Friday, December 15, 2017

Glorious and Tragic: ENO's Death In Venice

I could not listen to the Met’s “The Merry Widow” last night (or most nights) so to escape the brutal New England chill, I decided to watch the 2012 revival of Deborah Warner’s production of Britten’s “Death in Venice” for the English National Opera. I have loved this work since my high school days, and my appreciation of it has only grown to a point where I’m beginning to think – despite Grimes/Budd/Gloriana/War Requiem all being at the top of the heap - it may be one of Britten’s most ingenious scores.

Several weeks ago there was a discussion here about this opera being "dull" and/or "uninspired." I couldn't disagree more if I wanted to. My dear, long-missed friend and one time frequently marvelous list member, Ann Purtil credited the Met’s production as being responsible for pulling her back into the world of opera. So there’s that.


Even having only seen it on video, Warner’s is one of the most innovative, creative, seamless productions I’ve seen in some time. The integration of dance, movement, lighting and acting are wed to Britten’s most unusual score in a manner that feels completely organic. There is nothing extraneous, nothing that does not serve and move forward this beautiful tragedy to its heartbreaking conclusion.

As much as I loved the Aschenbach’s of Peter Pears and Robert Tear, John Graham-Hall doesn’t portray the tortured “hero” so much as inhabit him entirely. I felt I was witnessing the disintegration of this character so intimately it bordered on voyeurism. Onstage nearly throughout, Graham-Hall sings with the required refined elegance Britten demands here, but it is his integration of myriad facial expressions, reaching gestures of limbs combined with that voice that reflects Aschenbach discomfort with life. When he speaks of his dead wife and recently married daughter, it is shot through with an inherent sadness I’ve never before noticed – or at least paid much attention to. Graham-Hall elevates this brief moment to the point where it feels like the raison d'être for all that transpires from start-to-finish. Here is an artist at the height of his powers delivering a performance that will haunt me to the grave.

Aschenbach being onstage nearly throughout and having the lion’s share of the text, “Death in Venice” is oft-dismissed as a one-man show, which is about as far from the mark as it gets. This performance gives us Andrew Shore – who, within minutes – made mincemeat of my initial reservations. He brings to brilliant life all of the disparate characters, tying each to the other with the genius of a master storyteller. Ultimately, his is the sinister, guiding hand on the complex, confusing, road to hell.

Tim Mead makes a chillingly handsome appearance as Apollo singing in what could easily be called “heldencounter.”

Former Royal Danish Ballet dancer (and current Boston resident) Sam Zaldivar is perfectly cast as Tadzio making not only plausible, but understandable Aschenbach’s obsession. He is appealing in his naturalness and his execution of the difficult, at times wildly acrobatic choreography of Kim Brandstrup. Brandstrup’s dance and movement charge this difficult work with a fluidity that ripples throughout and he and Warner manage to magically
maneuver a large company of chorus, actors, dancers and principals through the opera’s many scenes and locales in an almost dizzying fashion.

Edward Gardner leads the ENO forces through this amazing score with a master’s hand, ever a judicious balancing act of percussive, piano, orchestra and wordless chorus who in concert create a painting for our eyes and ears. This is the first time I’ve experienced this opera where I felt it almost springing directly over centuries from Monteverdi to right now. The-house audience remain rapt and silent for close to a minute as all of us watch Tadzio elegantly pirouetting into the blinding sun as Aschenbach slumps into his final sleep.

For those unfamiliar with this opera, I can’t think of a more appealing way to remedy that situation. For fans, you owe yourselves the opportunity to experience this one. It is magnificent. It is available on DVD, or "for free" for Amazon Prime members.

I recently learned Warner’s production was slated for New York City Opera, but was ultimately nixed. That would have been something.


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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Met's New Tosca!

Thursday, October 12, 2017

What a Little Moonlight Can Do: Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill

Portland Stage opened its season with a revival (new production) of Lanie Robertson’s Greek tragedy Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. Greek tragedy, you ask? Yup. The only true difference between, say, Medea and Billy Holiday being the horrors and atrocities endured by Lady Day are all chillingly true.

The scene: Emerson’s Bar and Grill in Philadelphia, March 1959 – only months before the music industry lost one of its supremely uniquely gifted voices, and most tortured souls breathed her last, at the far too young age of 44.

Many critics made hash of Robertson’s play calling it (apart from its songs) clichéd and predictable. To them I say, as would his Lady Day, “Well, fuck that shit.” I’ve now seen several productions and each has had the power to destroy its audience, cajoling us, chiding us, inviting us and chilling us to our collective core. Each production has had its own spin while remaining true to Billie’s tale of woe.

Portland is lucky to have a veteran of the play, Tracey Conyer Lee, now in her fourth production as Billie, who, from the outset, demonstrates she has the singer, to be indelicate here, under her skin. The voice is bigger, plusher than Holiday’s, but skillfully deployed making judicious use of that famous husky tang, and way with words. It’s as though we’re meeting a stranger, before suddenly realize it’s someone familiar. It packs a jolt. Every time.

Robertson’s script presents Holiday’s life in an extended monologue weaving its way through 15 songs that run the emotional gamut from playful to tortured. Those unfamiliar with the Lady’s life can’t help but wince as she systematically, with a combination of melodrama and detachment, recalls the death of her mother, being raped at the age of 10 and sold into prostitution and beginning the downward spiral of heroin and booze that would ravage her body and soul.

With the dexterity of a dancer, Lee’s Billie navigates the multileveled stage in a pair of death-defying high heels, bowing and bending, nearly crashing into walls with the elasticity of a genuine drunk trying to maintain her dignity. She is ever blithely unaware of just how uncomfortable she’s making everyone around her. An ever present bottle of whiskey on the bar, through tumbler after tumbler she comfortably numbs herself, loosening both lips and limbs. One can't help but feel enormously for this woman, never pity, but compassion and great concern. One of the evening’s strongest moments is the sequence leading up to the tragic song, “Strange Fruit.” Billie rails and wails about the disgusting treatment of blacks in that era as we, comfortably seated in a climate controlled auditorium, realize though we're in a much improved America since then, how very far away we remain from equality and justice. It's bracing.

There are, to be sure, great moments of levity and Ms. Lee has the audience in the palm of her hands and when she calls us “my friends,” it feels like an honor to be in such company.

Gary Mitchell stars as pianist Jimmy Powers who does his level best to keep his Lady on track – a feat which proves impossible. Ross Gallagher contributes nicely on the bass.

Earlier in the evening Billie mentions how, for the year and a day she was imprisoned, she never sang a note asking, “you ever heard a dead person singin’?” This comes into play in the haunting, wistful final scene – here a coup de théâtre as, above us, stars begin to twinkle overhead and a lush moon makes its presence known. Ah, what a little moonlight can do.

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Monday, October 9, 2017

Big Mouth: Filthy, Vulgar, Vile, Hilarious and Sweet

At the recommendation of a friend I watched the first episode of “Big Mouth” the Nick Kroll produced series for Netflix. My first reaction after only a few minutes in was of something hilarious yet, vile, filthy, and taking full advantage of not having to be censored. It didn’t take long before I realized the show was going to be taken in in a two day binge, 5 episodes at a time.

The familiar topic of teenage awkwardness at the onset of puberty has seldom, if ever, been addressed so matter-of-factly and in terms and visuals as disgustingly hilarious as it has here. For one thing, generally the domain of a “boys only” realm, “Big Mouth” gives equal time and opportunity to show just what a disgusting, tragic and confusing mess this time of life is for girls as well. The series revolves around 8th graders, Andrew (John Mulaney), Nick (Kroll), Jessi (Jessi Glaser), Missy (Jenny Slate) and Jay (Jason Mantzoukas). The series – definitely for adult only audiences – is, almost necessarily animated for a number of reasons. First and foremost, a live version would require child actors, and, given the material, language and . . . well, it’d have had mothers and churches and civic groups protesting to shut it down, and rightfully so. Instead, we’re given exquisite voice performances by adult actors, who do very little to sound childish, their own vocal imprints coming through so we’re always, at some level at least, aware these are not children, but actors reliving childhood.



At its heart, “Big Mouth” is not only about the changes our bodies go through at that age, but about loyalty, friendship, social structures, family dysfunction, and secrets so terrifying one dare not share. In addition to the kids, the show is populated by two hormone monsters (over-the-top, terrifying performances by Maya Rudolf and series creator Kroll), and most hilariously, Nick’s unlikely confessor and mentor, the ghost of Duke Ellington. Frequently offering the worst possible advice, Duke is brutally honest as he shares memories of a bygone era, and delivers, in my opinion, the series best lines.

There is component of vulgar sexual violence that is pushed to its comedic limits and, definitely not for more sensitive viewers.
At times “Big Mouth” has the feel of an existentialist/absurdist work of theatre, not just crossing lines, but obliterating them into Kingdom Come . . . or is that Kingdom Cum?

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