Nora Theatre's "Intimate Exchanges": You've Gotta Have a Gimmick

Sarah Elizabeth Bedard & Jade Ziane in"Intimate Exchanges"
(photo: Nora Theatre)

Convoluted plots are what one expects in any work by Alan Ayckbourn, one of Britain's most prolific playwrights since the Bard of Avon, author of no fewer than 81 plays thus far. One also typically anticipates an ingenious gimmick, such as simultaneous plays performed in separate theaters (as with House and Garden). This is especially true of his Intimate Exchanges, now being presented by Nora Theatre at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, a play which was completed in 1983 (his twenty-ninth play), in which Ayckbourn tells several of eight major stories after a single opening scene, depending on how the audience votes. It's rather like the concept with “Mystery of Edwin Drood” and “Shear Madness”, but on steroids. The mind boggles at the possible permutations and combinations that are permuted and combined, something like thirty-one possible scenes, sixteen hours, with ten characters all played by one female and one male actor. In this production, the options are more limited (the audience gets to vote solely for the final scene) but are nonetheless challenging for the cast of two, who are Jade Ziane and Sarah Elizabeth Bedard, Directed by Olivia D'Ambrosio at primarily breakneck speed. It's about how the smallest, seemingly insignificant and even careless choices we make each day can lead to unexpected disastrous consequences.

The two options being produced by Nora Theatre are the stories titled Celia, after Celia Teasdale (a rather horny upper class matron), and Sylvie, after Sylvie Bell (love the name?), her part-time “help”, a lower class lass with hidden aspirations. The remaining characters are male, consisting of Celia's tippling husband Toby (headmaster of Bilbury Lodge Preparatory School, where he and Celia live, with shades of Martha and George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), their randy handyman and gardener Lionel, and his wheelchair-bound father Joe, the former gardener and decidedly amateur poet (in an uncomfortably tremor-filled turn). Before the performance begins, a ghost light (now a symbol of resistance from the arts community) illuminates the playing area and Ziane, setting the stage, urges us to “sit forward”. There follows a two-hour production once described by an actor as “an orgy of drama”. And a quick-change buffet of drama it is, with both actors getting and giving a real workout. Bedard and Ziane both look totally unlike the first characters they play (the upper class Teasdales) when they change garb and gab for their other characters on the lower rungs of the social ladder. They are also more audible and believable as the cockney types than as the more polished ones who speak as though their mouths were full of marbles (which, on second thought, might be their point). Their work, under D'Ambrosio's direction, is mostly delightful even when the dialogue becomes fairly banal, surprising for Ayckbourn. Of the two offerings, Celia and Sylvie, the latter is by far the more involving, ahead of its time with a definite feminist bent, very appropriate for Nora Theatre and for these productions, with contributions by the several female creative team members. The Scenic Design by Anne Sherer is geared for whatever choices are made, as are the Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl, Lighting Design by John R. Malinowski and Sound Design by Nathan Leigh, all of them cleverly adaptable. Mention should be made of the prominent role of the Properties Coordinator, Esme Allen, not to be divulged here.

This is far from Ayckbourn's best work, but intriguing enough for a rewarding visit. The two plays are best seen together, though Sylvie, as noted above, is the better written one, suggesting her role of an Eliza Doolittle type as first looking through a letter box on a door, then having the door opened for her. These productions offer welcome diversion for what Artistic Director Lee Mikeska Gardner notes in the program, namely from the future as we ourselves face an uncertain political landscape. Sit forward, indeed.


H & H's "Mozart & Haydn": The Shock of Recognition

Aisslinn Nosky and the Handel & Haydn Society Orchestra
(photo: Kat Waterman)

This weekend's performances by Boston's Handel and Haydn Society are aptly titled Mozart and Haydn, as they are just that, a program devoted to the two composers, with a concerto by Mozart bookended by works of Haydn. It was an appropriate choice on the occasion of Mozart's birthday, which was noted by concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky in pre-performance remarks, after entering the hallowed walls of Symphony Hall attired in a brightly colored period waistcoat to complement her shock of red hair so familiar to the company's avid following. It was an indication of the excitement to come, first with Artistic Director Harry Christophers' crisp conducting of Haydn's Symphony #26 (Lamentatione), later his very brief Overture in D minor and Symphony #86. In between, Nosky led the thirty-five piece orchestra in Mozart's Violin Concerto #3 in G major as she displayed her supremely virtuosic violin skills.

This company, the oldest continuously performing classical music ensemble in the United States, has been providing superb offerings since its inception in 1815, just over two centuries ago. This program was no exception. With the strings standing, as was often the custom in the eighteenth century, throughout the almost two hour performance, Christophers conducted the Lamentatione with the precision one has come to expect, highlighting the classical pattern of establishing an idea, then moving away from it, ultimately returning to it, revealing the basic principle that came to guide typical classical movements. It reflected the Holy Week chants with their tune from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, from its opening drama to the countermelody between oboe and violin, to the somber minuet with its odd and unexpected emphasis of the last of triple meters. It was a thoroughly apt introduction to the central piece of the evening, the Mozart concerto.

The Violin Concerto #3 in G major is a showpiece for any able violinist, but became a truly mezmerizing one in the hands of Nosky. The audience, already quite familiar with the extraordinary physicality in her role of concertmaster, was wowed by her simultaneous playing and leading of the orchestra by means of her body language and obvious delight in the piece. Nosky has become a true superstar indispensable with her growing recognition as a force of nature with which to be reckoned, for a company that remains a remarkable repository for the music of the era. Her playing, especially in the cadenzas, coupled with her energetic leadership, made this easily the musical highlight of the program. She is always a delight to watch, and here was an absolute joy to hear. Her “whole body power” (to borrow from the nomenclature of oriental martial arts), while standing, was exceptional and exhausting (for both performer and audience).

After intermission, Christophers returned to conduct the two remaining works by Haydn. The
Overture in D major, part of a now-lost longer work, was short and sweet, with its interplay between the lower strings and the violins especially evident, and several surprises for the audience along the way. This was followed by the Symphony #86, one of the six “Paris” symphonies by Haydn. As it segued from the placid to the powerful, with his clever use of pauses and rests, it proved a lively conclusion to a well-thought-out program.

There remains one more opportunity to experience this program, again at Symphony Hall on Sunday January 29th at 3pm. The pre-performance commentary by Teresa M. Neff is highly recommended. Go and enjoy them both.

The remainder of the current season includes:

Glories of the Italian Baroque
-February 10 & 12 at Jordan Hall

McGegan & Mozart
-March 3 & 5 at Symphony Hall

Monteverdi Vespers
-April 7 & 9 at Jordan Hall/Sanders Theatre

Handel's Semele
-May 5 & 7 at Symphony Hall


"Trans Scripts: Part I, The Women": Transcendent?

The Cast of "Trans Scripts, Part I: The Women" at ART
(photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

There's an old saying about the need not only to comfort the afflicted but to afflict the comfortable. One was reminded of this when confronted (if that's the correct term) with the play Trans Scripts Part I: The Women, now at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge. The work, taken verbatim from interviews with transgender women all over the world by Paul Lucas (a theatrical producer with his first full-length play), has as its purpose emphasizing what we share in common, not the differences between us, thus lowering our level of discomfort with the subject. After encounters with more than seventy-five transgender people in six countries over five years, Lucas transcribes the narratives from seven of these stories, now transposed into dramatic monologues and transported to their US premiere at ART after their favorable reception at the 2015 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Directed here by Jo Bonney (who directed Father Comes Home from the Wars Parts 1, 2 and 3 at ART), they are performances of journeys that are completely transferable to the stage. Performances are also followed by moderated discussions with experts in this area.

The gender of the cast, (unidentified in the program as transgender or not), is not immediately apparent. They include Josephine (Marlo Bernier), Zakia (Matthew Hancock), Sandra (Eden Lane), Tatiana (Bianca Leigh), Luna (M J Rodriguez), Eden (Rebecca Root) and Dr. Violet (Jack Wetherall). From the very beginning until its close some ninety minutes later, one is reminded of the scene from A Chorus Line when characters share their backstories, but here in considerably more depth. Consider just a few examples. Tatiana, a 45 year old actress: “There is no simple, universal narrative, no pithy, three-line explanation...but why should there be?”. Or Zakia, a 38-year-old social worker and beauty contest contestant: “You don't see other women walking down the street with their hoo-hahs hanging out to prove they're women”. Or Sandra, a 65-year-old former garage mechanic: “It's a human experience that one has by breaking through the door of gender, a quest to rebuild yourself in the way that you should have been built”. Or Violet, a 74-year-old gynecologist: “How long have I been going with my transition? Ten years? My mother still calls me Victor. The old bugger”. Later, Violet adds that those who dis her are at the same time recognizing and speaking directly to her, in which she finds validation. The stories aren't pity parties, but affirmations, in various ways, of how strong, powerful and responsive these various characters have become. While each has an individual tale to tell, there is a commonality to what they all have come to transmit and to share with the audience. And what they have to say is not transient, it perseveres, even if not always transparent. They are more translucent, in that they tell just enough to enlighten us and withhold just enough to make us more eager to learn. All seven performers are extraordinary (though one of them could speak a bit more slowly so as not to lose some dialogue). Under Bonney's superb direction, the creative team's contributions include perfectly chosen Costume Design by Daniel Tyler Mathews, minimalist Scenic Design by Myung Hee Cho, fine Lighting Design by Lap Chi Chu, effective Composition and Sound Design by John Gromada and essential Wig Design by Rachel Padula Shufelt.

Fine theater at its best often introduces us to worlds about which we are fairly ignorant, and for this, we should always be grateful. In the current milieu of political fear and anxiety, one could find some solace in experiencing, however briefly, the life stories of these incredibly resilient human beings who are more like us than they are unlike us. Their shared diversity speaks volumes, urging us to spread new understanding. One is likely to find that this work, with its unique view into a little-known community, is indeed transfixing, transforming, and, yes, transcendent.


Fathom Events' Met Opera's "Romeo & Juliet": Death Becomes Them

Diana Damrau & Vittorio Grigolo in "Romeo et Juliette"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Romeo et Juliette, presented by the Metropolitan Opera, is a work that is regaining popularity with audiences after a period of benign neglect. With music by Charles Gounod (generally considered his finest work) and a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carre, the 1867 opera's story follows fairly faithfully the familiar Shakespearean tale of the two titular lovers. It is best known for four duets for its principal singers as well as Juliette's waltz song Je veux vivre.

The brief Prologue, sung by The Metropolitan Opera Chorus, introduces the story of the perennial feud between the Capulet and Montague families in Verona (updated from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century). The first act then takes place at a masked ball at the Capulet Palace where Tybalt (tenor Diego Silva) awaits the arrival of his cousin Juliette (soprano Diana Damrau), telling her potential suitor Paris (bass-baritone David Crawford) he'll be overwhelmed by her beauty. She is led in by her father Capulet (bass-baritone Laurent Naouri). Soon after the dancing begins, Romeo (tenor Vittorio Grigolo), a member of the Montague family, enters with his friends Mercutio (baritone Elliot Madore) and Benvolio (tenor Tony Stevenson). Romeo and Juliette fall in love at first sight. Tybalt recognizes Romeo as he leaves, though masked, but is restrained by Capulet and his servant Gregorio (bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha) from following him. Later, in the courtyard beneath Juliette's balcony, Romeo declares his love for Juliette who returns the fervor. After a brief interruption by her servants, they vow to marry. Still later, in the cell of Frere Laurent (bass Mikhail Petrenko), Romeo, Juliette and her nurse Gertrude (mezzo Diana Montague) are told by the good friar that he will marry them, in hopes of ending the family feud. Soon after, in the street, Stephano (mezzo Virginie Verrez), Romeo's page, sings a mocking song that results in a swordfight in which Tybalt first kills Mercutio, after which Romeo stabs Tybalt and is banished by the Duke of Verona (bass Oren Gradus). Some time later, Romeo and Juliette spend their secret wedding night together, and she forgives him for killing one of her family. After Romeo leaves to go into exile, Capulet informs Juliette that she is to marry Paris immediately. Desperate, she swallows a sleeping potion (given her by Frere Laurent) which will make her appear dead. Romeo arrives at the tomb of the Capulets and, believing his beloved dead, drinks poison. She awakens and, to join him forever, stabs herself, as they both die praying for forgiveness.

The Production by Bartlett Sher, first presented at Salzburg in 2008, is a very theatrical one, befitting Sher's Broadway experience (his recent “Fiddler on the Roof” ended its run just as this operatic version premiered). His pairing of the matinee-idol handsome Grigolo and lovely Damrau, with their undeniable chemistry, was a definite plus as they literally sang themselves to death with consummate lyricism. Also, as Sher noted in an intermission interview, they both move very well. Damrau was every inch a teenager with childlike gestures and activism, and Grigolo was pure athleticism as he scaled the walls to Juliette's balcony. The rest of the cast was equally fine, notably Naouri and Montague as the adults in the room. Madore did gnaw on the scenery a bit, but it's a role that pretty much forgives this sort of thing.

The score was impressively Conducted by Gianandrea Noseda (his first time with this work), with Scenic Design by Michael Yeargan, lovely Costume Design by Catherine Zuber, Lighting Design by Jennifer Tipton (too often way too dark to see the chorus) and Choreography by Chase Brock, with Chorus Master Donald Palumbo leading the always dependable Met Opera Chorus. The HD Host was Ailyn Perez and HD Director was Gary Halvorson.

It was a grand night (or afternoon) for singing, even if (spoiler here) all doesn't end well.
Fathom Events Encore HD presentation on Wednesday January 25 at 6:30pm at a theater near you.


Lyric Stage's "Virginia Woolf": Capping a Tough Night

Paula Plum, Dan Whelton, Erica Spyres & Steven Barkheimer in
 "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

In an initially pitch black theater, Lyric Stage Company presents Edward Albee's controversial 1962 play Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, beginning with the braying entrance of Martha (Paula Plum), then mimicking Bette Davis' iconic line, “what a dump!” that sets the tone for the battles to come. The play was considered shocking for its time (and still packs a wallop today). Though it won the Tony Award for Best Play and ran for 664 performances, it was denied the Pulitzer that year (no prize was awarded, despite the Pulitzer advisory board's expressed recommendation), both for its language and subject matter. The main title of the play is a reference to a song from the Disney 1933 classic cartoon short, Three Little Pigs: “Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”, which someone had sung earlier at a party that preceded the action of this play. Albee said he had seen the phrase in a bar scrawled on a wall. He also subtitled each of the three acts of this work: Act I is named “Fun and Games”, as a middle-aged couple entertain a young couple they have just met with a lengthy night cap; Act II is titled “Walpurgisnacht”, after the pagan feast on the eve of the feast day of St. Walpurga, eighth century German abbess, also known as May Day, when a rendezvous of witches occurs; Act III, “the Exorcism”, pretty much speaks for itself, as the alcohol-fueled long night's journey into day progresses.

Albee was to become known for his precision, even in his punctuation, and a talent for solitude in his own life. The art he liked best was what he called “tough”, that which had weight and value. In this play, he presents a married couple artfully disguising their own disappointments, as well as the ugliness and bitterness of their relationship, by sublimating in illusions. By questioning the difference between reality and deception, he virtually destroys the conventional concept of a stereotypical nuclear family of breadwinner, housewife and two obedient children. Those only familiar with the 1966 film version with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor will find some surprises here, especially in some back stories. In a small New England college town, New Carthage, history professor George (Steven Barkhimer) finds that his wife Martha, six years his junior, has been asked by her father, president of the college, to be nice to a newly arrived couple, handsome biology professor Nick (Dan Whelton) and his mousey wife Honey (Erica Spyres), so she has dutifully invited them back for that night cap.

Over the course of their facade-stripping encounter, we come to learn, among other points, about infertility and professional failure to live up to expectations, why Honey and Nick got married, why they don't have children, why Martha (married once before when very young and “revirginized”) is bent on seducing younger men, why George keeps his past so hidden, and ultimately why George and Martha have a secret lie that both have come to believe in. We also discover that both Martha and Honey come from families with dominating father figures. Albee famously told one actress on her opening night as Martha only one note: “remember one thing: she loved her father, passionately”. As is true of Albee plays in general, there is an enigma at the center, not to be revealed here, but more explicit in this play than in most of his others. We should consider how fortunate we are to be able to experience this brilliant work in such a near-perfect production, especially with (but not limited to) such an extraordinary ensemble.

Barkhimer is spot on, Whelton a perfect foil, and Spyres is as excellent as one might expect from her repertoire of prior roles (if way too attractive to be considered remotely mousey). But it's the plum role of Martha that makes or breaks a production of this work, and here we find real gold. Plum has been wonderful in so many other works, but has never been better than her larger-than-life role here. Just to hear her toss off such zingers as “I swear, if you existed, I'd divorce you” is chillingly reason enough to see this production, but all four principals are superbly Directed by Scott Edmiston, (though with some overlapping dialogue that seems not in keeping with Albee's rhythms). On the creative side, there is finely detailed Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland (providing a very lived-in, battle-worn home), Costume Design by Charles Shoonmaker (notably Plum's outfits that become increasingly revealing), Lighting Design by Karen Perlow (with the exception of two spotlighted soliloquies that briefly break the otherwise realistic tone of the play), and Sound Design by Dewey Dellay.

Albee once posed the question: who's afraid of living a life without false illusions? In his depiction of some of the fun and games played (as with “humiliate the host” and “get the guest”), there are landmines at virtually every turn. Even such relatively minor details as Honey's drunken reaction of peeling labels off a liquor bottle draws a barbed response from George. Yet Albee infuses the work with bitter humor, as he had once declared that “almost any art has humor... (and) most art has a sense of absurdity”. The playwright, whom we lost just last year, would undoubtedly be pleased with what is quite possibly the finest work from this estimable company in decades, and a bout (an apt word indeed) not soon forgotten. One word of advice: run, don't stagger, to get tickets to this breathtakingly wonderful work.


Huntington's "A Doll House": Slam Dunk?

Andrea Syglowski & Sekou Laidlow in "A Doll's House"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)
A Doll's House, the cataclysmic work by Henrik Ibsen, generally recognized as the father of modern drama, is currently being presented by Huntington Theatre Company in a brand new Adaption by Bryony Lavery, in its first professional U. S. production. While many have proposed this as the first truly feminist play, it was described by Ibsen himself as not being so limited in scope, but more universal in intent, or as Director Melia Bensussen has put it: “we all struggle to be our genuine selves while meeting the needs of our society and our relationships” in the context of modern false morality. It remains the most produced Ibsen play throughout the theatrical world, as well as one of the most frequently mounted works, period. While some aspects of the play betray their age, the social struggles portrayed do not. With respect to this production, one's assessment will depend greatly on whether one is a purist or more open to a less traditional approach. Lavery has all of the cast speaking colloquially, and Bensussen has most of them delivering the lines at a fairly rapid pace, with natural overlapping dialogue. It makes for a radically different take, especially in its fluttering-bird depiction of Nora, that will fascinate some and distance others. Since the societal issues depicted by Ibsen no longer exist to the degree he portrays (in an era before marriage counseling and ritalin), this updated effort will have its champions and detractors, with few on the fence.

The story revolves around one simple, fateful, desperate act, involving both forgery and embezzlement, by Nora (Andrea Syglowski), in order to afford care for her husband, Torvald Helmer (Sekou Laidlow). Faced with public disclosure and a potentially ruined reputation, Nora submits to extortion by Torvald's colleague Krogstad (Nael Nacer). She seeks advice from Dr. Rank (Jeremy Webb), a friend to both Nora and Torvald, and discovers her childhood friend Christine Linde (Marinda Anderson) is also in financial difficulties and seeks a job with Torvald through Nora. The rest of the household includes Nanny Anne-Marie (Adrianne Krstansky), the Maid Helene (Lizzie Milanovich), and two Helmer children (alternating among Zoe Adams Martin, Kinsaed Damaine James, Elise Rose Walker, and Gavin Daniel Walker). Complications ensue when Torvald declares he is going to fire Krogstad, and Nora finds she has to present Torvald with the truth. His extremely negative reaction leads to her final act of independence.
The Set for Huntington Theatre Company's "A Doll's House"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson) 
Ibsen was a true prophet in his dissecting of the modern middle-class conception of marriage. Rolf Fjelde, in the forward to his famed 1965 English translation, quotes Ibsen when he succinctly described his role: “to be a poet is to see...but mark well, to see in such a way that what is seen is perceived by his audiences just as the poet saw it”. Fjelde goes on to state that this seeing is perceiving relationships in a social context, especially the extended self in the moral order of the cosmos, when Nora has her traumatic awakening and evolves into a remorseless and independent heroine. What has been seen as superficially photographic on the surface is actually a fusion of perspectives, with Ibsen as a critic of society and the varied intricacies of relationships. Ibsen's motivation was not to lecture, but to bring human beings into existence, daring each “to think, to feel, to question, to live”.

The play begins with Nora, but ends with Torvald, with his short-lived hope that she would reconsider her final act. Bensussen directs a stellar cast here, beginning and ending with the terrific Syglowski, with support from Laidlow, Nacer, Krstansky and the rest of the cast. The creative talents include unusual Scenic Design by James Noone, varied Costume Design by Michael Krass, Lighting Design by Dan Kotlowitz and Sound Design and Original Music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen.

Just imagine the state of that thunderstruck premiere audience just before Christmas of 1879, unknowingly witnessing the birth of modern drama with the grand slam of that door. A few years ago a local production omitted that unsettling sound, rather like cutting the “Rosebud” scene out of Citizen Kane. That moment in this production is slightly altered (no spoiler here), enough to mute that most iconic ending of some of its potential power. Once again, if you're a more traditional theatergoer, this won't please. If you're more receptive to innovation, this is a total slam dunk.


SpeakEasy's "Hand to God": Paranoid Puppetry Personified

Tyrone & Jason (Eliott Purcell) in "Hand to God"
(photo: Glen Perry Photography)

Hand to God, the play by Robert Askins now being performed at SpeakEasy Stage Company, comes along at a particularly handy time. As we as a nation are about to deal with perpetually paranoid personalities on a daily tweeted basis, we need good theater now more than ever. And Askins' comedy, first seen on Broadway in 2015 (after two Off-Broadway runs) when it was nominated for five Tony Awards including Best Play, is a perfect antidote to the uncertainty to come. Make no mistake, this is comedy as dark as it comes, absolutely pulling no punches.

It's a deceptively simple premise, that the life of teenager Jason (Eliott Purcell) has been engulfed by the (literally) demonic antics of his dominant hand, Tyrone, a sock puppet who emerges as the flip side of Avenue Q. This has complications for those around him, including his mother Margery (Marianna Bessham), his bachelor Pastor Greg (Lewis D. Wheeler), and his peers, Timothy (David Ladani Sanchez) and Jessica (Josephine Elwood). While there is at its base a comforting humanity, this comedic riff has more diabolical ends in store. What transpires further on in the play is best left undisclosed, for as a critic unwilling to divulge spoilers, one's hands are tied.

Suffice it to say that whatever one might imagine as the worst of all possible worlds, the play evolves way worse than anticipated until its final encounter with Armageddon. This production is Directed by David R. Gammons, with Scenic Design by Christina Todesco, Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg, Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will, Puppet Design by Jonathan Little and Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley (right down to our hero's Muppet jammies), this is the profound embodiment of our worst fears, that something wicked this way comes.

One can confidently state, hand to God, that this is among the funniest plays in many a year, and serves as fair warning that we, as supporters of the arts and the truth they convey, should remain vigilant against any who would attempt to suppress freedom of expression or, Tyrone forbid, any criticism or dissent. If the near future threatens to overwhelm you with its negative messages of political selfishness, self-absorption and misogyny, seek out the arts, such as Hamilton (despite the portrayal by those who haven't seen it that it's “overrated”), the Meryl Streep bravura performance as Florence Foster Jenkins (also ignorantly denigrated as "overrated"), or the finally feminist Disney crafts people who created the beautiful and powerful Moana. And, above all, have your sides split and your funny bones tickled by the ingeniously riotous laugh fest that is Hand to God.

Hands down, this play is a downright hilarious exercise of apocalyptic proportions. Who knew that hell on earth could be so much fun?


BMOP's Stucky Release: American Musings

Boston Modern Orchestra Project's "American Muse"
(photo: BMOP)

Still continuing its impressive scheduled release of new music as well as of overlooked twentieth century works, Gil Rose's Boston Modern Orchestra Project has recently completed a new recording, Steven Stucky's American Muse, its fiftieth release under its eight-year-old “BMOP/sound” independent record label. This one includes the composer's American Muse as well as Rhapsodies and Concerto for Orchestra. Once again, this CD is more evidence of the significant role of Rose in providing access to important contemporary compositions as well as classics of the previous century. This time around, the music, while still eminently listenable, may prove a bit less approachable than their other recent releases and a bit of a challenge for the listener, but once again many will find meeting that challenge rewarding, as with virtually all of BMOP's undertakings.

Stucky (1949-2016), a Pulitzer Prize-winning contributor to the musical scene, had been associated with BMOP since its 2010 performance of American Muse. His untimely death just this past year makes this recording all the more poignant for the company, who wanted to pay tribute not just to his association with BMOP's efforts but to all of his musical education and championing of new music. Known particularly for the ability to meld classical elements with contemporary influences, he evidences in these works how much of a creative spirit he was. After an initial brief dramatic piece in Rhapsodies, his American Muse reveals a canny ability to choose and to synthesize into musical form the work of four American poets, namely Walt Whitman, e. e. cummings, A. R. Ammons and John Berryman. His vision, enabled in this recording by local treasure baritone (formerly tenor) Sanford Sylvan, was that any music should “sound beautiful”, not just cosmetically but in the way it speaks or means, with the “very sound itself...the heart of the matter”, emphasizing harmony's importance in clear and simple forms, with the central role being the idea of drama. His expressed wish was that his own music should always communicate “something deep and eloquent and human”. The sections of this piece range from the jazz-inspired American Lights, Seen from Off Abroad (Berryman) to the oft humorous yet somewhat ominous Buffalo Bill's (Ammons) to the Bartok-referenced Delaware Water Gap (cummings), and the obvious inspiration for the meditative I Hear America Singing from the Whitman poem.

The last of the choices in this album is the composer's Concerto for Orchestra, which, although not frequently performed since its 1986 premiere, hints at his unique take on the form, which was to find full fruition (and that Pulitzer Prize) in his 2005 work, Second Concerto for Orchestra. In its three movements, his first Concerto for Orchestra manages to display short ideas in contrast to one another, alternating strings with brass to great effect.

All three selections on this BMOP disc are conducted by Rose with his usual understanding and sensitivity for the genre. This is yet another worthy production by BMOP which, since its inception in 2008, has been an astonishing source for classics of the last century and contemporary classics-to-be.

Met Opera's "Nabucco": Flying on Golden Chords

The Met Opera Chorus in "Nabucco"
(photo: Met Opera)

Nabucco, Giuseppe Verdi's most political opera, has become one of the Metropolitan Opera's most popular works in its repertoire, in large part due to the prominence given in this opera to the always-reliable Metropolitan Opera Chorus, under its Chorus Master Donald Palumbo. A piece first composed in 1841 in Italian, to a Libretto by Temistocle Solera, based on the Old Testament Books of Jeremiah and Daniel, Nabucco, only Verdi's third opera, was a hit from its inception. The story concerns the capture of the Jews and their exile to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar (which occurred in 587 B.C.E.).

The opera consists of four acts, which the Met performs in two acts with one intermission. In Act I, Jerusalem: Nabucco (tenor Placido Domingo) is attacking Jerusalem where his daughter Fenena (mezzo Jamie Barton) is held hostage by Ismaele, the Hebrew King's nephew (tenor Russell Thomas). He had previously been freed by her from being held captive himself in Babylon. Her half-sister Abigaille (soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska), who also loves Ismaele, tells him she can free the Hebrews if he professes love for her, but he refuses. Nabucco then enters the city, confronted by Zaccaria (bass Dmitry Belosselskiy), the Voice of the Hebrew people, who threatens to kill Fenena, but Ismaele disarms him and returns her to her father. Nabucco orders the temple destroyed. In Act II, The Impious One: Abigaille, back in Babylon, learns that Nabucco is not her father and that she is instead descended from slaves, so she swears vengeance on him. The High Priest of Baal (bass Sava Vemic) offers to give her the throne and spread word that Nabucco has died, so the people proclaim her their ruler. As she is about to crown herself, Nabucco arrives declaring himself king as well as god, for which he is struck by a thunderbolt, leaving Abigaille triumphant.

In Act III, The Prophecy: Nabucco, half-mad, is tricked by Abigaille into condemning the Israelites to death, including Fenena who has converted to Judaism. The Israelites dream of their former homeland in the famous “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves”, Va, pensiero, sull' ali dorate or Fly, Thought, on golden wings. This, the most famous piece in the opera, became a sort of national anthem and was spontaneously sung by crowds that massed on the occasion of Verdi's funeral, since it had become a symbol of Italy. (It was deservedly given an immediate encore at this typically fine performance, to an enthusiastic reception). In Act IV, Broken Idol : Nabucco prays (to the God of Israel, mind you) forgiveness, pledging to convert himself and the people of Babylonia. He stops the execution of the Hebrew slaves at the last minute and frees them, as Abigaille swallows poison. The Israelites and Babylonians unite in praise of the (Hebrew) God.

This performance was Conducted by James Levine, with the 2001 Production by Elijah Moshinsky, Stage Direction by J. Knighten Smit (with HD Direction by Barbara Willis Sweete), Set Design by John Napier, Costume Design by Andreane Neofitou and Lighting Design by Howard Harrison. The HD Broadcast Host was Eric Owens (who noted during an intermission interview with Domingo that this was the tenor's seventeenth Verdi role).

This production of Nabucco was excellently sung, notably by opera fan favorite Domingo and new discovery Barton (who impressed this critic in last summer's Glimmerglass Opera mounting of The Crucible. But the afternoon truly belonged to the Met Opera Chorus, who received a much-deserved standing ovation, that over-used event that seems to occur at the opening of a local supermarket. It was never more fitting than here, as, on a cold snowy afternoon, the music warmed the packed theater and braced the audience for the onslaught outside.

For those who may have missed this due to weather, there is an encore Weds. Jan.11 at 6:30pm.