Sunday, November 3, 2013

Young Stars

One thing that has always bothered me is this phenomenon of children becoming opera singers.  Examples: Charlotte Church or especially Jackie Evancho who (supposedly) sounds like an adult.  To me, allowing them to sing like that is a bad thing - maybe even moving in the direction of child abuse.  This article explains this better than I ever could.  But the bottom line: let children be children and don't push them to be like adults.  And if they appear to have talent find a professional teacher to guide them and not push them into things that they are not yet ready for.  Sorry - a child singing Puccini or Verdi is just wrong.  Read and enjoy and learn!

Dr. Opera at the Viginia Opera!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

St. Louis' Union Ave Opera Production of "Walküre" is Triumph

Part II - Die Walküre

   I had the opportunity to experience part II of the Ring last night at Union Ave Opera of St. Louis.  They have embarked upon a 4 year project to produce all 4 Ring operas in the Graham Vick/Jonathan Dove reduction.  And right off the bat I simply want to say the performance last night was a triumph.  Union Ave Opera deserves much, much congratulations for tackling such a huge project (even in reduction the Ring is challenging) and for doing such an excellent job.  I want to also say that last night's Walküre was a big improvement over last year's Rheingold for reasons I will spell out below.  My review of Rheingold is below several posts.
    First, the cast was terrific - all of them.  James Taylor as Siegmund and Amber Smoke as Sieglinde even looked alike.  Their singing was beautiful, and their acting really drew you into them.  I felt more compassion for them last night than I had remember ever feeling before for them before.  And for the first time I felt like I wanted to go up on stage and tell Fricka to back off, and leave this poor couple of suffering twins alone.  Fricka was brilliantly sung by Elise Qugliata (returning from last year) and she was wonderful - cold and manipulative.  Everything you want in Fricka.  The Wotan of Timothy Bruno was also very effective (he was much better this year I thought).  At times I felt he displayed a little vocal unevenness, but this disappeared by the Farewell scene at the end and he really did an outstanding job of bringing the audience into his own pain and struggle.  Ultimately Wotan is not a terribly sympathetic character - he is arrogant and cruel.  But Timothy Bruno found a way to make us actually care for this god, even in the midst of his heartless cruelty to his Walsüng twins.  Nathan Whitson was a great Hunding - what a gorgeous sonorous bass voice!  I was sorry so much of his part was cut as I would like to have heard more of him (this is true with Siegmund as well).  The 3 (yes count them 3) Valkyries were very good - singing in close harmony they all nailed their hiyotohos.  Their part and scene was drastically cut so we didn't get to enjoy them as much as we might have.  
    Without taking anything from anyone else the star of this production was without a doubt Alexandra LoBianco as Brünnhilde.  I have seen the complete Ring many times - in the theater, at the Met, at LOC, on TV, Video, YouTube, etc...  I probably watch through the entire Ring at least a couple times each year.  And Alexandra can stand equal to the best Brünnhildes I have ever seen.  She was terrific in every way.  Vocally she nailed the role - not a small feat even in this reduced version and smaller venue.  Her voice was always shimmering and beautiful.  One thing I always watch for is how the Brünnhilde manages the decision to defy Wotan. This is not an easy scene dramatically and not every Brünnhilde pulls it off convincingly.  Not so here, I totally believed her.  What other choice could she have made.  Which then made Wotan's reaction to her all the more heart-wrenching and unreasonable.  It really became all about his need to be in control.  Brava Alexandra for allowing me to experience the best Brünnhilde I have experienced since Hildegard Behrens over 20 years ago!  This soprano deserves a major career.
     That being said I have to say that while Scott Schoonover did a great job pacing this opera there were problems in the pit.  In fact the only musical problems of the evening came from the pit.  Specifically (sorry - I can't ignore this) - intonation in the brass.  At times it was just terrible!  Yes I now the parts are hard, probably even more so in reduction (I have played reductions of other scores and I know that it increases the workload).  But come on, the pitch problems were at times so blatant that they detracted from the stage.  Also, the lower strings (specifically the celli) struggled in Act II.  Otherwise the orchestra was good.  The woodwinds were wonderful - I especially loved Donita Bauer on Bassoon and Jeanine York-Garesché on clarinet (but it is her bass clarinet work that really stood out).  My old friend and colleague Ann Homan played beautifully as well equally on oboe and English Horn.  The upper strings were terrific and there were times when both Principal Horn Nancy Schick and Principal Trumpet Robert Souza were really glorious.  The percussion/timpani balance (which I complained about in the Rheingold review below) was much better.  On the whole the orchestration works pretty well.  But one criticism from Rheingold continues - there needs to be more low brass.  This score needs a tuba!  Would it have ruined the concept to have added the tuba into the score.  I would like to petition Jonathan Dove to please add back in at least a tuba and maybe even a bass trombone.  (What in the world are they going to do with that incredible tuba solo at the beginning of Act II of Siegfried?).
     On the whole the cuts worked much better in Walküre than they did in Rheingold.  A couple of the cuts in Rheingold were very awkward and disconcerting (especially the cut at the beginning of the Niebelheim scene).  But not so with Walküre.  For the most part they were pretty seamless and smoother.  I really only noticed a couple of them.  For example, I was sorry that Vick/Dove felt they had to cut the death of Hunding.  So instead we have Wotan waving his spear and Hunding collapsing.  It would have added maybe 5 minutes max to have included Wotan's bitter lines - "go pray to Fricka - weh, weh, weh."  The changing of act arrangement was ok and probably necessary, but I thought ending Act II quietly was anti-climactic and disappointing.  I really didn't mind that the Ride of Valkyries was cut so drastically, it really doesn't add much to the plot and with only 3 Valkyries and I don't think the banter would have worked.  But I was surprised they chose to cut Waltraute.  She is going to make an appearance in part IV and the connection, I think is important.  Now maybe Graham/Vick will cut the Waltraute scene from Götterdämerung (I hope not) - so then it won't matter.  But just like cutting Mime from Rheingold I think it detracts from the connecting of the Ring together.
    The costumes were really nice - much better than Rheingold and I liked the projections - especially the fire at the end - very effective.  Some of the mountain projections looked a lot like LOTR scenes.  And my son pointed out to me that Nothung seemed to be an exact copy of Narsil from LOTR.  I like the connections with LOTR, even if they are not explicit (there were more in Rheingold).  
     In closing I just want to say again, this was a terrific production.  Ultimately the best part of this reduced production is to heighten the psychological depth of the story.  And I found this quite moving.  Union Ave. Opera deserves much congratulations for this. Thanks and Bravi Tutti!

Friday, May 31, 2013

Opera Theater St. Louis Presents "Pirates of Penzance"

     Well, OTSL - St. Louis' professional opera company has opened its brief season with a wonderful production of the Gilbert and Sullivan staple "Pirates of Penzance or the Slave of Duty."  I arrived at the theater kind of early so I went to the pre-performance lecture given by the rehearsal accompanist.  She did a nice job, she covered all the basics about the story of the creation of Pirates.  She left out that "Climbing Over the Rocky Mountain" was lifted from "Thespis" but I can't really criticize her for that.  Only the "inner brethern and sistern" of G&S fans really know that "Thespis" was written at all.  Much less that one great chorus was lifted by Sullivan and there are some who think that Sullivan may have lifted more than just the one chorus.  Well, I am not among those - but I digress as this is besides the point anyway. But, at some point during the talk she referred to G&S "fanatics" who "know all the shows by heart."  Guilty!  I proudly identify myself, since I am a proud member of savoynet and have been a G&S "fantatic since I was 10!
     One of the characteristics of G&S lovers (a better word than fanatic) is a deep love and respect for the text as written by Gilbert, the structure of the opera itself and the integrity of Sullivan's music and orchestrations.  I am happy to report that with one exception this production got A plusses all around on all of these issues.  The production was very traditional, not a word is cut or altered and all the songs are there.  The only disappointing exception was a cut at the very beginning as the overture - no "With Catlike Tread," no oboe cadenza and no "O Leave Me Not To Pine."  It was too bad.  I would have liked to have heard the SLSO's wonderful oboist Philip Roth play that cadenza and the following solo. I am not sure I get the point of the cut.  It's not like it takes a long time to play the whole overture. And they don't cut Mozart or Rossini overttures.  Besides, how often does one get to hear a great orchestra like the SLSO perform Sullivan?  Not very often!   Oh well.  I am happy to report, however, that they got the biggest dissapointment over with within the first 10 minutes and once the show started it was a terrific and completely traditional production.  There were lots of funny bits, some borrowed from other productions - but the choreography was fresh and fun.  
     But by far, the best thing about this production is the singing.  These singers are terrific - every single one of them - the smaller parts, like Samuel, Edith, Kate and Isabel, the chorus and all of the principals! The cast and chorus are top notch.  There is not a weak link among them.  For me I have to make special mention of Maria Zifchak as Ruth.  She is a regular compromaria at the Met in NYC and she is simply wonderful, both as a singer and actor.  Paired with Bradley Smoak as a wonderfully sonorous voiced Pirate King and heroic tenor Matthew Plenk as Frederick this trio was spectacular.  For me the highlight of the entire show was the "Paradox" scene because of these three. Deanna Breiwick was equally glorious as Mabel, and the slight improvisations to the cadenza of "Poor Wandering Ones" were clever and fun (think - flute - "Lucia di Lammermore").  Hugh Russell was acceptable as the Major General.  The tempo for the patter song was moderately fast, but the encore was a disappointment.  It seemed to me that they just returned to the regular tempo for the repetition of verse 3 for the encore.  I don't understand why they didn't double the tempo on it.  Anyway, for a G&S "Fanatic" it just wasn't quite patter enough. By the way - note to the costume designer - a Major-General has TWO stars not one!  Also the St. Louis Post-Dispatch complained about the uniform, they wanted the red dress uniform (which is traditional).  The khaki uniform, they said, seemed too informal.  Well, maybe, (how many real Major-Generals would go walking on the beach with their families wearing their dress uniforms? But this is Gilbert's Topsy-Turvy world after all!)  I do agree that the red might have made the entire entrance scene much flashier and helped him to make more of an impact on his entrance!
     Jason Eck was a good Sergeant of Police though he seemed to me to be more of a high baritone than a bass (what a beautiful upper register he has!)  But his lowest notes seemed a bit strained and difficult for him. He was funny enough in the role.  The chorus is glorious and the orchestra is - well - the orchestra is the St. Louis Symphony - what can you say - they are terrific.  The show was well paced and funny.  All around it was a great evening of Gilbert and Sullivan.  
     One last comment, in an earlier interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the director, Seán Curran, is quoted as saying that he had never seen a production of Pirates before he took on this project for OTSL. And so he came at the show fresh without any baggage from other productions.  Maybe that is true - certainly his choreography is fresh and fun.  But to be quite honest there were a lot of traditional bits in this show.  And that is ok - we G&S "fanatics" like to see certain bits - probably put in my George Grossmith - continued and we miss them when they are not there.  But if he had never seen the show before how did he know about these bits? Did he consult the Martyn Green commentary? Ok, but what about the all of the bits that came right out of the Papp production - and there were many! They were funny in Papp and they were funny here.  But how can he claim to have no knowledge of Papp yet use so much of Papp in the show?  Even the big surprise at the end (which I won't give away) - which was not in Papp - but if you have seen even a few other productions you will have seen this before. I have probably seen the bit maybe 2 or 3 other times.  It was funny and fun - but not new.  So, I wasn't sure what to make of the claim that was in the paper.  Maybe the cast put all these bits in - I don't know. 
     Ultimately I suppose it is not important.  For this Pirates is a great and fun show and I wholeheartedly encourage you to plan a trip to St. Louis to see it, if for no other reason than just to hear the score sung by these glorious voices.
     A final word: I noticed in the program that over the years OTSL has done Mikado, Pinafore, Gondoliers, Cox & Box and Trial as well as Pirates.  Maybe it is time for them to think out of the box and consider doing Yeoman, Ruddigore or Iolanthe!
     Anyway - GO SEE THIS - IT IS GREAT!
Martyn Green as Major-General Stanley - D'Oyly Carte Company - See what I mean about the red dress uniform!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

"Measure for Measure" at the Goodman, Chicago

     I am trying to catch up, but I wanted to post some comments about the production of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" which just finished its run at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.  "Measure for Measure" is one of Shakespeare's comedies.  It is not well-known and it is not often performed.  The play itself has some difficulties (see below) and the ambiguities in the text make it hard to perform.  Like many of Shakespeare's "comedies" it certainly is not very funny.  The play is about sexual coercion, sex, law and hypocrisy.  This alone makes it probably not a play for most High School drama departments.  But still M4M is an excellent play and I think Shakespeare makes some very profound and important points about all of these issues.  The hypocrisy of the high government officials (Angelo and, yes the Duke too), who would condemn some for breaking the rules while at the same time engaging in even more depraved sexual, objectifying and cruel behavior themselves lay at the heart of the this play and is certainly a timely theme.  Those holier-than-thou types - be they religious right-wing tea-partiers or US senators or media personalities - who would condemn others for their "depravity" and "immorality" need to look to themselves.  "Look out" they scream, "allowing gay marriage will destroy traditional marriage and family," ignoring the fact that as an institution marriage has already been ripped apart by the misconduct and irresponsible behavior of morally vacant heterosexuals!  Back from 1604 then Shakespeare holds up the glass and says - see anyone familiar in the reflection, hypocrite - Angelo - Vincenzo!  This is a play for our times if there ever was one.  And on the whole this production went a long way towards lifting that mirror, but in the end it failed, unfortunately and very disappointingly. 
     First, It should go without saying that this was a fully professional production with a terrific cast.  I might quibble with some of the character interpretations here and there but the acting was top-notch by the entire company.  The production itself was updated to New York in the 60's, when New York was over-run with peep shows, prostitution and gangs. The updating worked for the most part though there were a few disconnects.  The set was terrific and easily moved and reinvented itself from scene to scene. The prison scenes were particularly stark and terrifying.
    Now I have seen other productions of this play - most notably a production at Chicago Shakespeare from a few years ago which was directed by the brilliant and incomparable Barbara Gaines. I cannot help but compare a couple things with what I remember from that production.  First and notably, in other productions the Duke, Vincenzo has come off as manipulative, weak but relatively harmless.  He is usually drawn as someone who basically wants to do the right thing.  But not in the Goodman production.  The Duke (played by James Newcomb) was THE central character in this production.  He was extremely manipulative and I got the feeling that he was somewhat malicious, actually enjoyed causing the pain that so many of the characters experience.  I liked this, and thought it was honest to the text.  This helped make this production really move forward.  It was almost as though Angelo is set up by the Duke to fail; as though the Duke anticipated his fatal flaw and knew that he would not be able to overcome it.  With the Duke larger than life, the rest of the cast is automatically a little more diminished.  Angelo moves forward under the shadow of the Duke.  This actor, Jay Whittaker, was terrific.  His Angelo was uptight, self-righteous and pedantic (as Shakespeare wrote him) but when he fell, he really fell.  The "seduction" scene was almost a rape scene and it was powerfully acted by Whittaker and the Isabella of Alejandra Escalante. I do not remember that scene as ever being staged that violently in past productions, but I was deeply affected by it.  The other character that I was struck by was the Lucio of Jeffrey Carlson.  Usually this character is played as very flamboyent. Now, I have seen Jeffrey Carlson before - he was a terrific Hal in Chicago Shakes' Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and also Marlowe's Edward II.  Carlson is an incredible actor, one of the best I have ever had the opportunity to see perform.  He can do anything the director calls on him to do.  In this case, he was, surprisingly a rather understated Lucio and as a result he was much, much more sympathetic than usual.  When the Duke goes after him at the end it really seems very malicious and cruel, and completely out of proportion.  So, Lucio insulted you a little while you were disguised - get over it!  Well done!  The Pompey of Aaron Todd Douglas was also very brilliantly played. 
    Some quibbles - First, as a pastor (albeit not Catholic, but still) I have to say that dressing the Cardinal in full liturgical garb for an office meeting with the Duke was just plain ridiculous.  Religious professionals don't wander around in full liturgical garb when they are conducting their administrative duties.  A cassock with red lining would have sufficed and been more believable.  Also, Shakespeare has the Duke disguised as a Monk.  This production had the Duke disguised as a priest.  That didn't work for me. They should have kept the religious lay professional.  One cannot just put on a collar and pretend to be a priest. I found that change nonsensical.  And another quibble, unfortunately - for me the "justice, justice, justice" speech of Isabella in the last scene of the last act is the most powerful moment in the play.  But not here.  I thought she threw that line away.  It made no impact and was over before you even knew it.  Another thing that made me uncomfortable, the actors playing Isabella and her brother Claudio (Kevin Fugaro) peppered their lines with Spanish dialog. They were the token hispanics I suppose, but it was disturbing to me that they were the only Hispanic characters in the play and it just so happens that they are also the victims.  Why not a Hispanic Provost or police officer?  Why Hispanic victims?
    My most intense criticism is about the ending.  I am not going to be giving anything away here since the play is closed.  The ending as written by Shakespeare is problematic.  There is no denying it.  In the original text Isabella "gets" to marry the Duke at the end of the play as a "reward" for being the only character in the play with any kind of morality and honesty.  But he has to ask twice and she never actually accepts the proposal.  I think for Shakespeare's original audience that might have made sense.  What could be better for a commoner in the 17th century than to have the opportunity to marry up and to become a Duchess!  But for a 21st century audience this ending sucks.  The Duke has no morality at all, he has been manipulative and downright cruel to Isabella.  He uses her differently than Angelo, but in my mind his use of her is more insidious than Angelo's.  So why would she want to marry this man.  And besides she had committed to become a nun.  In the aforementioned Chicago Shakes production the last moment of the play has the Duke claiming her in marriage and her looking expressionless out at the audience as if so communicate her shock that the sexual abuse and objectification she has already experienced are not going to end anytime soon.  It worked, and I found the ending very powerful. Now to this production.  I was wondering what in the world this director (Goodman's Artistic Director Robert Falls) would do with this, but in my wildest dreams I could not have imagined his solution to this dilemma.
    Measure for Measure is classified as a "comedy" in the Shakespeare canon.  This simply means that no one dies at the end.  It certainly doesn't mean the play is funny - because it isn't and many of Shakespeare's comedies are certainly not funny.  The other category of plays are called "tragedies" and what distinguishes them is the body count at the end.  Take "Hamlet" for example.  The only principal character left alive at the end is Horatio.  Ok, so guess what.  How was the problem ending in this play resolved in this production? This director jumped genres and turned "Measure for Measure" into a tragedy.  At the very end, Bernardine (a very minor character who I barely remember from other productions) pulls out a knife and murders Isabella!  What! Yes, Virginia, "Measure for Measure" is not a comedy after all, it is a tragedy.  But wait.  What exactly in Bernardine's motivation for such an act?  Well, let's see.... hmmmmm .... there is none.  It is totally random.  He had just been pardoned.  Ok, maybe he is a psycho and likes to kill.  Perhaps.  I'm not sure.  This Berhardine is definitely a nutcase, but as originally conceived I think he is a little morbid, dark comedic relief.  Not here, he is a psychopath.  But was this made apparent in the production?  Well, no!  From Isabella's standpoint I suppose it beats being stuck with this asshole of a Duke for the rest of your life, so maybe the director was trying to help his poor Isabella escape a fate worse than death (marrying the Duke) by murdering her. Does it sound like I am not enthusiastic about this directorial choice?  Yes.  I absolutely, positively hate it!  It simply ruins the play.  It makes me think that the director, despite his skill (which is clearly tremendous) and the many years he claims to have studied the play in the end did not really understand it and decided to take the easy way out. 
     Look, ambiguity is part of the point! Real life rarely has things tied up and resolved as neatly as they often are in plays, musicals, operas, movies and tv shows.  We all have to live with a lot of ambiguity.  By 1604 when this play was written Shakespeare himself was dealing with a lot of painful unresolved issues. Whether the poor girl is forced to marry the jerk of a Duke or whether she managed somehow to put him off, nevertheless, IMHO, murdering Isabella is the ultimate directorial cop-out!  Why struggle with the ambiguous ending, we'll just kill her off.  Poor choice.  It ruined the play for me.
     Lastly, I attended a pre-play discussion led by the dramaturg, Neena Arndt.  Of course she couldn't give away the ending.  But given the profound change that the director made to the end I really question the point of the pre-play discussion.  Maybe it should have been called an introduction to Shakespeare.  For a discussion it needed to have been scheduled for after the performance so those of us who know our Shakespeare could have vented our extreme displeasure at the horrid directorial decision which was made for the ending. But I have another complaint, during the course of this discussion I asked a question about the relation between "Measure for Measure" and "All's Well That Ends Well."  Both plays deal with sexual coercion - M4M has the victim as a woman, but in AWTED the victim is a young man. Both plays were written in and around 1604.  There has to be some connection.  But she knew nothing about it and I got the sense she didn't even know AWTEW. What a disappointment.
     Would I return to the Goodman for more Shakespeare.  Yes, of course.  This "Measure for Measure" was a provocative and brilliantly acted production.  But I would challenge the director in the future to not look for cop-outs as a way to resolve difficult and ambiguous Shakespearean endings.
    Last comment - I read the review in the Chicago Tribune.  Did that reviewer actually really attend the play?  If so, my next question is did that reviewer actually ever read that play before he attended the performance?  It does not appear so to me.

Here is a link to what is left about this production on their website: Goodman "Measure for Measure"

Friday, March 8, 2013

A Facelift...

I decided that I needed to give this blog a facelift.  It is not only about opera, but I have a great love of Shakespeare and the theater and have been a professional oboist (English Horn, Recorder) for 40 some years.  So hence the face lift.  I am currently immersed in studying Shakespeare's life and watching some DVD's of plays I haven't seen in a while (or ever) - Richard II, Lear, Merry Wives, Coriolanus.  I just received new DVD's of Much Ado and Winter's Tale and look forward to watching them.  I also today saw a trailer for Josh Whedon's new film adaptation of Much Ado - it looks interesting and I look forward to watching it.  The trailer is curious - some of the actors seemed to be kind of wooden in their delivery of the lines - but we will see.  Tonight we go to see St. Louis Winter Opera's Tosca, and last month we saw their Ballad of Baby Doe.  I am interested to see how they do this Puccini classic.  Baby Doe was good, but a little lacking in energy.  Then it is up to Danville to hear my son perform as principal bassoon with the Danville Symphony.  The program consists of two works: Mahler 1 and the Beethoven Violin Concerto.  Both of the these pieces have incredible wind parts.  I have played both on numerous occasions and I look forward to hearing the performance.

Also within the last month I saw the Met HD broadcast of Rigoletto and Parsifal.  Both were terrific.  The Rigoletto is much maligned in some circles because of the updating to Vegas in the 50's.  The Duke and his court become the Rat Pack.  I found it to be entertaining in a way that Rigoletto is usually not. I enjoyed it.  It was certainly better than the horrid Lyric Opera production from about 12 years ago which set the opera in a 19th century "Gentleman's Club."  Musically it was amazing.  The cast was terrific. I loved the duet between Rigoletto and Sparafucile at the bar.  The only disconnect for me really was having Sparafucile dump Gilda's body in the truck of his car which sported the license plate "SPARFUC."  Now what hit man in his right mind would do that.  It was cute, but kind of a silly gimmick.  The Parsifal was very beautifully sung and played.  The Met Orchestra is in my view the best orchestra at least in the USA.  And they were in great form.  Outstanding cast.  The production was good.  The pool of blood in act 2 was creepy, but I think it was supposed to be.  I love the Met and wish I could see all of their productions!

Finally I might comment on the ballet performances we saw last month.  The St. Louis Ballet Co. production of Romeo and Juliet was terrific.  They used the Prokofiev complete ballet, my first experience with it (though I played the suites on several occasions), and it was a beautiful production.  The dancing was very beautiful - especially haunting and moving was the final dance where Romeo attempts to dance with a lifeless Juliet in the tomb.  One quibble - I think they should just take a line somewhere to identify the orchestra.  I understand they used a recording - ok, fine - but what recording?  I think it sounded like an older Russian recording (based on the oboists tone).  Then we saw the Nashville Ballet in a performance of Carmina Burana. This was a joint collaboration between the U of St. Louis music department and the ballet.  The first half of the program was the St. Louis Bach group doing a cantata which was choreographed.  I didn't mind the choreography and actually enjoyed the dancers, but musically it was really poor.  Is this a true example of the quality of St. Louis Bach performances - slow tempi, no da capos, amplified singers, weak soloists and the absolute worst = using a piano for continuo!  I could barely stand to listen to it and if I could have escaped would have walked out of the first half.  I expect not to make an effort to attend any of their future performances.  The 2nd half was a lot better though.  The chorus was terrific - only one obvious difficulty and that on one of the hardest men's choruses in the piece.  The soloists were a lot better.  The bass was poor in Bach, but did a nice job with Carmina.  The student (?) orchestra was very good and the choreography was terrific!  The dancing was really outstanding, and demonstrated a really deep understanding of these medieval poems on the part of the choreographer.  Hats off to him.  My major complaint is the use of amplification!  The Touhill auditorium has nice acoustics.  The amplification was unnecessary and detrimental.  The loud chorus stuff was too loud and painful and the soft stuff lost its tenderness and intimacy.  The soprano suffered the most from the poor amplification.  She sounded harsh, though I could tell she was trying to spin her high notes the amplification ruined them! It might have worked if the engineer had taken the subtle approach of just reinforcing the voices.  But he didn't.  Personally there was no need for a sound system at all - period!  It simply marred an otherwise fine and exciting performance. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"The Hollow Crown"

     Over the last three weeks PBS has been running a series called "Shakespeare Uncovered" which has been excellent and very enjoyable.  The segment on the history plays - Richard II, Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, and Henry V - really caught my eye due to the focus on a new filmed production of these 4 plays in England and broadcast under the overall title "The Hollow Crown." Of course they have not been released here in the US and one hopes that in time they will be.  However, after a little searching on the internet - guess what - all 4 plays can be seen in their entirety on YouTube (just search for "The Hollow Crown").  So over the last 2 weeks I have taken the time to watch them and thought I would share some thoughts about these films.  They were apparently filmed in anticipation of the Olympics and the Queen's 50th Anniversary and they were broadcast last summer around the time of the Olympics.  The casts include some of England's finest actors, and on the whole I found all 4 plays to be very well done and at times moving and beautifully performed.  The on-location filming was one of the best things about the films.  But they are not perfect, and so below are a couple comments about the individual films.
     Richard II stars the young British actor Ben Whishaw who has been very busy of late in "Cloud Atlas" and Helen Mirran's "Tempest."  For me "Richard II" and this performance of the title role was the high point in the entire series.  Whishaw really captures Richard's self love and Christ ideation. The supporting cast was outstanding - led by Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt and David Suchet (of "Poirot" fame) as Edmund, the Duke of York. Unfortunately I could not find an online complete cast list so I cannot identify the actors.  But in addition to Stewart and Suchet I was also taken with the young actor who played the Duke of Aumerle and the actor who played the Earl of Northumberland. I found this to be the strongest of the 4 films, though there are a couple things worth noting.  1st, I found it very interesting that the director completely changed the ending - eliminating the character of Sir Pierce of Exton, who is the one who Shakespeare appoints to execute Richard.  He is replaced in the films by the character of the Duke of Aumerle, who is York's son and had been one of the conspirators.  By doing this the director strengthened the Christ analogy by having Aumerle play Judas.  It is too bad Shakespeare didn't think of this.  And if you think about it too long it starts to fall apart dramatically.  I think that was a misfire and a mistake.  Also, while I suppose that it is to be expected that plays where there is plenty of sword fights, battles and people having their heads cut off would include some blood and violence I found it notable that only Richard II of the 4 had explicit violence - namely the execution by beheading of Bushy and Greene done in all if gory excess. I had expected this to be the norm and was ready for another beheading in Henry IV part 2 (the Archbishop of York and his compatriots) but no.  Bushy and Greene were it - so in retrospect it seems gratuitous.  But there are small details.  On the whole Richard II is a triumph and one of the best Shakespeare films available.
    Next we come to Henry IV - parts 1 & 2.  Led by the stunning performance of Jeremy Irons as King Henry IV and backed by an excellent cast including Tom Hiddleston as Hal and Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff.  Also, Michelle Dockery, of "Downton Abbey" fame, plays Kate Percy, and the actor who plays Hotspur (I could not find his name on IMBD or the BBC sites!) are also quite extraordinary.  I especially liked how this Hotspur was completely focused on war and violence even to the point of disregarding his very beautiful wife (who at one point undresses in front of the messenger who gawks at her, even though her husband doesn't seem to notice at all!)  This has always been the way I read the play, but most performances I have seen have Hotspur melting eventually to his wife's charms - but not this Hotspur - he seems immune to the charms of his wife's beauty and her intense and devoted love! I also loved the performance of Henry Faber as the "good son" John of Lancaster, Hal's younger brother, who orchestrates with Westmorland the trickery that leads to the capture and execution of the rebellion led by the Archbishop of York.  Faber is fresh faced, innocent, charming, disarming, cold-hearted and merciless in that scene!  He is magnificent!  All of the scenes with Jeremy Irons sparkle, especially his confrontations with Hal. Iron's performance is one of the great film performances of any Shakespeare role.  I liked the Eastcheap crowd led by Falstaff.  This Falstaff was a little more smarmy than others I have seen who tended to be more jolly.  But Julie Walters as Mistress Quickly is also outstanding.  I have to say, that in contrast to the theater where my experience is that these scenes can steal the show, for me in the film version they seemed claustrophobic and I was always glad to return to Court or the battlefield.  I should give a shout out to the actor who plays Justice Shallow.  This was a sensitive and moving portrayal of a character who is usually just a joke or the butt of a joke.  I also should say that found it a little disconcerting that the few characters who were in both Richard II and Henry IV were played by different actors.  I would have preferred the same actors to play their roles in the whole series, except when age prevents it.  The exception would be Bollingbrook to King Henry IV - they are drastically different characters.  But I cannot for the life of me understand why they would have replaced the terrific Northumberland from Richard II.  There are some small cuts which are annoying - we never see John of Lancaster saving his father during the battle of Shrewsbury and we do not see why Falstaff is laying as if dead on the ground (he was attacked by Douglas in the play - but not in the film).  Minor cuts true, but kind of needless in my view.
     When we come to Henry V then the cuts take center stage as the number #1 weakness of this film.  The character of Captain Gower is eliminated and all of the banter between him and Fluellen is cut. But the worst cut is the removal of the conspiracy scene.  Olivier cut this scene from the film back when he filmed Henry V during World War II, and then it was a conscious choice for wartime and political reasons.  I am not sure if there were such reasons this time around, but for me it ruins the narrative and turns it into a jingoistic ride to the glorious victory at Agincourt.  I cannot imagine any good reason to cut this scene.  It doesn't take that long and it deepens the narrative.  This is, in my view the single worst thing about this series. On the other hand, I thought turning the boy (Falstaff's page) into the chorus at the end was brilliant.  Even so, sorry to say the battle scene at Agincourt is not as good as the Kenneth Branagh film in my view.  There was certainly more attention paid to historical accuracy in the battle scene in the Branagh film.  They pass over the French murder of the boys at the baggage train with barely a mention, and if you want to really want to understand how it was possible for Henry to win the battle of Agincourt when the odds were so stacked against him you will have to consult another source because you won't get many hints here - except perhaps divine intervention or luck.  The Branagh film devotes enough time to the long bow archers and the field conditions that one can get a better sense of why the French lost this battle.  I enjoyed Tom Hiddleston as Henry, though I liked him better as Hal.  He is a fine actor and I would love to see him do these roles on stage.  Other complaints: I did not like that Henry had no part in the hanging of Bardolph.  The hanging was over by the time Henry finds out about it.  That weakens his character and the play.  I also did not like the delivery of the famous St. Crispen's Day speech for his small group of officers.  It somehow took the power out of the speech. As mentioned above Fluellen is a cipher in this production, and nothing really matters except Agincourt.  Even so, there are fine performances by Catherine of Valois and the Duke of Exeter.  I also enjoyed the performance of the French actor who played Montjoy. (Curious that French actors were cast in most of the French roles, excepting the King - it was rather glaring he and the Dauphin that he was the only French character without a French accent.)
    In conclusion I would say that it is definitely is worth watching and owning this series.  Richard II is the strongest, Henry V is the weakest.  Wikipedia lists this series as "The Hollow Crown, part 1."  Does this mean that we can expect a part 2?  Henry VI, parts 1, 2, 3 to Richard III perhaps?  That would be nice.  But next time, go easy on the cuts please and keep the casts stable from play to play.  It adds to the strength of the production.