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Monday, July 29, 2019

Comedy of Confinement

From the Vault Dept.: I wrote this review little over a year ago, and I don't remember why. It wasn't published (until now), but it's a nice salute to the work of one of the most original writer-directors at work these days. I'm particularly looking forward to Iannucci's forthcoming film of "David Copperfield" (and you can see Iannucci pay tribute to Dickens here).


THE MOST TELLING MOMENT in Armando Iannucci’s film “The Death of Stalin” occurs as the dictator’s body is laying in state and the people – some of whom have traveled a great distance – throng past the bier. They are shocked and reverential, the uncertainty in their faces and manner an indication of the ideological lockstep in which they’ve been trained to march. Clearly, the cult of Stalin was wildly successful in its oppressive zeal.

We see them herded into this crowded space; previously, we’ve seen the mourners herded onto trains and then massing the city’s streets, many of them shot by overzealous security forces. Confinement becomes a central motif of the movie, whether it be the lonely confinement of a rape victim in prison or the ideological confinement of Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), who continues to cling to the delusion that his wife was guilty of Stalin-invented charges even after the dictator’s demise.

It is 1953, and Stalin’s Central Committee must name his successor. These men are the supposed loyalists, the ones who endure too many late nights watching John Wayne movies with their leader, but who also deal in fear – both in its administration (Simon Russell Beale, as the loathsome Beria, casually directing family executions) and as its target (Molotov brings a chew toy to a meeting in a car so that his dog will bark over the conversation).

Friday, July 26, 2019

The Chance of a Ghost

THE GHOSTS OF VERSAILLES are there to greet you as you settle into your theater seat. They’re garbed in white; they languish in the gloom behind a scrim of, essentially, many strings. The stage is bathed in blue. The music starts – a plangent peal of woodwinds joined by a chorus of high strings – and more ghostly figures drift from the wings.

Brian Wallin, Emily Mirsch, Joanna Latini,
Kayla Siembieda, and Ben Schaefer
Photo: Karli Cadel/Glimmerglass Festival
The Ghosts of Versailles is the 1991 opera by John Corigliano and William M. Hoffman, inspired by the life and times of the polymath Beaumarchais, the man best known for his plays “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro.” He wrote a third Figaro play, titled “The Guilty Mother,” which becomes an opera-within-an-opera in this metafictional piece.

It’s a piece with a large cast, calling for the considerable resources that the Glimmerglass Festival has been able to lavish upon it – and a spectacular production is the result. “Another evening at the opera,” say a woman in the ghost audience. “I’m so bored,” declares a nearby man, winning a laugh from an audience puzzled at the outset by the keening sounds and haunted stagescape (with varied and thrilling set design by James Noone). The candelabra on the curving walls that dominate center stage suggest Cocteau; although these fixtures are still, the music’s unearthly sounds make the stillness seem animate.

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Rise of the Fallen Angel

SOMEWHERE ALONG THE WAY the Patriarchy fell victim to what’s termed the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy, in which certain men, the dears, find sexual fulfillment only with reputation-tarnished women, reserving their admiration for the (as they see it) unsullied. The topic has been pondered by thinkers from Sigmund Freud to Naomi Wolf, and informs all manner of art and literature.

Kang Wang and Amanda Woodbury
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Alexandre Dumas fils spun out a roman à clef in his 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias, recounting his own brief affair with a Parisian demimondaine (the term is a Dumas coinage) who died of tuberculosis (or syphilis, depending on who you wish to believe) at the age of 23. In the novel, this offers the character a kind of redemption, which was a handy device for the fictionist – although Richardson’s Clarissa, a century earlier, maintained her virginity for several hundred torrid pages, when she’s finally raped by the scheming Lovelace, she re-achieves a convoluted kind of innocence by dying fairly turgidly thereafter.

Dumas turned his scandalous novel into a scandalous play, and Verdi, with his keen sense of effective musical drama, quickly turned it into La traviata, which, after a rocky initial reception, has become an opera-house mainstay. The spectacle of a “fallen woman” achieving recognition and wealth through her profession continues to delight us, although we suspect from the start that hers will be an unhappy end. Transgressors must be punished, according to a hoary moral code, relieving an audience of guilt over any sense of unwonted pleasure.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Lost is Found

From the Glimmerglass Vault Dept.: My review of the Glimmerglass Festival’s world premiere of the opera “Blue” notes that librettist Tazewell Thompson has directed many other productions there, among them “Lost in the Stars.” My 2012 Metroland review of that production escaped a reprint on this blog back then; here it is now.

AS THE SECOND ACT of “Lost in the Stars” gains momentum, Stephen Kumalo, an Anglican priest, faces a moral dilemma that threatens the foundation of his faith. “O Tixo, Tixo, Help Me!” he sings, and as rendered by bass-baritone Eric Owens, it’s a nuanced, soul-stirring number.

Brandy Lynn Hawkins, Eric Owens, and Makudupanyane
Senaoana. Photo: Karli Cadel/Glimmerglass Festival
Owens has a voice that can penetrate into the rearmost recesses of the Alice Busch Theater, and there are thrilling moments in the show when he pulls out all stops and his rich, warm thunder envelops you with stirring emotion. But the most compelling moments come when he drops to a husky pianissimo, whispering, as it seems, his plaint.

He’s also an outstanding actor. The character of Kumalo begins the show with a sense of himself as a man of the world, but, as he journeys through Johannesburg in search of his son, his sparkling innocence gets hammered out of him. By the end of the first act, when he sings the title song, Kumalo still has a measure of hope. By the devastating end of Act Two, he will need to rebuild his sense of everything.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Singing the Blue

OPERA PLAYS HAVOC WITH TIME. Like a novel, it can speed or slow a moment or more, but it enhances the emotional import of those moments with music. “Music is something terribly special,” wrote Leonard Bernstein. “It doesn’t have to pass through the censor of the brain before it can reach the heart.”

Kenneth Kellogg, Briana Hunter, and Aaron Crouch
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Time accelerates as the first act of “Blue” comes to an end: An ugly confrontation between father and son, expertly written and realized, quickens the heartbeat. Then, as Act Two slowly opens, we’re mired in a time-stopping vale of grief. “Blue” is an emotionally overpowering piece that focuses on the peril of being a black man in America, even as the context of family and friends makes the experience universal. It’s a lean and expertly realized production, receiving its world premiere at the Glimmerglass Festival.

Unsettling sounds from the orchestra underscore the opening pantomime as The Father (Kenneth Kellogg) is confronted by a trio of policemen taking issue with the effrontery of him walking while black. But the mood shifts as they help him disrobe and then don a policeman’s uniform. He has joined the Force, a fact that dismays the trio of girlfriends who visit his wife, The Mother (Briana Hunter) when they learn she is pregnant. But the sequence that follows – “Go Figure!” – is more about the boy she will bear. Doesn’t she know the command for all African-American women? “Thou shalt bring forth no black boys into this world.” Take him to China – get that baby boy away from here, they warn.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Delicious Hole in the Wall

From the Food Vault Dept.: I had the pleasure of lunching in Beirut the other day. Not the city in Lebanon, however: the restaurant in Troy, NY. I’ve visited several times before and after reviewing it for Metroland Magazine in 2011, but it’s been a few years since I last stopped by. It’s still going strong, still helmed by the indefatigable George Hajnasr. Some prices have gone up a little since the report below, but it’s still crazily economical. (You can find the current menu here.)


MY FAMILY’S CIVILIAN (non-reviewing) dining strategy is to seek, as I indelicately put it, “Some hole in the wall.” Which is understood to mean a place where the food is interesting and the people friendly. Beirut fulfills this like a dream. But like any dream, it’s not one over which you should expect to have complete control.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The former Al-Baraki, it’s a tiny eatery on Troy’s River Street, about the only Lebanese restaurant that remains in the region. It’s small enough to boast only a half-dozen tables, with some outdoor seats available this time of year. Once you’re settled in, however, be prepared to spend some time there.

It’s pretty much a one-man show, that man being George Hajnasr, who bought the place from its previous owner at the beginning of 2009. Hajnasr, trained as an artist and architect, had a hard time finding work in his chosen fields when he emigrated, so he pursued what was more of an everyday activity: preparing and serving food. “These are all family recipes,” he explained when we looked at the menu. “We are doing what was done here before, but I have made a few changes.”

Monday, July 08, 2019

It Keeps On Rolling Along

AS SOON AS THE OVERTURE STARTS and you hear the banjo in the rhythm section, you know you’re off to a very different era. The Glimmerglass Festival kicked off its 2019 season last Saturday with “Show Boat,” which is one of the finest productions of any show that I’ve seen anywhere, which covers a lot of time and spaces. There’s long been a phony divide between opera and musical theater, but this company, under artistic director Francesca Zambello’s guidance, has proven that no such thing exists.

Justin Hopkins with members of the ensemble.
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
What makes this production such a success is the combination of top-notch talent and a total commitment to the integrity of the piece. And a potentially troublesome piece it is.

It was troublesome when it premiered, nearly a century ago. Adapted from a novel by Edna Ferber, this tale of love and loss in a theatrical setting already made it an excellent vehicle for the stage, but it also addressed racial issues that Broadway wasn’t accustomed to dealing with.

The showboat is the Cotton Blossom, arriving in Natchez on a pleasant day in 1890. Leading lady Julie La Verne (Alyson Cambridge) is revealed by a jealous suitor to be bi-racial, thus (according to then-current law) invalidating her marriage to Steve Baker (Charles H. Eaton). Although they cleverly dodge the miscegenation issue, she is legally prohibited from performing, thus opening the way for young Magnolia Hawks (Lauren Snouffer) to take over the leads. This is excellent news for her father, Cap’n Andy (Lara Teeter), who runs both the boat and its productions, and anathema to her mother, Parthy Ann (Klea Blackhurst), who maintains a Puritan sense of showbiz as sin.

Friday, July 05, 2019

Boxed In

From the Racing Vault Dept.: The Saratoga Race Track is about to open for another season, swelling the small city into an urban blowfish as the out-of-towners cram in to get their betting thrills. New box seats and other amenities were installed last year, so the piece below is probably even more out of date. But it’s still a struggle to get those premium seats.


THE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE is here to welcome you; the New York Racing Association will make it as easy as possible (traffic notwithstanding) for you to get to the track. But behind the well-wishers’ smiles is a fact of the track that reminds us why they’re them and we’re not.

Photo: New York Racing Association
You’re not likely to get into a clubhouse box seat at the track this summer unless you’ve got some very good connections. Track wisdom says that someone usually has to die before a box is released, and then it usually gets handed down with the estate.

In fact, you can spend years at the track without really noticing that it’s there. We of the proletariat are deflected from its hallowed aisles by a track design that sends us to bleachers and grandstand. But the box seats afford the choicest view, straddling the finish line, just out of reach of the dust.

Monday, July 01, 2019

Ellen’s Quest

“I LOVE SWEETS,” are the first words we hear from Ellen West, as sung by soprano Jennifer Zetlan. “Heaven would be dying on a bed of vanilla ice cream.” The tune is not pretty. She’s dressed in a heavy button-down duster, the colorless drab of the sanitarium she occupies. It’s a powerful moment both in terms of its musical setting and the fact that everyone observing this scene can sympathize in one way or another.

Lidiya Yankovskaya, Keith Phares, and
Jennifer Zetlan | Photo by Gary David Gold
In 1944, 23 years after a former patient committed suicide, a noted Swiss shrink published an account of her case and assigned her the pseudonym “Ellen West.” She was 33 when she poisoned herself. She was obsessed with food, enough so to be initially diagnosed as anorexic, but her obsessions also included unhappiness with her gender and her physical self.

Thirty years later, Frank Bidart fashioned a lengthy narrative poem from the West saga in which the eponymous character is given her own voice even as the story is shifted in time, evidently to the mid-1950s, to allow West to reflect on the career of Maria Callas, who also was troubled by weight issues.

The poem resonated deeply with composer Ricky Ian Gordon, culminating in yesterday’s world-premiere performance of the opera he fashioned from Bidart’s text. Opera Saratoga commissioned and is presenting this premiere in collaboration with Beth Morrison Projects, which sends it to New York City in six months and thereafter on tour throughout the country.