Monthly Archives: February 2014

Idiots at the Opera – Prince Loses War, Heads Home – Prince Igor, at the Met

You know what I know even less about than opera? Russian history and Russian music. So what am I to make of the Met’s new production of Prince Igor? Am I pissed off to have lost harem pants and Arabian fantasies for a coherent libretto and a concept that makes sense? Not at all. Thank you, director Dmitri Tcherniakov. If I want traditional I can always catch (Putin’s favorite conductor/director) Valery Gergeiv’s version on the youtube.

The critical reception has been mostly favorable, but some guy over at an e-zine walked out after the first act to show how cool he was. Sorry, where I come from (that would be Queens) reviewing without staying to the end is considered bad form. The Times liked it, and the audience seemed to on Friday night when we went. I’m sure plenty of people were looking forward to scantily clad Polovtsian maidens dressed like Barbara Eden and were disappointed when instead they got a fever dream in a field of poppies. Poppies. Worked for me, but I couldn’t get Margaret Hamilton saying “Poppies. Poppies will make them sleep” out of my brain.

Here’s the story in its simplest form: Prince Igor runs the city-state of Putivl. He goes off with his troops to war against the Polovastians – nomads from the east. He loses and gets taken prisoner. He escapes and comes home to a ruined city. The end.

It’s during his time as a hostage that the Khan (the leader of the Polovstians, insert Star Trek joke here) entertains him with dancing maidens and that’s where we get the Polovstian dancers, which if you are an American of a certain age, and stayed up late watching the late, late show, you remember from this commercial:

The opera was composed by Alexander Borodin over many years and was unfinished at his death, so others – Alexander Glazunov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov worked on it as well. For this production, Tcherniakov scrapped a lot of the additions and tried to return as much as possible to Borodin’s original.

Borodin, the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince and a Russian peasant serf girl, was a prominent scientist who never composed full time. He was part of a group of “late 19th century Russian composers who rejected Western styles and conservatory-taught methods, seeing instead an original Russian form of musical expression.” (Playbill program). So this opera might be considered, as the better-half put it, “outsider art.”

The music is haunting, exotic, melodic. It doesn’t sound like any other opera. Most of the prominent male roles are booming basses. There’s a ginormous chorus, and between that and the ten minute ballet it’s a cast of at least hundreds making it difficult and expensive to stage. (The last time the Met did it was 1917.) And then there’s the whole west meets east, or rather east meets further east, thing. Back in the 90’s one musicologist declared it Exhibit A in a treatise on Orientalism, but in this production Tcherniakov has something else in mind.

It’s long – four hours and 15 minutes including two intermissions, and that’s excising at least one act and an overture. We open with words projected on a humongous screen – “To unleash a war is the surest way to escape from one’s self.” Then there’s a projection in black and white of Ildar Abdrazakov as Prince Igor. Just a giant face. At first I had my doubts about the cinematography, but there’s method, and it’s not madness.

We go to the prologue. In the city-state of Putivl, they’re gearing up for war. There’s an eclipse which everybody takes as a bad sign. Igor is leaving his brother-in-law, Prince Galitsky in charge. Igor’s wife, Yaroslavna, pleads with him not to go. Yaroslavna is sung by Oksana Dyka whose voice has been described as “clanging” and “metallic” by some critics. I’d use intense and powerful. I’d never heard anything like it. It works for this role.

The pay-off for the photos comes in Act I (which is really Act II but for some reason the first act is considered a prologue.) Igor with a head wound wakes in the giant poppy field. According to the program, “In his mind, the tormented Igor replays over and over everything that has happened.” We see the losing battle played out in still photos and short clips of soldiers falling. We go back several times to black and white images of the Prince prostrate on the battle field. Is the poppy field “real” or a mental landscape? It’s disconcerting. The Prince’s wife, Yaroslavna shows up. Clearly that’s a hallucination but what about the Khan? He seems like a jovial guy and appears to just want the Prince’s friendship, insists he’s a guest and not a hostage and would happily free him if he promised not to oppose him, a promise Igor can’t make. We meet the Khan’s daughter, Konchakovna sung by the always sultry mezzo, Anita Rachvelishvilli (Carmen is her signature role) who is in love with Igor’s son, Prince Vladimir, who plans on sticking around. Is that even real? (For all we know, the young prince might have died in battle and it’s Igor’s fantasy.) As for the big dance number, the dancers spring up from the ground wearing simple costumes, and while the ballet is beautiful, it’s a not the usual kitsch. The program implies it’s a vision, and that’s the only way to make sense of it.

Meantime over in Putivl, Prince Galitsky is abducting maidens and planning to send his sister, Yaroslavna, to a nunnery and take over. She’s doing the best she can, but has no army. There’s a rebellion – more of a drunken riot, and then the Polovastians invade and her brother is killed.

In the final act, we see the city in ruins and here there’s a definite post-apocalyptic vibe. Igor, who has escaped from the Khan returns. The crowd is jubilant. Why they aren’t ready to kill him for getting them into this disastrous adventure is a mystery to me, but who knows with those Russians? Igor has a monologue about those who died. It’s all very Brechtian, especially when he leads his people by grabbing some bricks from the rubble to begin to rebuild the city.

Moral of the story, never get into a land war in Asia.

Works for me, and I’m sure it has resonance and relevance for the Russians as well. Regarding performers not specifically mentioned, Sergey Semishkur as Prince Vladimir – the only tenor – sang very sweetly with Rachvelishvilli. Stefan Kocan as the Khan did a fine job. Mikhail Petreko managed to make Galitsky vile without going over the top and milking it. The chorus was outstanding, and Abdrazakov was brilliant.

Worth seeing? Hell yeah. Great music, great theater, and very different from anything else we’ve seen. There are a few more performances between now and March 8th, including a March 1st live in HD. Long as it is, you could do worse on a chilly Saturday afternoon. I’d even recommend it for the opera-curious who’ve never been.

Below is the director talking about his intentions:

(Enjoy these free and entertaining reviews? Nothing says thank you like buying one of Marion’s novellas for less than a buck and maybe leaving a nice review. If you like it, you could even buy her novel for less than a fancy coffee drink at Starbucks.)

The Glass Menagerie — Run, Don’t Walk to the Booth

We tend to reduce Tennessee Williams to a soundbite in our brains. That soundbite is most likely to be Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski yelling, “Stella!” or maybe his sister-in-law rattling on about the kindness of strangers.

Williams’ arguably second most famous play, The Glass Menagerie is the one with the crazy mother rattling on about “gentleman callers,” the “terribly shy” daughter – based on Williams’ own mentally ill sister, and the son with the artistic temperament working at a shoe factory.

Can this self-proclaimed “memory play” be rescued from our own distorted memories of it?

The answer based on this most recent production now at the Booth Theater would be a resounding YES.

In the first moments when Zachary Quinto appears on the stage at Tom, I had reservations. The structure is artificial as he reminds us, but once he sat down on the family couch and his sister (ably played by Celia Keenan-Bolger) appeared as if by (stage) magic beside him, all doubts lifted. The audience was transported to the dingy depression era flat in St Louis and the sister and mother, Tom had left behind years before.

That Quinto was able to pull off this dual characterization – Tom as young man and Tom as somewhat older one looking back – should be no surprise. This is after all a man who managed to make Mr Spock his own, while also channelling our memories of the original.

Of course the star of the evening is Cherry Jones, and she is extraordinary. Her Amanda may talk of her old days as a Southern belle before she made the mistake of marrying the wrong man, but she is a survivor who wants to ensure the survival of her children. She may talk of her the past, but she lives in Continue reading The Glass Menagerie — Run, Don’t Walk to the Booth

Idiots at the Opera — Rusulka, They Didn’t Live Happily Ever After

We caught the fabulous Renee Fleming singing the title role in Rusalka at the Met on Tuesday – two days out from her Superbowl triumph. The woodland set was gorgeous, and the diaphanous pond brilliant. The cool blue dresses of the title character were perfect as were the hot hues of her princess rival. This should look stunning in the HD which is tomorrow, so if you don’t have tickets yet and can’t get to the Met get some.

Fleming looked great and gave a beautiful rendition of the opera’s most well-known aria, “Song to the Moon” in Act I. However, she seemed less vocally robust in other places. Not sure if that was the effect of time or just post-game fatigue. Piotr Bezcala sang the Prince. This is the fourth role I’ve seen him in and he just gets better and better. I continue to be impressed not only by his voice, but by his acting. There’s more than a costume change involved in the varied roles he takes on. John Relyea as the Water Gnome also gave an impressive performance, managing to bring out a bit of the libretto’s humor and irony, even if the production seemed to otherwise ignore it. Mezzo-soprano, Mary Phillips was replacing Dolora Zajick as Jezibaba, the witch. Like Relyea. She seemed to be having a good time and gave the character some comic moments. Not sure if she’s in for the run, but we enjoyed her performance. Vocally, Emily Magee was great as the Foreign Princess, but as the libretto keeps bringing up her “passion” in contrast to Rusulka’s “paleness,” a little more heat could have been added.

The conductor was Yannick Nezet-Seguin. I know this mini-review has gone way over the adjective quotient, but being a musical idiot I’m not sure how I’d describe Dvorak’s score other than shimmery, creamy, playful and lush. Does that make sense?

As for the story, the better-half and I are fans of verismo – give us your soldiers gone wrong over gypsy girls, your young men in love with dying prostitutes etc. We’ll take the occasional comic romp, or history, but too much magic leaves us cold. However, this worked. The story borrows heavily from Anderson’s Little Mermaid (not, thankfully, Disney’s).but with an even bleaker ending. That may be why we liked it. When supernatural beings decide to transform for love, things shouldn’t go well.

There are three performances left, including the HD. If you’re unfamiliar with Met ticketing, you can go here for the scoop on cheap seats.

Here’s a clip for your listening pleasure:

Also want to briefly mention Falstaff. We caught the last night of the Met’s much-praised production. It was a hoot. The setting, costumes, everything worked. Ambrogio Maestri, singing the title role, seemed to be channelling Zero Mostel – and I mean that in the best possible way. Angela Meade as Alice Ford and Stephanie Blyth as Mistress Quickly were sublime. Well worth a look and listen if there’s a DVD out there.

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There’s Something about Mary (Watson)

The Season Three finale of Sherlock has been legally shown in the US. Why does Britain torture us by holding it back? (Question: Is it still wrong to stream from dubious sources, even if you are a paying member of PBS? Answer: Probably not wrong, but still illegal.) My episode  recap is up over at Happy Nice Time People and the gist is — WOW as John Watson might put it on his blog. It was totally awesome and I say that despite some minor criticisms of the first two — like the time the screen went white when the tube-bomb was about to go off and suddenly we’re in a flash forward? sideways? back? — who knows with  Sherlock was explaining to Anderson how he faked his death (Was that a shout out to Lost?) and also the rest of the tube-bomb scene with John saying some very unJohn like words and Sherlock turning the off switch (spoiler) — that was pretty lame,  and then the cold open first minutes of The Sign of the Three, when we got Greg and Sally running around on a case that had absolutely nothing to do with anything and was all an elaborate set up for a lame joke about Sherlock’s being best man. But there was nothing like that in the finale. Just non-stop surprises, shout-outs, and some of the best and funniest lines and dialogues on either side of the pond.  [SPOILER ALERT:]Some haters critics will complain that Sherlock forgave Mary too easily for shooting him, that even if her intent had been to stop him and she was an excellent shot, he still could have died and seemed to have a pretty long recovery, but that’s Sherlock. This is a man who would have taken a pill offered him by a serial killer just to prove a point. He got that she’d done it to protect John and anyone who’d go to such lengths to protect John is worth protecting or at least forgiving.

So go over to HNTP and read the recap, or go to PBS and watch it now — free and legal — on your favorite electronic device.

(Marion doesn’t spend all her time watching television. She also writes novels and novellas. You can buy her entire oeuvre for less than a grande fancy coffee drink at Starbucks.)