Monday, March 16, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Hidden in Plain Sight" (on Rossini's La donna del lago)

hidden in plain sight
by Douglas Messerli

Andrea Leone Tottola (libretto, based on the poem by Sir Walter Scott), Gioachino Rossini (music) La donna del lago (The Lady of the Lake) / New York, The Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast, March 14, 2015

Poor Elena (Joyce DiDonato), the lovely lady who lives on the banks of a Scottish loch. Hardly has the sun risen and she has three men in love with her, Rodrigo Di Dhu (John Osborn), the leader of Highland Clan rebelling against the King, Malcolm Groeme (Daniella Barcellona), the warrior with whom she is deeply in love, and a lost hunter Uberto (Juan Diego Flórez), who, unbeknownst to her, is Giacomo V, the King to whom her father is opposed. It’s little wonder that all the local women flutter about her small cottage since all the important men in the territory are drawn to its denizen? 

     The central problem of Act I is that Elena’s father has promised her to Rodrigo as symbol of his commitment to the revolution, while his daughter has eyes only for Malcolm, who, at least in this Metropolitan Opera version, is played by another mezzo-soprano (as host Patricia Racette joked in her introduction, “In this opera mezzo-soprano gets mezzo-soprano”). Elena, accordingly must negotiate a treaty between her heart and her filial duty, a peace that will end the internal war she is suffering. Ironically her dilemma is temporarily solved with the outbreak of general hostilities. Thus the inner struggle becomes a social one which even she cannot resist in supporting, singing along with the Clan rebels “Già un raggio forier.”

      Act II—particularly with its beautiful solo sung by still-wandering Uberto (“Oh fiamma soave”) and the even more powerful duet which follows, in which she pleads for what opera seldom offers its heroines, a deep friendship that respects her love for another man—finds her once again internally conflicted.  If there were ever evidence of true love, Giacomo (still pretending to be Uberto, but admitting his allegiance to the King) symbolically marries her by offering her a ring that he promises, if she or her family find themselves in danger, will protect her. Particularly in this production, this event provides at least some element of credence, given the fact that, outside of the “lie” of the opera, Elena claims to prefer marrying her own sex as opposed to Flórez, one of the most handsome of operatic singers. 
     The King may have promised to protect her, but he clearly must punish the man to whom she is engaged, Rodrigo, for his treason. In killing him, however, Giacomo saves Elena for Malcolm, who along with her father, now sits in his prison.
      If the scenario has appeared to be quite unbelievable up to this point, it now turns in to pure fairy tale, as  the pomp and circumstance of the court is revealed (this Scottish court, evidently, wore costumes that might have seemed more at home in Renaissance Italy). In the midst of the glitter of the court pageantry, Elena cannot even find the King, who stands beside her in his royal trappings as her friend Uberto. Dramatically, his real identity is revealed before her very eyes as he is crowned and she returns the ring, freeing her father, lover and herself in the same moment to become loving subjects of the King who has spared their lives and permitted them their true destinies.

     If one had any qualms about the story, no one with a good set of ears might find the work lacking in its musical gifts. Here it is spectacularly evident that even the most far-fetched and hackneyed of plots can be redeemed by the perfection of singers DiDonato, Flórez, Osborn, and Barcellona, to say nothing of Oren Gradus as Duglas and Olga Makarina as Albina. Perhaps the Met had never before performed this highly Romantic work until now because no such brilliant casting had previously been available. If the opera once might have seemed forgettable (and, fortunately, under the conducting skills of Michele Mariotti, it is not) the singing took this work into the stratosphere, with the final choruses ringing in the ears long after the curtain falls. The Met audience stayed long and cheered wildly for the four leads of this Rossini oddity, which will now surely be among the standard repertoire for years to come.

Los Angeles, April 16, 2015
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (April 2015).           


Friday, March 13, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Getting to Know Her" (on Barbara Cook singing)

getting to know her
by Douglas Messerli

Barbara Cook at the Bram Goldsmith Theater in the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts, Beverly Hills, California, March 10, 2015
As I wrote in My Year 2013 and elsewhere in my cultural memoirs, I have long been an admirer of singer Barbara Cook. And the other night Howard and I were delighted to be able to see her perform for the third and, surely, the last time in our lives. Now at age 87, wheel-chair bound after a recent fall and small fractures in her backbone (which the doctor has promised her will heal over time), Cook took to the stage for a one-night concert at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts which seemed more like an intimate chat with the artist than the more polished recitals we have previously witnessed.  
  Yes, Cook sang, occasionally forgetting her lyrics, with a voice—although far diminished from the full-bodied renditions of “Carolina in the Morning” at the decades-earlier Washington, D.C. gay club performance when we first saw her, or the spirited rendition of Frank Loesser’s cornucopia of lyrics for his beloved “Guys and Dolls” at what is now the Geffen Theatre in Westwood of several years back—that was, nonetheless, soulful (although the microphone rendered it far darker than it truly is) and, as always, brilliantly phrased. No one in popular music can better articulate a song’s lyrics, Cook even making note of this in her comments, explaining, for example, that she had never before performed “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” because she had never understood the words (she now claims the Blackbird is a whorehouse to whom the singer is saying goodbye, and cleverly paired that song with “The House of the Rising Sun”).
     Gus Kahn’s “Makin’ Whoopee” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind,” which she performed early on, tied in perfectly with her comments of her Georgia birth. Yet the most sophisticated and well sung piece, this time ‘round, was her intelligent reading and musical director/pianist’s Lee Musiker’s arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Under My Skin.” Cook admitted that she had never truly been attracted to Porter’s songs—surely an oddity, since many of his sexual intimations would seem to suit her voice perfectly—but this classic, as she sang it, was absolutely memorable, which, she slightly bragged, had “blown” her friend Stephen Sondheim “away.” 
     Her rendition of Sondheim’s “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods certainly made it clear that Cook remains one of the most noted of Sondheim interpreters (along with, obviously, Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch). Soon after, a spunky rendition of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” showed off the musical talents of clarinetist Dave Rickenberg, drummer Warren Odze, and Bass player Jay Leonhart, as well as, again, the consummate artistry of Musiker, although the song, in its clipped declarations, is not really a comfortable one for Cook.  
      Yet one of the musical highlights of the evening came during the encore, where, moving up to the edge of the stage and laying aside her microphone, Cook gave an enlighteningly hushed rendition of George Harrison’s “ Just Imagine” that brought tears to my eyes.
      One might argue that the in-between “talking sessions” were far too chatty and, a moments, perhaps, just a little bit too revealing; but that is precisely the kind of artist that Cook is, and her living room-like confessions to her audience, which might have played even better in a smaller room such as the one at the Carlyle, brought an intimacy to the evening that seemed appropriate for the theatrical good-bye, which we all know will soon be inevitable. Cook reached back to her youth in Georgia, recounting her love of her salesman (first of hats and later of meat) father and the mental difficulties suffered by her mother, with whom she was forced into a rather unhealthily intimate relationship (Cook previously has noted that the two shared a bed long after Cook was a young teenager). The singer lovingly dished the other Barbra (Streisand), with whom she shared an agent, and joked about “Dick” Rodgers’ philandering ways: although he was noted for chasing young ingénues like Cook around his desk, “when he called me into his office, he fortunately was suffering from gout,” she joked.
     At other moments, Cook wryly commented of her love of Yiddish phrases, perhaps in an attempt to chat up her highly Jewish Beverly Hills audience, and downplay her Georgia past, declaring herself a born New Yorker: “The lovely thing about New York is when you go out the door, you’re there!.” 
    At other moments she recalled her love for and admiration of composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who together penned Fiddler on the Roof (which she had just watched again on TMC television, leading her to hum a few lines of “Sunrise Sunset,” with audience members offering up the lyrics) and the songs for her own renowned character, Amalia, in She Loves Me.
    When an overenthusiastic audience member shouted out that she should sing “Glitter and Be Gay” from her long-ago Candide, she quickly quipped, “Now we know that someone in this audience is truly crazy!” No old favorites for this wise old bird!   
     Her story about Sondheim was one of the most revealing. After declaring her love for the composer and going so far as to compare him with Shakespeare, Cook added, as she had regarding Streisand, that he was also “quite odd.” At one celebration, she confided, he invited her to sit down at his table, whereupon she rhetorically began, “we’ve been acquainted now for so many years, I think I know you very well.” Sondheim replayed, “Barbara, you don’t know me at all.” Cook suggested that it was one of the ways that he kept people “off balance,” but the remark reminded me of the deep cynicism, despite the incredible passion of his compositions, that runs through his work. It appears to me that Sondheim would hate even the concept of being really understood; his art relies too heavily on a sense of dissemblance, betrayal, and isolation for him to grant open admission to his inner being.
     Cook, on the other hand, appears to be ready to share everything with her friends, even if she might, on a more personal level, consider you a jerk, as she joked about the individual sitting on the airplane to California who asked her was she going to Los Angeles to see her grandchildren. “No you jerk, I’m going to sing!” I’m still here, working, she somewhat exasperatedly repeated, pointing to her now frailer self, sitting trapped in the wheel-controlled device.
     When we got home, I immediately pulled out our DVD of the documentary performance of Follies in Concert in 1985 at Lincoln Center and listened, spellbound, to hear her sing “Losing My Mind.” 

Los Angeles, March 12, 2015

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "The Face of God" (on Terrence MacNally's and Jake Heggie's opera Dead Man Walking)

the face of god

by Douglas Messerli

Terrence MacNally (libretto, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean), Jake Heggie (composer) Dead Man Walking / Santa Monica, California, The Broad Stage, Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, Sunday, March 8, 2015

Jake Heggie’s opera Dead Man Walking, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean and the 1995 movie directed by Tim Robbins, is a powerful and incredibly moving work that in its intensity is also somewhat difficult to endure. If by the end of the first act, one feels worn out as the result of the story’s horror and sorrow and the demands of its audience’s empathy and tears, by the opera’s end, whether or not one is convinced of the transformative power of human and spiritual love, one is still left with a third corpse on stage which the society itself—and the audience as part of that society—has allowed to happen. No matter what one feels about capital punishment, and its justification for an act that so brutally left two young adults dead, one cannot but find it difficult to match the faith and generosity of heart expressed by the work’s major character, Sister Helen and the seemingly inexhaustibility of the singer, Jennifer Rivera.

      Certainly Heggie’s soaring and roiling score (which, fortunately, only occasionally, borders on well-written film music) and Terence MacNally’s well-honed script is somewhat manipulative. And even from its earliest scenes of The Prologue the opera understandably sanitizes the rape of the young girl, the shooting of the young boy, and the numerous stabbings of the girl after she screams in reaction to the boy’s death. Despite the operatic nudity of its characters and a quite literal enactment of rape, no amount of balletic simulation can capture the crude monstrousness of the original act. And, accordingly, particularly since we are haunted with the ghosts of these two beautiful children throughout the rest of the opera, the dramatization cannot fully signify the loss and horror later claimed by the parents and friends. And no matter how horrible we know the murderer, Joseph De Rocher (Michael Mayes), to be, we are able to more fully sympathize with him than we possibly could be in “real” life. Although Michael Mayes as Joseph, quite brilliantly, through both voice and theatrical interpretation, conveys the original’s hubristic dismissal of all guilt while yet embracing of “the bad man” he recognizes himself to be, a singing jailbird, even one heavily tattooed and coarse, is simply not as horrifying as a disdainful, swearing survivor waiting out his end in the Louisiana prison in Angola. Indeed, given the character’s swagger, we have difficulties in comprehending his terrifying fear of death, and his determination to request his new epistolary pen-pal, the naïve Sister Helen, to be his spiritual survivor.
      The composer and writer also stack the deck more than a little by beginning the opera in the children’s mission where Helen, along with Sisters Rose (the powerfully-voiced Talise Trevigne), Catherine and Lilianne, work with their children in near-perfect harmony as they sing out the spiritual, “He Will Gather Us Around Him”—which gradually becomes an anthem for Helen throughout the rest of the opera. Strangely, and I am sure unintentionally, such a joyful presentation of her life among the obviously socially and financially disadvantaged children, suggests why this loveable being might have gone looking for new challenges, quickly made apparent in her decision to meet with the much-hated prisoner. Despite the assertion of Rosie and others that Helen should stay at home and minister to those who daily need her, the nun-on-the-run (as Heggie engagingly described her in a pre-opera discussion), is determined to challenge herself by encountering a real evil that the audience does not yet completely comprehend.
     Accordingly, her long trip to Angola, which becomes a kind of metaphorical journey into hell, and which is quickly transformed into a symbolic voyage to love and God, seems overlong and a bit inexplicable. It is only when she finally arrives at the prison and meets with the cynical and rather ungodly prison Chaplin Father Grenville (John Duykers) and the head warden that we begin to perceive the horrific world in which she has become involved.
     The paired-down production at the Broad theater used moveable prison gates to suggestively convey not only a much larger prison community but, by keeping the scenery in constant motion, recreated the psychological dimensions of a woman (and this a case a previously secluded woman) being suddenly tossed into a world of violent, testosterone-driven, and despairing men. If she is terrified, Helen is also drawn to this desolate spot to prove her own “marriage” to God.
     In fact, however, it is not the prisoners who become her biggest challenges, but their families, both De Rocher’s obviously lower class mother (performed by the remarkable Catherine Cook) and her other children—who equally turn to Helen for spiritual support—but the horrifyingly cold-hearted and intensely angry parents of the dead children, dramatically realized by Robert Orth as Owen Hart, the father of the murdered girl, reprising his original role. By the time Helen determines to stand by Joseph through the inevitably failed hearing to spare his life, the sides have been drawn and, whether or not she has determined to stand with or against this horrible sinner, she is clearly made to feel that she has chosen to join forces with the devil instead of God. 
   If the opera, heretofore, has alternated between soaring arias of hope and belief and dour proclamations of doubt and eternal sorrow, it now bursts into a cacophonous chorus of impossible disharmony, as Helen falls into a faint, famished from not only a failure to eat but out of the real possibility that her faith is insufficient to heal the huge gash in the human weal De Rocher has left behind.
     The audience members seemed almost stunned as they stumbled to the restrooms during the intermission. Surely the opera had no choice to be release them from the tears it had revealed in Act I. Yet Act II begins with both central figures suffering terrible dreams, De Rocher terrified of now being “a dead man walking,” and Helen conjuring up the ghosts of his victims. Once more Sister Rose attempts to not only allay Helen’s fears but to allow her a way out of the box of commitment into which she has allowed herself to be entrapped. Yet suddenly, after Helen speaks of difficultly of forgiveness, Rose grows into a full dimensional figure as she proffers the possibility that Helen has, herself, not yet fully forgiven Joseph De Rocher for his sins. Her aria suggesting that such nonjudgmental love is almost always one without words is perhaps one the most beautiful in an opera of high lyrical intensity. And it is Rose’s advice upon which the remainder of the opera pivots. How, we wonder, will Helen find a way to forgive someone who not only does not seek forgiveness, but refuses to forgive himself by remaining in a shell of self-denial, blaming his brother for his own horrific actions.
       While the first act represented a nightmarish voyage for all its figures, the second act attempts to reveal, often in very small increments, how that nightmare might come unwound and even redeem some of the many sufferers of these traumatic events. If Rose has described how mothers show their children how they love and forgive, Joseph’s rather inarticulate mother stunningly articulates her love by refusing to see her son as the murderous adult he now is, endowing him instead with all the memories she has of him as a porpoise-like child (the porpoise itself being a standard Christian symbol of God and God’s love). Her simple request for a family photograph is so poignantly painful in its ridiculous attempt to commemorate what everyone would want forgotten, that director Brian Staufenbiel, turns the scene into a long frieze that emblematizes the moment—revealing it for the folly and desire for a normative life made clearly impossible by social, cultural, and political events. If there was one moment in this opera that spoke out against the absurdity of taking a human life in order to demonstrate society’s horror of murder, it was this. For in that single snapshot, life becomes eternal; a dead man does not exist in a work of art, however ordinary it is, and even if that artifact is destroyed or lost.
    Stubborn to the end, Helen ultimately forces the frightened prisoner to confess, in her mind, freeing him to be forgiven by God. But, in fact, his confession, as he has argued all along, does not free him as much as it frees her and all the others against whom he has so transgressed. She is now able to truly forgive him. But her expression of that forgiveness is not in a touch, a silent act, a reiterated gentility, but in her insistence that she herself is the embodiment of God, and that in his greatest moment of fear, if he only look into her face, he will see love—which, ultimately, in this work, is the same as God.
    In short, Sister Helen, instead of mystifying the presence of God, has, almost in an act of apostasy, turned the Holy into a kind of graven image, her own. But this work is not, fortunately, a religious text. And we can, of course, forgive her in the fact that she has humanized the mysterious presence Who cannot be named. His name is legion, and He is us. Such a secular theology, finally, is one we can all, even the most reprehensible among us, embrace.

Los Angeles, March 10, 2015