28 August 2013

Progress Report 20: From Beyond the Deadline

Madeline was telling me the news. She was so pleased and so flattered, she said, to discover that Julie Harris would be playing the lead in the upcoming film The Madeline Kahn Story.

Harris died a few days ago. I didn’t have the heart to tell Madeline this. I did make some protest: “But Julie Harris isn’t a singer!”

“Oh, that doesn’t matter,” Madeline replied, and suddenly I wasn’t sure whether I’d misunderstood and gotten it backwards, and somehow Madeline might be playing the lead in The Julie Harris Story. A dream role, really, when you think about it.

But if Madeline was making another movie, this of course would mean that I’d have to do more research, possibly more interviews — and I awoke with a start.

Madeline worked in Santa Fe, too:
As Esperanza in Lucky Luke.

Yes, we’ve come to that point. The manuscript for the authorized biography is due in the hands of my editor in a very, very, very few days. For a few weeks, apart from the trip to Santa Fe earlier this month, I have barely left my desk. Dreaming is actually something of an achievement, because I haven’t been getting much sleep. I haven’t seen a barber since the beginning of the year, and since I can’t be bothered to shave more than once or twice a week, much of the time I look like late-stage Howard Hughes.

And yet it’s coming together, even as new information and new interviews have continued to come my way. Even in Santa Fe, I was working on the book whenever I wasn’t at the opera, and I landed long-awaited conversations with Jane Alexander, Madeline’s co-star in City Heat and The Sisters Rosensweig; and with Richard Fredericks, the Met and City Opera baritone who played Ravenal to Madeline’s Magnolia in a production of Show Boat in Sacramento, exactly 44 years ago.

Leads lead to more leads. For example, I had a terrific conversation with Maddie Corman, who played Madeline’s niece in the TV sitcom Mr. President. At one point, she said, “My mother-in-law worked with Madeline — do you want to talk to her?” And that’s how I reached Jane Alexander after all these years.

Talking to Jane Alexander really made my day.
Alexander with Clint Eastwood in City Heat.

Working down to the wire, I’ve also interviewed a few more members of Madeline’s family and Kevin Kline, her co-star in On the Twentieth Century; scored an urgently needed follow-up interview with Mel Brooks; and spoken with several people who worked behind the scenes with Madeline on any number of projects.

I’ve tracked down more newspaper and magazine articles, playbills and plays. Dorothy Danner, who directed the wonderful production of Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment in Fort Worth this spring, co-starred with Madeline in New Faces of 1968. She just happens to own a copy of the script from the show, and shared it with me. You’ll be amazed to learn what was and what wasn’t originally included in the running order.

And I’ve reviewed several of Madeline’s films, and seen for the first time the recently released Blu-Ray edition of At Long Last Love — no easy task when you don’t own a Blu-Ray player. And all of this while I’m wrestling with the actual writing of the book.

So I’m a little crazed right now. Hearing Madeline sing “You Don’t Love As I Do” in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother the other night, I got a little teary, in fact, and who knows what shape I’ll be in by the time I type the final period.

But Madeline Kahn in The Julie Harris Story! What a test of her talents to reenact scenes from everything from A Member of the Wedding and I Am a Camera to The Belle of Amherst and The Gin Game! Why, really, only one actress has ever managed to display such range.

No wonder Madeline couldn’t wait to tell me about it.

Maybe we could get James Franco to play James Dean
opposite Madeline in The Julie Harris Story.

Read more!

21 August 2013

Parisians Now ‘Much Too Polite,’ Tourists Say

Foreign visitors at a Parisian café.

PARIS -- Just a few weeks after another campaign by Paris’ board of tourism designed to sensitize service-industry workers to the needs and preferences of visitors, Paris has become “much too polite” for many tourists.

“We could have been in Muncie,” complained Margaret Velveetinson, of Indianapolis, after a recent trip to the French capital. “Nobody sneered at my accent or the fact that I wanted to eat breakfast at 10 in the morning. Nobody snubbed me. Where’s my authentic Parisian experience?”

Her husband, George Velveetinson, agreed. “I had only one year of French in high school, and that was 40 years ago,” he said. “I thought for sure somebody would make fun of me. But nobody did! Even when I asked them to speak English, they weren’t rude. I want my money back.”

This sudden wave of considerate behavior on the part of Paris’ waiters and hotel clerks is due in large part to the phenomenal response to “Do You Speak Touriste?,” a guide distributed by the board of tourism. It describes the goals and concerns of foreign visitors, and suggests ways that French workers can make a visit more enjoyable for everyone.

These include such helpful hints as serving water with meals when asked to do so, using first names when addressing strangers, keeping wait times to a minimum, and not muttering obscenities in French as soon as one turns one’s back on a tourist.

The cover of the popular guide.

“Before reading this essential brochure, I never understood what a Big Mac or a Coca-Cola can represent to a person who is far from home and seeks the comfort of the familiar,” admitted Jacques Froideur, a waiter at the Café Impertinence, off the Champs-Elysées. “While I understand that, in a café that serves only French cuisine at outrageous prices, I cannot give a tourist precisely what he wants, I now feel a need to be as cheerful and helpful as the counter staff at any fast-food restaurant in the American heartland.

“After all,” Froideur added, “the Americans saved our — how do you say? Asses? Two world wars! And have we ever thanked them properly? It is my duty as a man of honor to make things right in any way I can.”

Previous efforts by the tourism board and other entities have met with limited success. No one expected Parisians to take “Do You Speak Touriste?” to heart — least of all the tourists. An informal survey of visitors from eleven countries found bewilderment and even resentment: Paris is not living up to its reputation. That a city renowned for its art, food, and monuments also be friendly strikes many visitors as unfair.

“What am I supposed to tell the neighbors?” said Jolene Rollerboard, of Little Rock. “That I went to Paris and had a nice time?”

“Next year, we’re going to New York,” said her friend, Mae Belle Samsonite. “I hear they’re really rude there.”

Read more!

13 August 2013

Further Proof of Shakespeare’s Hand in a Disputed 1957 Musical

A scene from Shakespeare’s West Side Story:
Carol Lawrence with my beloved Larry Kert.

For nearly six decades, scholars have debated whether some part of the 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story was, in fact, written by Shakespeare.

Last year, the British scholar Brian Fforbes-Garstley used computer analysis to argue that the so-called Source Material was by Shakespeare, a claim hailed by some as the latest triumph of high-tech Elizabethan text mining.

“While it’s very difficult to find entire passages that are written by Shakespeare, individual words and phrases are very clearly his,” Fforbes-Garstley said. “For example, I note the repeated use of ‘hand,’ ‘heart,’ and ‘tonight,’ all words that arise with great statistical frequency in Shakespeare’s vocabulary in the canonical works.”

But now, a professor at the University of Ronkonkoma says he has found something closer to definitive proof using a more old-fashioned method: blind speculation, not computer analysis.

In a terse four-page paper, to be published in the September issue of the journal Notes and Queries, Kenneth Oberon argues that various idiosyncratic features of the Source Material — including such characters as Officer Krupke and Anybody’s that have struck some doubters as distinctly sub-Shakespearean — may be explained as misreadings of unfinished manuscripts delivered in error to the print shop.

“The character of Maria clearly is an early model for Olivia’s spunky confidante in Twelfth Night,” Oberon said. “A rough draft, if you will.”

Only later would Shakespeare shift the primary emphasis of his play away from Maria and toward other characters, notably Viola, Oberon said. Also, in the early stages of Shakespeare’s work, he preferred a different pronunciation of the character’s name: “Ma-REE-ah,” rather than his later preference, “Ma-RYE-ah.”

The character also makes an appearance in another disputed musical, which some scholars believe to have been written by Shakespeare, Paint Your Wagon.

How do you solve a problem like Maria?
According to some scholars, this scene shows
definite traces of Shakespearean authorship.

Claiming Shakespeare authorship can be a perilous endeavor. In 1996, Norman Voles, a pioneer in computer-driven textual analysis, drew front-page headlines with his assertion that Shakespeare was the author of Kiss Me, Kate, only to retract his argument six years later after analyses by Fforbes-Garstley and others linked it to a different author, Marcel Proust.

This time, editors of some prestigious scholarly editions are betting that Mr. Oberon’s cautiously methodical arguments, piled on top of previous work by Mr. Fforbes-Garstley and others, will make the attribution stick.

“We don’t have any absolute proof, but this is as close as you can get,” said Bruce Mittelschmerz, a professor at the University of Wainscoting and an editor, with Teresa Rinteria, of the British Dental Assocation’s edition of the complete Shakespeare.

“I think we can now say with some authority that, yes, this is Shakespeare,” Mr. Mittelschmerz said. “It has his fingerprints all over it. Oh, sorry. Those are mine.”

Acceptance is by no means assured. Three years ago, some scholars were skeptical when the Arlen Shakespeare published A Little Night Music, a play from roughly the same period whose connection with a lost Shakespeare drama had long been debated, in its prestigious Shakespeare series.

“There is simply not enough dancing in that show to prove categorically that it is the work of William Shakespeare,” said Titania Stern, a professor of early modern drama at Oxblood University and an editor for the Arlen Shakespeare, although she conceded that some of the language in A Little Night Music closely resembles that of other disputed Shakespeare texts, including West Side Story and Gypsy.

However, Ms. Stern said, some new attributions were driven less by solid evidence than by publishers’ desire to offer “more Shakespeare” than their rivals.

“The arguments for West Side Story are better than most” putatitve Shakespeare collaborations, Ms. Stern said. “But I think we’re going a bit Shakespeare-attribution crazy and shoving a lot of stuff in that maybe shouldn’t be there.”

NOTE: For more on the attribution of Shakespeare’s authorship to disputed works, click here. For my part, I’m not at all surprised that Shakespeare, a glover’s son, might have a hand in Kyd.

Read more!

11 August 2013

Santa Fe Opera 2013: Morrison’s ‘Oscar,’ or the Importance of Not Being Too Earnest

Not guilty: David Daniels as Wilde in Gaol.
This and all photos by Ken Howard, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

Theodore Morrison’s Oscar comes to the stage of the Santa Fe Opera Festival with such good intentions, such an interesting back story, such timely subject matter, and such an opera-worthy central figure (you can’t have Strauss’ Salome without Oscar Wilde, after all) that one really wants to like the piece. Indeed, there’s much to admire in this world premiere production, particularly in the score and in the orchestrations.

But with a badly structured, often tedious libretto and an overwhelming excess of earnestness, Oscar left me quibbling. Surely Wilde was not that great a genius, I found myself thinking, though I’m enough of a fan that in college I took on the challenge of staging Salome (quite badly, I admit). And while he was unquestionably a martyr, Wilde has always struck me as a poor role model for proud gays — though that’s very much the way that Morrison and his co-librettist, John Cox, present him.

By the time we reach the opera’s finale, patience evaporates. Wilde is portrayed as increasingly saintly over the course of two acts: the concluding scene is nothing less than his apotheosis. He’s welcomed into Immortality by a chorus of white-gowned, golden-haired worthies. I had to hold my nose to keep from laughing.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the over-earnestness of Oscar and the degree to which this undermines the opera as a whole. For all its merits, Morrison’s score isn’t sufficiently compelling to overcome the flaws in the libretto, and even a smart, good-looking production, staged by Kevin Newbury and featuring stellar performances from William Burden, Heidi Stober, Dwayne Croft, Kevin Burdette, and in the title role, David Daniels, can’t salvage the evening.

The tragic hero’s choice: Ada Leverson (Heidi Stober)
and Frank Harris (William Burden) try to save Wilde.

Morrison is in his mid-seventies, and Oscar is his first opera, a certifiable labor of love brought to fruition in one of the most prestigious venues on earth. He waited a long time for this, and again, one wants to root for him and his work. Always tonal, always appropriate to the emotional tenor of the scenes, his music bears the influence of Stravinsky and Weill (that I noticed) — but he seems to have a short attention span, moving on to new ideas before he’s fully developed the theme at hand. In Act II, where we shift from biography to hagiography, he proved unable to sustain my interest: I confess I nodded off a few times.

Oscar seems at all times to be uncertain what it is and what it wants to do — beyond elevating Wilde to heights where he can’t breathe. Thus in Act I we get an almost Odets-like, realistic scene in the children’s nursery of Ada Leverson (Stober), complete with mundane hellos and chitchat, that leads to a psychologically revealing conversation about Oscar’s future: should he face trial, honorably, or should he flee England? A vision of his lover, Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (who has scarpered off to safety, and who is eloquently embodied by the dancer Reed Luplau, in choreography by Seán Curran) persuades Oscar to make his tragic choice — whereupon the toys in the nursery come to life and enact the trial.

This scene, the finale of Act I, is about as Brechtian as you can get, and in many respects it’s the highlight of the entire opera and its justification as a work for the stage. It also provides an extraordinary spotlight for the indispensable Kevin Burdette, as the judge — here, a jack-in-the-box. And yet in turn this scene casts unfavorable light on Act II, where Burdette plays the governor of Reading Gaol, in this telling a cartoon villain less credible than Snidely Whiplash.

Victorianisches Verfremdungseffekt:
About as Brechtian as you can get.

Indeed, overstatement is a problem throughout this opera. In the opening sequence, the Marquess of Queensbury’s minions (Aaron Pegram and Rocky Sellers) effectively blacklist Wilde from every hotel in London, warning desk clerks of reprisals and calling out the poet: “Bugger! Queer!” Had they appeared only in this scene, they would have made their point — but they keep coming back, in other guises, always calling out nasty names. It’s a struggle not to shout back, “I get it already!”

Fortunately, Burdette and Pegram also play bad guys in The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein at Santa Fe this season, so we know (if we didn’t already) that they’re capable of better. Stober and Burden (as Frank Harris) turn in thoroughly credible, beautifully sung performances in better-written scenes, but Croft is left to fend for himself.

He plays the ghost of Walt Whitman, functioning much as Che Guevara does in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Evita, though at least in this case our narrator is known to have met our protagonist. Accounts of the meeting of Wilde and Whitman are fascinating, leaving a reader to wonder who was fooling whom. Here, Whitman is an ardent booster, and he provides background information better left to program notes.*

Most troubling is the voice type. Wilde is written for countertenor, the only one in this opera, in order to signal his otherness. But Whitman, who was just as “other” as Wilde, is written for baritone. Croft sings as well as I’ve ever heard him, but to no avail.

And so we come to Wilde himself. Openly flamboyant but not more, he was married and a father of two who fought back when he was accused of being a “somdomite” (as the misspelled note from the Marquess claimed — one of the only minute details missing from the libretto) rather than admitting his true nature. The opera finds him discovering compassion in Reading Gaol as he listens to two thieves (hello, Jesus?) and proclaiming a newfound mission once he’s liberated. Historically, of course, he never pursued any such mission. He led the remaining short years in squalor, exile, and attempted anonymity. But no matter! He’s a hero! A saint!

The trial scene, with Kevin Burdette
as Mr. Justice Sir Alfred Wills.

Certainly the scenes between Daniels and Luplau (whose Bosie takes on several guises, including that of Death) elicit the still-novel frisson of recognition for gay men who watch this opera, especially now, when the rights of couples are being recognized in so many parts of the United States. Yes, you think, that’s a relationship not entirely unlike my own, right up there on the stage where I’m accustomed to seeing nobody but men and women. Yet Oscar and Bosie’s love is never depicted with sufficient truth or feeling to move beyond what amounts to titillation.

This takes nothing away from Daniels’ performance, which is fully committed and sung with warmth and character. He’s onstage almost constantly, and one certainly admires his dedication. (And stamina!) Among the qualities that set him apart — and on the path to superstardom — at the start of his career, was his burnished, heroic virility, even while he sang in “feminine” registers, and he accentuated that by keeping a scruffy beard. Here, the beard is shaven clean away, the better to look like Wilde. But no razor, nor even his acting, nor even his dancing (in the best of the sequences with Bosie) can save this character or this opera.

We are talking about Oscar Wilde here, aren’t we? Well, no. Not really. It’s striking that, beyond the structure and aims of the libretto, Morrison and Cox fail at what might have been expected to be the easiest task: somehow they manage to quote liberally from their historical sources with barely a trace of wit. (For that, you think, Wilde might sue for libel — and win.) Oscar gets off one epigram, at the end of the opera, and while it’s welcome in the circumstance, it’s too late to do much good.

Evan Rogister conducts with the utmost sympathy, and he provides a driving force that the score itself lacks. David Korins’ set design is best in its discovery of the visual parallels between a Victorian library and a Victorian prison. David C. Woolard’s costumes are hit and miss, gorgeous in the case of Leverson’s gown, ingenious in the case of the toy jury, but downright ugly in the case of Wilde’s purple jacket and pearl-white overcoat, and nearly ludicrous in the case of the angelic Immortals.

It’s because of that immortality that Whitman wears a pale-cream suit. Yet ultimately, it doesn’t matter that Whitman looks like Mark Twain: we’re watching an opera about historical figures, in which truth has nothing to do with anything. Oscar is, as Wilde might put it, a trivial opera about serious people.

Theodore Morrison’s Oscar plays again August 12 and 17.
It’s unlikely you’ll get another opportunity to hear it. For more information and tickets, click here.

NOTE: Fort Worth Opera fans will want to know that tenor David Blalock sings one of the prisoners in Act II. He does so with a clear, open voice and great style — of course.

*I’m reminded of director Lee Blakeley’s decision to set Santa Fe’s new production of The Grand Duchess in the United States. Is there some prevailing belief that Santa Fe audiences won’t find a story compelling if there’s not something American in it? If so, then I’ve all the more reason to be grateful that La Donna del Lago isn’t depicted as a Laker Girl.

Read more!

09 August 2013

Santa Fe Opera 2013: ‘The Marriage of Figaro’

Family portrait: Susanna (Oropesa), Figaro (Nelson),
Marcellina (Mentzer), and Bartolo (Travis).
This and all photos by Ken Howard, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

Santa Fe Opera’s revival of Jonathan Kent’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, from 2008, is a perfect little jewel. Now in the sure hands of Bruce Donnell, the staging tells the story straight but not hyper-realistically: we see this most clearly in the set designs, by Paul Brown, which use a span of wall and a few items of furniture (naturally including an armchair in Act I) to suggest the location. Always in the background, we see a sort of meadow of flowers, periodically picked or replenished by silent lackeys. The most furnished, literally depicted setting is the Countess’ bedroom, and yet it’s suitably intimate, not Zeffirellian, in tastefully subdued colors.

The result is that the audience concentrates on the details of the relationships among the characters — which is precisely what Donnell and his cast of sensational singing actors have done. With John Nelson offering sensitive guidance from the orchestra, this is one of the most completely satisfying Figaros I’ve seen.

The two singers with whose work I’m most familiar are Susanne Mentzer (as Marcellina) and Daniel Okulitch (as the Count). Both have sung other roles in this opera many times: she’s a renowned Cherubino, and he’s a widely traveled Figaro. This experience may have lent extra insight into the characters they’re singing now — role debuts for both — and they’re gifted artists to begin with. But nothing could have prepared me for the delights they delivered in last night’s performance.

Compromising situations: Cherubino (Fons) spies
as the Count (Okulitch) tries to win over Susanna (Oropesa).

Mentzer is absolutely adorable, dancing with pleasure as she looks forward to marrying Figaro, and perfectly content with her consolation prize, the decidedly less enthusiastic Bartolo (Dale Travis). Her Marcellina is almost — dare I say it — girlish, and her motives are so clear and so understandable that we wind up sympathizing with her. That’s something I never quite expected to do in this or any Figaro. Her singing is warm and even, and she really whetted my appetite for her forthcoming album of songs by Carlisle Floyd.

I sat through the entire evening thinking that this was Okulitch’s 997th performance as the Count, rather than his fifth. He has mastered the aristocratic refinement so necessary to this character and so seldom seen, and he conveys menace without crudity or violence. This Count has terrible attitudes toward women, yes, but he is (or tries to be) a stylish seducer, not a brutal rapist; the singer who plays him must always show us some traces of the man with whom Rosina once fell in love. Okulitch did this brilliantly, with such scrupulous attention to the text that it seemed as though he were performing a straight play — except that he was singing all the while, in that suave, supple, yet mighty voice.

Smooth operator: Okulitch as the Count.

The rest of the cast comprises singers with whom I’m less familiar or whose work I didn’t know at all before last night. They’re marvelous individually and as an ensemble. Emily Fons is perhaps the most effortlessly boyish Cherubino I’ve seen — and she’d better be at the top of her game when so many of us in the audience remember Mentzer in this role. Lisette Oropesa (who shares Madeline Kahn’s birthday) sings Susanna with sweet vibrance and spunky stage presence. I admired Oropesa in The Enchanted Island at the Met two seasons ago, and here, with superior dramatic material, she’s winning.

Zachary Nelson incarnates Figaro with just the right amount of physical verve: he knows when to move and when to be still. (Another rare gift, especially in this role.) He delivers his music with abundantly virile tone, and he created a grounded character, a regular guy who just happens to be the smartest person onstage, give or take Susanna. Best of all was the genuine rapport among Nelson, Oropesa, and Fons: I really had no trouble believing that these people had known each other for years, which in turn makes the entire story more credible and profound.

Master, maid, and minion: Okulitch, Oropesa, and Jameson.

Travis looks like a picture-book illustration of Bartolo, and while he may have lost a little sympathy for resisting the irresistible Marcellina, he was hardly the caricature one so often sees in this role — a much nicer guy than the bully in The Barber of Seville. Keith Jameson’s Basilio is the rare music master who doesn’t act as if he’s dropped in from some other opera entirely; perfectly matching the comedic style of this production, he sings with the clarity and appeal I’ve come to expect from him.

Soprano Susana Phillips’ performance helped to show what was right about John Nelson’s conducting. Her big, creamy instrument has a natural plangency that works well for the character, and together she and Nelson developed a flexible approach that permitted her to ornament and stretch out lines and to drop into the softest possible singing as circumstances required in “Porgi amor” and “Dove sono,” with spellbinding results in both arias. Depressed as the poor Countess is, Phillips gave plenty of indication that she’s the same Rosina who fooled Bartolo in Barber — and who admits to her affair with Cherubino in La Mère coupable.

Susanna Phillips as the Countess.

In most regards, this was a straightforward production of a well-known work. Nothing groundbreaking. Comedy derived from character, situation, and expression, rather than from exaggeration, and political and psychological points were made without recourse to overwrought concepts and underlining. It’s clear that everyone concerned lavished exceptional care on this production, and by getting the little stuff right, they got just about everything right.

God is in the details, they say, and on the strength of this performance, I’d say that Mozart is, too.

Fun and games: Fons and Oropesa.

The Marriage of Figaro continues at Santa Fe Opera through August 23. For tickets and more information, click here.

For information about Okulitch’s recital album of new American art songs, and for updates on Mentzer’s forthcoming Carlisle Floyd album, click here.

Read more!

Regina Resnik

Seldom have I met anybody better suited to her name than Regina Resnik, the mezzo-soprano whose death has just been announced. Her husband, the late artist Arbit Blatas, was a devoted fan of The Threepenny Opera and created a remarkable series of paintings, drawings, and lithographs of his impressions of the long-running production at the Theatre de Lys in New York. And so Regina and Arbit became “Friends of the Foundation,” who used to drop by from time to time for a chat and (very often) lunch, but seldom for any business. Regina was one of the first true opera stars I ever got to know — though only a little — and quite possibly the first I ever visited in her home.

Regina was nothing if not regal. Did her parents know, somehow, when she was born, just what she’d be like as an adult? With her hair always perfectly coiffed and her bearing always upright, she spoke in low, rounded tones and an intimidatingly cultivated accent. Everything about her intimidated me, actually, and very often when she was about, I’d remember Scarpia’s line: “La Regina farebbe grazia ad un cadavere!” (The queen would pardon a corpse.) She might have made a good Scarpia, actually, though offstage there was nothing nasty about her at all, and really she was phenomenally gracious — like a queen.

For example, when I visited her and Arbit, she made a point of asking me about myself — and she also made a point of appearing interested in what I had to say. I was just learning that there’s no greater gift that a distinguished artist (or monarch) can bestow upon a young person (or subject), and if ever I get distinguished (or coronated), I’m fully resolved to do just what Regina did.

I never saw her onstage, though I knew her work from radio broadcasts and recordings. This surely helped to inspire awe in me: I’d look at her and know that, just below the surface, a volcano waited to erupt. That huge, dark voice was truly a force of nature — one of the few I’ve known that deserved that description.

In my presence, she never talked about her past triumphs: she was always focused on her current projects. I don’t remember these in detail, though the Venice Ghetto fascinated her, and at various times she organized exhibitions, concerts, and a documentary film on that subject. I sometimes had the feeling that, at that stage in her life, she was tying together all the elements of her culture: art and music and her Jewish heritage. That would have been a worthy effort in any case, and yet she made it seem even nobler.

Her association with the Weill Foundation brought benefits beyond the German cold cuts that I set out (in artistic arrangements, of course) at lunchtime. Harold Prince was a board member of the Foundation, and one day he told Lys Symonette that he would be directing a revival of Cabaret on Broadway. Did she have any suggestions as to who might take the role that Lenya created, Frau Schneider? “Regina Resnik!” Lys promptly answered. Prince might have come up with the idea independently, but Lys’ endorsement surely didn’t hurt, and Regina wound up with a Tony nomination in 1987.

For all the polish of Regina’s presentation, there were occasional hints at a wilder, more passionate side to her personality. After all, her portrayal of Carmen had to come from somewhere. And so, for the record, I note that she tended to take a very wide stance when she sat, as if her knees hadn’t gotten the message that she was a Great Lady. That’s among the reasons that I’ll remember this benevolent monarch with as much affection as awe. It was a privilege to spend time in her company.

AFTERTHOUGHT: On further reflection, I see that I’ve neglected to take note of Regina’s sense of humor, which was considerable. One day when she visited the Foundation, I greeted her with a “Reverenza!” in amateurish tribute to her Quickly in Falstaff. She laughed, and I felt indulged — until she responded with her own “Reverenza!” — whereupon I was intimidated again. That voice! It could knock you over.

Read more!

08 August 2013

Santa Fe Opera 2013: ‘The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein’

Celebrate! Susan as the Grand Duchess.
This and all photos by Ken Howard, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

There’s so much fun to be had in Santa Fe Opera’s new production of The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, once you get past a fatal flaw in the staging concept of director Lee Blakeley — so let’s get it out of the way. By transplanting this ultra-European gem to the United States, somewhere around the turn of the 20th century, Blakeley makes the piece more immediate, but at the cost of the work’s darker underpinnings.

A fine essay (by Gavin Plumley) in the program explains that Offenbach’s operetta is not merely a fizzy trifle but a pointed satire. The rise of nationalism and militarism in Europe around the time of the premiere of Grand Duchess, in 1867, had important consequences, as France had seen already and was about to see again: the attempt by Napoléon III to set up a French empire in Mexico was crumbling; three years later, his adventurism in Europe led to the Franco-Prussian War.

While it’s true that jingoism is an apt enough equivalent of European militarism, and one which had dire consequences that the majority of Americans don’t seem to have considered at the time, it’s also true that nowhere in the U.S. would the headmistress of a military academy (if such a person existed) have had the power to send her pupils off to die in battle — as the Grand Duchess gleefully does.

Maybe Blakeley’s conceit would work, if this “Gerolstein” were one of those miniature steampunk empires that Jim West kept stumbling upon in The Wild Wild West — and I rather like the idea of the Grand Duchess as a feminized (and much taller) version of the diabolical Dr. Lovelace, with the power of life and death over her minions. But Blakely doesn’t carry the concept that far. Instead, he achieves the singular feat of making Offenbach’s operetta at once more immediate and more trivial.

Susan has this effect on me, too.

I hasten to underscore, however — you really don’t think much about this while you’re watching. Blakeley’s production is great fun, with often striking sets, costumes, and choreography; and it showcases a number of remarkable singing artists. With Emmanuel Villaume conducting a restored edition of the score, it’s a Grand Duchess to remember.

Leading the pack, of course, is Susan Graham, who from all appearances is having a high old time as the lusty Grand Duchess. Decked out in gowns designed by Jo van Schuppen, she lets loose an inner diva, imperious, capricious, and very funny. Watching her review her troops is like watching a very greedy little girl in a toy store, though there’s never any doubt that her intentions are grown-up. And she looks gorgeous.

It’s hard to believe this is the same singer who incarnated Berlioz’s Didon (at the Met) and Argento’s Tina (in The Aspern Papers in Dallas) just months ago. While she generally takes care to include comic numbers in her recitals, she seldom essays completely comic roles: one knows that her timing will be flawless, and that she’ll know just how far to go for laughs, but it’s a treat to see her construct an entire character.

Susan also sang Offenbach’s Belle Hélène here in Santa Fe, in Laurent Pelly’s production, in 2003. French repertoire is her specialty, of course, and since all the songs in Grand Duchess are performed in French (presumably because so many have only recently been rediscovered), she’s able to draw on her understanding of the language and her sensual delivery of the text. Ornamenting some lines and caressing others, ecstatic in her love of “militaires,” she sounds absolutely radiant — a far cry from the stereotypical, late-career Grand Duchess. This is a role debut for her; I’d like to think she’ll return to it often.

Ah! que j’aime les militaires!

One did wish that Villaume would rein in the orchestra a bit: at various points in the evening he drowned out all the singers. But he leads with all the verve one could want, and the restored material does a great deal to illuminate the characters’ emotional lives. The climax of Act II is like an explosion in a fireworks factory. Overall, the score is a testament to Offenbach’s seemingly inexhaustible melodic gifts, with effervescent, memorable numbers following in rapid succession — which Villaume certainly seems to enjoy.

In his reading of the score, you never wonder why Offenbach was so popular in his day, though I do regret that his operettas aren’t performed more often in the U.S. today. If things had worked out differently, Madeline Kahn might have made her debut with Santa Fe Opera as the Grand Duchess, in a staging by Charles Ludlam and a translation by Michael Feingold, in the 1980s. Maybe that would have given Offenbach the boost he needed.

In the present production, the young lovers, Fritz and Wanda (played by Paul Appleby and Anya Matanovicˇ) are among the prime beneficiaries of the restored material. Their duet in Act I is delightful, and they deliver gorgeous singing with surprisingly spunky characterizations — especially in Matanovicˇ’s case. Not least with her resentful glares directed at Susan, Matanovicˇ fleshes out an otherwise conventional type, revealing a steely resolve that suggests Wanda might make an estimable despot herself.

Appleby was a memorable Hylas in Troyens at the Met with Susan, and his Fritz is as lively as Hylas was dreamy. Few tenors in operetta can have thrown themselves into demanding stunts with the zeal that Appleby shows here — to the point that he injured his ankle. Hobbled, he keeps going, like an Energizer Bunny with high notes.

Paul Appleby as Fritz.

Kevin Burdette, as General Boum, is in a league of his own, kicking up his heels and performing gymnastic routines even while singing in a resonant bass-baritone; he’s equally at home in pratfalls and dialogue. Having seen his Archibald in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience at Glimmerglass and his Ogre in El Gato con Botas with Gotham Chamber Opera (among other roles), I knew he’d excel here. His command of the stage is complete, no matter how silly the business at hand. If this man isn’t working constantly, then there’s something rotten in the state of Opera World.

As his partners in crime, Baron Puck (here a Catholic clergyman, for some reason) and Prince Paul, Aaron Pegram and Jonathan Michie deliver their fair share of laughs, too, along with almost incongruously pretty singing. Michie’s physical characterization is especially fun: tall and rail-thin, he moves like a rubber band.

Partners in crime: Burdette, Michie, and Pegram.

A corps of eight dancers enlivens the stage at several points, with flips and an elaborate can-can at the close of Act II, and the cadets dance, too. In their uniforms, they’re indisputably — and quite appropriately — sexy. I note with pleasure that one of those cadets, Dan Kempson, steps forward in the small role of the Notary.

Though this production might have done more to make its satirical points, it’s certainly enough to take your mind off your troubles — and almost enough to take your mind off the inconsistency in the staging concept.

The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein continues at Santa Fe Opera through August 24. For more information and tickets, click here.

Read more!

07 August 2013

Santa Fe Opera 2013: ‘La Donna del Lago’

Come to me, bel canto to me:
Joyce in Brigadoo — I mean, Santa Fe.
(That’s the real sky in the background.)
This and all photos by Ken Howard, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

Santa Fe Opera richly deserves its reputation for presenting rarely heard works in productions that are worth traveling to see: last season’s offerings included Rossini’s Maometto II and Szymanowski’s King Roger, neither of which had I seen onstage. This season features new productions of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago, Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, and a world premiere, Theodore Morrison’s Oscar, based on the life of Oscar Wilde.

But it’s no longer entirely accurate to call La Donna del Lago a “rarity,” since recent seasons have seen it in Paris, London, Milan, Geneva, and now Santa Fe, with a Met premiere (in the Santa Fe production) on the horizon. At the center of all of these revivals has been one singer, Joyce DiDonato, and at this point we’d all be better off if we just faced facts, renamed the opera once and for all, and called it a repertory staple: La DiDonato del Lago.

Kill or be kilt:
The opera concerns fierce political divisions
about which audiences need know almost nothing.

Based on a novel by Walter Scott, the libretto doesn’t exactly inspire an audience to go back and read the book; it tells of an attempt to force a girl into marriage, against a backdrop of roiling political passions; it does at times recall Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, also based on a Scott novel. Elena, the heroine of La Donna del Lago, winds up with the man of her choice, and she doesn’t need a mad scene. That said, her final aria “Tanti affetti” (So Many Emotions), is a tour-de-force of bel canto vocalism. (I’d call it a showstopper, but it comes at the end of the show anyway.)

Thanks to the Internet, I’ve been able to see clips of Joyce singing this aria, and her interpretation continues to grow. With conductor Stephen Lord, she seems to have hit on something quite extraordinary in Rossini: it’s as if she searches for the right word, putting a break between “tanti” and “affetti”: “There are so many … emotions.” At first I thought she’d simply worn herself out, which would have been understandable. But no, she was up to something exceptional and expressive. As usual.

In any case there’s no substitute for witnessing a live performance, and I was dazzled by Joyce’s technique — right up there in front of me — as she delivered a profusion of trills and runs without ever losing sight of all those emotions. Elena is another of the roles that Rossini wrote for the mezzo who would become his wife, Isabella Colbran, but as I listen to Joyce, I have to think Rossini somehow knew what was coming, two centuries later, and wrote this stuff for her. When she sings his music, the notes may be popping out faster than the chocolates on Lucy and Ethel’s assembly line, yet each is a confection in itself, with its own flavor, texture, and color.

Marianna Pizzolato as Malcolm.

Kevin Knight’s costume designs capture the spirit and variety of Auld Scotland, without being too pedantic about it, and Joyce looks lovely. (That’s something not all designers have been kind enough to permit her in stagings of this opera.) Knight’s set design impressed me less favorably. It moves well to change scenes — Elena’s cottage and King James’ throne room achieve just the right atmosphere through relatively simple means — but its fallback position is a sort of blasted heath better suited to Samuel Beckett than to bel canto, and with the ensemble forever charging on and off, it seemed crowded. Presumably the design will be expanded for the Met’s larger stage, but the Met will have to replace the Santa Fe backdrop — the open air and the dramatic skies that make it quite easy to imagine there’s a lake somewhere nearby, even when we’re really in the desert.

The libretto sets up a love quadrangle, as Elena is beloved of King James (or Giacomo, disguised as Uberto, sung by a tenor), the Highland chieftain Rodrigo (another tenor), and the fellow she loves, Malcolm (a trouser role sung by a mezzo-soprano). Sicilian mezzo Marianna Pizzolato looks nothing like a boy onstage — and I mean that in the nicest possible way — but she could be dressed as a giant bunny rabbit in this role and still win me over. The voice isn’t as deep nor the technique as eccentric as those of Ewa Podles´, yet there’s a familiar smoky quality coupled with spectacular agility. She hasn’t sung much in the United States, but given the audience response in Santa Fe, that could change very soon.

Larry and Joycee, together again.

Lawrence Brownlee takes the role of Giacomo/Uberto, and while it’s a good fit for his impassioned coloratura, his tone last night sometimes took on a harder edge than I’m used to hearing from him. (Ordinarily he sounds like melted butter, piping hot.) He’s got a wonderful rapport with Joyce, which makes me wish they’d have more opportunities to collaborate. In this case, their teamwork really helps to raise the dramatic stakes: you get the sense that these two might actually make a pretty good couple, were it not for the fact that a) she’s already in love with somebody else; and b) he’s her father’s enemy.

As the man her father prefers, San Antonio’s René Barbera sings with a bright, clean sound that slices like a scalpel through ensembles. And Wayne Tigges, as Elena’s father, Duglas (I’m not making this up, you know), offers a surprisingly sympathetic presence along with gusty, characterful singing.

Curran’s staging is full of good ideas and seemingly dedicated to making this fraught tale identifiable to those of us who are not caught up in Scottish tribal wars. I also admired the way that Giacomo’s ring, the most important object in the libretto, finds its symbolic counterpart in a little bouquet of heather that reminds Elena of Malcolm. Other ideas could use further work, notably the arrival of wise men (or wizards, or whatever they are) who prepare the Highlanders for battle. Bare-chested in blue bathrobes, they writhe about while painting the warriors blue — and eliciting a few chuckles in the audience, even while some of Rossini’s most serenely mystical music fills our ears.

Am I blue? The Act I finale:
Elena has Pict her friends wisely.
(That’s Dan Kempson standing at far right.)

Indeed, the score, composed in 1819, contains quite a lot of complex material, ahead of its time in many ways. The beautiful choral number that opens the opera, as the Scots greet the dawn, sets a standard for later Italian masters to rival, and the clear correlations to character and mood point the way to Verdi — even while refuting Wagner’s assertion that Rossini didn’t concern himself with such matters. I’ve begun to listen to this opera only since Joyce started to sing it, but I’m looking forward to the rewards of further study.

It’s a treat, too, to see members of my Fort Worth Opera community here in Santa Fe. The company’s Apprentice Singers program counts Dan Kempson and both Jonathan and David Blalock among its number, and in this opera, David gets a nice solo turn as Giacomo’s servant — or, as he puts it, “stealing the show from Joyce DiDonato.” Can’t blame a kid for trying.

With an added performance at the end of the season, La Donna del Lago continues at Santa Fe Opera through August 19. Click here for information and tickets.

Read more!