10/21/2018

Met Opera's "Samson & Delilah": Her Hirsute Suitor

The Bacchanale from "Samson & Delilah"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Samson and Delilah, composed by Camille Saint-Saens with a Libretto by his cousin-in-law Ferdinand Lemaire from the Old Testament Book of Judges , is now being given its first new Met production in twenty years, and is the latest Met Opera HD Broadcast. It was a mixed bag, as this opera often is, given the composer's terrific second act sandwiched between two relatively disappointing acts, especially in the case of this over-the-top physical production.


Elina Garanca & Roberto Alagna in "Samson & Delilah"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

The story takes place in about 1150 BCE, in Gaza, capitol of ancient Philistea, where Samson (tenor Roberto Alagna) and his fellow Israelites decry their enslavement, accusing their God of breaking their Holy Covenant. While Samson urges them to bless God's name, Abimelech (baritone Elchin Azizov) mocks them for their belief in a God powerless against the Philistine deity, Dagon. Samson calls on his people to revolt before striking down Abimelech. The High Priest of Dagon (bass-baritone Laurent Naouri) arrives to curse Samson and his people. At dawn, Delilah (mezzo Elina Garanca) appears with Philistine maidens bearing flowers and she lures Samson with their lost love, to follow her home. As she awaits him, the High Priest promises money for his conquest, but she states she only wants revenge. When Samson arrives, she demands he give into her as well as reveal the source of his strength, which he does (something about a haircut). She calls for the guards and Samson cries out that he has been betrayed. Soon he finds himself in a dungeon attached to a mill wheel, praying that God will punish him alone. At dawn, the Philistines worship Dagon (in the infamous orgiastic Bacchanale ballet) as the High Priest mocks Samson, and Delilah reminds him of their night of passion (if not love). Praying to God to return his strength, the restored Samson brings the temple crashing down. Also in the featured cast are a First Philistine (tenor Tony Stevenson), a Second Philistine (bass-baritone Bradley Garvin), a Messenger (tenor Mark Schowalter) and an Old Hebrew (bass Dimitry Belosselskiy).


Elina Garanca in "Samson & Delilah"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

As noted, the first act is rather static, with little electricity between the two lead performers. It's a bit dated as well, as one character criticizes the Israelites as being as “weak as women”. After the languid first act, the second act produces more passion (only to be diluted by the writhing third act ballet). Fortunately, this production reunites Alagna and Garanca after their pairing in the Met production of Carmen. In this performance, they were terrific together in the second act, especially in the seduction aria Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix. Naouri was also excellent, in all three acts. The conducting by Sir Mark Elder was fine, leading the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera Chorus under Chorus Master Donald Palumbo, and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, with Choreography by Austin McCormick. The Live in HD Director was Gary Halvorson and the Live in HD Host was Susan Graham. The new and arguably bizarre Production was by Darko Tresnjak, with Set Design by Alexander Dodge, Costume Design by Linda Cho and Lighting Design by Donald Holder.

As for all that speculation about the secret source of Samson's strength: Hair today.....
 

Encore HD broadcast presentation will be on Weds. Oct.24th at a theater near you.




10/20/2018

BSO's Harbison, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev: Triple Play

The BSO at Symphony Hall
(photo: Boston Symphony Orchestra)

The first Friday afternoon performance of the current Boston Symphony Orchestra season, coincidentally also the winding-down of the baseball season, presented a true triple play. Conducted by Ken-David Masur, BSO Associate Conductor, featuring as piano soloist Garrick Ohlsson, the orchestra performed John Harbison's Remembering Gatsby (Foxtrot for Orchestra), Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No.1, and excerpts from Prokofiev's ballet music for Romeo and Juliet. The highlight of the program was indisputably the rarely-performed Rachmaninoff piece (due in large part to its demands on a pianist), which made for a strange juxtaposition of the piano concerto bookended by dance compositions, neither of which had as much impact as the central one. It might have been more effective to have placed the piano concerto at the end of the program and allowed the music to build rather than to be a bit of a letdown after the Rachmaninoff display of virtuosity on the part of Garrick Ohlsson, the piano soloist already well known to BSO audiences.

The curtain raiser, a piece by the American composer John Harbison, was quite appropriate in recognition of his eightieth birthday this year. Barely eight minutes in length, it was to be expanded upon by Harbison in later years into an opera. An MIT professor originally from Orange, New Jersey, he received a commission to develop the work into a full-length opera for the Metropolitan Opera. Reflecting the jazz age of F. Scott Fitzgerald, it was given a performance (also in its expanded form) by the BSO at Tanglewood in 2013. Though brief, this “foxtrot” with its jaunty pace and frequent sudden dissonance was a crowd-pleaser that left one wanting to hear more. It was an enjoyable homage to Harbison's long association with the BSO, part of several pieces by the composer to be offered this season.

Rachmaninoff's first concerto for piano and orchestra, the composer's first piece ever written, (thus also his Opus No.1) when he was eighteen, and performed in 1892 by the composer himself as the piano soloist, was not a success at first. It may have been too uninhibited for some with its vivacious style and grand climax. After some revisions which he undertook as a more mature composer, the piece eventually achieved more acceptance, but it would never approach the popularity of his later works. Ohlsson was certainly up to the challenge of the work, which in lesser hands can be deemed too tempting to over-dramatize and show off. His playing instead demonstrated his familiarity with the often-overlooked nuances and subtleties of the composer's output, having completed, with this piece, all of the Rachmaninoff piano concerti with the BSO. The sole issue with this pianist is that he manages to make it seem all too easy to meet and even exceed one's expectations.

After the intermission, the orchestra performed ten excerpts from Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet, about the star-crossed teenage lovers, beginning with the second suite the composer wrote, about the Montague and Capulet clans. Composed in 1935, this is a lengthy piece when presented in its entirety, here excerpted into segments of the basic Shakespearean tragedy, though not in chronological or dramatic order, which made for some jarring placement. The awakening of the street and the young girl segments, were followed by the suites for masks and minuet, the famous central balcony scene, then the segment featuring Friar Lawrence, the death of Tybalt, and the final portrait of Romeo at Juliet's tomb, reminiscent of the final scene in Verdi's opera Aida. It made for a somewhat anticlimactic presentation, though the audience seemed appreciative, especially with the music familiar to Boston Pops audiences.
 
The orchestra was assured and confident under Masur's baton, and, as noted above, Ohlsson was extraordinarily fine. There may have been a moment or two of tonality issues in the brass section, but overall this was a home run for the orchestra.

Encore performance of the entire program to be performed on Sat. Oct.20th & Tues. Oct.23rd.


10/15/2018

BLO's "Barber of Seville": Splitting Heirs

Matthew Worth & the Cast of "the Barber of Seville"
(photo: Liza Voll Photography) 

Boston Lyric Opera is initiating its current season with a production of the comic opera The Barber of Seville by Rossini (which it also presented a half dozen seasons ago). Having now seen several recent versions of this opera buffa, it's hard to discern which one deserves to inherit the crown of all-round best; perhaps rather than split heirs, one should enjoy each production on its own merits. One shouldn't compare one opera comedy's approach with another, so one will make no mention of the incomparable Barber (by Francesca Zambello) this past summer at Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York, which set a high bar for physical productions that will be difficult to match or exceed. The current BLO version offers fine singing, and would have been thoroughly enjoyable in concert form, whereas in its present form it is chock-a-block with visual distractions.


Daniela Mack in "The Barber of Seville"
(photo: Liza Voll Photography)

In this familiar work, with its lively music by Gioachino Rossini and hysterical libretto by Cesare Sterbini, the production was imagination on speed, a visually confusing romp with a plethora of repetitious comic touches, two stage turntables with towers, and a non-stop cornucopia of heavy-handed direction by Rosetta Cucchi. It's rare that a much beloved work receives such an approach that is neither unified nor original, and if one comic touch seemed to land well, it was too often visited a second or third time. This take continued with the choice of Costume Design by Gianluca Falaschi (many ideas more suitable for Alice in Wonderland), Lighting Design by D.M. Wood and Scenic Design by Julia Noulin-Merat, based on the art of M. C. Escher with its stairways going nowhere (an apt metaphor for the entire production). Fortunately, the old saying still correctly admonishes that you can't hum the scenery; it remained for the orchestra (under Conductor David Angus) and cast to solidify all the stage business with musical and vocal precision. For all its apparent simplicity and ease, this is a challenging piece to perform, and neither the musicians in the pit nor on the stage failed to deliver, especially Daniela Mack as Rosina.


Jesus Garcia & the Cast in "The Barber of Seville"
(photo: Liza Voll Photography)

The story is well-known enough to dispense with a synopsis, other than to note that it all revolves around the character of Rosina, the almost universal object of affection of virtually everyone on stage, who is the ward of Dr. Bartolo (Steven Condy). Count Almaviva (Jesus Garcia), aided by Figaro (Matthew Worth), is another suitor. The rest of the cast include Rosina's music teacher Don Basilio (David Crawford), the housekeeper Berta (Michelle Trainor), and the characters of Almaviva's servant Fiorello (Vincent Turregano) and an officer (Jesse Darden). Vocally, there wasn't a clinker in the bunch.


Michelle Trainor & the Cast in "The Barber of Seville"
(photo: Liza Voll Photography)

What it lacks is a clear concept amidst a lot of chaotic busyness, here until October 21st.


10/11/2018

Goodspeed's "Drowsy Chaperone": A Real Sleeper

John Scherer as Man in Chair in "The Drowsy Chaperone"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

When The Drowsy Chaperone hit Broadway in 2006, it was a real sleeper, as no one was prepared for how big a hit it would prove to be. Now being presented by Goodspeed Musicals, it's often referred to as “a musical within a comedy”, and that indeed it is. First performed in 1998 in Toronto, it evolved into a full-fledged Broadway musical comedy eight years later, running for almost 700 performances, with thirteen Tony nominations and five Tony Awards (including, notably, Best Book and Best Score) and seven Drama Desk Awards, as well as five Olivier Awards for its London production. Many (this critic included) felt it was the best musical of that season. A parody of the silly musicals of the twenties, with its ditzy chorine, comic gangsters, mistaken identities and even an aviatrix, it was immediately embraced by musical comedy buffs as the loving valentine to the form that it was intended to be. With the Book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar and Music and Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, it emerged as one of the most original creations in memory. It's the story of an agoraphobic man living alone with his theatrical memories and LP collection of Broadway musicals, especially the 1928 (fictional) musical favorite of his, The Drowsy Chaperone.



The Cast of "The Drowsy Chaperone"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The protagonist, identified only as Man in Chair (John Scherer), suffering from some “non-specific sadness”, or what he calls feeling “blue”, finds comfort in playing his recording of the Drowsy score. He narrates the plot and presents the characters to the audience, introducing such stereotypical characters as Mrs. Tottendale (Ruth Gottschall), who's hosting the wedding of Broadway diva Janet Van De Graaff (Stephanie Rothenberg) and oil magnate Robert Martin (Clyde Alves), his best man George (Tim Falter), the titular Drowsy (as in “tipsy”) Chaperone (Jennifer Allen), Mrs. Tottendale's employee known only as Underling (Jay Aubrey Jones), Broadway producer Feldzieg (James Judy) and note the reversal of name from Ziegfeld, as well as aspiring chorine, Kitty (Ruth Pferdehirt). Also featured are self-proclaimed Latin lover Aldolpho (John Rapson), the aforementioned aviatrix, aptly named Trix (Danielle Lee Greaves), a Superintendent (Evan Mayer) and two brothers who are Gangsters (Blakely Slaybaugh and Parker Slaybaugh, brothers in real life), these last two disguised as pastry chefs (don't ask).



The Cast of "The Drowsy Chaperone"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)


As helmed here by Director Hunter Foster (himself a Broadway star) and Choreographed by Chris Bailey, this production is, well, swell. The hilarity is on a high level, notably in the numbers “As We Stumble Along”, “Message from a Nightingale”, and “Love Is Always Lovely”. Then there's the ironic “Show Off” with Rothenberg dismissing countless song conventions while simultaneously executing them, a satirical hoot for musical comedy buffs. It's difficult to describe the rest of the show without too many spoilers, but suffice it to say the scenes when the record skips, as well as quite a few other tongue-in-cheek homages to clichés of old musicals, including spit-takes, make this one enormously funny show. The performances from all of the members of the cast are superb; the entire company shines. Special attention must be paid, however, to Scherer, as his Man in Chair is nothing short of perfection. Even though this critic has seen four previous productions of the show (including Broadway), this version makes even familiar lines fresh and Sherer's timing impeccable. The Musical Direction by Michael O'Flaherty (in his twenty-seventh season with the company) as well as versatile Set Design by Howard Jones, excellent Lighting Design by Kirk Bookman, Sound Design by Jay Hilton and most especially the many fabulous costumes by Gregg Barnes (many from his own Tony- winning creations for the Broadway original) are all topnotch.



The Cast of "The Drowsy Chaperone"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

As Man in Chair says (when referring to a typical overture), this is like a pupu platter of tunes, and it does “what a musical is supposed to do, takes you to another world...for when you're feeling blue...as we stumble along life's crazy labyrinth”. For the perfect antidote to what ails us all these days, whether you've never seen Drowsy Chaperone before or if it's been a while since you last saw it, get thee to Goodspeed. It's being delightfully performed by a hugely talented cast, in what may well be Goodspeed's best ever, a description one tends to keep repeating with each new production. And your record collection may never seem the same again.



 

10/07/2018

Met Opera's "Aida": Dueling Divas

Anna Netrebko in "Aida"
(photo: Met Opera)

As its first HD Broadcast of the current season, the Metropolitan Opera chose a decidedly beloved war horse and not one but two divas in demand. The opera was Giuseppi Verdi's Aida with soprano Anna Netrebko in the title role and Anita Rachvelishvili as her nemesis. The production, equally popular, is a familiar one, as is the Libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni, a simple and, to most operagoers, also a well-known one.


The Cast of "Aida"
(photo: Met Opera)

The opera takes place in Egypt in the reign of the pharaohs. In Memphis, High Priest Ramfis (bass Dimitry Belosselskiy) tells the warrior Radamès (Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko) that Ethiopia will attack Egypt. Radamès, in love with Aida, the Ethiopian slave of Princess Amneris (mezzo Rachvelishvili), the daughter of the Egyptian King (bass Ryan Speedo Green), dreams of freeing her (“Celeste Aida”), though the jealous Amneris also loves Radamès; he is to lead the army against the Ethiopians. Aida is torn between her love for Radamès and loyalty to her country, where her father, Amonasro (baritone Quinn Kelsey) is King. Ethiopia is defeated, and Amneris waits for the return of Radamès leading a triumphal procession with the captured Ethiopians (including Amonasro). The king declares that Radamès will have Amneris’s hand in marriage. Aida agrees to find out from Radamès which route the Egyptian army will take to invade Ethiopia and to tell Amonasro. Aida asks Radamès and Amonasro, overhearing, emerges from his hiding place. Realizing that Amonasro is his enemy, Radamès is horrified. Aida and her father escape. Radamès, first believing Aida to be dead, learns that she has survived, and rejects an offer by Amneris to save him if he renounces Aida. Denying the high priests' accusations of treason, he is condemned to be buried alive in a stone vault. Amneris begs in vain for mercy for him. Aida, emerges from hiding in the same vault, and they express their mutual love for the last time while Amneris, in the temple above, prays for Radamès.



The Cast of "Aida"
(photo: Met Opera)

In this performance, Conducted by Nicola Luisotti, the two principal female singers were outstanding, each worthy of the accolades they received, but the lead tenor was not up to the challenges of his role. But Netrebko and Rachvelishvili saved the day. Also prominently featured were the Metropolitan Opera Chorus (under Chorus Master Donald Palumbo), the Met Orchestra itself, and the company's Ballet, with Choreography by Alexei Ratmansky.. The thirty-year-old Production was by Sonja Frisell, with its awe-inspiring Set Design by Gianni Quaranta, Costume Design by Dada Saligeri, and Lighting Design by Gil Wechsler. The Live in HD Director was Gary Halvorson and the Live in HD Host was charming Isabel Leonard.

Overall, it was a wondrous beginning for the 2018-2019 season of Metropolitan Opera HD broadcasts.

 

An encore presentation will be broadcast on Wednesday October 10th at a theater near you.


10/04/2018

Huntington's "Sherlock's Last Case": Fun Holmes?

Rufus Collins, Mark Zeisler & Malcolm Ingram in "Sherlock's Last Case"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)
 
The year is 1897. It is September of that year, in Victorian England, and the iconic address is 221B Baker Street, home of its equally iconic inhabitant, a world-famous detective. “I am Sherlock Holmes. That is a name and reputation well known throughout these British Isles and, I daresay, beyond them”. With these words the play Sherlock's Last Case by Charles Marowitz is afoot. This 1987 Broadway comedy ran a mere 124 performances. Prior to this play's brief Broadway run, the celebrated sleuth was the subject of the more successful 1965 musical, Baker Street, with 311 performances, as well as such works as Crucifer of Blood, with 236 performances, not to mention the thirty year career portrayal by William Gillette (whose castle home in Hadlyme, CT may be visited to this day). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective was the subject of no fewer than fifty-six stories and novels which he wrote since first inventing him in 1887, and since then the further subject of literally hundreds of literary adaptations and visualized mysteries in virtually every medium. His role was in essence to “make sense of things”. He wearied of writing time and again about his brilliant creation and tried to kill him off in his 1893 The Adventure of the Final Problem, but his fans were so incensed that he was finally forced some ten years later to resurrect him in his 1903 The Adventure of the Empty House, wherein he revealed that the detective had in fact faked his own demise. Conan Doyle fans, be ye on alert, as the original quote has it: “the game is afoot!” (an exclamation actually originated in Shakespeare's Henry V). As is typical with productions by Huntington Theatre Company, all of the creative elements are in place, but for those seeking nutritious theater, the alimentary question is whether this iteration has found firm footing.


Antoinette Robinson & Rufus Collins in "Sherlock's Last Case"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Into the confines of 221B Baker Street arrives a letter purporting to be written by Simeon, the son of none other than the arch enemy of Holmes (Rufus Collins), the evil nemesis, Doctor Moriarty:

        If you would know the hornet's sting
        Seek the insect in his nest
        But do not dare to cut his wing
        Or never shall your heart know rest


Rufus Collins in "Sherlock's Last Case"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Holmes' interpretation of the riddle is that it is a threat made against his life. Doctor Watson (Mark Zeisler) and Mrs. Hudson (Jane Ridley) are involved in the game, as are such expected supporting characters as Inspector Lestrade (Malcolm Ingram) and some not-so-expected, such as the mysterious Liza (Antoinette Robinson). And therein is just about all the information that might be shared while one keeps suspected spoilers at bay. There are, in fact, more red herrings in this work than in the ponds of Plymouth (that would be Great Herring Pond and Little Herring Pond), making for a true challenge for one's written assessment of the play. There are a half dozen major verbal and visual tricks in play, but it must be said that several of them are blatantly predictive rather than deductive, especially notable in the case of a direct steal from the 1970 play Sleuth, which is discernible from even the most cursory reading of the program's listed cast of characters.


Jane Ridley & Mark Zeisler in "Sherlock's Last Revenge"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Director Maria Aitken formerly directed Huntington's madcap Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, but this is a much more cerebral effort, too much so in fact. The first act includes a lengthy verbal bout of exposition that becomes redundant even with some estimable parody. One longed for a less obvious plot that might utilize more ingeniously the talents of Zeisler, Collins, Robinson, Ridley and Ingram. Their work here is ably supported and enhanced by the Costume Design by Fabio Toblini, Lighting Design by Philip S. Rosenberg and Sound Design by Mike Pool.

It's a pity the source material is so infrequently successful and feels so dated. This cast and the creative team deserve a better vehicle. It says a lot when the standout of this production is the arresting Scenic Design by Hugh Landwehr; be it ever so humble, there's no place like Holmes'.