Archive for the Reviews Category

An American in Paris – in Paris!

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , on November 28, 2014 by figarosi

imagesThe new musical, An American in Paris, was born Saturday evening, November 22, at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. A co-production with the Pittsburg Civic Light Opera, when it finally gets to Broadway, get your tickets early. It will be a smash hit.

You would think that someone would have thought about it before. There is, of course, a long history of American musicals being transferred to celluloid but the 1951 Vincent Minnelli film of the same name, with Gene Kelly and a young Leslie Caron, was begging to be put on the boards (it won six Oscars) and why it waited a half-century is anyone’s guess. The music, by some composer named George Gershwin, has already proved its usefulness over the years.

But this movie only provided the inspiration for an entirely new version with a libretto by Craig Lucas (based on the original text by Ira Gershwin). It has a new musical framework by Rob Fisher and direction and choreography by Christopher Wheeldon. The central focus on dance is the major departure from the film and the ballet sequences are one of the most impressive parts of the entire work. It is not by accident that Jerry Mulligan, the young artist that “missed his boat” back to America, is played by Robert Fairchild, a star of the New York City Ballet. His love interest, the young French girl Lise Dassin, is Leanne Cope from the Royal Opera’s ballet. In shifting sets that transport us from streets to drawing rooms to cafes, it is the cafe where Jerry meets Adam Hochberg, the misanthropic Oscar Levant character from the film. It was his writing music for, and falling in love with, the young dancer that leads to a new ballet sponsored by an aristocratic French family. Jerry is, of course, smitten too as is the shy young son of the family, Henri Baurel.

You might hear some Gershwin you don’t know by heart. The first ballet sequence is from the Concerto in F, but there are ballet sequences to the Second Prelude for piano and another with the Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra. But otherwise songs like “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “Love is Here to Stay,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and others placed in seamless settings creates an evening not to be forgotten.

Many roles arrived fully mature: Robert Fairchild danced with stunning brilliance and his role as Jerry needs no touchup. Brandon Uranowitz’ grumpy Hochberg is perfectly formed and hugely engaging. Leanne Cope, as Lise, a ballerina who makes a living at the perfume counter at Galerie Lafayette, has all the potential but seemed hesitant with her voice. Leanne Cox as upscale Madame Baurel and her husband, Monsieur Baurel (Scott Willis) are fully formed contributors as is Jill Paice as Milo Davenport, a sardonic and rich American donor who is also attracted to Jerry. The sometimes scrappy pit orchestra, conducted by Brad Haak, will improve with time. Costumes and decor, by Bob Crowley, are period perfect. When the show hits its stride it will be unstoppable.

Parenthetically, at the intermission, I ran into two critic friends. While my invitation was somehow for opening night, they were invited for the December 10 performance, repeating the NYC practice of having critics wait a couple of weeks for new shows opening on Broadway. Both had bought tickets for opening night, however, with one complaining about the cramped conditions in the upper balcony, a seat he would not normally experience. And there were problems opening night. An excruciating sound system was mostly fixed in the second half and some searching, by some of the cast, for the right sound was to be expected.

The story is told with assurance and the handsome and often glamorous sets work well to give the story a natural flow. The curtains open, for example, for the new ballet and the audience sees a reverse image of their own rather famous theater as the venue. The ballet, set to music from the symphonic poem which gives the work its name, is, of course, a hit and the new ballet star learns to follow her heart and pledge to Jerry. Shouts of approval and a standing ovation, rather rare in France, ended the triumphal launch of a major new work. It is running until January 4th.

Will it work? Lang Lang and Roberto Alagna on the same stage?

Posted in Reviews on April 1, 2011 by figarosi

It was a high-risk venture that finished as a major triumph in Paris on Tuesday night. The superstar pianist Lang Lang, as part of a week’s residency, joined with the French tenor Roberto Alagna in a program of rare French arias at the historic Salle Pleyel. But the success of this “carte blanche” evening for Lang Lang was not automatically assured.

The French have a history of neglecting their rich musical heritage and the arias, with one exception, have not been heard in Paris in living memory. While some of this repertory is beginning to appear in regional operas, only the aria, “Anges du paradis” from Gounod’s Mireille, has been heard at the Paris Opera recently when that opera opened their previous season. Would the audience, even with these star names, warm to this effort?

Another worry is sometimes the omnivorous musical appetites of Lang Lang leads him to say yes to a project he has not had time to sufficiently digest prior to the performance. There was no hint of that this night. There was a vibrant rapport between the two extrovert stars with Lang Lang, no mere “accompanist” here, relishing the lovely melodies which began each aria.

Alagna sang each aria with French style and clarity of expression uncommon on world stages recently. A tenor at the heights of his power, the hall rang with his generous passion for these musical treasures. Including the Gounod, there were arias by Adolphe Adam (“Mes amis, écoutez l’histoire” from Le Postillon de Longjumeau), Edouard Lalo (“Vainement, ma bien-aimée” from Le Roi d’Ys), Ernest Reyer (“La bruit des chants” from Sigurd), Giacomo Meyerbeer (“Pays merveilleux… ô paradis” from L’Africaine) and Alfred Bruneau’s passionate `”Le jour tombe, la nuit va bercer les grands chênes” (from L’Attaque du moulin), among others.

Toward the end of the concert, Alagna took a brief break to sip backstage tea (a result of Spring allergies) and the audience happily prodded Lang Lang into playing a second delicious Rachmaninov prelude. Lang Lang’s solo works, including Chopin etudes and a sensitive reading of Schumann’s “Träumerei.” were part of the evening’s program. With the unrestrained cheering at the end, Alagna and Lang, arm in arm, circled the stage like victorious bull-fighters, shaking hands and collecting bouquets of flowers. Clearly this music has strong appeal but could Parisian opera bosses still be unconvinced?

Alagna has an album of French Opera Arias (with Bertrand De Billy and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) which has a few of the arias he sang this night. Lang Lang had a live transmission the following day from the Cite de la Musique in Paris streamed on Medici.tv. The concert was recorded by France Musique radio for later broadcasting with no date yet specified.

Beethoven with Double Cheese

Posted in Reviews on December 1, 2010 by figarosi

A high-cholesterol Beethoven symphony cycle with superstar conductor Christian Thielemann, 51, just ended in Paris and is now onstage in Berlin. The Paris cycle, at the famed Théatre des Champs-Élysées was served up Tuesday, November 23 with Symphonies Four and Five with Numbers Six and Seven the following evening. Saturday evening we heard the first three with a Sunday afternoon concert completing the cycle with a flourish with the 8th and the mighty 9th with Annette Dasch, Piotr Beczala, Mihoko Fujimura, Robert Holl and the Chorus of Radio France. The Berlin cycle, at the Philharmonie, will run from December 1 to 5.

The meaty sound drawn from the orchestra was accompanied with a good portion of thick Central European expressive sauce. The accelerandi and ritardandi were applied with relish with minimal attention paid to trimmings which might add some lightness to the texture. It harked back to performance standards of the late 19th Century as if the lo-cal “historical informed” movement never existed. The first two symphonies, animated by Beethoven’s studies with Joseph Haydn, had any humor or lightness carefully excised and his “Eroica” clocks in at 55 minutes.

He is without doubt one of the podium giants of our time and his juicy readings deserve the attention they get. There is a certain amount of engaging freedom in his style of leadership; no Herbert Von Karajan military precision here. With a beat less than precise, you will hear occasional lazy attacks but also an expressiveness by the orchestra not always heard with other conductors. One can only speculate as to what new depths he might discover in these scores in his reflective later life.

His recording of the cycle on DVD in Vienna’s Musikvereinsaal began in December 2008 (Symphonies 1 and 2) until the Ninth, in April of this year, with the same fine soloist. The cycle has been recorded by Unitel in high density  and 5.0 Surround Sound and includes a Blue-Ray version. While some DVDs are available in shops now, the complete set has been announced, with an introductory video, as ready for release and could be available (at least in Europe) as a stocking stuffer. France Musique has broadcast the first two concerts and these are available for streaming on the station’s website. The final two concerts will be broadcast – and available for streaming – in mid-December.

Memorable Elektra at Baden-Baden

Posted in Reviews on February 10, 2010 by figarosi

My writing – and lots of photos – are now posted about the recent Elektra at Baden-Baden. It’s all on PlaybillArts.com

ENO’s brash new Turandot

Posted in Reviews on October 23, 2009 by figarosi

My writing about this risk-taking staging is now Turandot_Gwyn Hughes Jones_Kirsten Blanck 4_credit Catherine Ashmoreup on Playbillarts.com

Royal Opera’s Tristan und Isolde

Posted in Reviews with tags on October 2, 2009 by figarosi

This is a link to my observations about the opening night of the new Tristan und Isolde at Covent Garden.STEMME AS ISOLDE--C-BILL COOPER

Critic loves opera, trashes public!

Posted in Reviews on September 24, 2009 by figarosi

(This is a quick translation of the Le Monde critic who wrote about the New York Met “Tosca” in today’s edition. Any mistakes are my own.)

Finally, for Peter Gelb, director of the Metropolitan Opera of New York since 2006, it is the first season where he will have programmed the entire season; a season of novelty (nine new productions, a figure not seen since 1966) and audacity since it brings to New York European opera directors who have never staged an opera there, notably Patrice Chéreau and Luc Bondy.

Tosca (1900), of Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), staged by Luc Bondy, and presented Monday September 21, in gala evening in front of an upper-crust parterre (where fur coats, haute couture and nose remakes abound), took a terrible turn: a vindictive boo screamed from the bottom of the stomach by a furious public that has been deprived of “their” Tosca. The one that it see since 1985 on stage at the Met, concocted by the French Italian Zeffirelli. The public of the Met, at least the thundering majority, wants a Tosca in CinémaScope, with their baroque church to the first act, their Farnèse Palace to the second one and, in the third one, their Castle San Angelo, with an unrestricted view on Saint Peter’s and the Vatican.

It is to be feared that many among the spectators present never visited Rome, read the book of Luigi Illica and the piece of Victorian Sardou (available on http://www.gutenberg.org). Those offended want a Tosca in accordance with their fantasy, and some want it for their money.

It is true that the production of Zeffirelli (1 DVD Deutsche Grammophon) is the exact opposite of Bondy and of his inspired decorator, Richard Peduzzi. Contrasting with the visual debauchery of the Italian and his orange sunrise in Act III in particular, Bondy preferred a simple tower and a sky of an opaque blue gray, the complexion of the soul and despair of the condemned. It especially transcribed the exact color, sad and sinister, as does the orchestra of Puccini at the death bells that announces the execution of Cavaradossi, this color that the libretto describes as “an uncertain and gray light.”

The problem is here: too often the opera public takes false traditions for first truths and confuses abusive readings (they abound, it is true, on the lyric scenes) with respect for the original words. You could see spectators offended that Tosca, in Act II, sings her famous aria “Vissi d’arte” on a sofa. But the libretto says “Tosca falls overwhelmed on the couch.”

One could feel a wave of indignant surprise when, in Act II of this production, the 19th Century clothes and Art Deco furnishings suggested, with elegance and discretion, that Scarpia, the police boss, had some common traits with a certain Il Duce… Is it unfounded to show him with three prostitutes when he says, literally, that he wants to intoxicate himself with wine and of women and also that Sardou denounces, in his work, the morals of this “repugnant satyr”, bloody even in his orgies?

The public found timely supporters for Zeffirelli who, without having seen the spectacle, expressed themselves that afternoon on the Internet site of the New York Times (“Arts Beat”), ridiculing this “new idiotic manner to approach” Puccini and qualifying Luc Bondy as a “director, not of the second, but of the third order.” Even worse, certain in the board of directors found it offensive when Scarpia kisses the Virgin Mary at the end of Act I… Atmosphere, atmosphere.

Nevertheless, this spectacle is the one of the (rare) incarnations of what can be an evening of perfect opera: the direction of fine actors that imposes nothing on the singers but organizes their liberty differently; a setting of an austere beauty which breathes, where the monumentality does not block the qualities of acoustic reverberation; a conductor, James Levine, that does not confuse experience and routine (he directed his first Tosca at the Met in 1971), calm and boredom, voluptuousness and debauchery; an orchestra of which there is not an equivalent in the world in precision and in subtlety, and a dream cast: a Tosca more atypical but young, ardent, incarnated by Karita Mattila that reaches even to its vocal limits (in the aigu) for dramatic qualities, a tenor, Marcelo Alvarez, that maybe is the most beautiful in this type of work (he will be André Chénier at the Opera of Paris in December), and a baritone, George Gagnidze, a Scarpia dark and glacial, again unknown but who promises to be an immense singer.

Is it the turn of Patrice Chéreau and his “From the House of the Dead,” of Leos Janacek in November at the Met to fall in the stew? If so, it would be time to give up hope for the New York public.

Renaud Machart