Saturday, April 11, 2015

Don Carlos: As It Should Be (mostly)

Verdi: Don Carlos
Theatre du Chatelet
Antonio Pappano, Conductor/Luc Bondy, Director
Roberto Alagna, Karita Mattila, Jose van Dam, Thomas Hampson, Waltraud Meier

Pappano leads an almost achingly beautiful effort from his soloists and the Chatelet orchestra and chorus. Perhaps my favorite Verdi opera, this is also regarded as one of his most unusual and problematic scores - often sounding simultaneously traditional yet somehow remarkably modern for its time. Pappano brings out all of these elements and his pacing of the entire long evening is beautiful, near perfection never once feeling either dragged out or rushed.

I've had ups and downs in my listening experiences with Roberto Alagna, but here, vocally and dramatically he perfectly captures every nuance, and every heartbreaking weakness of this character, taking a weak, problematic "starring role" and somehow turning him into Hamlet. It doesn't hurt that he is in astonishingly beautiful voice, his tone ringing and with a remarkable sheen. His ability to shade the voice in a variety of colors and dynamics made this an uniquely individual portrayal. He is not the "hero" Don Carlos some old-timers may wish for, but I hold this role to be almost the antithesis of heroic.

The production is simple effectively emphasizing the story telling and Verdi's music. Clearly well rehearsed, Luc Bondy's production has not a false note throughout its considerable length, every detail, every movement flowing with a rare and natural ease. In Gilles Aillaud's sets, Moidele Bickel's costumes and Vincio Cheli's beautiful lighting, every frame looks like a Murillo or El Greco masterpiece coming to life. Two particularly arresting images stand out in the St. Just scene; the first, just before the the entrance of Philip and Elisabeth - Carlos accepts Posa's request to return with him to Flanders, as Carlos kneels, Posa rests his head Carlos's shoulder. The second such moment follows the King and Queen's procession; Carlos extends his right arm out towards the now offstage couple as Posa grabs his other arm preventing his friend from following; creating a canvas of tortured angles: all arms, necks, heads, legs, backs, walls and shadows - all transformed into a tragic tableau of pain and comfort rejected.

The Fontainebleau scene (the opening cut a bit) is remarkably done and should convince any naysayers that it must be included to make the rest of this difficult work make true sense. In a barren forest of white birch, Carlos and Elisabeth draped in deep crimson, become as a single heart beating in this forest of death. Karita Mattila brings a dramatic quality that I've never before encountered in this role; at first coltish, tom-boyish, as Carlos lights the fire in the woods. Then, as he mentions that she will marry the son of Philip, becoming girlishly nervous. In only a few moments she establishes a bewitching and compelling character. In true princess manner, this Elisabeth is slightly vague yet clear she is smitten by and flirts with Carlos, her outward strength a facade - clearly a girl raised at court, aware she is but a pawn and dutifully plays the part she's given. At the news Elisabeth is to marry Philip instead of Carlos , the young lovers are crushed as the chorus, in ghostly white, enters singing her praises, lifting her into the air, placing her on a white horse and led away, knowing she is not leaving behind not only home and family, but any dream or hope of happiness as all turn away from Carlos who, alone, falls onto a rock, utterly destroyed. "Destiny has shattered my dreams." Having seen the Fontainebleau scene scene so staged I can't imagine its being left out of any production again.

Throughout this production Bondy and Pappano have encouraged their singers to live these roles and the electricity between all of the characters is stunning. Here is a theatre director who understands opera, and makes enormous use of music's ability to expand emotions in a unique way. Another example of his vision is the sheer physicality of the scene between Carlos and Elisabeth outside of the convent which takes on a desperate, violent quality that is, to say the least, startling to experience in an opera house.

As Rodrigue, Thomas Hampson gives what one of the best performances of his career. Combining humility, loyalty, compassion, pride and a sense of justice, his Posa is remarkably complex, and by far one of the most interesting good guys in all of Verdi. The voice is never big, but rich, well controlled and his sense of phrasing and attention to detail nothing short of remarkable. He also has a wicked good trill. At times, especially in his big scene with Philip, Hampson's voice seems to take on a tenorial quality - a remarkably lyrical Rodrigue, but with a sure sense of strength of purpose.

Mr. Van Dam's Philip is firm of tone, every word distinct, filled with meaning. The role, at times lies a bit low for him, but for the most part fits him like the proverbial glove. I have always want to despise Philip, but Bondy and Van Dam have made him more pathetic, a mere pawn of the Inquisitor, and Van Dam pulls off this vulnerability without once
sacrificing the strength of his character. A most complex, interesting characterization.

Waltraut Meier couldn't have been anybody's idea of an ideal Eboli, yet, she inhabits the character so fully turns in a magnificent performance, and looks damned stunning in doing so. Her vocalism in the Veil Song was kind of bizarre - it had a "warble" like quality that made it difficult to tell just what pitch she was actually on, yet she was beguiling and pulled it off. Once that was out of the way, everything else came from strength. I do wish that this mezzo would cultivate some chest voice. Her low notes seem to be her weakest and they sound exactly (except nearly inaudible) as her middle voice.

As Elisabeth, Mattila is, quite simply, a wonder. A voice capable of so many colors while retaining a unifying, individual sound. Having previously heard her in so much of her native music and Mozart, it's a tough voice to categorize, capable of riding the orchestra and cutting through it with laser like clarity, yet retaining a youthful sweetness most unusual to the typically "steely" type of voice we associate with that type of singing. Her sustained, high piano singing is nearly miraculous, a thin thread of sound perfectly placed, as clean as can be imagined then producing an effect that sounds as sensuous as silm gauze feels (two examples: her farewell to her lady-in-waiting, and reminding Carlos she is now his mother). It's all sung piano, yet she makes these moments sound entirely different. This is singing rare and refined. And remarkable. Every movement, gesture and sound came directly from this Elisabeth straight into my heart.

With the least amount of stage time, Eric Halfvarson's twisted, crippled Grand Inquisitor truly becomes a dominant central figure; the very physical embodiment of evil setting a tale of corruption, politics and religion already near chaos and spinning it completely out of control.

Nearly every scene in this long work is filled with heartbreaking magic and beauty, making it difficult to single out one scene in particular as standing out from the rest, though Posa's death perhaps takes place of honor in an evening filled with memorable music making and drama.

As one would imagine, the Chatelet audience responds with a thunderous and extended ovation, making me wish, even more, I'd been there.

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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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