The Oxygen of Ravishing
Absolute perfection makes its own oxygen, and, every once in a while, we get lucky. Recently, at the earthly paradise that is the Morgan Library and Museum, there were four exhibitions in absolute balance—each one revealing a period and a unique point of view, collectively inspiring a kind of trance to buffer the rasp of city life. Beginning with Embracing Modernism (a show to mark the 10th anniversary of the Morgan’s engagement with the 20th century) you could see up close what artists were thinking about as it passed by.
There were icons on every wall: Matisse; Schiele; a surprising Mondrian landscape(Dunes at Dornburg); a dialogue between Red Grooms and Lyonel Feininger; one of Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans (Tomato) cuddling up to a wad of dollar bills; outrage about the Vietnam War from Ken Jones and Nancy Spero; the usual mid-century downtown suspects; right up to Marlene Dumas’ “Confusion as to What Comes Out of Our Hands”—almost a hundred in all. Perhaps of variable quality but, taken together, an intimate snapshot of a kinetic century by its close watchers.
Right next door, Piranesi’s majestic drawings of Paestum (on loan from Sir John Soane’s Museum) were an 18th-century collector/architect’s (Soane’s) bow to the 6th-century B.C. builders of Paestum’s ruins. Fortunately for us, Soanes met Piranesi near the end of his life, and acquired fifteen of the huge works now at the Morgan. Just look at them! The scale, the detail, the skill with which Piranesi’s pen immortalized the ancient city. It’s the kind of human hymn that no computer working overtime on CAD can ever sing.
Also on the ground floor: Lincoln Speaks: Words that Transformed a Nation. This is a mighty statement, rich in anecdote and including a film, Lincoln Speaks. It transcends cliches by offering some of the modest catalysts that made Lincoln who he was: Kirkham’s Grammar (he memorized it) which assured him that ”Grammar instructs us how to express our thoughts correctly. Rhetoric teaches us to express them with force and eloquence.” There is a cast of the hands responsible for writing the documents inseparable from the man, and the documents themselves: the Inaugural Address of 1865; the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution (Abolition); the Emancipation Proclamation; and Walt Whitman’s “O Captain!, my Captain! our fearful trip is done…” written by the grief-stricken poet after Lincoln’s assassination. There is no dry history here—only a deep well of emotion that takes hours to subside. Like all the Morgan’s shows, it can be revisited on line. http://abrahamlincoln.org/lincoln-speaks
Finally, a ride up in the glass elevators to see Barbara Wolff’s Hebrew Illumination in Our Time—like Piranesi, a bow to the distant past. But here, Wolff chooses to employ the painstaking techniques of the medieval monks who dedicated themselves to Biblical volumes . She chooses the Old Testament, gold leaf, the richest colors and exuberant imagery to celebrate her texts. A film reveals her technique. This one can be also found online to savor at leisure.
One last glance: from June 26-October 11, the Morgan will celebrate another anniversary: Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland, bursting with Shepard’s images and everything you’ve always wanted to know about Lewis Carroll’s immortal girl child. http://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/alice Be there, breathe deeply of the oxygen, and make your way to the Metropolitan Museum for China: Through the Looking Glass. (another hommage to earlier sources). Clearly, Alice travels well and just keeps on growing,…
Juilliard Opera: Oxygen for the Ears
This has been an amazing year for the school’s Olympian vocal ambitions, realized—even exceeded—in two recent productions: Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide (rarely performed) and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (hardly a day goes by without its shenanigans somewhere on the planet).
Iphigénie is simply gorgeous music, Gluck’s gift to the memory of Euripedes’ last play (407 B.C.) and Racine’s adaptation of it (1674). Juilliard’s version was a marriage of updating (modern dress) and set (a gloss on the pared-down scenery of ancient Greek theatre) and profound respect and affection for the traditions of ancient Athens and 17th-century Paris. It was win-win all the way.
I have grown really tired of new productions of old works which, in the panic to make them palatable to new audiences, bend them entirely out of shape—both alienating their long-suffering fans and fooling no one under the age of 35. But no one involved in the creation or performance of this Iphigénie was guilty of such intentions. To start with, David Paul’s staging was simplicity itself, yet by virtue of the skill of the cast’s powerfully expressive singing and Paul Hudson’s lighting, caught and sustained fire. Heartbreak fury, and tragedy received their due, compressed for our ears.
Jane Glover, whose baton—like some celestial dowsing stick, can find every shade of dramatic juice in the rigors of Baroque music—was breathing with the singers right up to the deus ex machina. The luxury of long and diligent rehearsal time turned an ancient epic history into an entirely modern fable for old fans and young listeners alike, strong in its emotional magic and meticulous in every detail. It’s what can happen when talent is the glue that holds intentions and realization together and everyone is on the same page.
The big bonus in following Juilliard Opera productions is being able to watch young artists develop and grow in real time as they try on major roles for size, and offer recitals in the interim. It all happens very fast. With many singers also members of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, it can seem almost instantaneous. Let’s just take this spring: Iphigėnie took place in mid-February followed (a scant ten weeks later) by The Marriage of Figaro. Here, the approach was not minimal; director Stephen Wadsworth had all the bodies moving at warp speed—perfect for Figaro’s clockwork commedia—and dressed to the 18th-century nines in Camille Assaf’s brocades and knickers. From the bed and boxes of the beginning to the movable shrubbery and strategic lanterns of the
end, it was, frankly, a knockout!
But this was the real joy: not only had several singers inhabited Iphigénie’s implacable world, but Ying Fang (a heartbreaking Iphigénie) proved herself an adept and natural comedian in Figaro; as her voice soared in Susanna’s arias, her body created its own elegant and personal slapstick. Who knew? And Takaoki Onishi (faithful Patrocle) became a slippery Count Almaviva; Virginie Verrez, a striking Clymnestra, put on pants and turned into Cherubino (I should add that Myles Mykkanen’s triumph as an ardent Lensky in last year’s Eugene Onegin in no way prepared me for his bumbling Don Basilio.) But it’s unfair to single out anyone in these productions; they are marvels of ensemble performance, giving us opera as it can, and is meant to be; an intimate, emotional experience for the eye, the ear, the heart and the mind. (They) make hungry where most (they) satisfy…and there’s always next season. Pay attention to the school’s overflowing calender of performances.