu donc?" (the famous lark scene) from the Gounod - and Kaiser's rest seemed to have paid off, for his performance was ferocious, while Phillips likewise fell into paroxysms of vocal passion, tossing off piercing high notes at will.  Again, this was a bit much for a hall not much larger than your living room - but it gave one a sense of the powerful operatic engines that had been revving all evening long within the confines of art song.  Perhaps to spare Kaiser further stress, there were no encores - we had to content ourselves with the lingering memory of two young talents seen on the brink of stardom.

Happy (belated) Cinco de Mayo!

A mariachi band serenades a Beluga whale at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut in this touchingly surreal vignette. Apparently the mariachis were at the Aquarium to play for a wedding party, but came over to do a number for the whale when it seemed interested.  Somehow I have the feeling that if we ever contact intelligent extraterrestial life, the interaction will look a lot like this.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Hampson is as Hampson does

Thomas Hampson, baritone

I'm late with an appreciation of last weekend's appearance by Thomas Hampson at Celebrity Series (who wrap their season this month with the annual Alvin Ailey visit, btw).  And as usual, when I've been dragging my feet, it's because I've got bad news.  The great baritone was in fine voice, mind you - and his co-stars for the evening, the Jupiter String Quartet, likewise made a strong impression.

It was their program that didn't quite enthrall me.  It featured an appealing, but early, Schubert quartet - as well as an exquisite Webern piece which the Jupiters played superbly.  But the centerpiece of the concert - and a New England premiere - was Mark Adamo's setting of Billy Collins' Aristotle, which proved a strange misfire; and the program wrapped with a series of Hugo Wolf lieder that felt like one long appetizer rather than a main course.

On the other hand, it was wonderful just to hear Hampson (if only we could attract him to the Hub for a full operatic performance!).  At 57, this lyric baritone hasn't lost his elegant, maple-hued timbre (nor his personal elegance, either), and his sound is still of striking size - indeed, the very walls of Jordan Hall often vibrated in resonance with his power chords (as it were); Hampson might need a microphone in Gillette Stadium, but that's about it.

He also exuded a collegial, collaborative spirit with the Jupiters, who were actually the first to take the stage, with Schubert's Quartet No. 10 in E-Flat.  Written when the composer was all of sixteen, the piece pushes at the limits of Haydn with brilliant exuberance.  The Allegro is stuffed with sweetly singing lines, while the Adagio is a gently rocking lullaby, and the Scherzo all but kicks up its heels.  We can feel the adolescent Schubert showing us everything he can do, which consistently charms; but the final effect is diffuse (if virtuosic).  Still, the Jupiters gave a sympathetic, insightful account of the piece, and aptly captured its many colors and moods (particularly when violinist Nelson Lee was in the lead).  

The quartet was even more impressive, however, in Anton Webern's far-more-unified Langsamer Satz, ("Slow Movement") another slightly "junior" piece, as it was completed in the shadow of Schoenberg (Webern's teacher) rather than Haydn.  Indeed, Langsamer Satz so clearly echoes Transfigured Night in its structure and thrust that you could almost call it Transfigured Lite. That doesn't dull its own haunting appeal, however, and the Jupiters essayed its lush melancholy with remarkable sensitivity.

Then Hampson arrived, for Mark Adamo's Aristotle, set to the poem of the same name by former poet laureate Billy Collins. Now Collins - and his poetic voice - are known and admired quantities, I'd say; indeed, Collins proved one of the most widely read of poet laureates precisely because his approach - populist, sympathetically bemused, lightly ironic - is so accessible to the public at large. 

But not to composer Mark Adamo, apparently, who seems to have imagined that Aristotle - which gently ribs that philosopher's pronouncements on high drama through a catalogue of "beginnings," "middles" and "ends" in the comical/tragical mix that makes up actual life - is the equivalent of The Waste Land, or perhaps September 1, 1939.  Thus the composer supplied an appealingly sophisticated setting whose anxious modernist tone was utterly inappropriate to the text, and misled Hampson into some curious histrionics (and the wrong kind of parody).  I might trust Adamo with Larkin's Aubade; but I have to say Aristotle counts as the oddest misinterpretation of a text by a composer I've ever heard; indeed, Adamo and Collins only came into alignment at the very last minute, when Collins conjures a closing image of death in "outside a cabin, falling leaves."

Oh, well!  The second half of the concert was devoted to Hugo Wolf, whose shining success at the end of the nineteenth century has perhaps dimmed as the years have gone by.  Still, Hampson and the Jupiters had some of his strongest stuff on offer: the instrumental Italian Serenade (a charming trot through Tuscany, which encounters a few storm clouds but chases them away), and a suite of six songs mostly drawn from the Mörike-Lieder (named after their texts by Eduard Mörike), which was composed in a remarkable artistic burst in Wolf's late maturity (originally for voice and piano, but persuasively re-configured here for string quartet).  The Mörike-Lieder retain their appeal, although the texts  are mostly standard-issue (German bachelor wanders through the beauty of der Wald, etc.), and while Wolf almost equals, he never quite surpasses Schubert and Schumann. Still, the best song here conceals a surprising sting, which draws from Wolf his best music: in "Auf ein Altes Bild" ("To an Old Picture"), the poet imagines the Virgin and Child at play in "a green landscape," in which "the stem that will become the cross" is already growing, and waiting for them.

There was a happy surprise from Wolf in the encore, too - his “Die Rattenfänger,” ("The Rat-Catcher"), set to Goethe's wicked poem to the Pied Piper of Hamelin.  Hampson sang this frisky, unforgettable little number with diabolical wit, and the Jupiters struck just the right note of gleeful malice. It may be the best song Wolf ever wrote, and it was certainly the most captivating performance of the evening.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The two must-sees this weekend: BLO's Flying Dutchman and Boston Ballet's Chroma

Chroma at the Royal Ballet - the Boston version may actually be a bit better danced!

The two current "must-sees" of the Boston cultural scene are The Flying Dutchman (at Boston Lyric Opera, see review below), and Wayne McGregor's Chroma (above) at Boston Ballet.  Chroma is all jagged, up-to-the-minute postmodern viscera, set to a strikingly sophisticated (though pounding) score by Joby Talbot and Jack White of the White Stripes (with orchestrations by Christopher Austin).   I promise you it will be the most-discussed dance of the season; and what's more, it's set in a program of Balanchine classics (Serenade and Symphony in C) whose austere lyricism somehow brilliantly sets off McGregor's extremities.  Full review to follow - but don't wait.

Theatres take note: a surprising wrinkle in the "pay what you can" pricing model

A fascinating study from the University of Berkeley on "pay what you can" pricing models reveals an astounding wrinkle in the psychology of the transaction - in a nutshell, revenues rise if part of the price goes to charity. Intriguingly, the charity angle did little to attract buyers in a flat-fee situation; and a simple "pay what you want" model led to relentless low-balling.  But the "pay-what-you-want, half-goes-to-charity" model raked in more revenue on average than any other option.

Interestingly, a few companies like Moonbox are already integrating charitable giving into their productions.  Perhaps there's further synergy to explore on that front!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

High on the dark wings of The Flying Dutchman

Soprano Allison Oakes and the chorus in BLO's The Flying Dutchman - Photos: Eric Antoniou

There is so much to praise in the singing, conducting, and design of Boston Lyric Opera's new production of The Flying Dutchman that Wagner fans are sure to flock to it - and leave flying high. Its success only reminds you that it has been far too long since a full-fledged production of Dutchman - or any Wagner for that matter - has docked at the Hub (his staging demands are often beyond our existing facilities, as I've argued before; we need a new opera house).  But honestly, for much of its length, this version is so compelling that you may almost feel the wait has been worth it (and it only runs through this weekend).

I have to say up front, however, that the brilliance of the music and design at BLO is sometimes occluded by directorial decisions that, in a seeming effort to "explain" the opera's psychological mystery, only frustrate its mythic drama. Wagner's libretto (as usual) is built on legend - that of the undead "Flying Dutchman," doomed to sail the seas forever for once invoking, while in a rage, the Devil himself. His only hope of redemption lies in winning the love of a faithful woman - who must love him, of course, even unto death (so you know where this is going). Alas, that archetypal set-up has sparked in director Michael Cavanagh an odd desire to analyze his heroine's psychology in terms that any myth worth its sea salt would leave unspoken. So unfortunately, this production's drama sometimes devolves into case study, which compromises it as a true Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk (or "total artwork"); in the end, it's only about two-thirds of one.

But as they say - two outta three ain't bad! So first the good news: a powerhouse cast; a brilliant abstract set; atmospheric projections; and real Wagnerian majesty (though not, perhaps, grandiosity) down in the pit.  Music director David Angus has made the intriguing decision to showcase the opera in its original, rarely-heard form; it's the work in which Wagner first found his operatic voice, but the composer tinkered with it repeatedly in later years to make it more symphonically epic, and even more "Wagnerian" than it already was. So some Wagnerites may be surprised to discover that the action is set in Scotland (rather than Norway), and some familiar passages have gone missing. For my part, I appreciated the streamlining of the score, and felt that hearing the work as it first appeared was of high critical interest. I was likewise intrigued by Angus's use of period brass; I only wondered at the elimination of the famous "redemption" motif at the finale (but more on that later).

Even those with quibbles regarding some of these decisions would have to admit, I think, that Angus has drawn a muscular, lustrous sound from his players. Which only threw into higher relief the powerful singing on stage. For BLO has assembled a cast of highly accomplished Wagnerians for what feels like Dutchman's Boston debut. Bass Gregory Frank was (unexpectedly) first among equals as the manipulative father of the heroine - his burnished sound came with a relentless forward thrust, and the jaunty, nearly-cruel opacity of his portrayal felt about right for the script's demands. Only a small step behind were soprano Allison Oakes as Senta, the woman willing to give her life to save her beloved, and bass-baritone Alfred Walker as that restless, damned mariner. Both were often riveting; Oakes has the power (and then some) required to cut through a Wagnerian orchestration, and there was a wildness to her top notes that was at times thrilling (no wonder she's heading to the Wagnerian Valhalla of Bayreuth later this year). Walker was more disciplined, and appropriately brooding; to be honest, at times I felt he lacked distinctive color, but his resonance and clarity more than made up for that.

The Dutchman descends from his haunted barque.
There was also remarkable singing in supporting roles - Alan Schneider made a piercingly lyrical cameo of the Steersman, Chad Shelton was subtly engaging as Senta's former suitor, and Anne McMahon Quintero was often moving as her nurse. What's more, the chorus sounded absolutely terrific throughout, and as some of Wagner's best writing in The Flying Dutchman is for the chorus, they sometimes seemed to be stealing the show right out from under its accomplished stars.

This was particularly true given their deployment on John Conklin's evocative, abstract set (perhaps the best we've seen from this distinguished designer in some time). Conklin suggested the grappling of Wagner's two frigates with moving rafts of metallic risers - while the sails of the Dutchman's death ship rose up from behind like a blood-red crucifix. Meanwhile Seághan McKay's projections seemed to bring the raging sea right down on our heads (at top). And when the chorus of the dead sang from the masts of the Dutchman's ship, they seemed to dangle from a catwalk high up in the flies of the Schubert - the spookiest moment of all in a compellingly eerie staging.

Given these many high points, it's just too bad that director Michael Cavanagh shifted so much focus to Senta's back story, and a series of invented traumas and daddy-issues (conveyed through dumb shows) which supposedly illuminated the reasons for her self-destruction. To be blunt, Wagner leaves all this out for very good reasons - the main one being that turning Senta into a clinical case history robs her of her mythic and spiritual dimensions. This kind of thing also inevitably undermines any sense of sublimated romance with the Dutchman - which may be why in Walker's portrayal this half-spectre seemed so very alienated. Which also ties into the one real argument I had with conductor David Angus - generally The Flying Dutchman ends with the dead Senta rising toward heaven with her redeemed lover; here, however, Wagner's redemptive motif was missing - as was the redemption itself.  I understood Angus's argument for the cut - you could even argue that it buttressed Cavanagh's irritating interpretation. But perhaps some revisions (particularly those very much in the spirit of the original vision) deserve to be preserved.  Either way, in the end such caveats amount to only quibbles against what will stand as one of BLO's most memorable recent productions.