Saturday, July 22, 2017

Hot buttons and tender buttons: 'Human Rites' examines tissue issues (and more) in Phoenix world premiere

Aristotle described it a couple of millennia ago: the point in the drama where everything reverses suddenly. The device makes for a hairpin turn in "Human Rites" as a pitched verbal battle between a black American university dean and a white professor shifts to a drastic new level with the entrance of a third character, a brilliant graduate student from Sierra Leone.

Michaela and Alan: Two academics at vigorous cross purposes.
Seth Rozin's "Human Rites" needs this peripeteia, as the Greek philosopher described it, giving the example of the worst possible news King Oedipus could get in the tragedy that has made his name and fate immortal. Rozin's long one-act is receiving its world premiere this weekend to conclude Phoenix Theatre's 2016-17 season. Performances continue weekends through Aug. 13.

Seen Friday night on the intimate Basile Stage, the drama benefits from the audience's closeness to the action. With a play so heavily focused on issues, the interpersonal conflict behind an academic set-to needs to be proved upon our pulses.

The audience is seated on three sides of a marvelous Bernie Killian set representing the dean's office. Michaela is a matronly, self-possessed academic well-positioned to deliver some sort of payback to Alan, a professor of cultural psychology. She broke off an affair with him years ago, and finds herself newly provoked by his study of African women's attitudes toward genital circumcision in four countries.

In the fraught atmosphere of today's higher education, unanimous class objections to the professor's findings of support for the ritual practice must be answered. The dean is sympathetic to the students' viewpoint; he, of course, is fiercely defensive of a paper intended to open his forthcoming book. Nothing must come between a professor and his book, as many of us well know.

Lydia confronts Alan with the limitations of his intellectual grasp.
Rob Johansen and Milicent Wright, two veteran Indianapolis actors who never seem to have an offhand moment onstage, are perfect choices for the roles of Alan and Michaela. They are sturdy and intense in voice and movement throughout. They are feisty when confident, and put equal energy into moments when their characters' confidence flags. A wise theater teacher of international reputation, Patsy Rodenburg, has written about an actor's need for "athletic thinking."  Johansen and Wright display that in abundance.

The audience feels the intensity from Alan's fidgety pacing in Michaela's office as he waits for her to finish talking just outside with a young woman he doesn't know. That woman, Lydia, will turn out to introduce "Human Rites"' peripeteia. She enters the scene as Michaela's intended ally, under recruitment to overlay Alan's study with results that will presumably show that the practice of female genital mutilation (as its opponents invariably call it) is feared and resented as an invasive exercise of patriarchy, supported by ignorance and cultural backwardness.

Passionately enacted by Paeton Chavis, speaking with an apparently flawless African accent, Lydia expresses a worldview that throws that of her academic superiors into a cocked hat. As different as her quarreling elders are from each other, they turn out to be wearing the same set of Eurocentric blinders. How that plays out cannot be revealed here. The argument goes over a cultural landscape marked by polarities: Are women subject to the ritual shamed or enlightened? Does the practice involve sacrificing dignity or pleasure? Are there degrees of shame and enlightenment as a result? A spectrum of dignity and pleasure?

In less able hands, the conflict laid out before Lydia's entrance could have hit the stage like a lengthy version of one of those concise essay pairs at the top of a USA Today op-ed page, arguing opposite sides of a particular issue. Rozin always presents the audience with more than a wordy debate — even though the topic lies at the crux of gender identity, empowerment, and sexual politics. Scoring rhetorical points goes only so far, however, in presenting characters onstage.

Thus, emotions and the professional amour-propre of Alan and Michaela are tangled up in the legacy of their old romance. Now: ashes or embers? Their intellectual and career stature can't be separated from that experience. Nor can Lydia's independent academic ambitions be accounted for within Michaela's and Alan's frames of reference, as is quite clear right up through the play's zinger of a last line. Rozin keeps his duty as a dramatist uppermost, even as the polemical stew simmers.

The usual finely woven mesh of the Phoenix production team sustains and enlivens the three-way conflict at every point. Rozin, Jadhawani, and the able cast have fleshed out a topic that inevitably makes the political personal. We need the kind of discussions "Human Rites" embodies.

A recent poll showed that an alarming portion of the electorate believes that higher education's effect on American society is negative. I hope most people continue to disagree, because what embroils the academy — some of it messy and self-defeating —  is often essential to a clearer understanding of the world and one another. If we ever reject the challenge of arriving at that understanding, we will be in unimaginable trouble. And that's when colleges and universities will have decisively failed and merited our disdain.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, July 21, 2017

A new kind of magic for 'The Magic Flute' in Cincinnati Opera Summer Festival production

There is a world elsewhere in "Die Zauberflöte," and there always has been. It is not Coriolanus' world of bitter self-exile, but a bright place of earned happiness in which all the sorrows of worthy people are wiped away.

The opera, the last work of Wolfgang Mozart's to be staged in his lifetime, adapts readily to an emphasis on show and spectacle as it carries its ethical message to a triumphant conclusion.  Cincinnati Opera has done well to bring this particular world elsewhere to regional audiences through Sunday.

Many far-flung forces, both creative and technical, came together to create "The Magic Flute" (as it's best-known in Anglophone countries) in the form it's taking this weekend at the Aronoff Center for the Arts in Cincinnati. The production, which originated at the Komische Oper Berlin, has co-production credits from Los Angeles Opera (costumes) and Minnesota Opera (set construction).

The creative team was put together by Barrie Kosky, artistic director of the German company, with the live-performance-and-animation co-creators of 1927, a British firm specializing in film/stage projects.

Thursday night's performance showed immediately the advantage of removing Emanuel Schikaneder's imaginative Zauberoper libretto entirely from naturalism. We don't have to excuse the hero Tamino's collapse in fear at the attack of some lumbering monster cobbled out of cloth and wire in the scene shop. That's often the audience's first impression.

I don't want to belittle the craft of costume design, but in this show we have instead a truly scary image: a gargantuan cinematic devourer of everything in its path from the get-go. And though Tamino's frantic attempts to escape the monster have the comical overlay of the "undercranking" practiced by early movie cameramen to speed up natural movement, the first scene communicates genuine peril. We are prepared to accept Tamino as a romantic hero, a person capable of growth in moral stature under the right guidance. He is rescued by the haughty yet helpful Three Ladies, whose recurring appearances are always delightful, despite their service to the "wrong" side in this opera.

Throughout this production, the "world elsewhere" concocted by 1927 and the Komische Opera Berlin comes into its own as an arena for comedy, true love, and moral development. The luxuriant phantasmagoria still manages to support those themes. The evocation of silent film just alluded to is pervasive. There's the circular spotlighting that expands and contracts, used very effectively to direct our attention to Tamino, his much-beset girlfriend and ally Pamina, and other main characters, chiefly the prince's bird-catching companion Papageno. There are scenes when the live action is flecked with the flaws of early celluloid films, and — most crucial to the flow of the opera — the device of intertitles used to represent dialogue.

The encapsulated lovers, Pamina and Tamino, undergo trials supervised by Sarastro.
That particular adaptation of a silent-film convention avoids the chore of training non-German singers to speak German text naturally. It also allows for telegraphing emotions and verbal interaction, just as the silent films did. The result of abundant trimming is some loss of Schikaneder's wit and conversational give-and-take. The streamlining makes sense, but we lose a firm sense of the characters in dialogue, starting with the long getting-acquainted exchange of Tamino and Papageno. It means that we must shrug and accept the unlikely companionship of the high-minded prince and the birdcatcher's slightly goofy ordinariness without seeing what engenders it.

In any event, those two roles were well sung by Aaron Blake and Rodion Pogossov, respectively. Papageno has some physical comedy to convey in this show, and Pogossov does that admirably, especially late in the second act when he finally gets the girl of his dreams, Papagena, sung sassily by Jasmine Habersham.

What we first see in "The Magic Flute": Tamino attempts to outrun a pursuing monster.
Kim-Lillian Strebel is Pamina, a character modeled in appearance here after silent-film star Louise Brooks (as noted by Kosky in the program booklet). Her dark page-boy cut provides the model for all the women in the chorus, whom we see at length in the finale, where the formally dressed men (in other scenes top-hatted) join them in praise of Sarastro, high priest of Isis and Osiris and designer of the ritual trials through which Tamino and Pamina must pass, displaying the virtues of patience, wisdom, virtue, and strength (the German equivalents of which pop up on the screen several times).

Strebel displayed a soprano of high luster and sustained power in the second-act aria, "Ach, ich's fuhl's," which ennobled the hurt that Pamina feels at Tamino's mandated lack of responsiveness to her. Suddenly, we are aware of Pamina's worthiness to be Tamino's fully entitled companion in a set of trials that has tended to underline a male-only path to enlightenment. Since the opera finally gives the couple a blessing that partly contradicts the Masonic progress outlined, Strebel's strength in this one aria struck me as crucial to the production's success.

One of the great triumphs of what 1927 brought to Kosky's interpretation is the ability to fill the stage picture while positioning singers at different heights. This show literally gives another dimension to stage direction, which  almost always follows a horizontal plane. The Queen of the Night is often elevated somewhat, and Jeni Houser was here, but to especially spectacular effect, encased in a spider's body with eight huge twitching legs extending down to the floor. Her singing was rather  compromised acoustically as a result, but the evil queen's famous high notes rang out, and the vocal agility was intact.

I boggled at some of the imagery, barely resisting the temptation to slap symbolism onto everything I saw. I think sometimes animator Paul Barritt was just having fun. Some of the animal suggestions were at least totemic, I guess, such as the monkeys in the "trial" parade. But why does Papageno apparently catch only owls? Maybe that's the one kind of bird his patroness, the Queen of the Night, favors. Why are Pamina and Tamino, in a trio with Sarastro aloft, kept apart by the swinging pendulum of a large clock? I'm working on that, though I think I understand why the production designers didn't want literal, or even approximate, glockenspiel, pan pipes, and flute in view, despite repeated references to those magical or signature instruments.

The constant shimmer and shake of the show's movement rested upon visual styles that suggested both Victorian steampunk and Dr. Seuss. The danger in this novel kind of Gesamtkunstwerk is that what you see can overwhelm what you hear. The trials by fire and water were wonderfully realized. So was the eye-popping descent of Tarmino and the two Armored Men down a sort of mine shaft into the bowels of the earth.

But I was particularly disturbed by the large peeping, blinking eyes, visible as if through gashes in a black wall, during Sarastro's great aria "In diesen heil'gen Hallen." With effort I concentrated on how well Tom McNichols was singing it. As for the animated winged nymph  — nude, including a pubic patch — who at one point flits over the young lovers' heads, it suddenly became difficult to focus on the purity of their mutual devotion.

Cbristopher Allen conducted, and if I was after purity, I got plenty in a magnificent reading of the overture by the orchestra.
As for the rest, I admit I was transported — the production's clear intent. It presents indeed a world elsewhere, not a half-hearted or rote attempt to fashion one merely in the spirit of Mozart and Schikaneder. In the 21st century, there are other spirits to be served, after all. This production insists: Dream on!

[Photos by Philip Groshong]

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Into the discomfort zone: 'Song from the Uproar' muses on a turn-of-the-20th-century Swiss woman's self-exile to Algeria

Isabelle (Abigail Fischer) is swept up in Sufi mysticism in "100 Names for God," a scene in "Song from the Uproar."
Cultural consciousness of female self-fulfillment is at a fever pitch nowadays, but it was an extraordinary, fraught experience for our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, exercised only fitfully and at great risk.

When put in the context of opera, a brave woman's story pushes back against the legacy of female heroines both vulnerable and victimized, with occasional outbursts of heroism, slanted toward maleness: Beethoven's Fidelio has to be a man for the sake of rescuing a man.

Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek have an exceptional tale to tell in examining "the lives and deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt," to quote the subtitle of "Song from the Uproar." The one-act opera opened Monday night in a Cincinnati Opera production in collaboration with concert:nova, a local chamber-music organization.

The unusual plurals in the subtitle signal the fragmentary nature of Eberhardt's bizarre, truncated path (1877-1904). Stunned by the deaths of three close family members when she was 21, she departed Switzerland alone, traveling to Algeria. She dressed as a man, became a Sufi Muslim, and fell in love with an Algerian soldier. The love affair soured, a suicide pact fizzled, she survived an assassination attempt unrelated to the liaison, and at 27 she succumbed in a desert flash flood. The waterlogged journals she kept survived. From that fragmentary personal record, Vavrek fashioned a libretto, assisted by Mazzoli, the composer.

In concentrated form, then, Eberhardt seems to have lived a series of lives and deaths. The salient facts of her short time on earth almost defeat the very idea of coherent narrative.  There is no plot to "Song From the Uproar." In a preconcert talk, Mazzoli described it as a kind of fever-dream.

The contents of the dream are voiced mainly by drifting Eberhardt monologues, with vocal support from five singers. Three dancers from Cincinnati Ballet flesh out Isabelle's memories and imaginings. Under the direction of Marco Pelle, the cast as a whole is in constant movement in and around diaphanous white cloth panels (sometimes altered by projected images) suspended from high above in the black-box environs of the Fifth Third Bank Theater of the Aronoff Center for the Arts. The scenic design's other main feature is a large, mottled, sun-baked tree trunk with stubby branches, a reminder of nature's harshness in the desert climate.

As Isabelle Eberhardt, Abigail Fischer is the cynosure of the show. Displaying a mezzo-soprano of both versatile warmth and metallic sheen, Fischer was also a spectacular actor. Moving with the ease and restlessness of the adventuress she portrays, she  reflected the unquenchable grief that drove Isabelle from everything familiar to her toward an unknown world both exhilarating and threatening. The grief and anxiety return and intensify; the joys are more fleeting.

The events summarized above, as transmuted by the opera's creators, require of the show's star both physical and vocal flexibility and the capacity to convey authenticity in every gesture and facial expression. Thomas C. Hase's lighting puts a premium on that ability, and Fischer's was outstanding.

Keitaro Harada conducted, with the band off to the side of the stage opposite the tree. The instrumentation, supplemented by electronics, is flute, clarinet, piano, electric guitar and double bass. Coordination seemed to be flawless, and the brilliance of the scoring indelibly served the story and the vocal line, which the unnamed and largely symbolic characters performed in choral fashion by two sopranos, alto, tenor, and baritone.

Isabelle in focus, observed from a desert tree.
Mazzoli displays in "Song From the Uproar" a personal voice, free of the need to evoke styles connected to the opera's time and place. A partial exception is "Chanson," with its buzzing evocation of old cafe music and vernacular dance that suits some of the erotic byplay of that scene of dissipation and the mixed feelings that often wash over drunks.

The suicide pact with her Algerian lover and her attempted assassination by a religious fanatic were vividly staged. An episode of interaction with the female dancer seems to be symbolic of Isabelle's rapture at the exotic milieu she has entered into out of desperation. I see it as indicating her embrace of Algerians and Muslims more than a same-sex liaison, but perhaps I'm mistaken. It was a little unclear to me how consistent Isabelle's disguise as a man was supposed to be.

Mazzoli's score lends itself to a smooth interplay between operatic focus and textures that are almost like underscoring. There is a very effective suggestion of a diva's big aria in "Mektoub (It Is Written) Part Two," where Isabelle is convulsed anew by despair after her strenuously adopted life has collapsed. "O capsized heart" reprises an earlier outcry, and it has that well-upholstered feeling, with substantial choral and ensemble support, of a climactic aria.

As for the sound palette of the work, the electric guitar sports its predictably individualized voice, but its fusion with conventional classical instruments sounds complete and natural. It also represents a bridge in tone color to the prerecorded parts of the score, including Isabelle's voice, which makes the opera's subdued conclusion so moving.

The one piece of Mazzoli's I knew before "Song from the Uproar" was "Still Life With Avalanche," a nonvocal piece commissioned by eighth blackbird. The common thread I find admirable is her fresh way of conveying emotion in structurally cohesive ways, so that a steady pulse and dense harmonies are complemented by exuberant melodies and vigorous gestures in an unhackneyed manner. The fever-dream image — suggesting the overlay of memories upon daily experience —  is fully realized by the boldness, apparent spontaneity, and clarity of the music. The drifting down of pages representing Isabelle's journal near the end is the perfect visual complement to the marvels of Mazzoli's composition: Patterns seem to emerge from life's accidents, and make sense once they can be truly observed and appropriately paced.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Without a song: Infusion Baroque visits from Montreal to acquaint Early Music Festival audience with Italian instrumental music

It's more than a ghostly influence — the Italian language that's shot through classical-music lingo — even though just about
Infusion Baroque of Montreal opened the festival's final weekend.
everyone thinks of the Austro-German repertoire as central to concert life.

"Allegro," "andante" — all those tempo and expression directions in the scores — and of course two of the most common types of classical pieces, the sonata and the concerto, fly the Italian flag. Ditto with instrument technology, particularly of strings, that represents the gold standard to this day: Stradivari, Amati, Guarneri. Oh, and the musical scale note names. Where does it end?

The prominence of Italian reflects the fact that not only opera, but also instrumental music, owes much of its origin and development to musical ingenuity on the boot-shaped European peninsula. This early, enduring power was reflected in "An Italian Voyage," the program that Infusion Baroque presented to open the final weekend of the 2017 Indianapolis Early Music Festival.

Arcangelo Corelli is the composer who received the tradition of Renaissance ensemble music as heritage and transformed it into genres that modernized the sonata and established the concerto. Infusion Baroque, a quartet from Montreal, divided "An Italian Voyage" into the first half of the 17th century and from its latter half into the 18th — roughly matching Corelli's dates (1653-1713) and influence. (A misprint on the festival booklet's main program page confuses this crucial division, giving Corelli the same dates as his eminent, well-traveled pupil Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762). The program notes get it right).

Infusion Baroque in performance Friday evening at Indiana History Center.
Despite the traces of Italian over the breadth of classical music, today's retrospective focus is usually on opera, devised in Italy around 1600 and advanced so conclusively by one man, Claudio Monteverdi, that Richard Taruskin, in the Oxford History of Western Music, titles a chapter with the quip, "Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi."  Italian librettists helped seal the deal for Italian-language opera, which became the standard-bearer for Italian music seemingly for good in the 19th century.

The program's first half offered a look into the early forms as they developed from the dance and were garnished by the growth of virtuosity. The simple repetitive bass line of the Renaissance chaconne, or ciaccona, lent itself to layering of instrumental voices. This was illustrated as members of the quartet came onstage individually, building upon the pattern laid down by cellist Andrea Stewart. Harpsichordist Rona Nadler provided harmonic support on a brightly assertive Robert Duffy instrument, on top of which Alexa Raine-Wright (recorder) and Sallynee Amawat (violin) added decorative lines often in near-imitation of each other. A toccata by Girolamo Frescobaldi displayed the Italian taste for the ornate, taken in a virtuosic direction beyond even the most adroit singers, who were establishing the popularity of opera during his lifetime (1583-1643), thanks to Monteverdi and his contemporaries.

That the burgeoning genre of opera was an influence on non-vocal music became evident after the Tarquinio Merula chaconne
with Dario Castello's "Sonata duodecima." More expertly executed recorder-violin interplay in a structure of slow/fast alternation evoked the recitative/aria contrasts of opera. Though well-played by Stewart and Nadler in duo, Domenico Gabrielli's Sonata No. 1 in G major for cello and basso continuo overstayed its welcome. Another chaconne, this one by Antonio Bertali, was then launched without pause. The first half ended with an enthralling Sinfonia from the oratorio "La Susanna," by Alessandro Stradella, which displayed the maturation of instrumental music with the vocal heritage absorbed.

Development of musical materials in the modern sense burst forth after intermission. Corelli, the linchpin of the program, was beautifully showcased in a G major sonata. The dramatic possibilities of cadences were nicely illustrated, and the audience was shown something of the concerto style, with a first-among-equals approach here and in pieces by Geminiani and Locatelli that followed. Raine-Wright's switch to a transverse flute for works by Locatelli and Jean-Marie Leclair was welcome; I'm among relatively few early-music listeners who can easily get too much of the end-blown flute (recorder). I really loved the tone of her baroque flute; intonation was impeccable, and her agility matched what she had shown as a recorder player.

The quartet worked really well together throughout, and the wealth of contrast in handling small ensembles and exploring their potential by these baroque composers was thoroughly illustrated. I was struck by a parallelism in the two halves that was (perhaps wisely) not brought out in oral or written program notes: Both of the composers chosen to end each half — Stradella and Leclair — were murdered. That's a pretty rare conclusion of composer life spans, it seems to me; only Marc Blitzstein, a 20th-century American opera composer, comes to mind as a comparable victim of fatal foul play.

In this concert, however, there was nothing but fair play to be encountered.

[Concert photo by Dan Shields]

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Early Music Festival: Henry Purcell, England's greatest composer before the 19th century, viewed from a popular perspective

The clearest indication of what "The People's Purcell" — the program La Nef gave Friday in the Indianapolis Early Music Festival — was all about came with the encore.
Michael Slattery: The ingratiating tenor soloist with La Nef in its Purcell program.

Not that the Montreal ensemble, featuring the captivating tenor Michael Slattery, hadn't already signaled its approach to the 17th-century English composer in both its music-making and the program note. But "When I am laid in earth," known as Dido's Lament from the opera "Dido and Aeneas," is probably Purcell's greatest hit. Before singing it, Slattery invited the Indiana History Center audience to consider it in the same light as "Memory" from "Cats."

Given its familiarity, you could readily note the difference between the stately original lament of the North African queen, abandoned by her lover Aeneas on his way to found Rome, and the La Nef stylization that followed, extending the compact aria. This sort of thing is well done by the expertly coordinated group (seven instrumentalists plus Slattery), which ranges widely in style and repertoire as a matter of course.

In some sense, it may be best to borrow the term "cover" from pop music to describe how La Nef treated Purcell in this concert.  The word was used in the 1950s to describe the marketing stratagem by which black musicians' recordings were "covered" by whites to make the songs more salable. Roll over, Big Mama Thornton! It's Elvis' "Hound Dog" now.

Marketing may be less germane to identify what La Nef does, but its arrangements, fused to instrumental mastery, certainly help establish and maintain its brand. Not all of Purcell would be well-served by being put through such a blender, but the songs, whose abundance Grove's Dictionary describes as "almost embarrassing," communicate something essential about his expressive, well-knit melodic style. The sporadic dissonance in the instrumental accompaniment is also a notable feature of Purcell, and is put to effective dramatic use in the stage works. This was demonstrated, introducing and punctuating the teeth-chattering vocal line, by "What power art thou" (The Cold Song) from "King Arthur," in an arrangement with frostbitten string figures seemingly borrowed from Vivaldi's "Winter" in "The Four Seasons."

La Nef arrangements for this combination had to be fashioned from a variety of simpler accompaniments. Sometimes rhythmic and harmonic changes were made, as the program note states. You could hear that as the melody of Dido's Lament changed character and the prominence of its descending bass line receded into La-Nefian splendor. This version became indeed commensurate with the stuck-in-the-head amplitude of "Memory," though it could be argued that the simple dolor of the original song has its own perpetual ear-worm status.

Instrumental showcases gave Slattery some relief in the form of concise suites from the theater music, including a "King Arthur" Suite that featured cherishable expressivity in episodes featuring cellist Amanda Keesmaat and recorder player Gregoire Jeay. The high quality of accompaniment provided by archlutenist Sylvain Bergeron throughout particularly placed the concert, for all its inviting departures from "authenticity," firmly in the Purcellian orbit.

The loose feeling about vocal expression that Slattery brings to these arrangements was most notable in the "ah" and humming choruses of "She loves and she confesses too" that followed presentation of the smitten text. The kind of gender equality represented by both sexes' tendency to be deceitful in love was coyly represented in Slattery's performance of "When I have often heard." Sitting on a high stool and often contributing the drone of a shruti box to the accompaniment, the tenor was a mesmerizing performer, with immense dynamic and breath control.

In accepting the La Nef manner with Purcell, you had to take in a butter-smooth manner of vocal projection that sometimes wasn't far from crooning, as in "Music for a while" and the unscheduled insertion of a John Dowland piece to bring the concert up to intermission — "Now O now I needs must part." The vocal quality, however, in the latter piece was a far cry from the sincere if grainy manner of Sting in his Dowland interpretations. How a singer looks when expressing emotion is properly allowed to complement the singing, of course. But Slattery pushed the envelope somewhat, scrunching up his face and baring his teeth too often. He has so much to offer in pure vocalism, however, that a little mugging could be taken in stride.

The concluding work paid tribute to another vast part of Purcell's output: sacred music. It's a credit to La Nef and Slattery that its populist approach to the Restoration composer's music did not violate the well-crafted piety of "Now that the sun hath veiled his light," with its flowering of "Hallellujahs" (or "Alleluias") at the end. It's the kind of richness that proliferates in Purcell's music — like the variant spellings of his name, which total nine (according to Grove's).

And these musicians' efforts at putting their stamp on the music and bringing it forward while representing Purcell's energy and variety for the 21st century are worthy of hallelujahs all their own.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

First Folio Productions and Catalyst Repertory: 'Richard III' pokes sticks into the hornet's nest of royal succession

So much energy is concentrated in the character of the Duke of Gloucester, scheming to become King Richard III, that the
Matt Anderson in a rare moment of calm in the title role of "Richard III"
young Shakespeare was hard put to render full-bodied everyone else in the hunchback's orbit, and not just like iron filings around a magnet.

It's a credit to a new production by First Folio Productions and Catalyst Repertory that the other roles are vividly filled. They may rant at and lament his cold bravado and be appalled by his ruthlessness.  They flail against Richard's ferocious will just to survive. Still, they amount to something in their usually vain struggles. There is something more to them under Glenn Dobbs' direction to make Matt Anderson's excellent portrayal of the title character more than a star turn.

But any "Richard III" that really works has to start and end with how the main role is executed.  On that score, the new production holds the attention, which is immediately arrested by the frame Dobbs and his team have put around it. That's the discovery in 2012 of Richard III's body under a parking lot in Leicester, England.

King Edward IV (Matthew Socey) is the monarch Gloucester famously resents.
The audience comes into the IndyFringe Theatre space to see two actors in modern dress talking with each other. An excavation site behind them is surrounded on three sides by a barrier. There is a table and a microscope on it. We are soon aware, when a TV interviewer and cameraman enter the scene to talk with the project director that an attempt to get a contemporary feature for the evening news is under way. It's wrapped up amid construction noise, and the crew departs.

Then Anderson as the splenetic Gloucester skulks onto the scene, uttering the first of the play's two most famous lines: "Now is the winter of our discontent," going on to decry "this weak piping time of peace" under the sickly, pleasure-loving King Edward IV, his brother. On opening night Friday, the lip-smacking sourness of this speech, one of several times Gloucester alone fills us in on his stratagems and resentments, was in full bloom. I wouldn't have suspected it was possible to say so disdainfully the word "lute," which ends the speaker's complaint that the king "capers nimbly in a lady's chamber / to the lascivious pleasing of a lute." Those "l's" fairly drip from Anderson's tongue, and the "t" in "lute" stings.

The actor turns Gloucester's crooked stature, admirably sustained throughout, into a figure of towering malevolence. Everyone is diminished and undone by it: The men to their deaths, the women mostly to humiliation and shame. Allison Clark Reddick played King Edward's queen, Elizabeth, to the edge of the madness she's entitled to by what she has to put up with. Lady Anne's forced marriage to the very cause of her intimate griefs — expressed in a blend of fury and despair — was well represented by Christina Howard.

Nan Macy is fascinating as the Duchess of York, mother of the three brothers central to England's 15th-century dynastic difficulties, and worn to a frazzle by them. Casey Ross as Queen Margaret, widow of the late King Henry VI (linking "Richard III" to the other history plays) was not burdened with the full wordiness of the part, thanks to judicious cutting, and thus could get to the essence.

The king's sons while away the time, unaware of their fate.
It's a less tidy task to run down the list of male cast members, but they all communicated their roles' functions well. Particularly poignant was the performance of Jay Hemphill as the Duke of Buckingham, sporting an uneasy laugh and a gift for rhetorically feathering his own nest — which ultimately gets him nowhere. Also solid — and getting to put one foot each in the victim and victor camps — was Carey Shea as the Duke of Clarence, dispatched early upon superstition and innuendo in a manner worthy of today's Alex Jones, and as the leader of anti-Gloucester forces, the Earl of Richmond, soon to be founder of the Tudor monarchy that would patronize the grateful playwright. Matthew Socey roared and wilted as needed in the role of King Edward, and Lex Lumpkin and Dalyn Stewart were effective in the juvenile roles of the short-lived princes in the Tower.

The costumes of Linda Schornhorst carry thorough suggestions of the play's era and are marked by individuality and detail. Brian G. Hartz's sound design varies appropriately between Renaissance and contemporary rock, and he sets the 2012 scene well with traffic noises before a line of Shakespeare is spoken.

I'll conclude with an alternative view of Anderson's extraordinary fitness for the title role. His establishment of an ambitious aristocrat chafing at his physical condition and the perceived slights that have dogged him from birth is immediate and forceful. His expressive articulation never lets up. The grimaces, smirks, and scowls, the gimlet-eyed penetration of his regard (his sustained stare-down of Buckingham could make the blood run cold), the actually sweaty relentlessness of his evil mission — all these elements are properly there. And they remain forceful to the very end.

But I see Richard in Act 5 as more chillingly self-possessed, quite on top of his corrosive bitterness, enjoying battlefield command, absurdly overconfident, though he's practically friendless. To me, his desperation and gnawing anxiety should appear to be mastered, except for a few wild moments, such as the play's other famous line — "A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!" His lines here are stuffed with tactical commands. He should seem almost pleased to have put all the machinations at court behind him and to play the soldier, the dogged combatant with all possible outcomes lying before him on Bosworth Field.

True, he's had a horrible dream in which ghosts reminding him of his murderous misdeeds trouble his sleep. There follows a soliloquy of self-questioning that's a little absurd on the page, but was well played here as being a kind of groggy recognition of who he has been all along. Otherwise, the quality is far away from Hamlet's "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I," for instance.

But the young playwright's triumph as a rhetorician is already fully mature in this role. In support of my sense that Richard III needs a touch of eerie calm in the last act, I offer what he says just before he speaks to his army:

Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devis'd at first to keep the strong in awe:
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!
March on, join bravely, let us to it pell-mell;
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.

Might makes right, in other words; sneaky tricks, subterfuges, and betrayals aren't enough. And here Richard sums up why enacting all his hurts on the battlefield is his final satisfaction, whatever the outcome.

Still, the integrity and consistency of the decisions Dobbs has made in bringing this powerful adaptation to the stage make the production well worth seeing.

[Photos by Gary Nelson]


Monday, June 26, 2017

Stagger Lee was one kind of legendary rascal, Jared Kushner is another

2017 Early Music Festival caps its opening weekend with music of three faiths from medieval Spain

Conspicuous signs of past tolerance in one place across the three Abrahamic religions are eagerly cultivated in today's cultural climate. Many people look for models of this kind of thing, rare though they may be.

Another configuration of the Peabody Consort, with director Mark Cudek playing a hand drum.
Without becoming overtly political about it, the Peabody Consort put together a program focusing on the example of King Alfonso X of Castile, known as "El Sabio" (the Wise) in large part for his cultural magnanimity. 

In the latter half of Moorish settlement in the Iberian peninsula, Alfonso reigned from 1242 to 1284. His court assembled "Cantigas de Santa Maria," a large anthology of songs to the Virgin Mary. The king also promoted scholarship in Toledo to explore and preserve the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish cultural heritage represented among his subjects.

Selections from the cantigas were the linchpin of the Peabody Consort's concert for the Early Music Festival. Both the musicians and the organization are directed by Mark Cudek, who participated mostly on several percussion instruments. His colleagues were Brian Kay, oud, and Niccolo Seligmann, vielle, playing relatives of the lute and the fiddle, respectively, and a notably stylish and expressive soprano, Julie Bosworth. 

Guest artist Daphna Mor filled out the ensemble on recorders and ney, an end-blown Middle Eastern flute played at an angle. Kay and Mor also sang one piece each: Kay's performance of a nostalgic Arab song, "Nassam Alayna el-Hawa," was a concert highlight, as was Mor's vocal solo in a Jewish holy song of praise, "Tsur Mishelo."

The chiaroscuro effect of vocal and instrumental music gave extra color to the carefully organized program. The cantigas segment showed some of this music's range, with Steven Rickards' Echoing Air Vocal Ensemble supporting Bosworth in the refrains. 

Their pure, floating vocal timbre as a group perfectly complemented the soloist's more penetrating lyrical agility, exquisitely phrased. Her mastery of the intricate lines in "Cristo e nato" by Laudario di Cortona and the challenging range of the Arabic love song "Mwashsha" were just two demonstrations of her integral value to Peabody Consort music-making.

Cudek arranged for three local readers to put music from each religious tradition in context and then read relevant prose or poetry. The Rev. Robert A. Schilling read Gonzalo de Berceo's comical, didactic parable of "The Inebriated Monk"; Michael Toulouse read a rapturous poem full of sensuous detail by the Muhyi al-din Muhammad ibn Ali ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240); Cantor Judy Meyersberg enthralled the Indiana History Center audience with the ecstatic spirituality of "The Soul," by Moshe ibn Ezra, who died about 1138.

The program featured many opportunities to appreciate the control and flair of their instruments by Kay, Seligmann, and Mor.  The finale, an exuberant narrative hailing the birth of Abraham from the Jewish perspective, soared in the refrains — joined by everyone onstage plus some members of the audience. The first half had ended with similar exultation in a ballad, with oud, vielle, and recorder solos tucked in, of St. Basil's resistance to  threats by the Roman emperor known as Julian the Apostate. 

Apostasy comes in for divine retribution in all three faiths covered in this program. I wouldn't doubt that everywhere you look, you can find common themes in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but rarely outlined as entertainingly as in this concert.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

BOBDIREX production of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame": Ringing the changes on diversity and acceptance in medieval Paris

However adept the Disney organization has proved over decades of storytelling, sometimes the moral clarity of the result,
Jacob Butler lends overwhelming pathos to the title role.
particularly in the animated, full-length features, can be too glaring. Yet dividing the world into good people and bad people is seductive when we tell stories, as we keep discovering in the "good-guy-with-a-gun" simplifications of today's raging Second Amendment debate.

Adapted for the stage with real people in the roles, as BOBDIREX is now doing in its annual production at Marian University, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" preserves the broad, heavily outlined representation of the Disney film characters: The bell-ringer, marginalized and mocked because of birth deformities, learns courage; the intrepid "queen" of medieval Paris' despised gypsies who helps nurture his feelings of worth even as she gains his trust by opposing his protector, a corrupt and concupiscent representative of both the law and the church.

These three characters are all sturdily portrayed in the second-night performance I saw Saturday night. Jacob Butler is outstanding as the hunchback Quasimodo, brought up in cathedral isolation and shedding his submissiveness with difficulty to assert his full humanity in song and dramatic stature. Bill Book is his protector and nemesis Frollo, the archdeacon of the Notre Dame cathedral, driven by a need to control that turns sociopathic. Shelbi Berry plays Esmeralda, prize trickster and entertainer of the furtive gypsy population, blending pixieish charm and a ferocious drive toward justice and dignity.
Esmeralda wows the crowd at the Feast of Fools.

Director Bob Harbin seems always to get powerful actor-singers in the main roles. But he is also Indianapolis theater's Cecil B. DeMille, with touches of Robert Altman. He has a history of getting large casts, solidly accompanied, to put across shows with swirling coordination and a degree of commitment that approaches spontaneity in effect, even though it has been carefully prepared. With choral oomph applied to some of the show's music by conductor Trevor Fanning's facility at developing choruses (he's on the faculty at Cathedral High School), the atmosphere of the medieval church flourishes on a plausible fantasy level.

The flexible, idiomatic, to-the-point songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz help hold the narrative together. The pit band displayed both heft and subtlety. The production's amplification was a little overpowering in the full-voice ensemble numbers, but otherwise both spoken dialogue and songs for soloists and small groups came through well. With essential assistance from the costumes, the choreography (Stuart Coleman) particularly in the Feast of Fools revelry early in the first act, brims with razzle-dazzle and a well-managed intricacy that suits the ensemble's range of body types.

Clerical errors: Frollo seeks divine help in a dubious cause.
Among those appearing in supporting roles to particularly strong effect was  Keith Potts as Clopin, master of the revels, gypsy honcho, and the story's most prominent narrator. You felt you were always in good story-telling hands with Potts' Clopin leading the way. Logan Moore plays the stalwart army captain Phoebus, who, believably entranced by Esmeralda, is gradually won over to the small, undeterred opposition to Frollo. His tenderness about the wound he had suffered in a second-act fight was inconsistent, however. Heroism, once it clings to a character, seems to rise above all hurts, I guess.

The Gargoyles, those decorative cathedral sculptures of grotesque mien, function according to Disneyan whimsy as prodding friends of Quasimodo, who alone is able to talk with them and see them as animate beings. With adept costuming simulating their stony bodies, these amusing companions at the cathedral's summit received lusty, droll portrayals by Curtis Peters, Matt Rohrer, and April Armstrong-Thomas.

Some of the fantasy elements the story requires work well in this production without elaborate technology: the flash and burst of brief fire indicates that gypsy sorcery has been applied where needed. The staging of (spoiler alert!) Frollo's dispatch off the Notre Dame roof was managed well without advanced gimmickry; on the other hand, Quasimodo's rescue of the condemned Esmeralda was a little too understated and low-key, given the flashiness of the production as the whole — you had to imagine why Quasimodo really needed that bell-rope.

Though the story leans toward simplified problems and solutions, it's enthralling every step of the way. When it comes to emotional nuance, I found the scenes in which Esmeralda and Frollo confront each other electrifying. There are dark sides to both characters (not just the archdeacon) as well as humanity (not just the gypsy). Book and Berry were equal to offering characterizations as rounded  as the script allows. So many of the griefs other people harbor are hidden in our interactions with them; Frollo and Esmeralda come face-to-face with the grief behind each other's bristling facade.

In a Franz Kafka letter I happened to read just before attending "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," he writes: "...if I were to cast myself down before you and weep and tell you [my griefs,] what more would you know about me than you know about hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful. For that reason alone we human beings ought to stand before one another as reverently, as reflectively, as lovingly, as we would before the entrance to hell." This arresting sentiment is oddly embodied  in Esmeralda's canniness, compassion and instinct for self-preservation, set against Frollo's studied uprightness (at war with his lust) and mania for control. These qualities crackled in the performances of Berry and Book.

Both Esmeralda and Frollo stand before the hell in the other person, a hell that's more "hot and dreadful" in the archdeacon than in the gypsy. Only one of them can be the salvation of the hunchback, and it has to be the one for whom hell is kept more at bay. Some happy endings are not as clear-cut as Disney storytelling would like them to be. Even so, Quasimodo retains more of a vision of heaven at the end, thanks to the moral imbalance between Esmeralda and Frollo. The positions of all three with respect to one another are superbly realized in this intense, full-hearted production.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Cincinnati Opera's 'Frida': Artist who represents much to so many wanted only to represent herself truly

Outstanding portrayal: Catalina Cuervo as Frida.
In a pre-performance talk about his opera "Frida" Friday night in Cincinnati, Robert Xavier Rodriguez identified the appeal of his subject across a spectrum that doesn't necessarily include opera buffs: the feminist, visual arts, LGBT, leftist, Latino (specifically Mexican), and disabled communities all claim a piece of the Frida Kahlo phenomenon.

Rodriguez's 1991 musical survey of the artist's life (1907-1954) transcends these pigeonholes, fortunately, even while it benefits from association with them. Importing a Michigan Opera Theatre production to the Jarson-Kaplan Theater at the Aronoff Center, Cincinnati Opera displayed this transcendence mainly in the performance of Catalina Cuervo in the title role. Whenever you can make a deeply flawed character lovable onstage, you've achieved something special.

Cuervo displayed a strong voice in all registers, leaning with special vividness toward her lower range. She was steadily thrilling as she sang, but she also mastered the dramatic requirements in her spoken voice and folded both kinds of vocalism into a full-size charisma. She was complemented in her portrayal by the larger-than-life performance of baritone Ricardo Herrera as Diego Rivera, thus presenting a double portrait of the 20th century's most fascinating couple in the arts. Who can compare? F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were sozzled suburbanites in comparison, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner victims in different ways of ruthless art ideology and marketing.

 Diego Rivera (Ricardo Herrera)  holds forth
Rivera remains the artist of broader genius, which "Frida" commendably acknowledges. But she never settled into a role as "Mrs. Rivera," even from the time she first set her sights on the already famous master. Separating herself from her dutiful peers early as a schoolgirl, in one of the opera's many clearly drawn scenes, Frida Kahlo overcame both the handicap of polio and  horrifying injuries in a bus-tram collision to wring art out of both her extraordinary intelligence and the richness of her emotional and sensuous life. Intimate connection with Mexico's most celebrated artist was a cornerstone of her hard-won progress.

Frida's striking imagery — so much narrower and more personal than Rivera's in large part — is tellingly communicated in the hypnotically compelling stage picture (Monika Essen's design). The tangle of dead tree branches, the anatomical detail of breasts and heart, the monkeys, a giant moth, and a large weeping eye dominate the set in perfect balance.

Conceived in two acts encompassing 13 scenes, "Frida" inevitably has aspects of "A Beginner's Guide to Frida Kahlo," which may tempt some in attendance to wonder if they are witnessing a stage version of a PBS documentary. Rodriguez's roiling music and its embrace of so many styles, from opera to Broadway, from folk music to cabaret, are part of the reason "Frida" escapes such limitations.

In addition to a harvest of blatant ensemble verve, the small orchestra, conducted smartly by Andres Cladera, delivers bouquets of piquant solos, with instrumentation tweaked toward the vernacular with the inclusion of prominent parts for Spanish guitar and accordion.

The quality of the performances, mainly Cuervo's, completes the assurance that we are not just witnessing a lively checklist of Kahlo episodes: Her radicalism, her health challenges, her liaison with Rivera, the couple's contrasting responses to Rivera's American opportunities, the infidelity on both sides, involvement on entirely different footings with the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and the American film star/art collector Edward G. Robinson. Jose Maria Condemi's fluent stage direction is largely responsible for knitting the narrative together.

Masked dancers, calaveras stylized after Day of the Dead traditions, open the show and are later vital components of Frida's post-accident aria, "Death dances around my body at night." Frida remains heroically resistant to allowing her near-constant pain and visions of death to limit her ambition or energy, much of it sexual as well as artistic.

Diego (third from left) succumbs to the allure of New York as his wife resists it.
There are strong anthemic renditions of folk-like ensemble songs, notably "Viva Zapata" early in the opera, suggesting the challenge to Rivera's position on the Mexican left that prompted him to work abroad. Satirical numbers also pop up in the explicit manner of Broadway, such as the breezy self-involvement of the New York beau monde, capped by advice the show's Rockefeller gives to the artist: "Let your art tell the people what we want them to think."

Frida's pushback against this directive is more explicit than her husband's. She wears a lavishly colorful traditional dress and headpiece to a formal party and parries socialite comments snarkily. Diego's subtler resistance involves his inclusion of a portrait of Lenin in an expansive mural painting commissioned for Rockefeller Center that was canceled unfinished. (Though his objecting benefactor is not explicitly identified in "Frida," it was future New York governor and U.S. vice president Nelson Rockefeller.)

Worth noting about Friday's performance in addition to the starring couple is the excellence of Benjamin Lee as Alejandro, Frida's first lover, and the poignantly isolated and libidinously needy Trotsky, and Reilly Nelson as Lupe Marin, Rivera's  peppery, sensual and eventually discarded second wife as he solemnizes his soul-mate attraction to Frida in effervescent nuptials.

Whatever the decline in mutual commitment that was to come subsequently, this potpourri of musical-stage richness makes it unmistakably clear that Diego and Frida were perpetually meant for each other — in their tumultuous world and the one beyond. "Frida" memorializes handsomely a unique contribution to modern world art. So let Kahlo be iconic to various communities; she resists compartmentalization. Her overall significance goes well past any such sorting out. This opera is ample testament to that.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]

Friday, June 23, 2017

'The Golem of Havana': The imagination and moral choice confront national crisis

Reminders that art is not just a leisure activity or an outlet for self-expression are always welcome. With stunning effect, "The Golem of Havana" delivers an assertion that art may be crucial to survival — both physical and aspirational.
Rebecca reads from her booklet to the distracted Maria.

Rebecca, born in Havana to Jewish parents who escaped the Holocaust, is a young teen caught up in her artistic imagination applying the folkloric figure of the golem to superhero adventures. The graphic novel she's created represents the concrete expression of her adaptation, but the spiritual resonance of the golem for her becomes all-important in the Phoenix Theatre's production of a musical set in 1958 Cuba.

The 24th of July Revolution is about to sweep away the old order just as Pinchas Frankel, a tailor forced to flee wartime Hungary with his wife, Yutka, is poised to establish his own shop. Their lives are complicated unforeseeably by the involvement of their maid Maria's son, Teo, in the revolutionary cause. Rebecca's idealism about life and art inevitably draws her to the young fighter on the run, and the family is sucked  into a national maelstrom.

With a book by Michel Hausmann and music and lyrics by Salomon Lerner and Len Schif, "The Golem of Havana" offers a cohesive view of history's grip on questions of personal and family success. Directed by Bryan Fonseca, the cast smoothly melds ensemble and individual songs and dialogue to tell the story. Rebecca's golem is represented as a hulking, humanlike figure, traditionally conceived of as made out of clay or earth, that pops up from time to time in projections (by Izzy Rae Brown) of the girl's drawings. It focuses Rebecca's belief outside traditional religion that a protective spirit can be appealed to and may solve real-world problems.

The bromance of Pinchas and Arturo proves to be fragile.
The golem's success in this show is decidedly mixed, just as the benefits and evils of the Fulgencio Batista regime were followed by the benefits and evils of Fidel Castro's victory. The effects of that earth-shaking change have been a major Western Hemisphere preoccupation of the United States since 1959. Moral clarity in the show goes up to the point of reinforcing family unity and the virtue of courage, but not much further.

The songs are supported in this show by a five-piece band placed above and behind the set. Bernie Killian has created a simple, evocative set, with a Cuban-tile patterned floor backed by a row of Romanesque arches to form an arcade, which is a secondary playing space, along with an area representing a back room in the Frankel apartment. The accompaniment was varied, colorful, and often brash. Well-projected as it was, it occasionally covered the singers; spoken cues were sometimes audible on opening night. Laura Glover's lighting was eloquent in rendering both sunshine and shadow, the reality that glares and the reality shrouded in mystery.

Accepting a cigar from a dictator has consequences.
The girlish charm that Lydia Burke brought to the role of Rebecca was consistently appealing. I kept wrestling with the notion that she looked a little too old for the part. This may have to do with a nagging hunch I had that the show's creators thought of Rebecca as a reincarnation of Anne Frank. There was the same awakening toward maturity, a warm sympathy for humanity, an unquenchable idealism — and a need to record it all. The Frank family's years of hiding in Amsterdam spanned their diarist daughter's ages of 13 to 15; late adolescence is a different world. The similarity of last names reinforced my impression, with another name chiming in: that of Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of "Man's Search for Meaning." If there's anything dominating Rebecca's character and artistic obsessions, it's her search for meaning.

The wounded Teo ponders his next step.
But in a world where middle-aged actresses can believably (sometimes) play Shakespeare's Juliet, I must set these minor misgivings aside. Burke owned the role: Her singing tugged at the heartstrings, and she seemed to understand the character as resting on a fulcrum with naivete on one side, indomitability on the other.

One of the strongest  numbers in the show was a trio for Rebecca, her father Pinchas, and Maria. Eric J. Olson's Pinchas and Teneh B.C. Karimu's Maria were also consistently well-sung and played insightfully. Olson conveyed the tailor's perseverance  and trusting nature sympathetically. His duets with his Cuban friend Arturo (an exuberant Carlos Medina Maldonado) were among the show's other musical highlights.

Karimu registered the pain of Maria's constant anxiety about the well-being of her son, off fighting in the Sierra Maestra range and in constant danger. Her address to the gods of her heritage, drawn out because of her rapport with the questing Rebecca, had the ring of authenticity about it. That cultural foundation was echoed and completed by her son Teo in a scene with Rebecca. Ray Hutchins plays Teo with the kind of bitter resolve out of which revolutionaries are made (and which enables them to accept its atrocities). Teo's honoring of his mother's faith is a pro forma matter, but Hutchins put it across as part of the young soldier's essential connection to his people.

As Yutka, an even more conflicted character, Lori Ecker had the right haunted quality; the circumstances of her sister's loss to the Nazi takeover of Hungary weigh on her. The character is complex in ways that the show's creators draw out in an unsettlingly shorthand way, but Ecker made sense of it all.

Paul Nicely should also be mentioned for his suave, subtly menacing performance as Batista. Pinchas rises surely enough, thanks to Arturo, to get the assignment of fitting the dictator for a new suit. Their scene together had a finely strained camaraderie to it Thursday.

Pinchas' ascent to a high-status opportunity on the eve of the regime's collapse symbolizes the mixed blessings the golem of Havana bestows. It's a figure enlivened by Rebecca's devotion and artistic skill, but off the page never subject to her control. Her fashioning of this god of the household in both images and narrative is achievement enough. That's what art does, and it's no small thing.

[Photos by Ed Stewart]

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

"The Trial": Franz Kafka's incomplete novel is nicely rounded off by Philip Glass's music in Opera Theatre of St. Louis production

The Philip Glass compositional procedure — which he concisely sums up as "music
Joseph K.'s upended world in "The Trial" pauses for a portrait.
of repetitive structures" — seems a natural fit for the worldview of Franz Kafka. The short-lived Jewish citizen of Prague, who wrote in German, defined the cryptic, justice-challenged dilemmas of modern life for the 20th century in fiction with the force and mystery of parables.

Glass felt he should someday write an opera based on "The Trial" shortly after first reading it 60 years ago. The Opera Theatre of St. Louis production, an American premiere, confirms that affinity. The naturalness, the "everydayness," of Glass's music — its buoyancy, its dogged continuity, its jog-trot tempos, its textural variety — suit Kafka, with one big difference: "The story is so dark that you can't tell it that way," Glass is quoted as saying in the June issue of St. Louis Magazine. "It has to be burlesqued."

The original, private readers of "The Trial" are said to have found it hilarious. Glass and his librettist, Christopher Hampton, plumbed the story's depth and pulled the mockery to the surface, originally on a four-company commission that premiered in 2014. The OTSL production, directed by Michael McCarthy, picks up and amplifies that interpretation expertly.

The score is a soundtrack, a tapestry lying behind the isolation of Joseph K., the assistant manager at a bank, from everything he took for granted in his life, down to the landlady who always brought him his breakfast. The performance I saw Saturday night, suavely conducted by Carolyn Kwan, had to deal with some absences in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra that layered unscripted absurdity upon the intended kind: The most evident substitution had repetiteur Adam Nielsen at the piano laying down the work's opening pattern instead of the score's cello. But the coordination with the stage was so acute, and the work of the replacement musicians so creditable, that no sign of anything amiss came across to the audience. 

The ability of this "Trial" to rise above any sudden difficulties was centered on the performance of Theo Hoffman as Joseph K. We anticipate that the solidly placed citizen of an unnamed city is about to experience disruption when we first see him flopping briefly and spasmodically toward wakefulness at daybreak. We guess, correctly, that Hoffman is going to embody Kafka's hapless hero down to his fingertips. And yet he is also Everyman. A lot of us wake up this way, after all: a few twitches, a thrusting out of arms and legs from beneath the covers, the head raised jerkily, the eyes blinking into alertness.

Joseph K. in his nightshirt tries to deal with two arresting officers.
Hoffman connects this initial impression so smoothly to the anxiety that is about to engulf Joseph K. that we are uncomfortably and unswervingly sympathetic to him. It starts with his first shock of the day: his arrest by two stout minor court officers, inspired in this production perhaps by Mack Sennett comedies, complete with handlebar mustaches and risible officiousness. (Other characters later appear in phony beards out of the silent-film era.) We remain caught up in Hoffman's brilliant portrait of a bright fellow, comfortable with who he is and at first suspecting a co-workers' joke, thrown into totally murky circumstances. 

He moves with hyperactive, ineffectual curiosity, becoming acquainted with the apparent ubiquity of a justice system that has trapped and confounded him. And so he remains until his final swift demise at the system's functionaries. Just before that, after asking himself a series of sensible questions, in the novel Joseph K. concludes: "Logic is doubtless unshakable, but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living."  Hoffman was that man, finding the emotional core of the piece throughout. He  displayed a well-projected, scrupulously phrased baritone that never wavered among all Joseph K.'s adventures. The will to live is absolute; only his logic fails him.

The hero at every turn encounters people who know more than he does, or at least want to give him that impression. The droll fellows who arrest him are played and sung with fizz by Joshua Blue and Robert Mellon. They are typical of the rest of the cast in also being required to take on other roles: Mellon presents with stunning finality the absurdity of K.'s situation as the Priest in the opera's climactic cathedral scene. And Blue is a bundle of feckless energy as the groveling businessman Block.

 A femme fatale on his lap leaves Joseph K. still clueless.
As in dreams, people whom Joseph K. recognizes in one context have to be accepted as looking eerily just like someone else encountered in another. These singers were unfailing in carrying out the chameleon changes on and around Simon Banham's bland yet imposing set. It's basically a large squeezed diamond shape center stage, backed by a gray wall with hidden openings through which both crucial and trivial vignettes play from time to time. 

Sofia Selowsky and Susannah Biller are the cast's two women, occasionally called upon to represent erotic distractions to the hero as well as the objects of other men's lechery. They are also a landlady and a neighbor, respectively, and as such have no siren function to perform (though Joseph briefly misinterprets the neighbor's interest). They are simply fixtures in the hero's normal life who have somehow become inscrutable as he sinks further into the dilatory but crushing claws of the system.

Also well-suited to flesh out the fullness of K.'s plight was Matthew Lau (performing with a freshly injured shoulder on Saturday night) as both the Inspector who informs the hero of his legal difficulty and K.'s Uncle Albert, the type of nattering, censorious relative who functions in this story somewhat like the biblical Job's "miserable comforters."

Keith Phares was responsible for much of the performance's persistent comedy as the lawyer Huld, self-important and indulging in semi-invalidism. Brenton Ryan was notably animated as a mad-artist caricature, the painter Titorelli, mysteriously well-connected with the legal system but, of course, absolutely unhelpful to Joseph K.

In short, "The Trial" amounts to a concise and vivid musical representation of Kafka's enigmatic book. The puzzlement remains, but in this guise also amuses in all its dark effervescence. K.'s bafflement becomes ours, though the panache of Glass's music allows us to keep enough emotional distance to position comedy above dread. While honoring Kafka's uncanny prophetic spirit as embodied by OTSL, we cling to the hope we also can keep real-world distance from such a plight as Joseph K.'s.

[Photos by Ken Howard]

"The Grapes of Wrath": Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents a new version of a 2007 opera by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie

The Joad family, piled into a jalopy truck, heads for California.
John Steinbeck's epochal novel "The Grapes of Wrath," rooted as it is in the dislocation and social upheaval of the Great Depression, carries a particular aptness into our 21st-century obsession with the haves-havenots gulf and mass refugee movements.

So it's more than for the sake of life support for Ricky Ian Gordon's 2007 opera that a new version, shortened and more focused on the central characters, is on the Opera Theatre of St. Louis' current season in its home at Webster University in suburban St. Louis. 

Linked indelibly to Michael Korie's resonant libretto, the work deserves wide circulation. In the revision, the cast remains huge, and demands on the singers are unrelenting and must be smoothly joined. The perseverance amid the growing desperation of displaced farmers has to remain uppermost, relieved by a few tender or comical lines and episodes.

Seen at a matinee Saturday, "The Grapes of Wrath" takes the gritty realism of Steinbeck's story seriously and minutely as it concentrates on the Joad family of Oklahoma, trekking westward to California with many others from the Dust Bowl. The staging fans out from the libretto's cinematic succession of brief scenes to the social panorama of uprooted Okies, betrayed by misleading promises of work designed to drive down the cost of their labor, all reasonable ambition suppressed by growers and henchmen. Continued privation is the refugees' lot as their visions of life in an earthly paradise are destroyed like surplus fruit in lush valley orchards.

Ma Joad (standing left) sings of the devastating drought in opera's first scene.
James Robinson's stage direction and Allen Moyer's set, which anchors the action to variations on the initial soup-kitchen milieu, give the flavor of a pageant to the story, as if the Joads' adventures were being recollected and relived by a huge touring company (complete with stylized violence). This decision seems both practical and suggestive of the story's larger meaning. It has parallels with the "newsreel" manner of presentation pioneered by John Dos Passos in the "U.S.A." novels. 

There are touches of symbolic action and satire that add variety to this essential style. After the first-scene chorus lamenting the drought, most of the soup-kitchen diners blow on their bowls as if to cool the soup. Dust rises up in scattered bursts.
Shortly thereafter, in a complicated chorus reflecting the heartless eviction of farm families by the powers that be, a row of female bank tellers rotely describe their jobs with identical piggy banks lined up in front of them.

Here the short line lengths and emphatic rhythms elicit from Gordon a four-note motif that recalls Beethoven's Fifth. It suggests the distancing effect of decisions that are driving the Okies off their land, expressed by the repeated "It's not my fault." Impersonal fate is evoked, as in Beethoven's offhand remark (sometimes taken too seriously) that his famous motif represented "fate knocking at the door."

Normally, Gordon's music favors a billowing arioso style, with the orchestra under Christopher Allen's precise direction supporting the singers with sometimes crunchy  harmonies (the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is in the pit). Vernacular music is brought into play where appropriate: a diner waitress' song (sung with sassy gusto by Jennifer Panara), contrasting the hapless Okies with good-tipping truck drivers, has a tidy Tin Pan Alley verve.

There are a couple of songs set comfortably in ragtime form, and the lapsed
Connie and Rosasharn have dreams of stable family life.
preacher Jim Casy (brilliantly portrayed by Geoffrey Agpalo) introduces himself with an irreverent blues. When the lyricism thins out along with the Joads' fortunes at the very end, daughter Rosasharn's partial reprise of "One Star," originally a love duet with her now absconded husband Connie (Andrew Lovato), recalls Americanist-era Copland, with a gently rocking orchestral accompaniment in the concluding measures.

As the expectant Rosasharn, Deanna Brewick performed with soaring honesty some of the opera's most heart-wrenching music. In the Gordon-Korie interpretation, the character who frets so often in Steinbeck's novel has more prominent nobility, somewhat undercut by her persistent all-American materialism. But her final act, one of the best-known endings in American fiction, lifts her up indelibly in the opera as well.

It would be hard to improve on the steely resolve and maternal solicitude of Katharine Goeldner's Ma Joad. She looked totally capable of braining her fractious son Al (Michael Day) with a bucket, yet she's also the expedition's bedrock of compassion and the voice for family unity. She is given a moving catalogue aria in the first act that blends both material and spiritual values as part of the Okies' identity: "Years is us," she sings, but so are "buckets, ropes, and canvas," a copy of Pilgrim's Progress, sewing odds and ends. The aria's themes are later echoed in chorus, as the hopeful exiles proclaim that Route 66 is "us," too.

Casy (Geoffrey Agpalo) and Tom (Tobias Greenhalgh) chew the fat.
As central son Tom Joad, Tobias Greenhalgh conveyed a stalwart, salt-of-the-earth quality, making much of his second-act aria of promise, "I'll be there." I found him less able to convey Tom's seething impatience with his lot and the bitterness that eventually overturns his resolve to control his temper. As the oldest son Noah, Hugh Russell sang with sturdy pathos an extended soliloquy preceding the character's suicide by drowning, which is tenderly accompanied by a recollection of Ma's long-ago lullaby ("Simple Child") to her developmentally disabled son.

Levi Hernandez played Pa Joad as a force almost as stalwart as his wife, yet inevitably in her shadow. Robert Orth presented his usual vivid take on an oddball character — the anxious, fitfully solicitous but mainly self-absorbed Uncle John. Burdened by alcoholism, he is still capable of creatively dealing with the family's final disaster as a downpour and flood surge around the survivors. 

Orth sang the justification of John's action beautifully. The symbolism is rich throughout this inspired scene: The Oklahoma drought has been left far behind. Its drastic consequences have now met the rising of California waters, and the diminished yet undefeated family refuses to go wholly under.

[Photos by Ken Howard]