John Rockwell: November 2008 Archives

Wherein, in the National Arts Journalism Program's ARTicles blog, I whine about critics' freebies and more extensively about gushing blurbs, in movies especially and about Peter Travers in Rolling Stone double-especially.
November 26, 2008 12:14 PM |

Last summer in New York I saw the Finnish-French Kaija Saariaho's "La Passione de Simone." Last week and this, in New York and Los Angeles, I saw the Rumanian-Hungarian-German Gyorgy Kurtag's "Kafka Fragments." They form a duo, both directed by Peter Sellars and sung by Dawn Upshaw (and lighted by James F. Ingalls). Each lasts some 70 minutes and was inspired by a despairing Jew: The French Simone Weil starved herself to death when she refused to eat more than a concentration-camp inmate during the Holocaust. Franz Kafka was, well, Kafka, and hence Kafka-esque.

But "La Passione" is also the third installment in a trilogy, inspired and directed by Sellars, with texts by the Lebanese-French Amin Maalouf. The first was the spectacular opera "L'Amour de Loin" in Salzburg. The second was the fascinating but less intense opera "Adriana Mater" in Paris. And now, this quasi-operatic monologue.

What this duo and trilogy do first of all is attest to Sellars's ability to win the loyalty of talented collaborators. The two seen by me this year also attest to Upshaw's unique blend of musical skill, sweet vocalism and an seemingly innocent normalcy, which helps project these intense passions with an intensity unexpected and hence reinforced by contrast. And intensity they need, since they are gloomy indeed, albeit illuminated here and they by shafts of hope.

"La Passione" was commissioned by Sellars's New Crowned Hope festival two years ago in Vienna, in which contemporary composers were asked to write works somehow connected to Mozart masterpieces. Like John Adams's "Flowering Tree" and its links to "The Magic Flute." "La Passione" is supposed to evoke Mozart's Requiem, which it does in its grand, life-or-death seriousness.

The "Kafka Fragments" production started life in early 2005 and has now been revived after Upshaw has been through life-threatening health crises, which Sellars perhaps indiscretely argues may have deepened her interpretation. The score, austerely set for solo soprano solo and onstage solo violinist, was not intended as a stage work. But Sellars, finally understanding that he couldn't persuade Kurtag to write one, decided to make his own Kurtag opera from this.

The result may not be deeply moving, but it is continuously engrossing, thought-provoking and touching -- like most Sellars productions. The staging involves an ordinary woman doing domestic tasks (ironing, folding, mopping, sweeping), wirh the fragments like random thought-balloons while she putters. This doesn't add an unnecessary layer to the music; it makes it more accessible without dumbing it down.

And Sellars, in post-performance conversation in New York and a pre-perfomance monologue in Los Angeles, offered hints of secret layers of meaning. Such as a moment in which Upshaw, having brushed her teeth, applies the toothbrush to the floor. This replicates a Holocaust memorial statue in Vienna in which a Jew is forced by the Nazis to scrub the street with a toothbrush, which actually happened after the Anschluss.

Some might still find the added dramatic overlay a distraction, and still others remained unconvinced by David C.Michaelek's stark, black-and-white projected photographs, over which one could read an English translation of the German texts. I liked them, and am in any case inclined to cut Michaelek a lot of slack after his amazing "Slow Dancing" installation.

Even with Gerard Mortier's withdrawal from the New York City Opera, where he planned to use Sellars extensively, and even with Peter Gelb's misguided decision not to use Sellars's production of Adams's "Doctor Atomic" at the Met, Sellars will still be everywhere in upcoming years. To judge from this duo of ever-inventive, deeply commited productions, that's a cause for celebration.

November 20, 2008 2:20 PM |

My latest entry to the National Artts Journalism Proogram's ARTicles blog, on a lively if contradictory panel in Los Angeles on the Internet, journalism and "slow journalism."

November 18, 2008 11:49 AM |

Went to hear Patti Smith at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last weekend -- her fifth appearance there, and hence a long way from St. Mark's Church and CBGB's. I did it because I like her music and like to keep abreast of it, in part because I'd seen the home-movie feature-length documentary about her and wanted to check up on the live person, and in part because I've just agreed to write a longish essay for an Italian coffee-table book on her.

It was a nice event, on the Saturday before Election Day. Patti, who has leaned towards Ralph Nader in the past, said nothing political but did end with "Power to the People" and did urge us all to vote.

The niceness of the evening apparently reflects her personality, as captured in the film. The Met concert was not rock & roll; it was "unplugged," as we have learned to say. It was full of awkward slip-ups, like sheet music and lyrics repeatedly cascading to the floor from a music stand; nothing serious, but sweetly amateurish.

As such it reminded me of almost any concert by the McGarrigles, that beloved family folk act from Montreal who might once have seemed about as far from Patti Smith's artsy rock & roll rebel image as could be imagined. I wrote a whole essay for the NY Times about the last McGarrigles concert I heard; you can read it here or in my compilation, "Outsider," pp. 439-441. The McGarrigles surround themselves with anicillary sisters and children (Martha and Rufus Wainwright et al.) and collaborators of such vintage that they might as well be family, themselves.

On Nov. 1 Patti had her son Jackson Smith and her daughter Jesse Smith (since her late husband Fred was named Smith, too, no feminist issues arose in  the choice of their last names), along with her sister Kimberly Smith and Lenny Kaye, himself as family-style collaborator dating back nearly 40 years.

The whole thing was just lovely, which doesn't mean Patti Smith has lost her edge. How one person can combine the incantory, the impassioned, the angry, the loving and the goofy in one angular package is a small miracle. Maybe not so small.     

November 15, 2008 5:46 PM | | Comments (1)

Peter Brook's version of the "Grand Inquisitor" scene from Dostoevsky's "Brothers Karamazov" has been playing for a six-week (I think it is) limited run at the intimate New York Theatre Workshop in New York, across the street from La MaMa. This is a 50-minute monologue for the veteran Brook actor Bruce Myers, with Jake M. Smith in the mute role of Jesus, who is being inquisited, if that's a verb. The text is knotty and complex, and it comes to a stunning ending.

But what interests me here is my (it's all about me!) lifelong reaction to Brook, who is of course idolized worldwide. Not least by Harvey Lichtenstein, who presented him for years at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and designed a whole theater interior (the BAM Majestic, now the BAM Harvey) to Brook's specifications for his "Mahabharata."

Me, I have always found Brook deeply involving yet curiously blank. Compared to other theater visionaries, like Wieland Wagner or Robert Wilson or Ariane Mnouchkine, there is a disarming simplicity to Brook, a true minimalism, perhaps, that strikes some as miraculously refreshing and others, like me, as oddly undernourished.

In "The Grand Inquisitor," the key moments, like when the hawklike, robed man suddenly points downward to reveal his and the Church's true allegiance, are stunning. Many of the subtler directorial touches -- the hands, the inflections, the positioning of the stool on which the Inquisitor sits -- are deeply thoughtful, maybe from Brook alone but more likely from the collaboration between Brook and Myers; any great director lets great performers help shape the vision. But for me, there is a vague feeling of incompleteness at the end, like a delicious but unfilling meal.

That said, Brook's next project, according to Harvey, sounds fascinating. He will subject Mozart's "Magic Flute" to the same streamlining and compaction previously accorded "Carmen" and "Pelleas et Melisande." Even though Mozart died young, this is one of his very last works, and there is something autumnal about aging masters, like Brook or Bergman, taking it on. If I ever get my long-contemplated book about "The Magic Flute" off the ground, the timing should be perfect. 

November 12, 2008 10:32 AM |

One advantage of being a retired journalist is that you can muse about what might be happening somewhere and not feel obligated to get on the phone, do some reporting and try to pin down whether your musings have any tenuous connection to reality.

When I commented about the shallow stage in Robert Lepage's production at the Met of Berlioz's "Damnation of Faust," I subsequently thought of other shallow Met stages in recent history, like the wall that defined last season's "Peter Grimes" (which I didn't see but read much about). Or Penny Woolcock's "Doctor Atomic," with its huge moving walls containing the chorus, similar to Mark Morris's "Orpheus and Euridice." In both proudctions, when the walls closed, they formed another kind of shallow backdrop.

My unsubstantiated speculations have to do with the influence of James Levine on all of this. The production that Robert Carson and Michael Levine put together not so long ago of "Eugene Onegin" was handsome and minimalist, but it had no close back wall and no ceiling, and some complained that the vast spaces swallowed up the singers' voices. Is Levine influencing production design to create reflective acoustic planes to bolster the singers? Has he won that battle in exchange for giving up on his conservative objections to the flashy visual style Peter Gelb prefers?

Maybe not, to be fair. In "Doctor Atomic" the singers were amplified, so acoustical reinforcement shouldn't have made much of a difference. Lepage's production started life at Saito Kinnen and Paris, far from any Levine influence.

But even if my speculations are unfounded and Levine has nothing to do with all those walls, they certainly rob productions visually of the possibilites of the Met's deep stage. How much should acoustical considerations affect stage design, anyhow? Can smaller set pieces serve the reflective purpose without an entire, proscenium-filling back wall? It's an interesting question.

November 11, 2008 11:07 AM |

Here's a link to my latest ARTicles blog entry, about an art site that has made an online quilt/grid of worldwide page one Nov. 5 election coverage, with each tiny page blowable-uppable to legiblity. Very cool, and there's an embedded link to the site.

November 11, 2008 11:02 AM |

Friday was not a good day for opera in New York. First, the news broke of Gerard Mortier's withdrawal from the City Opera. And that night came the second straight disappointing new production from Peter Gelb at the Met this season (after "Doctor Atomic").

Maybe Robert Lepage's production of Berlioz's "Damnation of Faust" had been planned under the Joe Volpe regime, but Gelb certainly backed it enthusiastically. Advance publicity suggested it was a trial run of the forthcoming (starting in 2010-11) Lepage staging of Wagner's "Ring," the highest profile artistic decision Gelb has made so far.

I have long admired Lepage's breadth and invention, from his own fabuous original theater pieces to his opera productions to his staging of a Peter Gabriel arena rock concert tour. Gelb had a tricky decision to make, replacing the impossibly dowdy yet fanatically beloved Otto Schenk "traditional" "Ring." It would be trashed were it Euro-trash. Any of the usual suspects (Robert Wilson, Peter Sellars, even Julie Taymor, who may undertake a Met "Parsifal") would look, somehow, second hand. Lepage seemed a brilliant solution.

Well, not if his "Damnation" is really a template for his "Ring." The set (attributed to Carl Fillion, but Lepage clearly determined the overall look) offered stark symmetry, with three balconies fronting a projection screen broken rigorously into rectangles. The ubiquitous video projections were technically adept and often striking. But the formal rigidity of the screen -- a friend likened it to a photo contact sheet -- proved numbing.

And when Lepage had an idea, like having live solidiers marching off to war straight up the grid and then being lowered down dead like hunks of meat, it sometimes worked well in a gimmicky sort of way the first time and lost all impact when repeated over and over. Lepage's dramatic ideas were dazzling one-shots, but he couldn't sustain them over an entire musical number, let alone the entire score.

The grid/screen layout precluded any use of the Met's vast stage depth, which was just a silly waste. The vaunted interactivity, whereby singers supposedly triggered variations in the projections so that no one performance was quite like another, fell hopelessly flat. Supposed interactivity, as I discovered ruefully when I presented Tod Machover's flamboyantly hyped "Brain Opera" at the first Lincoln Center Festival in 1996, usually falls flat, either because it isn't really interactive or because the audience has no way of knowing what's flexible and what's fixed.

Many of the techniques and effects deployed here had been pioneered in Lepage's Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil show, "KA," but as someone who actually saw that endeavor, I can attest that "KA" is way more spectacular than this "Damnation." Cheerfully brainless, like all Cirque shows, but the most dazzling piece of Vegas stagecraft ever. That's because Lepage could oversee the construction of elaborate stage machiney that, once installed, could stay in place for years. Giant platforms tilted and spun this way and that, along with all the acrobatics and projections. The Met is a repertory house; productions must be broken down and reassembled within hours. So a lot of the special effects, like those soldiers marching boldly up the grid, looked tentative next to those in "KA." 

Worse, Lepage showed little aptitude for the direction of actors, even with the projections allowing for filmic closeups. Admittedly, as a concert piece that Berlioz never got around to adapting for staged perforrmance, there isn't much interaction. But everything looked static and stiff. Marcello Giordani, whom James Levine clearly likes but who is a stick on stage and not a very dulcet tenor to start with, even if he does manage mostly to emit the notes, looked lost. Susan Graham, earnest and intelligent but not in her best voice, made a staid Marguerite (Giordani insisted on calling her the Italinate "Margarita"). John Relyea had stock-devil flair but rather too light-weight a bass.

Levine hardly redeemed the musical performance. I passed programs at Boston Symphony matinees during Charles Munch's final four years as music director there. He was a consummate Berliozian, and did the big pieces all the time, including a couple of "Damnations," which he also of course recorded. Levine elicts the occasional lovely lyrical effect. But he is not a driving exciting conductor in the Bernstein, Gergiev or (in Berlioz especially) Munch mold.

Was the evening a total waste? No. Some of the video effects, in particular the Muybridgian galopping silhouette horses with puppet cut-out Fausts and Mephistopheleses, was very good. But for the "Ring," let's hope Lepage opens up the stage, pays attention to the characters and subsumes his trickery into the service of the (music) drama. He has proven talent. But if he repeats the effects of this "Damnation" too slavishly, we'll be in for a long, frustrating "Ring" indeed.    

November 9, 2008 9:39 PM | | Comments (3)

A quick comment -- before I dash off to the Met, as it happens, for Lepage's "Damnation of Faust" -- on Gerard Mortier's withdrawal from the New York City Opera. I'm sure the recession and the cancelled season has hit the board hard. Maybe Mortier could have adjusted slightly. But to contractually promise him $60 million and then only give him $36 million is too steep for most anyone to bear, especially for a visionary used to European subsidies.

People here have been shaking their heads ever since his appointment was announced, wondering when it would collapse. Now it has. Of  course Mortier is a pugnacious provocateur. He is also a brilliant opera executive, the most exciting of our time. I will sorely miss his planned 2009-10 season and his other proposed projects beyond that. I'm sure (I hope) everyone on the board side approached this with good will and good faith. But even apart from the economic collapse, their choice of Mortier was probably naive. He was (probably) the wrong man for New York and that company.

But I will miss him and what he might have done here, and I hope he carries on somewhere else. If not, if he lets it all hang out, his memoirs should be something to cherish!

November 7, 2008 5:21 PM | | Comments (2)

American Ballet Theatre has dedicated its season to Antony Tudor; the occasion is his centenary, which actually falls on April 4, 2009, but it's the overall season that counts, I guess. The apex of the celebration in New York this fall came on the next-to-last night of the company's three-week stand at the City Center, when five Tudor ballets were presented: no intermission, but instead the dances were interspersed with film footage. Every Tudor work being offered this fall was on display, except for "The Leaves Are Fading."

The ballets ranged -- not in this order -- from a little tired (the too campy, or too campily restaged, "Judgment of Paris") to the blandly classical "Continuo" (prized by classicist critics uncomfortable with an excessive emphasis on Tudor's psychological side) to the tantalizing (a duet from "Romeo and Juliet," set not to Prokofiev but to Delius; apparently a full revival is next to impossible) to the magisterial ("Lilac Garden" and "Pillar of Fire").

Those last two date from 1936 and 1942, and are fully representative of Tudor's gifts for investing movement with psychological meaning. Set respectively to Chausson's "Poeme" and Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night," they ally great music with subtly, powerfully drawn portrayals of personal torment. They are beautiful ballets, and they were lovingly recreated. Kirk Peterson was responsible for "Lilac Garden," and Julie Kent was deepy touching as a woman torn between love and propiety. Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner did "Pillar of Fire," and here Gillian Murphy, David Hallberg and Marcelo Gomes were all compelling, as the central trio, with a special nod to Murphy's fluidity and grace. They both looked a bit of their time, but as such they had historical authenticity. And they hold up strongly as timeless choreography.

Yet there are so many missing Tudor ballets, not missing because ABT chose not to revive them so much as because they were imperfectly preserved. Apparently Tudor only really trusted the hands-on transmission of his dances by dancers who had danced them. Those chains have had their weak links, or companies didn't choose to restudy the ballets when the key dancers were still there to work with their younger peers.

It makes one realize all over again how fragile choreogaphy can be, even in this age of refined dance notation and video. That fragility means much is lost, or blurred in revival. But the loss just might also serve as a compensatory spur to appreciating great choreography we see now more acutely and intensely.

Maybe, though, there is indeed more Tudor to revive, starting with that "Romeo." If so ABT, which has been the primary keeper of the Tudor flame, is the company to do it. Its Tudor celebration this fall was a fine start. 

November 6, 2008 4:27 PM | | Comments (1)
Some pontifications on what the new president might do for the arts in America, from my latest entry to ARTicles, the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program.
November 4, 2008 5:07 PM |

Just finished reading/skimming the Holiday Films adjunct to the Sunday NYT's Arts & Leisure section. I was Arts & Leisure editor for four years, and tried my best to make these advertising-driven supplements into real, serious film journals, in content if not in format. After a discouraging vulgar spell under my successor, Jodi Kantor, the current film editors (the key person being Ann Kolson, whom I hired in the job and who has managed to hang on all this time and who is a good friend) still manage to turn out a quality product: they get good writers, they pick good movies to preview and hence the sections are well worth reading.

That said, I stopped reading several of the articles about upcoming releases when the writers started telling me the plots at a level of detail I didn't want to know. Do movie writers do that because they truly believe that what's important about a film are the niceties of the directing, the writing and the acting, and that the mere plot is something you might as well know in advance, anyhow? Like, we know the plot of Hamlet but we still might want to see a new production. Or maybe they think you need to know the plot in order to decide wkether you want to see the movie. Or are the writers just lazy, falling back on recounting the plot to fill up space?

So here I am going to pontificate about two movies with a very similar, buried secret. That's it from me, plot-wise. Maybe already you feel you've found out more than you want to know. But what really interests me is what these movies tell us about their respective countries' film cultures.

Rachel Getting Married is about a family reunion and the dark secrets that emerge in the course of it. It's directed by Jonathan Demme, an auteur I've long admired but one who has seemingly settled back of late, maybe too comfortably, into documentaries, especially documentaries about the music he loves (he has excellent taste, meaning it corresponds with mine).

The acting in this new movie, starting with Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt as sisters, is top notch. But the film combines two genres I mostly despise: family reunions in which dark secrets emerge and addiction traumas. A film critic friend whose taste I admire loved this movie; she saw it twice. I found it crippled by the sit-com/Broadway predictability of too many American films, even those that try to transcend industry cliches.

I've Loved You So Long is a French film, and it too conforms to national stereotypes sometimes. Another family drama, it's long, it's talky, it's so discursive it drags. It too has wonderful performances all down the line (deeper into the cast than in Rachel Getting Marrried), starting with Kristin Scott-Thomas (in French; she's bi-lingual, though apparently she has a slight English accent I can't really hear, since a character remarks upon it in the movie) and Elsa Zylberstein as, again, sisters.

But the director, Philippe Claudel, who seems to be a literature professor late to film direction, has made a real grown-up movie here. It's serious, it's cumulatively intense, it's deeply emotional. I lived in France for nearly three years and have my reservations about the French and some aspects of their culture, especially their latter-day-defensive culture. But they're grown-ups, and they make grown-up movies. So do we, occasionally, but to my taste Rachel Getting Married isn't one of them. 

November 2, 2008 1:34 PM |

Speight Jenkins has been a friend of mine for 40 years, and there is no one (except maybe for Tony Tommasini, though I'd give the edge to Speight) who is more fanatically opposed to amplifying opera singers. He fulminates, he sputters, he waxes wroth. For the anti-amplification zealots (no "pro choice" for them), opera is the last bastion of purely unreinforced singing (we'll leave aside Fafner's megaphone).

I have a more relaxed attitude toward all this; I follow where composers and singers want to lead me, and see no profound philosophical difference between tweaking the "natural" acoustic of a hall (though reversible reflective panels, floating sound-diffusing clouds or just putting on operas in smaller theaters, as in Europe, for heaven's sake) and a subtle in-house amplification system. It's "purer," maybe, if the hall and sound designers settle on a fixed scheme and leave it alone from performance to performance and singer to singer.

But amplified voices in opera can work, too. Opera singers are routinely adjusted electronically in the recording studio (or the house, if a performance is being recorded live). What matters in the efficacy of a supposedly big-voiced singer (e.g., Pavarotti singing Otello) are matters of attack, linguistic and stylistic idiomatic fluency, tonal weight (by which I mean a voice that sounds right in terms of helt and meatiness even if in the theater it might sound small).

Some of this came to mind recently when a Princeton professor named Andrew Moravcsik interviewed me for an article or book he is writing on the decline of big-voiced opera singers, especially in Verdi (is it still possible to properly cast Il Trovatore), Wagner and Puccini. We batted around various reasons this might be so, and there are a lot of them. But I find it hard to regard such a decline as a cultural tragedy: pendulums swing, tastes change, and there's always amplification if needed.

Which it is in pop and jazz, and Henry Pleasans developed a whole theory about how amplification has purged opera of the mannered distortions of late-19th-century vocal production, restoring opera singing to the conversational purity of Monteverdi's era. With the ubiquity of world music, we see that vocal styles vary the world over, and who's to say that Western-style opera singing, which sounds as weird to non-devotees as Chinese opera, represents any qualitative apex?

Still, they are needed for the operas that need them. Even I concede that a lack of hefty (vocally hefty, that is) spintos and dramatics is not ideal. V, W and P wrote for unamplified voices, and loudspeakers and clumsy level manipulators can make an amplified performance sound horribly artificial.

But what about contemporary composers who happily countenance amplification, who write for blends of vocal types, or for acoustic and amplified and electronic instruments as part of their compositional aesthetic? I have recently seen two new operas in big, American-gargantuan opera houses that used singer amplification, and no one much complained.

One was Stewart Wallace's The Bonesetter's Daughter in San Francisco, which amplified the singers largely because, it seemed, one of the principals, Qian Yi in the title role, was Chinese-trained and lacked the muscular amplitude of Western-style singers. The other was John Adams's Doctor Atomic, first heard three years ago in San Francisco and now at the Met in New York. Adams LIKES amplified voices; they fit into his fascinating coloristic acoustic-electronic sonic palette. Again, no none seemed profoundly unhappy, although there had been tales when the opera was first scheduled for the Met that Petr Gelb was uncomfortable with the idea of amplification. If he was, he apparently got over it.

And then there is the new DVD of Doctor Atomic, filmed at the Amsterdam incarnation of the original Peter Sellars production, as directed for the camera by Sellars himself. To my taste, this is the best Doctor Atomic yet, better than his production as seen on stage and certainly better than Penny Woolcock's at the Met. Sellars loves closeups (as does Woolcock, in her films), which seemed intrusive sometimes in his video versions of the three Da Ponte/Mozart operas. Here they work magnificently, and even serve to minimize the impact of Lucinda Childs's dances. I missed the spectacle of everyone lying down, looking out at the audience at the end; the closeups connstrict that. But they work superbly in the more intimate scenes, which abound.

Lawrence Renes is the wonderful conductor, full of drive and detail, and Jessica Rivera is the best Kitty yet. This DVD makes the most convincing case for Adams score: the draggy bits in a stage production tighten up into gripping personal drama; the tension in the apocalyptic buildup towards the end is palpable; and the greatest scene -- one of the great scenes in all of opera -- at the end of the first act could not be more powerful.

Do you notice the amplification of the voices? Not really, since in a recording they are by definition "amplified." Whatever the idealistic validity of the Jenkins/Tommasini argument against amplification in live performance, and I can certainly see their point, the train has maybe already left the station. Operas at houses as traditional as San Francisco and the Met are now being amplified; recordings are inherently amplified; and if widespread rumors are true, more and more companies amplify their singers in traditional operas without telling the public or the critics. Once again, practice defines reality, outstripping mere theory. Let alone nostalgia.    

November 1, 2008 12:53 PM | | Comments (3)


About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by John Rockwell in November 2008.

John Rockwell: October 2008 is the previous archive.

John Rockwell: December 2008 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.