Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sprinkles of Fairy Dust

ABT's Sumptuous Sleeping Beauty

By Donna Perlmutter

Cause for cheer: American Ballet Theatre’s 2007 production of “The Sleeping Beauty.” Why? Because the show is jam-packed with the exquisite glitter of a Fabergé egg – enough gorgeous dancing, deeply coached 19th-century mime characterizations and fairy tale glories to satisfy even the most curmudgeonly among us.

Now that it’s touring, with a weekend stopover at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, we can see definite traces of Gelsey Kirkland’s fine directorial hand at work. She, along with Kevin McKenzie and her huband Michael Chernov, staged this quintessential classical ballet and, miracle of miracles, we can now gaze upon courtly characters who comport themselves as convincingly regal and at the same time are passionate in their causes (not, as was the case in Ballet Theatre’s recently seen “Swan Lake,” where the heavy costumes wore the sleep-walking dancers).

So we have Victor Barbee to thank for his commanding King Florestan and, as his queen, Maria Bystrova, who swept around the court with her upper back and outstretched arms held high, a constant marvel of eloquence. In fact, the whole cast moved to the manner born -- with a fluid musicality and articulate dramatic expression seldom seen in stagings of balletic warhorses these days.

What’s more, we could learn where George Balanchine picked up his tricks of the trade: at the feet of those masters Petipa and Tchaikovsky – their fluent linkage of dance and music were striking to behold here. With Charles Barker presiding over a faultless pit band and the stage action so fully in sync with the orchestra it was a night of sheer revelation. You didn’t want to take your eyes from the boards, and that’s no small bonus.

Tchaikovsky’s score, of course, is full of the tenderest melodies and most innocent, joyous sentiments. Petipa was his muse, or vice versa. And together they could make you weep in happiness – especially when their intentions are so wonderfully realized as here.

Which is not to say that the principal casting was perfect. Opening night saw Gillian Murphy as Aurora and although this stunningly skilled dancer can do anything (never mind those touchy open balances in the Rose Adagio), I prefer her in more womanly roles – Hagar in Pillar of Fire, for instance, or the high-tech neo-classical challenges). When she finally made her entrance as the beloved princess, a teenaged creature who had yet to ever see a cloud overhead, it was with undue solemnity, not as a carefree spirit exuding fragile preciousness.

As her Prince, the handsome Marcelo Gomes danced and partnered with suavity; he also gave off Hamlet-like thoughtfulness in his lonely moments and punctuated each musical ending with a deep-breathed accent. But Michele Wiles, as the all-important Lilac Fairy, lacked the warmth, amplitude and good nature of a key benefactor. The other five fairies, bestowing on their Princess the virtues due a Royal, danced with characterfulness and technical polish. So did those as the storybook characters shine effusively in their choice solos.

Finally, Nancy Raffa made the most of Carabosse, the vengeful spell-caster who tried to poison Aurora, but ended up only putting her and the kingdom to sleep for a hundred years. It was Kirkland who took the part at the 2007 premiere -- alerting all of New York to her much-bruited stage return, although in a non-balletic role; she re-vamped it entirely. Gone was the ugly, bent-over crone and in its place Raffa made an angrily defiant dominatrix -- upright, demanding, glamorous, sexual. (I can hear Petipa saying: “Gee, Carabosse, I hardly know ya’.")

Critical punches against Tony Walton’s sets and Willa Kim’s costumes abounded in New York, but I found the lacey Valentine card of the Wedding Act somehow sweet, even in its overdone, sugar-spun state – albeit with flashes of chic wit scattered around, in scrumptious sherbet shades.

After all, it is "The Sleeping Beauty," in a kingdom of sugar and spice.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Madame Butterfly takes wing in Santa Fe

Revival confirms the work's enduring relevance

Santa Fe, New Mexico
Friday, July 16, 2010

Review by Rodney Punt

The plot could not be simpler: American naval officer jilts Japanese wife who later commits suicide. But Puccini’s Madame Butterfly was not at all easy to compose, nor initially to stage. For all its subsequent popularity, its premiere was a flop at La Scala in 1904. Puccini felt the need to tweak it obsessively for two more decades.

Madama Butterfly can easily lapse into picture-book sentimentality, and the work has been tarred in some quarters as a period piece - pretty but passé. Contemporary stagings must straddle potential minefields: depicting cross-cultural encounters without succumbing to kitschy stereotypes; addressing modern skepticism of some character motivations while staying true to the work’s emotional intensity.

Attempts to walk this line, even in top-tier productions, occasionally stumble. Robert Wilson’s Kabuki concept at the LA Opera was classy and lovely to look at, but its human dimension so bloodless as to drain the truth from Verismo.

Casting Cio-Cio-San (aka Madame Butterfly) is, frankly, a task. The eponymous heroine must croon as a lyric waif in the first act, then wail tempestuously as the jilted woman in the second, all the while possessing the emotive ability to convince us of her steadfast faithfulness to a man clearly seen by all - on and off stage - as a first class cad. Likewise her Lieutenant Pinkerton must be thoroughly despicable but retain an ounce of redemptive potential for a wrenching last scene.

Enter the Santa Fe Opera. Butterfly has been a special province of the company since its inception in 1957. It has opened each of the Opera’s three stages, and it launched this season, after a 12-year absence, with a new production dedicated to the company's visionary founder, John Crosby.

With top-flight singing and acting, an inspired stage direction by Lee Blakely, and an insightful stewardship of a clearly articulated orchestra and chorus under Antony Walker (Susanne Sheston, Chorus Master), this Butterfly triumphs. Potential vulnerabilities are avoided, and the work’s enduring psychological impact and musical riches have been validated for a new generation. Just as important, higher standards of interpretation are set.

For the fated home on a Nagasaki hilltop, Jean-Marc Puissant’s scenic design employs a central cube that rotates on its axis and migrates around the stage in varying perspectives, in and out of doors. Cio-Cio-San’s tragically fleeting ties with Pinkerton and her family and community contribute to her increasingly isolated and impoverished stasis within it. Japanese screens reveal and obscure many of the interactions and emotional states. Rick Fisher’s lighting alternates day and night to mirror Cio-Cio-San’s own hope and despair.

The passage of time is hinted at with the sudden appearance of telephone poles in Act II, a reminder of the rapid transformation of a hermetic Japan after the visit of Admiral Perry’s naval flotilla, an intimidating modernization that parallels Cio-Cio-San’s personal Americanization under the influence of the blustery Pinkerton.

Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes ably establish the contrasting cultural identities of characters, revealing the gentle beauty of the Japanese aesthetic in contrast to the lack of nuance in its American counterpart. Facial make-up studiously (and wisely) avoids orientalizing the “Japanese” cast with pasty skin-tones or painted eye-slants.

The emphasis overall is on emotional veracity over ritual, naturalness over pictorialism.

As Cio-Cio-San, Kelly Kaduce brings an amber-tinted soprano, particularly rich at mid-register, to her deeply felt, dramatically satisfying interpretation. Whether coming to grips with Pinkerton, warding off suitors and slanderers, or chastising her maid Suzuki for her lack of faith, Kaduce’s is a full-blooded Butterfly - strong, stoic, and vulnerable only in private. She is also a hands-on mother. Singing at full voice, this Butterfly picks up her son Trouble (Makai Pope), and carries him around as she converses with him.

Waiting for Pinkerton all night, she sits erect, motionless, in Zen-like determination before singing with aching pathos. (An American flag scene later induces tears, even in jaded eyes.)

This is a bravura performance to treasure.

Brandon Jovanovich is no less impressive. His silvery-bright, powerfully ringing tenor, with a visage of pug nose and jutting jaw, enhance a stage swagger that nails the character of the domineering, superficially charming, but ultimately boorish Pinkerton. The navy officer's gauche manhandling of Butterfly’s precious ancestral dolls is intrusive; his bar-style toasting at the wedding is painful to behold, especially in contrast with the deliberate and delicate tea ceremony of his wife’s family.

After such antics, Pinkerton’s emotional breakdown at the return encounter with Butterfly, his American wife in attendance, is all the more pathetic.

Jovanovich owns this role, his contribution an essential element to the tragedy.

Secondary roles are also strong. Baritone James Westman’s Sharpless is sympathetic right-mindedness itself.

Elizabeth DeShong’s lushly-timbered mezzo-soprano provides the necessary robustness for Suzuki’s heroic support, and occasional endurance, of Butterfly’s stubbornness.

Harold Wilson’s Bonze brings fierce wrath to his denunciation of Butterfly’s religious conversion. Keith Jameson’s Goro is the perfect snake of a marriage broker. Matthew Hanscom’s elegant but slimy suitor, Prince Yamadori, could never convince even a more practical and compliant Butterfly to go with the flow. Remaining cast members perform admirably.

Great art has a way of extending its message into other spheres. Madame Butterfly has always been one of the most popular operas the the repertory. But this production recertifies its continuing relevance as well.

Strong breezes blew through the seats of the open-sided Crosby Theatre all Friday evening. Could they be the winds of change urging a dose of humility in America’s constant pursuit of global hegemony? Can we afford any more Pinkertons in a realigning, multicultural world?

If Madame Butterfly strikes the chord that will help answer these questions, its revival will serve humanity as well as art.


Madame Butterfly runs through August 26, 2010, at the Santa Fe Opera. Tickets: Santa Fe Opera

Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

All photos are by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Too raked over coals?

Freyer, offstage drama made
for a memorable LA Ring

Das Rheingold~(photos courtesy Kimberly Henshaw, LA Opera)

By Donna Perlmutter

It’s all over now, including the shouting. Three cycles of Wagner’s tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen, performed over a month of marathons, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera. And was there shouting.

More than ever, today’s media have their tongues hanging out for scandal-loaded sensationalism. So it’s no surprise that the arts-side of coverage got mere shadow attention by comparison. And so it was with this momentous production, a one-of-a-kind for the history books.

No matter the side show, we cannot forget what’s most significant: That artist-designer-director Achim Freyer gave us an original, iconic vision of the 17-hour epic, one that stands with the likes of Patrice Chereau’s 1976 staging at Bayreuth, for instance. Also that he forged characters of contemporary pop-culture sensibility wired to avant-garde puppetry and new agey images – all of them profoundly targeting the story’s moralism: absolute greed leads to absolute destruction; it conquers all, love included. And he did it brilliantly. Bertolt Brecht meets Superman meets Neo-Expressionism.

Bridge over troubled Tochter--LA Opera's Die Walkü

But what drove the headlines were old-hat protest rallies – one faction railing against Freyer’s non-traditional approach (gone were the winged helmets and breast plates of Norse legend, the naturalistic play of characters); the other camp trampolining on the “Wagner is a Nazi anti-semite” meme (he died in 1883, six years before Hitler was born; in other words, no matter what a disreputable cad Wagner was as a human being, his ingenious music dramas stand on their own merit, for all but those who cannot embrace such an idea.)

Add to that the budget – it came with a $31 million price tag, which needed and got the county’s $14 million bridge to ease cash flow. For antagonists the loan was like gasoline being poured on the protest fires. (“What? The government bailing out that Jew-hater’s scenario of übermenschen and üntermenschen?”)

And then came the understandable, though endless, L.A. Times coverage. Hang around backstage long enough, as a team of reporters did, and you’re sure to get a story – now I ask you, what could be juicier, as opera scandals go, than cast members dissing the director, complaining about how miserable it was to deal with Freyer’s steeply-raked stage floor (which they had to clamber over like goats on a craggy hillside). Not to mention the cumbersome head masks and assorted other production details that made life harder.

But a lot of this telling-tales-out-of-school also served to ward off bad performance notices in what everyone knows is a larynx-testing marathon. Okay, the singers couldn’t resist -- anymore than could Gen. Stanley McChrystal sniping at his civilian bosses under the seductive surround of a Rolling Stone reporter stuck with him in Afghanistan during air-borne volcano dust. What Angelenos at large didn’t know, though, was that these disaffections are not unusual.

Siegfried Follies--LA Opera's Siegfried

When L.A Opera signed the then-hot (Lion King) Julie Taymor to direct Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, the cast was so incensed by her ignorance of what it takes to belt out big lung-busting arias – she actually wanted the title character to walk down a narrow gangplank while singing his big number – that they threatened mutiny. Backstage at the final curtain one member handed her a bottle labeled “Bitch Begone.” Before that, amid a roar of audience booing, someone actually threw a tomato at Taymor.

As for the Ring, everyone eventually recovered and even took great pride in this historic achievement for the company and the city. So did the audiences erupt in in “bravos.” But the director himself had to make compromises. Caught at an intermission, he lamented that fact. Yes, the giants Fasolt and Fafner wanted more time tummeling downstage, so he relented – mostly gone were their original representations, those 30-foot arms and hands famously, terrifyingly, grasping their prey in a way no others have illustrated so creatively. “And the rehearsal time,” he added, “I couldn’t get more than an hour for Rheingold while preparing for the full cycle.” And there was more. The difficulties of doing opera, he said, made his life as a simple, autonymous painter seem like heaven. Well, welcome to the asylum, Herr Freyer.

But his monumental gift to us will not be forgotten. Not only does its creation represent a high water mark, but its scope, depth and imagination make this Ring unique.

LA Opera's Götterdämmerung