Archive for October, 2012

Cooper’s London

October 26, 2012



New Conquistadors, New Lingua Franca: Spanish!
Funny, Poignant, and Creative

The Unfinished Exploits of
Pedro de Valdiva
André and Dorine (New York)

As with the Spanish novel, I believe the great breakthroughs and innovations in Spanish theatre are coming mainly from Latin America these days. The last show in this year’s festival of Latin American plays in London on 15 and 16 September this year was from Chile and was called The Unfinished Exploits of Pedro de Valdivia. Three actor musicians/mimes/puppeteers in their thirties (Tryo Teatro Banda) told the story of the Conquistadors, how and why they arrived in Chile, the exploited masses, the battles, the creation of cities in 75 minutes of uninterrupted physical theatre that was witty, ironic, hilarious, moving – and a great history lesson. The music was terrific too.

The play was based on the letters that Chile’s first royal governor, Pedro de Valdivia, wrote to King Charles V of Spain and the men did it all, playing about 12 instruments between them (including bandoneon, 17th-century open horn, violin, drums, trumpet, clarinet), singing, dancing, acting many characters, miming and using imaginative puppetry. When they had to stage an epic battle they poured sand on a table, formed it into the mountains, poured sugar on top to remind one of the snow and give a sense of the height, poured out blue crystals to represent the Pacific and the rivers to be crossed, used flags to represent moving armies and rebellious natives, and convinced the audience to partake imaginatively in the building and destruction of various cities. I found the language and movement were so creative (even not understanding much Spanish and having to rely on the surtitles) that I never lost concentration and did notice that the children in the audience were completely captivated.

The audience was varied in age but about one-half Spanish-speaking. Pedro de Valdiva won the Critic’s Award for Best Play of 2010 at home and was shown at Chile’s National theatre. Tryo Teatro Banda also did a brilliant play about Jemmy Button, according to people I met in the bar before and after the show; and there was much praise for the other offerings of this 10-day festival of award-winning theatre from Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. This was the fifth festival of its kind in London and another is promised for next year, so watch out for it. Meantime, you can catch the Tryo Teatro Banda in Chile!

Tryo Teatro Banda: Chile. Web site
Pedro de Valdivia, La Gesta Inconclusa
(The Unfinished Exploits of Pedro de Valdivia)
Written by Francisco Sánchez and Company. Directed by Sebastián Vila.
Performed by Francisco Sánchez, Pablo Obreque & César Espinoza



Apollo’s Girl

André  and Dorine (New York)
Kulunka Theatre Company

The Kulunka Theatre Company from the Basque region of Spain touched down all too briefly in New York recently at the YMCA’s Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater. What a triumph! With only expressive soft masks made of fabric and expressive body language, Kulunka tells the story of André and Dorine, their son, and a host of supporting charactersall played by three actors using gesture, movement and fierce theatrical intelligence.

The script follows the life of André and Dorine from the present (their late middle age) back to their youth in the swinging sixties and forward to the heartbreaking progression of Dorine’s Alzheimer’s, Andre’s coping strategies, and the trajectory of their son and his own family. It’s a love story in which the performances are straight from, and to, the soul. When they are funny, it’s like a sudden beacon from the unshaded light bulb that André keeps changing; when they are caught up in the inevitable turns of the tale, the beacon goes dark. But never for long.  André‘s skill as a proudly-published writer, and Dorine’s as a cellist are brilliantly integrated into the story which, because of Kulunka’s minute observations of the human condition and their ability to transform them into a powerful theatrical experience, is a journey we willingly take with them. They will steal your heart, and keep it.

While anyone can understand the atavistic appeal of masks and mime, Kulunka’s outstanding brilliance and lapidary art are truly universal–equal parts of love and genius.  The actors (Jose Dault, Garbiñe Insausti, Edu Carcamo) and their inspired director (Iñaki Rikarte) have been on the road  with this and other plays in their repertoire for years; make sure to keep track of them for the future ( They are sure to be back, and were presented as part of an ongoing program by Spain Culture in New York-Consulate General of Spain ( excellent source of cultural attractions throughout the United States and throughout the year.

Cooper’s London

October 21, 2012


What to See and to Hear:
Opera To See
Francesco Cavalli (1602 – 1676), Il Giasone

I’ve been watching the DVDs of some operas by Monteverdi and Cavalli lately, all of them new, modernist stage productions. For me the real discovery is Cavalli’s Il Giasone from Antwerp. The production has been controversial – some loving it and some hating it. It is definitely part of the new approach to old opera. I am more towards the loving it end of the scale and in no way wish to quibble, because the opera itself has simply bowled me over. It was premiered in 1649 in Venice and was the most popular opera of the 17th century. Why did it fall out of favour? Probably because music moved on into the full flourish of the Baroque era, and possibly because the mix of tragedy, comedy and sheer farce in the libretto was not to later tastes.

Jason is a very modern anti-hero in this telling of the story of how he stole the fleece and a few female hearts along the way. The performance, filmed in the Vlaamse Opera of Antwerp/Ghent, is musically brilliant, with special note having to be made of Katarina Bradic’s brilliant Medea and Robin Johannsen’s moving Isifile, and the idiomatic conducting of Federico Maria Sardelli. But the star of the show is Christophe Dumaux’s sexy, cheeky and wholly captivating counter-tenor Giasone. The DVD and Blu-ray versions are brilliantly filmed and simply stunning to look at.

Francesco Cavalli (1602 – 1676), Il Giasone
Christopher Dumaux, Katarina Bradic, Robin Johannsen/
Symphony Orchestra of the Vlaamse Opera Antwerp/Ghent.
Conductor: Federico Maria Sardelli (Dynamic 55663)


Piano To Hear

Beethoven, Complete Piano Sonatas. H J Lim, Piano.
8 CDs EMI 4 6495222 2 8 Stereo DDD

H J Lim may only be 25, but she has, for my money, such a huge enthusiasm and sympathy for the piano sonatas of Beethoven that she’s certainly one of the leaders of her generation in playing them. She has worked her way through most of them for a new recording (omitting 19 and 20, the two that Beethoven felt he wrote merely as exercises for his students and never wanted to publish) and she has collected them into thematically organized recitals about which she writes copious, sometimes illuminating and sometimes pretentious booklet notes that certainly enhance one’s enjoyment of acquiring the set. They also show her to be committed to the musicology, the history of the compositions and Beethoven’s psychological states.

The moment you put on the recordings, what she says or why she omitted two sonatas is totally irrelevant. Several people have hated the set. I got completely caught up in the pianism, the imagination, the telling interpretations of each individual sonata and was swept away by the profound sense of an overall viewpoint and mastery that astonished me.

Lim plays on a Yamaha that is a bit more astringent and wiry of tone in the upper registers than would usually suit my taste―but I got used to that very quickly and even wondered if it was not, for these performances, the perfect choice. This piano helps you note a technique that is Spartan in its clarity; and speeds that are at times more Baroque than Romantic. It’s like hearing a fortepiano but with much more body and range.

There isn’t one sonata that is unconvincing in the H J Lim’s hands, and the sense of her love of and respect for these works is all-encompassing. I will not give up listening to Schnabel, Ashkenazy, Richard Goode, Aimard, Uchida, Pollini, Brendel, or Barenboim any time soon; but I’m certainly going to add these intensely convincing interpretations―sometimes astonishing, always interesting ―to the shelf that holds the master pianists and listen to them as often as possible. And I sure as hell wish she’d incorporated the two missing sonatas!

Cogito: John Branch

October 8, 2012



Einstein: Beached at BAM

In the 70s and 80s, Einstein on the Beach left people feeling they were on a hypnotic drug, but by the end of its current reincarnation, it left me wanting to do drugs.

Einstein on the Beach might be called an instance of total theater (if you separate that term from the particular use to which Richard Foreman has applied it) or of Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk. It employs text, music, and theater arts, giving equal weight to all of them: minimalist music by Philip Glass, direction and design by Robert Wilson, and minimalist choreography by Lucinda Childs. (All of them worked on the present staging, which is apparently a pretty close recreation of the original; it began a world tour in March that will run into next spring.) The playbill is cagey on the origin of its words, crediting Glass with “music/lyrics” on the first page while later attributing the text to Lucinda Childs, Samuel M. Johnson, and Christopher Knowles and assigning copyright for the libretto to Robert Wilson. Wherever they came from, it does have words in the form of speeches and stories; there’s also a fair amount of the vocalise style that Glass often uses. First performed in 1976, Einstein on the Beach returns now and then to bedazzle or bedevil us, most recently at BAM in September.

The opera evokes elements of Albert Einstein’s life and work. A figure resembling him plays violin and sticks his tongue out. Glass-walled elevators relate to Einstein’s thought experiment regarding a beam of light passing through a moving elevator; one elevator appears to us to be horizontal, including its occupant, and the other appears to be vertical, which relates to Einstein’s dethroning of privileged points in space. (Only in a gravity field or in relation to a given point can one say anything is up, down, or horizontal.) Clocks and watches remind us that there is no absolute measure of time either. Much of the stage movement is slowed down—maybe another suggestion that time and motion are relative.As if it might otherwise be forgotten, which I doubt, the production also reminds us of Einstein’s connection with nuclear weapons. Valiantly upholding the “beach” end of the deal, a single conch shell now and then stands, or rather sits forlornly, on the stage.

But something about this piece of total theater strikes me as totalitarian. It cares little if at all what you think while you watch and listen. The volume level in many sections is high and unvarying. The set sometimes moves around more than the stage performers do. The strange symmetry and stark (often black-and-white) contrasts of the visual elements attract the eye in some fundamental way, as the musical rhythms and repetitions do the ear. Yet it’s easy to ignore because it’s not really about anything. Einstein on the Beach defies reflection, as if trying to one-up Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” essay: interpret this!

It’s easy to see in it certain modernist fascinations: with machines and the mechanical (many of the performers’ movements appear mechanical), with mechanical production or reproduction (all of the sounds, including the human voices, are delivered to us through electro-mechanical means). It achieves a kind of flatness in not representing anything other than itself, and its surfaces and volumes remind us of the discovery of geometry by modernist painters. The whole thing, in fact, resembles some kind of machine of mysterious purpose.

There’s much I haven’t mentioned: the very odd courtroom scene, with its speech about men but not women being equal before the law; the cheap-looking little spaceship that moves on a wire; the lovers-on-a-train scene (which might be vaudevillian fun if it lasted two minutes, but it’s more like 20); the dances (which use some numerical cleverness but aren’t as hypnotic as they used to look, according to my companion); the “space machine” whose back wall reminded me of LED calculator displays; and more. Amid the tedium of its four-hours-plus, there are wonders to some of the stage images.

Einstein on the Beach seems to me an experiment to test the possibility of abstraction in opera. Other representational arts had begun an abstract turn years earlier, so in a way it was high time, even past time, for opera to try. I’d have to be much wiser, and/or bolder, to presume to judge what the experiment showed. But Einstein on the Beach, which once seemed so various, so beautiful, so new, today appears dull, indulgent, and annoying.

Einstein’s twin paradox comes to mind: this opera left and came back to us nearly unaged, but we’re older now. And nowadays there’s never a drug dealer around when you want one.

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