Archive for November, 2009

Facts and Figures, and Flying High

November 29, 2009

NYCO Rising

It’s all been the stuff of legend: money, power, immolation, and a brave new world. First, George Steel left Miller Theater in October, 2008, for an offer he couldn’t refuse: to run the the Dallas Opera with a substantial budget for innovative programming. So powerful was his attraction that he was lured with not only a raise, but with the promise of conducting some operas as well as running the company.

Next, Gerard Mortier left City Opera in the lurch in November, 2008, when its shortfall required a steep budget cut. Mortier simply abandoned ship and flew to Europe, saying he was “too old for discount opera.” What to do? Could City Opera survive the turmoil? Steel was offered the post, but was reluctant to depart Dallas after such a brief tenure.

Then there was a lot of backstage maneuvering. Pressure was brought to bear. For Steel, another offer he couldn’t refuse: innovative programming on a lean budget. A challenge! He changed his mind, left Dallas, and flew back to New York in February for some heavy lifting, putting together a season in record time with what was available, and surviving a coup by some Board members to replace him with the Met’s ex-long-time chieftan, Joe Volpe. After the dust cleared, NYCO finally had their Mr. Right.

The big news is that Steel has focused on NYCO’s strengths, using its budget for maximum effect, and filling seats in the new, improved New York State Theater (now renamed for David H. Koch, following his $100 million dollar gift). NYCO’s mission is clarified: the current season has been devoted to finding and casting the best young voices in America—first for a new production of Don Giovanni, and second for a revival of Hugo Weisgall’s Esther.

Don Giovanni has fielded a roster of extraordinary singing actors, young enough to have the looks and the stamina, and mature enough to have the finesse to make the most of the score and the action. What a pleasure! Canadian baritone Daniel Okulitch leads the ensemble in the title role, with Jason Hardy as the long-suffering Leporello; baritones Kelly Markgraf (Masetto) and tenor Gregory Turay (Don Ottavio) balance Donna Anna (Stefania Dovhan),  Donna Elvira (Keri Alkema), and Zerlina (Joèlle Harvey). They have the energy to stay on the move, embrace the opera’s comedy and its darkness, and the sparkle to light up the score.

As a companion piece, Esther is an inspired choice—a gorgeous revival of NYCO’s 1993 production of the biblical tale. Weisgall’s spiky music is just right to express the story and, again, the cast can do no wrong. Lauren Flanigan is outstanding as the teenager who grows up to be queen; as are Stephen Kechulius as the powerful Xerxes, and Beth Clayton as his deposed consort. Also outstanding are Haman (Roy Cornelius Smith), Zaresh, his wife (Margaret Thompson), and James Maddelena as Mordecai.

Of particular note: the direction by Christopher Mattaliano, and the exceptionally fluid sets by Jerome Sirlin; scrims reflecting the walls of ancient Babylon and (in one dazzling scene) the Pergamon altar. Joseph Citarella’s costumes are rich with a sense of time and place.

All of this bodes well for the coming spring season, when NYCO will bring us Chabrier’s L’Étoile, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and Handel’s Partenope. E.V. Day’s exhilarating installation in the Koch Theater’s promenade lobby—13 sculptures made from vintage NYCO costumes suspended over the intermission crowds—will still be flying high enough in the spring to meet the phoenix risen from the ashes on its home turf.

At the Met: House of the Dead – It’s Alive!

Even the Met has become budget-conscious: austerity is the name of the game for its new production of Janacek’s House of the Dead, being shared by four venues beyond its own stage. With harsh lighting and costumes, and direction by Patrice Chéreau, Janacek’s libretto (based on Dostoyevsky’s novel of prison life), and the open harmonies and lean textures of his score are perfect here, too. The opera’s stories are interconnected; their despair and quicksilver emotions are fragments of the human condition.

While the stage is  abundant with singers and actors, three stand out: tenors Stefan Margita and Kurt Streit, and baritone Peter Mattei.  Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts (more about him later); his House of the Dead is dark, yet stubbornly filled with life and light.





  Out of Town in the 19th Century

Librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte spent some years in Pennsylvania in between his lives in New York, and there are many sites in Philadelphia related to his sometime career as grocer, distiller, and French teacher in that city. Members of the American Philosophical Society and the Mozart Society recently put together an intimate tour there of his houses, the historic buildings and markets of his era, Christ Church (where his son and daughter-in-law were married) and affiliated monuments. The most important thing: unlike New York, where almost everything connected to his life has been destroyed, the bricks and mortar in Philadelphia are still standing. Don’t miss the area near the waterfront, the city of Da Ponte’s era restored to its original ambiance, and a great day-trip for walking into history.

Next Time Around….

There’s nothing like a high-end trade show to generate a sense (however temporary) that all’s well with the world. And nobody does it better than Sanford Smith. Known for his exhibitions in the lavish spaces of the Park Avenue Armory, he is the go-to guy for the best of the best.

Like good food and wine, his shows are seasonal – the Winter Antiques Show, the Spring Outsider Art Show, and Modernism (this year combined with Art 20) in the fall. They are all always worth the trip. But for me, Modernism is Mecca for 20th century art and design. Modernism’s opening night gala is a palpable “up” in these straitened times. Strolling through the aisles, you can feast on elegant edibles and wine, while swooning over really spine-tingling furniture, objets, books, paintings, photographs, sculpture, and, of course, the jewelry (a divine and deeply guilty pleasure).

But there’s a feel-good aspect to it that transcends even the fabulousness of its displays: it’s also a fundraiser that serves the best of the best causes: the Brooklyn Museum, Planned Parenthood, and the bestowing of an annual design award. These have often been conferred on long-time design superstars. This year, though, the recipient was Yves Béhar of fuseproject in San Francisco. Creator of plastic slip-on shoes for Birkenstock and chandeliers for Swarovski, Béhar has dreamed up the LEAF lamp for Herman Miller, as well. More to the point: he has also masterminded computers—small, colorful, inexpensive, and green—made for the non-profit One Laptop Per Child, meant for the world’s poorest children.

So if you missed this November’s irresistibles, be sure to book Modernism 2010. With its maximum returns for indulgence and charity, it’s cheap at the price.

Cooper’s London

November 16, 2009

by Mel Cooper

Uncle Vic’s Vanya
(Stratford East Extension)

Sometimes the show that is less complete and polished is more stimulating, fascinating and engaging. For instance: the text of The Great Extension, at the greatextensionTheatre Royal Stratford East. It struck me as unfinished and needing some pruning, maybe a whole new ending – yet I enjoyed parts of it enormously and was very glad to have seen it. It made me want to suggest rewrites only because what was there was already so good. I certainly found it far more interesting as a contemporary drama than ENRON; more imaginatively written as drama and, as usual at the TRSE, very well-performed. It just has not quite made up its mind whether it wants to be a West End farce, an absurdist Marx Brothers vaudeville, or a Joe Orton-ish black comedy.great extension2

It references all three. I think it should be all three, but finally opt for Joe Orton to achieve its best. Some of the characters are really interesting. I wanted to know more about them and see them develop. But for me, at the moment, the play does not yet work as it should. That said, it certainly works as an evening out; it got everyone in the audience debating about racism and religious bigotry, and a lot of people who saw it thought it was terrific as is. So, in the end, I didn’t mind the lack of finish, and would like to see it again post-final polish. Plus, there’s the lure of discovering a hit-in-the-making.

A classic play being developed by a group of theatre professionals can also be much more interesting than some of the full-fledged productions on view. And that’s exactly what happened at the Young Vic last week in London. A director to watch, Joe Hill-Gibbins, is putting together a new Uncle Vanya. He and his ensemble invited the public to eleven “workshop” performances. There were about a hundred luckymariatheatre theatregoers sitting around the walls of the tiny Maria Theatre space to see a work-in-progress with no sets, no costumes, and only minimal props as required. But this Vanya got (and kept) everyone’s attention.

vanyaslingerJonathan Slinger was an acerbic, troubled Astrov—the perfect foil for Stuart McQuarrie’s loveable Vanya, vanyamcquarrieand his attraction to and for Justine Mitchell’s vanyamitchellgorgeous Yelena was the magnet at the center of the reading. In fact, the very lack of that final polish revealed a play that was raw and gripping, evoking a true collaboration; a “lived” experience for cast and audience alike.

Interestingly, the Young Vic had been very nervous about admitting theater-goers to an interpretation-in-progress, although the actors were off-book except for a few minutes at the start and finish. But, because nothing was yet set in stone, you could feel the audience listening intently for which readings and nuances worked, and which they hoped would be changed. And afterwards, when the actors were chatting in the bar with members of the audience, they admitted how much the presence of the audience had actually given them. The pleasure of watching a butterfly emerge from its rehearsal-room cocoon was palpable. Good news travels fast, because there was a queue for returns the night I attended.

hill-gibbensJoe Hill-Gibbins (who was responsible for the very successful “documentary” play The Girlfriend Experience last summer), spoke to the audience in advance, explaining to them what exactly to expect. But I doubt anyone expected it to be quite so moving and illuminating. It was definitely one of the richest Vanyas I’ve ever experienced. The characters were alive, humorous and poignant, fighting against absurdity and boredom, frail and troubled in ways that were instantly captivating. I am now very much looking forward to the end-product of this process and have become aware of the rewards of attending workshops. Looks like I’m learning something new! And yes, I will definitely be booking tickets for Uncle Vanya when the full-out production is onstage, to see where its cast and crew have taken it.
Bluebeard’s Rite

The ENO’s new production, a pairing of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle bluebeards_castle_galleryand The Rite of Spring, does not work for lots of people, but it worked for me. The Bluebeard is very explicit, and implicitly linked to current stories of people locked up in cellars for years, of abusive men who torture their women. It also brilliantly portrays Judith’s obsession with Bluebeard and the consequences of her entering the forbidden territory that brings out his latent sadism. Clive Bayley’s singing and acting of Bluebeard is troubling, touching, and sinister by turns; and Michaela Martens is fascinating as Judith.
Paired with this is the Rite of Spring, by Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s award-winning company. This Rite is set in a contemporary community—Christian, yet pagan—dancing to summon the renewal of Spring to a snowbound, wintry landscape. The choreography mirrors the rhythms and cross-rhythms of the piece perfectly, and extends the highly charged music with fascinating imagery (and an riteending I do not wish to give away).
Edward Gardener, a major star of the evening, conducts both works with a vivid understanding of the music that—after nearly one hundred years—still sounds raw and modern to us now. He finds the lyricism and beauty as well as the shocks in both scores.

Apollo’s Girls

November 7, 2009


High/Low: Moveable Feats

November 7, 2009


Jonathan Parker’s (untitled) is billed as a comedy, yet stays so close to the mark that laughter can be uncertain. But sniggering is easy, and pretty continuous. If you’ve ever become impatient with the emperor-is-really-stark-naked aspect of some contemporary art, this is your movie, and you should see it.untitled-images-20090902034837502_640w The high-end art market is easy to satirize, and (untitled) does it perfectly, with characters existing in a parallel downtown universe of galleries, their owners, patrons, artists, and hangers-on.

The young cast is pitch-perfect, and seems to be having a very good time. My personal favorites: Marley Shelton (a stick-thin, black-clad gallerista); Zak Orth (a plump electronics wizard who makes millions in cutting-edge circuitry, but can’t quite figure out his cellphone); Vinnie Jones (a dead ringer for Damien Hirst), who shrewdly transmutes taxidermy into art-market gold; Ptolemy Slocum (brilliant as an artist who makes somethings out of nothings); UNTITLED11and especially Adam Goldberg–whose eternal scowl and ghastly “new” music reminded me of my classmates at Columbia, when atonality ruled.

(untitled) is life among the rich buying art as investment, seduced by the rush of the newest new, and spending a fortune (while entirely suspending their judgment) to do it. There are great set pieces—the creation of some really bad art (and lots of it!), unendurable music, and gallery openings filled with acquisitors on the prowl. And always, the really cool and crispy camerawork of Svetlana Cvetko. This is downtown as it wants to be. Go walk through Soho on an opening night with fresh eyes, then see the movie (and art imitating art).


The Maid

MAID_OneSheetfinalMeet the sensational Catalina Saavedra—a perpetually glum 40-year-old virgin suffering from headaches and worse, whose entire life is devoted to taking care of the family she’s tended for 23 years. This is a character piece with terrific actors, and a really quirky heroine. She’s a terror to the “helpers” her kind boss hires to assist her, and a threat to domestic pets and delivery men. Is there any hope for her? Director Sebastián Silva, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in the World Cinema (dramatic) category for his work; he and Saavedra have received other plaudits before and since. It’s Silva’s second film, and definitely not his last.


 When More is More at the Met
and Less is More at MoMA

met-marble-statue-2009-10-5-12-41-19On my way from the lovely early Michaelangelo sculpture to the North Italian Drawings (1410-1559) at the Metropolitan Museum, I was stopped dead in my tracks by a table  ablaze with an 18th-century dessert service that had belonged to the Archduchess Maria Theresa and her husband, Archduke Francis Stephan of Lorraine. It was actually an exhibition, aptly titled Imperial Privilege.TABLE1 (2)

Yes, Maria and Francis were the parents of Marie Antoinette and her brother, the Emperor Joseph II. All thoughts of being sensible were abandoned; the fragile plates of luscious figs, chocolates, and fiendishly complex morsels were balanced by sugar pastry temples bursting with fruits and flowers, lit by porcelain candlesticks, each surrounding a miniature porcelain musician. This is the legacy of the famous 18th-century Viennese ceramist, Claudius du Pacquier, 1. ELEPHANT (2)whose elegant forms and Baroque decorations won commissions in high places. I succumbed.6.  SWEETMEAT DISH (2)

After touring the drawings, which offer insights into masterpieces of marie-antoinette-1769-70Renaissance high art, I paused once more to marvel at the desserts on the way out. Perhaps Marie Antoinette was simply misunderstood; when she said “Let them eat cake,” she was just speaking from personal experience, and only wishing her subjects the best.

You have six months to see the treats and remember the Ghosts of Versailles.


Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity

Bauhaus-main1The problem of how to celebrate yet another anniversary of a design icon has been brilliantly solved by MoMA: their long-awaited American version of the German show marking the Bauhaus’ 90th has arrived in New York, a perfect complement to the Met’s Viennese overkill.

What could be further from the Baroque splendor of the 18th-century Austro-Hungarian court than the 20th century Bauhaus? Or, to reduce complex ideas to images: compare the Met’s sweetmeats dish with Josef Albers’ sublime three-legged fruit bowl. I may have lusted after the pastries, but in the long run I’d much rather have the Albers—with or without the fruit. Nbauhaus3othing could be simpler, and nothing more beautiful.

MoMA has done us all a favor by returning to Bauhaus basics. It was, after all, a school, and not a style bending under the weight of decades of critical exegesis, or the insurgency of post-Modernism. So seeing an uncluttered overview of what the school produced is the best introduction to the Bauhaus’ purpose and identity. You will recognize many of the designs,Bauhaus_EviteHTMLimages_Bau2 and marvel anew at their power, inventiveness,  and often their wit. 

But MoMA has another opportunity up its sleeve:  in addition to exhibiting carefully chosen (and artfully restored) examples of the Bauhaus’ art and objects, the museum is offering a series of hands-on workshops to give museum-goers an idea of what it was like to actually be at the Bauhaus—to be part of its stormy evolution—from early folkish, decorative designs and anarchic experiments, to the ultimate iconic geometry that put it, Bauhausand will keep it, permanently on the map.

Bauhaus 1919-1933 will be on view until January 25. For a detailed listing of the workshops and related events, go to their Web site.

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