Live Theatre: Robert Wilson’s staging of “The Old Woman” with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe at Royce Hall

November 16, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

Los Angeles, CA.  Whether dancing and crooning like a Dadaist Bob Hope and Bing Crosby or wailing like dying coyotes, Baryshnikov and Dafoe bring a scorching vitality to the stage as they interpret through spoken word, dance, and song the absurdist universe of the Russian poet, Daniil Kharms, as seen through the magic lens of Robert Wilson.

With hints of Russian avant-garde theatre, Surrealist cabaret, English music hall, American vaudeville, and nineteen-seventies experimental theatre of Lower Manhattan from which Wilson evolved (and Dafoe participated in with the Wooster Group); this night of divine lunacy has Baryshnikov dancing flamenco with a pair of dentures as  castanets and Dafoe capering with a string of sausages. They wear dusty dark suits and ties, their toupees are arranged in a curious corkscrew of hair pointing sideways, and their faces are painted Geisha-girl white with black circles rimming their eyes like spectacles.

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe

Mirror images of each other, the duo performs symbiotically: sometimes they repeat the same phrase in unison; sometimes Baryshnikov translates Dafoe’s English into Russian.  But whether they act as the writer and the old woman, or as two best friends, or as the oppressor and the oppressed, together they are a force of nature – clowns caught up in an indifferent world, shrugging off pain with a jab of the arm or a kick of the leg.

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe

Adapted for the stage by Darryl Pinckney, the novella, The Old Woman, is an evocation of a writer and his travails over the taunting corpse of an old woman. Kharms, born in St. Petersburg in 1905 suffered, as so many of his fellow artists did, at the hands of the Soviet Regime. His writings read more like fragments of thought, narrative, and pain wrapped up in a package of absurdist humor.    Pinckney fractures the tale even further, giving us repetitive verbal vignettes compressed into twelve scenes. Sometimes the repetition weakens the work – one could wish for a bit more of Kharms’ text from the story to find its way into the dialogue – other times it adds to the humor.

The evening has its maddening moments with all the repeated phrases, a bit like a stuck recording. But the quiet grace of scenes such as Baryshnikov confiding in the audience in Russian (discreet titles in white positioned on black panels on two sides of the proscenium translate), or Dafoe and Baryshnikov in a poignant embrace offers a counterpoint to the aggressive repetition.

“The Old Woman”

Wilson’s sets have the strong flavor of Russian Constructivist theatre design from the nineteen twenties and Vavara Stepanova and Liubov Popova’s designs in particular.   Suspended trapezoidal window frames, a giant swing, linear angled and mangled furniture, a chicken coop, and a giant suitcase, all set on a stark stage, form the platforms on which Dafoe and Baryshnikov sit, recline, and cavort. Whether creating a Constructivist pallet of black, white, and red or using vibrant primary colors, the lighting concept of Wilson (light design by A.J. Weissbard) paints the scenes with luscious pops of pigment. But Wilson’s world, though it glimmers with artistic and theatrical influences, is unique to our times and sets the bar for contemporary, Minimalist design and staging.

The recorded music, assembled by Hal Willner, weaves standards like “Tiger Rag” and “Goodnight Sweetheart,” with Tom Waits’ boisterous, carnival-esque “Innocent When You Dream.” In the more pensive moments there is Arvo Part’s haunting music. For a few moments we are treated to the singing talents of Dafoe and, a surprise, Baryshnikov singing sweetly in Russian. As far as the dancing goes (there is no credited choreographer), Dafoe’s long legs kicked, strutted, and spun around the stage like a pro’s.

And Baryshnikov? Just to see him point a foot or display a graceful hand enthralls. But he does far more than that. His body takes on the attributes of in turn, a vaudevillian, an old woman, and a young lady. The duo dances everything from an absurdist tango to a soft shoe with walking sticks. Though the song and dance elements of the piece are not its driving force, let me ask: Could this be the beginning of a beautiful partnership?

Photo by Lucie Jansch courtesy of CAP UCLA.

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To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

Jane Rosenberg Dance Book cover.

Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  Jane is also the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children


On Opera: Director Barrie Kosky in Conversation with LA Opera’s Christopher Koelsch

October 19, 2014

 By Jane Rosenberg

Ebullient, outspoken, and intelligent, Barrie Kosky, artistic director of the Komische Oper Berlin, and stage director of LA Opera’s upcoming production of the double bill Dido and Aeneas/Bluebeard’s Castle presented his concept of this unusual opera pairing during a conversation with opera president, Christopher Koelsch at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Thursday. (This is the first in a series of live streaming conversations on the LA Opera’s website – a welcome addition to the Opera’s continuing efforts to offer insights into their productions as they do with their regular pre-performance talks).

Barrie Kosky

Barrie Kosky

If you were lucky enough to see the LA Opera’s production of The Magic Flute in November of last year, then you may know that Kosky, along with his collaborators Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt, were the team responsible for this clever and visually arresting re-imagining of The Magic Flute. If Kosky brings the same level of ingenuity to Dido and Aeneas/Bluebeard’s Castle then the audience is in for a remarkable evening.

Conductor Constantinos Carydis conceived of the unconventional pairing of the two operas and though Kosky acknowledged that the operas, written more than two hundred years apart, are from two entirely different sound worlds, there are narrative parallels and psychological truths common to them both. Both deal with obsessive love, loneliness, loss, and on a spiritual and intellectual level: the theme of arrival and departure. Aeneas arrives in Carthage, gains Dido’s love, only to leave again, unknowingly destroying the woman he loves and the empire she rules. Judith arrives at Bluebeard’s Castle, only to find herself trapped in a nightmare world of secrets and unable to leave.

Favoring Minimalist stagings to allow the emotional power of the music and the performances to provide maximum heft, Kosky, in one of his many moments of humor, called himself an “Opulent Minimalist.” Certainly, his production of The Magic Flute gave the audience a very crowded visual field, however, the structures supporting the video projections were simple. For him, and certainly visual artists would agree, Minimalism entails distilling things to their essence.

The essence of Bluebeard, in Kosky’s staging, is not about the architecture of the doors and walls in Bluebeard’s castle; but about the primacy of the performer and the human voice. In the narrative, Judith’s curiosity compels her to open door after door, looking for a way to let light into the enchanted, dark world of the castle. In this new production, set on a slowly revolving white circle, the doors and walls are replaced by bodies harboring those secrets, in a very clever and compelling piece of staging. Emotions are raw and exposed – a veritable Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in Hungarian – as Kosky explained to his amused audience.

Robert Hayward as Bluebeard and Claudia Mahnke as Judith in a scene from "Bluebeard's Castle," presented in 2010 at the Frankfurt Opera

Robert Hayward as Bluebeard and Claudia Mahnke as Judith in a scene from “Bluebeard’s Castle,” presented in 2010 at the Frankfurt Opera

For Dido and Aeneas, fragility seems to be the essence of the unfolding tragedy for Kosky: the fragility of Purcell’s score, the fragility of life, and the condition that Dido finds herself in – trapped between the needs of her court and her love for Aeneas. Kosky jokingly urged everyone to bring a box of tissues to cope with the raw power and emotional catharsis of Dido’s final aria and ensuing death.

It is this raw power that interests the director who asserted that opera as an art form should take the audience out of its emotional comfort zone. Opera “fundamentalists,” as he called those who insist on productions that hark back to their originals, miss the point. Opera isn’t a fixed form, with only one viable approach, but rather, like all theatre, an interpretive art form always open to investigation.

As for his working methods, he said: it all starts with choosing the right piece of musical theatre, then “riding the surfboard on the wave” of the music. After assembling a first rate cast, anything becomes possible, because he trusts great performers to draw out character and present human truths. A director, with a musical education, Kosky first plays through the score on the piano to digest the music, then listens to as many CDs as he can. Ideas emerge from the process. The rehearsal period is a long one as he and the conductor grapple with how sound should convey the meaning of the words of the libretto. One of the joys of his profession, he said, is directing the chorus. Rather than leaving them as a static entity, he prefers to move them into the action to create a deeper level of performance.

And how do you see the future of opera? Christopher Koelsch asked Kosky in conclusion. The director felt that every hurdle faced by an opera house was unique to each house and its city. But the fundamental issue was accessibility. It’s all about the ticket prices, he explained. Because opera is subsidized in Germany, the lowest ticket price at the Komische Oper is eight Euros. Subsidies allow Kosky to reach a broad audience and at the same time maximize the productions with full orchestra, full chorus, and top performers. In his view, opera is here to stay. It is the only theatrical form that links us to the ancient Greeks – to Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles; and because of that, we are linked to something primal… and one hopes, eternal.

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Photos courtesy of LA Opera.

Ballet: The National Ballet of Canada’s “Romeo and Juliet” at the Dorothy Chandler

July 13, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

From opening curtain to final bows, choreographer Alexi Ratmansky, along with his set and costume designer, Richard Hudson, and lighting designer, Jennifer Tipton, hurls us into the very heart of a fifteenth century Renaissance painting in his Romeo and Juliet, created for the National Ballet of Canada and premiering at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion this weekend.

With simple yet evocative sets and exquisite costumes, this production has the immediacy of a Pinturicchio fresco. That artist had the ability to breathe life and personality into the daily doings of the contemporary characters who populated his paintings. Like Pinturicchio, Ratmansky has the unique gift of creating personality, not out of paint, of course, but out of movement. In Ratmansky’s world, legs, feet, arms, torso all speak a language, carrying within them humor, whimsy, pathos, and purpose.

Guillaume Cote as Romeo and Elena Lobsanova as Juliet

For me Ratmansky’s most formidable gift is his ability to infuse movement with wit and levity. He embraces the human spirit in his choreography by exposing our foibles, weaknesses, and desires – those qualities that make us quintessentially human. This aspect of his artistry works to advantage in the early scenes of Romeo and Juliet when the irrepressible youth of Romeo, Mercutio, Benvolio, and Juliet is in full flower.

Everywhere we turn, whether in the Market Square, at the Capulet’s ball, or in Act One, Scene Two when we meet Juliet and her nurse, the exuberance and optimism of youth shines with truth. In fact, this very exuberance – this love of life and sense of immortality (so brilliantly exemplified in the dancing of Piotr Stanczyk’s Mercutio) — makes the inevitable tragedy all the more painful.

Guillaume Cote as Romeo and Elena Lobsanova as Juliet

It is in the more serious moments of Shakespeare’s drama where I felt something lacking in the ballet. Perhaps I longed for less movement, less personality, and more stillness. When Guillaume Côté’s superbly danced and deeply felt Romeo partners his Juliet – a childlike Elena Lobsanova – in the post nuptial scene of Act Three, there is a clarity of intention so vivid in the Kenneth MacMillan version that seems clouded here.

In some part it is due to the performance of Lobsanova – a charming, lithe Juliet full of winning delicacy and grace but unable to transcend childish love to give a convincing portrayal of an awakened woman, tortured by overwhelming passion and her inability to enter into her marriage with Romeo in the full light of day.

Guillaume Cote as Romeo and Elena Lobsanova as Juliet

Much has been written about the age and inexperience of Lobsanova, a second soloist at the National Ballet of Canada when Ratmansky chose her for his Juliet. Now a first soloist, she has been dancing the role for three years. But youth is not a prerequisite for playing Juliet: Alessandra Ferri, at forty, danced Juliet, and her indelible performance was the pinnacle of sexual abandon and dramatic and artistic accomplishment.

It is with the portrayal of Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio’s friendship where Ratmansky reaches the heights, as well as with his inventive patterns and stylistic innovations in the crowd and ballroom scenes. His choreography for the three young men is full of unique partnerings, buoyant lifts, and fanciful footwork. His scenes of swordplay, whether between Tybalt and Mercutio or Tybalt and Romeo have the dash of an Errol Flynn movie minus the clichés. In fact, swords are used repeatedly throughout the ballet. In the ballroom scene’s “Dance of the Knights,” the men of the Capulet house dance without the women but with their swords – a militant note that foreshadows the violence to come and is tribal and primitive, conjuring a feudal society where death is a constant threat.

It is followed by the noble dance of the women, which has a civilizing effect on the room – a room arranged with the grandeur of Veronese’s The Feast in the House of Levi. Though Romeo and Juliet is a drama about men’s violence and its devastating effects, women are not merely passive onlookers in Ratmansky’s production. They threaten, cajole, and stand their ground beside their men. It is for them, however, to mourn the loss of their husbands and sons.

In another beautifully realized moment at the ball, reminiscent of the bride and groom lifted on chairs over the heads of the guests at Jewish weddings, Juliet is lifted by Paris, as simultaneously, Romeo is held aloft by Mercutio and Benvolio. The two future lovers lock eyes as they repeatedly soar above the heads of the crowd. Exquisite details of this sort abound in the ballet, but they are the very details that ultimately intrude on the forward momentum to the inevitable tragedy. Ratmansky has created a fully realized Renaissance world but one where the joy of daily life takes precedent over the mythic tragedy of feuding houses.

Romeo and Juliet illustration by Jane Rosenberg

Romeo and Juliet illustration by Jane Rosenberg

The atmosphere of the ballet, whether choreographed by MacMillan, Lavrovsky, Cranko, Neumeier, or Ashton, owes its life to Prokofiev’s score – one of the greatest ballet scores of the twentieth century. Under the direction of The National Ballet of Canada’s David Briskin, the Los Angeles musicians gave a fine rendition of Prokofiev’s complex music. However, during some of the more percussive sections, the orchestra members under Briskin sounded as if they were keeping time rather than propelling the music forward to create Prokofiev’s explosive sound – one particularly muddy section happening at the opening of Act Three.

There is no doubt as to the quality of the corps of the NBC. And the principals and soloists are standouts in all roles: Piotr Stanczyk, as mentioned, is a pitch perfect Mercutio – so effortless in his humor and swagger that Ratmansky should consider creating a Commedia dell’arte ballet around him. As Benvolio, Robert Stephen is a delightful and potent member of the trio. McGee Maddox’s Tybalt is imposing and lethal. Lorna Geddes’ Nurse is full of fun and vigor, dressed in an abundance of white fabric, which swaddled her from head to toe. The Friar Lawrence of Peter Ottmann is more dance than mime and he deepens the role with his presence. As Lord and Lady Capulet, Etienne Lavigne and Stephanie Hutchison are elegant and moving. And Patrick Lavoie dances Paris with ardor and humanity, particularly in the welcome simplicity of his Act Three, Scene Three solo with Juliet’s four lovely bridesmaids.

One would imagine that if Ratmansky lingered in Canada with his creation, time would season and deepen this Romeo and Juliet, a stunning addition to the pantheon of memorable versions that have gone before.

Photos courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada. 

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To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

Jane Rosenberg Dance Book cover.

Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  Jane is also the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children


Opera: LA Opera’s “Billy Budd” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

February 24, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

On Saturday night, at the LA Opera, evil was palpable, insinuating itself in every corner of the house; and though innocence was destroyed, Britten’s opera, Billy Budd, triumphed.

In the grandest of all his operas, Benjamin Britten and his librettists, E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, created an opera of sweeping power and existential beauty. Isolated onboard the H.M.S. Indomitable, a ship rife with fear, the artists and chorus of the LA Opera navigated the dark world of Melville’s novella. With clarity, refinement, and power, Britten’s operatic seascape was brought to heart-wrenching life.

Like a Poseidon of the pit, conductor James Conlon conjured all the elements that make up Britten’s exacting score: myriad textures, recurring motifs, and haunting rhythms. The orchestra  became the voice of Melville, himself, commenting, seeking, and despairing. Conlon drew a delicate transparency from his excellent musicians, so crucial in contrasting the lower ranges of the male voices.

From the moment he stepped on board the Indomitable, baritone Liam Bonner was wholly believable as Billy Budd: enthusiastic, handsome, innocent, confused, loyal, unaware  of his own charisma and strength

Liam Bonner as Billy Budd

From the exuberance of his first act aria, “Billy Budd, king of the birds!” to his second act tender, “Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray,” Bonner’s baritone was both robust and delicate, producing musical shadings that conveyed both the pathos and fervor of this tragic hero.

Richard Croft as Captain Vere

As the conflicted Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, tenor Richard Croft masterfully provided the vocal balance necessary for the opera, surrounded as the character is by baritones and bass-baritones. With his elegant and expressive voice, caressing each word of the text, Croft conveyed all the agonies and angst of a man who sacrifices his moral center to the letter of the law, ultimately condemning Billy to an unjust death. Vere’s character, so central to the unfolding drama, remains an enigma; and though his actions are perplexing, it is his conundrum that makes this drama linger in the mind and get under the skin.

Greer Grimsley as John Claggart and Liam Bonner as Billy Budd.

Driving the tragedy of “Billy Budd,” we have the monstrous, John Claggart, Master- at-Arms, and the embodiment of evil. Conveying the dark shadings of Claggart’s character through his potent bass-baritone, Greer Grimsley’s performance was at its best when in concert with his victims. Feeding off the helplessness of the weak, he was convincing enough; but in his Act One, Scene Three credo, when he sang of his depravity (“O beauty, a handsomeness, goodness would that I never encountered you…”), he appeared overly conflicted. After all, this is a predator, and sexual repression aside, he is unscrupulous in his desire to destroy. I longed for a little more reserve – more Dracula perhaps, less Freudian unease.

Originally staged by Francesca Zambello in 1995 at the Royal Opera House in London, and later performed in 2000 here in Los Angeles, the current production was directed by Julia Pevzner, who met all the challenges of the opera’s demanding logistics. The sets, designed by Alison Chitty, were handsome in their minimalist approach, but had certain defects.

Trapezoidal panels covered in what looked like navy-blue striped wallpaper, meant to evoke the sea, unfortunately overtook the sides of the stage, blocking views for a large portion of the audience. I longed for a hint of water and sky, for a glimpse of the infinite sea and starry firmament. More successful was the double tiered deck, which, when lowered, created the upper deck, but when raised, revealed the ship’s interior.

The crew of the Indomitable prepares for battle.

Particularly thrilling was the conversion of the ship at rest to battle-ready mode. The movement of the men as they mounted their battle stations, then began firing on the French ship, was a tour de force and a tableau vivant worthy of Delacroix or Gericault. Under Grant Gershon’s superb direction, the men of the LA Opera chorus delivered a rousing battle scene. The audience was enveloped in the experience of sound, drama, and art coming together to create an undeniable spectacle.

The crew of the Indomitable

Elsewhere, the chorus exhibited mastery, from the sailors’ shanty, “O heave! O heave away, heave,” to their terrifying cries of disgust after Billy’s hanging. As officers Redburn and Flint, Anthony Michaels-Moore and Daniel Sumegi were notable, not only offering comic relief in their duet condemning the French; but also in their mounting anxiety over the potential for mutiny. Michaels-Moore gave a stirring account of his character’s experience on the Nore, an English ship that, in reality, suffered a mutiny in 1797. In fact, the historical mutinies at Spithead and on the Nore create the background atmosphere of dread that permeates the entire opera.

James Creswell was a sympathetic Dansker, who offers advice and comfort to Billy.  With his rich and luminous bass, Creswell gave a gratifying portrayal of the wise and world-weary old sailor. And as the stricken and fearful Novice, Keith Jameson, with his cowered body language and agile tenor, embodied the unwilling instrument of Claggart’s scheme to compromise Billy.

Liam Bonner as Billy Budd sings his farewells.

The sacrifice of the beautiful Billy, too naïve and trusting for the rough world, reaches its emotional apex in the quietest of all the scenes in the opera. Alone, shackled, and awaiting his execution, he sings his farewells to his shipmates, the sea, and the grandeur of life. As Bonner sang his last aria and our hearts contracted (and I confess, my tears flowed), we were held spellbound in this poetic evocation of a life half lived.

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Photos by Robert Millard courtesy of  L.A. Opera

To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.


Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.   Jane is also the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  


Ballet: Los Angeles Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” at Royce Hall

December 23, 2013

By Jane Rosenberg

Without snow drifts, fir and spruce trees, or chilling temperatures, we, in Los Angeles, must make do with a Christmas season of brilliant sunshine, swaying palms, and stately cypresses. Happily, we have the Los Angeles Ballet to bring us a taste of the holiday with their annual Nutcracker.

With charming costumes by Mikael Melbye and pleasant sets by Catherine Kanner, this production is reimagined by artistic directors, Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary, and set in 1912 Los Angeles.

When Drosselmeyer, danced by Nicolas de la Vega, swept into the Stahlbaum’s living room in his floor length fur, I wondered if 1912 Los Angeles enjoyed cooler temperatures. (Also puzzling were the snow-laden trees outside the living room windows.) The fur, however, would have worked perfectly, had the production been set a few years later and Drosselmeyer been cast as a Hollywood, silent-era film director or actor, complete with camera and tripod. After all, what is a moviemaker but a magician – a perfect metaphor for Drosselmeyer? If this was the intention, then Vega had the exaggerated mannerisms of a Valentino heartthrob and the looks to match. His toymaker was all enthusiasm, hugs, and bravado – the menacing quality of the character found in most productions (and in E.T.A. Hoffman’s tale) dispensed with.

In the first act, the cast of children, beautifully coached and surprisingly natural, was a true pleasure. As the troublesome Fritz, Aidan Merchel-Zoric, was deliciously spoiled and raucous. His troop of mischievous boys let loose and enjoyed themselves without inhibition. Seventeen-year-old Mia Katz, in the role of Clara, portrayed a teen-ager on the verge of maturity and eager for new experiences. As the parents of the two youngsters, Colleen Neary and former NYCB principal, Adam Lüders, were a benevolent and touching pair.

In a nice Upstairs, Downstairs touch, two butlers (David Renaud and Brent Slacke-Wolfe) passed champagne and cavorted with Chaplinesque footwork, then partnered a pair of hip-wiggling maids (Andrea Bell and Chelsea Paige Johnston). Danced ebulliently by David Block, the Nutcracker was no passive wooden toy but a life-size doll. When poked and prodded by Fritz, in a hilarious twist, the Nutcracker swiftly poked him back.

This Nutcracker was all goodwill, the darker shades of the original story absent. Even the mice felt more Walt Disney than Tim Burton, particularly in what appeared to be a mouse Conga-line-dance as they playfully snaked around the room or perched cozily on Clara’s bed while she slept. Unfortunately, with the menace absent, the subsequent battle scene lost its power, deteriorating into goofiness and undefined patterns.

“The Nutcracker” Act Two from “Dance Me A Story: Twelve Tales from the Classic Ballets,” copyright 1985 by Jane Rosenberg.

The corps de ballet looked crisp and radiant as the Snowflakes at the end of Act One and charming in the “Waltz of the Flowers” in the second act. With Clara and the Nutcracker’s throne partially obscuring my view of the action in Act Two and the columns at the back of the stage taking up space, the dancing seemed cramped rather than expansive. Though the female corps had solid technique, I found the use of the hands, in general, rather awkward – less graceful extensions of the arms, more distracting punctuation marks. This held true for the female principals and soloists as well. As the Rose in the flower waltz, Bianca Bulle, replacing Allynne Noelle, performed admirably.

Snowflakes Ensemble in “The Nutcracker“

Snowflakes Ensemble in “The Nutcracker“

Rather than the Sugar Plum Fairy, (we are in the Land of Dolls rather than the Candy Land of most productions) we have Clara’s doll, Marie, performed by a radiant Allyssa Bross. One wished for more subtlety and pathos in her performance, however. Tchaikovsky’s score, at its most melancholy in this pas de deux, is certainly a clue that this is a singular moment in the ballet when Clara is invited to witness what mature love is all about – romance, joy, and heartbreak all at once. As Marie’s Prince, Kenta Shimizu, was an excellent partner, dancing with style, grace, and subtle power.

The Land of Dolls of Act Two was a curious locale: a vaguely Persian environment with turbaned inhabitants. Though a duo of heralds, portrayed as movie cliché eunuchs, kept looking out to sea, Clara, the Nutcracker, and Drosselmeyer, arrived by sled. The Act Two divertissements were well danced.

The Arabian coffee divertissement is always a crowd pleaser and this one was no exception.  Alexander Castillo tirelessly partnered a sinuous Julia Cinquemani in a dizzying series of lifts and embraces. As the Harlequin and Columbine dolls of Act One and Two, Robert Mulvey and Isabel Vondermuhll were a piquant pair, and the Russian dancers led by Dustin True (also dancing the Cossack doll in Act One) were skilled, throwing themselves into the leaping, spinning choreography. Mother Ginger became Mother Gingerbread, her skirts a gingerbread house, her head poking out of a candied chimney. Her doors opened to reveal a troop of happy Hansels and Gretels – a revisionist take on the imprisoned fairy tale siblings. Nevertheless, it was nifty change of pace and a striking visual.

One has to applaud this young company, now in its eighth season, for securing a place in the ballet firmament. One would wish, however, that in future, they could raise the funds to bring live music into the equation. No matter how well the Los Angeles Ballet dances The Nutcracker, without a live orchestra to perform Tchaikovsky’s lustrous score, they cannot hope to glow as bright as their promise.

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 Art by Jane Rosenberg.  Photo by Reed Hutchinson.

To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

Jane Rosenberg Dance Book cover.

Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  Jane is also the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.  

Live Opera: The Los Angeles Opera performs “The Magic Flute” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

November 25, 2013

By Jane Rosenberg

There were unusual doings at the Los Angeles Opera Saturday night. If your taste in opera is locked in the past, you should steer away from their new production of The Magic Flute, but if inventive, visually abundant, and clever re-imaginings of classic operas are  your métier, then this is the production for you.

Originating at the Komische Oper Berlin and the brainchild of the director, Barrie Koskyand the English theater team of Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt, this is a “Flute” for wholly modern audiences who can process a visual field that was both over-stimulating and incessantly entertaining. That the singers and orchestra were able to shine alongside this most dazzling and somewhat distracting production is a testimony to the beauty of Mozart’s opera, the quality of the first rate cast, and the perfection of the orchestra under James Conlon.

Tamino in the opening scene of "The Magic Flute"

Tamino in the opening scene of “The Magic Flute”

The eighteenth century setting was updated to the nineteen twenties and the result was delightful and insightful all at once. As I watched live singers interact with video projections reminiscent of German Expressionist cinema, American silent comedies,and early Disney animation sprinkled with Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop, I was struck by the feeling that I was experiencing “Flute” with the same wonder and enchantment encountered by the audiences of 1791 at Schikaneder’s Theater auf der Wieden on the outskirts of Vienna. Everything in the LA Opera’s “Flute” felt fresh and new, both modern and timeless all at once. There was an intimacy to the evening, perhaps better suited to a smaller venue than the Dorothy Chandler. Nevertheless, the audience felt embraced in the arms of this tender comedy, which brought the musical genre of German eighteenth century “singspiel” to life in the twenty-first century.

There were strengths and weaknesses to this remarkable assemblage of art and song. Here the silent film allusions worked to the benefit of composer Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder. Replacing the spoken lines (which brings the musical momentum to a dead halt) with written dialogue emblazoned over the characters heads was inspired.

In these “silent” segments, the written lines were underscored with music from Mozart fantasias for piano, played on an eighteenth century hammerklavier and seamlessly blended into the score. This tightened the action, moved the drama forward briskly, and eliminated the musical dead spots, which made for more engrossing entertainment.

It did come at a price, however. Some narrative points were lost, like Papagena’s transformation from old hag to sexy youth, but it seemed worth the sacrifice if this production can draw and engage an audience beyond the opera crowd.

The Queen of the Night

But the most glaring mistake came in the rendering of the Queen of the Night. The ambiguity of the Queen’s morality, which is central to the plot (is she good or evil?), was done away with. In Act One, she is immediately revealed to be a rapacious spider woman, her gigantic, projected leg-claws chasing and entrapping Tamino, and her enlarged alien head (the masked head of singer Erika Miklósa) bobbing on a high pedestal above. Why would Tamino believe her when she tells him her daughter’s life must be saved from the evil clutches of Sarastro? It puts into question Tamino’s drive to rescue Pamina. Is he in love with her portrait, as written, or is he so terrified by the devouring spider-mother that he saves Pamina out of fear? Why not make her an exotic Weimar cabaret singer of dubious character or a decadent noblewoman, to name a few possibilities. There is no nuance to her character, no movement from worried mother to frightening, narcissistic queen.

Elsewhere the visuals delight. Too numerous to explain at length, they cast a spell over the audience as the singers, with razor sharp timing, interact with the animation: from blowing animated smoke rings to jumping across rooftops. Tamino’s flute (oddly replaced with a naked Pamina fairy – don’t ask) tames a bevy of wild beasts who float in the night sky as constellations.

Papageno and Two Ladies

Papageno, when offered wine by Sarastro’s priest, drinks a pink cocktail with an animated straw from a giant glass to hilarious effect. And in a wonderful touch, when the three ladies padlock his mouth, his lips dance in projection across the screen.

From the first majestic chords to the final notes of the score, the LA Opera orchestra, under Maestro Conlon, captured the vitality of this most ebullient of comic operas. There was a transparent delicacy to the playing, overlaid with a rich luster that conveyed every nuance of the music.



The role of Pamina, who not only survives her cunning mother and the lascivious Monostatos, but also the paternalistic clichés of the plot, was consummately sung by Janai Brugger. With a Louise Brooks wig, wearing white face, and dressed in schoolgirl black, she let loose a shimmering soprano. When she sings of her loss of love’s happiness in her Act Two aria, she caresses each line with tenderness, and the effect is exquisitely heartbreaking.

As her noble suitor, Tamino was sung by Lawrence Brownlee. His buttery tone and clarity of expression suited the role perfectly. Erika Miklósa, the Queen of the Night, is a seasoned player, having sung the role at least four hundred times. Glorious in Act One, delivering both nuance and power, she floundered in the opening of her famous second act aria and seemed a bit strident in her delivery. Monostatos, conceived as a Nosferatu creature, with a posse of enormous black, scruffy rats instead of slaves, was performed with lecherous relish by Rodell Rosel.

Papageno and Papagena

Papageno and Papagena

The Papageno of Rodion Pogossov was a wall-to-wall pleasure. With a silky, powerful baritone and comic presence that was able to out punch even the most distracting animated effects, he embodied the bird-catcher as silent comedy hero and took us on a joy ride of an evening. Amanda Woodbury as his Papagena sang charmingly. In front of an adorable projection of a dollhouse, replete with dozens of children, the pair performed their closing duet to joyful effect.

The Three Ladies: Hae Ji Chang, Cassandra Zoe Velasco, and Peabody Southwell were a perfectly realized trio; and the chorus of the LA Opera under Grant Gershon sang with an emotional depth that touched the heart. One only wished that Sarastro’s priests looked less like tribal Abe Lincolns and more like the noble characters of the original conception.

With Pamina and Tamino’s trials conquered and the Queen of the Night defeated, we, along with the chorus, exulted in an evening well spent in the company of this very individual production.

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To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.


Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.   Jane is also the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  


 Photos by Robert Millard courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.

Live Opera: Bizet’s “Carmen” at the Los Angeles Opera

September 23, 2013

By Jane Rosenberg

One of the most iconic characters in opera is the fiercely independent and willful Carmen, drawn from the pages of Prosper Mérimée’s nineteenth century novel. Prizing freedom above all else, she’s willing to die to preserve that freedom. A modern woman in every sense, Carmen loves as she pleases with the kind of sexual zeal found only in male characters from the literature of the period. 

Patricia Bardon as Carmen

Patricia Bardon as Carmen

It was puzzling then to find Patricia Bardon’s Carmen, in the LA Opera’s first production of their 2013-14 season, to be sexually reserved: more swagger than seduction, more teenager in love than full blooded woman on the prowl.

I suspect this was a directorial problem, since similar criticism was leveled at Viktoria Vizin’s characterization in LA Opera’s 2008 version of the same production of Emilio Sagi’s original for Madrid’s Teatro Real.

Restraint seemed to be the operative word for this overly tasteful “Carmen:” restraint in singing, acting, and set design.  One longed for sexual abandon, rough and tumble streets, and the air of pervasive doom that characterizes the best productions.

Not that there were scenic problems –the cigarette factory and surrounding Seville neighborhood of Act One were appropriately Mediterranean, though I did long for orange trees rather than palms.  And though it felt more LA upscale shopping center than torrid Southern Spain, it was a set that showed off the marvelous Los Angeles Opera chorus of soldiers, cigarette girls, and neighborhood children to strong effect. In fact, it was the chorus throughout that brought the staggeringly beautiful music of George Bizet to pulsing, vibrant life, accompanied by Los Angeles Opera’s consummate musicians under the direction of Maestro Domingo. Of particular beauty was the moody and lush orchestral opening to Act Three.

The proceedings heated up a bit in Act Two at Lillas Pastia’s tavern and the contributions of the choreographer Nuria Castejón and her associate choreographer, Fernández, should not go unremarked.

Act II of "Carmen"

Act II of “Carmen”

The dancers, performing a version of ballet-laced flamenco, added gaiety and color to both Acts Two and Four. The only negative were their overly loud, stomping feet that added a percussive element, which threatened to overpower the singers. As for the costumes by Jesús del Pozo, they sometimes worked against the characters: the soldiers’ uniforms looked more like contemporary formal attire with tails than military dress, while Micaëla’s oversized pilgrim’s coat in Act Three threatened to swallow her whole.

Brandon Jovanovich as Don José, the victim of Carmen’s love, was at his best when in thrall to his jealous anger. The role requires a high level of acting skill, since Don José must move quickly in Act One from indifference to passion. Then the passion must build at a rapid pace in Act Two, since it quickly culminates in José’s defiance of his captain, and his subsequent desertion.

Patricia Bardon and Brandon Jovanovich as Carmen and Don Jose

Patricia Bardon and Brandon Jovanovich as Carmen and Don Jose

Though a physically attractive Don José, Jovanovich’s love for Carmen appeared tepid, only igniting when he was able to vent his fury on Carmen in the third and fourth acts. After slow starts from both Bardon and Jovanovich, their singing grew in power in the third and fourth acts. It seemed as if their inability to render their sexual longing for each other was allowed to burst out in their later, angry confrontations. Though not the traditional sweet voiced tenor, Jovanovich sang the “Flower Song” with a polished luster and refinement.

Pretty Yende as Micaela

Pretty Yende as Micaela

The revelation of the evening was the ravishing soprano of Pretty Yende as Micaëla. She embodied the character’s sweetness and determination in both voice and manner. While the character of Micaëla is often overshadowed by the turbulence around her, Yende, through voice and bearing, was able to firmly implant Micaëla and her love for Jose in our consciousness.

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Escamillo sang and acted his part with gusto.  Hae Ji Chang as Frasquita and Cassandra Zoé Velasco as Mercedes were a delight, particularly in their enchanting duet of Act Three Scene One. As Zuniga, Valentin Anikin was assertive but a bit wooden, his dark voice occasionally swallowed by the hall. Daniel Armstrong, Keith Jameson, and Museop Kim completed the cast and put in solid performances.

For a wall-to-wall, deliriously melodic score, nothing beats Bizet’s “Carmen.”  Though love and lust didn’t take precedence in this production, nothing can dampen the thrill of hearing this music live at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion through October 6.

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To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.


Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  Jane is also the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.


Photos by Robert Millard courtesy of LA Opera.


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