Saturday, June 16, 2018

Variegated, inspiring and intense, 'Indecent' opens the final part of Phoenix Theatre's season

After the splash of "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" linked Phoenix Theatre history from the old era to a new one last month and had Vonnegutites genuflecting toward North Illinois Street, the first post-transition production to come to the new facility's main stage focuses on the interaction between theater and the world itself. It has unique historical material to apply to the Shakespearean touchstone, made banal by repetition, of "All the world's a stage," flipping it to something like "all stages are the world" and the reversed corollary, "and all the players merely men and women."

"Indecent" is a Tony Award-winning play by Paula Vogel, a stylistically free-flowing ensemble drama with the feel of a historical documentary. It traces the fortunes of "God of Vengeance," a 1906 Yiddish play written in Warsaw during the time of pogroms and with European Jews subject to modernist forces of disintegration as well as centripetal pressure to resist both embedded and overt anti-Semitism.

Vogel examines the losing battle of Sholem Asch's play, which included the first onstage kiss between two women, to survive translation into English and stay clear of legal trouble. In 1923, the cast and producer were arrested for obscenity, tried and convicted. Changes to the text behind the author's back had not removed it from controversy, part of which was fueled by the New York Jewish establishment's objections to its linking of Judaism to a brothel setting.

With that court case as the fulcrum, "Indecent" then shows the aftermath: The elusive American dream had so clouded the vision of liberation among Jewish immigrants that some returned to the Old World, eventually to face more conclusive restraints on their freedom. Asch's disillusionment was total, though he survived McCarthyism by trimming his sails somewhat; his services to Yiddish literature remained strong, despite his firm suppression of any "God of Vengeance" revival.

The word "decent" has roots in an ancient Greek verb meaning "to seem good." "Indecent," a favorite label of censors and prosecutors, describes whatever does not seem good to those doing the labeling. Long ago it was a kind of litmus test of impropriety. Society can dismiss the likelihood that you are good if you don't seem good. Hamlet famously "knows not seems," as he tells his mother, and look where it gets him. "Indecent" as a title has multiple resonance in Vogel's play. For most of us, in and out of theater, knowing what seems good to others about us is crucial to social success and a reputation for decency.

Asch at first argues to have his play seem good to his fellow Polish Jews. One early advocate, Lemml, remains loyal as the scene shifts to New York. But resistance at the initial readings in a Warsaw literary salon is a harbinger of what will happen on the wider stage. The young author witheringly offers this secularized definition of a minyan (the number of men Jewish law requires for a communal religious service): "Ten men standing in a circle calling each other anti-Semitic."

Like most of us, Asch believes he is good; both his intentions and his art support this. But "God of Vengeance" becomes a burden posing continual threats to his conviction that traditional religion and narrow moral codes erect obstacles to human potential.

The way Vogel structures the play is carried out in the Phoenix production with an arresting yet flowing gracefulness under Martha Jacobs' direction. The cast is an adaptable, shape-shifting troupe divided into three generations — an Elder Man and Woman (Mark Goetzinger and Jolene Moffatt), a Middle Man and Woman (Bill Simmons and Abby Lee), and a Male and Female ingenue (John Goodson and Courtney Spivak). There is charm, ferocity, humor, and pathos in their portrayals.

Only the passionate and doomed Lemml  (Nick Jenkins) remains the same to hold the narrative thread firm. Yet his idealistic resolve is insufficient to remove from his life the question that afflicts Jewish history, particularly in the first part of the 20th century: What must members of an oppressed minority do to seem good to one another as well as to the strangers among whom they must live and hope to flourish? And what sacrifice of integrity may be involved if they succeed?

With music and arrangements by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva, performed to accompaniment tracks, the cast smoothly negotiates the abrupt shifts of mood and character. Their movement is enhanced from time to time by Esther Widlanski's choreography. Changes of setting are signaled by projections. The most common phrase in the projections is "a blink in time," emphasizing the transience of on- and offstage life alike. The screened words also guide the audience as to which language the characters are using: Yiddish, German, or English.

Old-fashioned suitcases are lugged into position as props and furniture, reinforcing the troupe's feeling of never being at home, whether performances are well-received or not. The chrysalis of "God of Vengeance," from which it hopes to burst forth butterflylike to a welcoming world, is the Rain Scene, celebrating the love between two women in terms that echo the Song of Songs. Its triumph, writ large in the performances of Lee and Spivak,  is hedged round by the circumstances in which challenging theater takes place.

The world, it turns out, is rarely welcoming. The stages on which adventurous art is mounted are fragmented and absorbed by intrusive agendas. Along the way, however, philistinism ironically refines and ennobles the artistry, as this production demonstrates. Still, all the stages are the world, which mocks what happens in plays by stubbornly not having an ending. "Indecent" is a label that's hard to erase and all too easy to apply to one blink in time after another. "Indecent" the play affirms that resistance and perseverance are worthwhile.

Friday, June 15, 2018

'La Traviata' opens renovated Music Hall for Cincinnati Opera season

Alfredo (Ji-Min Park) woos Violetta (Norah Amsellem) the courtesan he's admired from afar.
Never before have I enjoyed the opportunity of seeing two different productions of a core-repertoire opera within 15 days. Endless comparisons could be made, but in covering Cincinnati Opera's opening-night (June 14) performance of Giuseppe Verdi's "La Traviata," I've decided that's my proper focus. So I will bring in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' English-language version, which I attended May 30, at just a single point.

The Cincinnati production is owned by Chicago Lyric Opera. It has an expansive, old-fashioned look, well suited to mark the reopening of Music Hall, once again the company's home after two years away. The opening scene at Violetta Valery's house speaks to the glamour associated with the heroine at the height of her cachet in mid-19th-century Paris. The stage picture of the courtesan's lavish lifestyle, despite the tragic turn the opera takes, is an echo of the generosity that Cincinnati Opera needed to call forth to accomplish a renovation costing $143 million.

The party guests are a well-turned-out crowd in a setting that meets the eye attractively in Desmond Heeley's costume and set design. But the first thing to link the opera with the hall's renovation is the sound in the prelude of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, as conducted by Renato Balsadonna, making his Cincinnati Opera debut.

The orchestra sound blossoms now at all dynamic levels, favoring the softer end of the spectrum during the prelude. As the performance unfolded, the transparency of the accompaniment was remarkable, and Balsadonna was particularly effective drawing forth such subtleties as the thin texture behind Violetta's spoken reading of a letter from Giorgio Germont in the last act, as well as the foreboding lower-string figures that follow as the doomed heroine sings her farewell to the world.

Dramatically, the performance found the core of the action from the outset. The superficiality of upper-class life, given an extra fillip when one of the entering party guests casually flips his cape upon a servant's head, was picturesquely portrayed under Linda Brovsky's stage direction. She gave an individuality to them all, though that impression may have been more apparent than real, as one necessarily focuses on Violetta and the quickly generated passion between her and a young admirer, Alfredo Germont. Apart from a rushed acknowledgment that the approaching daybreak required their departure, the guests were also vocally lively and precisely coordinated.

The Parisian upper crust parties, with the fashionable Violetta at the center.
As Alfredo, Ji-Min Park indicated the young man's head-over-heels infatuation gesturally and vocally. He justified the rapt attention the libretto calls for  the gathering to give Alfredo with a robustly delivered drinking song, "Libiamo." He radiated self-confidence that hardly made the character's initial shyness believable. When they were alone, the rapport with Norah Amsellem's Violetta was intense.

The coloratura emphasis of the soprano's role in the first act did not display Amsellem at her best:
The rapid singing was overlaid with vibrato, which seemed to put a drag on her agility, though coordination with the orchestra stayed intact. Fiercely articulated high notes were sometimes yelled. But I was struck by an indication of what she would bring to the role later by the way she sang "Ah, fors'√® lui," a slow aria in the midst of the vocal fireworks. She brought a genuinely reflective manner to it, uncanny insofar as it could have been Violetta's wordless inmost thoughts about the possibility of true love coming her way, against her better instincts (expressed in the subsequent coloratura outburst, "Sempre libera").

The dramatic gifts of both principals really shone in the first scene of Act 2.  Set in the country house to which Alfredo and Violetta have happily settled, she having abandoned her dissolute life, the action tugs the main characters every which way, sparked by the heavy interference of Alfredo's father. I liked the self-satisfaction that Park embodied as Alfredo celebrates his newfound happiness, a relaxation interrupted by the information that Violetta has secretly impoverished herself providing for the couple. Alfredo's mood turns on a dime, as he resolves to assume responsibility for the lovers' debts; Park's performance of Alfredo's exit aria blazed with brilliance.

The music takes on a somber cast with the entrance of Giorgio, played with the right hint of warmth by Youngjoo An, despite the senior Germont's initial severity.  He combined provincial propriety with a humane quality that becomes more characteristic of him later on. You felt that An's Germont could indeed embrace Violetta as a daughter, as she requests him to do after agreeing to make the sacrifice he asks. Balsadonna's patient pacing of the lengthy Germont-Violetta scene was superb, as was the tense colloquy between father and son that followed.

Often commented upon is the variety of vocal and dramatic gifts needed in the title role. I can't resist Ernest Newman's description of the initial change in the heroine: "In the second act we are suddenly confronted with a new Violetta, all tenderness and goodness and self-sacrifice, without so much as a coloratura trill or roulade left in her." Good thing, too, with this Violetta: Amsellem was moving into territory where she seemed fully at home. Her noble request to Germont to convey best wishes to his daughter, who will only be able to enter into an advantageous marriage if the courtesan agrees to abandon Alfredo, could have brought a lump to the most stoical throat.  In Act 2's second scene, in which the effervescence of upper-crust social life is ominously revisited, her Violetta was a veritable tangle of anguished second thoughts right up through her shocking humiliation at Alfredo's hands.

By the third act, when her consumption is bringing the no-longer-fashionable courtesan to the brink of death, Amsellem's performance was transcendent. The aforementioned "farewell" aria, ending with "all is over now" barely breathed out as she lay on the floor, elicited the show's most prolonged ovation. A Violetta in Act 3 must literally sing as if her life depended on it. This is what we got from Amsellem, who conveyed a woman on a believable transition from earthly suffering to the blissful life beyond. As arresting as OTSL's ending was, with Violetta already in the next world as she sings her last lines, this "Traviata" kept the heroine achingly in the real world until the very end, when she suffers a fatal collapse while rushing toward the permanently remorseful Alfredo.

Cincinnati Opera's "La Traviata" is a lavish and also deep-delving portrait of a legendary woman and her milieu. English translations of the title struggle to do her justice, yet to some extent all of them strike home. A prim Victorian version of the title is "The Strayed Reveller." When Violetta uses the word "traviata" twice near the end, one translation renders her self-description as "an erring soul." Another just frankly has her call herself "a fallen woman."  The broadly assertive humanity that animates this production prompts me to prefer "an erring soul" — as we all are, more or less.

[Photos by Philip J. Groshong]

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Getting in deep with Bach's violin-keyboard sonatas: Vinikour and Pine join forces in two-CD set

In J.S. Bach, there is always at least as much as meets the eye (or ear). Everything can be heard, and often its relationship to its surroundings is immediately evident as well. But – it's time to embrace the clich√©— there's always more than meets those two relevant sense organs, too.

It's all on display in "J.S. Bach: The Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord" (Cedille Records), which came out last month in double-CD performances by Rachel Barton Pine, violin, and Jory Vinikour, harpsichord. (The duo was among the guest artists two years ago at the Indianapolis Early Music Festival, so my local readers are aware what they are capable of.)

My standard of comparison couldn't be more different from the new version, which adheres to 18th-century performance practice and the sound that presumably would have been familiar to the composer. The comparison is a 42-year-old double LP with Jaime Laredo, violin, and Glenn Gould, piano. What follows is not a point-by-point comparison to the detriment of either version of the six sonatas, but reflects my response to the different perspectives each duo offers.

Long ago, my admiration for the Laredo-Gould versions was undercut by the feeling that their rapport managed to be solid despite what seemed to be their occupying two different artistic planes: Laredo's modern violin rich in vibrato (though carefully applied), with lots of sustained phrasing; Gould's piano characteristically "sec," nimbly articulated, patrician even in its occasional eccentricity. They seemed to be thinking about the music differently, yet always paying attention to how they might find common ground and make it work.

An old favorite: The Bach sonatas of Gould and Laredo.
No such qualms have any force in the Vinikour-Pine interpretations. Not only is the rapport there, but I also don't sense any stylistic daylight between them. Even in the interest of full-spectrum playing, they never deviate from unanimity of style. My main quibble is that the sound of the harpsichord makes some of the dialogue hard to pick out.

In the Sonata in A major, repeated phrases at the unison or at different pitches in sequence are hard to hear distinctly, whether the harpsichord is anticipating or following up on the violin. When the violin has held notes against a rapid keyboard pattern, then you can easily discern how the harpsichord is answering something the violin has just played, or repeating a figure or phrase it has introduced moments earlier.

The Cedille release's recording balance seems to be keenly judged. I may be expressing a stubborn preference for the piano, because I also like Gould's application of dynamic contrast, which is never overblown, but illuminating. But ornamented lines come across especially well from Vinikour's harpsichord. Some slow movements seem just about perfect in revealing the duo's poise; the Largo of the G major sonata is exquisite.

The trio-sonata distribution of "voices" comes across especially well in the Allegro of the Sonata in C minor, which starts out like a two-part invention, with the violin's entrance adding the essential third voice. At length, however, you become more aware of the forward motion of both instruments, very much united in effect, than you are of just what is being moved. This is not an interpretive flaw, I hasten to emphasize, but something Bach must have gloried in. Some of the distinction between the two instruments was probably meant to be clearer to the performers than the audience.

Indeed, I gained a new appreciation of Laredo-Gould while also preferring Vinikour-Pine in many respects. Along the way, it was brought home to me how both the main keyboard instrument and the main string instrument in classical music became increasingly incompatible as they developed. For all the great violin-piano sonatas produced from Beethoven on, any successful result has had to overcome the inherent polarity of the instruments.

"The contrast between the violin and the piano," noted Elliott Carter in an LP essay about his 1974 Duo for Violin & Piano, "is fundamentally a gestural one — between stroking and striking." And in that work, the late American composer made the most of the dissimilarity. Substitute the harpsichord for the piano, thus replicating Bach's view of the sonata partnership, and you have two stroked instruments. In spite of surface contrasts of the two, the harpsichord's terraced timbres and the violin, with its firm but unbiting 18th-century sound quality celebrated, are most compatible. That's especially true when there is as great a meeting of minds and skills as Vinikour and Pine display here.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Machismo at the outbreak of America's worst war: Eclipse produces the jarring jarhead musical 'Dogfight,' a love story

A mean exercise suggesting the degree to which testosterone poisoning influences male bonding (and
Culture wars foreshadowed: folkie Rose gets acquainted with Eddie.
degrades women) grips the first act of "Dogfight," the period musical now being presented by Eclipse, the alumni outgrowth of Summer Stock Stage, at the IndyFringe Theatre.

The setting is San Francisco in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy is sending marines over to Vietnam as "advisors." Peter Duchan's book, with songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, throws at the audience  six rough-and-ready jarheads (a fighting word they're proud to reserve for themselves) preparing for a last night out stateside with pickup dates.

The show's title has a double meaning, to explain which would put me into spoiler territory. It's important that the audience only become aware what's really going on just before Rose, a naive but politically sensitive waitress sweet-talked into a date by Eddie Birdlace, catches on. This couple, sweetly and searingly played by Leela Rothenberg and Patrick Dinnsen, as seen Sunday afternoon, set themselves apart with difficulty from the coarse game the marines have cooked up.

Emily Ristine Holloway directs "Dogfight" with an initial emphasis on the foul-mouthed warriors'
The jarheads demonstrate their readiness for what's to come.
wild vigor,  leavened by a sympathy for the young marines' plight that the creators foreshadow in the show's prelude. Through his heart-driven lingering with Rose, Birdlace misses out on a tattoo covenant he's entered into with buddies Boland (Joey Mervis) and Bernstein (John Collins) that will depict them as the three B's (bees). This comes to have symbolic import as the suddenly flaring war, represented by a chaotic skirmish stunningly depicted in the second act, sifts out survivor from sacrificed.

Brimming with "Semper Fi!" spirit, the half-dozen macho marines are filled out in this production by Terrence Lambert, Isiah Moore and Matthew Conwell. Early in the show, they rock deep into the audience's collective sensorium with "Some Kinda Time" and "Come to a Party," accompanied by a briskly effective band led by Nathan Perry. The choreography they inhabit so completely is the work of Lily Wessel, with Cherri Jaffee.

Marcy (Elizabeth Hutson) knows when a party is not just a party.
Elizabeth Hutson penetratingly plays the hard-bitten Marcy,  who puts Rose wise to the marines' scheme in the title song. The bitter duet sets up impressively the final number of Act 1, Rose's doleful "Pretty Funny," with the band's violin and cello getting a welcome showcase. Elsewhere, despite the properly gauged face microphones, the instrumental accompaniment was sometimes too loud for the singers' words to come through, chiefly in "Dogfight" and the marines' ironic fantasy, "Hometown Hero's Ticker Tape Parade."

Though the performance level remained high, the show itself suffered a falling-off in inspiration after the crucial duet of Rose and Birdlace following "Ticker Tape Parade." "First Date/Last Night" seems to me "Dogfight"'s best song, and it was beautifully staged. It's one of those love songs that apply a skeptical or distancing twist to the powerful sentiments expressed.

It comes from a strong tradition, represented less starkly in older musical theater by "Almost Like Being in Love" ("Brigadoon"), "People Will Say We're in Love" ("Oklahoma!") and "If I Loved You" ("Carousel"). Stephen Sondheim twisted the ambivalence somewhat tighter in such songs as "Barcelona" and "Send In the Clowns," where the negative sides of love compete with the magnetic force of the attraction.

Melodically and verbally, "First Date/Last Night" has a Sondheimesque flair and tartness, and it comes at just the right time to give "Dogfight" its distinction. Maybe it's just the excellence of this song that made the remainder seem like filling out a love-vs.-war formula. Even so, it's a formula invested here with quite a bit of sentimental strength, as well as unflagging commitment.

[Photos by Michael Camp]

'Nice Work' (if he can get total capitulation from Kim Jong Un in Singapore)