BLO's "Marriage of Figaro": Droit d'Employeur?

Emily Birsan & Evan Hughes in "The Marriage of Figaro"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro is a challenging undertaking for an opera company to mount, but Boston Lyric Opera is surely up to the task. Among other hurdles, it requires no fewer than thirteen singers: two each of bass-baritones, tenors, and baritones, as well as three mezzo-sopranos and four sopranos, most of them principal roles. When he composed this opera buffa in 1786 to a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, though, Mozart would surely never have expected to see the work performed with as many distractions as the current production has, including major acoustic problems with the venue at John Hancock Hall, but more about that later. For the moment, here is a very brief reminder of all that transpires in this multi-plotted work.

Figaro (bass-baritone Evan Hughes) and Susanna (soprano Emily Birsan), servants in an Italian villa in the 1950's (updated by a couple of centuries), are to be married, but their employer, sportscar enthusiast (in this production) Count Almaviva (baritone David Pershall) has been ogling the bride-to-be (droit d'employeur?). Meanwhile, the housekeeper for Doctor Bartolo (baritone David Cushing), Marcellina (soprano Michelle Trainor), wants Figaro for herself (and, to complicate things further, he owes her money). But this will prove impossible, for relative reasons (the sort of “reveal” that Gilbert and Sullivan were much later to make such fun of). Susanna, who is maid to the Countess Almaviva (soprano Nicole Heaston), conspires with her to outwit the Count by dressing the Count's teenaged male page, Cherubino (mezzo-soprano Emily Fons) as a girl. Things get a bit mixed up, though, and Cherubino ends up falling into the garden where he's caught by the Gardner (and Susanna's uncle) Antonio (bass-baritone Simon Dyer). Susanna promises the Count a tryst, and things get far too complex to enumerate here. Also involved are Antonio's daughter Barbarina (soprano Sara Womble) with her aria that is inexplicably the sole solo written in a minor key; a music teacher, Basilio (tenor Matthew DiBattista); a judge, Don Curzio (tenor Brad Raymond); and two bridesmaids (mezzo-sopranos Felicia Gavilanes and Emma Sorenson). In the end, loose ends are tied up and the honeymoon car arrives.

The Cast at the Finale of "Marriage of Figaro"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The performance was meticulously Conducted by David Angus, with controversial Stage Direction by Rosetta Cucchi, unusual Set Design by John Conklin, lovely Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley and apt Lighting Design by D. M. Wood. The technical elements were all one would expect from this company, especially the rather unorthodox placement of a huge slanted mirror and chalked floor spaces that Cucchi describes in the program notes as reflecting two films, the 1954 Sabrina and the 2003 Dogville (in which the chalked areas were equally strange and diverting in a bad way). The on-stage presence of supernumeraries who were almost constantly called upon for set changes, prop supplying and complicated stagehand coordination helped keep the multiple plots in play, but ended up adding to the distracting goings-on that were usually irrelevant to the libretto, though accomplished with precision and lightheartedness. Once again with this company, though, the mounting of the work proved to be unnecessarily busy. Just because this opera is so well-known and often performed doesn't mean our minds would wander if left to the music of the moment.

That said, any production of this opera demands singers who can act, and in that regard the composer would have been quite pleased indeed. Hughes and Birsan made a believable couple who could deliver musically and convey the lightness and poetry of the piece with genuine musicality and sparkling presence. The same could be said for Fons in full Keith Urban getup, as well as Pershall and Heaston, representing the upper classes (perhaps of less impact in the 1950's); Heaston in particular brought the house down with an exquisite rendering of the Countess' aria. But then the entire cast impressed with the level of apparent ease with such difficult music, including the BLO Chorus under Michelle Alexander's direction. It was a shame that the hall didn't perform as well as they did. Though the makeover of the venue is visually pleasant, the acoustics are not conducive to a crisp, responsive performance space; it was as though one were revisiting one's dusty treasure trove of monaural LPs. Thankfully, none of next season's offerings is scheduled for John Hancock Hall.

Any opportunity to see and hear Mozart at his wittiest, performed so brilliantly, is a chance that shouldn't be missed, however. When that honeymoon vehicle finally arrives after three hours of plot points, one needs no translation for the phrase with which it is so amusingly bedecked: oggi sposi.

Repeat perfs: Sun.Apr.30 at 3:30pm, Weds.May 3 at 7pm, Friday May 5 at 7p & Sun.May 7 at 3:30p.


Celebrity Series of Boston's "Alvin Ailey Dance Theater": Still Revealing

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's "Revelations"
(photo: Gert Krautbauer) 

What can one say about a dance company that has been enthralling audiences and critics for the past six decades? That would be the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which has held a significant position on the global dance stage since its inception way back in 1958. Few if any professional performing arts organizations can lay claim to that kind of history. A much beloved staple of the Celebrity Series of Boston since 1968, the company returns this spring to the Boch Center Wang Theater for five performances, each of them including a fascinating mix of Boston and company premieres as well as their signature piece, Revelations (which had its world premiere in 1960). In addition, there will be pieces such as Deep (2016, in its Boston premiere), Walking Mad (2016 both company and Boston premiere) Ella (also a company and Boston premiere), The Winter in Lisbon (new production), Untitled American (world premiere), After the Rain Pas de Deux and r-Evolution, Dream (world premiere).

At the performance on April 27, the program consisted of Deep, Walking Mad, Ella and of course Revelations. (The performance on Saturday April 29 at 8pm duplicates this program).  Deep, choreographed by Mauro Bigonzetti, was enhanced by the music of Ibeyi (twin sisters who sing in both English and Yoruba). Walking Mad was the work of choreographer Johan Inger and featured music from Ravel (Bolero) and Arvo Part, as well as a whimsical moving wall (if the concept of a wall can be an object of whimsy in our politically skewed era). Ella was choreographed by Robert Battle (the company's current Artistic Director) to the scat singing of the great Ella Fitzgerald's Airmail Special, an amazingly challenging workout for Michael Francis McBride and Renaldo Maurice.  Revelations was of course first choreographed by the company's namesake. Alvin Ailey took the balletic world by storm back in 1960 when this work had its premiere, and it has continued to thrill audiences ever since, this time with Belen Pereyra, in her sixth year with the piece. It never failed in the past to bring an audience to its feet, and this was no exception. In the end, this was a well-chosen quartet of works that demonstrated the breadth and depth of this company, from its percussive music and dance in Deep to the humor of the Magritte-like Walking Mad to the scattershot Ella (with its nods to tunes such as The Ballad of Davy Crockett) to the wondrous Revelations.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's "Revelations"
(photo: Gert Krautbauer)

The remaining performances are variations from the nine works on offer. Both the Saturday April 29 matinee at 2pm and the Sunday April 30 matinee at 3pm include The Winter in Lisbon and r-Evolution Dream as well as After the Rain Pas de Deux and Revelations. Lisbon, by choreographer Billy Wilson, features music from Dizzy Gillespie's four decades of composing. Choreographer Hope Boykin's r-Evolution Dream is based on sermons and speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, utilizing music by jazz drummer Ali Jackson and narrated by Tony Award winner (for Hamilton) Leslie Odom, Jr. After the Rain Pas de Deux is a former favorite since 2005, with music by Arvo Part, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. The program on Friday evening April 28 at 8pm consists of Winter in Lisbon, After the Rain Pas de Deux, and Revelations. It also includes the only performance during this visit of Untitled America, a company and Boston premiere of a piece choreographed by Kyle Abraham, which presents the issues encountered by African American families dealing with the prison system and includes spoken word interviews. It features music by Laura Mvula, Raime, Carsten Nicolai and Kris Bowers, along with traditional spirituals such as No More My Lord.
Thus it's obvious that any one of the programs to be presented this season has its unique yet complementary place in the work of this company, still a revelation even for the most avid balletomanes. What can you say about this company? Everything good, and that art matters. 


ArtsEmerson's "17 Border Crossings": Build That Wall?

Thaddeus Phillips in "17 Border Crossings"
(photo: ArtsEmerson)

The tagline for the ambitious ArtsEmerson calendar of events, “The World on Stage”, has never been truer than in the case of its current production, 17 Border Crossings. It's a one-person show created, designed and performed by Thaddeus Phillips, amounting to ninety minutes of uninhibited creativity, as he takes us on a round-the-world trip. Phillips' tour-de-farce, now appearing at Emerson's Paramount Center black box theater, sometimes necessitates relating the relatively mundane story behind the smuggling of fried chicken, other times with the more unexpected peculiarities of airline security. This theater artist gave birth to this work before the emergence of the concept of banning immigrants based on their religion or ethnicity, so its title implies relevance that it fails to deliver. For the most part, this is a well-performed comedic show when one might have expected one that was more topical.

This series of vignettes begins with a quotation from Shakespeare's Henry V as Henry speaks on the occasion of St. Crispin's Day about providing passports for anyone wishing to go home from the battlefields in France. Then it's on to trips from Hungary to Serbia by train, Italy to Croatia by ferry, and walking from the U.S. To Mexico, with Phillips playing himself as well as several different customs agents, with only a few set pieces (a small desk, a chair, a set of lights) to help differentiate the magical and very invisible abstract and absurd lines we call international borders. Many are funny, only one is sad. They range from London, Paris, Prague, Belgrade, Colombia, and Holland to crossings as remote as the Amazon rain forest. In each case he is not as impacted as many travelers he meets, as he is traveling as a white American male. His migrations even include one mental one, caused by an encounter with the hallucinogenic Amazonian brew ayahuasca. Even this journey of the mind is played for comic effect. And Phillips by and large nails the accents, the inflections and posturing of the characters he encounters, making for a very enjoyable if slight theatrical experience.

This piece, co-produced by Lucidity Suitcase International (memorable for their production seasons back of Red-eye to Havre de Grace), and previously seen in theaters from Michigan to Hong Kong, is directed by the author's wife and collaborator Tatiana Mallarino, with Lighting by David Todaro, Sound by Robert Kaplowitz and technical work by Spencer Sheridan.

Future musings on the perils of international travel may, unfortunately, prove more serious and provocative, based on political knee-jerk reactions in this country and others, such as France. In the spirit of 17 Border Crossings, maybe each country shouldn't have to maintain and pay for the boundaries they erect. Maybe Mexico should pay for them.


Fathom Events' Met Opera's "Onegin": On Again, Off Again

Anna Netrebko in "Eugene Onegin"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Timing is everything, as illustrated by the lyric opera Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky, with libretto by Konstantin Shilovsky, after the poem by Alexsandr Pushkin. It's the story of love and indifference that pass as two ships in the night, not unlike the two protagonists in the Sondheim musical A Little Night Music , where two other ill-timed would-be lovers lament the ironic timing of their relationship in the song Send in the Clowns. In the case of this opera, which received its world premiere in Moscow in 1879, it's more the star-crossed and ill-timed lovers in Russian tragic literature, made more compelling by the composer's lush and elegant music. One might defy an opera goer not to find the main theme imbedded in one's mind for days after hearing Tchaikovsky's much-repeated leitmotif throughout this piece, reflecting the stasis in which these characters find themselves (or, rather, never quite find one another).

It is fall in the 1820's in the Russian countryside, where the widow Madame Larina (mezzo Elena Zaremba) lives with her daughters the bookish Tatiana (soprano Anna Netrebko), a romantic, and the spirited Olga (mezzo Elena Maximova), the latter being pursued by their neighbor the poet Lenski (tenor Alexey Dolgov). When his friend the aristocratic Eugene Onegin (baritone Peter Mattei) visits him, Tatiana falls in love with Onegin, writing him a very passionate letter, which she sends via her maid Filippyevna (mezzo Larissa Diadkova). He responds that he can offer her merely friendship, advising her to curb her emotions should a man seek to take advantage of her. Come January, Lenski convinces Onegin to accompany him to the name day celebration for Tatiana, where Onegin becomes bored and flirts with Olga. Lenski jealously challenges him to a duel, at which Lenski is killed. Years later, Onegin returns from a self-imposed exile and visits the dashing Prince Gremin (bass Stefan Kocan) in St. Petersburg, where he learns Tatiana has wed the prince. This time it is Onegin who writes to express his love and urge her to run away with him. She confesses she still loves him, but refuses to leave her husband, leaving Onegin in despair.

In this Co-Production by the Metropolitan Opera and the English National Opera, there's much to admire, notably from Conductor Robin Ticciati, (Music Director of the Glyndbourne Festival) who splendidly leads the Met Orchestra in this Production by Deborah Warner. The Costume Design by Chloe Obolensky, Lighting Design by Jean Kalman, Video Design by Finn Ross and Ian William Galloway and Stage Direction by Paula Williams all contribute to a feel for the period. The Set Design by Tom Pye is a vast improvement on the Met's previous stark and boring one, and the Choreography by Kim Brandstrup, though in cramped spaces, is lively, as is the always-reliable Met Opera Chorus under its venerable Chorus Master Donald Palumbo. The HD Director Gary Halvorson and HD Host Renee Fleming add to the enjoyment. But highest among the accolades one could confer on this production is the singing, which is of course as it should be in opera. Netrebko is outstanding, especially in the justly famous “letter scene” aria, as are Mattei in the unsympathetic title role and Dolgov in the poignant “Lenski's aria”. Even Kocan in his brief role of the Prince is unforgettable, with his seemingly impossible low range and eyes meant for HD closeups.

In the end, the quality of the music and its mostly eloquent delivery in this performance make the case for this opera once again. One need not urge Beethoven to “roll over and tell Tchaikovsky the news”; Piotr is yet again in the operatic headlines.

Fathom Events will re-broadcast "Eugene Onegin" on Weds. April 26th at a cinema near you.


Odyssey Opera's "Dwarf": Diminutive or Gigantic?

Ales Briscein in and as "Der Zwerg"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

Der Zwerg (The Dwarf), a one-act opera by composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, freely adapted by librettist Georg Klaren from Oscar Wilde's short story The Birthday of the Infanta, is the third production in Odyssey Opera's “Wilde Opera Nights”. It premiered in 1922 in Cologne, just as Zemlinksy had ended his relationship with Alma Mahler (future wife of Gustav, as well as subsequent spouse of architect Walter Gropius and of novelist Franz Werfel). Artistic Director and Conductor Gil Rose refers to Zemlinsky as “a brother of Korngold”, whose Die Tote Stadt was presented so memorably by the company last season. Korngold was the last great prodigy of the romantic era, whose voluptuous music with its highly melodic and expressive nature was one of two influences that inspired Zemlinky. The other was the highly psychological and complex work of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Rose speaks of Zemlinsky's opera as a rather “bizarre hybrid...a cocktail” that echoes Richard Strauss. It was no wonder that Zemlinsky would respond to the kind of scandalous Oscar Wilde story reminiscent of Strauss' own opera Salome, which Der Zwerg frequently sounds like. It's in fact a tragic fairy tale, which, as so many such stories do, ends grimly.

A sultan sends a dwarf (tenor Ales Briscein) as a present to the royal eighteenth birthday celebration of the Infanta, the Spanish princess Donna Clara (soprano Kirsten Chambers). The dwarf falls in love with the Infanta, singing a love song to her in which he imagines himself as her brave knight, all this while he is described by others as a jest of cruel nature with his notable hump. She toys with him, knowing he is unaware of his own physical deformity, giving him a white rose as a present. He finds a mirror when he is on his own, seeing his reflection (and his deformity) for the first time in his life. When he tries to get her to kiss him, she spurns him, calling him a monster. Heartbroken, he dies clutching the rose, while the Infanta rejoins her party, which includes Ghita, her attendant (soprano Michelle Trainor), Don Estoban, her chamberlain, (bass James Johnson), her First Maid (soprano Erica Petrocelli), her Second Maid (soprano Dana Varga), and her Third Maid (mezzo soprano Vera Savage) as well as Friends of the Infanta (the sopranos and altos of the Odyssey Opera Chorus). Don Estoban had warned that truth could be the death of the dwarf, as God has created us all blind to ourselves. For her part, the Infanta declares that “for the future let those who come to play with me have no hearts”.

The performance was, as noted above, conducted by Gil Rose, with his typical sensitivity, and superbly played by the Opera Odyssey Orchestra. It was beautifully sung in German with English titles by the cast of seven principals who seemed to revel in the acoustically wondrous venue that is Jordan Hall. A standout was the titular little person, sung and acted by Briscein (who was a hit at the Boston premiere of Dvorak's Dimitrij last year), with his stunningly impressive voice and facial expressions that convincingly conveyed his character. Equally memorable were Chambers as the almost mechanical Princess (a la Olympia in Tales of Hoffman) and Trainor, who seemed genuinely surprised at the audience's enthusiastic reception. In a city where people give standing ovations to the openings of supermarkets, this one was indisputably deserved. All of the soloists and chorus shone. The sound of a hundred musicians on stage (the orchestra of seventy, chorus of thirty, seven soloists and conductor) was extraordinarily thrilling. It was, in the end, ninety minutes of lush post-Romantic music with a story that was dark and compelling, with what the program notes rightly state as a “score that magnified the text and educed the drama's extremes of emotions” with “vocal leaps and bold harmonies, horror and hysteria”. It was an apt production for Good Friday from a company whose local presence every season can only be described as.....gigantic.


Moonbox's "Barnum": Rah Humbug?

The Cast of Moonbox Productions' "Barnum"
(photo: Earl Christie)
What can one say about the 1980 musical Barnum, which, despite a weak book, managed to be hugely entertaining and had a lengthy run of almost 900 performances on Broadway? It tells the story of Phineas Taylor Barnum, the self-described king of hype and humbug, from 1835 to 1881. Barnum was never given its due by critics, but was nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning three, for its title performer, sets and costumes. Despite its sketchy Book by Mark Bramble, it had terrific jaunty Music by Cy Coleman and clever Lyrics by Michael Stewart. It was such a smash for audiences that it transferred to London and was revived several times over the past few decades. One need only overlook the libretto and enjoy the performances of the rousing songs in this unabashedly exciting, energetic, dynamic show in its present snazzy Moonbox Productions mounting.

From the opening number, “There Is a Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute”, sung by Barnum (Todd Yard) in the pursuit of promoting his sideshow attractions, we're aware, via the presence of the Ringmaster (Zaven Ovian), that we're about to encounter Barnum's life as a loosely connected series of circus acts. His sideshow attractions include the Oldest Woman Alive, Joice Heth (Carla Martinez) who delivers the number “Thank God I'm Old”, Tom Thumb (Bransen Gates) who sells the number “Bigger Isn't Better”, and Jumbo the Elephant (who doesn't sing at all). Meanwhile not all is well in the Barnum household as he and his long-suffering wife Charity (Shonna Cirone) share in “The Colors of My Life”. Also along for the tour is Jenny Lind (Jessica Kundla), the Swedish Nightingale (“Love Makes Such Fools of Us All”). Later the Barnums exchange loving promises in “Black and White”. Still later Barnum is urged to “Come Follow the Band” and to “Join the Circus” by James Bailey (Ovian again) of Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus fame. Barnum's final attraction is the reprise of “There Is a Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute” as co-producer of The Greatest Show on Earth.

Bransen Gates as General Tom Thumb in "Barnum"
(photo: Earl Christie)

Stupendously directed and choreographed by Rachel Bertone, with great Music Direction by Dan Rodriguez, this production is a smashing success. The multi-talented ensemble consists of Dance Captains Matthew Kossack and Daniel Forest Sullivan, Joy Clark, Andrea Lyons, Dan Prior, Allison Russell, and Alexa Wang, all of them triple or quadruple threats who demand to be mentioned. It's a cast of thousands (well, OK, a baker's dozen; that was a bit of humbug). The creative work includes the perfect Set Design by Cameron McEachern, bright and beautiful Costume Design by Marian Bertone, fine Sound Design by Brian McCoy, and electrifying Lighting Design by John Malinowski. This was an extraordinarily complicated show to present and the hard work shows, even thought they make it seem so easy, especially those solo showstoppers Martinez (with great deadpan delivery) and Gates, a fabulous find whose singing and dancing were absolutely infectious. Yard kept things together with a terrifically animated presence. Bertone's inventive choreography (though too dependent at times on the jazz hands made iconic by Bob Fosse) keeps everything fast paced and the acrobatics quite believable. It's not Cirque du soleil, but it's not hogwash either, as it juggles all the elements of the greatest show on Tremont.

Back in 1980, just after the opening of Barnum, this critic was present for a talk by Stewart in which he stated he was through with Broadway and that his type of musical was no longer in vogue; he then conducted a quiz about authors of musical comedy librettos, which this critic won, telling Stewart that his gift was like manure in that it only did any good if you spread it around (a reference to his Hello Dolly work). He did subsequently work on a few musicals (even including a sequel to Bye Bye Birdie) which by and large didn't meet with much acceptance, but he at least showed that he was game for it. The prize for winning the quiz, incidentally, was an autographed (by Stewart) original cast album LP (remember those?) of the then-new Barnum.

So what are you waiting for? Come follow the band and join the circus. These days a bit of hoopla goes a long way, and we need the pure escapism a show like this provides. “Of course that was a long time ago”, Barnum sums up at the end of the show, “and Joice Heth is gone and forgotten
...Jenny Lind...and my poor Tom Thumb...so my kind of humbug's disappeared. Pity”. Or maybe not, if you've been paying attention to the last six months in politics. Perhaps hype and humbug (sadly, of a much more sinister type) are still very much with us. Pity.

Lyric Stage's "Barbecue": Skewering Around with Theatrical Interventions

James R. Milord, Lyndsay Allyn Cox, Jackie Davis, Jasmine Rush
 & Ramona Lisa Alexander in "Barbecue"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)
It may truthfully be said that there is such a thing as a virtually unreviewable play, especially if it is essentially a compilation of spoilers.

Such a work is Barbecue, by playwright Robert O'Hara, which first appeared off-Broadway in 2015, and is now receiving its local premiere at Lyric Stage Company. It's the story of a family who gathers at a public park for an ostensible barbecue somewhere in Middle America. Directed by Summer L. Williams (Bootycandy), its cast of ten comprises two separate groups, one of black actors and one of white actors, and that's about all one knows until just before intermission. For the record, the actors involved are Ramona Lisa Alexander, Lyndsay Allyn Cox, Jackie Davis, James R. Milord, and Jasmine Rush; and Sarah Elizabeth Bedard, Bryan T. Donovan, Adrianne Krstansky, Deb Martin, and Christine Power. It may be discretely revealed that the clan consists of Lillie Anne, James T., Marie, Adlean, and their sister Barbara, nicknamed Zippity Boom, for whom they want to plan an intervention with some straight talk about her substance abuse. In order to preserve some real surprises, programs are not handed out until after the first act, so that's about all one should say about the cast and whom each actor plays.
Though the subject is serious, in the first act there's brilliantly funny spot-on skewering of these equal-opportunity stereotypes who all approach the hot dog barbecue with relish.
Hilarity ensues.
Then comes the second act, quite serious for the most part, though given a comic edge. Suffice it to say that the playwright still has a couple of tricks up his sleeve.

Sobriety accrues.

Christine Power, Sarah Elizabeth Bedard, Deb Martin, Bryan T. Donovan
& Adrianne Krstanksy in "Barbecue"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

It's frustrating not to be able to single out a character or the actor who creates her or him, but no matter, as the whole cast is wonderful. (All right, one has to mention the diva named Barbara, hysterically funny in her channeling of an otherwise-spelled “Barbra” portrayed last season by Phil Taylor in Buyer and Seller; and one would also have to mention the final scene when Krstansky's mute terror is on display). Thus one could imply that Williams directs with a very keen touch, and so she does. The rest of the creative team was up to Lyric's standard as well, with ingenious Costume Design by Tyler Kinney, apt Scenic Design by Jessica Pizzuti, realistic Sound Design by David Wilson and crucial Lighting Design by Jen Rock (who, with the playwright, creates arguably the best final-line blackout, literally, in theater history).

O'Hara has stated that his goal is not how many people he can make comfortable, but the opposite, by creating a communal experience where we are all part of the conversation. How he does this and how well he succeeds, well, you'll have to see for yourself. It's not for every theatergoer, and could profit from a nip and tuck here or there in some lengthy segments, but at the end of the day, or the end of the play at least, what we've witnessed is writing at its cleverest and wisest, a dazzling display of imaginative, inspired lunacy.

Pass the mustard.



Handel & Haydn's "Vespers of 1610": An Auld Person's Guide to the Orchestra

Harry Christophers conducts "Vespers of 1610"
(photo: Kat Waterman)

One never forgets her or his first exposure to Claudio Monteverdi's much beloved Vespers of 1610 or Vespro della Beata Vergine, widely considered a “pillar of the baroque”, a memorable experience that is currently being offered by Boston's Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra and Chorus and their Vocal Arts Program Young Women's Chamber Choir under the direction of Conductor Harry Christophers. This performance featured the prescribed seven vocal soloists, including soprano Margot Rood, soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad, tenor Jeremy Budd, tenor Mark Dobell, tenor Jonas Budris, baritone Woodrow Bynum, and baritone David McFerrin. Two of them, Budd and Dobell, were integral to the recording of this work in 2015 by the British choir and period instrument ensemble The Sixteen (founded and conducted by Christophers). Based on the daily practice of evening prayers from the hours of the Divine Office, unchanged in 1500 years, this was the most ambitious work of religious music before Bach arrived on the scene. A ninety minute piece for soloists, chorus and orchestra, with both liturgical and secular music, it was not just composed for services. As Teresa M. Neff (Handel and Haydn Historically Informed Performance Fellow) states in the program notes, Monteverdi proclaimed that the “text was the mistress to the music”, with the music expressing the text's emotions, what he called the “second practice” of his composing, complementing the more traditional “first practice”. Often consisting of up to ten vocal parts, it is essentially, as the title indicates, a piece that is profoundly Marian, with the sole exception of the text in the Duo seraphim sung by the three tenors. It was published in 1610 in Venice, dedicated to Pope Paul V.

With the first line in the introductory Deus in adjutorium , followed by a more expansive multi-voiced response, it's clear what is the basis for the work, namely Gregorian plainchant, (with its simple arsis and thesis), along with five Psalms with sacred motets, a traditional hymn, and the setting of the Magnificat, (which concluded all Vespers services). It remains a versatile work, as illustrated for example by the composer's dual scoring of this Magnificat for both large and smaller groups of musicians, and is equally regarded when performed with organ or period instruments. This was easily appreciated with the inclusion of instruments that reflect those of the early 17th century, such as the dulcian (predecessor of the bassoon), the lute-like chitarrone, sackbuts (similar to today's trombones) and the trumpet-like cornetto (leather-wrapped wooden pieces). The chitarrone in particular is a fascinating instrument in both sight and sound.

With so many possible permutations and combinations of vocal and instrumental elements for the listener, the program was a joy to experience. Christophers obviously loves this music, which he has described as emotional and sensual, from its triumphant Orfeo-like operatic beginning to its final flamboyant Amen. It was as much a pleasure to watch his entire-body conducting, as it was to follow Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky with her infectiously exuberant playing. The entire orchestra and chorus were amazingly precise and coordinated. All seven vocal soloists had an opportunity to shine, notably Budd and Dobell, especially in the Audi coelum in which the composer wittily offers a true echoing of the Latin text by dueling tenors, intriguingly utilizing the excellent acoustics of Jordan Hall, where the opening performance took place.

There were two repeat performances, one on Saturday April 8th at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the company's first visit to New York since 1996) at the Temple of Dendur, and the other at Sanders Theater in Cambridge on Sunday afternoon April 9th . It's an incomparable event that have been on the schedule of every serious lover of early music.


Huntington's "The Who & the What": Not for Prophet

Aila Peck & Rom Barkhordar in "The Who & the What"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

All are welcome here”: it says it right in the program of the play The Who & the What, by Ayad Akhtar, and the Huntington Theatre Company goes on to demonstrate just that with its very engaging production of this very funny play about a very serious subject. Disgraced, the playwright's previous work, was the most produced original new play in this country last season, as well as a 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner, a work that was met by both critical and commercial success, and also presented last year by Huntington. That play was about Muslim characters who were struggling with their “foreignness” as Muslim American citizens, and was tragic. This new play looks inward, and with an ample supply of whimsical humor. Rather than being about identity politics, it portrays how Islam is in conflict with itself, with the core of the play being a particular generation gap. Akhtar has stated that his new play was written to counter widespread misinformation and deconstruct assumptions about Muslim communities in this country, by humanizing them. He further contends that access to the real wisdom in Islamic tradition is blocked by literal scriptural adherence, with misunderstandings which can be expressed theatrically. Too often the prophet (never named, respecting Muslim tradition) has been, as Akhtar puts it, “framed and re-framed...told and then mistold to justify people's decisions”. Akhtar took as his inspiration two similar sources, the television comedy “All in the Family” and Shakespeare's “Taming of the Shrew” (and its musical version,“Kiss Me Kate”), with all of their misogyny intact, but involving a Pakistani-American family. The issues and contradictions that develop between dutiful daughters toward their fathers and their desire to assimilate are obvious in the playwright's tale of one particular family. It's quite reminiscent of a certain other play, a musical with Jewish characters, about a milkman with five daughters, but this one unfolds on the “steppes” of Atlanta, Georgia in 2014.

This is indeed high praise, as the author has succeeded in portraying another memorable father, a sort of Afzal on the Roof, in the character of Afzal (Rom Barkhordar), a successful taxi company owner with two daughters of marriageable age. The elder Zarina (Aila Peck), a Harvard grad, is engaged in writing about Islam and women. She meets Eli (Joseph Marrella), a young man recently converted to Islam who runs the local mosque and soup kitchen, and who bridges the gap between her modernized life and her traditional (religious) heritage. Upon discovering her latest manuscript, her father is horrified, as is her sister Mahwish (Turna Mete), engaged to her longtime boyfriend but nurturing a crush on her GRE instructor. She too has strong convictions about people with strong opinions about Islam and women, especially those who are neither. As she puts it: “Everyone's always making a big deal about women in Islam. We're just fine”. Meanwhile, Zarina had broken up with her non-Muslim boyfriend, since her father didn't want her to marry outside the faith. Afzal, in a move not to be revealed here, gives new meaning to the concept of arranged marriage. And Zarina's latest writing centers on the mandatory wearing of the hijab, as she bemoans: “I hate what the faith does to women...(by a) story that 's used as an excuse to hide us”. At the same time, Afzal confides to Eli the telling statement that Zarina “has more power over you than she really wants...she can't help it. And she won't be happy until you break her.” (Like a horse?)

At the core of this work is the fundamental question: “what is Islamic feminism?” Is the term an oxymoron? While acknowledging the spiritual equality of men and women in Islam, there remain the social and political realities of gender inequality. Basic intolerance takes many forms, of course, and Islam possesses no claim to the only faith-based discrimination against women (Jewish women behind screens, Catholic women unable to lead their communities, and so forth). Akhtar asserts that when he wrote that play he never expected to see that the “kind of degradation of rhetoric could exist anywhere but the theater...but now we're living in a world where what's happening on stage is not all that controversial”. In his striving to “reconcile contemporary life with traditional Islamic culture”, and “what it means to be Muslim in America”, the playwright concedes that “Islam is of course more than just a faith-based system, but a way of life, a culture, a system of values”. There remains the question of how to recognize the potential empowerment of women and include them in the current political milieu, which has made the issues this play confronts all the more significant. When told by Eli that he understands her pain in dealing with Islam, Zarina counters that he “didn't have to grow up as a woman inside it."

Barkhordar, with moving and barely controlled ferocity, creates a character for the ages, with his own narrowness (speaking of his older daughter's former boyfriend Ryan as “Catholic. Irish. You know the type.”). Peck in turn provides his perfect foil, unable to restrain from incendiary and deeply felt proclamations (“You erased me. And I let you” and “Hell is a metaphor for human suffering”). Mete and Marrella both serve to support both points of view as Peck defends her all-too-human, perhaps blasphemous, portrait of the prophet that attempts to help Muslim women and “give them permission to ask questions” about "Who" the prophet really was and "What" he was really like. This quartet of actors is a marvel, exquisitely tuned by Director M. Bevin O'Gara, with fascinating Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco, appropriate Costume Design by Mary Lauve (the kind of clothing people would actually wear), intricate Lighting Design by Annie Wiegand, fine Sound Design by M. L. Dogg, and contributive Original Music by Saraswathi Jones.

This is a play to cherish, with its insight and profundity beneath a very welcoming sense of humor. The final curtain line is a gem, also not to be revealed here, that sums up the playwright's genius and respects the company's stated commitment to “telling stories of all races and cultures...a platform...to expand our definition, recognition and understanding of the human experience...
resisting fear and intolerance...to cultivate generosity, artistic excellence and radical hospitality.” It is devoutly to be wished that Akhtar's next play will echo this radical hospitality and reflect the stark reality of what our American Muslim fellow citizens must now navigate in a profoundly hostile administration. That play might well be The Where & the When.