Archive for the ‘music’ Category

Apollo’s Girl

January 26, 2017

Music

apollo-and-lyre

NYFOS: It Doesn’t Get Any More Russian Than This…

If you walk through Red Square you can see Lenin, a triumph of chemistry, still lying in his tomb, or celebrate the riot of Byzantine colors and shapes that is St. Basil’s Cathedral, or pick up something new and expensive at one of GUM’s 1,200 shops. But if you want to see something so Russian it will break your heart and make you weep, walk to the Moscow Conservatory, where ghosts of aristocrats hover still. In front of its iron fence, Tchaikovsky’s statue sits on his pedestal, surrounded by trees and the scent of lilacs in the summer. This is romance, as only the Russians can do it. tschaikovsky

Unless you were at Merkin Hall this week to give yourself up to NYFOS doing Pyotr the Great: The Songs of Tchaikovsky and His Circle. It was romance and total immersion as only Steve Blier can conjure it, with two pianos (his and Michael Barrett’s), a couple of singers destined for great things, program notes worth keeping forever and Blier’s bleier-and-barrettintroductions to the songs, mashups of erudition and sly wit.

Like all of NYFOS’ programs, Pyotr the Great has been put together not just by erudition and wit, but by passionate love for the music itself and insatiable curiosity about the composer’s life, times and genius. There were insights into his training (he was a lawyer), his ability to express the Russian spirit and soul in music and, of course, a modern understanding of his very complex personal life. The songs are supercharged by the extent of Tchaikovsky’s feelings and his need to keep them in the shadows.

If you find yourself content to luxuriate in the composer’s familiar symphonies, ballets and operas, you would be missing the glories of his chamber music and especially his songs. Quite simply, they are ravishing, with a richness, subtlety and emotional contours entirely equal to Tchaikovsky’s agenda. The program was divided into sections: Tchaikovsky’s Family; Men; Colleagues; Women and Last Days. The texts were the work of several poets, with Tolstoy leading the pack and Pushkin included for Onegin’s Act I aria. But, for all of the pleasures in the chosen 17 (plus two encores), the standout (and my lifelong favorite) was and will always be the penetratingly bittersweet setting of Tolstoy’s At the Ball. Surely this tiny masterpiece captures everything that words and music can express. If you don’t know it, try YouTube and carry it with you the next time you need a Swan Lake or Eugene Onegin fix. It will work!

chehovska

As for the singers (soprano Antonina Chehovska and baritone Alexey Lavrov): though neither is, literally, Russian, they are from nearby territories and fluent in the language and traditions that enveloped the evening. Chehovska has a big range, a beautiful voice, power to spare and modesty in the bargain. Lavrov is equally gifted (and as someone who has already sung the title role in Eugene Onegin, perhaps a tad less modest). They sang their solos without holding back, and their duets were deeply satisfying. As multiple prize-winners, they have much to look forward to (or, as the man sitting next to me kept saying, “Those two are going to have huge careers!”) Apart from my neighbor, confirmation came from Blier himself; when Barrett was playing the accompaniments, Blier simply leaned back in his chair listening, eyes closed, wearing a very, very big smile.

Like so many of NYFOS’ recitals, there was a strong concept framed by the musical generosity that has defined their work for 29 years. And that generosity has just been extended to an intricate and captivating web site http://nyfos.org/# and blog (No Song is Safe From Us)http://blo g.nyfos.org/. There are Blier’s fabulous program notes. There’s a TV channel, too. https://www.youtube.com/user/nyfostv Go. Read. Listen (you will find excerpts from Pyotr the Great, along with local and nearby concerts coming up). You’ll be in very, very good hands http://blog.nyfos.org/, and right in the middle of the action.

Apollo’s Girl

December 25, 2016

TV/Film

apollo and lyre

A Little Night Music

I’m starting very small–still recovering from the election—so have two tweet-like recommendations: first, Rachel Maddow’s recent interview with Kellyanne Conway on MSNBC broke every glass ceiling ever. It’s not about whose ideas you preferred, but about two women, phenomenally well-matched for debate, creating a paradigm for (relatively) civil combat. On the biggest issues we will be grappling with 24/7 after January 20. Frankly, it was hypnotic!
MSNBC interview

There was a consistent effort to actually listen to each other before attempting decapitation with tightly focused ripostes, and a crackling intelligence that never descended into campaign speak. The last time we saw its like was the early days of the Vidal/Buckley mano a mano, and those two were definitely White Men in a very elegant duel that remained alive for a long time.

Second, La La Land. It was the life-enabling piton for climbing out of the post-election abyss, and while you are likely to be enchanted by it (the 8.9 IMDb readers’ score and 93 Metacritic’s are hard to contest), I can only add  that if babies can now be produced with the DNA of three parents. La La Land is definitely the love child of Russian Ark, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Shall We Dance. Forget your troubles, c’mon get happy and go see it. And then urge Damien Chazelle to run for president. landscape-1468420673-la-la-land-4

Apollo’s Girl

June 29, 2016

Music

apollo and lyre

 

 

When You’re Living on Mars
You Can Miss the Man in the Moon:

Benjamin Scheuer

One of the things about living on Mars is that you can keep the noise of civilization and its discontents at a distance. The down side of this luxury is that you can miss something unique and extraordinary―like Benjamin Scheuer, for instance.

Blissfully unaware that he had co-opted the public arena for quite a while, toured widely in a one-man show, released CDs, music videos, books and articles, appeared on Charlie Rose and been praised enthusiastically in all the right places (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/06/02/an-artist-takes-on-cancer/), I had never heard his name. Yet my good scheuer5instincts kicked in when his new album (Songs From THE LION) was described in a press release. Something about its unusual warmth (could the writer actually believe what (s)he was writing?) and unusual content (Scheuer has had what the Chinese call an” interesting life” marked by serious illness and loss) caught my attention. So I checked out a link within.
He had me at frame one, measure one, and wouldn’t let go:

More, the press material included a rave by Mary Chapin Carpenter, describing his appearance as part of her UK tour at the Royal Albert Hall in London. That, dear readers, is huge—really huge. How could a lone singer and his guitars connect with listeners in its 8,000 places? Because he’s a world-class connector who can turn that space into your living room. Because his fearlessness can stop you in your tracks. So how could I not race to hear him up close, alive and well, in the Rubin Museum’s intimate auditorium?

The house was full; the crowd handsome, hip and sleekly dressed, in the know and waiting—like the six acoustic guitars already onstage—for their hero. The unlikely troubadour entered to a roar in his working clothes: intensely colored suit, shirt, tie, pocket handkerchief. And―surprise―knee-high Paul Bunyan boots made for striding.

One can analyze Scheuer’s music and lyrics; his harmonies are comforting,  but deftly laced with flashes of progressions that surprise (like his boots). Just when you think you know where things scheuer3are going they remind you that he’s the pilot. They twine around his lyrics, rhyme or free verse, complex ideas that pack a very direct emotional wallop. They sneak up on you; not so much flashes of surprise, but cannily structured bits of theatre that build stealthily to a climax, invade your heart. Don’t even try to distance yourself. Just give in to discovery.

What Scheuer has, in spades, is a low-key charm, a magnet that captures, and keeps, your attention. He is affable, chatting and singing, even when describing the darkest days of his life, and hilarious when recounting his meeting, and pursuing, Ms. Right. He has a lot of stories. What makes them go, whatever their content, is his generosity of spirit; he’s always in the moment, and you’re there with him. This is a man in the moon who enjoys performing and knows how to share his glow.

He’s an alumnus of the Johnny Mercer Foundation Songwriters Project, a music theatre crucible where creatives are driven to the next level. Also an alumnus of Eton and Harvard. Yes, his background has given him access to the basics of being Out There. But it’s his enormous talent 

Benjamin Scheuer in the hip musical hit "The Lion." Caption: Karen D'Souza Photo credit: Matthew Murphy Courtesy of ACT

Benjamin Scheuer in the musical hit “The Lion.”
Caption: Karen D’Souza Photo credit: Matthew Murphy
Courtesy of ACT

and empathy that have moved him far beyond the benefits of favors to win the laurels he deserves. He’s his own man, and they are very, very real. He has also chosen collaborators, kindred spirits (like Peter Baynton,who directed his videos) who have found exactly the right key to make his songs resonate on stage and screen.

Now for the bottom line: those songs make you cry, except when they make you laugh. He has the gift of alchemy. His father’s death and his own illness have been transmuted into universal experiences that cut right through your defenses and any scar tissue you’ve accrued from living in the 21st century. The real miracle is how he’s made lemonade out of some really colossal lemons. He stands tall and radiates hope, and you catch it, like some redemptive antibiotic. Especially when he announces that he will celebrate his fifth anniversary of being cancer-free this July.

If you’re lucky enough to snag a ticket, celebrate the occasion with him in person at Guild Hall in East Hampton on July 1st (https://www.guildhall.org/). You can watch his videos on YouTube (there are many) and relish the CD of Songs from THE LION (Paper Music/ADA). His Web site (http://benjaminscheuer.com/) will tell you 242BenjaminScheuerwhere to catch him live later on: this troubadour is taking his show on the road, big time! Shine on, Ben―shine on. It’s a lovely light.

Apollo’s Girl

June 18, 2016

Film

apollo and lyre

 

Open Roads: Just Gone,
but Not Forgotten…
HRW: Right Here, Right Now

What’s not to love about Open Roads? Always overflowing with joie de vivre, poetry and violence; with the occasional historical film to open roadsrelish, and resonant with the humanity for which the Italians are famous. Of course it can come at a price—heightened decibels―but two of this year’s standouts at the Film Society of Lincoln Center were whispers, far more powerful than any shout.

.Arianna, a narrative feature debut by Carlo Lavagna, was a real jewel, as unexpected as it was tender and perplexing, lofted by an extraordinary actress—Ondina Quadri—whose candor and Ariannasubtlety matched the script. The story of young intersex woman unfolds with considerable full-frontal nudity and sexual exploration. Could it have been exploitative? Certainly. But not in Arianna. What might have been distasteful with another director seems here compassionate and always respectful of the people (and especially the person) whose lives have been constrained by a secret: parents who deeply loved their son and wanted to save him from the cruelty he would suffer if they didn’t act on his behalf. And the son himself, turned surgically into a daughter as a young child before he could understand what he might expect. And most of all, the remarkable Ms. Quadri who remains luminous, mysterious, and entirely appealing throughout the film. Her journey is both heartbreaking and reassuring as she finds the strength to accept herself and whatever future that may lead her to. So far, Lavagna has been nominated twice: for Best New Director, and Best Feature Film; there will be more. Quadri has won two awards at Venice for Best Actress in a Debut Film, and is currently in the forthcoming Il Nido

Banat (Dir.: Adriano Valerio) This, too, is a feature debut–by Valerio, whose handful of shorts include several nominations,banat and a Special Mention win at Cannes. His work as writer and cinematographer before Banat has sharpened his talent for shaping a narrative with images from long shot to closeup, like windows into the characters he has carved into his narrative. It is an unlikely love story, catching fire quickly and sustaining it as the lovers move from southern Italy to a run-down farm in Romania and cope with the displacement. Their relationship is sexual, affectionate and playful in equal measure. Valerio’s talent extends to watching over his cast; they are fully dimensional in the brief scenes that develop their story almost like a storyboard, allowing you to fill in the spaces between the frames. You will, and you will want Ivo (Edoardo Gabbriellini) and Clara (Elena Radonicich) to keep the heat alive long after the credits roll.

Human Rights Watch (https://ff.hrw.org/)


hrwThere were women everywhere throughout HRW, behind the cameras and captured by them; perhaps the most unlikely a Chinese heroine (Ye Haiyan) nicknamed Hooligan Sparrow. Her journey (more properly called an ordeal) traces her evolution from country girl to prostitute to ardent activist in a country where activism is sure to be treated more harshly than sex-for-money—illegal, but pervasive. It began with the news of an elementary school principal who had taken six of his students to a hotel. As we learn, the sentence for child prostitution in China is less than that for rape. Ye Haiyan’s response was to stand with a sign reading “Hey, principal—sleep with me; leave the kids alone.” As the storm swirling around her and first-time filmmaker Nanfu Wang gathered, the government’s Goliath geared up to demolish them. Wang was physically assaulted more than once, and Ye Haiyan was hounded from one town to another. During one attack, she and her belongings were dumped out all over a highwayand left there. Perhaps Hooligan Sparrow is technically rough, but Wang (literally shooting from the hip) was strong enough to capture the fierce emotion and courage that will be sending this Sparrow around the world.

 Sonita (Dir.: Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami) Although technically a documentary, Sonita is a hair’s breadth

(Photo: Stephanie Sidoti)

(Photo: Stephanie Sidoti)

away from a narrative with a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction plot that keeps you on the edge of your seat for most of its 90 minutes. Sonita Alizadeh, with dreams of becoming a rapper, is promised in marriage in her mid-teens. Through sheer determination and the help of the filmmaker, a support organization, and assorted samaritans at home and abroad, Sonita finds her way out of Afghanistan and into a university music program in Utah then, in short order, to the Internet as a viral sensation and recording artist in the fast lane. Turns out she’s as talented as she’s ingenious, and there’s no turning back: the film won both the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary.

Jackson is likely to make you very, very mad and look for a way to get even on jacksonbehalf of April, the heroine of Maisie Crow’s both even-handed and inflammatory portrait of Jackson, Mississippi, where Barbara Beavers (Executive Director of the Center for Pregnancy Choices) and Shannon Brewer (Director of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization) try very hard to help April navigate a hardscrabble life. April has good instincts and a loving heart, and four children, born one year apart. As events unfold, Brewer and Beavers seem to have a common goal—to limit unplanned pregnancies. But Beavers’ solutions are abstinence or adoption; Brewer’s, birth control or (if desired by the client and early enough) abortion. Yes, Crow is an observant and disciplined filmmaker who has done her homework on the issues, but I won’t bet on audiences watching Jackson being able to remain calm for long, especially after seeing how the story plays out. The racial and economic divide may be implicit, but remains alive and well in Jackson.

Growing Up Coy (Dir.: Eric Juhola) will make you think for a long time after it’s over. Initially about a young transgender child who identifies as a girl, it develops into a complex legal battle over her right to use the bathroom of her choice at school, and into thecoy portrait of remarkably open-minded parents who want their child to thrive and are determined to remain supportive of her wishes. But things change: the issues become a magnet for school officials, politicians, lawyers andinevitablythe media. Lines are drawn and the public weighs in. The pressures to remain strong or to back off become an emotional roller coaster for parents and children, changing the balance of their relationships. They know that life in the spotlight, however painful, may lead to the victory that will empower their daughter. In the end, by standing fast and with the aid of their dedicated lawyer, they win. We are left to wonder what their future will bring once the spotlight is turned off, and there are definitely no easy answers to the question.

P.S. Jerusalem (Dir.:Danae Elon) As the daughter of renowned journalist and author Amos Elon, known for jerusalemhis disillusionment over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, Danae Elon has created a search for identity that is as clear-eyed as it is sensitive. Its sequences mirror her move (with her husband and children) from New York to the Israel of her youth, where she hopes to recapture a sense of “home.”

But, using her camera as both recorder and shield, her honesty and her sensibilities draw her into reflections that make her “home” increasingly problematic. While often beautiful to behold, her film captures the overt and the subtle realities of her home as it is now. p.s. jerusalemThis view from inside is ultimately painful, but required viewing for anyone who understands the importance of resolving the conflicts that persist in the powder keg that has replaced the Promised Land.

P.S. Human Rights Watch This was a very, very good year..

 


Cooper’s London

May 1, 2016

TV/Music/Opera

!cid_A15726B8-792D-4BB3-8E63-1E1A0B6E6E5E@westell

 

 

Fearless Prediction:
The Night Manager

 

 

This TV series based on the John Le Carre novel hasnight manager been a huge success in the UK and is something not to be missed now that it’s hit small screens in the US. Apart from the contemporary resonances given to the story by an update to the original novel, this is simply one of the best-photographed, best-acted and most stunningly engaging series to come out of the BBC, ever. It is bound to be as legendary as the old Smiley’s People and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy series with Alec Guiness. Both Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie give immensely nuanced performances in their roles as a double agent and illegal arms dealer; night manager 2Olivia Colman is superb as the heavily pregnant, obsessively moral spy mistress after the Hugh Laurie character and running Tom Hiddleston; Tom Hollander is suitably camp and sinister as Corcoran; and Elizabeth Debicki is in the same class as Tilda Swinton playing the romantic, troubled Jed. The writing by John le Carre and David Farr is classy, witty and dark.ster. The directing by Susanne Bier deserves unstinting praise. Shot as if it were a high-quality film, The Night Manager doesn’t dawdle; and all of its six hours are needed to work out the complex and exciting tale. At no point does the tension disperse; at no point is any aspect of the writing, direction, acting or photography anything but superbly realized. Quite simply, it grabs you from the opening moments of the first episode and speeds forward, always provocative, worrying, and morally challenging. I dare you not to be completely engrossed. I certainly advise you not to miss it. This is one class act!

Joyce & Tony: Live at Wigmore Hall
Erato 0825646 107896

Verdi, Aida, Anja Harteros, Jonas Kaufmann, Ekaterina Semenchuk, Ludovic Tezier, Erwin Schrott/ Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, conducted by Antonio Pappano Warners 3 CDs 0825646 106639

________________________________________________________________________________________


wigmore hallAntonio Pappano
has recently conducted two recordings that are highly recommended additions to any library. 
The concert he did at the Wigmore Hall in September 2014 with Joyce di Donato has actually won a Grammy award, and take my word for it, it’s deserved! The program consists of mezzo material from Haydn and Rossini that di Donato has made her own over the years; she sings the first half of the concert with impeccable taste and understanding.

Though I have indelible memories of Janet Baker’s performance of Haydn’s Arianna a Naxos that even Joyce di Donato cannot drive into second place, I would put assumption of this cantata up there with Baker’s. And I certainly was just as won over by her Rossini songs. She’s a dazzling interpreter of this kind of material with her richly lyrical, controlled and warm voice, as well as a real relationship to the words she’s singing. Listen to her performance of “La Danza” by Rossini. It won’t replace the interpretation by Mario Lanza; but it’s certainly good enough to be mentioned in the same breath and returned to regularly.

joyce and tonyPappano is an impeccable partner for di Donato throughout this live recital. In the second half of the concert, they reflect their American backgrounds with some wonderful material from what is now called The American Songbook. Some people have claimed that di Donato sounds too fruity in this repertoire, but I find her approach utterly pleasing. Hearing this music sung in her unique way—especially the songs by Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen– is definitive as far as I’m concerned. Thank goodness this recital was recorded so we can hear and enjoy it forever and remember what all the fuss was about.

Another Pappano recording that caught my attention even more forcefully is the new and much-anticipated Aida. Right from the start you know this is going to be a major collectable: first, from the way Pappano conducts the contemplative, sad, soft overture, and then from the way he supports the declamation of the High Priest; and finally from Jonas Kaufmann’s inward, intense singing of “Celeste, Aida”. Under Pappano’s direction the orchestra and the soloists consistnetly follow all the dynamics in the score; Kaufmann actually takes the final note of his first aria piano with a lovely diminuendo as suggested by Verdi.

This recording puts you in the presence of artists who take their commitment to the work very seriously. Several critics have claimed that this interpretation does not quite match the great recordings made by Solti and Karajan in the early stereo era, or supercede the famous Toscanini broadcast of the opera. How silly! This recording is its own thing.

I found it consistently considered, spacious, and remarkably true to Verdi’s intentions musically; it’s also always convincingly sung and acted. The comparisons seem to me beside the point. You can hear them all and make up your own mind; they’re not mutually exclusive, but each illuminates aspects of the score in different ways. You need them all!Aida-Rome

Also there’s something compelling about being able to hear the best contemporary artists and their interpretations of this work. Listen to the classic assumptions by all means; but don’t dismiss the performance that is brought before you now.

Anna Harteros has the right kind of dramatic heft in her voice for the role of Aida. Her singing of “Ritorna, Vincitor”, for example, has a clean vocal approach that I found captivating. She’s sublime in “O patria mia”. Jonas Kaufman sounds both heroic and sensitive as Radames; and Ekaterina Semchuk steals every scene she’s in as Amneris; while the superb French baritone Ludovic Tézier as aida2Amonosro is wonderful not only in his singing but also in characterizing a cold, tyrannical father–a sort of Stalin of ancient Ethiopia. Bonus: Semchuck is particularly fine at the shadings of her role, but knows just when to chew the scenery. When she curses the priests for condemning Radames, you know they will remain cursed for a good long time. Erwin Schrott is luxury casting for the smallish role of Ramfis.

For me, after listening to it repeatedly, the recording pretty much lives up to the hype that preceded it and is certainly one of the best all-round performances of this opera in years. But I do have one quibble with this set that may just be personal; I found that the recording’s dynamic range is so wide that at times the quiet passages nearly disappeared and the big moments were liable to make me jump in my seat. But you can hang onto your volume controls, and maybe it’s just a matter of my now somewhat ageing stereo equipment not being up to contemporary sound engineering.

The presentation and booklet for this set are top-class. This is an essential performance where Pappano and the Orchestra of Santa Cecilia in Rome have brought out so many nuances, so much refreshing and well-considered detail, that it reminds one why Aida was, once upon a time, one of the most beloved and performed operas in the repertoire, always placed somewhere in the top five.aida3

Aida has slipped from grace rather in the past couple of decades, possibly because that much spectacle is very expensive to mount these days of Draconian budget cuts; but this recording seems to me to go a good deal of the way towards restoring it to a peak position on the Best Operas list. It’s a great drama about the conflict between private desire and public duty; a nearly perfect score; and a performance entirely worthy of such a masterpiece, for its casting, and particularly for its conductor Antonio Pappano, whose baton controls the soloists, chorus and orchestra with a mastery of Verdian style. And perhaps because it is so good, it also provokes a strong desire to go back and listen, once again, to Maria Callas, Leontyne Price and Renata Tebaldi in their legendary performances as Aida; to Jussi Björling as Radames; sophia lorenor even to see once again the old 1950s Italian movie where the angelic voice of Renata Tebaldi emerges from the mouth of a very young and sumptuously gorgeous Sophia Loren.

So if you have no Aida at all, this is as good a place to start as any; it is a fine reading of the work, and if it stimulates you to listen to Karajan with Tebaldi and Bergonzi, or Solti with the astonishingly perfect Leontyne Price and Jon Vickers, that would be a good thing too. But pappanoremember that Pappano can absolutely hold his own, and don’t dismiss this version just because a few old fogeys are nostalgic for some of the great performances of the past. Be grateful, rather, that they’re all available for our delight and that these contemporary performers have created another very fine interpretation of the work to add to the list of un-missable Aida recordings.

Apollo’s Girl

April 24, 2016

Film

apollo and lyre

What’s New and Different:
FSLC and MoMA

There was plenty to chew on and savor this year, downloadplenty to think about, and a sense that filmdespite the trail of tears of financing and distributionis alive and well in a number of places. In Iran, for instance, Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari) is a curious and affecting combination of war story, ghost story, and the plight of women in a crumbling society. More effective, and far under the shadowmore unsettling, than a conventional anti-war narrative,
Anvari manages to combine several themes into a cohesive and original political statement for his narrative feature debut. http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/ndnf-interview-babak-anvari/

bodyguardTwo shorts were exceptional, compressing volumes into the cinematic equivalent of a highly distilled brandy: Concerning the Bodygyard (Kasra Farahani, from a story by Donald Barthelme) for which Salman Rushdie provides the film’s narration, and Farahani’s elegant, reductive sensibilities provide the sting.

In The Digger (Ali Cherri), Sultan Khan, the lone caretaker of crumbling grave sites makes his rounds, dedicated to protecting what remains of the desert’s ancient civilizations. The The-Digger-2camera records a vast, quiet emptiness in which Khan’s tiny figure is almost lost, plodding through endless sand dunes under a merciless sun; the brick structures are disintegrating and their graves have been emptied. The film’s silence makes space for the viewer to imagine the story of what once was; what is is imposed by a slow reveal of Sharjah’s enormous oil refineries shimmering in the distance. In the right hands (and Cheri’s are), the truth is shattering.

happy hourAt the other end of the clock, there’s Happy Hour (Ryusûke Hamaguchi). The movie begins with a train carrying four friends to an outing, moving through a tunnel into the light; you know you are going on a ride. But if you expect to be restless at the leisurely pace and length (317 minutes) of Happy Hour, think again. You are much more likely to be surprised by how quickly you’re drawn in at first, then hypnotized by the way Hamaguchi weaves his tale of 30-somethings living and maturing in Kobe. Many of the scenes are shot in real time, with the four women, their relatives and significant others reacting to one another, sharing their adventures and coping with the social pressures of modern Japan. It’s storytelling by accretion, as layers of acutely observed behavior accumulate to pay off over time. You learn as you go, and the more you learn in each scene, the more you understand in the next, or one half-an-hour down the line. Infidelity? Jealousy? Sisterhood? Risky behavior? The weight of the past in the present? They’re all here, and more, to keep you entranced as Hamaguchi’s complicated structure rises on the screen. If the devil is in the details, it is Hamaguchi’s ability to see them, and to use them to reveal the humanity of his flawed but ultimately fascinating women. (The four shared the award for Best Actress at the Locarno Festival.)

Thithi (Raam Reddy) Nothing like the polite Anglo exercises of Merchant/Ivory, or the streamlined homecomings of Mira Nair, and definitely not like the Bollywood of many Indian thithi2
filmmakers now making deep inroads into Western cinema, Thithi is totally immersive, yanking you into the village culture of South India with its unfamiliar sights and sounds. For two hours you are inside a saga that begins with the death of a centenarian (who simply collapses on the street where he spends most of his days), continues through the generational family agendas that emergealways at oddsimmediately after, continues to unfold through an exotic shaggy dog story, and ends with a funeral to end all funerals. There are some choice quotes: “I’ll pass his life through a strainer,” and “This is a place where dogs lay eggs”, and some joyously discordant music. The cast stays in constant motion, traveling barefoot, by moped and by tractor. All in all, it’s quite a trip.

the fits2The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer) After NDNF’s Grand Tour The Fits comes home to Cincinnati for the coming-of-age story of a young Black girl struggling to find out where, and how, she fits in with her friends and family. She helps her older brother out with chores at the gym where he works, sees lots, says little, and misses nothing. She boxes occasionally, and joins a dance drill team preparing for a competition. An epidemic of “fits” runs through the dancers and teachers, unexplained. So the script is occasionally puzzling, sometimes extended with a rich score, or slow-motion for emphasis. But what carries the entire story is the haunting presence of its young star, Royalty Hightower, whose melancholy eyes and quiet presence capture both your imagination and your attention. Watch for her…

evolutionEvolution is an example of what feels like a brand-new sub-genre of science-fiction: an indirect story. An elegant, truly original idea (in this case, a reversal of the reproductive process) Evolution incorporates eerie cinematography and lighting, the mysterious power of the seashore and the sea, a series of clone-like young mothers, and their clone-like young sons. There is a hint of Frankenstein and some curious medical procedures. A mythic sensibility pervades the strange plot which, because it’s so beautifully told and so tantalizingly revealed, draws you into a guessing game that no one fully wins. But the journey is fascinating.

A little bit a documentary of the Italian countryside, a lot a lost and beautifulreference to the eternal traditions of commedia, dell’arte, Lost and Beautiful (Pietro Marcello) mixes things up in cunning ways. It beings with the story of a “real” caretaker who dedicates himself to preserving the ruins of a noble palace. He is loved and respected for his selflessness, but as he lies dying, he convinces the filmmaker to find a Pulcinella to rescue a buffalo calf. Thus begins a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress as Pulcinella and calf make their way to their destiny. The tone is set with the calf’s voiceover statement: “I would have liked to have been born on the moon; nothing could be worse than where I live now…this is my story.” Or: “I’m proud to be a buffalo; in a world without a heart, being a buffalo is an art.” Magical realism prevails; the calf finds a new home and, finally, the castle is beautifully restored for all to see. Dedicated to its real-life caretaker, the film is (like many others in this year’s festival)a quirky and original entry.

Kaili Blues (Gan Bi). Another original marvel, and something kaili bluesof a Chinese shaggy dog story, resonant with texture and imagination. In other words, a non-linear narrative that often drops its clues and references entire sequences away from their payoff. Although set in contemporary China, its characters are shaped by the country’s ancient and recent history, which surfaces in intriguing and often unexpected ways. A doctor sees his brother (a bit of a no-goodnick) who is interested in selling his son, Wei Wei. The doctor wants to adopt Wei Wei, but appears too late. He sets out on an odyssey to find him in the country, full of beautiful mountains and rivers, and odd shabby little towns, and encounters villagers, mysterious women, and finally, a band of archaic people marching to a funeral, playing their instruments, whom he’s been seeking for many years. When he finds Wei Wei at last, he finds a grown man who doesn’t recognize him. But creating a synopsis of Kaili Blues is like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. Its fractured timeline, the density of its references to Chinese culture, the wow factor of its spectacular 40-minute tracking shot and the depth, richness and sharp-eyed skill of its director require multiple viewings.

mountainTwo films from Israel (one co-produced with Denmark) focus on the difficulties of living under the restrictions of Orthodox Judaism, and particularly on the effects of its rigid attitudes toward sex and emotional expression. The first, Mountain (Yaelle Kayam), is a story (based on the Talmud) like no other I’ve seen. Living next to a cemetary on the Mount of Olives with her children and her indifferent husband, Zvia (Shani Klein)is deeply lonely and isolated; her only acquaintance an Arab man who looks after the cemetary, with whom she occasionally chats. At night, she gradually forges a relationship with the prostitutes and pimps who work the area, bringing them food and drink as she looks on. She feels the stirrings of curiosity and more, yet is frozen into the role she must play as Orthodox wife and mother.

tikkunIn Tikkun (Avishai Sivan), the volatile moods and desperation of a Rabbinical student (Aharon Traitel) are evident when he faints at the sight of his own blood after sharpening a pencil. The film’s black-and-white cinematography underscores the growing intensity of its story. There is little dialogue, but what there is leaves no room for ambivalence: the father (given to heavy-handed determinism) tells his anguished son, “God gave us our bodies; you have to worship God through your body.” The son replies, “I hate my body!” For the son in Tikkun and the wife in Mountain, God has no pity, and offers the pain of stifled lives with no respite. Although Tikkun has a streak of mysticism that provides great beauty, it is no match for its sorrow.

Weiner (Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg) Described as “ a hybrid of classic documentary techniques and reality-based dramatic storytelling,” Weiner is, more accurately, a Very Big Deal and a Very Big Story recent enough to be conjured up by many outrageous moments throughout the film, and by an opening quote from Marshall McLuhan, “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he almost never recovers.” For the reference to McLuhan, I leave readers to Google the name in question. But for the film? It’s fast and furious, and often full of double takes, emotions whisked under the rug in front of the camera’s harsh eye, and details increasingly painful to behold. Well-made and clever, of course, weinerbut the unavoidable question looming at the end of the film’s 100 minutes is: why on earth did ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin (one of Hillary Clinton’s top aides and her former Deputy Chief of Staff at the State Department) agree to have their overflowing hamper of linen washed in public? Perhaps it seemed to them that it would be useful for their future in politics; perhaps the savvy producers simply talked them into it. But given the couple’s considerable experience and sophistication in the political arena, that seems unlikely. While we are often given more information than we might want, it does not include an answer to the question, nor a happy ending. It is, however, very entertaining, and lures us in with a surfeit of the very techniques that keep us wringing our hands over the tenor of our festering political climate.



Cooper’s London

March 24, 2016

Books

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Not Entirely Frank
Sinatra: Behind the Legend
(J. Randy Taraborelli)

sinatra behind the legendThough it often feels as if he’s still with us, Frank Sinatra will be 100 on December 16. To celebrate, J. Randy Taraborelli has revised and updated his original biography of the 1990s with considerable skill. Old Blue Eyes was still alive when taraborelliit was first written and, with age, was getting ever more cantankerous and litigious. Since then, of course, archives have been opened; more people have come forth to be interviewed, and so, even if you have the original book, this is a worthwhile replacement.

Still, I approached Sinatra with the ghost of kitty kelleyKitty Kelley’s effort still hovering in my consciousness, and I want to say up front that in most ways Taraborelli’s is preferableincluding the fact that it moves more swiftly through the material. All the shocking revelations that Kelley presented in a totally negative way appear in this book, too: for example, the abortions performed by Dolly Sinatra; the philandering, gambling, and drinking; the psychological abuse of his wives; and the way Sinatra found the Mob and Las Vegas to be the ultimate in glamour.

But instead of being a hatchet job, this biography tries to understand where Sinatra came from, to be sympathetic or to some degree understanding about the weaknesses and foibles of the man, sinatra familyhis mother, his friends. Taraborrelli tries to interpret them from the Sinatra point of view over and over again, and his analyses of how Frank or Dolly would have seen them are convincing. His view is more balanced in its assessments and conclusions; this makes for a far more interesting read. Neither an unthinking fan nor a declared hater of Frank Sinatra; he simply chronicles the life in a straightforward fashion, leaving the reader to make up his or her own mind. I wavered for a while, but in the end chose not to befriend Sinatra, nor risk his befriending me. (I would not wish to have dinner with him at the Brown Derby.) But how I wish I’d attended some of the concerts over the years…

Taraborrelli is also very good at referencing the entire Sinatra discography (from way back with Harry James and the Dorseys right up to the last concept albums) and in explaining how his work evolved over time. We learn about his interpretations of specific songs and the way he put his stamp on them; his interest in and contributions to the orchestrations; and also the input of gardner sinatramusicians with whom he liked working. The author deals sympathetically with the dip in Sinatra’s career from 1949 to 1953 and with his unquenchable passion for Ava Gardner and how she helped him get back on track. Sinatra also reveals his inability to control the mood swings and paranoia that made him quick to ditch people if he felt they had betrayed him in any way; and made him perpetually deaf to the other side of the tale.

Taraborelli shows us a talented, iconic and hugely successful entertainer who was also a very flawed, egocentric human being, most likely bipolar. But he also happened to possess two enormous talents; or maybe one should say he was possessed by singing and acting abilities at the highest level.

from here to eternityHis role as Maggio in From Here to Eternity helped consolidate his return to the top in the 1950s after a few years in the wilderness as a singer as well; the Capitol and Reprise years are documented in fascinating detail; so are turns in Suddenly; The Man with the Golden Arm; Some Came Running; and The Manchurian Candidate, or even lighter fare: High Society; The Tender Trap; or Ocean’s 11. Sinatra was quite impressive as a producer (but drew mixed reviews when he directed Only the Brave).

The man was a superb, professional and committed show business performer, whatever he chose to turn his hand or his vocal chords to; and that he was very proud of being known as a totally honest singer. Despite his philandering and gambling and psychologically abusive behaviour, he was honest about his personal life, too, and always very open about his thoughts and beliefs; he always seemed to say what he was thinking, even when it was unfair or hurtful. But somehow, when he sang or acted, recordinghe managed to suspend his raging ego so that primarily, as a performer, he always served his art.

The weakness of this book, for me, is that it doesn’t go deeply enough into the mind-set, thinking, or approach of Sinatra the artist. We don’t always get a sense of how he prepared his songs or his roles, or what went into his creativity. There are some hints here and there, but essentially we see his daily life; his love life; his links to the Mob; and his complex personality. One does get a sense of how important Nancy Sinatra Sr and Jr, Tina Sinatra, Frank Junior, all four wives and several of the girlfriends were to him, as well as his closest and longest-serving friends, his lawyers and his agents.

The book is well-written in an easy, journalistic style. marilyn-monroeSome of the detailslike a brief plan to marry Marilyn Monroe and save her from herselfwere a surprise. But there are no compelling new insights into what made Sinatra so attractive to his women and his friends; what made him such fun to be with; what his charm was. We are told it existed and we get a lot of tales about its impact. But how this man turned himself into one of the great interpreters of American song of the 20th century as well as, at times, a top- class actor giving Oscar-worthy performances, remains a mystery. And I would also love to have learned what, after a certain point in his life, made him shy away from the kind of intense and harrowing roles he had undertaken in the 1950s. For a while he was clearly striving to challenge himself and stretch his talents; and then His Way turned into the easy way. What was it in his personality rather than just in his fame and talent that attracted the long-term loyalties of such a disparate group of people? That’s a mystery, too, and an impossible question to answer because Frank Sinatra was complicated, but not much given to introspection; neither is Taraborelli.

Still, this is definitely one of the best and most informative Sinatra biographies you can get, and certainly a whole lot less nasty than some of the others. To tell you the truth, and more to the point, it sinatra5made me want to listen to his recordings again and run the DVDs of several of his films, including those old MGM musicalseven The Kissing Bandit(!). I’m convinced about the talent. I want to experience it anew, and Sinatra will get me going.

Apollo’s Girl

March 19, 2016

Theatre, Film

apollo and lyre

 

 

TFANA: Pericles (through April 10)
VOD: Angel of Nanjing; Sunny in the Dark

Since moving to its new home at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, TFANA has continued to bond brilliantly with like-minded companies and strong directors; Julie Taymor, Peter Brook, Andre Gregory, Sarah Benson, Jessie Austrian/Ben Steinfeld, andright nowpericles 2that canny Brit, Trevor Nunn. As artistic director of the RSC and the National Theatre, he has turned his hand to art (who can forget Nicholas Nickleby?) and artful commerce (who can forget Cats or Les Mis?); TFANA has charged him with creating the best of both worlds for its new production of Pericles, and we are lucky to have him in the right place at the right timeto celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th birthday.

pericles 3Pericles is a late play, and its attribution is as intricate as its plot. As Nunn states in his Director’s Note, “After…[Shakespeare’s] inspired completion of increasingly dark and pessimistic tragedies…Pericles appears to be heading in the same…direction. But then something else happens…redemption, rebirth, the relenting of the Gods…hope. The text repeatedly asks for music, dance…mime…and a strong indication that some passages should be sung. …we are no longer able to apply shakespeare2the categories of Comedy and Tragedy… instead…[it’s an] opportunity for what can only be described as ‘total theatre.’” How better to celebrate a birthday?

The production is a marvel of shipwrecks, gorgeous costumes (evocative, yet modern, by Constance Hoffman), protean sets and props (Robert Jones), and a lavish use of tropes that we enjoy and expect from Shakespeare: children and lovers lost and found; power stripped from the worthy by the ambitious; epic journeys from one part of the ancient world to another; and finally that happy ending that seems beyond reach until the dea gives us a machina of justice, reunions and marriages. The cast (some in multiple roles, many familiar from TFANA’s roster) is led by Christian Camargo as Pericles; Raphael Nash Thompson as Gower, the storyteller, pericles 5Philip Casnoff as Helicanus; Nina Hellman pericles4as both Cleon’s wife (one tough cookie!) and the goddess Diana; and Lilly Englert as Pericles’ daughter, Marina. The recognition scene at the end of Pericles’ odyssey is heartbreaking, until (thanks to the author’s skill), it isn’t. The storyteller has the last word: “So, on your patience evermore attending, New joy wait on you! Here our play has ending.”pericles

Shakespeare’s anniversary year, however, is definitely not ending. And TFANA has some aces up its sleeve to keep the party going: a series of readings, exhibitions, and discussions at its home base in Brooklyn, and at the CUNY Graduate Center and the New York Historical Society in Manhattan. It’s truly a movable feast to be consumed with pleasure: www.tfana.org/shakespeare400, and most events are free!

VOD: Angel of Nanjing (Frank Ferendo, Jordan Horovitz)
As it opens,
Angel of Nanjing seems to nanjingbe about the ordinary life of Chen Si, a Chinese Everyman; getting dressed while his wife cooks breakfast, then leaving for work at a logistics company on his moped. But as he pulls away, we see that instead of a number, the back of his jacket has a maxim: “Cherish Life Every Day.” It’s our first hint that Chen Si is most extraordinaryno Everyman, but a Chinese Catcher in the Rye, who has saved the lives of over 300 would-be suicides about to jump off the Yangtze Bridge; since his daily route takes him to the bridge to see if anyone is about to leap, he seldom goes directly to the office.

Part of the fascination of Angel is encountering some of the many grateful survivors who literally owe Chen everything, but much of it is in the revelation of the hero’s character and the incredible ingenuity with which he plies the hobby that has taken over his life. Despite the grim statistics he quotes, “…290,000 commit suicide annually in China; one-third of the world’s total,” he adds “…60% of people who jump off this bridge are from outside the city; so am I. I understand them.” The real kicker in this film is realizing how skillful Chen—a cheerful guy with a happy marriage and a pretty wife, but no formal training in psychology or medicine—has become at his avocation. It has made him famous angel(“All eighth-grade social books in the entire country have my name and phone number!”), driven him to build a “soul center” for recovering depressives, and attracted several student interns to help manage the chaos. They are all invited to his annual Christmas party.

In this country,” he muses, “there are few people who will listen to you.” His secret weapons are being able to talk, and listen to, everyone, and being able to spot a potential jumper from sixty meters away. He copes with drink, billiards and karaoke, and is philosophical about his life: “My wife predicted I would do this only for a short time,” he smiles. And when his wife breaks her leg playing badminton and is told she will wear a cast for two months, he simply picks her up and carries her (and her cast) home on his back. That’s the kind of guy he is.

Angel is an original look at a serious and universal problem, solved by an unlikely hero who simply refuses to give up; a welcome antidote to the headlines that assault us every day. He and the film’s revelation of an unpublicized aspect of China have won the filmmakers Best Documentary awards at eight festivals to date, with more on the way. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s53FfWlv6tM

Sunny in the Dark (Director: Courtney Ware; Script: Mike Maden)
sunny
This is one intriguing movie, combining elements of psychological thriller, romance, a dash of the supernatural, sunny1and urban living. It’s Ware’s first, based on an earlier short film, and has a story that plays well in the hands of the remarkably talented Hannah Ward, a waif who can make the most of a character desperately seeking love and companionship without being able to speak to the object of her affections 
(Jay Huguley). He’s a therapist recovering from divorce who withdraws from the world (when he isn’t practicing his chosen profession) by finding a quiet sanctuary in which to listen to music and paint action figures in a tiny Mediaeval scene. Ward (unbeknownst to hannah wardhim) has been living in the crawl space above his apartment, spying on him through a crack in the ceiling. She falls hard, and begins using his rooms during the day to eat, bathe, explore his photo albums and play with his figurines, rushing back upstairs when he comes home. She fantasizes a relationship with him, and gradually escalates her presence, tip-toeing around the apartment while he’s sleeping, hiding when he wakes. It’s a nifty, creative story with several surprises; hinting at any more of them here would turn them into spoilers, so see it yourself to learn how it turns out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SIqlbDJUao

 

Cooper’s London

March 13, 2016

Theatre/Opera

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Coming Up:
New and Different
(and Same Old) Stuff
in London

Despite regular and justified complaints that the London Theatre is being diminished by economic cuts and producers so terrified of losing money they’ll attempt nothing innovative or unusual, there’s still a surprisingly healthy scene for theatre-lovers. Not just in the capital but also thrughout the UK, where repertory theatres and major touring prouctions are alive and well and doing very good business. The continuing glory of the scene is the variety of approaches from the classics to the funky revivals of more recent plays and musicals; these are almost always original or subversive and also showcase extraordinary and treasurable talents.

Hoff0611Like every other marketplace, though, caveat emptor rules. For instance: I thought a new musical called Last Night a DJ Saved My Life was unadulterated dross, but it’s been touring extensively and has an audience that clearly adores its star, David Hasselhoff, who is the main draw. (He was a US TV magnet in The Young and the Restless, a popular soap, and a leading man in Baywatch.) Is he the Donald Trump of American entertainers, some stranger said during the interval? No. He’s much too classy by comparison. However, to me his show is a perfect example of creativity based entirely on opportunism and the lowest common denominator audiences. And lucky you! you’ll be able to see for yourself what the fuss is about on US TV very soon! It was filmed live on stage here in Oxford just for your delectation. And I bet you’ll be able to buy the DVD damned cheaply about two months after its release.

On the other hand, Chicago, for instance, has a touring company on its third round of all the UK’s notable venues, with such an interesting and slickly adept new cast that it’s selling out again with dangerous liaisonsgood reason. In London, there’s Dangerous Liaisons at the Donmar Warehouse, revived after 30 years with Christopher Hampton’s script/adaptation and a cast that includes the excellent Dominic West (as a less sinister but sexier Valmont than usual), and a scary Janet McTear as a believably evil Madame Merteuil, as well as veterans such as Una Stubbs. The pleasure of the revival, of “collecting” the performances, is undeniable; but it isn’t exactly an innovative idea. The play was recently broadcast live in cinemas and hopefully will be released on DVD preserve this production.

An interesting new production of Jean Anouilh’s Le voyageur sans bagages has just followed Dangerous Liaisons into the Donmar; I recommend this because Anouilh is, these days, unfairly neglected and underrated in the English-speaking world. This production is a new English version of the play by Anthony Weigh with a worthy but not starry cast. Weigh has called his new version Welcome Home, Captain Fox! and I’m guessing that it’ll be as much a reminder of Anouilh’s importance as the production of Flare Path was a year ago for reviving interest in Terrance Rattigan. (Written at the height of the Blitz in World War II and a favourite play of Winston Churchill’s, Flare Path has been successfully touring the country since its return to the West End.)

Another classic revival in the West End is a new fiennesadaptation, this time by David Hare, of Ibsen’s The Master Builder. With Ralph Fiennes for his Big Name Star, Matthew Warchus direct’s a very strong interpretation of the play and has a cast that works brilliantly as an ensemble. After 19 March The Master Builder is followed at the Old Vic by a new production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker with the brilliant Timothy Spall and again directed by the very imaginative (and very busy) Matthew Warchus, whose gift for inhabiting the text never fails to illuminate unexpected insights.

Down the road at the Young Vic, you might want to check out the plays in the smaller auditoria for new, funky texts. On the Main Stage, Peter Brook’s Battlefield, an adaptation of the Mahabaratha, played to full houses until 27 February, trailing clouds of glory from the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. Brook has a virtual annual residency for his work at the Young Vic, and a very fortunate thing that is for London, too. Following at the Young Vic is a show/musical/cabaret called If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me that sounds both interesting andhorrocks unusual. Starring the multi-talented Jane Horrocks (another Young Vic regular, having done The Good Woman of Szechuan and Annie Get Your Gun there), and conceived by her with Aletta Collins, who directs and choreographs, this promises to be memorable theatre. It runs in the main house from 10 March to 15 April. I am also looking forward to A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing in the Young Vic’s The Maria auditorium. Annie Ryan has adapted the novel by Elmear McBride and the star turn by Aiofe Duffin promises to be unforgettable.

At the National Theatre, the play that interests me the most this season is their production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson. Sharon D. Clarke is Ma Rainey and the director is Dominic Cooke, who ran the Royal Court Theatre so successfully from 2007-2013. From the stylish and apt way this production works, He clearly has a real affinity for this material. It’s ma raineyrunning in repertoire until mid-May according to current listings, but if it’s a success it will hopefully simply carry on. It’s one of the most powerful and exciting of the sequence of plays by Wilson portraying the experience of African-Americans, decade by decade, in the 20th century. Also coming up at the National from the end of March is a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s neglected and virtually unknown masterpiece, Les Blancs. The director is Yael Farber whose work has dazzled me since I saw a production of hers brought to the UK from South Africa about ten years ago. I need know nothing more. If you see the name Yael Farber as director on anything anywhere ever, just buy tickets and go. There’s also a revival of the notorious Harley Grandville-threepennyBarker play Waste that was famously banned by the UK censor in 1910 or so. You can still just catch that one. But just as excitingly as Ma Rainey, the RNT is staging a new production of the Brecht-Weill iconic Threepenny Opera from 18 May. Rufus Norris is directing a cast that includes Rory Kinnear.

Joshua Harmon’s successful comedy, Bad Jews, returned to London for a month from mid-February for a run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Ilan Goodman reprised his much-applauded role as Liam, alongside new cast members Ailsa Joy, Antonia Kinlay, and Jos Slovick. This American play is directed by Michael Longhurst. And Matthew Perry, of erstwhile Friends fame, has just opened in a play he himself has written called The End of Longing, about which I have heard not such very good things. Still, it is a brand-new play! There don’t seem to be many of those around these days!

Meanwhile the Almeida is doing yet another Uncle Vanya in a new version by Robert Icke. It runs through the end of March. It’s always worth seeing Uncle Vanya and the Almeida has a very good record with classics like this, so if you are in the mood for some Chekov, this could be a good bet. And when Nina announces that she’s a seagull for the third time, I think everyone in the audience should shout out: So flock off, lady! and see what happens…

Uncle Vanya is followed at the Almeida by a new play by Leo Butler called Boy. Last year, director-designer team Sacha Wares and Miriam Buether had a success with a groundbreaking production of a play called Game at the Almeida; however, the excitement and hype around this new production of theirs is based not just on their work as a team but also on the writing of Leo Butler who seems to be establishing himself as a talented playwright of political polemics that address hard current issues.

A new play about that Cockney cutie Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale has moved at last from Shakespeare’s Globe to the Apollo Theatre in the Strand. Nell_Gwynne_and_King_CharlesYou may recall that Nell (the mistress of Charles II) was one of the first actresses in England ever, and probably an inspiration for the character of Amber St Claire in the ripe Restoration bodice-ripper Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor. I’m attracted to this one partly because I just saw the excellent Queen Anne at the RSC and read again the brilliant and unjustly neglected masterpiece of a novel, Henry Esmond, by William Thackeray. This new play is like a prequel to all that.

This time round the consistently brilliant and many-faceted Gemma Arterton is

Gemma Arterton as Nell Gwynn ©Alastair Muir 10.02.16 Nell Gwynn 166

Gemma Arterton as Nell Gwynn ©Alastair Muir 10.02.16 Nell Gwynn 166

playing Nell. There was controversy over the casting of Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the role because she is black, but she’s a rising star and may be too busy with conflicting commitments. Do Google her! She’s quite wonderful. Also, Christopher Luscombe is directing Nell Gwynn again with some other cast changes as well. Luscombe is one of the most consistent, intelligent and witty directors in the UK at the moment. I always try to see anything he puts his hand to. His production of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor from the Globe Theatre, for instance, is available on DVD and is a good way to get a measure of just how talented this man is. Even though Arterton and Luscombe are involved, I’ll miss Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who caught the essence of a woman able to captivate both king and country. But then I expect Arterton to do no less. It’s a bawdy, entertaining and informative evening’s theatre. You might also want to check out the overlapping story of Edward Kynaston in Richard Eyre’s delightful 2004 film Stage Beauty (starring Claire Danes).

Also of note: the Royal Court is bringing the play I See You by Mongiwekhaya to London, before it plays at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, part of its commitment to international new plays which has long defined its lineup; while Jamie Lloyd is directing a new production of Genet’s The Maids at Trafalgar Studio 1; and the Kenneth Branagh Company season continues with The painkillerPainkiller at the Garrick Theatre from early March. The Painkiller stars Branagh and Rob Brydon in the Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon roles from Billy Wilder’s film adaptation of this material called Buddy, Buddy. Wilder’s film was based, in turn, on a play by Francis Veber; the material is adapted here by Sean Foley who also directs. Another attraction of this production is the appearance in one of the roles of the inestimable Claudie Blakely.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

…and some notes on notes…

The ENO has just done a successful-enough production of Norma directed by Christopher Alden. It has a strong cast and conductor and is set in the 19th century for reasons that make no sense to me, and it’s interesting to see how Alden approaches one of the ultimate, romantic, bel canto works. How many chairs will inhabit the set? Marjorie Owens will sing the demanding title role and to pique your interest further there is actually a preview snippet of her doing “Casta Diva/Virgin Goddess” with piano on the ENO site at https://www.eno.org/whats-on/15-16/norma

As well as a new Norma, the ENO is reviving their famous production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten for the first time in decades. I recall it as being totally mesmerising. Their musical this year from sunset blvdearly April will be Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard and they’ve got Glenn Close to repeat her assumption of the main role as Norma Desmond. Michael Xavier, who was a brilliant Sid Sorokin in a recent Pajama Game, will be Joe Gillis and Trevor Nunn is directing. And while we’re in a Broadway time warp, there’s also an upcoming revival of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s Funny Girl at the Savoy Theatre from early April that will star Sheridan Smith. This is great, it seems to me, for a younger generation for whom all these things are legends they could never before see live on stage. Meantime, a guys and dollsproduction of Guys and Dolls that originated in Chichester and transferred to the Savoy Theatre is so successful that it’s now transferring again, to make way for Funny Girl, this time to the Phoenix Theatre from 19 March 2016. Emma Thompson’s equally talented and totally wonderful sister, Sophie, is playing Miss Adelaide; and Jamie Parker’s singing as Sky Masterson was compared in some reviews to Sinatra’s! With David Haig as a fine Nathan Detroit, the musical is directed by Gordon Greenberg and choreographed by no less a dancer than Carlos Acosta. Beat that!

Meantime, at the ROH, there is that new production https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sehC_IP2Px8 of Boris Godunov for the first time in ages. Pappano is conducting and Bryn Terfel is undertaking the title role, with Richard Jones directing, so there ‘s a lot of excitement over that one! It opens on 14 March and hopefully will be broadcast to the world on cinema screens near you. Looking ahead to May, I would watch out for Enescu’s rarely performed opera Oedipe. There will also be a new production in April by Katie Mitchell of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor that is strongly double cast.

Looking even further ahead to June, I am personally very keen for one special thing: that Audra McDonald is bringing her Billie Holiday show, lady daydirector Lonny Price’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, to London. If you couldn’t get tickets on Broadway but are coming to the UK this is an absolute must. There is a fine Broadway cast recording, too. McDonald sings 14 songs and is never off the stage. Book now, and try this sample on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZTwdR3C6_E And please also try to acquire the Simon Rattle concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town in which Lady Audra is a superlatively acted and sung Eileen. She is, as always, utterly gorgeous in every way.

Cooper’s London

March 1, 2016

Theatre/Music

Mel snapshot 19

 

 

Coming Up, In and Out of London…

For imminent highlights, don quixotemy instincts tell me that first and foremost I must get tickets to see the new adaptation of Don Quixote appearing soon at the RSC. It plays 25 February until 21 May in The Swan at Stratford-upon-Avon and has definitely raised my hopes. The novel’s adaptation will be by James Fenton, whose The Orphan of Zhao in 2012 is still one of the best and most memorable shows that the RSC has commissioned. The director is Angus Jackson, whose imaginative staging of Oppenheimer I saw in 2015 was one of the most original, intelligent and dazzling realizations of a script imaginable. Its sheer theatricality is still with me; as are several of the spot-on performances that Jackson got from his actors. Actor david threlfallDavid Threlfall is playing the mad, appealing Knight of the Woeful Countenance, the original quixotic hero. Have you seen him on TV in the UK version of Shameless? He’s a reliable and dedicated character actor whose popularity goes back to playing Smyke in the eight-hour-long RSC production of Nicholas Nickleby in the early 1980s—a performance that is still available on DVD. Add to that the fact that the novel of Don Quixote is a wonderful but ridiculously long and varied text; it will be fascinating to see which bits Fenton chooses to include. Not long ago the RSC did a reconstruction of Shakespeare’s lost play based on Don Quixote, Cardenio. I am very excited about this project, which is in rehearsal already.

Looking further ahead, I am particularly keen on two of the many major opera and music festivals that arrive every summer. Gaining repute as the new Glyndebourne, this year’s just-released programme at the Longborough Festival in rural Gloucestershire is its most ambitious yet. Several audience favorites are returning among four operas: Handel’s baroque opera Alcina will be jeremy silverconducted by the adept and youthful Jeremy Silver who is working for the third consecutive year with the same production team and with young professionals early in their careers to give them a springboard. They have already shown that they can be both cheeky and moving in this repertory; and there will even be a performance at the Greenwood Theatre near London Bridge on 4 August.

https://lfo.org.uk/young-people/young-artist-programme

As with Glyndebourne, you want to get to the original venue if you can to experience the full pleasure of the place; they provide a show that includes time to wander around lovely grounds and have a long interval for dinner after an early start.

https://lfo.org.uk/

longboroughTannhauser should be powerful in such an intimate venue. John Treleavan and Neal Cooper are sharing the title role; the rest of the cast looks interesting, and the music director of the festival, Anthony Negus, is conducting. He has already been highly praised by the press and audiences for his previous Wagner performances at Longborough and has a solid reputation. Conductor Robert Houssard leads another established production team for a Marriage of Figaro that will star baritone Benjamin Bevan as the Count and the Australian baritone Grant Doyle (formerly a Young Artist at the Royal Opera House) in his role debut as the impertinent valet. The wonderful Norwegian soprano Beate Mordall and England’s Lucy Hall are sharing the role of Susanna. Finally, lee bissettLee Bissett, who is a huge favourite with the audiences at Longborough after taking on Isolde last year, will return to sing Janacek’s Jenufa.

The Glyndebourne Festival, that mother of all summer al fresco festivals in the UK, runs this year from 21 May to 28 August and needs very little introduction from me. Whatever you find still availableeven if you think you do not like that opera—just buy the damned tickets and go for the experience. Established in his stately home by glyndebourneJohn Christie in the 1930s to do Mozart in its original scale (in every sense of the word), many of its productions have been mythical from the very start; much of its work has been broadly influential, and many young artists have gone on from there to important international careers: Janet Baker, who started in the chorus and ended up as Orfeo in Gluck’s opera, among them. (According to legend, they nearly fired Montserrat Caballe, and Roberto Alagna scored an early success as Rodolfo.) Today’s casts are just as riveting and, in a purpose-built theatre, the productions are almost invariably innovative and thought-provoking, while maintaining the highest musical and production standards. Probably all this is due to several factors, two of which must be the long rehearsal periods and being able to work in a rural setting away from the ususal stresses of major opera houses.

For me a highlight of this summer will be more Wagner in a more intimate venue: the revival of the famous David McVicar Meistersinger von Nurnberg with Gerald Finlay as a youthful, sonorous and exceptionally moving Hans Sachs and Michael Schade as Walter. The new production of Rossini’s Barber of Seville draws me like a magnet to see danielle de nieseDaniele de Niese undertake the role of Rosina with the veteran Alessandro Corbelli as her venal guardian, Dr Bartolo. In the past, Glyndebourne has had Victoria de los Angeles and Maria Ewing as memorable Rosinas and I am confident that de Niese will be added to that list. And among the other treats I am particularly delighted to see there is to be a revival of
midsummer night's dreamPeter Hall’s magical interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare set to music by Benjamin Britten) from the 1981 festival.

There will, of course, also be the Proms in London throughout July and August and early September; and there are the interesting productions coming up at Shakespeare’s Globe and Regent’s Park, as well as opera in Holland Park. More of all that anon. But meantime, a reminder to start booking if you fancy a trip around the countryside with a little bit of culture as well. The Brits really do this kind of thing brilliantly.


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