18 February 2018

Catching Up With: Scott Frankel’s American Songbook


The cast of War Paint.
Joanna Glushak, a sister veteran of Rags, is third from right.

Last night I braved a “wintry mix” and made my way to Lincoln Center’s off-campus Appel Room for the latest installment in the “American Songbook” series: a concert tribute to lyricist Michael Korie and composer Scott Frankel. The program featured songs from shows that have played in New York (Grey Gardens, Happiness, Far from Heaven, and the most recent, War Paint), as well as shows that haven’t. I knew Doll and Meet Mr. Future primarily from things Scott has told me about them, the former a portrait of the relationship between Alma Mahler and the painter Oskar Kokoschka (whose name Scott pronounces almost mockingly), the latter a vignette of the 1939 World’s Fair. I knew Scott’s version of Finding Neverland almost exclusively from what I read about it in the newspaper.

The “American Songbook” series is part of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and I don’t ordinarily think of Scott’s music as particularly jazzy — that’s an element of his work, an influence, but not the whole story. Still, two numbers from Meet Mr. Future vouched for Scott’s bona fides, right at the start of the concert, especially as performed by music director Andrew Resnick on piano, Mary Ann McSweeney on bass, Matt Smallcomb on percussion, Zohar Schondorf on horn, and Todd Groves on saxophone, flute, and clarinet. Tony Yazbeck’s rendition of “Just Around the Corner” and Brandon Victor Dixon’s “Progress Shuffles” offered contrasting perspectives in Depression-era New York, the former revealing an almost dogged determination to remain optimistic in hard times, the latter a reeling resignation to the reality that life in Harlem is not likely to get easier any time soon. Both numbers made me eager to hear more from this show.


Scott Frankel.

The “songbook” rubric turns out to be exceedingly apt. Scott has shown a remarkable ability to turn the styles of earlier songwriters to his own purposes. In Act I of Grey Gardens, Big Edie runs the gamut of a century or so of American theater music, including minstrel shows and operetta; War Paint does something similar, with a narrower focus on the years of the action depicted. “Behind the Red Door,” for example, contains a brief “ooh-ooh” chorus that’s perfectly matched to a prevailing style of the year in which the scene is set, 1935. (Think of the Optimistic Voices in The Wizard of Oz.)

I hesitate to use the term of art, “pastiche,” because what Scott is really doing is more like psychically channeling historical styles to his own, thoroughly contemporary purposes. Scott is a prodigious pianist who made his concert debut at age 13 (with the Cleveland Orchestra under Pierre Boulez, for mercy’s sake) and who one evening entertained me by playing one song (I forget which) in about a dozen different styles, not even pausing when I called out the next request. But his own style always comes through, at once emotional and almost clinically detached: if you think of his arias for Christine Ebersole, “Another Winter in a Summer Town” and “Pink,” or almost any of the music he wrote for Kelli O’Hara in Far from Heaven, then you know what I’m talking about.


Kelli O’Hara in Far from Heaven.

O’Hara was on hand for last night’s concert, offering welcome reminders of how perfectly Scott understands her voice and displays it to its best advantage. But we also had Leslie Kritzer and Scarlett Strallen to show that, no matter that War Paint’s music is precisely tailored to Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, it can be sung effectively by other people, too. (Kritzer and Strallen were, in fact, the first people I’d heard in this music who weren’t LuPone and Ebersole.) Last night, it became clearer than ever to me that Scott doesn’t merely write for an individual voice: it’s the other way around, and he writes music that requires an exceptional voice. He doesn’t merely showcase the singer, he challenges her to do her best work, and that in turn is why his music is so gratifying to the listener.

Exceptional voices abounded last night, and among the concert’s other highlights were two numbers from Finding Neverland from Julian Ovenden (who played James M. Barrie in the original cast) and Kelli O’Hara; “In My Father’s Garden,” Alma Mahler’s regretful résumé of her relationships with men, from Doll, sung by Leslie Kritzer; and Melissa Errico’s aching account of “Another Winter in a Summer Town.” For an encore, Scott accompanied Kelli O’Hara in “Heaven Only Knows,” and while I was grateful for the opportunity to hear him play, I really wished he had played more.

This is not to say that Andrew Resnick was ever less than excellent, but when Tony Yazbeck sang “Happiness the Second Time Around” (from Happiness), Resnick’s expert accompaniment made me realize two things: first, that the song is better than I’d remembered; and second, that the song is a reflection of the way Scott plays piano. His attaca is just that, an attack, and he uses his whole body to wrestle the instrument into submission to his will. While he achieves delicate effects when called for (and he did so in “Heaven Only Knows”), you sometimes wonder whether the piano can survive the passionate communion he creates. It’s as if the instrument is clay to be sculpted, a lover to be fucked. In “Second Time Around,” the character (originally played by Hunter Foster) makes a desperate plea for one more chance, hurling volleys of rage and regret. What Scott the pianist could do with Scott the composer’s work! Happiness turns out to be more personal and more honest than I’d realized on first hearing, and I found myself wishing for a “second time around” with that music.


“Beauty in the World”:
LuPone and Ebersole on Broadway.

I first saw War Paint in previews and vowed to return often; the vagaries of life in New York prevented me from keeping my promise until the final week of the run: I saw the two last Sunday matinées. The latter of these was the closing performance, a love fest without peer or parallel. Ebersole’s entrance stopped the show, and LuPone’s threatened to do the same until that great lady made a “knock it off” gesture that permitted her to proceed with her first number, “Back on Top.” I wouldn’t have thought that the two stars’ powerhouse performances could possibly be any more powerful, and yet they were turbocharged on that last afternoon.

The pleasures of Michael Greif’s production were so numerous that, each time I saw the show, I felt almost giddy. Ordinarily I can scarcely muster any interest at all in fashion, but Catherine Zuber’s costume designs were at once so historically accurate (over a 30-year time span) and brilliantly imaginative that I started to giggle with delight. Since the show closed, I’ve been listening to the cast album, and I’m able to concentrate more on the music. I find myself saying, “No, this is my favorite,” with each track in succession.

Ultimately, my favorite is and must be “Pink,” Elizabeth Arden’s eleven o’clock number and the summit (so far!) of the astonishing teamwork of Christine Ebersole and Scott Frankel. And yet I don’t believe the recording enhances my appreciation: I already appreciated the number when I heard it in the theater, and the cast album serves primarily as a document, a souvenir of a sublime experience. The same is true of Helena Rubinstein’s counterpart number, “Forever Beautiful,” a mini-opera for Patti LuPone. Even while replicas of various portraits of Rubinstein descended from the flies, creating a lasting monument to herself, I never took my eyes off of LuPone. I was completely under her spell, and that’s true, too, when I listen to the album.


“Fire and Ice”:
Steffanie Leigh and Erik Liberman.

The recording enhances my appreciation and understanding of other songs, such as “Fire and Ice.” Greif and choreographer Christopher Gattelli staged this number spectacularly — the blazing debut of Charles Revson (Erik Liberman) as the harbinger of a future that is already leaving Rubinstein and Arden behind. Hearing the song on the album, however, it’s no less effective without its glittering wardrobe, undulating performers, and shifting mirrors. The song comes at you like a tsunami; the bold rhythms and wild percussion won’t let you go. Throughout their careers, Rubinstein has promoted science, Arden has promoted gentility, but this is something altogether different: sex, and by God, it sells. The song is supposed to be a television commercial, and while listening to the album, I can picture Rubinstein and Arden’s horror as they watch — something the staging didn’t show us. Again and again, the album offers comparable revelations and delights.

The rivalry between Rubinstein and Arden is an odd, almost defiantly un-commercial choice of subject matter for a musical — as are all of Scott’s shows, with the debatable exception of Far from Heaven. Like the writer-director of the film Far from Heaven, Todd Haynes, and like that movie’s producer, Christine Vachon, Scott is an old friend, and I often brag that Scott writes shows to please me, just as Todd and Christine make movies for my personal enjoyment. The reality is, of course, quite different. My friends create art that pleases them. I’m sure they’re happy when other people like what they’ve done, but that’s not the goal they’re striving for. The result is art of the highest integrity, and the most gratifying rewards.


The Evolution of the Musical Today:
Christine Ebersole and Scott Frankel,
during the run of Grey Gardens.


Read more!

05 January 2018

Catching Up With: Jessica Gould


Photo by Nathan Smith.

Soprano Jessica Gould sometimes projects a mournful quality with her voice (and more on that in a moment), but it’s been with great happiness that I’ve heard her again recently, both in concert, under the aegis of her Salon/Sanctuary organization; and on recording, with the recent release, I Viaggi di Caravaggio (The Travels of Caravaggio) [Cremona MVC 017 043]. Jessica is always up to something interesting, whether I write about her or not — and she has been busy.

The surprise of the recording isn’t its thought-provoking program of largely unfamiliar, deeply researched, thematically linked material. The surprise is that Jessica didn’t program it herself. Her performing partner, Diego Cantalupi, invited her to sing on the album, and he provides sensitive accompaniment on lute and theorbo, also having devised the program. Cantalupi identifies female models (mostly prostitutes) in Caravaggio’s paintings and associates them with music by the painter’s contemporaries or near-contemporaries. Many of these composers would have been familiar with Caravaggio’s better-known paintings, Cantalupi observes, so that it’s easy to imagine a connection between — for example — the painter’s Crown of Thorns and Benedetto Ferrari’s cantata Queste dolenti spine (These painful thorns).

Cantalupi has done a remarkable job of selecting music that sounds the way Caravaggio’s signature chiaroscuro looks, so striking that I still find it hard to believe that the painter didn’t invent electricity and spotlights. Even the choice of composers is illuminating, in the sense that I’d never heard of most of these fellows, though I’m delighted to hear them now. The delicacy of Cantalupi’s playing and Jessica’s melancholy singing create alternating waves of shimmer and shadow, to haunting effect. It’s a lovely album.



At New York’s Brotherhood Synagogue on November 16, Jessica offered a reprise of a program of her own devising, “From Ghetto to Capella,” in the company of several other musicians: Charles Weaver on theorbo, Loren Ludwig on viola da gamba, Elliot Figg on harpsichord, and the vibrant Italian mezzo Elena Biscuola. The selections explore what Jessica calls the “cross-fertilization between Jewish and Christian musical cultures” in Italy, primarily in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (with a couple of numbers from earlier and later periods), and the program proved full of surprises as number after number revealed Middle Eastern influences in harmonies, modalities, and even — to the delight of the audience — the melody of the “Hatikvah” in an air from Rossi’s time, “Fuggi, fuggi,” performed here as a duet.

“From Ghetto to Capella” allows Jessica and her friends to return to the music of Salamone Rossi, whose remarkable career as a Jew in the court of Mantua inspired an earlier program, “From Ghetto to Palazzo.” Two arias by Barbara Strozzi — a rare woman composer in the seventeenth century — afforded each singer a welcome showcase, with Jessica locating a startling combination of pleading and ecstasy in the final notes of “Salve Regina,” and Biscuola making an entire opera out of the lament “Lagrime mie.”

As ever, one walks out of a Salon/Sanctuary concert feeling not only enriched by beautiful music but also a bit smarter. When Jessica sings, you learn something.


“From Ghetto to Capella,” November 16, 2017.


Read more!

18 December 2017

Catching Up With: Adamo’s ‘Becoming Santa Claus’

Foreground: Rivera, Boehler, Blalock; background: Plitmann, a bit of Jameson, Burdette.

It’s usually the case that new operas require a second hearing from me: I can’t absorb all the music at once, and sometimes I can’t even be sure what I think of a work overall. This was especially true of David T. Little’s Dog Days, which I admired extravagantly and yet didn’t fully appreciate until I’d heard it several times. (Who knows? Maybe I still don’t fully appreciate it. I’d better keep listening to find out!)

As I’ve written here, I required a few hearings of Mark Adamo’s first opera, Little Women, before I could separate what Mark actually wrote from what I expected. Unpredictability is an asset, and who knows whether I could have enjoyed so many performances — and a recording — of this opera over the years, if it actually had been the sound I originally anticipated? Mark is smarter about these things than I could ever be.

A company in Texas, Houston Grand Opera, produced the first performances of Little Women, and I first saw it not in the opera house but in a New York City hotel room, where the company had arranged a special screening of the video, for those critics and writers unable to watch the television premiere. Somewhat similarly, another company in Texas, The Dallas Opera, produced another premiere of an opera by Mark Adamo, Becoming Santa Claus, and I first saw that at a special screening of a live performance that was simulcast in New York. Now a DVD of Becoming Santa Claus has been released, and I’ll have the opportunity to hear it and see it often — and I expect that I’ll want to. (I’ll also want to see a live performance in a theater one of these days. Opera companies, take note.)


Jonathan Blalock as Claus.

From the start of the overture, Mark makes clear that, while this is a “family opera” (as marketers like to call them), he refuses to talk down to child audiences. This is sophisticated musical writing, intriguingly scored — and in that respect it’s no different from Mark’s other work. He never lets the listener grow complacent; he always has a surprise up his sleeve. Consider the Toy Sequence in Scene Two, where the Elves’ quartet “will extend as far outside traditional operatic technique as taste and [the singers’] ability will permit,” Mark advises, aiming to include “jazz improvisation, rap, and/or quasi-percussive choral utterance.” For all the score’s ambition, however, it remains accessible — something that became clearer to me the second time I heard it, at a private screening of the DVD in New York.

Becoming Santa Claus is, like Mark’s other operas, designed to permit extraordinary performances from its cast. It’s also great fun. That Toy Sequence features some of the worst, ugliest toys you’ve ever seen. (Think of the Misfit Toys in Rudolph, then imagine even more catastrophic failures.) The bridge between Scenes Two and Three is an orchestral interlude that features a hilarious computer-animated sequence — which also recalls the film sequence in Berg’s Lulu (not hilarious) in its innovation and placement. In the finale, a handbell chorus of children emerges from the audience, and as charming as the Sensurround jingling is on DVD, it must have been thrilling to experience in the house. (And it’s a great way to involve the community at large.)

Mark’s libretto isn’t entirely secular — he hasn’t scrubbed away “the reason for the season” as other origin stories, such as Rankin/Bass’ Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, do — and yet it treats religion lightly. More important are the relationships among the characters. The plot centers on Prince Claus, a spoiled brat whose parents, the King and Queen of frozen Nifland, have separated. Claus is looking forward to his thirteenth birthday — a celebration so lavish that the court servants, the Elves, haven’t had a day off in three years. But Claus’ uncles won’t be attending the party: a Donkey–Messenger announces that, instead, the three Kings are following a Star and will be giving presents to some other Child, who has just been born.

Declaring frankincense, gold, and myrrh to be unsuitable gifts for a baby, Claus decides to outdo his uncles, and instructs the Elves to make the best presents in the world, and lots of them. But then comes the question of how to deliver them. By the time Claus gets to the stable, Mother and Child have left already. Claus understands the difference between presents and presence, that it’s more important to be with someone than to give them fancy goods. He learns a lesson about himself, about family — and figures out what to do with all the presents that are piled up in his sleigh.


Who wouldn’t want a gigantic dancing Sham-Wow for Christmas?
Jameson, Plitmann, Burdette, Schauffer, and the toys.

For the world premiere, Emmanuel Villaume conducted with his customary deftness and attention to instrumental detail; I’ve admired his work many times, yet I think believe is the first time I’ve heard him in contemporary rep. And the company assembled a dream cast, with Jennifer Rivera as a delectably glamorous Queen Sophine; sonorous Matt Boehler as the Donkey–Messenger (with a secret); and an all-star assemblage of Elves: sky-high soprano Hila Plitmann (Yan), mezzo Lucy Schaufer (Ib), tenor Keith Jameson (Yab), and bass Kevin Burdette, having some fun after Dallas Opera’s previous world premiere, Jake Heggie’s Great Scott, just a few weeks before.* When you recall that some children in the audience probably never heard an opera before, you have to believe that surprise and delight ran rampant when the kids heard the range of things the human voice can do.

Jonathan Blalock stepped into the title role on short notice, yet it’s hard for a viewer to believe anyone else was ever considered. His clean, bright tenor voice displays an absolute command of the challenging score, he’s an affecting actor as always, and he looks gorgeous in Gary McGann’s costumes. You can be sure that dozens of little girls got crushes on him when they saw this opera.

McGann also designed the sets, with touches of Art Nouveau inspiration that recall (for this viewer, anyway) another Santa Claus origin story, the novel by L. Frank Baum. Sets and costumes are sumptuous, imaginative, and (like the rest of this opera) often great fun. (Those toys! Those dancing tables!) McGann’s work is one more reason to be grateful that this production was recorded on video, so that we can see not only how beautiful the designs are, but also how beautifully they functioned in the service of Paul Curran’s staging. Really, Curran couldn’t have done a better job of overseeing a production that shows off this opera to its best advantage; the physicality of the Elves and Queen Sophine, for example, is thoroughly thought out, and it shines brightly.

Need I point out that the DVD would make a great Christmas present?


Mark Adamo.

*NOTE: Mark has devised names for the Elves like the names of no elves you’ve heard before, as if they’re some extraterrestrial language.



Read more!

24 November 2017

Catching Up With: Jane Alexander


Never lovelier.

NOTE: This is the first of what I expect to be several essays on topics that I should have been writing about on a regular basis, over the past several months.

Writing Madeline Kahn’s biography gave me the opportunity to meet, speak, and/or correspond with a number of people whose work I already admired — as well as coming to admire many of Madeline’s other colleagues, with whose work I had been unfamiliar. In the former category are of course great comedians such as Mel Brooks, Robert Klein, and Lily Tomlin, but also some Great American Actors who worked with Madeline onstage. In the past several months, I’ve seen both Jane Alexander and Kevin Kline return to the boards, offering welcome reminders that, no matter how they excel onscreen, they’re authentic theater animals.

Jane Alexander’s theater background helped me considerably the first time we spoke. When conducting a phone interview, I usually type while talking, transcribing the conversation immediately. Of all those interviews, only Jane Alexander did I trust to put on speaker phone: her diction is so flawless that, even over my crummy cell phone, every word rang clear. Over the course of her career, she’s performed in more than 100 plays (according to her bio in the playbill), so when I heard that she was rehearsing a new play at the Long Wharf in New Haven, I determined to go — little realizing that the play, Matthew Barber’s Fireflies — is set in South Texas, about 30 miles from my mother’s hometown.

I felt as if I were eavesdropping on the neighbors. Based on Annette Sanford’s novel Eleanor & Abel, Fireflies is a slight, sweet tale of a retired schoolteacher taking a late-in-life chance on love. The object of her affection is unlikely, and indeed she finds herself doing all sorts of things that don’t conform to her pre-existing patterns of behavior — even while she is true to herself, perhaps for the first time.


Kitchen-sink zaniness: Alexander and Ivey.

If the play struck me as having more resonance than it actually possesses or deserves, that may be because I saw it at a matinée, where, as the woman sitting next to me observed, I was probably the youngest person in the room. For the people around me, the play’s message — it’s never too late — was as meaningful as it was welcome. And as Jane Alexander flaunted her lustrous silver mane and her character repeatedly told us she’d begun using a new hair product that made her look so good, I contemplated my own grizzled locks and wondered where in the hell I could buy such a product. I’m sure I wasn’t alone.

Fireflies called upon both the character and the actress who played her to take chances and to reach beyond our expectations. When discussing Madeline Kahn’s performance opposite her in Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig, Jane Alexander remarked to me that she’s better known as a serious dramatic actress than as a comedian. One can excuse the people who cast her: when an actress is capable of her kind of command and authority, why wouldn’t you take advantage of that? She’s done more than 100 plays, according to her program bio, so I can’t with any certainty claim that she’s never played scenes of such broad comedy. But I’ve never seen her do anything like what she did in Fireflies. I came to the Long Wharf expecting a reminder of her mastery of the stage, but what I got was a revelation.

At the very least, Fireflies represented a change of pace for her. With the incomparable Judith Ivey playing Eleanor’s neighbor and best friend, the play at times approached the style of a more realistic, grounded I Love Lucy — kitchen-sink zaniness, if you will. Yet stage director Gordon Edelstein also incorporated elements of fantasy (dinosaurs, planetariums) and maintained the play’s emotional foundations with great skill, and he knew how to make certain that every audience member walked out with the lasting image of Jane Alexander dancing in her nightgown. I’ve never seen her lovelier than she was here.

In the Long Wharf lobby, paperback copies of Alexander’s most recent book were on sale, and I bought one — having already shared my hardback copies with friends. Wild Things, Wild Places is unlike any actress’ memoir that came before it, an account of Alexander’s many trips around the world to conduct field research in conservation. She has been doing this without fanfare for more than 30 years. I confess that, when I first saw that she described herself as an “environmental activist,” I originally supposed that she’d signed a few petitions and attended a rally or two. I should have known better.

Of course Alexander engages — actively — in her environmental concerns, just as she committed, body and soul, to her political and arts activism by accepting the (phenomenally difficult) job of chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts during the Clinton administration, as well as by taking on roles in projects such as Testament and Playing for Time. Now I found herself wondering, when she imitated a dinosaur in Fireflies, which wilderness creatures inspired her performance.

The British make it so much easier than the Americans do to identify their Great Actors: the Queen has an honors list, after all, to recognize her subjects for their service to art and society. All we can do is remind one another that Jane Alexander is one of the greatest actors this country has ever produced.


It’s a lucky name for her: Alexander as Eleanor (Roosevelt), with Edward Herrmann as FDR.
This was my first glimpse of her, and I’ve admired her ever since.


Read more!

20 November 2017

Joyce Castle Toasts Bernstein, Janice Hall Forgoes Opera at Urban Stages


Lenny and Joyce during the first performance of Arias and Barcarolles.
With Michael Tilson Thomas also seated at the piano, and baritone John Brandstetter.

Joyce Castle captivated me from the minute we met, more than 30 years ago. Since then, I continually discover that she’s had that effect on other people, too, many of whom I admire in their own right. When I interviewed director Harold Prince, for example, we concluded our conversation with praise of Joyce — almost as if we were trying to one-up each other, or competing for the presidency of her fan club.

Leonard Bernstein thought highly of Joyce, too: at one rehearsal, the height-challenged composer was so delighted that he pulled up a chair and stood on it to kiss her. Joyce sang the first performance of his Arias and Barcarolles, and she won the hearts of New York audiences (and a Grammy Award) playing the Old Lady in his Candide at City Opera in the 1980s. Joyce has sung Bernstein’s music all over the world, easily embracing both his show tunes and his “classical” compositions. She’s got the musicianship — and, importantly, the sense of humor — to field anything Bernstein throws her way.

Bernstein’s centennial (officially in August 2018) is already being celebrated by orchestras and other musical groups around the country. When Urban Stages invited me to produce a show for its annual “Winter Rhythms” series, I thought it would be nice to stage a tribute now, before audiences are overloaded with his music. Naturally, I thought of Joyce. Would she be interested in making a “special guest star” appearance in a Bernstein tribute? “Why don’t I do the whole thing?” she replied.

And that is how Joyce Castle will be making her first New York appearance in more than six years, on December 16, at 7 pm, in LENNY! A Toast to Bernstein on the Eve of His Birthday. With her longtime collaborator Ted Taylor on piano, Joyce will share songs and stories, reminiscing about the composer — and I couldn’t be more thrilled.


A long way from Rovno Gubernia: Joyce as the Old Lady in São Paulo, with conductor Marin Alsop.

This year’s “Winter Rhythms” series features 22 shows in 12 days, to benefit Urban Stages’ remarkable educational and outreach programs. The series kicks off on December 12 with a tribute to composer and music director Barry Levitt, whose sudden death this fall hit the cabaret community hard: remembering him in song is the perfect celebration of a much-loved man. People are very excited about the tribute to Broadway book-writer Michael Stewart on December 18, featuring Chita Rivera, Jim Dale, and Charles Strouse. On December 21, there’s a concert performance of Stephen Cole and Matthew Martin Ward’s After the Fair, marking that show’s twentieth anniversary; and the series wraps up with a concert of Disney songs on December 23. Over the 12-day period, more than 100 artists will perform, a who’s who of New York’s musical scenes, and every year, producer Peter Napolitano makes sure there’s something for every musical taste. Click here for a complete listing and descriptions of all the shows.


Janice Hall draws on her own experiences from her operatic career.

I’m especially looking forward to Janice Hall’s “The Opera Show with No Opera” on December 16 at 3 pm. I first saw Janice in an opera, Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, opposite Joyce Castle herself, and it was Janice who ushered me into the cabaret community. For this show, Janice will tell the stories of great operas — using songs by everybody from Billy Joel to the Smashing Pumpkins. “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. Just like at the opera,” Janice promises. Peter Napolitano directs, and Matthew Martin Ward is music director.

If you want to see both Joyce’s and Janice’s shows (and you do), you can get a discount by clicking here.



Read more!

16 November 2017

Adès’ ‘Exterminating Angel’ at the Met


An “Enchanted” Beginning:
Act I at the Met.

As an event, the Metropolitan Opera’s presentation of Thomas Adès’ The Exterminating Angel has pleased me. Boosted by a rave review in the New York Times and by worldwide press coverage of soprano Audrey Luna’s record-breaking achievement — reaching the highest note ever sung on the Met stage — the production has attracted large audiences, which isn’t always the case for new operas. (Indeed, for any opera written after Madama Butterfly and Der Rosenkavalier, Turandot [1926] being the notable exception.) Even more encouraging: the audiences have skewed younger than is typical for the Met or most other opera companies. When I started attending the opera, I was 13 years old and very often the youngest person in the auditorium. What’s dismaying is that, on many nights, more than four decades later, that’s still true — but not for Exterminating Angel.

Beyond this, I welcome the Met’s casting so many singers whom I admire as artists and whom I know and like as people, offstage. But more on that in a moment.


Audrey Luna’s feat has attracted all sorts of attention.
Seen here, NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers.

About the opera itself, I’m of many minds. It’s a curious choice of subject matter to begin with, and I note that I still haven’t seen Luis Buñuel’s film. Certain choices seem dictated by what was in the movie, rather than the needs of this piece in the theater. An example is the arrival of a massive chorus at the start of Act III; the chorus returns at the end of the act, after a costume change. Yes, the opera does open up as a consequence, and we see what’s going on beyond the claustrophobic confines of the Nobiles’ home. Maybe we’ve had enough of the experience of being trapped in one room, as the principal characters are — though an argument can be made to the contrary, that we should remain trapped, sharing that psychological experience. On a practical level, however, Exterminating Angel — which saw its premiere at the Salzburg Festival, with the same production and many in the cast proceeding to Covent Garden and the Met, with a new cast to follow at Royal Danish Opera — will be prohibitively expensive for many other companies to produce. Is the movie’s precedent sufficient justification? I wonder.

Adès has never been one to eschew attention-grabbing stunts, which is one reason we know who he is, whether or not we’ve seen his work. A musical blowjob in his first opera, Powder Her Face, garnered all sorts of headlines, and more when the opera was recorded, and yet more when the opera has been produced subsequently. Exterminating Angel contains other such épater-les-bourgeois ingredients, and indeed the entire opera both shocks the bourgeoisie and depicts the bourgeoisie itself in shocking circumstances.

To an extent, even those record-breaking high notes are just another stunt. They don’t tell us very much about the character, an opera singer named Leticia, though certainly those notes do contribute to an overall atmosphere of otherworldliness. And nobody who’s a fan of bel canto can argue with the compositional device of generating excitement through feats of vocal derring-do. Leticia isn’t that far removed, really, from Tonio in Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment and his high Cs. (His high notes do make plenty of dramatic sense, however: Tonio is ecstatic at what he believes to be his good fortune.)

Certain of Adès’ compositional choices puzzled me, and while the language in this opera (to a libretto by the composer and Tom Cairns, who stage directed) is infinitely superior to that of the ludicrous doggerel in his The Tempest, he doesn’t seem any more concerned with whether the audience understands the singers (why bother, when there are titles?), whether his prosody mimics ordinary speech or departs from it, or whether he needs to make any clearly comprehensible choices about any of these matters. Another conductor might draw out more meaning from the score, but the composer himself is in the pit.


Deliverance: Act III.

Yet there are vast portions of the score that pleased me immensely. Adès shows mastery in the most intimate (a lullaby, a love duet for a dying couple) and the grandest passages (a hair-raising march number). He gives almost every character a spotlight. He resorts to a few easy tricks (the wind-up toy orchestration of the scene in which some characters indulge their most compulsive behaviors); and while the use of the ondes martenot doesn’t seem terribly original (we’ve heard it, or something like it, in old horror movies), it’s certainly effective. The score may not invite but it does welcome repeated hearings: I’ve seen the opera twice so far, and I expect to see the HD simulcast on Saturday afternoon.

Now, about that cast. When I was a kid listening to Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, it never occurred to me that I would ever know any singers. I mean, I liked Star Trek, too, but I never expected to know any Vulcans. The very idea was pure fantasy. And yet today I know quite a few of these people, my life is all the richer for them, and some of them are on the Met stage right now.

Case in point: Audrey Luna herself, who sang Zerbinetta in Fort Worth Opera’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos, in which I also appeared. She’s one of the loveliest people I know, and a wonderful singer. The role of Ariel in The Tempest, which Audrey sang at the Met, taps into some of her so-high-only-Jesus-can-hear extension, and as soon as she made her entrance in Exterminating Angel, I thought, “Well, Adès certainly got her number when she sang Tempest.” Her ability to extend her upper register while retaining a pleasing timbre and strength is remarkable, and while Exterminating Angel is, as I say, an ensemble piece, it is ultimately Leticia’s show: her big scena is integral to the finale ultimo. “She’s one of only two people on earth who can sing this role right now; the other is her cover,” mused one of her co-stars.

Tenor David Portillo, who sang Tonio in Daughter of the Regiment as part of the same festival season in Fort Worth, has reached an extraordinary level in his singing these days, as further demonstrated in Handel’s Ariodante at Carnegie Hall last spring. There’s an effortless sweetness to his singing that makes him a dream to listen to in the role of Exterminating Angel’s ardent fiancé — and he, too, is a lovely person offstage. As the elderly Señor Russell, bass Kevin Burdette, whom I saw most recently in Santa Fe Opera’s Die Fledermaus in August, adds yet another distinctive portrayal to a gallery that also includes an ogre, a jack-in-the-box, a Mormon patriarch, and an aesthetic poet — just a few among those that I’ve seen.


David Adam Moore with Amanda Echalaz (Lucia Nobile).

But the greatest satisfaction of hearing Exterminating Angel must be the success of baritone David Adam Moore. I've followed his career ever since I saw him in Neal Goren's production of Dido and Aeneas, and in turn his work has introduced me to the work of other remarkable artists, such as the designer Vita Tzykun, the composer David T. Little, and even the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (whom I first heard co-starring with David at Glimmerglass, and whom I heard again recently, singing and dancing exquisitely to Pergolesi).

Every now and then, David and I get together for coffee to catch up on each other’s news. A while back, he told me about Exterminating Angel. The announcement wasn't official (“You can't tell anybody” — and I didn't!), but he was slated to make his Salzburg debut as Colonel Gómez in the world premiere, with a real possibility that he’d follow this by repeating his role for his Covent Garden and Met debuts.

As it was foretold, so it has come to pass. His musicality, his bearing, and his innate authority are ideal for the role. And the rest of us have confirmation that sometimes good things do happen to good people. I couldn’t be happier.


Read more!

21 October 2017

The Case for a Recording of ‘Paul’s Case’


The original cast of Paul’s Case, in Kevin Newbury’s staging, with Jonathan Blalock in foreground.

Some operas stay with you. Some performances never leave you.

I had never read Willa Cather’s short story “Paul’s Case” before I read about Gregory Spears and Kathryn Walat’s operatic adaptation. The story is remarkable, poignant, chock-full of secrets and whispers. At its center is Paul, a young man who resembles the tenor Jonathan Blalock in every detail, to such a degree that you wonder what sort of time machine Cather used to visit our era and to meet Jonathan. She gets him, down to his mysterious smile. It’s as if Jonathan springs to life on her page.

I’ve had this sensation before, when reading Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir and seeing the actor Gérard Philipe in the central character of Julien Sorel. It was almost like fan fiction, as if Stendhal admired Philipe so much that he wrote a part especially for him. (Stendhal wasn’t above that sort of thing, I hasten to add.) Then one day I went to the cinéma, and there was Gérard Philipe playing Julien Sorel. The universe aligned, somehow. It was always necessary for Philipe to play this character, and then he did.

Seeing the opera at its New York premiere, part of the Prototype Festival, in 2014, I discovered that the music for Paul’s Case suits Jonathan every bit as much as the character does. His clean, incisive tenor shines as the chamber ensemble slides and scurries around him. In The New Yorker, Alex Ross has written far more eloquently about this opera than I ever can, as is his wont, but allow me impertinently to vouch for him: He’s right. This is a gorgeous, important score.

In an ideal world, we’d have a video of Kevin Newbury’s haunting, poetic production, for Urban Arias, with the original cast. We don’t live in an ideal world, however, and now Urban Arias is coming to the end of a fund-raising drive to finance an audio recording.


Imagine if Maria Callas had never recorded Tosca, if Lauren Worsham had never recorded Dog Days. That’s how you’re going to feel if Jonathan Blalock never records Paul’s Case. This is a once-in-a-lifetime portrayal. Sure, Spears’ opera is so powerful that other tenors will want to sing the role, some day. But they will never be quite like Jonathan, never quite so right and natural and expressive. They may or may not have lived out parts of Paul’s story — Jonathan has. They may never be able to give full voice to this character and his music — Jonathan does. They may never know what Jonathan has done with the role — I do.

In a fund-raising drive like this one, every little bit helps. The campaign is coming to an end. If you can part with a little money, I hope you’ll do so. The link is here.


Read more!