Wednesday, September 21, 2016

An Operatic Character Study

David Lang’s The Loser
2016 Next Wave Festival
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
September 7, 2016
A man suspended in artistic space
Photo credit: BAM
Lei: A handsome man with slicked back blond hair, donning a crisp tuxedo and a slightly arrogant, sardonic grin ascends a platform some twenty feet in the air above the orchestra seating.  The man starts what will be an hour-long uninterrupted monologue accompanied by 5 instruments that can be summarized as follows: “My friend and I were studying piano with Horowitz in Salzburg and thought we were going to be the best virtuosos in the world, then Glenn Gould arrived to attend piano classes with us and we realized we would never make it because he was so good. Since I could not be the best piano virtuoso, I decided to become a philosopher instead and give away my piano to a 9 year-old who would destroy it in the shortest time possible. My friend also gave up piano and took up writing and ultimately committed suicide by hanging himself in front of his sister’s home to spite her. Glenn Gould died by a heart attack while playing the Goldberg Variations. Even in death Glenn is the victor and we are the failures.”  

Lui: This is David Lang’s word for word adaptation of several passages from Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser, a vocal performance for solo voice baritone, double bass, viola, cello, percussion and, of course, piano. The music very tastefully buoyed the vocal performance and never jockeyed for weirdness or overpowered the voice. Rather, the musical accompaniment only added color to the sung through prose of the narration. Much of Bernhard’s text (in translation) is featured untouched: at no point did Lang feel the need to turn any of it into song or add a ritornello, just the basso ostinato of the constantly recurring utterance “I thought,” which repeats with the same frequency in the prose of the novel as well.

Lei: The whole monologue was all intact sung right through, and the delivery by baritone Rod Gilfry was crystal clear. Mr. Gilfry did a good job teasing out some of the unsettling underlying monstrosity of the character, which is pervasive and infectious in the novel. He was particularly commanding in a handful of sudden outbursts of intensity that enhanced key dramatic points in the narrative and also sent chills down my spine. Having seen this singer before as a demonic Don Alfonso in Alden’s dark Cosi for NYC Opera back in 2012 only heightened my perception of his performance here, as his character in The Loser is equally dark and twisted. Yet the negativity of the role as delivered by Mr. Gilfry was unequivocally enticing. There was something about his rendition of the loathsome character that made you kind of like him or at least not entirely hate him. He embodied the arrogant, smooth jerk that women cannot help but fall for even if they know he’s trouble. And trouble is an euphemism here, as the guy is elegantly perverse, excessively introverted, sadistically cruel and with a complex of superiority that is really of inferiority. Still, one cannot help but being hypnotically attracted by him.

The philosopher and the pianist
Photo credit: Richard Termine 
Lui: The performance worked really well in this particular take on something that was written for an operatic voice though did not constitute what typically passes as opera. The Loser is a uniquely satisfying piece of experimental modern operatic music. More like a character study or a piece of vocal acting. We’ve seen modern operas in which singers are given awkwardly ridiculous lines to sing, sorry excuses for poetry. Here there was no attempt to elevate any of it to poetry. Nor for that matter to impose traditional operatic cadences nor to abstract out the syllables of words for uncertain purposes. It was truly a baritonal monologue elevated to a sort of Viennese elegance and style, which perfectly suited the dark slightly perverse Austrian nature of the unnamed character. His declamation of the text bore the right amount of embellishment and self-important confidence to give it all the right classy old world spunk.

Loathsome but not quite
Photo credit: Richard Termine
Lei: The audience was limited to the mezzanine, and it was packed. The run seems to be completely sold out though most of the cavernous space of the Howard Gilman Opera House sat empty. It was a very unique use of the grand space, shrouded in darkness. The booming of the voice in the center of the space, literally, suspended some twenty feet in the air, and the audience limited to just one rather claustrophobic section halfway up, lent an air of intimacy to the space that I have come to expect from shows at the Harvey but not in the big house. In this respect it was unlike anything I have experienced.

– Lui & Lei

Viennese style
Photo credit: Hilary Swift / New York Times

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Wolfie on Acid in the Warehouse

Mozart’s Così fan tutte
101 Varick Ave, Bushwick
September 18, 2016

The sisters turn on, tune in and drop out.
Photo credit: Robert Altman
Lei: By now the schlep to Bushwick to get our indie opera fix is starting to feel routine: we embark on an L train to some abandoned warehouse in the middle of nowhere, to then turn a corner and find the bright “O P E R A” sign, familiar friendly faces, and an eager sense of anticipation for the night’s show. This time around we were particularly intrigued primarily because one of our favorite directors, Louisa Proske, was moonlighting at LoftOpera from her own indie company Heartbeat; but also because Mozart’s Così fan tutte is especially meaningful to us as it is the piece that brought this opera-obsessed couple together a few years ago.

X marks the spot of my heart
Photo credit: Robert Altman
Lui: We have come to know Louisa Proske’s work quite well over time as inventive, edgy, detail-oriented and thought-provoking and had high expectations for her maiden voyage with the company that defines itself as a cross between a loft party and an opera startup. The collaboration turned out to be everything we were hoping for and delivered possibly the subtlest and most bountiful direction we have seen at LoftOpera so far.

The '90s are back!
Photo credit: Robert Altman 
Lei: Proske set the show in the early ’90s: grunge rock and Dr. Martens are in. The two couples are high school-aged teenagers, in love and angsty and rightly so. The youthful take completely fits Da Ponte’s libretto, which is really all about the bitter lessons learned by youngsters living their first romance. But the innovative touches were not limited to costume. Proske elicited some extremely specific acting from all of the cast: Guglielmo and Ferrando are two dudes goofing around (they high five, do push ups, play air guitars in Una bella serenata, drink their beer straight from the can); Fiordiligi and Dorabella are pouty little teenage vixens (they drink bourbon out of a water gun, cross their hearts with lipstick and read Cosmo in a clutter-filled room populated by several stuffed animals); Despina is their sassy cleaning lady (sporting an all-denim outfit and a very flashy fanny pack); and Don Alfonso is the fellas’ extremely square yet cynical school teacher.

Arsenic is taken intravenously.
Photo credit: Robert Altman
Lui: In a very ’90s fashion, drugs played an important role in the production. First, in the fake poison scene (L’arsenico mi liberi / da tanta crudeltà), Guglielmo and Ferrando storm in, their belts tied around their biceps, their hands waving syringes loaded with coma-inducing substances. Far more credible and immediate than the usual little arsenic bottles most commonly used in traditional productions.

At first the girls are militant in their resistance
Photo credit: Robert Altman
Possibly the most important illicit substance use comes into play later. To explain away their sudden change of heart in the opening of Act II, Dorabella and Fiordiligi actually take a hit of acid, and the trippy fun begins. The girls become both more and less flighty at the same time. Everybody suddenly dons an animal mask as the girls literally trip out. The look on their faces as they took in the strangeness around them was priceless. The guy with a faux hawk sitting next to me was on the edge of his seat cracking up. He “got” it, and the hilarity was contagious.

Interestingly, as the sisters cave into the boys’ tricks and saunter away to consummate their lust, they do so wearing animal masks. And so, when pushed (through acid or otherwise), the inner beast that lurks inside each of us comes prancing out. On the level of the already slightly trippy symmetries of Da Ponte’s formulaic plot with its neat logical reversals, Louisa Proske took the story at its psychedelic face value. And I applaud her for that.

It brings the beast out of us all
Photo credit: Robert Altman
Lei: Good trip, bad trip. Dorabella has a euphoric trip that ends in the fulfillment of her “love.” Fiordiligi has a bad trip and ends up hallucinating a series of scary beasts when she gazes at her pursuer. Un’aspide, un idra, un basilisco: the list of euphemisms (traditionally used to refer to Ferrando’s membro virile) are now the horrors she sees under the influence and she flips out. Brilliant! The poor girl just isn’t comfortable either with herself or with the situation and the LSD only heightens that. A very clever twist on the libretto.

Guglielmo is worldly wise after seducing his best friend's girl
Photo credit: Robert Altman
Lui: Baritone Alex DeSocio played Guglielmo as a solid “dude.” In Non siate ritrosi / occhietti vezzosi he humorously showed off the many virtues of the “Albanians” with excellent Italian diction. His singing was particularly moving when he wandered into the woods of disappointment and defeat. His Il core vi dono was round and romantic. It’s one of the central seduction moments in the opera and it sounded sufficiently compelling in his mouth and his acting was exceptional. In Donne mie, la fate a tanti, he rode the fast-paced aria with expressivity and clarity in a drunken rage. At the same time, he played a goofy jock of a jerk to perfection with all the quirky high fives such a show of brute masculinity requires. Tenor Spencer Viator as Ferrando delivered a solid Un’aura amorosa and had tremendous stage presence throughout, particularly when teaming up in various shenanigans with DeSocio. Many times Viator had me laughing hard, his acting always specific and super in character.

Fiordiligi pleads for forgiveness
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Soprano Megan Pachecano as Fiordiligi was also very commanding. Her voice projected out beautifully in front of Don Alfonso and Dorabella’s in Soave sia il vento. Her longing was palpable. She is the one who most wants the boys to stay and so her voice trails after them like a sail in front of the wind hoping to catch up with them. Her Come scoglio was a showstopper both vocally and acting-wise. And she carried much of Act II through her reluctant acceptance of Despina’s lessons in the art of carpe diem. Her Per pietà, ben mio, perdona was a moment of meditative reflection on her desire to be reunited with the one she really loves, not this sorry excuse for a vaguely Borat-looking Eastern European gangster. Mezzo Sarah Nelson Craft as Dorabella was another excellent acting singer. Her Smanie implacabili was delivered with force and pathos and her many duets with Pachecano were a pleasure to hear. Her chesty mezzo so beautifully grounded their Soave sia il vento, that I would have loved to have heard her school us on È amore un ladroncello. But alas, putting these young voices through three consecutive nights of singing amounts to too much strain and something has to go!

Despina holds forth as the notary
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Lei: The singer that truly stole the show for me was soprano Michelle Trovato as Despina. Her clean, lyric and agile soprano delivered sensational renditions of In uomini, in soldati / sperare fedeltà and Una donna a quindici anni, all while flirting with male members of the audience as if to prove her point. Life’s too short to play it safe. Sassy, saucy and charming, Trovato is an infectious actress, who is equally convincing (and utterly hilarious) as the savvy jaded maid, the quack doctor and the nerdy notary. She savored the sound of much of the Italian every time she opened her mouth and whenever she was on stage she captivated everybody with her serious attitude as well as her humor – a true delight.

Lui: Baritone Gary Ramsey’s Don Alfonso underwent much more of a transformation than most productions allow for. Early in the opera he played the character as something of an effete substitute teacher who is jaded by his past failures in love and is still a bit sfigato. By Act II we see him for what he really is (I guess): a diabolical fellow, almost Mephistophelian, who all too eagerly leads these youngsters on a quest toward wisdom and the loss of innocence such a journey often entails. In Act I he dons a circa 1990s beige and baggy Men’s Warehouse suit. His rebirth in Act II finds him done up with demonic clown-like rouge on his cheeks, slick black trousers and a white blouse emblazoned with flaming satanic-looking verses. His Italian has much improved though it is neither as perfect nor as musical as it needs to be. But his delivery suited this take on the character.

Don Alfonso gets all Mephisto
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Lei: No detail was small enough for this production, including a great use of lighting, designed by Oliver Wason, to suggest interior states in a few key moments, like Fiordiligi’s showcase aria, Come scoglio. The lighting changes and we enter Fiordiligi’s head space. In the eye of her mind she has super powers that enable her to put these sleeze bag suitors in their place, Darth Vader-style. She throws them around using the “force” of her gestures. Or something like that. A cute and clever take on the prude who is firmest in her convictions. The same occurred in the nuptial brindisi quartet when Ferrando and Fiordiligi are head over heels in love now and Guglielmo is feeling left out and embittered. He wishes they were drinking poison (Ah, bevessero del tossico / queste volpi senza onor). Again with the help of the lighting, we step out of narrative time and simultaneously into the lover’s locking eyes and into the sinister disillusionment of Guglielmo’s perspective on the scene. What the score communicates through the multitrack quartet, Wason literalizes with his lighting choices.

Ready to tie the knot
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Lui: Così’s ending always leaves me debating the possible takes on the cynical story and its pat (or not so pat) finale. In Proske’s take, while the original couples are reconstituted, the sexual tension between between Ferrando and Fiordiligi remains. They continue to check each other out, making eyes at each other, over the shoulders of their initial mate. Guglielmo is not as bummed as he had been during the wedding toast, but the overall tone is that they are no longer as innocent as they once were. Especially the girls as they exchange knowing glances, while holding the scissors they just used to cut off heart-shaped helium balloons tied to their wrists. I got the feeling that they weren’t done yet and their men should brace themselves for some further test of their fidelity in the not too distant future. And that is a rare takeaway.

Image credit: LoftOpera
Lei: The orchestra under the baton of Dean Buck was super tight, fast paced yet they let the score breathe. Mozart is not easy and the LoftOpera orchestra did it justice. There’s nothing like hearing the greatest classical music played by a full orchestra in such a cavernous yet intimate space. This was the third of three performances in a row for this poor cast. But I can’t say they showed many signs of fatigue. The public, though, was the quietest and most elderly I’ve ever seen out at LoftOpera. Maybe because it was a Sunday. Still, I prefer the usual twenty-something crowd that brings a whole different energy to the experience. On the upside, the performance felt more intimate than usual, as everybody could sit comfortably close to the stage and the music. The singers sounded great, echoing beautifully into the enormous post-industrial space, with the Manhattan skyline visible through the open garage door beyond the stage. A radical yet faithful take on Wolfie, the skyline, free beers and chocolate – what else can one want on a Sunday night (or any night)?

– Lui & Lei

Dorabella & Fiordiligi having teenage fun
Photo credit: Jamie Lynn Santamour

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Russian vs. Italian Crime Passionnel

Rachmaninoff’s Aleko // Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
New York City Opera
Rose Theater
September 8, 2016

Image credit: NYC Opera
New York City Opera opened its 2016/17 season with a double bill of Rachmaninoff’s Aleko and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. The core of the two plots is very similar: there’s a group of itinerant folks (a band of gypsies and a vaudeville-circus troupe, respectively), a love triangle forms along the way, and a jealous scorned husband kills both his treacherous wife and her lover. In one work the framing for the crime passionnel is very Russian (gloomy, melancholic, dark, nostalgic), in the other pretty much Italian (sunny, lively, funny, visceral).

A Russian ballet features prominently in Rachmaninoff's Aleko
Photo credit: Tina Fineberg/New York Times
I was never a big fan of Pagliacci per se, possibly because it’s usually paired with Cavalleria Rusticana, which I have always found more compelling, since nobody can rival a Sicilian drama of amorous jealousy. This time, however, the Leoncavallo work was paired with Rachmaninoff and for the first time I found myself raving about Pagliacci. When it comes to torrid murderous jealousy, an Italian opera will always, always beat a Russian one in my mind. Italians just do loud explosive jealousy better – must be the warmer climate.

The gypsies camp in an abandoned rail station
Photo credit: NYC Opera
But, Aleko in and it of itself was an interesting discovery. The score was in many instances sweeping, melodic and lively in a folkloristic, gypsy way. Many arias and duets were lovely and highly lyrical, the dramatic finale definitely chilling and heart-breaking. However, the whole package did not come together convincingly. While there were some highs (the thunderous bass Kevin Thompson in the role of the old gypsy, the chorus, the dance number), I could not get over the fact that the title character (bass Stefan Szkafarowsky) seemed miscast in the part. While vocally capable, he came across as too old of a husband for the young Zemfira (soprano Inna Dukach) and his jealous outbursts sounded tired instead of raging and not really convincing as he lay splayed out on the ground again and again. I almost feel like Szkafarowsky should have swapped roles with Thompson, both vocally and acting-wise. Finally, the simple sets looked good enough but had some cheap touches such as a huge papier-mâché mutton roasting on a fire that was just distracting and sad to look at. All in all, and maybe because this is a rarity, the singing and acting seemed less rehearsed than the far more popular Pagliacci.

The circus has come to town!
Photo credit: Sarah Schatz
When the curtain rose for the Leoncavallo opera after intermission, it felt like someone had turned the lights on and the real party was ready to begin. The sets were pretty much the same: a more or less abandoned train station with a wagon resting among weeds in the center and two simple wood houses on the sides. But, the Italian setting was inundated with a bright warm sunniness and truly felt like night and day when compared to that of Aleko.

The Fellini-esque elements were palpable
Photo credit: Film still from Federico Fellini's La Strada
At the very beginning, a woman in a short blonde wig came to the foreground under a stage light, playing a trumpet announcing the upcoming show within the show. And so it was clear that we were in for a La Strada (Fellini)-inspired interpretation. There are indeed points of contact between the opera and the movie: itinerant circus performers including a woman who is tied to an oppressive man turns her affections to another. Granted, Nedda is way more together than Fellini’s Gelsomina and Canio does have a softer and more sympathetic side than Zampanò. However, the suggestion that both works share a nostalgic helpless raw desperation is an interesting one and it was a treat to discover the different Fellini undertones. La Strada elements shined through mostly in the treatment of Nedda, who was cast as something of a Giuletta Masina type especially in the second half of the opera when she gets decked out in her vaudeville costume, again dons a bobbed blonde wig, and paints a dot on the tip of her nose.

Never double cross a clown
Photo credit: Sarah Schatz
Pagliacci’s cast was solid and compelling across the board, from the chorus of children to the leading roles. Tenor Francesco Anile as Canio had a bright, almost metallic sound that was great for the role. His Vesti la giubba was high and alive in its poignancy and in the final No, non sono Pagliaccio, his rage and violent desperation were utterly moving at the most visceral level. One could feel that this is a role Mr. Anile possesses entirely. His acting was extremely convincing too, delivering a complex Canio who was violent, yes, but also in love and crushingly devastated. Soprano Jessica Rose Cambio as Nedda was a delight, mastering the role both vocally and acting-wise and ranging from loving and free spirited (with her lover Silvio, here handsomely portrayed by tenor Gustavo Feulien), to feisty (with Tonio, baritone Michael Corvino), to tragically splitting herself in the last scenes between the cheerful vaudeville role of Colombina and her final moments defying her violent husband.

The abandoned box car becomes the makeshift vaudeville stage
Photo credit: Sarah Schatz
The two works shared the same artistic and creative team: James Meena (conductor), Lev Pugliese (director), John Farrell (scenic designer) Iidiko Debreczeni (costume designer) and Susan Roth (lighting designer), which was particularly impressive given the radical stylistic and musical differences of the two pieces. All in all this was a brave and diverse double bill that set an ambitious tone for the new season of the recently resuscitated company. The City Opera is back or so it would seem.

Fellini-esque costumes and make up resonate
Photo credit: Fellini's La Strada
Dun da da da! È arrivata City Opera!

– Lei & Lui