Posts Tagged ‘amc’

Cooper’s London

May 1, 2016





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.

Cogito: John Branch

June 28, 2014

JB photo-painting by RC 2


Halt and Catch Fire

Remember when Mickey and Judy decided to put on a show? That happened in the 1939 film version of Babes in Arms, which launched the career of an entire stock plot. The characters in these stories often have personal goals Mickey-Rooney-and-Judy-Garland-in-Babes-in-Arms-1939
Mickey and Judy want
to prove themselves as performers
—and beyond that there’s always an urgent rescue mission, whether it’s saving their parents from bankruptcy (as Mickey and Judy must do), or saving the orphanage (like John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd in The bluesbrothers_0Blues Brothers). The creators of Halt and Catch Fire, a new hour-long drama on AMC that began June 1, may be surprised to hear it, but they’ve set up the same kind of situation.

At the outset, its three enterprising heroes are in need; Joe has a vision he needs help pursuing, Gordon is drifting and needs halt and catch fireto be galvanized, and Cameron just needs a job. By the end of the first episode, they’ve come up with a project–just in time, because the company where they work needs to be saved. The difference between Halt and Catch Fire and its predecessors is that in this show, instead of making a new piece of theater, our heroes set out to make a new computer. That’s a pretty big difference, yes, but the new series, like the old films, is still about saving something by making something.

And it’s still basically a backstage drama we’re watching. That brings with it a high chance of discord: scheming, differing aims, clashing personalities, simmering resentments. But there’s also a potential for moments of music or dance, either literally (in the case of the movies) or figuratively (in TV dramas like this), where the characters’ work may include spells of harmony and collaboration. The premiere of Halt and Catch Fire doesn’t skip either opportunity.

My aim is only to discuss a few aspects of the show, not review the entire pilot (or the next three episodes, which have now aired). So I won’t describe what I just called the discord. But the pilot’s approach to music deserves to be pointed out. Roughly halfway through, Joe and Gordon hole up in a garage to figure out something about IBM’s recently launched PC.
We see signal probes halt and catch fire1
held to integrated circuits, sine waves registering on an oscilloscope, LEDs glowing on a breadboard. Cryptic letters and numbers are recited, written down, typed up, and printed out. The look of the scene is chiaroscuro, darkness pierced with gleams of light. Hours may be passing, or entire days, as Joe and Gordon labor to extract forbidden knowledge from the thing on their workbench. They could be alchemists of a past age.

The scene may strike some viewers as mere geekery, with nothing of music in it, and old-fashioned to boot, because all this is happening back in 1983. Step back and you can see more. Joe and Gordon’s work in the garage suggests the ancient human quest to figure out how something works and gain control over it; at the same time, the montage has a gently lulling rhythm and lyrical quality. There’s no clash of characters here; all is concord. Either I’ve missed a lot or this is an unusual thing. A common prescription for
writers is that your every scene needs conflict. The creators of
Halt and Catch Fire,Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, halt-and-catch-fire-season-1-christopher-cantwell-christopher-rogers-325are pretty young—they’re both in their early 30s, according to a Wired article—but they’ve clearly grown past that “rule.”

Along with the backstage-musical parallel, which I admit is a bit fanciful, there’s another. AMC is running the show in the Sunday-night time slot that was just vacated when Mad Men went on midseason hiatus. Like Matthew Weiner’s much-discussed and much-admired series, Halt and Catch Fire is a workplace drama, a show about a particular industry, and a period piece that’s capable of raising discussion about historical issues. What’s more, the character of Joe will probably remind viewers of Don Draper. You think you can see who he is—he can turn on the charm, he’s got a bit of a temper, he has daring ideas—and yet there are mysteries about his past. I’m not sure the comparison between the shows will help Halt and Catch Fire, but its creators seem to have invited it, and so has AMC.

I’m concerned about the nature of its truth as well. The show lists two technical consultants in its end credits. One of its creators grew up in Dallas, where the show is set, and his father worked in the computer business there. Two or three people on the show’s production staff expressed, in that Wired article, a high concern with accuracy. Despite all that, the pilot is sprinkled with technical, geographical, and social details that are likely to trip anyone who knows computers or the Dallas area (I grew up there). I’ll skip the technical matters and give other examples. There’s an armadillo in the opening sequence. Later, in the same episode, one of our central characters rides a bus near downtown; in a single shot, we see a familiar landmark called Reunion Tower and a group of longhorn cattle. The top men at the company we’re following have a twangy accent and a folksy way of expressing things.

dallasWhat’s wrong? There are twangers in Dallas, some of whom may run midsize companies, but I never worked for one—the accent is a class thing. I never saw or heard of a ’dillo within the city limits, except one that some friends put on a leash and walked through the Highland Park Village shopping center. And I’m pretty sure that the only urban cattle in the region have been those passing through the Fort Worth stockyards. What
Halt and Catch Fire has done is the Dallas way of presenting Dallas. It’s far from the Mad Men way of presenting Manhattan.

So what’ve we got here? A rather hard-edged drama with a few doubtful notions that’s willing to relax and sing now and then. I don’t know whether to applaud the things that it has done well or fear for its ambition and its creators’ relative lack of experience. But for now, there are reasons to keep watching.

Follow John Branch:

On Facebook On Twitter

On Google+ On Goodreads

%d bloggers like this: