Saturday, December 20, 2014

La Traviata: Met Opera Showcases a Rising Diva

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere December 16, 2014

Met Opera Photos: Ken Howard

"La Traviata" continues through January 24 at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center. Visit metopera.org for tickets and show information


NEW YORK--Few operas have been so emblematic of the genre and have inspired such loyalty as Guiseppe Verdi's La Traviata. Since its premiere in Venice, that most decadent of cities (next to New Orleans, which in many ways, emulates it with its annual Mardi Gras celebrations,  originating in Venice in the time of the Medicis), has been performed countless times around the globe and is the most popular entry,  on the annual calendars of most opera companies. La Traviata was first performed at the Met in 1883, within a month of the company's opening, and has appeared in all but 15 performances there after a ten year hiatus.

La Traviata is based on the novel "La Dame aux Camelias" (1852) written by the great Black French writer Alexandre Dumas. The opera was originally entitled "Violetta" after the main character, and was premiered at La Fenice opera house in Venice to mixed reviews. The current title "La Traviata" translates loosely to be "a fallen woman," and, as such, was censored by the local authorities who demanded that the opera change its original production from a contemporary setting to sometime in the distant past (c. 1700). It was not until the 1880s that the current "realistic" production that we now see, was staged.

Today, La Traviata is the most performed opera in the world, placing number one on the Operabase list as of the 2012/13 season.

In the opera, Violetta, sung by the beautiful and voluptuous Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka,  is a wealthy "kept" woman, a courtesan, who is a highly paid companion to the wealthy men of her time. She is introduced at a party to a young nobleman, Alfredo Germont. sung brilliantly by native Philadelphia tenor Stephen Costello. At first meeting, she sings to him of her belief in free love, but gives him a camellia and tells him to return when the flower has wilted, which means he will see her the next day. Realizing her gesture will mean an end to her wanton life, she sings of her conflicting emotions, in the first of several familiar arias that are sung with both technical and emotional facility by Rebeka. Her silvery high notes, which are marked with a burnished brilliance and restraint that builds to an eruptive crescendo, are a marvel to behold. Her aria in the Third Act, when she realizes that she is dying, is one of the most spine-chilling moments of the entire Met season.

Marina Rebeka is not only an exceptional singer, she is a consumate performer. Her emotive "dance of death" in which she both celebrates her life and abandons herself to impending death is miraculous. She starts slowly, then begins to spin wildly, like a whirling dervish. The choreography is reminiscent of the death dances practiced by inigenous peoples in Australia and New Zealand.

The spare, modernistic production by Willy Decker, pares the visual elements to the minimum, which puts the focus squarely on the central story line of impending death. A huge clock with an ominous,  figure with white hair and dark suit,  silently watching the proceedings from the sidelines, is an uncomfortable reminder of her fate. The clock advances throughout the opera and finally reaches center stage in the final act, with the ominous figur, the spectre of death, becoming an active part of the action.

The opera chorus, directed by Donald Polumbo, with extensive choreography by Athol Farmer, is an intregal part of the action. Dressed in monochromatic costumes and donning masks that mock the central character in bizarre, cartoonish fashion, they are like a choreographed Greek chorus, telegraphing the story's progression through song and skillfully plotted dance. Set and Costume Designer Wofgang Gussman created an atmosphere in which contrasts in colors and textures, with eye-popping focal points, such as brightly colored fabrics draped over the sparse furnishings and, sometimes, an almost bare-skinned Violetta.  Genoa, Italy-based conductor Marco Armiliato  finds just the right pacing to bring this moving train of a tale from the vortex of the heroine's troubled beginnings to its fatal conclusion.

La Traviata is Grand Opera at its finest, with a meteroic rising star in the lead role and a virile, golden-voiced tenor, Stephen Costello, as her leading man, Alfredo. Quinn Kelsey, a young. robust baritone from Honolulu, does a terrific job of conveying the gravity of the role of the elder Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's disapproving father.

Sadly, Traviata is not on the schedule for any upcoming Met Live HD performances. With the removal of The Death of Klinghoffer from the schedule due to protests earlier this season, perhaps a last minute addition to the roster might be considered. It would be a shame for the world to miss out on this tremendous remounting of a production and its stellar cast. The next Met Live HD production is Lehar's The Merry Widow in a New Production with Renee Fleming, Saturday, January 17, 2015 at 12:55pm ET with a U.S. Encore Wednesday, January 21 at 6:30pm local time. Check metopera.org or fathomevents. com for theatre locations and tickets. Upcoming La Traviata performances are December 22, 27 and 30 and January 7, 10, 14, 17, 21 and 24. Check metopera.org for showtimes and tickets.
Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva assumes the role of Violetta from January 14 on. Yoncheva made her Met debut as Gilda in Rigoletto in 2013.

Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

 Marina Rebeka as Violetta
 Stephen Costello as Alfredo and Marina Rebeka as Violetta and (below) Violetta with the Met Opera chorus

Handel's Messiah: New York Philharmonic

Handel's Messiah Presented by the Robert Hekemian Family Foundation

A boy soprano and added period instruments give renewed energy to a stellar Holiday tradition

NEW YORK--The added innovations of a thoroughly enthralling boy soprano, in the person of 11 year old Connor Tsui, of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, and, a  long-necked lute called the theorbo, played by Guest Artist Daniel Swenberg and the conductor playing a small, harpsichord-like instrument called the virginal, give some added punch to an informed and emotive reading of the Holiday classic, Handel's Messiah at the New York Philharmonic. Tonight's performance, Saturday, December 20 at 7:30pm, provides the final opportuniy to see this year's stellar edition. Visit nyphil.org for ticket availability.

Conductor Gary Thor Wedow, in his second appearance since his Philharmonic debut in 2012, leads the orchestra and the Westminster Symphonic Choir of Princeton, New Jersey, in a sensitive and subtly nuanced performance of this deeply moving religious recitative. Wedow, a member of The Julliard School faculty, is specialist in historically informed performances.

An ubiquitous staple of the Holidays, this presentation veers itself away from the overly edited,  high-volume vocal and orchestral pryrotechnics common to many productions. This is a more low-key, scholarly rendition. Employing the Barenreiter edition, edited by John Tobin, it adds many rarely-heard choral sections and arias, including the short introductory recitatives from the boy soprano. I have never heard them in all of my many years of both performing the Messiah as a youth and viewing it as an adult.

Young Master Tsui, singing entirely from memory, while the other soloists worked form the score, displayed a poise far beyond his years, and a clear, decisive tone throughout his short proclomations. Accompanied by Mr. Wedow on the virginal, it was a moment of angelic beauty.

British Countertenor lestyn(correct spelling) Davies was the sole standout of the evening, with a soft, emotionally charged vocal reading of librettist Charles Jennens' words, which were inspired by various passages from the Bible. The Messiah depicts Christ's Coming, His humble birth and later events surrounding his life on earth, Crucifixion and Resurrection. Swedish Soprano Camilla Tilling, Canadian baritone James Westman and tenor Michael Slattery lend operatic authority to this inspired performance of Handel's masterpiece.

Eschewing the baton to conduct the orchestra and chorus using subtle cues from his supple hands and pointed finger gestures, Conductor Wedow created an enthralling tapestry of sound from the string-dominated orchestra, which featured early period instruments. Trumpet solos, played by Matthew Muckey and keyboard solos from Paolo Bordignon on harpsichord and Kent Tritle on the organ, lent majestic authority to the proceedings,  Handel's Mdssiah is an enthralling performance that is a highlight of the frenetic Holiday Season. It is also one of the few,  profound reminders of its religious roots, which have been, sadly, largely overshadowed by commercialism.

Below: Gary Thor Wedow conducts the New York Philharmonic in his 2012 debut
 Photo credit: New York Times
 Conductor Gary Thor Wedow


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Met Live HD Encore: Die Meistersinger An Opera Lover's Dream

Met Encore Presentation tonight, Wednesday, December 17, at 6:30pm local time,
Canadian Encore February 7 at 12pm local time, Monday, February 23 at 6pm local time

The next Met Live HD presentation features Renee Fleming starring in Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow," Saturday, January 17 at 12:55pm ET

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere
Metropolitan Opera Photos by Ken Howard

NEW YORK--Tonight, Wednesday, December 17th, is a special night for opera lovers world-wide, because they will have an opportunity to see the Met Opera's Live HD Encore Presentation of Wagner's Die Meistersinger in select theatres at 6:30pm, local time. The production, a revival of a production first mounted by the company seven years ago, is a dream-come-true for sincere lovers of the art form.

The production is a triumph on many levels. Just go down the checklist. It is Met Opera Music Director James Levine's first revisiting of the works of Richard Wagner since 2011, and he is in top form here. The international cast is a collection of the top Wagnerian singers in the world, making this a rare opportunity to see the likes of beloved Met veteran, bass-baritone James Morris as shoemaker Hans Sachs, South African heldentenor Johan Botha, another Met favorite, as the young knight, Walther, German soprano Annette Dasch as rhapsodic love interest Eva,  celebrated German bass Hans-Peter Konig as the town goldsmith, Pogner, Johannes Martin Krankle as the town clerk, Sixtus Beckmesser and Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill in the role of Magdalene, Eva's attendant. The Metropolitan Opera chorus, directed by Chorus Master Donald Palumbo and the rich, world-class sound of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, are reason enough to sit back, relax, and enjoy one of the lengthiest, but most satisfying evenings of opera this season.

The story unfolds in 16th Century Nuremberg, a regimented society, dominated by the culture of professional guilds. The opera takes place in this claustrophobic, highly regimented world,with the focal point the guild hall of the meistersingers, the hallowed fraternity of vocal musicians who are revered by all. To become a "master singer," candidates must pass a series of singing trials, which are governed by a byzantine set of rules. The test is graded with an intricate scoring system, controlled by one Sixtus Beckmesser, the town clerk, who is young Walther's nemisis. The test goes beyond singing. It encompasses personal aesthetics, moral integrity, and creative amplitude, all of which Walther has in abundance.

The young knight, Walther von Stolzing(Johan Botha), has fallen in love with the town goldsmith's daughter, the voluptuous Eva(Annette Dasch), who has been promised in engagement to the winner of the guild of meistersinger's song contest. Walther plans to win the contest in order to ask for her hand, but it thwarted at every turn by the town clerk, Meckmesser (Johannes Martin Kranzle), who keeps rigorous count of the impressionable young knight's many missteps and unorthodox singing methods. Despite the town clerk's condemnation, Walther has pricked the curiosity of Hans Sachs (Michael Volle), the town cobbler and himself a master singer. Sachs is intrigued by Walther's beguiling emotional appeal and his zealous devotion to inspired singing.

The opera is a long sit, six hours, with the second act alone clocking in at  two hours. However, the rewards are infinite. Let's put it this way, I would rather sit through five hours of Wagner's Meistersinger, than an entire afternoon of NFL Sunday, with its frequent penalty replay delays, inane commentary and non-sensical commercials. Thank God for the pause button and DVR!
Thankfully, great opera is now as near as your local movie theatre and soon, hopefully, on your home DVR.


Superlatives like "sublime," "absolutely fantastic," and "a superlative performance," that have been used in other reviews of this production, are just the start. Suffice to say that this reviewer has already seen the production twice, both on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House and Live in HD at the Empire 25 in Times Square, and were it not for a special performance of Handel's "The Messiah" at the New York Philharmonic, an annual ritual, would be back in the Live HD audience again tonight!

"There's a lot of humor written into this opera," Maestro James Levine told Met Live HD backstage interviewer and soprano superstar Debora Voigt. "We see the singer/actors reacting to what's happening in a scene just as much as they are absorbed in the scene. There's a lot of their perception that the audience becomes a part of. "

For tickets and  theatre locations, visit metopera.org or fathomevents.com.
 Johan Botha as Walther and Annette Dasch as Eva
 Johannes Martin Kranzle as Beckmesser
 Johan Botha (Walther) with Hans-Peter Konig as Pogner and (Below),
with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Second City's "Twist Your Dickens, Or Scrooge You! Presented by Goodman Theatre

"Scrooge You!" The perfect tonic for Holiday Blues

What do Superman, celebrity chef Rick Bayless and Little Orphan Annie have in common? If you're lucky enough to snag a ticket to The Second City's production of "Twist Your Dickens, Or Scrooge You!" Presented by Goodman Theatre in the intimate confines of the Owen Theatre, you'll have a riotous time finding out why.  Due to high ticket demand, Goodman Theatre extends "Twist Your Dickens" through Jan 3.  A special bar package is included for New Year's Eve. Visit GoodmanTheatre.org for tickets and information.

Starring Second City veteran Francis Guinan as Scrooge with Brian Boland taking over the role starting December 26, Frank Caeti whizzes in on a skateboard as the Ghost of Christmas Past, full of campy '80s references, and Peter Gwinn steals the show as a glib Jacob Marley. Sayjal Joshi is a salty Tiny Tim and Beth Melewski is  a super-hip and saucy Ghost of Christmas Present.  The cast is superbly rounded out by an acerbic Robin Scott as Mrs. Cratchit and an emphathetic Tim Stoltenberg as Bob Cratchit. The creative team really makes it all come together: Tom Budewitz created the simple, but imaginative sets, Rachel Lambert provided costumes that both evoked the period and a bit of the modern day for hilarious contrast and Gina Patterson did a creative job with the lighting. Mara Filler is Production Stage Manager.  


The audience is as much a part of the play as the cast. Audience "misdeeds" written in the lobby prior to the show are included in the onstage banter, as are audience reactions that are incorporated into the show on the spot. Its improv theatre at its best, and only as Second City can do it.  The production also includes local celebs from varying backgrounds. Opening night included celebrity chef Rick Bayless, who has had his own musical stage show and feast "Cascabel" this summer at Mag Mile's Lookinglass. Theatre. Future cameos are planned with WBBM TV's Bill Kurtis, celebrity sommelier and former "Check Please" host Alpana Singh and Chicago Cub's Len Kasper. 

Written by former The Colbert Report writers Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort and directed by Artistic Director of the Second City Training Center Matt Hovde, "Twist Your Dickens" is, in the words of the LA Times, "riotous havoc.' It's just the tonic to cure Holiday Blues and, since the show changes every night, worth more than a single visit. One nice thing about this show is that, like its companion, the "real" Scrooge ala "A Christmas Carol," playing next door in the Albert Theatre, "Scrooge You!" is, with the exception of young children,  a show that can be enjoyed by virtually everyone.  GoodmanTheatre.org is the place for more information,





Friday, November 7, 2014

Film Review: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared

Screened at the Chicago Film Festival
Currently available in DVD release at Amazon.com

What do a 40 year old elephant, 500 thousand dollars in stolen cash, Robert Oppenheimer, Stalin, Franco and a 100 year old man have in common? On the surface, nothing. But in the hands of Swedish film director Felix Herngren, who co-wrote the film, based on Jonas Jonasson's wildly popular 2009 debut novel of the same title (Herngren is a director and actor best known for the hit TV series "Smash"), all of the disparate elements are loosely bound together to depict the madcap misadventures of 100 year old Allan Karlsson, played with brilliant abandon by Swedish comedy great Robert Gustafsson.

We learn that Karlsson grew up as a highly precocious loner who had a propensity for blowing things  up. His predilection gets him in some unlikely circumstances, including being both on the front lines of the Spanish Revolution, blowing up bridges, to being a favored member of Franco's court. Later, he makes his way into Stalin's inner circle to become the point man in an assassination attempt and later assists Dr. Robert Oppenheimer in creating the atom bomb. It all rings of Forest Gump, and the Disney distributed film has enjoyed rock star success on the international film festival circuit. Last year, it gave "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" a run for its money for garnering awards on the European festival circuit.

Living out his last days quietly in the Scandinavian countryside, Karlksson's old propensity gets him in a bit of trouble and lands him in the care of a nursing home, which he absolutely loathes. On the day when the home is planning an elaborate party to mark his 100th birthday, he decides to make a run for it and climbs out of his first story window and heads to the nearest train station and buys a ticket to anywhere.

He runs into a crook on the run, who asks him to watch his suitcase, which, incidentally, is full of ill-gotten cash. The old man wanders off with the bag, not knowing what's inside, and that's where the zany plot and odd collection of characters begin to unfold.

The film score by acclaimed Swedish composer Matti Bye, underscores all of the action with inventive keyboard improvisations and front-and-center brass flourishes. Bay's credits include a Best Original Score nomination by the Swedish film academy and composing credits for the film "Everlasting" by Academy Award nominated director Jan Troell and the score for "Scenes from a Playhouse," the documentary on Swedish film great Ingmar Bergman. The carefully crafted framing of cinematographer Goran Hallberg and editing by Henrik Kallberg make this film a visual delight.

At times, the plot twists are a bit hard to follow and the humor sometimes escapes, but, you laugh anyway. Comparison's to Winston Groom's "Forrest Gump" or Voltaire's "Candide" may cross your mind, this screenplay, as written by Herngren and co-writer Hans Ingemaansson will have none of either of the former's philosophical bent. The author described his novel as a "hopeful satire on the shortcomings of mankind." The film version dispenses with all that psychobabble and goes straight for the funny bone. Anyone who says there's no such thing as a Scandinavian sense of humor will be proved to be dead wrong with this film. It's wildly funny, even if you don't quite get the jokes. In this one, as Shakespeare said, 'the play's the thing' and Herngren crafts every scene in such a way that the irony and the humor jump out at you at every turn. Yes, at times the plot twists are incongruous, but, who cares, this film will give you more laughs than you've had all year on your own.
 
Photo images courtesy Disney Films


 Swedish comic legend Robert Gustafsson (l) is the film's befuddled Alan Karlssonn in an early scene with  Iwar Wiklander (r) as Julius
and (below) with actor David Shackleton as Einstein's twin

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Bizet's "Carmen" Met Live HD Encore in Theatres Globally Tonight


Met Live HD Encore Carmen in Theatres Wednesday, Nov. 4   6:30pm Eastern Time

 Aleksandrs Antonenko and Anita Rachvelishvikli as Don Jose and Carmen
 Anita Rachvelishvili in the title role
Below: Jennifer Johnson Cano as Mercedes, Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen and Kiri Deonarine as Fraquita
By Dwight Casimere
Photos by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Director Richard Eyre strikes again with a sizzling production of Bizet's Carmen.  Mezzo Soprano Anita Rachvelishvili is red-hot in the title role, portraying the gypsy temptress with sultry magnetism. She gives flesh and blood to her character, both with her physical sensuality and her soaring, seductive voice.

Aleksandrs Antonenko is her jealous lover, Don Jose, who risks everything; his rank, honor and family, in desperate pursuit of the wanton gypsy. Ildar Abdrazakov is the vainglorious bullfighter, Escamillo, who puts his personal stamp on the famous "Toreador" aria.  Pablo Heras-Casado's conducting of the beloved score is spot on, emphasizing one recognizable melody after another with a vitality that makes it seem that its your first time hearing the all-too-familiar tunes. No matter, the action on the Metropolitan Opera stage unfolds with an almost cinematic scope and pace. Of all the operas presented this season Live in HD, this one plays most like a film in terms of rapid fire plot pacing and eruptive emotions.

Richard Eyre's staging and the spare settings evoke the mood of the scenes without cluttering up the stage with props and backdrops. The action and the singing carry the story and Eyre allows all of the spine-chilling drama Bizet infused into his masterpiece, to bubble to the surface. Particularly effective is the scene set in the Gypsy's hideout. The lighting and effect of the chorus members descending an arced stairway from high above the stage to their darkened, candlelit lair below, effectively coveys the feeling of subterfuge and danger. 

The story moves like a steamroller, from Don Jose's headlong infatuation with Carmen to his desperate attempts to possess her, to his eventual descent into military desertion and murder. Rachvelishvili is perfect as the headstrong, passionately independent Carmen. No man will posses her or fetter her freedom, even at the cost of her life. It is a bravura performance and one which commands your attention from start to finish. There are some who have not seen this opera, so I won't ruin the finish. Suffice to say that the final face-off between Carmen and Don Jose as sung by Antonenko and Rachvelishvili is palpable and riveting. Their delivery raises the level beyond the mere dramatic to become a heightened state of reality. Don Jose emerges from the shadows outside the bullring where Escamlio is fighting the bull. He is a desperate fugitive. Carmen, defiant as ever, confronts him. Richard Eyre's staging of this scene is masterful and the dramatic singing of the twoi stars is sublime.  Carmen screens this Saturday, November 1 Live in HD at theatres around the globe at 12:55pm ET with an Encore Presentation Wednesday, Nov 5 at 6:30pm local time. Visit metopera,org or fathomevents.com for theatre locations. 



Friday, October 24, 2014

Met Live HD-Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro in Fresh New Production


Reviewed by Dwight Casimere
Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

From the opening strains of Mozart's stirring overture to his comic opera Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) with Music Director James Levine at the podium, it was apparent that the audience was in for something special. In a newly minted production from Director Richard Eyre and an inspired cast, led by the dashing bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov as Figaro and a dazzing Marlis Petersen as his bride, Susanna, this was a "Nozze" to remember. There is another performance with the same stellar cast at the Metropolitan Opera House set for October 25 and the Met HD Canadian Encore is set for theatres there on Saturday, December 6 at 12pm local time and Monday, December 15 at 6:30pm local time. Le Nozze returns to the Met Thursday, December 4 at 7:30pm with Conductor Edo de Waart at the podium and the smoldering Danielle de Niese as Susanna and Erwin Schrott as Figaro.

Director Richard Eyre set the 18th Century parlor drama in the Seville of the 1930s. "I wanted to show a society just on the cusp of destruction. I set it in the years just before World War II. Mozart set his opera in the late 18th century in a time when class and social standing were all important. That's not so true today. People aren't so concerned about class--at least they say they aren't," he said, bringing a hearty laugh from the Live HD audience.  "But the concerns about sexual morays and improprieties still exist to this day."

Ildar Abrazakov and Marlis Petersen lit up the stage as Figaro and Susanna, both with their beautiful singing and their superb acting. "It's interesting that Maestro Levine's notes to the singers were more about acting than about the music. He really has a fine inner sense of drama," Eyre told backstage inerviewer and Met superstar Renee Fleming. "He sees the acting and the singing as a seamless whole rather than separate entities."

Peter Mattei is appropriately swarmy and loathsome as the philandering Count Alamaviva. Isabel Leonard shines as the love-struck, oversexed pageboy Cherubino. In spite of its more than three and a half hour length, this is a production that truly makes time seem to fly by. Its an opera that can been seen time and time and again, and it never seems old. As one who has seen it several times since its Season Opening Night at the Met, the music, the singing and the laughs seem fresh  with every performance.  The next Met Live HD moviecast is Carmen, Saturday, November 1 at 12:55 ET with Anita Rachvelishvili in the title role and Aleksandrs Antonenko as her Don Jose. I've seen this one live at the Met twice, You definitely don't want to miss it!
 Ildar Abdrazakov as Figaro with Marlis Petersen as Susanna
 Isabel Leonard as Cherubino with Marlis Petersen
Amanda Majeski as the Countess, Peter Mattei as the Count with Abdrazakov and Petersen