Archive for June, 2015

Cooper’s London

June 17, 2015




The Queen of Chairs, in Spades

This is musically an important event for queen of spades 2the English National Opera and the musical side is superb. You will rarely hear a better sung and conducted version of this tense and tragic Tschaikovsky masterpiece than the ENO’s new production. English tenor Peter Hoare is making his debut as Hermann at relatively short notice and his singing and acting turn out to be heroic; committed, gorgeous to listen to, totally convincing. He understands Hermans’s torment and obsessions and how the music conveys them and he’s spot on portraying Hermann’s slow descent into madness and psychosis. Giselle Allen as Lisa is wonderful to listen to as well; with her shining voice and complete understanding of the score, she touchingly conveys Lisa’s troubled innocence. Dame Felicity Palmer, now in her seventies, is a dominant and powerful Countess; Nicholas Pallesen makes a striking, attractive and powerfully sung Prince Yeletsky.

The entire cast is musically strong, including the edward gardenerchorus; and Edward Gardner clearly understands the score, its drama, the sonorities and harmonies; he masters the forces throughout, giving one of the most powerful performances of this dark work that I’ve ever heard. Clearly he “gets” both the Tschaikovsky brothers’ collaboration on score and libretto as surely as he knows Pushkin’s original story. A pity it’s his farewell as the ENO’s Music Director (though he returns as a guest conductor next year for Tristan and Isolde, already hugely anticipated.)

That said, there is more , however, that must be included: a hard look at David Alden’s disjointed production concept that, for me, seriously undermines the success of the evening. There is a strange disconnect between his expressionistic, surreal approach to storytelling and the actual words and music being sung and played. To put it simply, Alden doesn’t seem to be engaged with the work itself; rather he is simply using it as an opportunity to impose and express his own visual and symbolic obsessions. There are some very fine moments , but I put those down mainly to singers and conductor who actually are one with the music and words and who have a clear understanding of what they want to convey.

Not to belabor my point: I didn’t find updating the story to Communist Russia actually added a thing; if anything, it was a distraction, especially in the ball scene and the places where a Grand Opera approach to emotion is required. The individual, one-on-one relationships and the monologues worked because of the fine cast; but the robotic chorus was a tedious trope.

queen of spades 1I fear too that I am getting mighty tired of Alden’s chairs. Can anyone explain why he always has piles of chairs as part of his visual concept or his stage setting? People drag them across the stage while other people are trying to sing, thus distracting the audience from what should be the opera’s visual center, taking your eye to the wrong place at the wrong time; there’s no respite because they’re strewn everywhere. People climb them as if they were barricades (is this a not-too-subtle clue that there has been a Revolution?) and then chairs 2declaim from atop the pile. Or they fall over and tumble down the pile. The chairs are symbolic, they are usually Biedermeyer or Baroque; and occasionally, it has to be admitted, someone even sits on them. Since chairs have been featured in every production of Alden’s that I have seen since for about three decades, I am still trying to puzzle out the thread that joins them chairily from Handel through Verdi through Tchaikovsky and beyond. Like so many other objects on David Alden’s stages, they seem both arbitrary and predictable.

queen of spades 2Alden does, however, occasionally allow singers simply to present the key moments with some directness. Hermann’s stages of descent into craziness and Lisa’s obsessive-yet-touching passion for the anti-hero Hermann do get strongly conveyed, and Felicity Palmer gives us both the scariness and the fascinating personal charisma of the Countess. You can believe she was once a sexually alluring aristocratyou can believe her harsh and autocratic behaviour. Hers is a strong, pivotal performance; and the scene where Hermann invades her bedroom to get the secret of the cards from her is brilliant, with Hoare and Palmer creating a sensational artistic rapport.

But what keeps the evening compelling (if you can ignore the damned chairs) must be Gardner’s understanding of the work and his pacing of the score; both are exemplary. The hymn-like choral conclusion after Hermann’s death was haunting and powerful, as it needs to be to round off this story.

There is a postscript that should, aldensin the interests of even-handed journalism, be added here: Alden’s twin brother Christopher (also an opera director) works often in the United States; his Don Giovanni for the New York City Opera was updated to the 1930s (why?) and featured a cast made to drag chairs to and fro at random moments throughout the production. Though Wikipedia tells us that the twins were born in New York, to a “show-business family,” I’m willing to wager there’s a relative with a chair factory somewhere in that family tree.

The Queen of Spades is in repertoire at the Coliseum in London (along with Carmen and the Pirates of Penzance) until 2 July 2015.

Apollo’s Girl

June 14, 2015


apollo and lyre



Human Rights Watch 2015:
A Very Good Year…(June 11 – 21)

posterEven with festivals multiplying like so many digital rabbits, HRW has always been the one to look forward to, sure to amaze and shock, provoke outrage and sorrow andsometimeseven generate hope. That said, HRW 2015 is the strongest slate in memory. A co-presentation between The Film Society of Lincoln Center and the IFC Center, the films are shown at least once (or twice) at each venue. But before I get going on some specifics, a warning: go to before the screenings are sold out and book your seats; they have a way of disappearing.

Now: 3-½ Minutes, Ten Bullets is riveting stuff; a case resonant with echoes ofthree and a half minutesGeorge Zimmerman’s collision with Trayvon Martin and, like it, a paradigm of Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws which keep the state’s playing ground decidedly unlevel. It has all the elements of contemporary conflict:, unarmed young black men playing loud music; an armed white man (Michael Dunn) who dislikes loud music, who decides that the way to get it turned down is by shooting themand killing one of the four (Jordan Davis). But this case is far more complicated than George Zimmerman’s; it leads to a jury trial in which the revelations of witnesses take surprising turns, and the ongoing pain of the dead youth’s parents and friends is like a knife that separates flesh from bone. In the end, none of the usual cliches apply to the story and its outcome. Director Marc Silver has created a film that is both rigorous and emotional in making its points and making you think, hard about how to effect change. (Sundance: Special Jury Prize, Documentary)

The Wanted 18. Only a French/Canadian/Palestinian wanted 18co-production could come up with a film like The Wanted 18. To describe it in conventional narrative would be to miss its point entirely. It is, like all the entries in HRW, a true story. But a story like no other. In real life, the Palestinians in the town of Beit Sahour, tired of Israeli occupation and the economic chokehold it imposed, decided to fight back. They started smallbuying 18 cows to produce their own milk as a cooperative. Soon the co-op became a productive farm that was feeding most of the town. Dairy and produce no longer had to be purchased from the Israelis at pre-set prices. It was a peaceful agrarian revolution that succeeded, until the Israelis, piqued at the competition, shut it down. Its spirit, though, still hovers over Beit Sahour like a latter-day Chagall, made more poignant by the filmmakers’ (Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan) decision to scatter an army of tiny clay figures and drawings among the real Israelis and Palestinians. Although the film’s issues are deadly serious, its whimsical execution makes it easier to applaud the truly creative solutions the townspeople found for an all-too-brief moment of empowerment. They are, by the way, Christian, rather than Muslim. And, as in all stories, its not the tale itself, but how its told. A truly original work, to be enjoyed and pondered.

trials of springThe Trials of Spring (Gini Reticker) makes clear the divide between the status of women in Egypt and in the West. There is contempt, abuse, and virulent public sexual harassment to deal with every day, with little or no help from the authorities or families, and the ideals of the Arab Spring—including parity between men and womenlong since trampled in the dust. Despite all they have suffered, the experiences of the three women who bear eloquent witness to the cruelty of Egyptian justice have made them all the more determined to find solutions to their own oppression.

life is sacredLife is Sacred (Andreas Dalsgaard) This film, one of the most extraordinarily intelligent and thrilling documentaries I’ve seen, will break your heart and mend it with wild hope (repeatedly!) as you are catapulted into the cauldron of Colombia’s 21st-century politics. They are complicated, yet Dalsgaard’s encyclopedic knowledge of their every twist and turn is equaled by his enormous skill at spinning them into legend. At its heart, Antanas Mockus: the larger-than-life philosopher, academician, and ultimately Mayor of Bogota—who galvanizes the electorate to take back their lives and their country by routing the profoundly corrupt politicians who have run, and ruined it. For this Herculean task, Mockus takes up his weapons: throngs of committed , fiercely loyal young people who struggle with him to achieve a future for their land.

mockusBut things do not go as planned: the elections are rigged, and the future is recaptured by the old guard. And that’s when the film reveals its complex design. Mockus withdraws (for reasons that are withheld until the right moment). His cause is moved forward by one of his deputies (charismatic and brilliant in her own right), pledged to opposing the elections’ winner (hand-picked behind the scenes by Colombia’s invincible strong man). Surprises and reversals keep the narrative exploding, enriched by Dalsgaard’s archival footage (much of it shot for his earlier film, Cities on Speed: Bogota Change). And while there is plenty of action, the film’s greatest impact comes from its revelations of character. They are profound, and entirely universal; Dalsgaard’s brilliance is underscored by his ability to maintain clarity throughout an exceptionally chaotic period (about eight years) without the use of narration. He is a master of structure, telling an unforgettable story. See it twice if you can.

Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (Stanley Nelson) black panthersBlack Panthers has been chosen for HRW’s closing night on June 21st, will open at the Film Forum on September 2, and be broadcast on PBS’s Independent Lens series in February of 2016 (as part of Nelson’s America Revisited trilogy.) Black Panthers reminds us that, within living memory, our streets were filled with demonstrations for equality, our newspapers were filled with headlines demanding that attention be paid, and organized violence (on both sides) threatened civic order. In the 21st century it’s hard to imagine how intense the 1960s were before snarky Tweets replaced the actual, physical expression of dissent.

black panthersThe short and disturbing history of the Black Panthers was written by people who had become tired of the low-key progress of conventional Civil Rights and had decided to take action. That action, its consequences, and the retribution that ended it permanently have become obscured by the passage of time; Nelson’s searing documentary lays bare the heat and reawakens the emotions that captured America in the years that changed its direction forever. This is essential viewing for those old enough to revisit history and first-timers alike, and you will have many opportunities to think hard about its lessons.

The Yes Men are Revolting

One of HRW’s strengths is its option to reprise films seen earlier that deserve another run. This year, they’ve selected Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (opening in theatres on July yes men17), and The Yes Men are Revolting  (now running at the IFC Center). For those of you unfamiliar with the work of Laura Nix and the Yes Men—a.k.a. Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno—you will have a chance to play catchup this week. (I admit to really loving this film and the Yes Men, whatever their real names). They are always funny, always smart, and have perfected the art of the serious tweak on subjects who are in desperate need of reining in. (See November 20, 2014 post on this blog) Or an eloquent clip:

So, whether you prefer screenings uptown or downtown, be glad that Human Rights Watch offers infinite variety, has your back and your neighborhood. .

Apollo’s Girl

June 8, 2015

Theatre, Film, Film, Film

apollo and lyre


Two Gentlemen/Brooklyn til June 20…
Open Roads/FSLC til June 11…
Dior and I still playing (as it should!)…

two gentelemen 2One of the best songs in Pierre, Natasha, etc. begins, “In 19th-century Russia, we write letters, we write letters….” Apparently Derek McLane (the brilliant scenic designer of The Two Gentlemen of Verona) believes fervently that the power of the written word transcends countries (Italy) and centuries (somewhere in the late 16th), two gentlemen 1and has magicked the stage of TFANA’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center into a monument to the epistolary life. Letters flutter from the ceiling and the walls like so many ardent butterflies, and come and go with the cast like rubber bands connecting friends, enemies, and lovers. And that’s only for starters.

Let’s talk about the cast: it’s serving up another irresistible meal from Fiasco Theater, with actors changing parts and props in front of your eyes, speeding on and off the boards at every opportunity, playing instruments and singing the occasional song, andyeswriting letters for very special deliveries by their cast-mates whenever possible. Chalk this two gentlemen 3concept up to the co-direction of Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld, and to the antics of Noah Brody, Paul L. Coffey, Zachary Fine, Emily Young, and the irrepressible Andy Grotelueschen. (Special kudos to Zachary Fine whose multiple personalities include the dog, Crab, who steals your heart while making you howl with laughter.)

two gentelemen 5Speed and deep smarts reign over this happy band. If you notice that they seem almost to read one another’s minds and their performances appear seamless, it’s because they met and bonded at Brown University/Trinity Rep’s MFA acting program and (fortunately for us) just kept on going. There is nothing about mistaken identities, hilarity and pathos they don’t know how to mine for theatrical gold. Two Gentlemen, as probably Shakespeare’s earliest play, is both deepened and burnished by cast and crew until is shines. It’s superb playing from its first letter to its last (Think of the letters as the of their day) and ends, like so many of Shakespeare’s works, in marriage.

To be honest, Fiasco’s projects are never to be missed. I was lucky enough to see their Cymbeline, and promise you that Two Gentlemen is in the very same league. You have until June 20th to see what Fiasco can do and reap the fruits of their labor!

Open Roads

open roads1

There are always surprises in Italian cinema, and this year’s Open Roads had a few that were unusually compelling. One was a series of shorts, 9×10 Novanta, whose novel premise was two-fold: to make use of Istituto Luce’s 90  years of archival footage and to bestow unlimited access to its forgotten treasures on ten young Italian filmmakers. Not surprisingly, World War Two figured prominently in the chosen frames. Perhaps it was an idea born in committee, but its results were entirely personal and fascinating, gleaming with the politics and humor that are hallmarks of Italian cinema. As the shorts sped by, their individual ingenuity gathered strength, turning into a collective vision that assured the future of film (at least in Italy). Give thanks for the committee, for the filmmakers, and for Istituto Luce for understanding that one should never throw anything away. Especially archival footage! (I fully admit to having had a very soft spot for Istituto Luce ever since their Pasolini Restrospective at P.S. 1:
see and scroll down to Italy Rules.)

The Dinner

This was an exceptionally intelligent story, whose the dinnertwisty plot about two brothers turning into enemies after a long friendship and a tradition of monthly dinners had one of the best scripts ever (credit de matteowriter Valentina Ferlen, director Ivano De Matteo, and novelist Herman Koch, on whose book the film is based.) Tensions build when the parents learn that their teenage children have not only misbehaved, but may have committed a serious crime. But the facts are not presented in linear fashion; they are revealed piecemeal, revisited with new information, and hinted at to keep you guessing as you assemble and reassemble what you have seen, and what you intuit. The real pleasure is in seeing the revelations of character (they are deep) as much as of story, and the balance between action and morality. De Matteo won three awards at the Venice Festival, and they are not likely to be his last.


Remember the blind girl in Salvo, and how she granted Mafia hit man Saleh Bakri salvation when his job would have made it impossible? Well, she’s back (Sara Serraicocco), this time in a very different role that she inhabits just as perfectly. Chlorine is, cinematically speaking, strong stuff, in which the storytelling is lean and the camera is allowed to do its work.

Serraicocco’s dream is to compete in synchronized swimming. chlorineBut she works in the mountains in solitude, cleaning a motel that includes a pool in which she has to train on the sly, and a brother and father who are her responsibilities. This is a character study with two surprises that develop slowly and explode fast. A debut feature from director/writer Lamberto Sanfelice Sanfelice, Chlorine was nominated for Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize and a Cyrstal Bear at Berlin, and make clear there will be more to come from actress and filmmaker. For Open Roads schedule/tickets:

Dior and I

tchengFrėdéric Tcheng has learned his art and craft the hard way: by wielding camera and Avid for and/or with others: as editor and co-director of Diana Vreeland: the Eye Has to Travel, and as cameraman, co-editor and co-producer of Valentino. (I really loved that film!)(;

Based on Dior and I, I’d say he has nothing left to learn and can fly, spectacularly, on his own. Under what must have been terrifying pressure for even a gifted filmmaker, he undertook to follow the story of how Raf Simons prepared and triumphed with his first collection for the House of Dior with only eight weeks to pull it off.

Where the filmmaker’s own triumph (and gifts lie) dior and iare in cinematography and editing; multiple cameras capture every moment of the eight-week marathon in closeup and long shot; editing is a marvel of reduction, like a great sauce. More: Tcheng is a master of character; Simons is on camera a lot, but never for long, yet you know everything about him by the time he climbs the grand staircase to join his models for the show’s finale. Even more: Dior’s enormous behind-the-scenes crew who cut, stitch, sew (by hand) and cheer on each garment, have only (supremely well-chosen) moments to reveal themselves. And Tcheng is there to capture and place them so that, somehow, you know everything about them, too. Of course the film is a joy to watch and listen to, but it’s not only about fashion. It’s all about that universal subjecthuman nature. Tcheng has done couture, and I’m willing to bet he’s ready to do anything at all….

This Just In…

A press release from the Museum of Art and Design, mirror1revealing that they will have an all-35mm retrospective of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films (all seven features) plus a documentary about him (Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky) by Michal Leszczylowski. For those of you mad for film and mad for art, these will be mighty nights at MAD.

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