The 2015-16 Season of Dance and Classical Music at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills

August 28, 2015

The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills opens their 2015-2016 season of dance programming on October 1-3 with:

Twyla Tharp: a 50th Anniversary Celebration, a program of new work by Ms. Tharp, co-commissioned by The Wallis (in partnership with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, The Joyce Theatre, Ravina Festival Association & Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University and Texas International Theatrical Arts Society).

Twyla Tharp dancers Matthew Dibble and Rika Okamoto in Yowzie costumes

L.A. Dance Project follows on January 29-30, featuring Hearts and Arrows by LADP Founder Benjamin Millepied with music by Philip Glass; the U.S. premiere of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Harbor Me; and Murder Ballades by Justin Peck.

Ezralow Dance Company performs OPEN on April 29-30, marking the “hometown debut” of Daniel Ezralow’s new dance company. Ezralow has created dances for Hubbard Street Dance Company, Batsheva Dance Company, London Contemporary Dance Theatre, the Cirque du Soleil/Beatles show LOVE, Julie Taymor’s film Across the Universe, and the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

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The Wallis’ diverse classical musical programming – encompassing 17 concerts – starts with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, under the esteemed leadership of Zubin Mehta (November 10 and 11) with two different programs. A gala fundraising performance on November 10 will feature the Dvorak New World Symphony and the Vivaldi Concerto for 3 Violins (Semion Gavrikov, Dumitru Pocitari and Asaf Maoz soloists); a second subscription concert will include Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and Ravel’s La Valse.

Other artists include cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han with The Passionate Cello (January 8), Eagle Rock-based Santa Cecilia Orchestra (January 16) led by Sonia Marie De Leon de Vega, with a program featuring Latino and American composers; the return of Keyboard Conversations® with Jeffrey Siegel performing An American Salute celebrating our country’s most beloved composers (February 27); The Jerusalem Quartet (April 14); and Grammy Award-winning violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Shai Wosner (March 26).

A new East/West: Merging Music & Cultures music series will include Wu Man & The Shanghai Quartet (January 23); violinist Cho Liang Lin with Jon Kimura Parker (February 13) and Bing Wang and Ben Hong (February 20).

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the Jerusalem Quartet also make up The Soul of Israel series, which is completed by David Olowsky Trio’s The Soul of Klezmer, a masterful expansion of the Klezmer folk music tradition (March 25).

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Colburn at The Wallis: A Concert Series partners The Wallis with the Colburn School, one of the nation’s highest ranked educators of students pursuing rigorous performance training, for an exciting series of concerts throughout the 2015-2016 Season. Featuring rising stars from the Colburn Conservatory of Music alongside celebrated concert artists and Colburn’s renowned faculty, the concerts include Colburn School artist-in-residence, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (October 30), cellist Gary Hoffman (November 7), Music Director and Conductor Yehuda Gilad and Mikyung Soung, double bass (March 6); and the principal brass players of the New York Philharmonic (April 10).

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In an expansion of programming to fulfill its mission to support and celebrate young artists, The Wallis will begin Next Generation @ The Wallis, featuring Taiwanese-American pianist Steven Lin (March 11), jazz pianist Justin Kauflin (January 22) and Sean Chen (February 19), recent winner of UPenn’s eminent 2015 Annenberg arts fellowship for artists – all pianists on the verge of breakthrough.

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The Jazz Bakery will also be presenting concerts at The Wallis with a new partnership, The Jazz Bakery @ The Wallis. As one of the premiere presenters of jazz in Los Angeles, The Jazz Bakery brings a long history of curating and presenting jazz to this new concert series at The Wallis.

For more information about the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts click HERE.

Photo by Ruven Afanador


Musical Theatre: “A Night With Janis Joplin” at the Pasadena Playhouse

August 10, 2015
Mike Finkelstein

Mike Finkelstein

By Mike Finkelstein

If you have even a kernel of curiosity about the legend of Janis Joplin or if you simply want to see some great rock-related live musical theater, you will want to get to the Pasadena Playhouse and see A Night with Janis Joplin before it closes on August 23. Putting this production into this beautifully restored venue in Old Towne Pasadena is a superb match.

They nailed the hippie esthetic — a classy set in a classy theater. The stage was covered with some of the snazziest hippie tapestries available, an iconic Egyptian-styled chair that Janis made famous, several very groovy, fringed lamps, and of course the velvet, boas, fringes, and beads in the costuming.

This production, created, written and directed by Randy Johnson, is signed, sealed and delivered with the uncanny performance by Tony-nominated Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin.

Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin

To say she becomes Janis Joplin for the role may sound clichéd, but it was downright mesmerizing to watch Davies nail all of Janis’ mannerisms, quirks, and nuances in speech, song, and posture. Her speaking voice had the same giggling, twang and her hair even hung down from her temples just the way Janis’ did when she bent down to belt out a phrase. It seemed to me that Davies didn’t need to stretch much to carry the role of Janis Joplin.

And Davies was hardly in a talent bubble with a supporting cast of similarly powerful girl singers surrounding her as the Joplinaires. The girls also played the part of the girl group the Chantels, whose haunting gem “Maybe” was a huge influence on young Janis’ appreciation of how well music can put across powerful emotions. Yvette Cason (Aretha Franklin/Nina Simone), Sylvia MacCalla (Bessie Smith/Odetta), and Jenelle Lynne Randall (Etta James) all did justice to the luminaries they portrayed.

A Night With Janis Joplin is not a plot heavy show. In fact, the format is more or less like a VH1 Storytellers show, where the performer chooses material, introduces it anecdotally, and then performs it with a band. In A Night With Janis Joplin, Janis affably welcomes us into her life and presents us with the songs and the emotions that powered them for her. Because it’s musical theater, we get to see her talk about Etta James, Nina Simone, Odetta, Aretha Franklin and Bessie Smith, and then have these characters come out and proceed to lay down exactly what Janis is talking about.

The script is cleverly written to allow Davies to welcome us with stories from Janis’ vantage point. She leads with stories like when she and her siblings made their house cleaning chores into a production, performing Porgy and Bess and other musicals to records supplied by their mother as they worked. Following this lead-in is a great comparison of “Summertime,” sung bluesy and powerfully by Jenelle Randall and then rearranged by Big Brother and the Holding Company. The band’s version of this ubiquitous song was an early glimpse of the possibilities in interpreting traditional tunes with a rock slant. The elegantly busy bass lines, the beautiful harmony guitar lines, and the wonderful dynamics of the new version were an innovative high water mark at the time. Janis’ vocal on it was classic and to watch Davies sing it Friday was to know that she has been doing it for most of her life. She owned it. The band gave “Summertime” a real workout as they also did to “Piece of My Heart,” and “Cry Baby.”

A Night with Janis Joplin - Photo by Joan Marcus

A Night with Janis Joplin – Photo by Joan Marcus

Janis brought up the notion that songwriters ask so many good questions…but don’t answer them. The choices of songs like “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “Down on Me,” and “Tell Mama,” give us a sense of what rang true to Janis in other people’s music. One major theme of Janis Joplin’s life was that though she yearned for real love, she also needed to be on stage to be whole. And these considerations were often at odds with each other. She made the point that she just might not choose a good man over a good audience. This was a person who would not hesitate to go against the grain if it meant being true to herself.

It’s impossible to think about Janis Joplin without confronting the fact that alcohol and drug abuse led to her untimely death at the young age of 27. There’s no way around the fact that she was one of the founding members of the “27 club,” which also tragically includes mega-talents like Robert Johnson, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse. Though she casually picks up a bottle once in the show, the subject of booze, drugs, and self-medication are just not part of the program. It would have been fun to listen to the spunky and insightful rationale for this behavior that Davies’ Janis could surely have supplied.

Towards the end of her abruptly shortened career, Janis severed ties with Big Brother and took on Full Tilt Boogie as her backing band. It was with them that she made some of her most appealing and tastefully arranged music. Songs like “Half Moon,” and “Move Over,” and “Get It While You Can” would have been worthy of making the cut in the production, even though “Kozmic Blues,” and “Bobby McGee” did. Still it’s six of one and half dozen of the other. The material in the production is top flight, and it’s played and sung impeccably. Davies is a true dynamo as Janis, and transcended the show into something very special.

A NIght With Janis Joplin, photo by Earl Gibson III

A NIght With Janis Joplin, photo by Earl Gibson III

Walking out of the Pasadena Playhouse, I felt like I’d gotten to experience more of Janis than I had anticipated, both musically and spiritually. As I watched people sporting flowers in their hair, bell bottoms, and headbands like it was a costume party, I had to once again realize that the hippie days were, at their purest, a very creative time in history, and Janis Joplin was as iconic a hippie personality as there ever will be. But those days are long gone and a show like this is the closest most people will probably come to connecting with it. I’m delighted to have known her music years before she died and to know that a show like this one does real justice to her legacy. And what could be more important than that?

A Night With Janis Joplin continues at the Pasadena Playhouse through August 23.

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To read more posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.


Opera: LA Opera’s “The Marriage of Figaro” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

March 23, 2015

By Jane Rosenberg

Los Angeles.  Before there was Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, before Renoir’s Rules of the Game or Sturges’s The Lady Eve, there was Mozart and Da Ponte’s The Marriage of Figaro. Through beautifully delineated characterizations, both musically and poetically, Mozart’s tender and often hilarious opera reminds us what it is to be human – to love, to rage, and to accept our weaknesses.

Though we may marvel at the machinations of the plot, which contains more confusion, deception, and disguises than an episode of I Love Lucy, like all heartfelt comedy, love and reason finally prevail: Figaro, Susanna, and Countess Almaviva foil the count’s attempted seduction of Susanna on the night of Figaro and Susanna’s wedding; the lustful Cherubino escapes punishment to love another day; and Rosina and the count reconcile.

The cast of “Marriage of Figaro”

A gifted cast, assembled for LA Opera’s revival of an earlier production, was supported by the sublime colors and textures fashioned by James Conlon and his musicians. The evening was a true symbiosis of voice and orchestra.

Though the opera’s title bespeaks Figaro as the driving force behind the chicanery, it is really the two women, Susanna and Countess Almaviva, who unite to bring about the happy conclusion they so richly deserve.

Guanqun Yu as the Countess and Pretty Yende as Susanna.

Nowhere else in the opera is the class equality that Beaumarchais advocated so apparent as in the relationship of the two women. For all Figaro’s intelligence and interference, Almaviva still remains the master – Figaro and the household tiptoeing around him at every turn. However, between Susanna and the countess Rosina there is no power struggle but rather sisterhood. They deeply understand the workings of the human heart and it is their alliance that makes all things right.

Pretty Yende as Susanna.

In her debut as Susanna, Pretty Yende, first impressing LA audiences as Micaëla in Carmen in 2013, brought a warmth and richness to her singing, which underscored the humor and intelligence of her characterization. With her agile voice, she was particularly beguiling in her Act Four aria, “Deh, vieni, non tardar.”

Guanqun Yu, as Rosina, appeared here this season as the same character in Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles. Affecting in both operas, she was a lustrous presence capable of soaring top notes contrasting with the darker harmonies needed to express her pain over her husband’s philandering, so keenly illustrated in her second aria “Dove sono.” And together Yende and Yu melted hearts in the Act Three letter duet.

Renee Rapier as Cherubino and Roberto Tagliavini as Figaro.

A bass baritone working primarily in Europe, Roberto Tagliavini’s warm, shaded, and expressive instrument had the power to convey all of Figaro’s dynamics from smooth patter to simmering rage. His acting, however, could use some fine-tuning in a role where one expected wily grace and a bit of swagger.

Ryan McKinny, however, never falls short in the acting department (apparent also in his portrayal of Stanley in Streetcar Named Desire seen here in 2014). He is all the arrogant, entitled count – handsome, sensual, and duplicitous – which made his comic sequences all the funnier. Nor did his singing disappoint with his pleasing, lyrical baritone.

As Cherubino, Renee Rapier was appropriately lustful, bringing a goofy, awkward, adolescent quality to the role and was affecting in her Act Two canzone, “Voi che sapete.”

Setting the piece in the 1950’s neither detracted from nor added to the opera’s enjoyment, though one felt a slight uneasiness when Almaviva donned a military uniform. Was he a member of Franco’s regime? The circle skirted dresses of Rosina and Susanna, and the highly styled, extravagant ensembles of Marcellina were certainly a nod to the fifties and in keeping with their characters. The attractive interior sets of Act One, Two, and Three, gave way to the sparse outdoor set of Act Four. The lack of a lush garden was compensated for by the colorful fireworks display both vocal and pyrotechnic at the opera’s conclusion.

Robert Brubaker as Don Basilio, Lucy Schaufer as Marcellina and Kristinn Sigmundsson as Doctor Bartolo.

As Marcellina, who is foiled in her attempt to wed Figaro when she discovers he is none other than her lost child, Lucy Schaufer (seen here as Berta in The Barber of Seville and as Susanna in The Ghosts of Versailles) proved again that she is a marvelous comedic actress and singer of considerable power and finesse. The rest of the cast, including Kristinn Sigmundsson as Doctor Bartolo, Robert Brubaker as Don Basilio, So Young Park as Barbarina, and Philip Cokorinos as Antonio, were delightful.

With The Marriage of Figaro LA Opera, under the superb direction of Maestro Conlon, has completed its Figaro trilogy, an enlightening and warmhearted gift to Los Angeles.

The LA Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro continues through April 12.

Cast:
Figaro: Roberto Tagliavini
Susanna: Pretty Yende
Count Almaviva: Ryan McKinny
Countess Almaviva: Guanqun Yu
Cherubino: Renée Rapier
Doctor Bartolo: Kristinn Sigmundsson
Marcellina: Lucy Schaufer
Don Basilio: Robert Brubaker
Don Curzio: Joel Sorensen
Barbarina: (3/21 – 4/4) So Young Park
Barbarina: (4/9 – 4/12) Vanessa Becerra
Antonio: Philip Cokorinos

Production:
Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Librettist: Lorenzo Da Ponte
Conductor: James Conlon
Director: Ian Judge
Scenery Designer: Tim Goodchild
Lighting Designer: Mark Doubleday
Costume Designer: Deirdre Clancy
Chorus Master: Grant Gershon
Original Choreographer: Sergio Trujillo
Choreographer: Chad Everett Allen

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Photos by Craig T. Mathew courtesy of LA Opera.

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

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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.  

 

 

 


Live Music: The Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group at Disney Hall conducted by John Adams

January 15, 2015

By Jane Rosenberg

John Adams

 

Los Angeles. Like a Prospero calling forth the winds, John Adams set the accomplished artists of the LA Phil New Music Group to blowing, gusting, darting, and flying Tuesday night at Disney Hall. Billed as a theatrical evening, two of the pieces, Frankenstein!! and the U.S. premiere of Hommage à Klaus Nomi, were sung and staged with Dadaist vigor. The other, For Your Eyes Only, was an instrumental joyride.

Frankenstein!! by H.K. Gruber, the noted Viennese composer, was inspired by H.C. Artmann’s children’s rhymes. Diabolical and whimsical all at once, the words, as sung by the pitch perfect Pieter Embrechts, combine the likes of vampires, werewolves, John Wayne, rats, Batman, and mince pies. Though heavy on the percussion – popping paper bags open the piece – there are bursts of delicious lyricism that envelop and carry one along on a magic carpet ride of a composition. Gruber uses twelve-tone elements from the Schoenberg school along with tonal structures to create a sound world of emphatic beauty. Adding to the spell is a grab bag of toy instruments, the most visually arresting being the plastic hoses spun by a very game group of instrumentalists.

Heinz Karl Gruber

Heinz Karl Gruber

Gruber’s music and narrative have the vaudevillian atmosphere of Brechtian theatre, and Pieter Embrechts, a Dutch singer/songwriter/actor performs with striking virtuosity as he takes on, not only multiple characters, but also the demands of the score. With his infectious delight in the subversive, we become Embrechts’ co-conspirators in this madcap journey through Artmann’s mind and the dynamic music of Gruber.

The only disappointment was the placement of a portable, collapsible film screen on a tripod behind Embrechts, which displayed illustrations of the text by Sebastiaan Van Doninck. The images on this primitive apparatus were viewable only to the audience seated up close in the center orchestra. Budgetary issues apparently necessitated an inexpensive set and this was the weakest link in an otherwise wonderfully satisfying piece.

Tiptoing rabbits, bumps in the night, snippets of boogie woogie, flares of the operatic, hints of tango, ghostly shades of Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Ives, the stuttering of Porky Pig, and the tooting of trains are but a few of the sounds conjured by the fifteen minute piece of John Zorn’s For Your Eyes Only.

John Zorn

John Zorn

In this short composition, the LA Phil New Music Group displays virtuosic precision, giving clarity to what one can only imagine is a minefield of obstacles in this non-linear piece where tempos are constantly shifting and nothing is repeated. Adams himself said it was impossibly difficult to memorize. But the rewards are ample. Zorn marries a Pop sensibility with a kind of Cubistic abstraction to reveal what I can only call the inner workings of the human brain. It’s a Joycean ramble through the mind of modern man, (not a depressive but one with a sense of humor). There are pitfalls. If you fall in love with one fragment of sound, it’s likely to disappear in a moment. But consolation comes quickly. Something equally fascinating arrives to create a delectable smorgasbord of music.

Olga Neuwirth

Olga Neuwirth

Rounding out the evening or should I say testing endurance, we have Olga Neuwirth’s Hommage à Klaus Nomi (nine songs for countertenor and chamber orchestra). Nomi was a unique pop singer/countertenor performing in downtown New York in the nineteen seventies. His onstage and video persona was part David Bowie and part German Expressionist with his triangulated tuxedo jacket, white face, black lips, and three-pointed helmet of dark hair. In his distinctive voice, Nomi sang everything from Cabaret songs, to pop tunes like “You Don’t Own Me,” to Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament.” Neuwirth conscripts nine of his signature numbers and strings them together in her own arrangement. The result is an odd duck of a piece: haunting on the one hand but curiously flat on the other. Nomi’s sly wit and subtlety is lacking as Neuwirth’s scoring turns both sprightly pop music and poignant Baroque arias into overwrought dance hall music.

Nathan Medley

Nathan Medley

Valiantly sung by countertenor Nathan Medley, this startling work, demands much from Medley. Without the benefit of makeup and proper costuming (an odd production decision has him wearing drab gray pajamas), he seems like a distressed hospital patient for most of the evening. The theatrics are staged amidst dozens of multi-sized white balloons, which serve as vague screens for Nomi’s image or backgrounds for decorative patterns of color. Medley is asked to serve up various histrionics – very unlike Nomi’s more stylized performances – and to improvise some 1980’s dance moves. Not easy for anyone who’s a classical performer without a strong level of comfort on the dance floor.

As for the singing, Medley is amplified to the hilt and supported by sampled backing vocals. If elegant modulation is what one hopes for in a countertenor, this proves difficult to achieve under the circumstances.

Adams and the New Music Group work hard to illuminate Neuwirth’s composition, but one wonders if Nomi’s oeuvre is better served by watching YouTube videos of his output. I do thank Neuwirth, however, for shining a light on this fascinating German artist who shined so briefly before dying of AIDS in 1983.

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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

 


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

 


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