Monday, November 30, 2009

Affinia 50:An oasis of calm amidst midtown Manhattan chaos

By Dwight Casimere

Affinia 50

An Executive Club Suite Hotelia50Club

Hote155 E 50th St, New York, NY 10022

(212) 751-5710

The sidewalks along Park Avenue were lined with protestors and idle passersby, all awaiting the arrival of the President’s motorcade. Even though they would only glimpse it for a few seconds during his trip from the United Nations to his suite at the Waldorf Astoria, many had been there for hours, enduring intermittent showers and the constant scrutiny and crowd control push-back of the police, mounted patrols and secret service.

Pushing my way through the crush of media trucks and cameras, skirting around the sidewalk barriers and gingerly stepping over the droppings left by the mounted patrol, I made my way to my hotel, the Affinia 50, which, thankfully, was only a couple of hundred yards away. I felt like a running back as I wove through the crowd, finally reaching the familiar entryway with its sparkling glass facade. It was such a welcome sight that, had I worn a hat, I would have tipped it back at the familiar logo on the door.

Rushing through the lobby toward the elevator, I was greeted warmly by the bellman, who had now become my new best friend after directing me to a terrific wine shop on third avenue(which also gave me a discount for being an Affinia guest), and the front desk manager, who earlier had (wisely) directed me to the nearby subway station for a quick trip uptown, rather than opting for a cab (which would have still been sitting on 50th, with the attendant crowds and traffic jam).

Upstairs, my apartment-sized One Bedroom Suite was an oasis of calm. I looked at the reflected glow of the sunset on the windows of the surrounding office buildings and relished the peaceful surrounding.

The best word to describe accommodations at the Affinia 50 is ‘home-like.’ The rooms and suites are larger than most New York apartments. The furnishings are modern, with warm colors and clean lines. Closets are big and there are plenty of dressers, cabinets and drawers. Flat-screen TVs are in every room. There’s a large work desk, sitting area and, for this wine connoisseur and gourmet chef, a fully equipped kitchen, complete with stove, oven and microwave, cooking utensils, silverware and flatware, some nice wine glasses and a full-sized refrigerator. There’s even a dishwasher. Toss in the super large bedroom and dressing area and the impressive marble bath and you have the perfect home away from home. If I had shown any of my Manhattan friends my room, they would have been amazed, especially because of the Affinia’s rates, which are quite reasonable compared to other Midtown hotels. (I understand from my New York friends that apartments with 650 square feet or more, which is standard for Affinia 50 rooms, are rare and full baths, rather than standup showers, also standard for Affinia 50 rooms, are even rarer.) I was so moved by the experience of my stay, I left behind a set of souvenir wine glasses I obtained at a Chef’s convention as a sort of ‘tip.’

The bed was a real treat. It was among the most comfortable I’ve ever slept in. Guests can customize their bed experience by ordering from a special “pillow menu.” The hotel staff also will satisfy your every whim with their compliments. If you’re in the mood for a guitar to strum or a putter to unleash the ‘Tiger’ within, the front desk will be more than happy to oblige with a loaner.

That’s probably why the Affinia 50 is such a different experience. Its not really a hotel in the traditional sense. Its more like staying at a private club. In fact, there’s a Club Room and lounge on the 2nd floor, complete with flat screen TVs, comfortable sofas and lounge chairs, where guests enjoy exclusive access. On the night I was there, the hotel manager had a small ‘tailgate party’ for the guests in honor of the World Series game on TV that night. Among the other hotel amenities is a personal Club Concierge, who will make dinner reservations, provide information on nearby attractions (which are mostly within walking distance. More on that later) and a complimentary light breakfast, endless coffee and tea service and a weekly wine and cheese hour hosted by the manager. There are computers available with complimentary Internet access, although, I can’t for the life of me understand why the hotel doesn’t offer free Internet access in the rooms, especially after creating such an otherwise superlative hospitality experience. Beyond having to pay for in-room Internet, I can’t see any reason for a guest to complain! (Okay, the elevators were a tad slow during peak hours.)

One of the purposes for my stay in New York was to cover the Opening Gala of the Metropolitan Opera. With the President in town and the unprecedented traffic jams, I actually wound up walking the two and a half miles to Lincoln Center in my tux. Truthfully, it wasn’t bad. The weather was beautiful and I got to walk past many of the restaurants, art galleries, museums and sights I had planned to visit and write about. I was amazed at how close they all were in proximity to my hotel. So, in a way, the unexpected walk turned out to be of great benefit. I even opted for a late night walk home from the Met, savoring the lights in Times Square and the regal elegance of Rockefeller Plaza at midnight. I was not alone, several other hearty souls making their way home from the Met or the nearby Broadway shows were similarly enjoying the balmy late night air. With police and various security foot soldiers positioned practically every 50 feet along my path due to the President’s visit, I couldn’t have asked for a safer midnight stroll. I even took my time, pausing to stop at a sidewalk cart for a slice of pizza and a yogurt drink. The vendor was really friendly. He even threw in a free potato knish for me to enjoy later. Arriving back at the Affinia to my comfortable apartment/suite, I made myself a late-night cappuccino and savored one last view of the stunning City Lights outside my window before turning in. I felt like the consummate New Yorker!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

MET HD Turandot an historic spectacle given new life

by Dwight Casimere

Nearly two million people have seen the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series of live broadcasts from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The transmissions have won the coveted Peabody and Emmy awards and have been a crowning achievement in the careers of Director Gary Halvorson and Met General Manager and MET HD Executive Producer Peter Gelb.

An Encore presentation of the November 7 live transmission of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot was presented on a thousand screens around the country, including Cinemark, Seven Bridges in Woodridge and AMC Cantera 30 in Warrenville on November 18. The next Live in HD transmission is Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Tales of Hoffman), Saturday, December 19 at noon.

The Met’s November 7the performance was a tribute to both youthful debuts and veteran performances. 31 year old Conductor Andris Nelsons, principal conductor of the Latvian National Opera orchestra, was in his Met debut. Bass Samuel Ramey, who recently celebrated 25 years at the Met and 80-year tenor, Charles Anthony (whose real name, incidentally, is that of another Met great, Caruso), has appeared in nearly 3,000 roles on the Met stage since 1954.

Ukrainian soprano Maria Guleghina is the vengeful Turandot; in her first Met performance of the role and Italian tenor Marcello Giordani is her mysterious suitor Calaf.

Turandot is one of the Met’s grandest spectacles and the multi-camera treatment, although marred by a few inexplicable audio blips, gave it first-class treatment.

Guleghina is electrifying as the icy, treacherous Turandot, who delights in decapitating her young royal suitors who fail to solve her riddles in exchange for her hand. Calaf is the mysterious stranger who willingly offers his life for the hand of Turandot. In his famous aria, Nessun dorma (no one sleeps), Calaf declares he will ultimately be victorious in winning Turandot’s hand by proving the awesome power of love and its ability to melt even the most icy resolve, especially that of Turandot.

“Puccini really makes it hard on the tenor because his biggest aria comes in the last act,” Giordani told backstage interviewer and Met soprano Patricia Racette. “But, you steal the show,” Guleghina interrupted. “So, perhaps Puccini knew what he was doing!” Giordani countered with a sly smile.

Backstage, Charles Anthony (Caruso) spoke with Racette about his varied career. “I appeared as a servant in the production of Un Ballo in Mascera, in which Marian Anderson became the first black person to perform in a Metropolitan Opera production (in 1955). He was also in the production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore in the double debut of the great Franco Corelli and Leontyne Price in 1961.

Samuel Ramey displayed his uncanny dramatic powers as the blind Timur, Calaf’s father. His sensitive portrayal was undermined at times by a troublesome wobble in his voice and the mysterious disappearance of vocal tone at the ends of lengthy phrases.

The thrilling conclusion of Turandot, with its grand crescendo and sweeping panorama of the sets and costumes caused tears to stream down the cheeks of more than one audience member at the Live in HD recent screening. For more information on upcoming MET HD transmissions, visit www.metopera,.org or

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Met Der Rosenkavalier an operatic rose garden

by Dwight Casimere

“An embarassment of riches” is the phrase that comes to mind when describing the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier (the Knight of the Rose), in performances through January 15 at New York’s Lincoln Center. It features the Met’s two biggest stars, soprano Renee Fleming and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in the title roles, but that’s just where the abundance of superlative talent begins. Swedish soprano Miah Persson gives an ovation-inspiring performance in her Met debut as Sophie, the enraptured object of the silver rose. Audiences at the Thursday, October 22nd performance may well have witnessed the birth of a new Met superstar.

The story of Der Rosenkavalier, as written by librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is a mixture of fantasy and historical fact, just as its tone vacillates between comedy and lamentations concerning human frailty. Der Rosenkavalier is loosely adapted from the novel Les amours du chevalier de Faublas by Louvet de Couvrai. One can also detect traces of the French comic master, Molière.

Strauss’ music is dense and difficult, but Maestro Edo de Waart spins its disparate elements into a seamless tapestry of sound like a master weaver at his loom. The intricate flute chords, in particular, in the overture to Act II, foretell the filigree of sylvan threads that would later enmesh to reveal the silver rose in all its glory.

The story of Der Rosenkavalier, as written by Strauss’ librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is a mixture of fantasy and historical fact. Set in a mythical version of mid-18th century Vienna, it tells of a supercilious court intrigue surrounding the Marschallin, Princess von Werdenberg (Renee Fleming), during the reign of the Empress Maria Theresa. She is seen in Act I in her bedchamber with her young lover, Octavian, Count Rofrano (Susan Graham). The vocal fireworks take off almost from the beginning. The perfectly matched voices of Fleming and Graham intertwine and diverge like birds of paradise in full flight. The lush orchestrations, given a sense of urgency by Maestro de Waart, only heightens the intensity of their performance. It is a delight to behold.

Out of the comic confusion of Act I, when the Marschallin’s tryst is interrupted by her boisterous, vainglorious country cousin, Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau (the commanding Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson) , emerges the marvelous Mexican tenor and seasoned Met veteran Ramon Vargas, with a blistering aria, Di rigori armato il seno, which is a real show-stopper. What can be said of Ramon Vargas? Not enough. He is a marvel. Normally cast in a lead role, he is sorely underutilized, but duly noted, in this splendid production. Not to worry, Met subscribers will see plenty of him this season as he plays Foresto in the Met premiere of Verdi’s Attila, as well as the title role of Faust in La Damnation de Faust.

The entire plot hinges on a social convention that is purely fantastic. Ochs has come to Vienna to marry a rich and pretty girl, Sophie, the daughter of a newly ennobled commoner, Edler von Faninal. Ochs asks the Marschallin's help in finding a suitable person to perform the indispensable ceremony of presenting to the betrothed a silver rose.

It is a grand symbol of marital fidelity. She assures him that Count Rofrano will accept the duty. Ochs, who meanwhile takes a fancy to the supposed serving maid (a disguised Octavian), is delighted. This all converges later in a way that makes for some delicious operatic comedy.

Strauss’ employment of a soprano in the male lead role of Octavian is a nod to Mozart’s employment of the same device in his comic opera Le Nozze di Figaro, in the role of Cherubino (sung in this season’s Metropolitan Opera production by Isabel Leonard). Likewise, the music is also a mixture of the lighthearted lyricism of Mozart with the underlying gravitas of Wagner. Hints of Strauss’ harmonic modernism also shine through at the most unexpected moments, creating an attention-grabbing tension that makes his music interesting to listen to through the nearly four and a half hour performance.

There are some absolutely mesmerizing moments of vocal brilliance, such as the soprano trio in Act III. Observing the contrast between comedy and drama, there’s a moment in Act I, when Fleming/The Marschallin reflects upon the “fragility of life” and how when she looks in the mirror she “feels the sands of the hourglass slipping through my fingers.” Her most poignant observation is when she reflects on her love for the young Octavian. She laments that she will eventually lose him to a younger woman as she sings that the things you embrace are the things that ultimately slip away and that the harder you try to hold onto something, the more it is likely to slip away. It is a heart-wrenching admission, sung with great pathos by Fleming. Der Rosenkavalier will be seen Live in HD worldwide Saturday, January 9, 2010. Get your tickets now. It will surely be a sellout and perhaps your only opportunity to see this landmark performance, as tickets for the entire run have been sold out for months at the Met. For more information, visit