Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "A Ceremony About Evil" (on Jean-Claude van Itallie's The Serpent)

a ceremony about evil
by Douglas Messerli

Jean-Claude van Itallie (author) The Serpent / Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, directed by Ron Sossi / the production I saw with Howard N. Fox was on March 8, 2020

Let me begin this review with a series of appreciations. I truly admire Ron Sossi and all that he has done over now 50 years at the incredible Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in, first Hollywood, and soon after, West Los Angeles. There is to my thinking no more of an exciting company presenting US and European-born theater classics in the city. Some of the most exciting theater works I have experienced in this vast crucible of theatrical explorations has been at his Odyssey theater.   
     He’s gone everywhere, from Samuel Beckett, Ezra Pound, Max Frisch, Bertolt Brecht, Stephen Sondheim and into this incredible season 50th-51st season, to Irene María Fornes, Gertrude Stein, Sam Shepard, and the upcoming Peter Nichols’ production of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg— something you must simply bow down to. What other theater in the US might present the great singer of French Chansons, Julia Migenes on the very same day as Jean-Claude van Itallie’s 1968 The Serpent? It is truly astounding. Every season of the Odyssey’s schedule is exciting, offering enticingly original productions of new and older theatrical productions that excite me. I have praised so many of their productions that I nearly blush, as if I were a theater hack devoted to their remarkable annual seasons..
      The very thought, moreover, that he produced, as his company’s very second production in Spring 1970, only two years after the highly controversial late 60s production, is breath-taking. Los Angelenos must have felt their pulses expanding with wonderment. I wish I would have been there, the year Howard, my now husband and I, first met back in Wisconsin. Sossi is a master at recreating experimental theater in a way few others are in Los Angeles.
      The production that Howard and I saw the other day at the Odyssey, despite its engaging performers—among them Riley Rose Critchlow, Avery Dresel-Kurtz, Joseph Gilbert, Kristina Ladegaard, Marie Osterman, Anthony Rutowicz, Keaton Shyler, Ian Stewart Riley, Ahhei Togun, Terry Woodberry, Denis Yolén, and Peyton Young—appeared, after I watched tapes of the Chaikin-directed performances at his Open Theatre, just a bit too audience-friendly, perhaps even a little sanitized.
      For example, the tree containing the forbidden fruit in Chaikin’s Open Theatre version was made up of only males, mostly gay it appeared, hissing and lisping, as in their entanglement some shook their fingers between the crotches of the others, suggesting both rather phallic images as well as the duality of tongues with which the serpent spoke. In other scenes, the entire company groans and moans as if suffering the hell of their own evil behaviors.
     Of course, the version I saw in the tape was in a gritty black-and-white, while the Odyssey production was in muted colors, browns, oranges, whites, and dark reds. And, unlike Sossi’s cast, Chaikin’s worked with him for several months even before he brought in van Itallie to create a more coherent structure and a slight narrative thrust.
     In the end this work is more of a highly ritualized collage with dance and pantomime rather than a standard play. Van Itallie, himself, described his theater more as a ceremony that existed between the actors on the stage and its audience.
     Sossi clearly attempted to reiterate that relationship by initially having the cast members read of out some of the names of audience members (mine was among them), and later, after Eve gives in to the serpentine seduction, even passing out a few apples to audience members: the woman in front of me joyfully bit into one. Yet the Odyssey’s mostly West Side Los Angeles audience, I believe, were not quite ready to submit, as Chaikin’s late 60s audience might have been, to the experience of the Eucharistic sermon of man’s evil to his own kind—which includes not only the essential Eden scene, but the death of President Kennedy (Dresel-Kurtz plays Jackie), the shooting of Martin Luther King (performed by Woodberry), a wild sexual orgy as the cast, freed from their lack of knowledge, go into choreographed sexual passions, as well as the murder of Abel by Cain (Gilbert). One woman, in our audience, was evidently unprepared for the sexual energy released, howling loudly through the scene, as if she had never imagined sex pantomimed on stage. Surely in 1968, no one at the Open Theatre would have laughed out of what was clearly embarrassment.
      At other moments the audience seemed more contained than transformed by the ceremonial experience the director was attempting to create. The Beckettian-like lament—"I’m in the middle, having lost the beginning, and going to the end”—might have been lost for some of this audience members, although it says everything about the condition of those suddenly discovering that they are soon to die. As a critic, I often get asked by caring and well-intentioned women and men, “What do you think this means?”
     I don’t want, however, to suggest that LA audiences are not capable of enjoying profound theater. The more I attend this city’s theater events, the more profoundly I am moved by their willingness to attend and contemplate complex works, and this audience, in its sincere applause, totally embraced van Itallie’s work.

    One of the most touching moments—which I think moved every one of us—was Cain’s remorse for having killed his beloved brother because God had refused his sacred offerings. Just a few days earlier I had witnessed Queen Elizabeth’s sudden remorse for her beloved Deveraux’s death at the LAOpera. The absolute shock of what Cain has just done in this play presents an entirely new vision of what, in the Old Testament, is simply presented as an unforgivable crime which dooms him to an expulsion as severe as Adam’s and Eve’s.

      Even Sossi seemed to suggest his own reservations about reviving such timely ensemble-based works.

                          Many of the ensemble projects of that 
                          time are difficult to re-create, as they featured 
                          large casts and were highly personal in terms 
                          of actor input and content…unique products 
                          of their time and place. …At this point we have
                          no idea if this “Ceremony for Theatre” speaks 
                          to the audience of today, yet so many of his 
                          themes are universal enough to make me 
                          believe that it has a good shot.

     He argues, and think quite rightly, that despite those reservations The Serpent was “do-able.” It is, and I truly appreciate this director’s willingness to dig back into that history to let us see a new vision of such an iconic work.

Los Angeles, March 11, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (March 2020).

Friday, March 6, 2020

McCoy Tyner | Newport Jazz Festival 1998

McCoy Tyner playing in at the Newport Jazz Festival 1998

Douglas Messerli | "Things Change" (on the LAOpera's production of Roberto Devereux)

things change
by Douglas Messerli

Salvadore Cammarano (libretto), Gaetano Donizetti (composer) Roberto Devereux / LAOpera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion / the production I saw with Lita Barrie was on Thursday, March 5, 2020

In his opening night review of the LAOpera production of Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Roberto Devereux, Los Angeles Time’s music reviewer Mark Swed began by noting how the composer himself felt that his 1837 opera had been jinxed. The opera as Swed notes, was born out of his own wife’s death and written and performed during a cholera outbreak in Naples.
      When Swed wrote his review, it had not yet been perceived just how much California itself was already being effected by the new coronavirus, an equivalent of cholera (fortunately, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion production played to a mostly full audience, although any intermission cough was duly noted by its audience).

     The major singer, highly featured in early announcements of the production, was to have been the great tenor, now baritone director of the opera company, Plácido Domingo—who had to bow out not only of his role of the villain of this piece, the Duke of Nottingham, but, because of revelations of sexual abuse—was bravely replaced by the talented Hawaiian-born singer, Quinn Kelsey.
      The beautiful Spanish singer Davinia Rodríguez was to have performed the most important role in this opera—not fully realized as the masterpiece it is until the 20th century rediscovery of the role by Beverly Sills, who Howard and I saw perform it at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.—after developing health problems, replaced by the American singer Angela Meade (a native of Centralia, Washington), who will reprise this role in September in the New York Metropolitan Opera production.
     It is Meade, this time around, who un-jinxed this work, bravely singing the role of Elizabeth I, without any stage rehearsal time on opening night, from a stage-side music stand, while the choreographer Nicola Bowie equally bravely acted out her movements on center stage.
     I was too young and operatically naïve to remember or, even then, have been able to evaluate “Bubbles” Silverman (the early incarnation of Beverly Sills), although we also saw a couple of her other major operatic presentations. But Meade certainly now owns this role, singing powerfully and yet scintillatingly beautiful, and suddenly coming onto central stage in the production I saw with friend Lita Barrie, as a bit more zaftig version of the queen than Rodríguez might have represented, but perhaps more dramatic for that very fact. If she loved Roberto Devereux (the truly excellent Mexican-born singer, Ramón Vargas) she is equally terrifying in her willingness to revenge his evidently quite chaste love of Nottingham’s current wife, the lovely soprano, in the production I saw, Ashley Dixon.
     Her color is blue, and she is the closest we can get to an early 19th century version of a blues singer. After all, she has been forced by her very best friend, the Queen, to marry the less-than-dashing Nottingham, who loves her but also attempts to lock her away and violently punish her for his own jealousy.
     At the heart of this opera, and certainly in director Stephen Lawless’ long-traveled version of it, is death, the many murders of Elizabeth’s father, some of which are encased, like museum morgue victims, in glass. Elizabeth’s desperate need for love, despite her childhood-taught lessons of killing off anyone who you felt had betrayed you, is the tragic center of this work. She clearly wants to save her former lover—a simple return of the ring she has given him might save his life—but despite all best intentions, the couple who are most involved in this love tale, Devereux and Nottingham’s wife, are locked away into worlds which the powers that be cannot comprehend their innocence. Devereux is tried as a traitor for even attempting to escape his proclivities, while Sarah is held as a prisoner in her own home for having even imagined a more robust lover in Devereux.
     All of the singers in this production were excellent, along with Grant Gershon’s remarkable chorus, singing through the almost voyeuristic portals, represented in their appearances, through Benoît Dugardyn’s simple wooden set. There may be far many more complex visions of Elizabeth’s court, but his simple design allowed us to see how the constantly peering figures of the Queen’s courtiers and women associates help allow her to destroy those she most loves. The tragedy here is not simply the Queen’s temperament, but the inexplicable interferences of the court itself. When Elizabeth heartily taps her cane to send them all running, you can truly comprehend her frustrations of being ruled by history itself.
     And in her last scene, we recognize that now, as an old woman, without her crowed head of hennaed hair, that she has lost her regal power as well as having lost any opportunity for love. Meade is totally brilliant in her version of a Donizetti mad-moment. Covered in white, we recognize she is as pale as death itself. Earlier versions of those killed by history, again encased by glass, are wheeled out. After all, isn’t British monarchical history actually a list of killers and their victims up until the current day?
     Finally, given all the operatic heroes who made this operatic production significant—Meade, Bowie, and Kelsey in particular—one cannot ignore the amazing wonders of conductor Eun Sun Kim, recently appointed music director of the San Francisco Opera. All LAOpera fans love conductor James Conlon; yet she brought out a sound from the LAOpera orchestra that shifted its usual muted acoustics to something that was quite glorious. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which has long recognized problems of muted orchestral sound, suddenly seemed to open up to new possibilities. If I am growing a little deaf, last night I heard every brilliant cord of Donizetti’s previously jinxed opera. And it was as if this opera’s sometimes clotted and unclear motivations of his composition had suddenly sprung into new life. I can’t wait to see Meade wow the Met audiences.

Los Angeles, March 6, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (March 2020).     

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "Everybody Loves Poppea" (on the Met's production of Handel's Agrippina)

everybody loves poppea
by Douglas Messerli

Vincenzo Grimani (libretto), George Frideric Handel (composer), David McVicar (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) Agrippina /  2020 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]

Yesterday Howard and I saw at a local theater the MET-live in HD performance of, so the host Deborah Voight explained, the oldest opera, Handel’s Agrippina of 1709to ever be performed on the MET stage. 
      Given the existence of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (from 1643), his Orfeo (from 1600), and numerous other works, it seems amazing that this great institution has not attended to the early operatic works in the repertoire. We’ll see if, while embracing more contemporary operas—something I very much support—whether or not they can reach back into the repository of Baroque and pre-Baroque compositions as well. Of course, I love the great Verdi standards, the lovely Puccini operas, etc. But we simply need a wider range, which I do believe the current director of the MET, Peter Gelb, is willing to embrace.

     Handel’s work, written when he was just 24, is a fascinating glimpse into the Baroque world that one might never have imagined. Although, given the sometimes-narrative clumsiness of Agrippina, and the seemingly determined length of this work, there are some limitations. 
     We might forget all of these "limitations," however, given the absolutely stunning singing and performances of the great stars performing this work, most notably Joyce DiNonato (as Agrippina), two countertenors—the wonderful Iestyn Davies (as the Poppea’s main lover, Ottone), and the more comic would-be lover Narciso (Nicholas Tamagna)--a “pants” female performer, the amazing Kate Lindsey (as Nerone), the endlessly beautifully singing of Poppea (Brenda Rae), and, to represent the lower ranges of the score, Matthew Rose (as Claudio).

     All of these great performers sing so remarkably that it’s almost difficult to perceive just how morally awful most of them are in character, involving one another, through Agrippina’s evil machinations, into a serial descent into destruction and death. Besides, Baroque operas almost always end incredible positively.
     It is difficult to even imagine why the lovely Agrippina, married to the Roman emperor Claudio, is so very determined to put her sociopathic son, Nero, covered from heel to toe with tattoos which represent his ostracization from the society in which he lives, into power. Perhaps she imagines that she might be the power behind the throne; but in reality Nerone immediately has his own mother murdered. This is after all, a truly treacherous world in which Agrippina attempts to kill both of her would-be admirers—Pallante (Duncan Rock) and Narcisco—egging them on to murder one another (by gunshot and a heroin-like drug) along with Claudio’s favorite, who has just saved his life, Ottone. She’s totally ruthless—a role that the lively and assertive DiNonato totally embraces ("I always wanted to play Scarpia," she observed during an intermissions break)—in her character’s rather simple-minded attempt to get her son to the top of the golden steps to the Roman throne. Perhaps the question of “why?” is simply meaningless in this work. Power is power even if it surely leads to death, including her own.

    The image which dominates this John Macfarlane and David McVicar production is a mausoleum in which all of these significant figures are, by opera’s end, entombed. These figures were determined to be destroyed almost before they live out their full lives.
     In this production, the characters engage in promiscuous sex, alcohol, drugs, and many other of the societal sins one might have imagined, along with what I might describe as a bit too much of McVicar’s shtick presentation of these dark events—although the director’s introduction of a harpsichord player as a sort of “cocktail-bar” piano player is quite brilliant.
     Both Agrippina, the intense liar among them, showering intrigue upon each person she meets like a storm of terrible torrents, and her young athletically-inflicted son Nerone, who can hardly walk straightforwardly up to the gold throne he is inexplicably awarded by opera’s end, are tortuous folks right out of the President Trump playbook. These are the most notable “them and us” figures of the early 18th century. They need to be destroyed, just as they soon are.

    Yet, one wonders at musical arias they create, particularly in the end of Ottone’s denunciation sung by the tortured, wrongly accused hero, “Otton, qual portentoso fulmine" followed by "Voi che udite il mio lamento"; the later laments of Agrippina “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate”; and the later cocaine induced fury of Nerone’s  aria “Come nube che fugge dal vento” (“Like a cloud that flees from the wind”). 
     If much of this amazing opera seems rather rote, right out of the young Handel’s Baroque playbook, with a far too many repeated statements and implorations, with the splendiferous performances of countertenor Davies, the always amazingly-voiced DiDonato, and the rather startling tonsils of Lindsey (including her fascinating abilities to dance out the role of her Nerone) we are so captivated by this opera that it seems almost impossible to quibble about this piece. I cried at each of these fabulously wonderful moments of performance, so intense and beautifully expressed that you truly realize what great operatic singing is all about.
      This concert was dedicated to the former MET diva Mirella Freni, who died this year at the age of 84. A brief intermission performance of her singing talent revealed to all how significant were her abilities. The MET, apparently, now realizes just how much of an archive of great singing and music it represents. And I do believe under Gelb’s directorship it might continue to perceive itself as an impossibly endangered wonderland of operatic possibilities.
      The wonderful woman who sat next to me spotted the MET’s cameras focusing in a balcony seat on Jake Heggie, in whose opera Dead Man Walking DiDonato had also previously performed. I shared with her that his opera would be staged and presented on MET’s HD production in April of this year. My neighbor had evidently worked with Heggie at UCLA. I can never get over the fact that the people I meet in the theater are just as interesting as the stars I encounter upon the stage.

Los Angeles, March 1, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (March 2020).