Category Archives: Theater

Mies Julie at the Shakespeare Theatre

                Yael Farber’s Mies Julie is a hard but worthwhile night in the theater. Based on Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Farber’s rewrite tracks the original fairly closely, diverging in two fundamental ways: It is set in South Africa nearly two decades after the end of apartheid, and the character of Jean (or “John” in Farber’s adaptation) is more of a victim than a trickster and thus more sympathetic than the manipulative servant in Strindberg’s play. The update is often brutal and difficult to watch, but it honors its inspiration by refreshing the social context in which the thwarted love affair between the privileged Julie and the socially ambitious Jean takes place. And yet at times history overwhelms the basic trajectory of the earlier play: The violence and dead-end cultural dysfunction of contemporary South Africa becomes the subject of the drama, more than the interaction of the two characters. John and Julie are reduced to puppets in a larger narrative of hopelessness and despair.

                    Translating the drama into South African terms also makes it difficult for Farber to negotiate the occasional lyrical interludes in the Strindberg text. At the end, with everything having turned horribly bloody and sad, Julie tries to jump to the lyric plane. The effect is operatic, in a bad way. Poetry can’t be woven into this world, which is too harsh and too honest accommodate a final aria.

                And yet it’s powerful drama, and it makes one take the Strindberg more seriously. Few productions of Miss Julie will hit you as hard as Mies Julie.

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A Guide to Gay Opera

OSCR_3405Very happy to see The New Republic has posted my latest review. In June I went to St. Louis and saw the world premiere of Terence Blanchard’s Champion, and in August I took in Theodore Morrison’s Oscar in Santa Fe. Both deal with main characters who are gay, and that becomes a prompt for a longer piece about how gay issues are treated in media today. I find a distressing tendency to sentimentality and bathos, especially in Morrison’s opera about Oscar Wilde: 

The result is a passive, amiable, mildly likable vision of one of the most tart, acerbic, brilliant, and intellectually preposterous men of his age; and even Wilde’s likability is known not through what he says or does on stage, but by frequent assurances by secondary characters that he is a great and good man. He has no tragic flaw. In the end, he is simply a victim of intolerance. This is the source of the opera’s excruciating sentimentality, the reduction of Wilde’s tragedy to a fable of bigotry and victimization (with, of course, that happy Parnassian ending). The emotional arc is so familiar from so many bad films that one suspects a bit of creative treachery: gay subject matter may be in vogue because it is just edgy enough (but not too edgy!) to allow composers and librettists to pass off the old as new.

That last line–gay subject matter may be in vogue because it is just edgy enough (but not too edgy!) to allow composers and librettists to pass off the old as new–also goes for a lot of theater, fiction, television drama and art.

Photo courtesy of Santa Fe Opera: David Daniels as Oscar Wilde and Reed Luplau as Bosie; Photo by Ken Howard.


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La forza del destino at the Washington National Opera

The Force of DestinyVerdi’s La forza del destino lingers in the mind as one of those late mid-career messes, a giant cauldron of opera overflowing with musical inspiration but stewed up with a super-heated libretto and way too many melodramatic plots twists. It feels like we never see it on stage, though we know it in bits and pieces, its famous overture (turned into folk music in Claude Berri’s Pagnol films of the 1980s) and its arias, especially “Pace, pace mio Dio,” a regular of soprano recital programs.
    It’s good to see it at the Washington National Opera in a stylish and often sexy production, directed by WNO artistic head Francesca Zambello and beautifully designed by Peter J. Davison. Although the production has casting problems throughout, the show nevertheless works, making a strong case not just that Forza has great material, but that is a coherent, cohesive opera, building to dramatic unity despite or because of its many divagations. By the end of this tale of vengeance, shame and thwarted forgiveness, the piece takes on some of the primal power of Greek drama, breathless and relentless, like Aeschylus’s Euminides, or Sophocle’s Electra.
    The production updates the setting to what has become the standard vision of the operatic present tense, with neon lighting and lots of flesh-revealing sexy costumes, though a gray, formal sense of the 19th century lingers around the edges. The stage pictures are compelling, an enormous dining room for the first act, a Times Square vision of fleshpots for the beginning of the second, and a gritty, graffiti splattered urban alley for the monastery scenes. Each one is meticulously realized, and only moderately discordant with the more historically specific references of the libretto.
    Dramatically, the hallmark is energy, and a nuanced sense of dark comedy always in the background. Valeriano Lanchas, as Brother Melitone, sang the most explicitly comic role, and conveyed the officious bumbling of his character without caricature. Like a big sprawling 19th-century novel, there are small strains of muted comedy throughout the opera, and it’s impressive that Zambello finds them without tipping the scales to smug mockery of the libretto’s easily ridiculed excesses. Even so, there was laughter in the house several times on Saturday evening, which is frustrating and silly. There are conventions to 19th-century drama just like any other art form or period style, and one convention is that intensifying the dramatic conflict takes precedence over strict verisimilitude. No one laughs at Van Gogh because he intensifies color and stylizes brush work to heighten visual impact. Why is melodrama treated as such a bastard form?
    Soprano Adina Aaron, as Leonora, sang with remarkably energy, unflagging dramatic intensity and vocal abandon. Even at the end of a long evening (Forza stretches on to three hours), tenor Giancarlo Monsalve and baritone Mark Delavan egged each other on through the opera’s crucial final scenes, when the possibility of redemption is agonizingly close, but squandered again and again by hatred and emotional insecurity. The opera lives or dies on the believability of its last act, in which years of animosity, regret and self loathing are finally felt in their full, corrosive power. The cast gets high marks for constantly pushing this study in relentless forward motion always forward, with exuberant spirits and total commitment.
    But not one of them is entirely vocally satisfying, and several of them lead one to be quite concerned about vocal longevity. Aaron is an exciting singer and fine actress, but too much given to vocal effects, to low notes with a lot of bite, and impressive but perhaps mannered diminuendos and crescendos on top tones. One wished for a simpler, more lyrical, more direct line, with attention to continuity and legato. I hope she can continue to do everyone of these impressive vocal feats twenty years from now; and I hope they are better integrated into a more natural sense of style. Monsalve looks the part and sings with intensity, but when pushing his voice, very few notes are hit directly, but come with little helper tones just before attack, a bad habit that makes tenors such as Roberto Alagna very hard to listen to unless the only thing you want is volume. As Preziosilla, mezzo-soprano Ketevan Kemoklidze was physically a seductive, boisterously sexual presence, but only approximate to the musical line in her lower register. I often couldn’t make out what she was singing.
    As for conductor Xian Zhang, making her WNO debut, it’s hard to be certain. The overture (displaced to serve as an entr’acte between Acts I and II) was deftly done, dramatic and detailed. But the first act was a mess, and often the beat felt spongy. One heard more problems–tempo disagreements and ensemble smudges–than there should be when opera is made at this level, and yet the overall effect was often exciting. And the orchestra sounds very well these days. So the jury is out.
    But this show remains worthwhile despite serious musical misgivings. Verdi’s experimental genius, his restless creativity, shines through. That alone is worth the investment.

Photograph: Adina Aaron as Donna Leonora of Vargas, by Scott Suchman for WNO


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Massenet’s “Werther” at the Washington National Opera

It’s always encouraging to find Emmanuel Villaume in the orchestra pit, especially so when the repertoire is French. Villaume conducted last night’s performance of Massenet’s Werther, and the orchestra of the Washington National Opera never sounded so good. Massenet is easily condescended to, as a cheap romantic and theatrical fluff artist. But his operas are full of surprises, evocative and innovative orchestration and dramatic idiosyncrasies. Villaume underscored the rich coloristic elements in Massenet’s score, and found almost expressionistic power in its expostulations. The brass snarled, the strings produced haunting chorale-like sounds, as if channeling Bruckner at a whisper, and the woodwinds (including the saxophone) were free to play with engaging personal freedom. The extended orchestral preludes and interludes that serve as psychological bridges between acts and scenes were some of the best things all evening.


Massenet gets hammered for his distortion of Goethe’s original, and the distortion is so profound that it’s best—if possible—to forget about the 18th-century novella when watching the 19th-century opera. In the Massenet, Albert becomes a bit of a thug and Werther and Lotte are equally in love from the beginning, forcing the latter into a classic conflict of duty and desire.

Most egregious, in the last act, while Werther lingers on from his self-inflicted gun shot wound, the two engage in an entirely superfluous final love scene.  And there are absurdities in the text that reflect a hybrid of Goethe and the French team that wrote the libretto. In act three Werther reminisces about his friendship with Lotte, and the time they spent together (a vestige of the novella); but the libretto has them fall in love almost immediately, and whatever companionship they enjoyed is lost between the interstices of the First and Second acts.

 No matter. Despite one of the most static first act’s in opera, Massanet’s score is often exquisite, and despite having one of the best known endings in all of literature, the denouement is still shocking. Unfortunately, while the cast can’t be faulted on purely vocal grounds, none of the singers really inhabited his or her character.  Francesco Meli’s Werther seemed cobbled together from rote vocal and dramatic gestures. He has the voice, but not the dramatic sensibility for the role. Sonia Ganassi’s Charlotte wanted more vocal heft, but the mezzo rose to occasion in Act III, especially in the monologue that opens the scene.

 Michael Yeargan’s set design, especially the transparent walls that fused together an 18th century drawing room with the natural world outside, was particularly well done. But Barila’s decision to costume the singers as if for a stage production of The Great Gatsby (frocks for Charlotte were particularly unflattering) was arbitrary, like so many decisions about updating opera. Charlotte’s sister Sophie (well sung by Emily Albrink) became a flapper rather than a flighty teenager. Werther looked dumpy in his striped sweater. And the basic tension between the enlightenment and the romantic sensibility explored in the original novella was lost by the updating. Why? But then there’s never any rationale for these things.

 So go for the orchestra. And for Massenet. There were a distressing number of empty seats on Friday night, and it would be a shame if anyone concluded from that a lack of interest in the magnificent operas of Massenet.

Credit: Francesco Meli as Werther and Sonia Ganassi as Charlotte. Photo by Scott Suchman


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Wagner’s Genius for Self-perpetuation

In  last month’s issue of Opera News, I took up the issue of interpreting Wagner, in particular, the mania for ever more far-fetched ideological reinterpretations. I argue that Wagner locked future audiences into a rigidly “avant garde”-centric relationship to his art, and it’s now become a matter of diminishing returns:

[Wagner] created the intellectual construct for the ongoing reinterpretation of his work. Die Meistersinger isn’t just a comedy; it creates a template for how audiences should relate to Wagner’s music. In a conflict between philistinism and innovation, the opera invites us to identify with Walther’s brand of artistic progressivism. The conflicts in the Ring between Siegmund and Hunding, and Siegfried and Wotan, echo this basic appeal, enlisting audience sympathies on the side of rebellion and iconoclasm. Wagner, in effect, drafts us into the ongoing drama of his art — the notion that to love Wagner appropriately is to hate artistic complacency, traditionalism and bourgeois ideas about entertainment.

What to do about it? I borrow ideas from Susan Sontag and raise the possibility (far-fetched, I’m sure) of staging the Ring cycle without a director:

It would also be a more profoundly democratic Ring, a Ring developed by consensus. Chamber musicians regularly work this way, and even some orchestras have developed means for “interpreting” through consensus. Singers, of course, don’t have time for this kind of work, and the results could easily be a crazy quilt of discordant ideas. But it would be a fascinating exercise — a Ring developed not through the old, autocratic means of the director’s oversight (an antiquated model of leadership in almost all walks of life that don’t involve art or actual political tyranny) but through new, horizontal and socially networked avenues of decision-making.

Don’t hold your breath of course. It costs too much to stage the Ring to take any real risks.

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You Nero, Big Zero

            Arena Stage’s new comedy, “You, Nero,”  feels like an over-extended T.V. comedy sketch. After watching it last night, I went home and enjoyed a Netflix episode of the Catherine Tate show…and I think Tate’s comedy better fun and better written than Amy Freed’s attempt to write a satirical romp through the ancient Rome of crazy Nero.

            It’s bracing to watch a two-hour-plus piece of theater simply fall flat, raising questions about how it got so far, with so much investment of talent (Danny Scheie as Nero is good fun) and money, without someone simply saying: There’s nothing here. The humor is derived from two unrelated premises: The play of anachronism between ancient Rome and contemporary life, and inside, meta-jokes aimed at people who care  about theater. So we get a playwright struggling to please Nero with a script he pecks out on a typewriter; and Nero imagining an Ancient Roman version of “A Chorus Line.”

            There are a few laughs, but lightly scattered, and most of the slapstick is comically inert.  There does seem to be an attempt to say something deeper about the role theater plays in forming audiences and reforming politics. Freed suggests we get the theater we deserve. But these themes feel grafted on, a belated attempt to give the show heft. But it doesn’t quite work and you wish, in the end,  that rather than strain at seriousness, the creative team had simply opted for shorter and sillier. 

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Shakespeare’s Last Oratorio

Shakespeare’s Henry VIII is more like an oratorio than an opera. It is organized around a theme–the road kill of Queens and courtiers who fly too close to the royal sun–rather than a coherent narrative. Its characters take on real life only when they step forward from the background of pageantry and address the audience directly, in long, brilliant arias of summation that suspend ordinary dramatic time. It is stately and processional rather than passionate and urgent. It is good to see it on stage from time to time, but with its intricately described visions, dumb shows and processions, it can embarrass theater directors. Perhaps it’s best to read it, rather than see it staged.

The new production of Henry VIII at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre takes none of the above for granted. It is staged as drama, a fast-paced chamber drama, with ominous music and a palpable, almost melodramatic sense of danger. Katherine’s vision has been cut, as have the processions and pageantry. There is no air between scenes, which flow rapidly together, the whole thing transpiring in about 2 ½ hours.

It works, though the director Robert Richmond must summon exceptional artifice to make it all hang together. His best trick is the insertion of a character alluded to in the prologue–the king’s jester, Will Sommers–but otherwise absent from the text of the play. The jester figure, played by Louis Butelli, helps weave the episodic scenes together, using puppets and handfuls of imaginary, magic dust to suspend the action, or puncture quotidian reality. Butelli is one of the strongest actors in the cast, playing not just the scornful, ironic jester, but multiple smaller roles as well. For some reason, however, he skips the epilogue.

Sound designer Anthony Cochrane is also the composer, and plays a large role in suggesting the world beyond the limited space of the Folger’s small stage. Dogs bark in the garden, footsteps echo in cavernous halls, and voices, unfortunately, are subjected to excess reverberation for cinematic effect. It casts a spell, but is it the right one? The director writes that he and his team weren’t interested in the usual, “large-scale epic drama, full of spectacle and pageantry.” Instead, they wanted to take the audience “through the keyhole into the back rooms…” But the soundscape suggests grand halls and wide vistas, and the music is standard movie background fare. It is mildly dissonant with the larger goal of keeping the audience’s attention squarely on the details of the drama.

No matter. Despite the efforts at focusing minutely on character interaction, Shakespeare’s original design isn’t so easily subverted. The most powerful moments of the show are the famous solo turns, the final speech of Buckingham on his way to the axe; the Queen’s glorious confrontation with the unctuous cardinals who would decide her fate; and Wolsey’s downfall and sudden self-revelation.

Anthony Cochrane’s Wolsey is crude and rough-hewn, smirking and crass. I imagine this character–low born but infinitely ambitious–with more of a scholar’s polish on him, the smartest boy in the class turned most powerful man in the kingdom, a smooth-talking operator who has learned to ape the manners of the nobility he manipulates. Cochrane’s Wolsey is more a Rahm Emanuel figure. But Cochrane does manage the brilliant burst of insight that comes only upon Wolsey’s downfall, and he finesses the greatest challenge of the role, moving seamlessly from comeuppance to epiphany.

All roads lead to Elizabeth in this play, and again the weirdness of Shakespeare’s design overwhelms any effort to weave the play’s loose narrative threads into an ordinary drama. The fawning paean to Elizabeth works, as it always does, a blast of pure ideology scattering the petty clouds of history and drama. Richmond’s best insight is saved for this final scene. By cutting lines, and lopping off the epilogue, the title character is marooned in his own play. Henry, almost always a cipher though a robust one in Ian Merrill Peake’s performance, is suddenly a lost figure, a smaller king, reduced to merely a sire of Elizabeth. He’s not an easy king to love, nor anyone’s favorite Shakespearean ogre; but suddenly he’s almost touchingly pathetic.

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