Sunday, November 11, 2012

"The Mikado" - Winter Opera of St. Louis

    St. Louis is an interesting city when it comes to opera.  There is Opera Theater of St. Louis, which is the sort of international company, on a par with Santa Fe or Seattle.  The orchestra is the St. Louis Symphony, the chorus are all apprentices and the singers are international stars or the next up and coming star.  The odd thing about them is that they insist for some reason on performing everything in English - which I find ridiculous and artistically indefensible.  They perform in the summer - May/June to be exact.  Then there is Union Avenue Opera which is like a really excellent regional company.  They perform in a church and their programming is really interesting (see below for my review of their August production of "Das Rheingold!").  They perform three operas from about April/May through August.  Then that leaves  September through March with no opera.  Not to worry - Winter Opera St. Louis is ready to step into the void.  They perform three operas - in 2012 "The Mikado" in November; "The Ballad of Baby Doe" in February, and finally "Tosca" in March.  I first heard about them last summer as they took their spring Boheme on the road and produced it as part of the Southern Illinois Music Festival in the Carbondale area.  They did a good job and as I am a great Gilbert and Sullivan fan and, even more than that, I ADORE "Baby Doe" I decided to check out them during their season.  And I am glad I did.
    Their "Mikado" was excellent!  The principals were all outstanding; the chorus was amazing and the orchestra excellent.  The staging was clever and the sets and costumes were beautiful and sumptuous.  There was a weak link in my view and that was the conducting, but more about that later.  First I want to ring out my praise on the cast.  All of them were excellent, but Lindsay Anderson as Katisha was terrific!  What a wonderful, powerful voice and commanding stage presence!  I can hardy wait for her Augusta Tabor in "Baby Doe."  I also loved Isaiah Bell as Nanki-Poo, Gary Moss as Poo-Bah, Kathleen Jasinskas as Yum-Yum, Lane Johnson as Ko-Ko, John Stephens as the Mikado and Erin Haupt as Pitti-Sing.  And I have call attention to possibly THE best Pish-Tush I have ever seen (and I have seen a lot).  Edward Hanlon was amazing.  How many times have we heard this role performed by weak singers or actors - not here.  Hanlon has a wonderful, rich bass voice - but he also has range and power.  I have never heard "Out Great Mikado..." sung with such power and artistry.  His acting was also outstanding.  And there was no need to bring in someone else to perform as Go-To in the Act II madrigal "Glady Dawns."  Edward Hanlon was able to handle this line with no difficulty and the quartet was sublimely beautiful (but why have the cello double Pish-Tush?  Not Necessary!).  I want to also say that the relatively small chorus had a wonderful sound - bravo to the chorusmaster and the singers in the chorus!  And lastly, I always worry about the orchestra, but from the first note - which was in tune - the orchestra showed itself to a fine ensemble. 
    The weakest link in the production was, I am sorry to say, the conductor, I am sorry to say.  The tempi were slow, slow, slow.  In fact if felt to me as though the orchestra actually slowed down in many instances.  All of the coordination problems between the pit and the stage were due to slow tempi and a conductor who did not lead but simply reacted.  I listened carefully and it was obvious to me that none of the singers were rushing.  A great example of this dragging reactive conducting problem occurred in the first act finale when Katisha sings her beautiful "The Hour of Gladness," the orchestra was behind her throughout and it was not the singers fault!  The tempo on "I Am So Proud" was terribly slow.  What a disappointment that there was no real patter in that song at "To Sit In Solemn Silence."  I was hoping they would take an encore but instead this conductor simply slogged through one of G & S' most inspired patter ensembles at a boringly slow tempo. I could go on.  Luckily the musicians on the stage and in the pit were so outstanding that they made this show work in spite of the conducting.
   My other critique is with an issue that gets a lot of attention on, and this is the issue of updating the dialog and song lyrics.  In general I am of the camp that prefers Gilbert's dialog and lyrics to be performed untouched and unchanged.  However, I know there are some references and jokes that just don't work anymore and I am open to tasteful alterations.  And I have to say, in general, I thought this was done pretty well.  John Steven's "A More Humane Mikado..." was a great example of updating at its best.  He made some clever changes in the first verse which were funny and replaced the out of date references, but kept Gilbert's well-known and clever last verse in tact.  Ko-Ko's "Little List Song" was a bit of a misfire.  What he did was to change the words in all of the verses.  This I think was a mistake.  The verses were progressively less funny and the timely allusions got tiresome (we are all really tired of election stuff so the Romney/Obama jokes did not even get a chuckle from the audience!)  It would have been so much better to have kept the first verse in tact, make small changes in verse two and then do a complete re-write of verse three maybe with some of the clever material from verse 1.  In the dialog - most of it was kept, but there was one major misfire.  Nanki-Poo is identified as a "2nd trombone" in the original and this line comes back almost a dozen times.  In this production "2nd trombone" was replaced with "American Idol."  It was funny maybe two times, otherwise it wasn't funny at all and the audience didn't laugh, mostly because it makes no sense.  Gilbert's original would have been funnier.  I will admit to laughing at Poo-Bah's replacing of the word "stockbroker" with "1 percent" in the line to Ko-Ko that he never grovels to anyone of the 1 percent (under the rank of stockbroker).  It was funny.  That is the kind of replacement I don't usualy like, but it worked in a way that "American Idol" simply did not (and this might have been Gary Moss' delivery which was great!).
    I would have liked to have had Yum-Yum's verse in "Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted" reinstated.  This is not a criticism.  I just happen to like it and wish it was performed more often.  I did miss "See How the Fates their Gifts Alot" which was cut (except for about 8 bars which the orchestra played as moving music.)  I realize it is not Sullivan or Gilbert's most inspired song, but it does have its own charm and would like to have heard it performed if for no other reason than to give this wonderful Mikado more to sing.
    Lastly, a couple of my favorite moments - the girl running across the stage throwing (and I mean throwing) rose petals right before "Defer to the Lord High Executioner."  Ko-Ko and Katisha's business which build up to the line "Shrink not from me..." was hilarious.  The newspapers in "A Wandering Minstrel" which was beautifully sung (this bit reminded me of Gilbert's "Trial By Jury" bit with the jurors reading newspapers while the defendant sings).  Yum-Yum's "The Sun Whose Rays" was glorious.  Poo-Bah's "primordial protoplasmal globual;" the conga line in "So Please You Sir..." "Our Great Mikado, Virtuous Man," Katisha's entrance!  "The Criminal Cried!"  And the Mikado's song were all very funny. 
    So, in closing - if you live in the St. Louis area, put it on your calendars to come to "Baby Doe," and "Tosca."  This is an excellent company and they deserve your support.  Bravo on a show well done.

Here are a couple links - picture from act II finale with Katisha in the center, Yum-Yum on her right and Nanki-Poo on her left:

Winter Opera of St. Louis

Friday, August 17, 2012

Union Ave Opera - "Das Rheingold"

     Who would have expected a small opera company to mount a production of "Rheingold" here in the mid-west?  But I just got back from the Union Ave Opera performance and I have to say hats off to them! This company, who performs three operas a year in a church in St. Louis, seems to have no qualms about tackling any project they feel drawn to.  They did "Dead Man Walking" last year and in the coming years they have the rest of the Ring Cycle scheduled!  They are using the Graham Vick/Jonathan Dove chamber arrangement - reduction of the work to be sure - an arrangement which, at least for this first installment, seems to work pretty well - but is not without it's problems.  Nevertheless, before I start nit-picking about little things I want to say that it was an outstanding performance.  Union Ave. did a great job mounting what has got to be a challenge even in the reduced form.  The singers, across the board, were great.  There was not a weak link in the cast - and they were very well balanced (unlike their earlier production of "Ballo.")  For me the standouts in the outstanding cast were - 1st and foremost - Jordan Shanahan as Alberich.  He was simply terrific.  This is a top notch singer.  But he wasn't alone - I really liked Elise Qualgliata as Fricka (I hope she will be back for "Walkure") and Todd von Felker as Fasolt.  Also, hats off to the trio of Rheinmaidens, who performed as a tight unit and had great ensemble. 
     On the whole the orchestra was good.  It is a hard score and I am sure that this reduction, like most that I have performed, is a lot more taxing even than the original.  Conductor Scott Schoonover had good control of the orchestra and maintained a good pace throughout, for the most part.  Things started to drag a bit in the opening of the 2nd scene, but the once the giants arrived the pace got back on track.  I do wonder about Jonathan Dove's orchestration.  Would it have killed him to have included a couple more horns and at least a bass trombone.  The low brass were woefully missing at times, and I am sure it was the orchestration.  And the two horns did yeoman's work with 8 reduced parts - but there were times when there was just not enough horn.  The introduction was cut (drastically) - so I am not talking about that, but, for example, when Alberich steals the gold there is a terrifying blast from the horns which was just not really effective here and I think it was because there weren't enough of them.  There were other moments in the orchestra: the low strings had intonation troubles, especially in the beginning.  And the timpani was just way too timid.  Come on - the entrance of the giants should be powerful, even terrifying - and it wasn't.  The timpani was to meek and the low brass had been cut by the orchestration so it was disappointing. On the other hand, the horns and brass played the valhalla motif beautifully.
     My biggest complaint however are the cuts.  I am not sure whether these cuts came with the reduction or were the choice of the music director.  And certainly some of them were perhaps necessary.  There is really no choice, for example, but to cut the intro if you only have 2 horns and 1 trombone - there is no way to do the 8 horn effect.  But the other cuts were excessive, I thought, and a couple of them affected the opera negatively.  The worst one is the cut of the entire opening of the Niebelheim scene, which resulted in the cutting of the entire character of Mime.  This is really unfortunate.  First, the cut was not seamless and was musically jolting. This also had the effect of ruining the development of the scene with Alberich.  Lastly, Mime is more than comic relief.  He is going to be a central character in Siegfried and Rheingold introduces him and we begin to understand who he is and what motivates him.  The other cut that I thought was really harmful musically occurred after the giants exit with Freia.  In the complete opera, Loge then watches and narrates the descent of the giants with the goddess.  Musically this has always been one of my favorite moments in the opera.  And what follows then develops better.  As it was with this cut, the giants leave with Freia and everyone immediately enters the stupor of not having had their daily apple.  In general I hated the cuts and thought they were excessive.  What are they going to do with the remaining operas in the Ring Cycle?!
     A couple other quibbles - Loge was too compassionate.  Was this his acting or the direction?  I don't know.  But he seemed to feel sorry and be compassionate for Alberich and then the giants.  I don't agree.  Loge should be aloof.  He doesn't care for anyone - like fire!  He is manipulative and selfish. In fact I don't think he really has feelings.  He champions the Rheinmaidens out of a sense of justice.  But there should be no pity for Alberich.  Also, the costumes were pretty good for everyone - except Loge and Donner.  Loge's costume was a complete misfire.  The wig didn't work and the outfit made no sense to me.  And Donner's costume just didn't seem to fit.  And what is with the oversize (papier maché?) hammer? Over kill I think. (BTW - What happened to the anvil strike at the climax of Donner's invocation?!?)  There needed to be more Niebelungs and they need to scream!  It seemed to me like the director did not know what to do with Froh and Donner a lot of the time, they just kind of wandered aimlessly around the stage.  So why did they enter at the beginning of scene 2 with Wotan and Fricka?  There is no good reason and they seemed to not know what to do with themselves.  On the other hand, I really liked the video projections - very effective.  And what a great idea for Loge to put Alberich the toad in his pocket! Also, the costumes for the giants were terrific, as were the Rheinmaidens. (Why was Freia in pink and the rest of the gods in white?)
    In closing this review I have to note that I noticed some Tolkien "Lord of the Rings" references.  Was this just my imagination or did the director purposely put these subtle suggestions into the opera?  Alberich looked like Gimli (except for the beard) and the gods (except Freia) looked elves. Wotan removed the Ring of Power from Alberich's hand by cutting off his finger (a la Frodo and Golum).  But the major allusion was this: I could not help notice that at the very end of the opera the video effect looked eerily like the eye of Sauron.  These are not criticisms.  I actually thought these were kind of cool and it is possible I am imagining them.  But they did seem to jump out at me.
     I know the Ring Cycle very well.  I have seen multiple performances - live and on video.  And I have to say that this was, on the whole, a very effective and excellent performance.  And in many ways I found it more effective and engaging than the horrid LePage production that the Met mounted (which I saw partly live and partly in HD).  And I am sure Union Ave did not have anywhere near the budget that they had at the Met.  And yet, with great singers, creativity, cleverness, and maybe a little fearlessness - and probably lots of volunteer hours - Union Opera was able to give St. Louis a wonderful Wagnerian experience.  Bravo and Thank you!  Union Ave. Opera is a treasure!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Misquoting Shakespeare!

Ok - so I am in a bad mood and nobody will read this post so who cares - but one of my great pet peeves are people who think they are being smart by quoting Shakespeare but they have not only the quote itself wrong but also the context completely wrong, so their cleverness is just plain ignorance.  Here are some examples:
1. The number one most misquoted line from Shakespeare that I have experience is from "12th Night." How many times have we heard folks (even politicians and preachers) in an effort to be profound come out with this: "Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them."  Sounds so inspirational, right!  Wrong! It is not.  The context is that the line appears in a letter that Malvolio finds which he thinks was written by the Lady Olivia (who is his employer and his secret crush), but in reality was written by the maid Maria and her cohorts who are trying to trick and humiliate poor Malvolio - which, by the way, the succeed in doing.  The line in this context is pompous nonsense which Malvolio believes but we in the audience recognize is a ploy and is simple nonsense.  This is not profundity - it is trickery and manipulation!
2. "Romeo and Juliet" is not about love.  I just saw yet another silly Facebook piece of cleverness which attempted to be profound by spouting some eternal truth about "love" using R&J as the starting point.  Sorry - please go read the play.  The play is about vengeance, and revenge and hate, and how those things will eat you up and destroy you and everything you hold dear eventually (those who attempt to shore up their political power by manipulating hate and fear should take note - yes, I'm talking to you right-wing zealots!)
3. "The play's the thing!"  Isn't this such a nice quote to lift up the importance of theater?!  Sorry, not really.  The play's the thing to use to trick and manipulate the emotions of King Claudius so that Hamlet can determine if he is guilty of murdering his father!  The "play" is simply a vehicle to clarify for Hamlet the guilt of his uncle the King!
4. I have already written about the downright stupid ban of the play "Tempest" by people who obviously do not know or understand the play. 

The fact is that Shakespeare is perhaps the greatest writer in the history of western literature whose work is a deep reflection of the human experience - but it is not surface stuff.  What makes Henry IV, parts 1 and 2 incredible is not all of the battle scenes - it is the relationships between Hal and Falstaff and, especially Hal and his father. Shakespeare still has some incredibly profound things to say to us in our society.  I just saw a brilliant production of "Timon of Athens" and then a production of "Coriolanus." Both of these plays have a lot to say to us in our society - about the power and place of wealth and the political process. But please, please, please read the plays and if you are going to impress your friends by quoting him, know the not only the text, but the context too.

I think I need to watch something - let's see what will it be?  I have a "Winter's Tale," "Henry VIII." "Merry Wives," "King Lear," and "Hamlet" videos I have not yet watched.  In my current mood perhaps "King Lear" is not the best choice!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

"The Tempest" - Banned!?!?

  I recently read an article that some group in Arizona - either the legislature or the state school board (it happened a while ago and I could find no articles which actually stated who imposed this ban) - has banned the "Tempest" by Shakespeare.  Apparently this is a part of some overall ban of some nebulous category they are calling "ethnic studies."  The whole thing seems ludicrous to me.  I completely and thoroughly reject banning books - every and any books.  As a society we need to be constantly considering ideas, we need to learn to consider and debate and reject ideas.  If those ideas are never allowed to enter public discourse then we do not learn, we do not grow and we as a society looses and are poorer as a result.  Banning books is done out of fear and ignorance - those who would advocate banning have allowed their fear of ideas and their arrogance to take over. This is a bad thing.  But back to Shakespeare.  I am trying to understand why in the world "The Tempest" of all of Shakespeare's plays would be the one chosen to be banned.
  Let's see.  It can't be sex - Miranda and Ferdinand are perhaps one of the most virtuous couples in all of Shakespeare.  In fact Prospero gives a speech mid-play which would make those who advocate abstinence proud.  And there is more sex in "Romeo and Juliet" and in "Troilus and Cressida."  How about violence?  Hmm - no one dies.  Unlike "Hamlet," Richard III," "Othello," "Lear," "Julius Caesar," and I could go on and on (not to even mention the bear eating the human scene from "Winter's Tale" or Shakespeare orgy of violence "Titus Andonicus.")  All of these plays remain unbanned.  Perhaps it is the magic.  There is the spirit Ariel, there is lots of magic.  But surely there is more magic in "Midsummer Night's Dream" (not to mention "Harry Potter" or "Lord of the Rings").  Then what else. Gary Panetta in his usual astute way suggests that the reason has to do with the character of Caliban, and Caliban's relationship with Prospero.
   Ok. Caliban is often seen as a symbol of the peoples of the places that were just beginning to be colonized in the early 17th century.  Places like Africa and North America had human populations with darker skin and different cultural traditions.  They were seen as beastly, and novelties by white Europeans.  They were also enslaved, and England at the time of Shakespeare had slavery.  It has been argued that Caliban represents these peoples and Prospero in his relationship with Caliban represents the brutal and cruel white Europeans.  Perhaps.  It is true.  Prospero does not treat Caliban well.  And Caliban hates Prospero.  But Caliban also joins up with Stephano and Triculo who are not admirable white Europeans by any account.  Next to these fools Caliban looks downright wise.  So, is is always the case in Shakespeare, it is mixed.  There is no propaganda here.  Shakespeare didn't (I think) understand Caliban himself.  And one could argue that Caliban is one of the nobler characters in the Tempest.  And in the end Prospero renounces his magic and so Caliban is set free.
   If this is the reason for the ban - I still don't understand it. Colonization happened.  Many native peoples and cultures were destroyed in the process.  We need to be honest about this.  We need to look at this fact and teach and discuss it.  Are they trying to pretend it didn't happen in Arizona?  What good will that do?  That is idiotic- as is this ban.
   But ultimately what is The Tempest about?  In my view, it is about the high cost of vengeance.  Prospero seeks to be revenged upon the usurping Duke of Milan and the King of Naples.  And this desire consumes him, and ultimately it devours him.  He is able to confront his enemies and they too are changed, but it seems to me that it is Prospero who looses the most in this.  It is as though the evil done then continues to weave its spell until all of the actors are bound and destroyed by it.  The only hope is for the next generation - the lovers who are untouched by this hated.  Miranda and Ferdinand emerge unscathed and we hope for the future because of them.  Ariel and Caliban are also free.  Now, why is this play banned?
   I suppose we can't have our impressionable youth reading about adults who are flawed, and have done wicked things in order to advance in society, or who have appropriated wealth and title though deception and character assassination.  We don't want to pervert our young people with the issues surrounding colonization and justice.  Heavens who knows these young people might actually grow up to be thinking, mature adults for whom issues of justice are important.  We can;t have that - can we Arizona?
   In short - this ban is simply moronic - like all book bans.  Certainly The Tempest does not represent a danger to civil society.  In fact, studying The Tempest might actually help our young people to be thoughtful and insightful.  But don't let them read "Measure for Measure," that one is about the abuse of power and sexual abuse!
   I read about this idiotic ban just about the same time I received my DVD of the Julie Taymor/Helen Mirren "The Tempest."  If you want to brush up on your Tempest, get this film.  It is terrific.  The film is shot on location in Hawaii and certainly they found the island of the Tempest in this location.  All of the acting is terrific.  But the casting of Helen Mirren as Prospera is particularly noteworthy.  This character is Prospero in Shakespeare and is usually played by a man.  But you come away from this production thinking it is better with a woman in the lead role.  Certainly all kinds of dynamics are changed - the relationship with Miranda and then Miranda/Ferdinand now becomes a mother/daughter relationship which has all kinds of different dynamics than the usual father/daughter relationship (which was so important to Shakespeare).  There is heightened sexual tension with Ariel, and there is a different dynamic with the relationship with Caliban.  But mostly the issue of revenge, which is so central to this play, is really altered.  In other productions I have seen I have come away thinking that Prospero was just interested in getting even and regaining what he has lost.  But Julie Taymor pushes it all towards the issue of justice.  In fact, it is clear that Prospera will not be satisfied with getting even or getting back - she wants justice and hopes that her daughter and Ferdinand will bask in its glow so that their lives and the lives of those who are impacted by them will be better.  It is a hopeful note.  Surely this is not all Taymor - it is in the Shakespeare - but at the same time the sex change of the leading character but the acting skill of Helen Mirren herself bring a depth to this role that I have never ever before experienced.
   The remainder of the cast is terrific. I would make special note of Ben Wishaw as Ariel and Djimon Hounsou as Caliban.  Both of the actors were magnificent.  Ariel was the only member of the cast whose presence was not required for filming on location.  He did most of his work in a studio in London in front of a green screen and the rendering of his character in this film is one of the great wonders of this film.  In short - buy this DVD.  Enjoy this production of the Tempest which is like none you have ever seen before.  And while you are at it - buy an extra copy and send it to someone you know in Arizona.