Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Met Live HD La Donna del Lago (The Lady of the Lake) Rossini's homage to "Beautiful Singing"

Rossini’s La Donna del Lago—Met Premiere

U.S. Encore:Wednesday, March 18, 2015 at 6:30 pm local time
Canada Encore:Saturday, May 9, 2015 at 12 pm local time
Monday, May 11, 2015 at 6:30 pm local time

by Dwight Casimere

 Joyce DiDonato is vocal eloquence personified in La Donna del Lago
Met Opera Photos/Ken Howard

Wednesday night, March 18,2015 is a night that lovers of bel canto opera will mark as one of the high points of the current Met Live HD opera season. That is when they will have witnessed one of the great performances of the Met's first production of Gioachino Rossini's La Donna del Lago (The Lady of the Lake). The opera is an homage to Bel Canto, the art of beautiful singing and the Metropolitan Opera's new production starring Joyce DiDonato in the title role and Juan Diego Florez as the Scottish King who pursues her, is a brilliant capsulization of everthing the composer had in mind. DiDonato is captivating as the red-haired maiden, torn between her sense of duty to fulfill an arranged marriage to Roderick, the leader of the rebels, and her true feelings, her love for Malcolm, a loyalist. She is renowned for her portrayal of bel canto roles, and this may be one of her finest performances.

The new production is headed by Scottish director Paul Curran and is based on the lengthy narrative poem of the same name by Sir Walter Scott. Scott's writing is also the inspiration for Lucia di Lammermoor, which premiered at the Met on St. Patty's Day. In the pit is conductor Michele Mariotti, who hails from Rossini's native Pesaro, Italy. Perhaps that explains his firm grasp of Rossini's spirited material.

Daniela Barcellona, with her rich, mahogany toned mezzo voice, brought a special nobility to the 'pants role of Malcolm (the male characters all wear kilts, a sort of plaid skirt for men). Her love duet with DiDonato was particularly arresting. There's even a kiss at the end that was genuinely touching. John Osborn had a ringing heroism in his voice that really brought the role of Rodrigo to life. Juan Diego Florez was ever the dashing and impassioned tenor as the king in disguise. He tossed off the most difficult vocal runs as if they were written just for him. Oren Gradas portrays Elena's father Duglas D'Angus with appropriate gravitas.

DiDonato as Elena, displayed her distinctive dramatic chops. When  she is called upon to present herself to her betrothed, she wordlessly conveys her sense of conflict and trepidation. "The ladies silence speaks eloquently," one of the characters said of her during the scene. Truer words were never spoken.

 The sets and costumes by Kevn Knight evoke the atmospheric environment of medieval Scotland, while the lighting design by Duane Schuler and projection design by Otto Driscoll, work in concert to create the Romantic era's fascination with civil-war conflicted Scotland. One particular scene, which depicts severed heads mounted on staves, brings a forboding clarity to the uncertainty and brutality of the time. "The same is true today," was the spontaneous comment of one of my seat mates in a veiled reference to the current ISIS terror.

Vocally, everyone holds their own and that is the sole reason this opera works so well. The plot takes a back seat. I didn't even bother to read the subtitles. Doing so distracted from the beauty of the vocal performances and believe me, they'll have you begging for more, even with a three and a half hour run time. Visit metopera.org or fathomevents.com for tickets.

Goodman "Two Trains Running" Revival A Centerpiece to Citywide Celebration

by Dwight Casimere

Goodman Theatre's revival of Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson's "Two Trains Running" is the centerpiece of a citywide celebration of his genius. the production, directed by Resident Director Chuck Smith, runs through April 12 with the citywide retrospective "The August Wilson Celebration, running through April 18. Celebration Curator Chuck Smith, along with Wilson's widow Constanza Romero, actor/director Ron OJ Parson and Northwestern University's Dr. Harvey Young, partner with more than 20 theatres, schools and organizations to feature free concert readings of Winson's nine other "20th Century Cycle" plays, educational seminars ,discussions, poetry readings and more. For more information, visit GoodmanTheatre.org.

Goodman had a more than 20 year association with August Wilson and is the first theatre in the world to produce all 10 pladys in the "20th Century Cycle." Goodman produced the Chicago premiere of "Two Trains Running" in 1993 and the production is at the heart of the overall celebration. "Two Trains" presents a microcosmic view of the larger civil rights movement. Set in 1969 Pittsburgh in the al-Black Hill District, it reflects the personal aspirations of its everyday residents against the backdrop of the sweepiong goals of the civil rights movement. The local numbers runner, a recently incarcerated petty thief, an upwardly mobile funeral home director, an addled but lovable local ne'r-do-well and a heart of gold waitress who is both emotionally and physically scarred, all gather together in Memphis's (Terry Bellamy) home-cooking diner to gossip about the goings-on in the neighborhood and ponder the impact of the swirling sociological firestorm and its impact on their lives of poverty and hopelessness. It is a heady mix, full of both majesty and misery. Each character has his or her cross to bear and a story to tell; Memphis and his flight from racist opression in the South and his fight against the northern city''s equally oppressive eminent domain laws, Sterling's (Chester Gregory) struggle to repatriate himself into society after being incarcerated for a petty crime (one of the most pressing issues in the black community today, Wolf's (Anthony Irons) daily quest to somehow carve out dignity and self-worth even in his dispicable role as a numbers runner, the pathetic Chaplineque figure of Hambone (Ernest Perry. Jr., who  hopes to redeem his dignity in a dispute over a ham with a local grocer and deli owner and West (A.C. Smith), the bellicos owner of the local funeral home who clings to his own self-absorbed code of fractured business ethics as a shield against the decay and economic injustice around him. Wilson's mastery of ethnic dialogue elevates even the most crass references...particularly the persistent use of the "N" word, to sheer majesty. The lines are almost Shakesperean in their pathos and alliteration.  Memphis's (Terry Bellamy) soliloquy in the second act, in which he decries the  shooting death of a black youth by a white police officer is eerily prophetic and relevant, in light of the current swirl over the Ferguson shooting.

All of the performances are spot on with Chester Gregory as Sterling, Anthony Irons as Wolf, the huystler and Nambi E. Kelly as Risa and Ernest Perry as the lovable, bumbling Hambone, the most endelibe characterizations. "Two Trains Running" is a lovely play, that reminded me of the flowers I used to see growing the cracks of the sidewalks in the rundown Tenderloin district when I lived in San Francisco. Wilson's play proves that hope and aspirations and the healing and enduring power of love can triumph even in the ugliest of surroundings. It is a message that was powerful then, and is even more relevant now. Go see it. In fact, RUN! For rtickets and showtimes visit GoodmanTheatre.org.
Dwight Casimere with Chester Gregory who plays Sterling in Two Trains Running
Below: The brilliant ensemble cast of Two Trains Running-Goodman Theatre Production Photo/Liz Lauren

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Broadway In Chicago: First Wives Club in Top Pre-Broadway Form

by Dwight Casimere

The pre-Broadway opening of Broadway In Chicago's new production of "First Wives Club" at the Oriental Theatre (through March 29, for tickets, visit BroadwayinChicago.com) had all of the glitz and glamor of the Great White Way. Complete with a pre-curtain Red Carpet and a gaggle of local media and paparazzi outside and a packed opening night crowd inside, expectations were high and the musical action that unfolded onstage did not disappoint.

This is not Strindberg, or even Neil Simon, but this second attempt at a musical version of the runaway hit 1996 Parmamount Pictures revenge comedy makes for one thoroughly satisfying evening. Complete with a book re-written by TV powerhouse Linda Bloodworth-Thomason of 'Designing Women' fame (based on the hit novel by Olivia Goldsmith) and a 'soundtrack of our lives' score by Motown hit-makers Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, this is a toe-tapping, uncomplicated romp that somehow makes the weighty subject matter of suicide and infidelity tongue-in-cheek fun.

Although its a little hard to shake the spectre of the powerhouse cast of the film version (Goldie Hawn, Beth Midler and Diane Keaton), the Broadway in Chicago cast, tony Award winner Faith Prince (as the sarcastic Brenda, Carmen Cusack (Elphaba in the national tour of Wicked and standby for the same role in the Chicago production) in the Keaton role of the sexually repressed Annie and local Jeff Award winner Christine Sherrill as the alcoholic diva Elise, hold their own in a fast-paced production, directed by Simon Phillips (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert Musical).

There are plenty of stock sitcom puns (some groaningly telegraphed) and familiar Motown tunes ("Stop in the Name of Love," "Sugar Pie Honey Bunch") and sanitized sexual humor to hold your attention during the nearly two and a half hour (with intermission) production. There's even a sentimental moment or two (Whirlpool of Memories, One Sweet Moment)

The male characters don't get much to work with, but then, they're not intended to be much more than dart boards, with the exception of Patrick Richwood as the gay hair stylist Duane, who acts as the loynch-pin for the plot. He nearly steals the show!

The choreography by David Connolly keeps things moving at a nice pace and there are a couple of show-stopper songs (Payback's a Bitch, I am Duarto) that make it recommendable.
Through March 29. Visit BroadwayInChicago.com.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Great Preformers: Joshua Bell at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center

by Dwight Casimere

NEW YORK--Joshua Bell is one of the musical wonders of the world. Currently, he is one of the most recorded and honored artists in the classical music realm. He has more than 40 CDs to his credit and has won numerous awards, including the Grammy, Mercury and Gramaphone awards.

He was named music director of the eponymous Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields, the first person to hold that position  since the orchestra was formed by Sir Neville Mariner in 1958.

A native of Bloomington, Indiana, he received his first violin at the age of four and began studying with Josef Gingold at Indiana University at age 12. He made his Carnegie Hall debut at 17 years old.

So it was with great anticipation that the audience at AliceTully Hall in Lincoln Center awaited his arrival  on stage with his 1713 Huberman Stradivarius and piano accompanist Sam Haywood, a respected solo artist in his own right, for a program of Beethoven, Grieg, Brahms and Bartok.

Alice Tully Hal is a jewel box of a venue. With its interior walls lined with muirapiranga wood,the hall is acoustically perfect. it's like sitting inside a Steinway piano. There are no bad seats, as sightlines are perfect throughout. 

Unless you are a musicologist, you may not be aware that Beethoven was a brilliant violinist as well as piano virtuoso. Although lesser known, his violin sonatas are as prized by violinists as are his piano sonatas by pianists. Bell made a strong case for the composer's Violin Sonata No. 4 in A minor, laying out its myriad themes and allowing them to ring in the air while they were emulated on the piano. The theme fragments unfold in orchestral fashion, darting in and out, building in intensity to an energetic conclusion. Bell maintained the piece's dramatic tension without ever losing sight of the melodic ideas at its epicenter. 

Edward Grieg's chamber music is as obscure as his piano concertos and orchestral suites are revered and celebrated. His Viiolin Sonata No. 1 in F major is thematically as beautiful as any of his better know work and Bell used his mastery of the Stradivari to caress each note. Pianist Haywood's sensitive introduction of the final theme established the framework for some highly emotive playing by Bell, who brought passionate expression to the finale.

Brahm's Sonata No. 1 in G major is full of bright, sunny motifs that perhaps mirrored the audience's desire for the start of spring in the midst of New York's winter chill. Bell provided plenty of warmth in his ringing tone and deeply moving expression. The alternating themes between piano and violin were enthralling with Bell navigating the tricky melodic patter of the final movement to a soft, burnished conclusion. 

The Bartok Rhapsody No. 1 for violin and piano was all a showcase for the considerable skill of both Bell and Haywood. The music is all whirling Hungarian folk dances and Bell/Haywood found its rhythmic  center and reveled in it. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Met Live HD Encore: Iolanta/Bluebeard's Castle

by Dwight Casimere

Photos: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

NEW YORK--Directed by the gifted Mariusz Trelinski of the Polish National Opera and conducted by Valery Gergiev, the Metropolitan Opera's Met Live HD series gives and Encore Presentation of its stunning double bill of  Tchaikovsky's Iolanta and Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle in theatres globally this Wednesday, February 18 at 6:30pm local time. The event is a rare ooportunity to see two of the Met's most gifted dramatic sopranos in one sitting and to experience two vastly different, but masterfully realized, productions.

Iolanta is a showcase for the dazzling soprano Anna Netrebko, whose portrayal of the blind, trapped princess Iolanta, is among the highlights of the year, only outdone by her portrayal of Lady Macbeth earlier in the season. Imprisoned physically by the fact that she is blind and emotionally by her domineering father, the King, Iolanta is eventually freed by the power of love in the person of her ardent suitor, the Prince, sung eloquently by tenor Piotr Beczala. The opera, performed mainly in darkness, with a somewhat irritating rotating box as the main set, ends awash in light, with Iolanta regaining her sight and marrying the man of her dreams.

Bluebeard's Castle is a verty different affair. Dark and atmospheric, it recalls the look and feel of the black and white horror films of old. Think Nosferatu. With Nadja Michael as Judith, the doomed bride, blindfolded in a slinky emerald gown and Michael Petrenko as Bluebeard, sporting a single black leather glove in a cage-like torture chamber, one would have thought they had slipped into the screening room for the kinky hit movie 50 Shades of Grey, rather than a Met opera performance.
 Nadja Michael as Judith in Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle
 Mikhail Petrenko as Bluebeard and Nadja Michael as Judith in Bluebeard's Castle
Bartok's shimmering atmospheric music quickly sets you straight. Director Trelinski's use of projected digital images is most effective in creating the chilling, constantly moving kaleidoscope of Bluebeard's horrific doman, which portends the fate of the wary Judith. Nadja Michael manages to deliver a restrained performance, allowing the sense of dread to build without going over the top. At times, she seems both mystified and solidly aware of the true nature of the beast she has married. 'How could anyone be so cruel?' she ponders. The reality comes to a resounding conclusion that leaves both she and the audience in hushed astonishment. Go see it. For information, visit metopera.org or fathomevents.com.

Monday, February 16, 2015

David Zinman conducts Barber's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra with Lisa Batiashvili and the New York Philharmonic

 Conductor David Zinman
Violin Soloist Lisa Batiashvili with her 1739 Guarneri "del Gesu" violin

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere

NEW YORK--The sympatico between New York-born guest conductor David Zinman and Georgian-born Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-In-Residence Lisa Batiashvili could not have been more palpable in their peformance of  Samuel Barber's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.

Zinman's assuring tempo and deft handling of the intricate melodies that emerged and receded in the Andante and Presto in moto perpetuo created the perfect platform for Batiashvili's soaring tone with her 1739 Guarnerri "del Gesu" violin. The two had performed the piece together several times before in Europe, but this was their first time performing it in what the artist called "its home" in America. It was by all measures a commanding performance. There were moments of sheer ectacy, notably the oboe solo by principal oboist Liang Wang.

Zinman opened the program with an evocative reading of the piece "Iscariot" by The Marie-Josee Kravis Composer-in-Residence Christopher Rouse. Inspired partially by the name of Jjudas Iscariot, Christ's betrayer as recorded in the New Testament, the work is at once autobiographical and riddled with musical references to Bach and his cantatas and the work of the composer  Gustav Mahler. The piece begins with  startling opening strokes from the timpani and hammer and moves through a series of  airy and eerie passages that are punctuated with the rare appearance of the celesta, providing added musical color. The composer took the stage for a much-deserved standing ovation.

Sergei Rachmaninoff's  Symphony No. 2 in E minor mined its several Romantic themes which have been turned into popular songs and film scores for all of its sweeping drama. Zinman had the orchestra playing from its collective heart right to the thrilling conclusion which bristled with restless energy. Yo Yo Ma brings his Silk Road Ensemble to Avery Fisher Hall Feb 18-21 with an additional Chinese Ne Year concert with Yo-Yo Ma Feb 24. The orcherstra then performs Sibeliius and Brahms with Frank Peter Zimmermann, Violin Feb 26-28. For tickets and information visit nyphil.org.

Michael Feinstein at Carnegie Hall

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere

NEW YORK-Michael Feinstein is currently on national tour and is also in the midst of a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall and at Jazz at Lincoln Center, exploring the Great American Songbook and the music and, specifically, the music of George and Ira Gershwin. His perfiormance Wednesday, February 4 featured Special Guest, vocalist Catherine Russell along with his trio, consisting of Tedd Firth, rotating with Feinstein on the piano and Sean Smith Bass and Mark McLean on Drums. The program ' S Wonderful...'S Marvelous...'S Gershwin! played to a capacity audience.

Feinstein, the multi-platinum-selling, two-tinme Emmy and five-time Grammy Award-nominated entertainer proved why he is called "The Ambassador of the Great American Songbook" in an intermission-less nearly two-hour program  that explored in depth the Gershwin musical legacy. His interstitial commentary gave added depth to the evening, providing personal anecdotes and observations gleaned from his years of work preserving the Gershwin musical legacy for future generations. For six years, Feinstein lived in Ira Gershwin's home, cataloging his music and gathering background information on his many songs and collaborations. His new book, The Gershwins and Me (Simon and Schuster) is combined with a new CD of Gershwin standards. Feinstein is host of the nationally syndicated PBS radio program 'Song Travels' and serves on the Library of Congress National Recoprding Preservation Board and serves as Artistic Director of the Palladium Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Indiana.

Feinstein's commentary and interpretation of the Gershwin masterpieces elevated the evening beyond the realm of mere performance to make it an all-encompassing experience. Vocalist Catherine Russell with her magnetic personality and pitch-perfect delivery caressed the lyrics in a manner that channeled the late Abbey Lincoln.

Like Feinstein, Russell's pedigree is substantial. The daughter of the late Luis Russell, who was the long-time musical director for the great Louis Armstrong, and Carline Ray, a pioneering vocalist-guitarist and bassist who performed with Mary Lou Williams and Ruth Brown, the native New Yorker has garnered critcal acclaim of her own.

Giving flesh and blood to the lyrics is Feinstein's stock-in-trade. In discussing George Gershwins efforts to bring his premiere accomplishment, the opera Porgy and Bess to the stage, Feinstein recounted backstage that "George Gershwin first presented the opera to the Met, but they refused because it would have required having an all African American cast of singers on their stage. That's when he went forward to produce the show on Broadway. It wasn't all that well received, but it proved that there was a pool of classically trained African American singers and it eventually became the most enduring American operas of all time."

According to Feinstein, Gershwin was determined to bring his creation to the stage, in spite of the naysayers. "What people don't know is that he explored various American cultures before deciding on African American folk music as the basis for his opera. He looked at Jewish music, American Indian music among others, and decided that his opera must be based on the music of African Americans. Gershwin called it a "folk opera," but obviously, audiences see it as much more than that.  The test of time has proven the wisdom of his decision."

Feinstein's next performances at Carnegie Hall are February 26 and March 25. For tickets visit carnegiehall.com.

Backstage at Carnegie Hall with Michael Feinstein