Saturday, December 12, 2009

Seasonal Interlude

The Shepherd's Farewell, Berlioz, from "L'Enfance du Christ"

Smyooth Myusic

A: how was elektra, yo???
J: oh it was good
J: Bullock was good but not hottt
J: Voigt kinda summoned fat voigt!
J: which is a good thing
A: oh word??
J: she sounded way way better
A: nice
J: I thought G--- was going to die
A: "I call on thee, spirit of fat voigt, rise now..."
J: hah
A: die how?
J: just with general elektra excitement
A: kewl
A: his review is great
J: it's really fun
A: hmmm
A: how wuz felicity palmer
J: she's really great
A: i think i have to do the 22nd or the 29th
J: if you do the 29th I'll go with you
J: I fly to chicago in the morn for Kitty Kabs
A: indeed!
A: that is exciting
A: its really an amazing role for her
A: more complex than jenufa is in a way
J: yeah I'm way excited
A: where are you sitting
J: in the $136 orch seats. row HH.
J: basically the Carmelites seats
A: right
A: worth it

As You Don't Like It

So, I saw some things in the past week, starting with From the House of the Dead and, um, Hair, in New York last Saturday, and concluding with As You Like It at the Shakespeare Theatre Company here on Wednesday. While the latter two are somewhat off topic, I shall start with them first for reasons of relevance (lord knows when FTHOTD is coming back) and ease of review writing.

In the case of "As You Like It", this is owing to the incredible and vast suckage of this production. Now, I want to be clear that this really doesn't reflect on anyone in the truly excellent cast, which was filled with a great assortment of committed and skilled actors. No, this is exclusively a case of directorial misconduct in pursuit of the cheap laff.

The opening scene of this "As You Like It" involves a sort of faux old movie gimmick, which was somewhat inexplicable, but quickly forgotten. The first 40-50 minutes of the production is cast in a Puritan milieu, which is a perfectly good, neutral historical period for Shakespeare. The production is spare, but handsome, and we are clearly dealing with a set of actors committed to the task of inhabiting these mercurial characters and delivering Shakespeare's words with insight and passion.

And then, the characters flee to the forest to escape their various fates, and the whole thing becomes an opportunity for the Shakespeare Theatre Company to demonstrate how much worthless bang they can give you for your buck. Under the rubric of "escape to the forest" being synonymous with an "escape to the uncharted land of historic America", this production casts each successive set of scenes in a different period of American history. So for 15 minutes they are in the Civil War era South and they are all doing Gone with the Wind accents. Then they are all cowboys. Then they are on a steamboat. Then they are all silent movie actors. Any of the actual "drama" constructed during the first forty minutes is flushed right down the toilet in the service of this absurd gimmick that allows them to put the characters in different silly costumes and make them speak in different silly voices that elicits kneejerk laughter from the audience. This isn't a play. This is dress-up.

In the past year or so that I've been going to Shakespeare Theatre Company's productions, I have often been highly impressed. Their Twelfth Night, Dog in a Manger, and Ion last season were inventive, playful, and honest interpretations of classics that earned whatever gimmicks they indulged in. But this production, and the wretched production of "The Alchemist" I suffered through earlier this fall were both pure chicanery. Shakespeare Theatre Company, please stop this madness and start acting like you trust your audience to appreciate the classics on their own terms and not as vehicles for cheap and vulgar sitcom caricatures. Productions like this are an embarrassment.

Phew. OK. Hair and FTHOTD thoughts coming soon.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Friday, December 04, 2009

Strauss in Amsterdam

So, about that Dutch Salome...Parterre has a clip, natch.

First things first: Opera of the Netherlands is housed in the Het Muziektheatre, a modern hall at the southern end of the city's old town. I got a very nice seat on the fringe of the orchestra for less than the price of the Met balcony, tho I think it might have been partial view for the supertitles (surprisingly only in Dutch, since it seems pretty clear that language has about 50 years tops before everyone gives up the ghost and starts speaking English.) Audience (for a Sunday matinee) was probably a notch more hip than your usual Met or Lyric audience, like the usual oldsters plus the monied end of the BAM crowd.

Anyhow. The Salome on view is a fascinating production by Peter Konwitschny, a high practitioner of the sorts of things we apparently will NEVER be able to handle here. Here's a bit of an interview with him.

In Konwitschny's concept, Jochanaan is never down a cistern, but rather a guest at Herod's dinner party of debauched gangsters--something like the last supper of the Patriarchy. While he is clearly conflicted, he is really no more than another face of the male power structure which keeps the other women in the play--Salome, Herodias, and the Page--in a constant state of fear/degradation. Konwitschny makes explicit a dynamic which Strauss and his libretto strongly suggest--it is after all, at base, a tragedy about Salome's innocence, regardless of how much depravity one finds in her, and we can't help but sympathize with her against Jochanaan. Here, we are led to understand his cruelty as part of the same sick universe in which female sexuality is both a commodity to be abused as well as a dangerous threat to the status quo.

As Konwitschny begins to engage in deeper subversions of the superficial action-- Herod executes Narraboth, and Jochanaan uses his death as a chance to appeal, in vain, to the better nature of the other guests--he introduces a distinction between the play as it is being performed, and a sort of transgressive space outside the play which he uses to posit an 'alternate' conclusion.

After a frenzied dance of the Seven Veils which includes the entire cast trying desperately to escape the play and then (I think) slaughtering each other, Salome receives Jochanaan's head as usual--but then hands it over to him so he can think about what he's done. The dining room set begins to recede from the proscenium and he is left alone with Salome on an empty stage, confused and lost. Through this violent reversal, Salome has saved him, wresting him from a his sick institutions, and facing him as an equal. Removed from the brutal machinery of the play, they acknowledge their love for each other, and run off together. And in a way, isn't that how it really ends? With ecstasy and rebirth and the overwhelming joy of finally understanding?

Now, mind you, the subtext was flying pretty fast, and I was working from memory of the libretto, so this really just scratches the surface of the richness of Konwisthny's conception.

At the same time, one must point out the inherent failings in such an enterprise. While I really was quite intrigued and sort of touched by the ending, there was nary a shred of that overwhelming emotional experience that non-bizarro universe Salome is designed to produce. There was also a lot of gratuitous regie bullshit--Narraboth's corpse getting sodomized by everyone onstage, Salome helping Herod do heroin, an extra gory Jochanaan head with bonus shoulder still attached (actually, I kind of liked that), etc.--which came off as the usual finger to the audience that tends to sour one on an otherwise very interesting and nuanced project. (To their credit, a few courageous Dutch patrons did send that gang-rape a little boo.)

Annalena Persson was a so-so Salome. Vocally capable enough but not much going on in the sumptuousness department. I kind of think she may be a pretty great actress, though it is hard to tell, when you're ready to judge a SALOME and instead you get a KONZEPT. She, uh, was really convincing when she reversed that male gaze, I guess? That said, girl was game for ANYTHING, so credit is due there.

Primary vocal honors went to Albert Dohmen's rich, magnificent Jochanaan. None of that shouty business that plagues so many of them, but instead a warm commanding tone that brought out many of beauties of the part that you know are in there but don't necessarily get a chance to appreciate in performance. Dohmen also really got the characterization Konwitschny seemed to be going for here, bringing many human touches to Jochanaan's initial weary resignation, tortured questioning, and final revelation--i.e., that him and Salome should totally get married and have babies.

Additional shout-outs to another great Narraboth by Marcel Reijans (of all the challenges of the opera world in 2009, not enough good Narraboths sure isn't one of them, is it), and a Herodias (Doris Soffel) who made more effort than most to sing through the shrieking, to nice effect.