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Luca Pisaroni as Maometto II Photo : Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2012
Which are more important: first thoughts or last words? It’s a question opera lovers pore over with glee in regards to many of the art form’s greatest masters who have reworked previous pieces, and it’s a question that figures prominently in perhaps the other big ambitious project of this year’s Santa Fe Opera season, a production of Rossini’s opera seria, Maometto II. The work, originally written in 1820 for Naples and then subsequently revised for Venice and then completely reworked later for Paris as The Siege of Corinth has recently become available in a new critical edition that will be published next year. Santa Fe Opera and music director Frédéric Chaslin have had the good fortune to present the world premiere performances of this new edition with another major opera star this summer, Luca Pisaroni, in the title role. Pisaroni was reportedly keen to take on the role as had one of his idols Samuel Ramey many decades earlier, and when the stars aligned, he and the company got their wish.

Leah Crocetto in Maometto II Photo : Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2012
Audiences seem to be getting their wish as well with a show that has some exciting singing, even if it isn’t always in the most expected places. Pisaroni plays Maometto II, the Turkish sultan laying siege to the Venetian colony of Negroponte. He gets to do fun, crazy things here in David Alden’s sometimes grandiose staging, including climbing aboard a chariot pulled by a statue of three giant size black steeds that descends from an angle at the back of the stage. He sounds great, and makes more of the fine vocal detail than most baritones typically do. He’s paired with one of the more surprising names in the cast, Leah Crocetto, a former Adler Fellow in San Francisco, who takes on Anna, Maometto’s love and daughter of his enemy. Crocetto has a lovely, sunny, and strong instrument, but I would never have thought of her as a bel canto singer. And at first I felt my suspicions were confirmed when she entered with significant hesitation on Friday night. But something clicked and soon she was pulling out coloratura detail around every bend with real agility and some beautiful phrasing throughout key moments in the close of Act I and the major duet with Maometto that opens Act II. She was a singer to watch even before, but what other surprises she has up her sleeve may be anyone’s guess at this point.

Bruce Sledge played Anna’s father Paolo Erisso and was robust and flexible. Meanwhile mezzo Patricia Bardon, a favorite of mine, seemed to be having an off night vocally on many fronts as Anna’s secret husband Calbo. She struggled at times with the detailed passage work and pitch was a problem in the upper register. But luckily all of the cast had excellent support from the orchestra, and Chaslin again proved he’s got the chops to do exactly what a music director must, master a variety of basic repertory styles with certainty. His conducting of the bel canto score was fleet, bordering on breezy at times, avoiding the melodramatic and providing consistent support to the carefully phrased vocal lines throughout.

If there was hesitancy in the show, it was most likely in David Alden’s sometimes timid staging. Alden has a long history in Santa Fe and is no stranger to colorful, nearly hallucinogenic moments on stage particularly in the world of Baroque operas. And he does deliver some here amid an oddly sloped set of curved walls and stairs that don’t always lead anywhere. But there are just as many moments filled with a cast that seems uncertain where to turn amid the odd angles. The chorus and extras in particular are given strained, sloppy looking choreography to manage with the kind of sword and spear play one associates with a rerun of Kung Fu. All of this looks funny exactly when in shouldn’t and cuts into the forceful menace of a piece about two peoples at war.

Does the new edition make a difference? Maybe. But after hearing what is supposedly a closer version to Rossini’s first thoughts on the piece, it’s also quite easy to see why he would have revised it. Anna and Maometto’s final scene still seems awkward and confusing, and the motivation for her eventual suicide come off as unclear. The opera almost seems to crash into itself in the last twenty minutes or so. Still if opera is a sport, this is one fun game to watch unfold with surprises and a few disappointments that make loving this art form particularly worthwhile.

Brian Jadge and Amanda Echalaz Photo : Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2012
Meanwhile, Santa Fe Opera’s popular favorite on this summer’s program roster is a new production of Puccini’s Tosca. It’s an opera that provides particular challenges for the company’s gorgeous outdoor theater that lends itself easily to dramatic elemental moments. This verisimo gem with its very particular interior spaces and the ugly business that occurs there calls out for something a bit more cloistered. But director Stephen Barlow, has met the challenge with an almost M.C Escher inspired approach with principals cavorting through a set filled with painting, forced perspective, and angular lines that amp up the surrealism. In Act I Cavaradossi, and indeed the entire cast, traipse back and forth across the painting he is working on that covers the floor of the stage. Meanwhile the detached dome of Sant’Andrea della Valle hangs detached above like the setting sun on the New Mexico skyline. It’s attractive imagery but infuriatingly distracting with its oddity. The painting disappears, but the large set piece persists, rising up to reveal the wall of Scarpia’s quarters in Act II and serving as the floor of the tower at the Castle Sant’Angelo in Act III. There are turret walls that appear by this point, but it’s never really clear where Tosca is going to jump from until low and behold she does. It doesn’t make it more shocking, just more perplexing.

Amanda Echalaz sings the title role here in her U.S. debut. She has the power and can be steely at times in the part, but she also tends toward the brighter side, tone wise, losing some of the darker qualities in the vocal part. Raymond Aceto, who is sharing the role of Scarpia with Thomas Hampson who will take over in August, was a reasonable and menacing villain without overplaying his hand. But the big story here vocally was tenor Brian Jagde who took over the role of Cavaradossi for the entire run just days before the opening of the season with the withdrawal of Andrew Richards. Jagde has a relaxed athletic tone that never feels pinched. And while the chemistry between Echalaz and him fizzles at times, he’s both believable and the kind of young singer you instantly want to hear more from. Music director Chaslin is in the pit again here and again gives this most severe of Italian shockers a lighter, more focused approach than some might have chosen. But it worked quite well keeping the show concise and focused right through to the finish. If Tosca is Santa Fe’s opera staple on this year’s menu, they’ve put together a show that shouldn’t disappoint those looking for comfort food.




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Jessica Emmanuel in Poor Dog Group's The Murder Ballad Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
The ninth edition of REDCAT’s New Original Works festival kicked off on Thursday. And if the opening weekend of this three week festival is any indication, this may be one of NOW’s most ambitious programs yet. Of course, the festival is all about exactly what it says, brand new works often in various stages of development. That can mean a raw unpolished feeling to some of the pieces, but it can also indicate a powerful unexpected energy. And while it is not a competition in any way, Thursday’s program started off with a piece that will be hard to beat in terms of depth, vision, and ferocious impact.

That hour long piece was from Los Angeles’ own Poor Dog Group, the experimental theater collective founded by former CalArts students in 2008. The work, The Murder Ballad, is different in scope from their former projects focusing more heavily on dance elements than prior outings. However, the understated impact, and the piece’s brazen, pointed reflections on race, sexual identity, and authority are more potent and succinctly put than just about anything I can remember in recent memory. The Murder Ballad takes its title from the lengthy blues song written by Jelly Roll Morton at the start of the 20th Century and only recorded by Alan Lomax in 1938 with the help of a little alcohol and 7 aluminum discs which captured the New Orleans legend. The performance is stunning and serves as the soundtrack for what is largely a dance piece with minimal spoken elements. The episodic tale, rife with curse words and explicit sex recounts the story of an African-American woman who murders a woman she has discovered is cheating with her man. She is eventually tried, sent to prison for life, and starts up a sexual relationship with another woman while there. Despite the obviously salacious elements of the story, there is a certain inevitability to the story as well, like Greek tragedy. It’s a sense that all of the things that happen to us are still somehow predetermined and that there is a beauty in that itself.

There are only two performers – the enthralling dancer Jessica Emmanuel who poses, struts, and almost flies throughout the entire length of the piece, not so much acting out the events of the song as suggesting the underlying unexpressed context like some modern day listener reflecting on how little we’ve changed despite our efforts to convince ourselves we have in the last hundred years. This all takes place on top of a white tarp with matching rear projection screen that occasionally provides live streaming images captured from above. Her lithe, at times nearly naked, form is periodically accompanied by a near comic counterpoint from actor Jesse Saler. He radiates sexuality just as easily as Ms. Emmanuel, soaked in his polo shirt and briefs with his large thighs providing a certain counterpoint to her lighter more delicate frame. The contrast in and of itself draws on issues about sexual identity and power relations that the piece, of course, doesn’t attempt to answer as much as explore the deeper meaning in Morton’s often funny, frequently explicit tale.

Jose Luis Blondet, Carolyn Shoemaker, and Juliana Snapper with Opera Povera Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
The works that followed covered very different areas in a more is more sort of fashion with varying degrees of success. The collective Opera Povera took on Pauline Oliveros’ To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation. The 1970 work was intended to capture Oliveros’ own response to the burgeoning feminist movement of the time drawing parallels between the two women in terms of the effect patriarchy had on their histories. The wordless hour long “opera” is scored mostly for sighs, gasps, and sobbing noises that were performed here by co-creator of the production Juliana Snapper and Carolyn Shoemaker. The staging that Snapper and Sean Griffin conceived further wrapped the elements in Oliveros’ score into the history of Cheryl Crane, the daughter of Lana Turner who would later stab and kill Johnny Stompanato in what she said was an effort to protect her mother. If this sounds like it’s getting complicated, it is, and the staging involves a handful of other characters as well who aren’t always clearly outlined. Cast members at times appear to be Solanas, Monroe, Turner, Crane, and others. Sometimes these references are taken seriously and others not, which is in the spirit of Oliveros’ music. But I’ll admit the references become so complicated that by midpoint it was harder and harder to maintain focus on the inexplicable stage events. And while the notion of the sobbing and gasping that fill the score were mesmerizing, the show did sink under the weight of its own pretentions in the end.

From Susan Simpson's Exhibit A Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
The closing work was Susan Simpson’s Exhibit A, a Los Angeles influenced fantasia of the mid-20th Century. Again electronic music elements were combined with an often comic theater performance that reflected on the 1948 draining of the Silverlake reservoir, the modernist utopian architecture of Richard Neutra, and Harry Hay and the history of the Mattachine Society. Simpson was fascinated by the parallels in the utopian mind set that informed Hay and Neutra as well as science fiction from the period that she had come across in papers at the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at USC. Exhibit A takes off to space from there, imagining Hay, Neutra and others as part of an outer space exploratory cell headed for planet Edendale, Silverlake’s original neighborhood name. The characters are represented by huge wooden puppets that interact with the live jumpsuited cast freely. Landscape flies and is reformed with little warning. The piece dabbles in surreal kitsch and history freely, producing something that doesn’t take itself too seriously but loses steam before its conclusion. The connections are made, but the larger point seems diffuse and uncertain here. Still it’s a collision of great, local materials that begs out for further development.

It was the kind of evening one hopes for at the festival overall – works that overdose on ambition as opposed to those that feel like they have nowhere to go. The REDCAT curators are off to a spectacular start on this front this year, so be sure to check out the next two weeks of programming downtown.
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From Poor Dog Group's The Murder Ballad Photo: Poor Dog Group
Attention! There is life for live performance in Los Angeles outside of the Hollywood Bowl. So get out of the heat and get ready for three weeks of hot off the press experimental everything when REDCAT kicks off its ninth annual Now Original Works festival (NOW) this very week on July 26. The festival continues this year with nine, count ‘em, nine new works in development covering music, dance, opera, and theater focusing heavily on local artists. There’s a lot to see, and these shows are typically some of the highlights of the entire programming year at REDCAT. And best of all it’s dirt cheap with passes running for only $36 for all three weeks. That dear reader, is a great deal to see new work from some very exciting folks.

Jinku Kim's work from NOW Festival Week 2 Photo: Jinku Kim
Where to start? How about with crafty LA-based theater collective Poor Dog Group who kick off the whole festival on July 26 with The Murder Ballad, a physical interpretation of Jelly Roll Morton’s classic 1938 recording. The group has an increasingly important position in the local theater scene and this new work promises to open a new chapter in their own history. I’m also intrigued to see To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation, an operatic staging by Opera Povera of Pauline Oliveros’ 1970 score. The wordless piece will be presented in the first week’s shows as well.

From Prumsdun OK's Of Land and Sky Photo: Poor Dog Group
At the other end of the festival is another pick that will close week three starting August 9 when Obie-award winner Heather Woodbury will unveil her latest wild and wandering dramatic narrative As the Globe Warms. The topic, as you might guess, is the social complexities surrounding the climate crisis, but Woodbury’s track record suggests this will likely be more than a mere inconvenient truth. There is plenty of dance during the festival as well and week 2, which starts August 2, offers new pieces from Nick+James entitled Lake revisiting the duo’s own experiences dancing for many internationally known choreographers and companies. And even broader in scope, Prumsodun OK will present Of Land and Sky a multi-disciplinary performance recasting a mythological Buddhist tale as a parable of homosexual love complete with Cambodian pop songs.

Of course, this is just a sampling of some of the highlights, but there is much more to consider during the NOW festival, which will include three different programs each receiving three performances over the next three weeks. You can see the full details on the REDCAT site. But take my word for it, it’s one of the best performance deals in town. We may be in between seasons, but REDCAT continues to serve up the latest downtown, so do the right thing and go.
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Mariusz Kwiecien and William Burden Photo by Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2012
Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger is one of those operas that upon hearing it for the first time you are perplexed as to why you haven’t heard it many times before. Szymanowski was not unaware or unimpressed with the musical developments around him in the early 20th Century, but the conservative elements in his native Poland’s musical establishment placed pressure on him in opposition to more avant-garde forces. King Roger can sound lushly romantic, but it is decidedly modern, in its beautiful, rich, sonorous sound wall. The work has gained increasing popularity in recent years and its reputation continues to grow. There are challenges to its acceptance besides the Polish language element: the story is somewhat strange and obtuse, and it’s got some challenging choral work as well. In the libretto, a 12th Century Norman King of Sicily, King Roger, finds himself in the pull of a battle between Apollonian and Dionysian forces as a local Shepherd slowly erodes the sober faith of his people and queen with the promise of hedonistic love. The story is abstract and filled with ideological debate that would have made Jung proud. That Santa Fe Opera is presenting this challenging beauty this season in a production as well done as this one is a testament to the company’s breadth musically and theatrically. Despite some minor issues, this King Roger is an enchantment all on its own in the New Mexico summer desert.

Let me sing the praises of the musical team. Evan Rogister conducted the Santa Fe Opera orchestra through a very dense score with wonderful control and precision. The amount of time put into this sounds great especially when you consider Szymanowski’s beautiful choral work. The first 20 minutes of the show are stunning, and the chorus rose above all expectations with an exceptional performance. Of course, their starring cast didn’t let them down. Baritone Mariusz Kwiecien has made a specialty of this role and championed the opera. Santa Fe rightly jumped at the chance to have one of the world’s biggest stars come out west, and it pays off big time. He’s magnetic and the entire struggle over Roger’s spirituality plays out exquisitely in his face and voice. He’s spectacular, and not just because he’s shirtless and gives the muscle bound extras of Act III a run for their money. Tenor William Burden sings the part of the Shepherd and sounds like a perfect fit in this most Dionysian of roles. He’s bright and youthful and enticing exactly when he should be. But perhaps the biggest scene-stealer of the night was the bright, warm soprano of Erin Morley who sings Roxana, Roger’s queen. She pierces through all of the male voices and big orchestration but never with a blunt disservice to the whole. She’s as seductive as anything in this opera about giving ones self over to the sensual world.

Perhaps the weakest part of the show is Stephen Wadsworth’s prosaic, bland staging. He does manage to give principles ample room to move and clear guidance for their interactions. But visually the show is flat, eschewing nearly everything about the unique beauty of the Santa Fe open stage in favor of a single barren throne room with a flat painted sectional backdrop that is about as inoffensive as the décor in a dental office. Perhaps most concerning is the clichéd contrast between the Edwardian costuming of Roger and his people in the opening act to denote a restraint or conservatism that gives way to something out of an old Herb Ritts music video. It may be modern-ish dress, but it isn’t modern-ish thinking. Luckily the staging stays out of the way when it comes to the performance overall and allows the musical forces to show off all their hard work. That part is a thriller and it makes King Roger a clear highlight of the current Santa Fe season. The show runs through August 14.
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Robert Foxworth as Henry Drummond, Bob Pescovitz as Judge and Adrian Sparks as Matthew Harrison Brady Photo by Henry DiRocco/Old Globe 2012
The summer theater season is in full swing in San Diego where the Old Globe has recently rolled out all of their outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theater productions for the summer. Adrian Noble has returned for the season as Artistic Director for the Globe's 2012 Shakespeare Festival and has stuck with the format of recent years with a comedy, As You Like It, a drama or history play, Richard III, and another classic play. This year the non-Shakespeare classic is Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind, directed by Noble in an attractive if somewhat golden-hued production. The play is a fantasy of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” trial during which a Tennessee school teacher was put on trial for violating state law by teaching evolution to his students. The play is a bit more idea-oriented than narrative-oriented with its speeches from Matthew Harrison Brady, the play’s stand-in for William Jennings Bryan, and Henry Drummond, the ersatz version of
 Clarence Darrow. Of course, the fact that there are people in America who still want to have these inane 100-year-old arguments over evolution does make the show eerie, but its important to remember that the authors had other targets. The play is also a thinly veiled attack on McCarthyism in the 1950s and is as much about socially responsible critical thinking as it is about evolution. What Lawrence and Lee saw as a somewhat out of date debate about science was actually a vehicle for bigger fish.

This message still communicates with the audience, and in San Diego there were several who applauded and cheered Drummond’s passionate defense of the right and responsibility to think freely in this country. Noble doesn’t always quite manage to hit all the notes in the show, though. The leads, Robert Foxworth as Drummond and Adrian Sparks as Brady were both believable and relaxed, fleshing out their many passionate speeches with real personality. But there was something hazy and softly lit about the show with a physical sensation and busy movement among the cast that made the whole thing feel as much like The Music Man as anything else. The design and physical movement tended toward sunny, bright, and sweetly comic nostalgia bumping up against the more biting political commentary of the show. On balance, though, it’s a worthwhile revisiting of a show that does have contemporary overtones.

Jay Whittaker as Richard III Photo by Henry DiRocco/Old Globe 2012
Far more successful was Lindsay Posner’s staging of Richard III with its graffiti covered concrete wall sections and angular modern costuming. These are not unusual visual cues for Richard III - a play most design teams find irresistible, placing it among the obvious aesthetic debris of 20th-century fascism. Posner’s team isn’t above that either, but the direction is sharp and quickly paced even in those moments when the level of angst is cranked up higher than it need be. The title role goes to Jay Whittaker who plays the villainous king often with a barely restrained glee that works well for him physically. He’s about the most handsome, physically robust looking Richard III that you’re likely to see and, while he may not look the part of a malformed despot, he makes it work legitimately in his own skin. The women in the cast are uniformly strong including Vivia Font as Lady Anne, Dana Green as Queen Elizabeth, and a particularly commanding Robin Moseley as Queen Margaret. The looming sense of dread and the inevitability of small minds is just as palpable here as in Inheret the Wind with the benefit, of course, of Shakespeare’s beautiful words. It’s a solid quality production that should rightfully highlight this year’s festival.

Miles Anderson and Sean Lyons in Divine Rivalry Photo by Henry DiRocco/Old Globe 2012
And, while not a part of the festival itself, right across the plaza, the Old Globe is presenting one of their two big summer indoor shows – Michael Kramer and K.S. Moynihan’s Divine Rivalry. (The other, Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage will open later this month.) The historical event behind Divine Rivalry was the real life meeting between two giants of the Italian Renaissance, DaVinci and Michaelangelo who were brought in to each paint opposing frescos at Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio – neither of which was completed. The two artists were contemporaries of one another and did meet for just such an occasion, which, in the play, is presented as a contest sponsored by none other than another Florentine contemporary of the artists, Machiavelli. Interesting fodder to be sure, but Kramer and Moynihan don’t seem to have much to offer in terms of dramatic exploration or development of the material. The show is filled with ironic and unfunny in-jokes all delivered with a winking nod to the audience. The dialog is prosaic and patently dull in much of the performance. The show almost comes off a reportage with little to no poetry. There are some attractive uses of video projection, but its not enough to lend any substance to this particular rivalry. There's plenty of time and opportunity to see most of these shows, particularly on the outdoor stage, which is always one of the highlights of the San Diego summer.
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Brigitte Geller, Dmitry Ivashchenko, Karolina Gumos Photo: Forster/Komische Opera Berlin 2012
The 20th-century revival of interest in Baroque operas has, more or less, resulted in two types of contemporary productions of works from the period. On the one hand there are those that attempt to present something of a reverent reconstruction of imagined 18th-century productions. This is exactly the kind of thing I saw a little over a week ago in Paris with Ivan Alexandre's production of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, which got a detailed work up relying heavily on stage craft from the composer’s own era. On the other hand, whether it is set in an earlier period or a contemporary one, there are those stagings that give an ironic wink to the past commenting on the musical and dramatic tropes of Baroque operas themselves. This is often done for laughs—whether or not they make sense in terms of the libretto—in an effort to break up the rather lengthy running times many of these operas have. A good recent example would be Francisco Negrin's recent Rinaldo for Lyric Opera of Chicago. There are those that break the mould like Peter Sellars who has been known for giving Baroque operas contemporary updates fully realizing dramatic parallels between their stories and contemporary themes, a task he did quite well in Chicago the season before with Handel's Hercules. But leave it to Stefan Herheim to go his own way.

Herheim has become perhaps the best regarded of opera stage directors in recent years for a string of wildly imaginative, unexpected and insightful stagings including a 2008 Parsifal for the Bayreuth Festival and Berg’s Lulu for Dresden in 2010 to name just two. He doesn’t just place the events of stories in more recent time periods, but actually investigates deeper meanings in the score for shows that can have unexpected contrasting elements that can puzzle more than shock in a particular context. His staging of Handel’s Xerxes for the Komische Oper Berlin, which I saw last week, was no less mysterious, albeit in a very funny way. It’s a production that seems to comment as much on the way contemporary audiences view Baroque operas as it is about the event of the opera itself.

The action takes place on a rotating 18th-century stage within the larger frame work of the Komische stage that reveals the wing and backstage areas. This opera-within-the-opera idea isn’t new, but Herheim’s off-kilter working of it is. Instead of giving the show an additional implied storyline with the cast playing both opera singers and the characters of Handel’s opera, the cast remain as the latter throughout. Even when leaving the stage to enter the wings, Xerxes, sung here by a lovely Stella Doufexis, is still Xerxes. He is not puzzled by his surroundings, but instead appears to be acutely aware of them as part of the world. The “onstage” performances tend toward the broadly comic and include more unexpected elements such as performers dressed as sheep who wander on stage, a chorus dressed as creatures from the deep blue sea, and some other clever visual gags that recur throughout the show. Yet, while the spirit is light-hearted, Herheim never appears to be taking shots at the convention of Baroque operas. Nor does he seem to be interested in reconstruction as tribute given the use of unexpected elements like neon lights.

So what’s going on here? My bet is that the show is a running commentary on producing Baroque operas themselves for contemporary audiences. The characters are all trapped in a world not of their own creation – aware of their existence as something besides what they are onstage, but not actors or other real-life figures either. This is reinforced in the end when the chorus enters for the final minutes of music dressed for the first time in contemporary street clothes. The seven characters in the cast seem honestly shocked and surprised to see them, a reaction that suggests for the first time in the long, strange goings-on in this show that they view something as foreign and out of place. For the first time they are removed from the audience as the chorus sings about the importance of joy and celebrating love.

It’s a surprising and rather moving moment in the opera and one that suggests the heart of performing  Baroque opera isn’t about lampooning it or recreating some modern ersatz version of it. Herheim, in his rather round-about way, is taking the work on its own terms, though granted not in a way that’s obvious or simply about relating it to contemporary themes and issues.

Musically the show was solid and on par with the quality one comes to expect at the Komische Oper. Konrad Junghänel conducted the contemporary instrument orchestra with fervor if not always the greatest detail. There were standouts in the cast including Julia Giebel as Atalanta and Katarina Bradic as Amastris who give some of the bet comical turns in the whole show. But if Regie theater is about directors and their ideas, then this was certainly it where the most intriguing and thought provoking work of the night rested squarely in the hands of Herheim.
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Richard Chamberlin stars in The Exorcist Photo: Michael Lamont/Geffen Playhouse 2012
William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel The Exorcist and the subsequent 1973 film adaptation by William Friedkin is perhaps best remembered for some of Friedkin’s most bracing side effects. The spinning head of Regan, in a career defining performance for better-or-worse by the young Linda Blair, moments of levitation, and spewing vomit still come to mind for an entire generation of movie audiences for which Friedkin’s version of The Exorcist was synonymous with horror. It seems an unlikely choice for a stage adaptation, but when Blatty entrusted the project to playwright John Pielmeier, he was most taken with the plans to treat the story differently than it was in that most famous of films. Peilmeier, working with stage director John Doyle, wanted to craft something more organic, intense, and visceral than what audiences might remember from the film. And they have managed to do so with The Exorcist, which is now receiving its world premiere at The Geffen Playhouse in L.A. But while the play may manage to get out from under the film's shadow, it simultaneously doesn’t necessarily offer the strongest argument for why this particular story matters in a contemporary context.

Pielmeier has updated the action of the story to more contemporary times and filled the show with modern references to ethnic wars in Africa and other recognizable headlines. He and John Doyle have also largely done away with much of those touchstone special effects. While Emily Yetter, the young actress playing Regan, gets a workout with acrobatic flailing throughout the show, the levitation and contortions of the possessed child are more implied than explicitly expressed. Doyle has also gone for his trademark concise staging contained in a small area surrounded by the entire cast around a central table. Those actors not participating in a scene often provide the dramatic vocal effects of the possessed Regan from the other side of the partitions that delineate the central area where scenes flow together, one into the other with only minimal demarcation. It’s like Doyle’s Sondheim shows without the musical instruments.

This stripped down look does provide the show with a narrative intensity that sometimes comes on too quickly. The concluding sacrifice of Fr. Damien Karras, a quite good David Wilson Barnes, seems almost a postscript to the action, it comes and goes so quickly. But at the same time, the leanness of the show provides for a shift of focus in thematic content. Pielmeier’s version provides more space for the spiritual and moral themes of the piece to take center stage. The show becomes less about the specter of the demonic child, and more about how we process and rationalize all the day to day horrors in this world. Some of the best dialog on these topics come from Richard Chamberlin who takes over the role of Fr. Merrin famously played on screen by Max von Sydow. Opposite him the show’s other big star, Brooke Shields, plays Regan’s mother, Chris MacNeil. Shields has the toughest job in the show charged with giving a convincing portrayal of a woman who—we are to believe—comes to feel an exorcism will be the best course for addressing her daughter’s increasingly bizzare behavior despite her modern disdain for the thought of such a practice. She almost gets there, but it’s a fairly thankless stretch for a character to ask the audience to identify with her even as she launches into a campaign for the most fantastic and unbelievable aids for her daughter.

But despite some good things here, I still couldn’t help feeling that the show had completely shaken off the past. It’s one of these shows where one wonders about what the story has to tell us that is actually new or insightful. It’s familiar to the point of being taken for granted at times despite the shift in focus. But it is tightly constructed overall with well paced performances that might make those who miss those heady days of early 1970s horror films shiver a little bit.
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Ina Kringelborn and Vincent Wolfsteiner Photo: Wolfgang Silveri/Komishe Oper Berlin 2011
With so much of the standard opera repertory consisting of works composed over a century ago, the omnipresence of the historical oppression of women is inescapable. However, this material is an important site of artistic interrogation in the world of opera, where inequalities still exist in at least in the number of women at the most senior levels of artistic management and direction. All of this was in high relief during the closing week of the opera season at Berlin’s Komische Oper where two men took on some of the more problematic stories about women in the opera canon during the festival week that closed Sunday. The Komische Oper’s departing intendant, Andreas Homoki offered a revival of his popular 2010 staging of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg the night after the final performance of this season’s new production of von Weber’s Der Freischutz from the mind of the poster boy of Regietheater, Calixto Bieito. Both stories involved contests where young women have been offered up as prizes by their fathers to contest winners. Both have a favorite potential victor in mind, but it’s the snags in getting that suitor into the winner’s circle that creates the drama. And yet the differences in approach in these two male directors couldn’t have more different implications in terms of sexual politics.

Homoki’s Meistersinger, which was conducted by the Komische Oper’s outgoing music director Patrick Lange is a study in understatement. There is so little to it, that at times it feels and looks like a very German high school musical. The stage is occupied solely by the cast in quaint picturesque costumes on an empty stage with eight or so free standing square edifices meant to suggest the buildings of Nuremberg. There’s a chapel and various sized boxes all with pointed roofs that tower over the cast. Each “building” has a front wall-sized door that opens for characters to enter and leave but otherwise little happens other than the movement of these buildings to reinforce the societal underpinnings of the piece – sometimes the city is closed like a wall to the outsider, at others, as in the Act II riot, it is a state of disarray and overturned edifices. Homoki’s vision otherwise is more or less what you’d imagine the Disney film version of Meistersinger would look like. Beckmesser all but twirls the edges of his curled mustache to communicate his villainy, and doting Eva flounces across the stage. Homoki deals with Hans Sachs’ odd, closing aria by simply ignoring it more of less, and that action continues unabated toward the pre-determined happy ending. There are a lot of tired ideas here as well, most painfully the whole explosion of color stratagem in the final minutes. After four hours of looking at nothing but white walls and gray costumes, the day-glo onset of the final scene in both costumes and color is not only tired, but too little too late. It was also one of the quickest Meistersingers I’ve heard with Lange giving no one much time to ponder over the beauty of the score. In the end Eva is won by her knight and everyone goes home happy.

From Act III of Neistersinger Photo: Monika Ritterhaus/Komische Oper Berlin 2011
Ignoring the problematic undertones of an opera is a position that a director like Calixto Bieito has no stomach for. That doesn’t mean his productions are always sublime, but they undoubtedly make audiences uncomfortable in asking hard questions. In his recent staging of Der Freischütz the young and beautiful Agathe hopes to be wed to Max after she is won in a shooting contest. Bieito makes no bones about the obvious ideological parallels between marriage and hunting with women being the prey in the former. He casts the role of an animal killed by the hunters in Act I as a naked woman dressed in a fur coat, who, like prey, is brutally killed and stripped of her outer covering before being hoisted away, bloody on a hunter’s shoulders. Brutal to watch to be sure, but Bieito never lets up with the metaphor driving his point home. When Kaspar calls on the devil to cast the magic bullets to ensure Max’s victory in the deal Max has cut to win his bride, it takes place amid a clearly satanic woodland rite with Kaspar murdering a pair of newlyweds and unceremoniously annointing each bullet from between the legs of the brides corpse. This drives Max mad in this version turning him into a naked, mud-covered wild man or animal himself who will haunt Agathe for the rest of the opera. Max was sung by the excellent Vincent Wolfsteiner who stayed on board with the total frontal nudity throughout the entire second Act. Bieito follows through on calling the sexism and violence taken for granted in Der Freischütz all the way to the end by changing the ending where Agathe dies anyway and both the Hermit and Max shot dead by the modern dressed paramilitary hunters despite their songs of forgiveness and reconciliation. Bieito’s characters live by the gun and die by it despite any sentimental notion of this work hanging around in the minds of a contemporary audience. It was undoubtedly brutal to watch, but yet there was something much more honest about this production in terms of the material. Lange was on the podium again and overall the show was much more strongly cast with Bettina Jensen as a ringing, forceful Agathe and Carsten Sabrowski as the voracious and evil Kaspar.

Of course, it’s unfair to draw this sort of comparison in some ways, and I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to call Bieito’s work a feminist production in any sense of the word. The important thing is to remember how limiting the two approaches suggested here are in and of themselves. There is a power to having a variety of different voices interpret even the most familiar repertory. And that variety is still lacking overall when it comes to women directing opera on the world stage.
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from Dr. Dee at ENO
Damon Albarn is not the first British pop or rock star to venture into the world of musical theater, or opera if you must. He won’t be the last either, I wager, but he has shown some tenacity in the medium having provided music for at least two collaborations that have come to life at the Manchester International Festival and received subsequent stagings at English National Opera. The last of those Monkey Journey to the West was so successful, that Albarn teamed up with stage director Rufus Norris for a piece of his own inspiration, Dr. Dee, which just finished its run at ENO this week. While still a collaboration, Albarn had much more overall input into Dr. Dee. He is credited with the music and as “co-creator,” a title shared by Norris who is also the director.

You may have noticed the lack of a writing credit. I did as well, though I learned about it the hard way in actually seeing the show. On the good side, Albarn has an eye for interesting subject matter. Dr. Dee is about John Dee, a 17th-century mathematician and expert on the occult who was an advisor and political consultant at times to Queen Elizabeth I. The opera portrays a meteoric rise to power for Dee which is paired with the inevitable downfall. In the story, his troubles begin when he becomes increasingly involved in his real life project of deciphering the language of angels that was passed onto him through a medium, Edward Kelley. Kelley eventually tells Dee that an angels has demanded that Dee share his wife with him. In Dr. Dee, the court tires of his useless decoding work and he soon falls from favor. If all this sounds familiar, it should. The figure of the real life Dee is thought to have had some influence both on the figure of Marlowe’s Faust and Shakespeare’s Prospero.

Neither Albarn nor Norris has quite those talents, though, and Dr. Dee falters both in its rather pedestrian musical score, and an overreliance on 20th-century clichés about faith and love. The music isn’t unpleasant, mind you. It’s a string of pop songs, many of which Albarn plays along on during the show tinged with Elizabethan musical instrumentation. There is very little padding between the songs making the show a bit less of an opera and a tad more of a musical theater piece. The songs are sung by Albarn as well as some members of the cast including Paul Hilton who sings John Dee and Christopher Robson who sings the role of Edward Kelley. I can’t say much more about the songs in that the acoustics of the show were plagued with the problems pop shows usually are. Amplification was used for all the sound, and in this setting, it meant voices were so distorted as to be indecipherable. For some inexplicable reason, the house which uses supertitles despite performing everything in English chose not to use them for Dr. Dee helping no one.

The strongest parts of the evening come from Norris’ sharply designed and directed staging. A large, stage length room resembling a meeting hall fills much of the stage when things begin. The room contains a band with period instruments as well as Albarn but before long the room elevates revealing a large space where Dee and his fellow Elizabethan’s will act out the depicted events. There is ample use of video to highlight Dee’s mathematical and supernatural work. The images sweep along in a pleasant way and there is clever use of large paper screens to escort players on and off stage in a manner reminiscent of Japanese theater. There are even live birds that fly from the theater balcony onto the stage at one point that created a lot of excitement.

But at the core, and despite it’s good looks, Dr. Dee is hollow. It attempts to dredge up drama from the rather banal conflict Dee feels about the idea of “sharing” his wife with Edward Kelley. And when its not doing this, the story feels more like filler than anything else. Of course, other British pop and rock acts have turned stranger and more esoteric music theater pieces into gold, so who's to say what Albarn might get to next or what Dr. Dee might look like over time. Now it just looks dull.
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Benedict Nelson as Billy Budd Photo: Henrietta Butler/ENO 2012
There are so many beautiful things about the operas of Benjamin Britten. Perhaps my favorite is the inherent ambiguity. The things that are assumed and acted upon by the characters in his stories without them ever being explicitly stated. I know more than a few opera fans who dislike his operas for this very reason – particularly when it comes to male homosexuality. The idea being that the undercurrents of unspoken male desire, or the stand-in conflicts that are sometimes meant to be thinly veiled storylines about the destructive effects of homophobia, strike some of these folks as timid and passé. And yet, I doubt that any of these folks would be much more pleased with the manner in which director David Alden has chosen to deal with these finer points of subtlety in the new production of Britten’s Billy Budd, which is wrapping up its run at English National Opera this week and which I saw on Tuesday.

Actually the performance, conducted by ENO’s musical director Edward Gardner, doesn’t so much deal with fragile emotional ambiguity as do away with it almost entirely. In fact it pretty much does away with the sea and the boat of Melville’s original entirely. Outside of the scenes in Captain Vere’s quarters, all of the action takes place in front of or on one of two giant steel hull walls. The Indomitable may be at sea, but if it is there, it’s as a mid-20th Century German U-Boat. The residents of this submarine are dressed for the occasion as well with all the stocky, bearded officers in enough black leather boots, caps, and floor length trench coats to take one back to L.A.’s Faultline on a Saturday night. But this isn’t just about décor, it’s about Alden’s need to amp up the show by treating Claggart and his henchmen in particular as more clearly the arm of some fascist military repressive force complete with billy clubs to beat back the ship’s crew. Claggart himself, sung by the vocally lovely Matthew Rose, never stops walking in this production, pacing slowly in broad, right angle sweeps often away from the action and other characters he is supposedly interacting with like some uninvolved sentry. Claggart’s aria, “Handsomely done…” is staged like some melodramatic Hollywood mad scene where he mangles a floor mat. It’s almost as strangely wrong minded as the decision to play the Novice, here sung by Nicky Spence, as a man driven mad under Claggart’s harassment. And if all of this doesn’t beat the obvious into you, you can always put Vere in all white and Claggart and all the rest of the officers in black. Subtlety, thy name is not David Alden.

In the moments I wasn’t trying to figure out what the huge glossy black barrels the crew were moving around were doing on this man of war, I did find time to admire some of the musical performance. Edward Gardner continues to provide exciting musical direction, and his leadership of the orchestra this evening was fully realized, digging in with the players for some thrilling scenes. The chorus, always a key element to a Britten opera, was fabulous as well. Alden’s production served one good end here by using the large curved reflective surfaces to reflect the sound out into the auditorium. I rather liked Benedict Nelson in the title role. He wasn’t as large voiced or warm perhaps as you might like, but he was convincing with a young spirited energy. Kim Begley sang Captain Vere and, though he sounded somewhat unsteady to me when he was most exposed in the intro and the conclusion, he fit in well with the cast and proved a plausible, flawed leader struggling with regrets. He, like all involved parties, used the rather minimal set to maximum effect, but they really did deserve a bit better here. It’s not so much the modern updating of the show or even the change of setting that is so much of a problem, it’s more the desire to stamp out the tender ambiguities and conflicts in Britten’s opera that sinks this Indomitable. Billy Budd continues through July 8 at ENO.
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