Archive for September, 2009

Cooper’s London

September 20, 2009

royal opera houseAutumn: Opera Now

by Mel Cooper

There are several highlights from the upcoming season to note in your diary: Perhaps one of the most exciting will be the new-ish Nicholas Hytner production of Verdi’s Don Carlo that opens the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden from 15 September with a very 2007_Don_Carlo_Vienna_signedexciting cast – the stellar team of Jonas Kaufmann and Simon Keenlyside play Carlo and Rodgrigo. They could easily be the best duo in those roles since Jussi Bjoerling and Robert Merrill. Though Kaufmann is not as sweet-voiced as Bjoerling, he is a very intelligent interpreter; and Keenlyside is one of opera’s most innovative and powerful performers.
It is also worth noting that a new Tristan und Isolde (29 September) is coming along at the ROH. Nina Stemme is Isolde and Ben Heppner is Tristan, but for me the irresistible element ispappano Antonio Pappano as conductor. The repertoire is nothing to sniff at, yet hardly full of surprises. Watch out in December for Der Rosenkavalier— a revival of the now-venerable John Schlesinger production (originally for Kiri Te Kanawa and Georg Solti), with Soile Isokokoski as the Marschallin, Sophie Koch as Octavian and Lucy Crowe as Sophie. Or perhaps try the also-venerable John Copley production of La Boheme? But be sure to see a performance with Rebecca Evans as Mimi.
Otherwise, for me the most exciting thing in Covent Garden this autumn (after Don Carlo) is The Enchanted Pig, enchanted piga charming opera by Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton that is being staged for Christmas in the Linbury Studio. John Fulljames’s production was a hit at the Young Vic a few seasons back, and this revival is definitely something to delight children as well as their escorting parents. If you have no kids to take, hire some.
The English National Opera is doing Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre (from 17 September) — don’t ask me why. I guess they feel it’s their duty to give it an airing. grand macabreBut La Fura dels Baus (the Catalan “total theatre” company that created the Barcelona Olympics opening ceremony) will bring their highly unusual settings and black humour to this ‘anti-anti opera’. It ought to be interesting spectacle, if nothing else!
The new Turandot (from 8 October) looks promising: mainly because Rupert Goold is directing, and though he’s not consistently as great as they say he is, he’s very bright and always fresh in his approach; and Edward Gardiner is conducting the lush score – and he’s usually brilliant and spot-on.
But for me the brightest highlight of the autumn is the revival of David McVicar’s illuminating production of The Turn of the Screw (from 22 October) with the inestimable Rebecca Evans, rohturnscrew3this time as the Governess, before she undertakes Mimi in Bohème. Most importantly, Charles Mackerras is the Maestro. Never miss one of his performances if you can possibly help it. He’s a truly great conductor and invariably “gets” the idiom and style of whatever he’s dealing with, from Handel through Martinu. I would even listen to him conduct Ligeti!
I always recommend the Welsh National Opera, if you can catch them in Cardiff or on tour. The ensemble work of the company is but one of its glory points, along with the infallible chorus, and they almost always stage fascinating productions. David McVicar is staging a new Traviata (14 September, onwards) in Wales this fall with some excitement centering on Alfie Boe’s appearance as Alfredo. The classic Joachim Herz Madama Butterfly gets revived again from 17 September, with Carlo Rizzi conducting. The anticipation there is about teaming Amanda Roocroft as Butterly with US tenor Russell Thomas as Pinkerton. The WNO season is rounded out by Richard Jones’s Wozzek, from 27 September, a co-production with Komische Oper Berlin.
CardiffMergeAfter opening their shows in Cardiff’s splendid new opera house, the WNO embarks on its usual ten-city post-summer tour, so you can, with a little planning, catch them until December in places that are mostly within striking distance of London. See their Web site for details. It’s not one of the easiest to navigate, but once you get the hang of the various bells and whistles, it’s very informative and rather fun.
Finally, there is always the late-autumn Glyndebourne Tour. This year they are doing Cosi fan Tutte, Falstaff, and Jenufa. All are fresh from Glyndebourne (and opening there in October before hitting the road), but recast with up-and-coming singers. It’s a great way to spot the stars of tomorrow. jenufaAnd the productions are usually excellent. I am not happy with the modern-dress Falstaff, but I like the Cosi, and I think the Jenufa is stunningly convincing and visually memorable. If you can only pick one, don’t miss the famous Lehnhoff Jenufa.

Apollo’s Girls

September 20, 2009


RELATIONSHIPS: Trio Tranquillo (e uno Agitato!)

September 20, 2009

35 Shots of Rum

Another quiet gem from Claire Denis: it’s been drawing raves from critics, and with reason. Most of what happens is in the silences between the father (Alex Descas), and his daughter (Mati Dop),33shots of rum as they come to realize that their tranquil self-sufficient life has reached a point of departure and change. It’s minimalist dialogue, but the emotional power really surges between the lines, especially with this always pitch-perfect cast. Denis has always been interested in the issues of race in France. In 35 Shots of Rum, she extends that interest (although, like the emotional charge of the story, it’s between the lines), begun so memorably with her first film, Chocolat, in 1988.

Bright Star

Definitely not just another biopic. A compelling account of the star-crossed couple, poet John Keats and his forever love, Fanny Brawne, playing out their tragedy in early 19th-century England. Where, if, you weren’t the eldest son (who would inherit the farm), or the daughter with a dowry, you were consigned forever to the single life, stifled marital love, or irreparable scandal. brightstar1Not many choices! In Jane Campion’s hands, Bright Star gets everything right, and with ravishing cinematography, a spectacular cast, and the flame of once-in-a-lifetime passion, keeps you nailed to your seat.

The silences are golden because the images consume. Bonus: Keat’s poetry, embedded in the script (as read by Abbie Cornish and James Whishsaw, as Brawne and Keats), sounds as if it had been written just before you entered the theatre. You can bring Kleenex if you like, but it’s all about the art of film, and the art of real love, more than the tears.


It’s been out for a while but, if you need another breather from hardcore violence and fiscal woe, catch this before it heads out of town. Adam is a modest film, with a standout performance by Hugh Dancy as a brilliant man-child coping with Asperger’s Syndrome. He and Rose Byrne meet cuteADAM__1 when she moves into his building. Against unusual odds, they build a credible and touching romance and, despite the gravity of their situation, find real humor in it—making some very original lemonade out of their lemons. The movie’s tone is reminiscent of Juno; like it, it gets your attention through its characters, and holds it with surprises that keep predictability at bay. Look for: a particularly deft and original character-driven sight-gag! It’s, well, out of this world…


Broken Embraces

Pedro Almodóvar—the original Bad Boy of Barcelona—is back. No one zeros in on the human condition with such accuracy, such compassion, or such wit! And yes, he’s done it again with Broken Embraces, the closing-night selection for the New York Film Festival, and furious romp for a cast of some of his favorites (starring Penelope Cruz), conspiring with a production crew who work hand-in-glove with the director to achieve maximum impact. broken_embraces_1The plot is, like all of Almodóvar’s, always full of complications. And the road it travels in Broken Embraces is full of potholes. But, unlike so many films steeped in anomie and solitude, they are navigated by characters always tightly connected to one another. Everyone seethes! But no one is lonely! And it’s the furious full-time energy generated by these characters that keeps Almodovar’s fans coming back for more. I am certainly one of them. If the film is darker than some, it is also—as are all of his—filled with slapstick and light exactly when needed. broken embraces2

La Danse

September 15, 2009

La Danse

This is Babette’s Feast on steroids for balletomanes, but really for anyone drawn to the impossible dream and glory hotly pursued by the administration, production staff, and étoiles of the Paris Opera Ballet.ladanse Legendary large-scale documentary filmmaker Frederic Wiseman has done it again, shadowing every department, corridor, class, rehearsal, performance, and some low-key (but high-impact) backstage politicking: the delicate preparations for an “event” for Big-and-Bigger Donors, and—worst-case scenario—changes in government pensions for artists and performers. To say nothing of extended sequences of mealtimes in the company’s cafeteria (Condé Nast staffers: eat your hearts out)! “God” (company artistic director Brigitte Lefèvre) orchestrates the entire mechanism, determined to keep it ticking to perfection.brigitte_lefevre_visuel

There are some terrific performance excerpts of everything from Nutcracker to The House of Bernarda Alba and Romeo and Juliet. But, for me, the absolute standout was a slice of Angelin Preljocaj’s The Dream of Medea. You won’t forget it anytime soon. medea

At two-and-a-half hours, La Danse never lags. And, when a breather from the action is needed, there are John Dancy’s lust-inducing shots of Paris. Wiseman, at 79, the film’s producer, director, recordist, and editor, is at the top of his game. Don’t miss this – just eat before viewing and dive into the feast.opera-paris

Cooper’s London

September 15, 2009

Old Wine, Middle-aged Bottles: Time Warp in the West End

by Mel Cooper

Looking at the upcoming season in the West End, I’m worried by how much old wine is being decanted into not-so-new new bottles. Already last season I was wondering: why does one need a stage musicalsister_act_patina_500 of Sister Act when its music is inferior to that of the original film? And why does one need to stage Priscilla Queen of the Desert? (Other, of course, than the fact that title recognition helps sell tickets.) priscillapre460

There’s no denying the pleasures of twice-told tales, or of seeing them performed on stage. Indeed, “seeing it live” and giving other casts chances at the roles is probably the main fun — but at least in the 1980s, when La Cage aux Folles was “adapted,” it was still informed by an idiom that worked, and generated a score that was a really creative expansion of the material. When the Menier Chocolate Factory revived a “classic” musical (as they did so successfully with both Cage and A Little Night Music last season), there was a persuasive rationale—an exciting new take on an old story―that also revealed the strength of the original material.

What worries me at the moment is something like the announced rehash of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (opening 9 September at the Haymarket Theatre). anna-friel-hepburn-500x667Admittedly, if anyone can challenge the iconic image of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, Anna Friel is a top contender . She is, I think, a very witty, charming and completely committed actress. I will go see the show just to see what she makes of the role. But I live in hope that the team doesn’t stray too far from the original text.

And, if you go back to the original, then it certainly makes much more sense if actually set in 1943, as was Capote’s novella, with all the louche and wacky aspects of the tale being seen in the context of living through wartime, when sexual mores loosened up; a time when a man might go off to fight and be dead within a week. Also, of course, there was the nostalgia element: Capote looking back to that era from inside the safe and increasingly bourgeois society of 1953. If they can portray all that again, I’ll stop worrying. For now…..

But the publicity also concerns me because it suggests that they’re going to retain the “love theme” between Holly and the writer upstairs that was so much part of the film. Does no one remembers any more that a major point of the novella was that the narrator was clearly gay, very much observing and recording Holly as a platonic friend from the outside? They did that with Goodbye to Berlin, too, when they turned it into Cabaret cabaret(and before that,  I am a Camera), so I guess it’s part of a tradition. And at least in the film of Cabaret they made the narrator (a thinly-disguised Christopher Isherwood) bisexual. That said, I would again so much hope they were trying to do something new with the story―like sticking to it―rather than doing a live-on-stage version of the film. (I also wonder what they will do to justify spending millions on turning Legally Blonde into a musical? If you have an answer, send me a post.)

And there’s more: the menu for this coming season in London includes Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (the Debbie Allen Broadway production with some recasting); an adaptation of Prick Up Your Ears (opening 17 September at the Comedy Theatre); and even It’s a Wonderful Life (actually playing soon at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, but hoping for a transfer), live on stage; I will love them all if they offer great imagination, great performances, or even just some new insight. Cat-on-a-Hot-Tin-Roof-elizabeth-taylor-5134588-1024-768I also accept that there is a whole new generation that has probably never seen Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (opening at the Novello Theatre on 23 November) as a stage play, and needs to. MGM did the play itself a favour by bowdlerizing so much of the material that you had to know the original play to understand what Tennessee Williams was really saying (nice as it was to see Elizabeth Taylor in a slip, or Paul Newman in pajamas, in the movie). It makes me feel sleepy before the season’s even begun.

On the sunny side, one play I’m very curious about in a positive way is is the Othello coming to Trafalgar Studio One on 11 September. That venue is developing distinctive and very successful programming, and is now definitely a theatre to watch.othello Lenny Henry is playing the warrior driven mad by jealousy. In the UK he’s a noted stand-up comic and TV personality. He’s been on tour with the play for months. Word of mouth is that, like all great comics, he has such impeccable timing that he can play tragedy with strength—following in the footsteps of Hugh Laurie―once a skilled comedian, now the brooding, dyspeptic TV doctor/star of House.

Another classic I’m eager to see is Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s play Inherit the Wind, at the Old Vic, which opens on 18 September. The play itself is powerful, and I’d go, whoever was playing.kevin spacey But with Kevin Spacey as the Clarence Darrow character, and Trevor Nunn directing, it’s high on my agenda. It’s still, sadly, as topical today as it was when the original trial took place (1926), let alone when the play was premiered on Broadway in 1957, with Paul Muni. So, even if you saw the movie, it’s worth another look. The Darwin-deniers are still with us, wanting to interfere with the school curriculum, and even blocking the distribution of Jon Amiel’s new film, Creation (with Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany), in the US.

And Definitely Looking Good….

There’s a line in A Little Night Music, in which Stephen Sondheim captures the zeitgeist of every new theatre season: “Perpetual anticipation is good for the soul, but bad for the heart.” Yes, we live in hope every September, praying the lineup will pan out. As in life, sometimes it does. But the disappointment when it doesn’t can really be bad for the soul, if not the heart.

Some keenly anticipated stagings, if you’re heading for or residing in the UK, have just been announced: The RSC’s twelfth_night_091_374162new Twelfth Night opens in Stratford from 15 October to 21 November; it moves to the Duke of York’s Theatre from 19 December to 27 February. There are several reasons for it to raise high hopes: a super cast very much on the rise (Richard Wilson, of One Foot in the Grave TV fame in the UK, takes on his first-ever Malvolio; Olivia and Viola will be played by the estimable Alexandra Gilbreath and Nancy Carroll respectively; and Jo Stone-Fewings will be Orsino.) But the best reason to get excited is director Gregory Doran―he who can do no wrong! I’m betting heavily on this one………….

Replacing Twelfth Night at Stratford for Christmas will be a new production of the Arabian Nights. brilliantly conceived and directed by Dominic Cooke.

Meanwhile, at the Royal Court Theatre, one of the most infamous scandals in financial history has been turned into a theatrical epic—Enron, a new play by Lucy Prebble―to run from 17 September to 7 November. Samuel West, a superlative actor, plays Jeffrey Skelling, CEO of the ENRON corporation. Playwright-Lucy-Prebble_--001Enron is directed by the estimable Rupert Goold, in his Royal Court debut. And Prebble won the George Devine Award and the Critics Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright with her first play, The Sugar Syndrome, at the Royal Court in 2004. This should be worth watching for risk-takers and theatre buffs alike. It’s already a very hot ticket.

And, BTW: A Little Night Music will transfer to New York in December, with Catherine Zeta-Jones. If you saw the film of Chicago, you’ll know she has the chops to sing and act on stage. Big, big bonus: Angela Lansbury will co-star.

hamlet-wyndhamsNo-brainer: Jude Law’s limited New York run of Hamlet is sold out.

Apollo’s Girls

September 15, 2009


The Most Dangerous Man in America

September 15, 2009

The Most Dangerous Man in America:
Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Paper

A seven thousand-page report is heavy lifting, especially when it chronicles the cosmic folly of our eleven-year-long war in Vietnam. Unlike the current war in Iraq, Vietnam was an entirely covert operation for several years, until reluctant print and TV editors began to resist the government’s efforts to keep it all under wraps and began to write, photograph, and film the carnage. Yet even when it became the daily news, Americans were slow to recognize that, as Ellsberg said, “We weren’t on the wrong side; we were the wrong side.”most dangerous

Daniel Ellsberg (called “the most dangerous man in America” by Henry Kissenger, and “that son-of-a-bitch” by then-President Richard Nixon) was a high-level cold war warrior who dramatically changed horses in mid-stream. As America’s “military advisers” in Vietnam, approved by President Kennedy, ballooned from a “few hundred” to a full-scale deployment of over half-a-million troops by 1968, Ellsberg began having doubts about the war; initially because he had become convinced it was unwinnable.

After methodically copying the Pentagon Papers’ 7,000 pages, he made them available to 17 newspapers—all of them published the documents whole or in part—and to Senator Mike Gravel, who read from them and entered them into the Senate record. Ellsberg was accused of conspiracy and eight other charges, with a maximum penalty of 115 years.

Actions, they say, have consequences: The Pentagon Papers debacle led directly to Richard Nixon’s order to break into both Democratic headquarters (at the Watergate Hotel) and the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. Eventually, Nixon would escape impeachment only by resigning and being pardoned by President Ford. FILES-US-NIXON-DEEP THROAT

This is one hell of a story, and the film puts it into perspective by telling it from the vantage point of history. But, like so much history, it offers some choice object lessons: after eleven years
of escalation and the often-violent division of American citizens over how to stop the madness, the war ended in May of 1973 when Congress voted to simply cut off the funds that had supported it. It had never, you see, actually been declared by Congress in the first place and so, technically, had never happened. Despite its phantasmagorical profile, it left more than two million Southeast Asians and 58,000 Americans dead in its wake.

For those who prefer to focus on the economic imperative, there is another angle: when Lyndon Johnson steeply escalated the war early in his administration, he also launched ambitious (and well-meant) plans for the Great Society. The cost of the two programs was more than the country could support. The national debt soared and triggered catastrophic long-term financial fallout. More recently, when President George W. Bush beat the drum for invading Iraq (yes, it was overt this time around), he was also cutting taxes. That, too, was more than the country could support. We are struggling with the results.

Think about it! And don’t, under any circumstances, miss The Most Dangerous Man in America. It will either refresh your memory, or teach you some things you really need to know.

Three for the Read

September 12, 2009

Furious Improvisation:
How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands
Made High Art out of Desperate Times
(Sue Quinn, 2009)

In case you’re suffering frustration fatigue from the 24/7 tug-of-war between a president who hopes to improve our options and a Congress locked in bitter debate over how (or if) to do it, there is something you can do to recharge your batteries for activism―right here, right now.

furious improvisationJust plug them into the WPA and read Sue Quinn’s electrifying account of Roosevelt’s arts and economics agenda, and especially how the Federal Theatre project (and many other now-forgotten benefits of his administration) launched Orson Welles, John Houseman, and a bulging A-list of writers, directors, and dreamers whose legacy remains pervasive today.

The Federal Theatre project was led by Hallie Flannagan, (talk about a life!), and once you get into the story, Quinn’s talent and energy make it very hard to leave. Flannagan, charming and beautiful, was the product of a mid-Western education and had run the theatre program at Vassar; her achievements were possible because natural tact and a fierce refusal to be stonewalled permitted her to prevail where others would not tread.flanagan3 She is herself a fascinating subject, but Quinn also skillfully weaves her into a narrative that includes the backstage fireworks of political drama as FDR and his advisors struggle to enact the very programs that no one today would advocate giving up; social security, unemployment insurance, TVA, etc.

The viciousness of the conflicts behind the scenes and the fervor of the opposition to FDR’s programs have an all-too painful relevance to the breaking news from Washington. Sounds familiar? Do something! Sue Quinn has done her homework, and is able to translate it into a page-turner with tremendous power, brilliant set pieces, and some very funny anecdotes to season the heat.

Friends Who Lend…..

There’s nothing more satisfying than a book lent by a friend who can really zero in on your sensibilities. It may not sell books initially, but there’s a potent catalysis down the line when you’re finished and start beating the drum or (better) giving copies as gifts. So, to Linda, I owe heartfelt thanks for putting me on to…

The Orientalist (Tom Reiss, 2005)
What a tale of intrigue, suspense, death-defying escapes, serial identities, and mysteries! orientalistAll of it true! The adventures of Essad Bey/Kurban Said (aka Lev Nussimbaum) would not be possible today, but he flourished in the early years of the 20th century, when anything was possible and (to paraphrase the famous line from Sunset Boulevard), “they had lives then.” To learn enough to send you off to the nearest bookstore to buy a copy, go to

And to Nadine…for River of Shadows (Rebecca Solnit, 2003). This book is more or less a biography of Eadweard Muybridgeriver od shadows (aka Edward James Muggeridge). But it’s really a revelation of how Muybridge’s motion studies of men and beasts (intersecting with Greenwich Mean Time and the invention of steam travel) sped us into the modern age and the movies. The rest is history, and it doesn’t get any better than this elegant, poetic, deep and engrossing pleasure. Just go to for a priceless review, add it to Furious Improvisation and The Orientalist in your cart, and press send.

All three available in paperback. 

Catwalk: Double Damage Control

September 11, 2009

The September Issue/Valentino: the Last Emperor

Lights! Music! Strut, strut. Turn, dip, stare. Sell it…sell it…Yes, it’s Fashion Week in New York, and there are two very good (and very different) films that give you the skinny on the high drama of haute couture.sienna-miller-vogue-2007

A picture may be worth a thousand words but, in some films, the words of an end scroll can pack an emotional punch that pictures would take too long to reveal. A case in point: Valentino: the Last Emperor. Without creating a spoiler, it is one (and the chief one) of many differences between this Italian emotional blockbuster of a movie and the chilly precincts of Condé Nast, home to most of The September Issue. Both films are partly shot in London, Paris, Rome, even Gstaad, and share some of the same air-kissing players. And both feature frighteningly thin women in frighteningly high heels and jaw-dropping clothes. But that, readers, is just wallpaper. The real news is their two takes on a fashion theme, with big money, bigger egos, and the biggest reputations at stake.

The filmmakers seem to have lots of access to backstage hissy fits. At anna-wintour-boredCondé Nast, they’re pretty much kept under wraps, although there’s enough eloquent eye-rolling and heavy context between the lines to keep viewers speculating on what, exactly, isn’t being shown. Vogue’s Anna Wintour gets her way with looks carved from blocks of ice; a mâitresse de découpage, wielding glances and barbs to slice out fashion’s 840-page bible—“the biggest September issue ever”—of Vogue, 2007 (pre-crash). Valentino, on the other hand, is Italian, so there’s always a little sentiménto just around the corner. It keeps you warm.valentinomoviestill2

Another difference: once the veils are stripped away, you know that Valentino is an artist. If you had any doubts, they are dispelled early on when he wakes from a dream of a perfect white dress. He goes to his desk and draws it, moves on to his atelier and, in a flash of words and gestures, shows and tells the chief precisely how to cut, drape, and stitch the gown entirely by hand. Seeing racks full of his custom-designed masterpieces for fashion royalty takes the breath away. Olympian bling? You betcha!

Valentino RetrospectiveThese are both all eye-candy, all the time, with super cinematography and editing—don’t-miss basics for fashionistas, but priceless as cultural documents for the rest of us. Tears and laughter, vanitas, gravitas. Harbingers of threads to come. For maximum wow, see them close together. And maybe lose a little weight……


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