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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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Pelléas et Mélisande : Faith Esham and Jerry Hadley - Wow!

I’ve been listening to a fascinating performance of Pelléas et Mélisande from 1992. Lyric Opera of Chicago with Faith Esham, Jerry Hadley and Victor Braun. Teresa Stratas was taking over the role for Frederica von Stade, but cancelled the first two performances so Faith Esham made her Lyric Opera debut. Pelleas is among my favorite operas, so I’ve heard many pairings over my lifetime (so far) and, fan of both Ms. Esham and Mr. Hadley that I am, was not quite prepared for the performance they presented on opening night. I generally prefer a tenor in the role (Richard Stilwell, Simon Keenlyside, taking top honors for baritones) and Hadley does not disappoint in that regard. He and Esham both had very bright sounding voices which sounds so “right” in French, their diction crisp yet fluid – perfect for Debussy’s “problem” opera. The scenes between Esham and Braun’s Golaud have a depth and bite that could convince even non-fans this is a drama more than about “nothing.”

At the start, Braun seems a tad less gruff than many a Golaud, but he gradually sinks into a sort of cruelty - a violence that ever grows in its intensity until it becomes downright horrifying, even before his ultimate crime.

My favorite tenor Pelleas has, for a time, been Richard Croft and Hadley’s performance here does not take him down from the shelf, but boy, is he terrific in his own way. Croft has an elegance that fits in with Debussy’s soundscape – just about perfectly. Hadley, on the other hand, does not skimp on matters musical – and in certain moments (notably in the Tower scene) brings his own brand of elegance. More often than not, however, there is a slight “roughness” (not the sound itself, but the way he handles the role) that is unusual yet perfectly in tune with his and Esham's take on the lovers.

Esham’s first of several utterances of “Pelleas” in the Tower scene is sparked with an undeniable eroticism that shocks . While many Melisandes retain an aloofness throughout the role, Esham makes her seem almost familiar, yet somehow just as puzzling and troubled. In the middle of a scene she may add a touch of nervousness to her sound emphasizing the girlishness which, along with that brightness and ease of the language (her best roles truly were Manon, Juliette, Leila, Marguerite . . . ) makes this a special performance. Also, like a tenor Pelleas, a soprano (as opposed to mezzo) Melisande really changes the tone of the opera.

The great Act IV love scene drips with passion and Esham and Hadley sound as if they can barely contain themselves – and then when Hadley’s Pelleas reaches, “Et maintenant je t'ai trouvee. . . je ne crois pas qui'il . . . ait sur la terre un femme plus belle!" they – and we – realize they cannot. Breathless passion mounts into a sudden, slow ecstasy, each singer now sounding, somehow, a bit older, as if the realization of this love has aged them. It's almost more like they're playing "grown up,” which makes Golaud’s sudden appearance and slaughter of Pelleas more unbearably than it already is, Melisande's final cry adding an extra punctuation mark of horror.

Yvonne Minton, turns in her customary excellence in the fairly ungrateful role of Genevieve, and Dimitri Kavrakos is touching as Arkel. Soprano, Lucy Tamez Creech has a very boyish voice, though it appears she sang Yniold from the pit while child actor Joel Eng pantomimed onstage.

James Conlon, like every conductor of this opera, has a passion for it that comes out through his masterful reading of it. He brings out the sonic wonderment of the score, while keeping everything and everyone in near perfect balance. I would have liked a bit more “oomph” and drive at the beginning of the love scene, but this approach and gradual build up certainly makes good dramatic sense. The “special effects” of the percussion section – bells, etc., absolutely sparkle and shine. During the first intermission of the broadcast, he is interviewed and offers terrific insights into Debussy’s masterpiece and the characters who populate it. He draws an interesting parallel between Arkel and Pelleas that I’d never really thought about before. I love when someone sheds new light on something that can, at times, seem almost overly familiar. It puts things back into the right perspective and makes me, as here, love that thing all the more.

Since recently moving, and giving away/selling many of my recordings I’m not certain how many of “Pelleas” I still own, but this would have been, according to my estimation, the 32nd in my collection. I think that qualifies me as a Pelleas obsessive, oui?


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