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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Manhattan Melodrama

“WEST SIDE STORY” SHOWS ITS AGE in many ways. Language that seemed hip 60 years ago has been replaced by terms even more evanescent. What seemed like credibly horrible behavior back then also has been eclipsed. And the music, steeped in jazz and Latin rhythms, is now as quaint as an old Paul Whiteman recording. Yet each of those elements endures – thrives, even – in the context of this show. It hit the boards in 1957, garnering excellent reviews, reviews that particularly praised Jerome Robbins’s direction and choreography.

Vanessa Becerra and Joseph Leppek
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
It’s difficult to think of the piece apart from his work, especially with the 1960 film version accessible. Julio Monge choreographed the current Glimmerglass Festival production, hewing as closely as possible to Robbins’s original movement, and doing so as one of the few authorized by the Robbins Rights Trust to do so.

Although the set (by Peter J. Davison, and more about it below) and the costumes (by Jessica Jahn) suggest a more recent time, you can’t pull the 1950s out of this show. It’s as specific to its time as a Gershwin show was to the ’30s, but “West Side Story”’s two Tonys and ten Oscars suggest how firmly it lodged in the public consciousness. Thus, while it ought to seem as antique as that Gershwin show, its central conflict has never been more up-to-date. Composer Leonard Bernstein was very vocal about his wish to effect change; perhaps it’s just as well that he’s not here to see how far we’ve backslid.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Missing Peace

AS THE POLITICAL FUTURE of the United States grows bleaker – with its corresponding drag on the future of everyone everywhere – it’s more important than ever to turn to the arts for inspiration and even, dare I suggest it, optimism. The Pulitzer Prize-winning opera “Silent Night,” which details an exceptional incident that occurred on a World War One battlefield, packs a wallop.

Michael Miller, Michael Hewitt, and Jonathan Bryan
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Mark Campbell’s libretto is based on Christian Carion’s screenplay for his 2005 film “Joyeux Noël,” itself inspired by a spontaneous truce that broke out on a Belgian battlefield on Christmas Eve, 1914. German, French, and Scottish soldiers shared food and wine and stories as hostility fell away into friendship – but it was a temporary truce that led to recrimination from the higher-ups.

Thanks to the propaganda activities of the U.S. Office of War Information during World War Two, the depiction of combat and the American way of life was sugarcoated to a risible degree. Some of the conventions of those motion pictures  (that service platoons were racially mixed, for example) grew into accepted archetypes and infected our understanding of the look at war for decades to follow, despite the efforts of films like “Paths of Glory.”

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Getting Down with the Count

ROSSINI’S “THE BARBER OF SEVILLE” is so iconic that you can’t help but collect recordings of it, and I’m most interested in hearing how Figaro fares. Hermann Prey, Robert Merrill, and Sherrill Milnes rank among my favorites, and I’m adding Joshua Hopkins to the list in the hope that he’ll get around to recording it soon. He’s singing the role in the new Glimmerglass Festival production, and from the moment he launches into the famous “Largo al factotum,” we can easily believe that this charismatic fellow can control any situation he puts his hand in.

Joshua Hopkins and Rock Lasky
Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
In this case, he’s asked by Count Almaviva (David Walton), his former employer, to help secure a meeting with the elusive Rosina (Emily D’Angelo), who is being kept a virtual prisoner as the ward of gruff old Dr. Bartolo (Dale Travis). Almaviva doesn’t want her to know his social position lest she should be too attracted by his wealth, so he’s styling himself as a penniless student. But she has a considerable dowry down the pike, which is why Bartolo wants to marry her, so why Almaviva should worry about . . . but there’s no point in letting plot get in the way. This piece is a romp for a sextet of versatile voices, the definition of comic opera at its best.

The opera opens with an overture that has become its own classic, and Festival music director Joseph Colaneri hits it with a Toscanini-like intensity, which is my definition of the best possible performance. There’s little time for breath when the orchestra kicks in, yet Colanari shapes the sound of this tight little group with impressive precision. And when the orchestra is pausing, Christopher Devlin is burning up the keyboard with smooth, witty continuo work.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Your Name Is a Number

OPERA SARATOGA ISN’T AFRAID of making statements. In 2015, Jeremy Howard Beck’s “The Long Walk” told the true story of Iraq veteran Brian Castner’s battle with PTSD; last season’s “The Cradle Will Rock” presented Marc Blitzstein’s socially conscious opera in its fully orchestrated glory, giving us a piece that the U.S. government shut down just before its 1937 premiere as a gesture of political censorship. (That production was recorded, and the CD set is now available.)

Jennifer Panara and Meghan Kasanders
Photo by Gary David Gold
This year’s message opera is bleaker still, and all the more glorious for it. Gian Carlo Menotti wrote music and libretto for “The Consul,” which premiered in 1950 and enjoyed a long run on Broadway – back in the day before jukebox musicals and tripe like “The Lion King” took over the street. Back in the day before the audience had been TV-conditioned to avoid entertainment that’s too emotionally challenging.

Menotti wrote the piece in response to the plight of a Polish woman who tried to emigrate to the U.S. and was so frustrated while detained at Ellis Island that she hanged herself. Not that there was any lack of other political indignities to inspire him: late-40s America was blacklisting artists with a glee unmatched until very recent times. What made the opera timely back then was its portrait of a bureaucracy indifferent to suffering. Even as that endures as apposite, what now makes the opera all too up-to-date is its treatment of immigration. If you don’t shiver with horror at the treatment endured by Magda Sorel and her fellow consulate victims, you’re probably qualified to work for the White House.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Little Foxes

ALTHOUGH RUDOLF TESNOHLÍDEK’S NOVEL about a resourceful, willful fox was presented as a comedy when serialized (with drawings) in 1920, composer Leoš Janáček decided to inform it with a more somber feeling when he turned it into the opera known in English as “The Cunning Little Vixen.” He also informed it with breathtaking glory, a sensual trip through his portrait of the natural world. Where humans dwell, however, is a realm of jealousy and unhappiness. The two worlds coexist very uncomfortably.

Joanna Latini and Zachary Owen
Photo by Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
At the start of the new Glimmerglass Festival production, the music shimmers as lights come up on an abstract glen in which native creatures rustle by. The music underpins the magic of the scene, and as dragonflies, cricket, and grasshopper gather, we’re swept into an anthropomorphic world that soon enough stops being singers in costume. Our belief in these apparitions turns them real, especially when the gun-wielding Forester enters and provides a too-human contrast.

Costume designer Erik Teague offers outrageous outfits for the animal world, but they stop well short of being too distracting. Likewise, Ryan McGettigan’s spare stage settings of forest, farm, and tavern provide enough to root us in a fantasyland, and set the two worlds apart with curves and curls in the natural expanse and, in the spaces where humans are found, an architecture of lines and angles.

Friday, July 06, 2018

The Damned Human Race

Guest Blogger Dept.: As the 20th century began, Mark Twain suffered the deaths of his daughter and his wife, and seemed to owe money to everybody. He penned a series of essays that reflect his darker side, essays eventually published posthumously. Here’s one of them.


I HAVE BEEN STUDYING the traits and dispositions of the lower animals (so-called), and contrasting them with the traits and dispositions of man. I find the result humiliating to me. For it obliges me to renounce my allegiance to the Darwinian theory of the Ascent of Man from the Lower Animals; since it now seems plain to me that the theory ought to be vacated in favor of a new and truer one, this new and truer one to be named the Descent of Man from the Higher Animals.

In proceeding toward this unpleasant conclusion I have not guessed or speculated or conjectured, but have used what is commonly called the scientific method. That is to say, I have subjected every postulate that presented itself to the crucial test of actual experiment, and have adopted it or rejected it according to the result. Thus I verified and established each step of my course in its turn before advancing to the next. These experiments were made in the London Zoological Gardens, and covered  many months of painstaking and fatiguing work.

Before particularizing any of the experiments, I wish to state one or two things which seem to more properly belong in this place than further along. This, in the interest of clearness. The massed experiments established to my satisfaction certain generalizations, to wit:

1. That the human race is of one distinct species. It exhibits slight variations (in color, stature, mental caliber, and so on) due to climate, environment, and so forth; but it is a species by itself, and not to be confounded with any other.

Monday, July 02, 2018

A Personal Space Odyssey

BY THE TIME Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” was released, we were but one year shy of Neil Armstrong’s moon walk. Even as Cold War logistics hurried NASA’s space program, with its seemingly unlimited funding, Kubrick’s dream of a “proverbial ‘really good’ science fiction movie” took shape first in offices (and an abandoned bra factory) in Manhattan and then at MGM’s British Studios in Borehamwood, a few miles north of London from 1964 to 1968, going wildly over budget in the process.

In the wake of the movie’s disastrous premiere, its success skyrocketed and its innovations were rightly hailed as groundbreaking – and it’s been the subject of a slew of books. But none has explored the movie’s genesis as thoroughly as Michael Benson’s Space Odyssey, which has mined what’s already been written and added much, much more.

Kubrick already had the acclaimed movies “Paths of Glory,” “Spartacus,” and “Lolita” behind him, and “Dr. Strangelove,” his most recent, was a runaway success. So he was in a position to film whatever he wanted, and he wanted to tackle science fiction. He asked his friend Artie Shaw, who had by that time had abandoned music and was working in film distribution, to recommend a writer, and Shaw mentioned Arthur C. Clarke.

Introducing the Kubrick-Clarke working relationship, Benson sets up the scenes with the description and dialogue of a novel, which makes it the more compelling, and which is justified by his general research and interviews with Clarke himself. Other key moments in the saga get a similar treatment, but it’s largely a scholarly trip through the creation of the movie, written with gusto and always evoking a sense of excitement as the process builds and builds.