Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Movie

So, I've been doing some soul searching since seeing the new Sweeney Todd movie the other day, trying to decide whether my dislike for it was justified, or just me being salty because Burton et al. went a different way than the Sweeney dream movie I had pictured in my head. But I think I'm right.

The Sweeney Todd movie is not a good movie musical. Indeed, it is a straight movie that is ashamed to be a musical. The price of that shame is a film that fails to inspire any real feeling, much less evoke any of the majesty of Sondheim's original creation.

How could it be? This is Tim Burton, the man who made the delightful musical "Nightmare Before Christmas" and a handful of other movies with strong musical film sensibilities, esp. "Beetlegeuse" and "Edward Scissorhands". But I happened to catch a bit of his "Sleepy Hollow" the day afterward, and it explains a lot about what went wrong. Burton is approaching Sweeney Todd as an arch gothic drama, not an imaginative spectacle, and its the wrong choice. To be sure, were he adapting Sweeney's 19th century source material, this would probably turn out pretty well. But instead he's trying to shoehorn all the pathos, grand opera emotions, and explicit wit of Sondheim's score into this bleak frame. The songs are still the songs, but most of the life has been beaten out of them.

The trouble is not 'doing' the numbers as numbers, but simply bleeding them into the spoken scenes, unmarked by any transition in how the camera treats the material. Somehow these songs, which can really take care of themselves, turn out dull and workmanlike, as though everyone involved is trying to bide their time until its done. Take "A Little Priest"--the showstopper of the whole piece, crying out for morbid Burton-esque details, and the thing gets staged with Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett literally looking out the window at the professions mentioned in the song. Who looks at this material and thinks "let's play it as straight as humanly possible?" I dunno. Maybe the humor is meant to be in the literal-mindedness. But the humor is already there for the taking. Why fight it like this?

There are some exceptions that prove the rule:

1. The epiphany scene involves a sort of dream sequence where Johnny Depp is stalking around the streets threatening the dishonorable throats, who can't hear him. But again, the movie seems uncertain whether it wants to admit its doing a number or not, and it ends in a bit of confused musical logic, where suddenly Depp is back in the garrett and we're back in reality. In an admitted musical, such a transition would be ok, but in the hyper-realism context of the whole, you realize he's just been banging about in the corner for a while.

2. The "Johanna" staging picks up some momentum, altho it may just be that the song is a montage and requires crosscutting.

3. "By the Sea" is the only one that really works, and its because Burton momentarily lets loose and does it as a complete fantasy number. Unfortunately, the sudden infusion of easy laughs feels cheap against the otherwise terribly serious proceedings.

I would like to be charitable about the voices on Depp and Carter, and in a better staging of the whole thing, I think it would be easy to get over. But both contribute to the sense of caution pervading the film. I can't quite believe some things I've read that they were actually recording the vocal tracks for the songs while they were filming, but at least it would explain the extreme apprehension in places--one would assume you wouldn't keep that take in the studio. Seriously, some of HBC's entrances sound like she's being forced to stand up and sing My Country Tis of Thee at high school assembly. But she at least has a good sound in line with the character she's created. Depp's songs are ridden with scoopy pop mannerisms that are entirely unbelievable in the throat of his Sweeney.

I also had some beefs with the orchestration. Despite being done by Jonathan Tunick, the original orchestrator, I was struck at times how bland the usually rich textures of the score came off. It was partially the choices discussed above: musical films must work to make you aware of and engaged in the off-camera music; here they might as well have been listening to a CD player in the corner. There were also some oddly slow tempi, which gave the unfortunate effect of a conductor slowing down his orchestra to coddle the unprepared singers on stage.

Mind you, this Sweeney does not belong on the pile of truly inept modern film musicals, i.e. what I hear of Phantom and Rent. It is a very competently and beautifully made film. But it moves the genre backward not forward. All of the successful examples of the recent crop of film musicals had the security blanket of staging conceits--Hedwig, Dreamgirls, Chicago--one had hoped we were now ready to see a film musical in the classic form, and who better to do it than Burton, a director who seems capable of suspending disbelief with impunity? But instead he decided to run the other way.

Ah well. Guess we'll just have to wait for that Jekyll & Hyde adaptation...keep your fingers crossed for Sebastian Bach to reprise his role! And remember kids: it's all a facade...

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Now that that's done

Can we please have a one-year moratorium on Christmas song covers next year? Chicago's WLIT 93.9, decided to replace its usual lit(e) fare with nonstop Christmas songs between Thanksgiving and December 25th, and flipping past it amidst the other car presets over the past month has subjected me to near overdose levels of holiday treacle. Is there any lower form of art than the opportunistic pop Christmas song cover? If you don't agree, I beg you to audition Jessica Simpson's "Little Drummer Boy." We need to take a year and think about what we've done.

So, I saw War & Peace and Iphigenie on a short jaunt to NY the week before Xmas. I feel J said what needed to be said about I 'n T, and anyhow, its done, so you can't act on my praises if you missed it. Suffice it to say, any equivocations about the piece following last year's Lyric version were entirely dashed, and I am embarking on an Iphigenie teach-in of one. I think maybe the super-abstract Lyric production just had me confused, and I was taking it out on the opera. Ditto to Maury's fanatic praise for the Wadsworth team.

You do, however, still have a chance to see W n' P, or V i M as it were, and you really should. As a piece of theatre I've decided that War and Peace is a bit like the Les Miz of opera. Which in my book is a great thing. Both are improbable attempts to satisfy our desires to see huge works as movies, but somehow they've ended up on the stage. While that should be a recipe for disaster, both succeed with a remarkable economy of storytelling and stagecraft that enables the enormous structure to skip rather than sag.

That said, Les Miz compacted its story by simply excising things most of its audience will never know are missing, while Prokofiev's audience knows all 1K+ pages backwards and forwards. On the one hand, he gets to gloss over explication chores, since everyone knows what's going on, on the other hand, the audience gets to keep score. On the third hand, is there any chance a War and Peace opera will be anything more than pantomime to an audience rereading it in their heads?

The conclusion of this War and Peace stops somewhere short, or to the side, of the book's final conclusion--the final choral orgy (chorgy?) of national feeling comes off like so much propaganda. Although it is awfully rousing propaganda, to be sure. As for the rest, the real magic is not whether he says anything new about it, but that he makes it come alive in the music. I am totally in love with the musical language of War and Peace--it's narrative power, its lyricism, its marvelous textures--it's a powerfully modern version of everything one loves in Tchaikovsky's opera writing.

As for the Met show itself, it's a very strong, if not particularly distinctive cast. Vocally, Kim Begley didn't quite have the goods to make Pierre's lyric passages soar, but the acting was great. Pierre is far and away the biggest dramatic challenge of the show, and Begley got the nuances and thoughtfulness as well as the despair in Act II. I was quite partial to Alexej Markov's Andrei, who sounded wonderful in addition to looking like an Andrei straight from central casting.

Oh PS, I was sitting in extreme left orchestra row *C* thanks to student tickets and a mean wintry mix going on outside that evening. Which is definitely closer than I've ever sat before. Pros: the visceral thrill of how loud people's voices are projecting at the Met, and a chance to see the acting up close. Cons: the acting up close and some loss of stage magic, being able to look straight into the cavernous flies. This range was especially unkind to Marina Poplavskaya's Natasha, who suffered from a severe case of APFD (all purpose flitting disorder). It might have played well in Fam Circ row X, but up close it was pretty bothersome. Pretty voice though.

Now let us talk about Samuel Ramey. The reviews I've seen have ragged on him for excessive wobble and old man's voice, with some grudging praise for his still formidable presence. Not being a fan of old man wobble (I'm looking at you J-Mo) I was ready to dislike this. But people. If Kutuzov is not the role crusty aging basses should play in the twilight of their careers then what the hell is??? Yes, there was wobbling. And it was magnificent. Ramey rams through that wobble with shocking bravery, and Kutuzov's big monologue arias end up being the most memorable numbers in the show, heartbreaking and staggering in their evocation of the ancient general shouldering all the nobility and suffering of his beloved nation. It is vocal acting of the first order.

Love the production, too. Tsypin and co. have on their ambitious yet respectful hats, relative to some other outings. And honestly, the show is so complicated that trying to work in a more aggressive design would have likely just cluttered the field. That said, they don't disappoint in the burning of Moscow sequence, which includes some of their trademark wowza stagecraft.

Looks like the last show this Thursday is sold out, but do yourself a favor and wait on line or wrangle tix some other way if you can. It shouldn't be missed.

Christmas traditions

So I guess we now get to look forward to a new cringe-inducing English translation of something every holiday season. I suppose this Hansel is better than some, but its still pretty unpleasant. Swell.

Friday, December 14, 2007


WFMT is streaming the Dr. Atomic premiere from Lyric this evening, at 8/7 central. Get it here:

Friday, December 07, 2007


Maury mentioned earlier that Philip Glass is probably incredibly frustrated that "seven" has two syllables. Hee.

The mention was made, not surprisingly, at this evening's concert performance of 3 of the 5 hours of Glass' Einstein on the Beach at Carnegie Hall.

So I know nothing about this piece (I am hesitating to casually say "this opera" because I know it's *technically* an opera, but it really feels more like a major choral work to me), other than the most basic of basics: Philip Glass developed it in the 70's with Robert Wilson, and at the original, 5-hour, intermission-less performances, the audience was allowed to walk around and chit chat and such, which basically sounds like my worst nightmare.

Actually, it sounds kind of great. I wish I could have walked around during last year's totally mediocre Meistersinger. Speaking of five (six?) hours. Anyway, this evening's event kept the audience seated and, for the most part, well behaved. I would really loved to have seen the original staging of this--I kept imagining it set against some 70's-tastic Robert Wilson tableau.

In case it isn't already totally apparent, I'm sort of avoiding writing about the music or the performance, because I don't really know how to comment on it. I really, really enjoyed it. I even found it emotional. So I'll let that suffice. And other than one wayward soprano who flatted her way through a lengthy, ethereal solo near the evening's end, I can say confidently that this was a stage of rock solid musicians, each of whom (including the individually mic'd choristers) were very exposed throughout.

So, this was a worthwhile change of scenery. It was cool to watch P. Glass play and conduct, and as one Einstein-going companion noted after the performance, it could be the last time the Philip Glass Ensemble ever performs this together. Which made me retroactively appreciate it that much more.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Accept no substitutes

So, I didn't get to see the Met countdown thing because lame Chicago PBS was busy playing another Celtic Christmas Carols concert or something (for Chicagoans...seriously, how bad does WTTW blow these days?)

But J pointed me to one of the highlights on YouTube, Leontyne Price's farewell performance of Aida in 1985. Maybe I'm just emotional because I've been writing a paper for the past 48 hours, but damn...that is some fucking OPERA right there.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Naughty Elsa

A: this is amazing
J: urg I got half way through and it froze the browser
J: oh she's so huge and Elsa is so little
A: its like the setup for a rough lesbian porn
J: seriously
A: "say it elsa, say you want me to do you with a piece"
J: sick
J: oh there's more:
A: oh wow
A: this is so dirty
J: it's nasty!
A: can they bring her back for other things please?
J: right?
J: I mean, her 'trud was a mix of fun and hard to listen to in places
A: not a desert island 'trud
J: indeed not
J: ok I'm off to see "Enchanted" with Karen
A: enjoy
J: thanks

Not without mein schatten

Getting reasonable seats at Lyric is kind of a bitch. The Lyric Fam Circ, called "Balcony 9" or something, is priced at $31, but unlike the Fam Circ, which is only really far away, Balcony 9 is really REALLY far away. And more expensive. They do have $20 student tix, which get you in the very back of the main floor, but getting them is also a bitch. They only tell you if they are available for a certain performance about 2 weeks in advance, and they tend to sell out quickly, so if you miss your email, you're screwed. And you have to order them through the website, and then go to this special window away from the regular will call. Lyric ends up selling out most of their shows, so I don't blame them for not working to make it more friendly, but if some wealthy donor feels like it, by all means.

Blerg. Anyhow, onto the FroSch. Anyone who heard that kick ass broadcast the other weekend can understand that expectations were way high (see Dannato, M). And it was a fine show for sure, but not quite the earth shattering business one might have hoped for.

Robert Dean Smith sounded like a bit of a chore on the radio, but in person it was really a liability. He scores about 50 percent of the money notes (which is like half the role) but the other 50 percent were kind of brutal. Maybe total reliability isn't a reasonable expectation for your run of the mill Emperor, but it needs to be better than this.

Franz Hawlata was suffering from a cold (and Jill Grove was full on sick--definitely one of the more nerve-wracking pre-show announcements) which seemed to manifest only in a handful passages and at the very end of the show. Otherwise he was lovely.

I don't remember the name of Jill Grove's cover for the Nurse, but she did a tremendous job. Great, non-harpy rendition--no lumps. But enough of the small fish.

DVo: So, I have seen the DV live thrice prior to this, all in context of beloved 'pre' recordings. Forza was meh, as was Tosca. Salome was tremendous. FroSch is right on up her alley. Yet I would be lying if I said there weren't moments when I wasn't thinking "oh, that's the part of new DV I don't like so much". When she goes up top with the full commitment, it is immaculate. When it is semi-committed, there is on occasion a fleeting inconsistency. In the middle, there is this--oh, how to describe--nasaly thing? Pinchediness? I dunno. But one must admit that one doesn't love it. But enough of that. When it was good, mercy was it good.

Brewer! That is some shit, yo. Wow. I heard her Isolde from SFO on the radio the other week, and it was great to hear that marvelousness in person. Unfortunately, I felt like she was holding back a tad in the 3rd Act duet due to Hawlata's cold, or something. Ditto for her and Voigt in the quartet, for a while at least. But we finally got a glimpse of the full power for both of them, and it was quite a thing.

Andrew Davis: Man, FroSch is hard. I mean, Salome is hard, but at least its clear what needs to be done. But FroSch gives no such roadmap. I felt like there was less ecstatic Strauss goodness than I wanted...maybe some reluctance to overpower the singers? There was some sort of disconnect--perhaps a balance thing. I was also sitting under the orchestra overhang, so there may have been some dampening. But that said, the detail was marvelous, and the Lyric Orchestra played with fantastic polish and sensitivity.

The production is kind of exactly what you might expect from a company like Lyric putting on FroSch. The spirit realm bit was often priddy, if not especially inventive. The human realm kind of looked like a disco Ewok village. But what are you going to do?