Friday, May 27, 2011

Casting Out the Self (on Wagner's Die Walkure at the Met)


Richard Wagner Die Walküre / The Metropolitan Opera, New York, live in HD broadcast, May 14, 2011

One of the major questions of Wagner's great opera, Die Walküre, is how it is possible to cast out or renounce oneself, and a great deal of the argumentative and pleading discussion between Wotan and his warrior daughter, Brünnhilde, is precisely about this issue. She claims, rightfully, that in protecting Siegmund she has only followed the will of Wotan, even if it is no longer his stated command. She is, she argues, only a manifestation of his will, and has no other existence. On his part, Wotan must suffer the strictures of his own laws, particularly since he has himself ignored those laws in search of power and love. Fricka, who insists on his destroying Siegmund in favor of Hunding, may seem unable to comprehend love or even less, unable to forgive, but she is right: Wotan has disobeyed his own rules, and so too have his offspring, the brother and sister lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde.

In this opera, Wotan painfully loses those whom he loves most, Siegmund and Brünnhilde, in order to obey his own proclamations. Suddenly the omnipotent god must be punished for his own sins. And, in that sense, he is, symbolically speaking, renouncing his own power; by casting out Brünnhilde from Valhalla, he is also assuring his own destruction and, ultimately the fall of the gods.Brünnhilde, now human, becomes a kind of Christ-like figure who shifts the center of reality from heaven and the underworld to earth itself.

It is for these very reasons, I would argue, that, although there is great music and drama in the other operas of the Ring cycle, Die Walküre is the most poignant, the easiest of all to hear and love.

Strangely, a similar "outcasting" almost happens with the god of this new Met production, director Robert Lepage, and most of the opera's characters. The final Met live-in-HD broadcast production of the season began 45 minutes late, having suffered, we were told during the first intermission, computer difficulties of the great, galumping, set of 24 rotating planks at the center of this production.

People patiently waited it seemed, both inside the opera house and at my movie theater, yet there was a sense, that only grew as the production got underway, that the wonderful performers— Deborah Voigt (Brünnhilde), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde), Stephanie Blythe (Fricka), Jonas Kaufmann (Siegmund), Bryn Terfel (Wotan), and Hans-Peter König (Hunding)—were now subject to the directorially created machine. Kaufmann was a stunning Siegmund, portraying a character with whom the audience could not help but be sympathetic, as he and the lonely wife of Hunding, Sieglinde, slowly fall in love. The planks, standing linearly to suggest a forest of trees, was quite effective, except that the image projected upon them was also reflected across the faces of singers (primarily Hunding).

The great ride of the Valkyries was quite terrifying given the see-saw movements of Brünnhilde and her sisters, particularly after we had been told, during another intermission, that in some of the early productions dresses had been caught in the apparatus. I am afraid that I missed a few of the Valkyrie's cries simply worrying about the actors as they slid one by one down the planks to the floor.

At one stunning moment, as Brünnhilde was left by Wotan on her burning rock, the apparatus rose to the heavens, with a body-double Brünnhilde suspended upside down over the fire, one felt that the machine had finally done something, created a kind of cinematic effect, that would have been otherwise impossible.

Yet for all that, I was, as my companion Howard had noted about Das Rheingold, under-impressed by this expensive machine (estimated at costing over forty million dollars), so heavy that the Met needed to reinforce the underpinnings of the stage itself. As some critics have suggested, it seems that the singing, excellent as it is in this production, was sacrificed to the art of staging.

It seems to me, moreover, that the kinds of effects achieved—far tamer than the recent Archim Freyer production in Los Angeles—might have been accomplished with more standard stage devices, light, scrims, etc.

Let us hope that in Siegfried and Götterdammerung Lepage might find a way to justify the immense cost of his device without ousting Wagner's singers from the stage!

Los Angeles, May 27, 2011

Saturday, May 14, 2011

"The Company Way" (on the 2011 revival of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying)

by Douglas Messerli

Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert (book, based on the book by Shepherd Mead), Frank Loesser (music and lyrics) How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying / New York, Al Hirschfeld Theater, 2011 / the performance I attended was a matinee on May 7, 2011

I will admit to a certain sentimental attachment to the American Musical Theater, although I feel, given the quality of the musicals for which I care, there is no reason for apology. Most of my friends who cannot comprehend my love of this genre have perhaps never seen a musical comedy before 1970, when the genre, as far as I'm concerned, almost died. The handful of good musicals since that time have been so few (most of them composed by Stephen Sondheim) that one might almost say that the form has died out. Today, except for revivals, musical comedy is for audiences who like songs consisting of three memorable notes, repeated through chorus upon chorus of driveling lyrics sung at very high decibels. But then, we do, from time to time, have wonderful revivals of the older works of this genre that remind us of what the musical theater was all about.

How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, the 1961 New York Drama Critics and Pulitzer Prize-winning gem by Frank Loesser, was not, I am afraid, one of the "wonderful revivals." I do not mean to suggest that it was not worth attending, for, at moments, this version was absolutely delightful, but overall it simply couldn't live up the standards of the original and the movie version.

I have never before sat in an audience with so many first-time theater-goers, mostly teenage girls and their slightly stunned families in tow. The girl next to me was celebrating her sixteenth birthday and "just had see" Daniel Radcliffe, this revival's star attraction, "in the flesh." In some senses the freshness of the fans was a treat. And Radcliffe, a trouper already at age 22, was not about to disappoint them.

Radcliffe, who I suspect has by this time quite settled into his performance, was better by far than the critics led audiences to believe. Although, as the New York Times suggested he is not a natural "song and dance man" (I am not quite sure what that means, and when I think of such figures I can only conjure up Robert Preston and Robert Morse, the original J. Pierrepont Finch, neither of them great singers or even able dancers!), he can now belt out a tuneful song and, with the help of the able chorus, jump, leap, and hoof it across the stage quite ably. Once and a while you can still see him grimace a bit, as if muttering deep within, "I'm gonna be great!" And, at moments, he is! If nothing else you have to recognize that Radcliffe is giving his all, which unfortunately, if you have seen Robert Morse in the role—I saw only the movie version, but listened to the original cast recording so many hundreds of times in my youth that the old wax stereo recording is all scratches and scapes—is just not enough.

Oddly, given the fact that he has now been nominated for a Tony for a supporting role (while Radcliffe was ignored), John Larroquette seemed far less engaged in the piece, speeding through his lines at times as if he were trying to catch a plane, and other times performing on cruise control. When Larroquette "woke up" once or twice in his role as J. B. Biggley, as he did in "Grand Old Ivy," he was quite charming, with both him and Radcliffe performing brilliantly. Unfortunately, director/choeographer Rob Ashford could not leave a good thing alone, bringing a whole chorus of football players to dance along, wiping away one the few enchanting character encounters.

Most of the other cast members are quite excellent, particularly Ellen Harvey as Biggley's executive secretary, Miss Jones, Mary Faber as Smitty, and, although a little young for the role, Rose Hemingway (at 27 she seems more a neophyte than Radcliffe). Christopher Hanke makes the nasty Bud Frump almost likeable. And, although her humor switched on and off at times, Tammy Blanchard is basically an hilarious Hedy LaRue.

Perhaps the most serious problem about this revival is that, despite its obvious satirical intentions, the work seems extraordinarily outdated and unnecessarily coy today. For those who have never seen the musical, I'll briefly relay the plot: window washer J. Pierrepont Finch, enters the executive suites of the World Wide Wicket Corporation in search of a job, armed with a little book that promises immediate success, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Within minutes he has literally bumped into the president of company, J. B. Biggley, encountered a woman, Rosemary Pilkington, who falls in love with him at first sight, and captures a job in the mailing room by transforming the unpleasant encounter with Biggley into what the employment head interprets as a friendship.

Finch is highly likeable, even charming, but he is without a single moral principle in his desire to rise up the corporate ladder, and within hours, so it seems, he shifts into the positions of a junior executive, advertising manager, and, even after a disastrous failure, is elected Chairman of the Board, all before you can say, ROSEMARY, the woman with whom, along the way, he has reluctantly fallen in love.

Biggley's nincompoop nephew, Budd Frump, tries his best throughout to trip up Finch, as the other executives, terrified by Ponty's swift rise in the company and fearing the discovery of their own ineptitudes, plot to destroy him; yet Finch (as he reminds everyone F-I-N-C-H) miraculously survives each battle, primarily because he is so self-centered that he fails to see the restless men on the prowl.

The most famous song of the musical is Finch's love song to himself, sung into a mirror of the men's room as he shaves:

FINCH: Now there you are;
Yes, there's that face,
That face that somehow I trust.
It may embarrass you to hear me say it,
But say it I must, say it I must:
You have the cool, clear
Eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth;
Yet there's that upturned chin
And that grin of impetuous youth.
Oh, I believe in you.
I believe in you

Women in this male-dominated world are all secretaries, whom the males are reminded, should are not be treated like toys—but nonetheless are. In today's world, it is clear that the efficient and trustworthy Miss Jones, the smart Smitty, and the quick-plotting Rosemary would be at the head of the World Wide Wicket Company instead of out bowling or wickedly spinning webs to find husbands. But in 1961...well, those gender lines were at the musical's satirical heart. Today the plot appears somewhat as a stale joke with little resonance.

For all that, I think the audience was willing to overlook the datedness of the piece if only the actors could come together and enjoy their own spoof. But time and again, it seemed, Radcliffe was not the only one grimacing. Everybody seemed to be playing it "the company way," refusing to get excited about anything. Two of the best dance numbers of Lambert and Fosse's original, "Coffee Break," (such a difficult number that the movie dropped it), and the sprightly "A Secretary Is Not a Toy," seemed lackluster in Ashford's staging, while at other times, as I mentioned, the director seemed to suck all the attention away from the actors through the introduction of gratuitous routines.

Finally, despite Radcliffe's pluck and elfin charm, I kept missing the puckish comedy of Robert Morse, the silly imperiousness of Rudy Vallee, and the jazz inflections of Michele Lee's voice.

One piece, alone, came to life and created for its few minutes the magic that might have stood as a beacon to these young performers. The last full number of the musical, "Brotherhood of Man," was so richly sung, punctuated by Ellen Harvey's coloratora soprano, and so thrillingly danced that it almost redeemed everything else. If only the cast might have realized that "brotherhood" earlier in the show, How to Succeed might have gone straight to the top!

In the end, however, it didn't matter. The young girls and their families stood up in celebration and absolutely roared (I've never heard as loud an applause) as Radcliffe bowed appreciatively to his fans.

Los Angeles, May 13, 2011

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Sunday, Bloody Sunday (Mother's Day in New York, the Perfect Lunch)

It was a Sunday, Mother’s Day 2011. I often end up on New York City on Mother’s Day, since it is the weekend my distributor, Consortium, generally chooses to host sales conferences.

I remember one such Mother’s Day, waiting for a play to begin in a bar on 45th or 46th, where I overheard a head usher from one of the nearby theaters discussing the horrors of the day, describing how numerous middle-aged couples celebrated the event by taking their elderly mothers and fathers to the theater, by simply dropping them off and picking them up later, sometimes long beyond the end of the production, presuming that the theater staff would take care of the parents until they arrived from wherever they have gone in the interim.

“They treat as if we were babysitters or schoolteachers,” the salty professional complained, leaving their poor parents to sit in their theater seats for hours sometimes after the play has ended, like it were a playground superintended by us.” “Several times,” she continued “we’ve had to call the police to report missing families for these dear old folk. I hate Mother’s Day!” she concluded.

I was startled to hear of such events. I never imagined that the theater might be used as a kind of dumping ground for the elderly, but I’ve seen it several times since. On Mother’s Day I try not to attend popular musicals or comedies that might attract these inconsiderate middle-agers as the perfect place for their mothers and fathers to spend the day, as if it were a Chucky-Cheese playground for the agéd.

I knew that the intensely serious play Jerusalem and, even more so, the off-Broadway production of the Belarus Group’s Being Harold Pinter, both of which I was attending that day, were unlikely venues for such abuse.

What I hadn’t prepared for is that both of the plays I chose for a Mother’s Day celebration were very much centered on violence and, more succinctly, blood. Hence, my title “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” an echo of the terrible events of the Bogside massacre of 1972 in Derry, North Ireland, the song from the U2s 1983 album War, and the movie of 1971 about the Jewish family doctor, Daniel Hirsch (Peter Finch) and the divorced working woman, Alex Grenville (Glenda Jackson), who share the same lover.

My “Bloody Sunday,” was “bloody,” fortunately, without real bullets or actual deaths.

In preparation for the likelihood that I would not be able to eat dinner, given the fact that Jerusalem ran until 6:00 and Being Harold Pinter, way downtown on 4th Avenue’s Ellen Stewart Theater, began at 7:30.

I chose, quite by accident, but most felicitously, an Italian restaurant, Lattanzi, on 46th street in Hell’s Kitchen, one of several Italian restaurants on the block. But, for my taste, I couldn’t have chosen better, given that Lattanzi serves Jewish Italian, the kind of food I’d grown to love in Rome’s Trastevere, the old Jewish ghetto of the city.

Because I arrived early, the restaurant was nearly ghostly, but the hostess and waiters were most friendly, as I decided to sit at the bar at the other end of the restaurant from entry. I had a gin and tonic before ordering the primi, Coarciofialla Giudia, artichoke with garlic and olive oil cooked in the Jewish manner. What this means is a crispy brown outer series of edible artichoke leaves with the pointed, thorny stalks just to remind you of the mass of the vegetable that had to be cut away to get to the heart, that tender green, olive oil infused, center that literally melts in your mouth. The balance of the two, the braised outer, thorn-like leaves with its luscious green circle of the center is a perfect balance of the fruit of this nearly impenetrable fortress, which Americans generally serve by boiling or braising all the taste out of them, and smothering the slightly edible remainder with butter and salt. The artichokes at Lattanzi need little but the oil and a good appetite.

Before the artichokes the waiter had brought me a basket of breads far different from the usual Italian fare, although a more traditional chewy sliced bread lay under the treat of the matzo, incredibly thin, slightly grilled and topped with garlic oil! Unlike the packaged holiday Matzo, this was almost like an Indian Nann or even Puri, deliciously flavored and light as a feather, but recognizable as matzo nonetheless.

The waiter suggested a secondi, Trigliette all’Embrice, a Red Snapper sautéed in garlic and onions, with olive oil, pine nuts, white raisins, and vinegar. To compliment this, I chose their champagne, infused with orange and ginger, the perfect match for the sweet and bitter under flavors of the fish. I couldn’t imagine a tastier or more healthy dish. I felt it was the perfect food to fortify the five hours following of intense drama I was looking forward to.

I have to go back to taste their dozens of other of menu specialties which I might have ordered under slightly different circumstances.

Los Angeles, May 11, 2011