Thursday, November 5, 2015

Sean Penn as Leonard Bernstein?

Martin Scorsese is planning a biopic of Leonard Bernstein. Now, Who should play ol' Lennie? My choice would be Sean Penn. I doubt he'd get the role, but I have to ask, why not give him a try?

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Friday, October 16, 2015

Elektra Triumphant: Goerke and BSO Light up Boston

(Photo borrowed from Boston Symphony Orchestra)

There was no set, neither were there costumes nor director, but make no mistake about it, the hottest night of opera on planet Earth last night took place in Boston, Massachusetts. I’d bet the farm on it.

The Boston Symphony presented a concert performance of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal groundbreaking 1909 opera, “Elektra,” and, over a century after its premiere, shows it still can make an effect on an audience that is rare in any opera house. That this performance took place not in an opera house, but rather in Symphony Hall seemed almost to heighten that effect. While there was no platform for the singers to "act on" (and blessedly singing from memory) they "gave the play" on the limited space before Maestro Nelson's podium and his players, most with the skill of finely honed actors.

Strauss gave no mercy to his title character who is onstage for the entire evening, even during “breaks” from singing and in what may be considered by general operatic standards a rather short opera (under a pair of hours) he has gifted his heroine one of the most challenging, exhausting ... and ultimately rewarding roles in the dramatic soprano repertoire.

Last night Christine Goerke faced those challenges, met those challenges and blew the roof off not only the hall, but of every audience member’s head. It was THAT kind of night. From her entrance from the audience, until her collapse of death, it was impossible to keep one’s eyes off the girl in the crimson gown. Goerke’s naturally electrifying radiance that, when matched with a voice of such power and command of her language created an Elektra that was never just pitiable or terrifying (though she certainly brought those elements to the forefront) but formidable, yet feminine.

This unique take was established instantly during Elektra’s opening monologue, surely one of the greatest “entrance arias” in all of opera. During its roughly 10 minute length, the soprano never appeared to give less than everything she had, yet those accustomed to her performances feared not about what was left in the reserve tank for the rest of the evening. Indeed, at every climatic high note moment Goerke seemed to go for broke in a manner few Elektras are afforded or capable of.

As sister Chrysothemis, Gun-Brit Barkmin could hardly have been more effective and played in contrast to Goerke’s Elektra. The voice, deceptively slender, is nonetheless capable of making mighty sounds and was, even decible-wise, easily up to the challenges of holding her own against her formidable sister. The two ladies played beautifully off each other and, coming together after learning the (false) news of their brother’s death, were jointly heartbreaking. Similarly their joy at the murder of mother and stepdad was explosive, effusive as the Tanglewood Chorus, joined in Strauss’ merry mayhem, whilst pouring out and singing from the doors of the hall’s second balcony. Amazing.

Jane Henschel brought vocal glamor and rock solid musicianship as Klytemnestra. The long mother/daughter scene was, as it should be, the linchpin to the evening’s drama and while Henschel’s presence was more “stand here and sing” than the other characters, the scene was enormously effective, ending with her cackling laugh to destroy her daughter’s sense of having won the battle.

As Orest, James Rutherford exhibited some of his mother’s stoic quality, which made his sister’s final recognition of him infinitely touching. It’s not a slap in the face, but in the longest male role of the opera, Orest is almost a prop (I know some baritones who will hate me for that) for Elektra to sound off of. Indeed, Strauss, here, gives his heroine the most beautiful music she will have all evening (one can hear strongly the Vier letze lieder which would come 40 years later). Though “unstaged” Ms. Goerke again proved to be in complete sympathy with her character and after a passionate embrace, moves away, staring at the hand that touched her brother, the image of him almost fading away as if a dream, while he was still there. It added something immeasurable and in a way, the gesture became part of the music.

Gerhard Siegel’s Aegisthe had as much fun belittling those around him as Strauss allows, before being murdered and providing his stepdaughter with the greatest line of the night: “Agamemnon hört dich!” (“Agamemnon hears you!”)

In supporting roles, Elizabeth Byrne, Nadine Secunde, Meredith Hansen, Nadezhda Serdyuk, Claudia Huckle, Mary Philips, Sandra Lopez, Rebecca Nash, Mark Showalter, and Kevin Langon all contributed enormously to the success of the performance.

Andris Nelsons appeared, all night, to be dancing on the rarest of clouds. To be able to present this orchestra in this score and allowing Herr Strauss to “do his thing.” There were moments, rare as they were, where I wondered if he’d forgotten there was singers onstage having to compete with the sheer decibel strength the band was capable of putting out. He seemed to luxuriate in the knowledge that, at least with this present cast, he had to hold nothing back, and acted accordingly. The end result was the immediate explosion of sound from an audience who’d been held enraptured the past couple of hours. While standing ovations have become a norm for many performances these days, not many of them involve the entire audience and fewer still begin when the house collectively leaps to its feet while the final chord (and what a chord Strauss gives us) is still hanging in the air. The shouting and cheers went on for a good long while, few even daring to leave the hall.

There was nowhere better to be than Boston last night. Anyone who can possibly make the next performances (Boston on Saturday, Carnegie Hall-NYC next Wednesday) would be foolish not to go. Seriously.


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Thursday, August 27, 2015

David Gordon Green's "Joe" - Cage is the man.

Undertow, All the Real Girls, and now Joe . . . David Gordon Green again proves himself to be among the greatest indie film directors/producers in the business.

In Joe, Green gives Nicolas Cage one of the strongest roles of his career. In fact, I can't think of a better performance from this actor than what he brings to the title character of this remarkable film.

The greatest directors all have a sense of personal style that is immediately identifiable and, as unlikely as it seems, I went into Joe not knowing a thing about it (other than the brief 2 sentence synopsis) but immediately sensed this was the work of DGG.

An ex-con with a propensity towards violence frequently kept at the simmering point (barely), Joe is, nonetheless, a solid man, a good hearted fellow with a moral conscience that at time seems to torture him and barely keeps him from returning to prison.

Leading and managing a group of black, aging forest day workers,he takes in 15 year old, badly abused Gary as a hand. Up until know the only hand this kid has known has been that of Wade, his raging alcoholic of a father whose abuse on his family is the stuff of nightmares.

Unlike most mentor flicks, Joe reveals himself to Gary, warts and all, but even so, Joe is the halcyon lake to Wade's cesspool.

As ever, Green plumbs the depths of each of his characters and they unfold before our eyes, exposing a humanity borne both of darkness and light. Even Wade, despite his despicability, becomes more of a tragic figure, more pitiable than loathsome (though loathsome is not out of the question).

In addition to the central redemption story, Joe shows the title character's interactions among his poor, rural Texas community with Green skimping neither on the brutality nor the horrors of this life bringing an unflinching realism that comes off in near documentary style.

Throughout the darkness Joe is shot through with moments of almost comedic lightness that lend a believable truth to the film, something missing from many bigger budgeted Hollywood movies. As an example and, without revealing too much, a potentially dangerous scene segues into a break dancing lesson from the most unlikely of characters, a moment of cinematic magic that didn't cost a million dollars.

As with most of this director's films, the cast could not be bettered. In addition to Cage's already lauded turn as Joe, Tye Sheridan's performance as Gary is a thing of beauty, capturing one who has seen too much too soon yet still hopes to retain a thread of the innocence every kid deserves. It's masterful work from a gifted young actor.

As Wade, Green cast a local homeless man, Gary Poulter, who pulls in whatever it was in his life that took him there . . . and gives it back to us tenfold. It is a terrifying, soul searing and tortured performance. (Note: Mr. Poulter died two months after filming and is one of two people Joe is dedicated to).

Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler, Elbert Hill, A.J. Wilson McPhaul and the rest of the cast all contribute mightily to the telling of this tale, written by Gary Hawkins based upon Larry Brown's novel of the same name.

Cinematography and soundtrack are wed exquisitely, with at least one incredible sequence featuring noise (feedback, electronics, etc.) in place of music to chilling effect. While Joe is not a film for the faint of heart, those willing enter to its world on its own terms are in for a richly rewarding film experience with some powerful performances.

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Sunday, August 2, 2015

PORTopera's Tosca: One Sing-ular Sensation

On paper at least, Puccini’s Tosca seemed like an odd choice for an opera company to make its debut in the arena of “semi-staging” However, with imaginative use of space, intelligent (and detailed) direction, good costumes, a first rate orchestra, choruses and a cast of singers, the possibility exists of the experience being greater than the sum of its parts. Such was the case with PORTopera’s second go at Puccini’s classic potboiler.

With a 60+ piece orchestra taking pride of place on stage, only a narrow corridor of space toward the apron existed for the action to develop. A large wooden platform with a staircase leading to its top served, in the first act as the painter Mario Cavaradossi’s galley in Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, (an enormous blank picture frame atop it), and in the second, as the parapet of the Castel St. Angelo for a changing of the guard, and the denouement of Tosca leaping to her death.

Challenged by the limited playing space, director, Dona D. Vaughn created an intimate Tosca that did not skimp on her customary excellence, her supernumeraries (scrub maid,, monk, Scarpia’s henchmen, et al.) enlivening and providing richly detailed action.

Vaughn wisely embraced, and enhanced, the comedic elements of the first act which came off with the lighthearted naturalness of musical comedy, particularly the marvelous work from Thomas Hammons' genuinely funny (and warmly curmudgeonly) Sacristan, the romantic interplay between Tosca and Mario, and the children’s entrance. The children's chorus was a delight and one could not help but smile as as the kids circled and danced around the old man. All of this worked, of course, to heighten the contrasting, darker, more chilling aspects of the tale and make them more deeply felt without the use of maudlin manipulation to which this opera frequently falls prey.

Adam Diegel, PORT’s excellent Pinkerton from several seasons ago, returned as an exuberant young Cavaradossi, his bright, enormously pingy tenor ringing out with amazing clarity over the orchestra. Despite Maestro Lord’s moving the score along, both of Mario’s arias elicited applause, particularly the tragic “E lucevan le stele,” which earned hearty cheers and bravos from the house, and his "Vittoria!" has rarely been more thrillingly sung in my lifetime.

Alexandra LoBianco made for a lovely, winning Tosca presenting a softer, more coquettish heroine than the sometimes jealous, woman-on-the-verge as she's so frequently presented. LoBianco offered a softer, more coquettish Tosca, a deliciously coy flirtatiousness tempering her jealous outbursts, making her vulnerable and her eventual harrowing predicament all the more wrenching. The first act duet with Mario garnered enough applause to nearly stop the action, and, I can state without hesitation, it's been many years since I've felt a certain "tingle" at the end of that scene.

Luxury casting was found in the Scarpia of James Morris, whose voice, while showing signs of age, has Scarpia imprinted all over it. I wasn't the only one who wondered why he, alone, was in a modern tuxedo (I'm imagining a minor costume controversy may have been involved here) but the fact is he could've been donned in overalls or pajamas and one still was going to believe THIS was Scarpia. The self-important piety with which he entered, literally stopped the show in St. Andrea's. Alternating between subtlety and villainy Morris created a Scarpia who one sensed always got his way, his man . . . and his woman. Until Tosca.

Mario's execution was made all the more gruesome by the addition of a coup de grâce, stopped at the last minute, the effect of which made the moment all the more chilling and, perhaps for the first time, made me wonder if the boy might actually get up and flee with Tosca. The ensuing moments of chaos worked beautifully (how nice to hear the vocal parts here, almost always eliminated by the Met and other companies) as Tosca is hunted and chased down before taking opera's most famous leap (LoBianco's "O Scarpia avanti a Dio" by the way, was positively thrilling).

Over thirty years after I (a then a chorister) sang a tour of Boheme with him, it was an absolute joy to see and hear Thomas Hammons as the Sacristan, still potent of voice and ever the actor. Robert Mellon (Angelotti), Lucas Levy (Spoletta), Josh Quinn (Sciarrone) and Carina Di Gianfilippo (The Shepherd) all offered splendid contributions to the evening's proceedings.

Maestro Stephen Lord's work with the PORT orchestra and choruses was exemplary, presenting Puccini's score as full-throttled and rousing as one could hope for, leading principals for whom he rarely hold to hold back or do much adjusting of volume for.

On paper, this may have read as a "semi-staged" production, but for a packed house at Merrill Auditorium, it was a Tosca for the ages.

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