Sunday, March 8, 2015

Devastating Dialogues: Portland Does Poulenc Proud

(Photo taken from the PSO Facebook page)
For (evidently) the first time in its history, the Portland Symphony gave a staged performance of a complete opera. One would assume a small-town orchestra's first opera would be a popular choice, a crowd pleaser, I mean, why take a chance, right? Wrong. This small town orchestra has, under the guidance of Robert Moody, been taking more daring chances each season, featuring works of Berg, Shostakovich, John Adams, Bartok, Hindemith and other "prickly" 20th and 21st century composers, so Poulenc it was.

Dialogues of the Carmelites (from 1956) must surely be one of the most successful operas of the 2nd half of the 20th century, and yet still some find it too "modern," but we can and must thank Maestro Moody for bringing these singing nuns to Portland.

Billed as "semi-staged," the orchestra occupied the stage proper while an "actors' stage" was projected over the orchestra pit. With no actual "set" (there were the necessary props i.e., candles, coffin, benches, flowers) there was period costumes which enhanced the historical aspects of the drama. No set meant focus fell entirely on the characters and their interactions, or "dialogues," if you will, heightening intensity and enhancing Poulenc's propulsive scoring increasingly with each successive scene.

As soon as our Blanche, Sarah Jane McMahon began singing my first thought was "Denise Duval" - Paris' first Blanche and favorite of the composer. The voice isn't the same, but possessing a similar timbre and brightness that, while not a large sound, sliced easily through Poulenc's orchestration with no difficulty being heard. McMahon was an affecting Blanche, giddy and almost coltish in her first scenes, becoming more desperate then showing Blanche's resolve and peace with her fate.

Mary Gayle Green's Madame de Croissy was powerful, stern, but the affection for her daughters beautifully underplayed, making her tortured death exactly as it must be: unsettling and tragic.

Diana Yodis was an unusually youthful Mother Marie which added a dimension to this "by-the-book" nun which I found unique and special.

Catherine Zachary was precisely what is needed in Constance . . . and then some, both bright of voice and sparkling of personality Constance's chattering about death and desire sometimes makes her seem lame-brained Zachary's approach made her fearless, those mutterings sounding more like a discussion of philosophies. Very nice.

As Madame Lidoine, Jill Gardner was gently commanding, the voice beautiful and sounding enormous, which is always a treat to hear. Her final scenes infinitely touching, and watching her bless her daughters before their brutal execution most compelling.

The Carmelite sisters interacted with each other with a sincerity that made one believe this was truly a community who relied upon each other and whose faith, even when put to the ultimate test, was unshakeable. For the Ave Maria and the Ave Verum Corpus, Poulenc gives them music of such ineffable beauty and otherworldly harmonies, the effect our sisters here making them sound as if they had already transcended the human veil.

Troy Cook's Marquis de la Force proved to be one of those voices one wished Poulenc had written more music for. As his son, Daniel Stein struggled at times to be heard (particularly in the beginning) and I think this has more to do with the tenor timbre blending into Poulenc's orchestration at certain points. His higher lying music in the big scene with Blanche there were no such problems, the scene proving a highlight for both he and McMahon.

Smaller roles were mostly excellent (one or two being competent) but uncredited. I for one, would certainly like to know the name of the Gaoler - his two scenes were brilliantly delivered, and I don't think I'm alone in thinking so.

Carey Kugler was the stage director who, with his remarkable cast, was able pull us back in time to a very specific world, and for three hours keeping us there, fascinated, horrified and moved to tears. One got to know these sisters, saw their deep affection for each other and watch that world be torn asunder. The staging of the finale was one of the most powerful I can recall. Each nun walked the entire stage width past a pair of guards, then a shadow from the wings blocked out light each time the guillotine's blade sliced through, sounding as though coming from the stage left wing, but apparently from high end onstage speakers. This was made more chilling as, and I can't recall hearing this before, the machine's blade sliding back "up" after it had dispatched its victim. After that last "puff of cloud" chord Poulenc gives as benediction, the house sat in darkness and complete silence for what seemed like minutes.

Moody's handling of the score revealed a deep love and respect for it. (In a post-performance Q&A, I was struck by the fact that, like me, he was introduced to Carmelites as a teenager. That experience affected me for life, and the same seems to hold true the Maestro.) I couldn't help but wish for a longer run ("one night only") to tighten up some of the minor blemishes (hello horns?) and a couple of the entrances following Poulenc's pauses sounded unsure, but these are minor quibbles as, overall, the playing was superb, providing just the right emotional quality Poulenc instilled in his score: overwhelming.

As many times as I've seen and heard this opera, it has never lost its hold on me. To be able to walk from home and experience it today . . . well, it doesn't get much better.

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Child of God: Franco Takes on McCarthy

Child of God is one tough movie to watch. In making his film based on Cormack McCarthy's novel of the same title, James Franco seems to have gone the way of the 70's art film. While there are startling, brutal yet beautiful images throughout, Franco makes the wrongheaded "darkness equals mystery" mistake and frequently scenes which are played in the dark are insufficiently lit making it nearly impossible to see what should be shocking and/or revelatory. Dark is just dark.

While once it seemed effective, the fade to black style of ending scenes can, and does grow wearying and Franco ends every scene - some lasting only a matter of seconds - with a black out, making the film jerky (which may be a point) and more episodic, breaking the continuity. It feels like an attempt to reach into the tortured brain of its central character, Lester Ballard.

As Ballard, Scott Haze gives an exhausting, brilliant and searing performance turning this mad, societal outcast into a pitiable figure. Whether howling with rage, crying or mumbling incoherently as he wanders from one horrible event through the next, Haze's commitment is total (including one almost wretch inducing scene near the beginning). In watching him, I felt I was observing a Cro Magnun man who suddenly found himself in the 20th century, a world nearly as foreign to him as another planet.

The rest of the cast get, and require, little screen-time, but their contributions are invaluable. And, as at least some of them would tell you, playing dead is never easy business.

Earlier I mentioned Franco going the "art film," route, but sadly what is missing most from "Child of God" is any genuine sense of making art. There is almost a complete lack of any interpretive effort who chose a pervasive literalness to the storytelling that grows tiresome early on.

A good effort, a great performance, but not a particularly good film.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Bao Bao is pure "Wow Wow!"

Well, I finally made it to Cara Stadler's new Portland restaurant, Bao Bao. About all I could say immediately afterwards was "wow, wow!"

Since it's opening about a month ago, the place has been packed every time I've walked by, but tonight, getting out of work early, I noticed a couple of spaces open at the bar and took a break from my own cooking.

It's impossible to describe the transformation of the former West End Deli, which I've visited more times than I can count over the past 13-15 years. Other than the entrance the space is entirely unrecognizable and now one of the coolest spaces in Portland. The enormous, wall filling dragon sculpture is only one of many dramatic touches in the dining area, with a stunning carved ceiling, large, starkly elegant chandeliers outsized artwork and a knockout of a bar, lowered like an orchestra pit on the bartenders' side all had me turning my head in every direction like a first time tourist (which, technically, I was).

The menu is small - one knows this going in, four apps, a half dozen or so dumplings, greens in oyster sauce and beef noodle soup. The cocktail menu is slightly exotic (with nice twists on old classics), with a decent beer and wine selection. At the bartender's recommendation I ordered the Beet Yozu Martini. Juices of beets, yuzu and lemon, mixed with Thai basil and Tanqueray in cool low glass with a sour sugar rim . . . far from my typical drink but providing the first of several "wows" of the evening.
To start I choose the spicy pig ear appetizer, a large portion of sliced ears, tossed with Napa cabbage marinated in spicy, sour Shanxi-province vinegar that initially tasted pickle-ly, with a mild heat that intensified with each ensuing bite. I wasn't expecting the dish to be served cold, and expect its "odd food" status will make this one of the less popular menu items.

Next up, my single order of dumplings (which come boiled, steamed or pan fried, I chose the last). Six beauties stuffed with a sausage ball of lamb, black bean, peanuts, and chilis, served with a homemade tomato relish/ketchup. I will likely order these every time I return. I was sorry I didn't order the Hake dumplings which looked amazing . . . but I need something to look forward to next time.

The staff was young, attractive with a slight hipster-edge that dominates the food scene right now, my bartender warm, friendly and helpful even while working up a storm.

By the time I left, around six, the place was already packed, with hopeful diners waiting outside to be sided. To have this gem only a couple of blocks from home could be dangerous.

No pics of the interior yet, but google them to see some stunners.

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Sunday, November 9, 2014

Joyce DiDonato at Carnegie Hall

Thanks to this marvelous, sometimes frustrating technology, I was able to watch it live in real time on Medici TV, so while not quite the same as actually being there, it's the next best thing . . . and a very good thing, too.

Applying the theme "A Journey Through Venice," to the program, allowed the mezzo and her marvelous pianist David Zobel to examine a wide spectrum of music devoted to one of earth's most celebrated cities. Through the music of Vivaldi, Rossini, Hahn, Faure and
Michael Head, DiDonato revealed why she's one of today's most versatile and unique singers, approaching everything with a freshness and sense of wonderment that is infectious to the listener, drawing one in as though being gently pulled by a friend from a large party into a side room for one-on-one.

So fluidly did DiDonato move through the two gorgeous, elegant arias from Vivaldi's "Ercole su'l Termodonte," "Onde chiare che sussurrate" and "Amato ben," which opened the recital, revealing a precision and elegance smoothly seguing from the virtuosity of the first into the delicate intimacy of the second, and applying a hushed intensity to this music that was breathtaking.

Hot on the heels (after a bit of banter from the singer) came Fauré's delightful set Cinq mélodies 'de Venise, the first of which feels more like Poulenc or Debussy than one usually gets from this frequently introspective composer. With her quick vibrato and slight reedy quality, DiDonato sounds almost as though born to sing French music and hearing this entire set made me curious to hear what she might do with his Pénélope. Whether or not that happens, more Fauré, please, Joyce, it suits you like an elegant glove.

The first half of the recital closed, and the second half began with Rossini, a composer one frequently identifies with this singer, his outsized La regata veneziana contrasting nicely with Desdemona's Assisa al piè d’un salice ... Deh, calma. Again a single composer providing two sides of the same coin and an opportunity for this singer to color, bend and stretch - to play with the music - in a manner many singers seem incapable of, or uncomfortable in doing.

A bit more banter ensued as DiDonato described Michael Head's Three Songs of Venice, written for Dame Janet Baker, and still sounding mighty good from another singer in the here and now.

The crown (for me) of the recital was "Venezia" the "Venice" set of Reynaldo Hahn, long one of my favorite songwriters. They were, of course, glorious sounding, with DiDonato interrupting herself to describe how, if time allowed she'd enjoy being able to change into a costume for "Che peca!": "I would go into a white sleeveless t shirt that's about 20 years old . . . a couple stains and holes, because I would be that man who sits on his porch . . . over the canal, and I envision this song with the man whose had a lot of pasta in his life and he likes a bad cigar, and he's had it . . . and this is what he would sing about." DiDonato struck a swagger-ish pose and presented a sort of artificial huskiness and sprechstimme (built into the song) that was hilarious, and felt natural and it was clear who was having the most fun of the night.

After a warm ovation, and before presenting her two encores, Rossini's "Canzonetta spagnuola" DeCurtis great hit "Non ti scordar di me," both marvelously sung, DiDonato spoke from the heart:

"I know I'm a bit of a Pollyanna about this, but when you look at the world today and it can get a little discouraging at times . . .right? This is our teacher, right here . . . because here we are of different gender, different religion, different politics, different everything . . . and yet in this moment there is harmony and there is peace. This is our teacher, and our goal is to take this that we create here and go out. So that's why . . . and I hope I'm not lecturing you all, I just want to share with you how amazing it is that we get to do this."

Amen, sister.

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