John Rockwell: June 2009 Archives
I've liked Stephin Merritt's music with his various East Village bands (especially Magnetic Fields and their "69 Love Songs"). I liked it so much that I hooked him up with my friend Chen Shi-zheng, whom I had originally hired to direct the 18-hour "Peony Pavilion" production at the Lincoln Center Festival. They collaborated on three Sino-American musical plays at such venues as the Lincoln Center Theater, the American Repertory Theater and Cal Arts. "Sino-American" meant ancient Chinese stories updated into a kind of hybrid Chinese-American style. Music from those plays was released on a Nonesuch CD.
So the fact that Merritt had written music and lyrics (and clearly had played a key role in the gestation) of a staged musical version of "Coraline" drew me to it -- rather late in the run at the Lucille Lortele Theater in Manhattan; it closes July 5.
"Coraline" was first a novel by Neil Gaiman, about a little girl who discovers a disturbing mirror world behind a bricked-up door in her new house. The world is clearly in her imagination, the dark side of her own new world. The novel has been turned into an animated film in which the girl's voice is Dakota Fanning's. And now this show, which is my own first and only exposure to this material.
Hence no judgments from me on the fidelity of the show to the novel, or its success vis-a-vis the movie. With a book by David Greenspan and direction by Leigh Silverman, the show has divided critics and audiences. (I was gripped and my companion hated it.)
What allures and repels are the strange, creepy undercurrents of the tale and this version of it. Merritt's music, sung by the cast with tinkly, toy-piano-like accompaniment (indefatiguably played by Phyllis Chen), has a cold, campy aura. It's childlike yet clinical. The choice of the decidedly matronly Jayne Houdyshell to play little Coraline strikes some as absurd and others, like me, as inspired; her warmth offsets the brittleness all around her.
The whole cast, in which most of the actors play mutiple roles, is dazzlingly accomplished, and Silverman's staging (in Christine Jones's clever, overstuffed setting) is brilliant in its quicksilver changes of scene and mood. If you're in New York and have the time and can get in, I would argue that it's more than worth a visit. My friend would disagree, but if you're reading this blog, you probably have some sympathy for my sensibility, so trust me!
If wer're lucky, it will be revived somewhere. And given my own initial interest, it marks another step forward in Merritt's evolution into a practiced composer for the modern musical theater. To enjoy his cavernous bass voice, though, I guess you'll just have to keep buying (or downloading) his recordings.
That's the title of an exhibition on view for a few more weeks at the main New York Public Library, the one with the stone lions out front on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street. I find that in my dotage I do more and more things cultural because friends are involved. I read novels by friends. I go to the opera productions directed by the sons of friends, and musical performances classical or jazz or pop sung or played by friends. I go to art exhibits by friends or organized by friends. When I write about them, even with "full disclosure," I get accused by editors (at the NY Times, when I wrote an arts column) or loved ones of dreaded self-referentiality. But I like the personal connection.
In this case -- before I get to the library friend link -- an ancillary word about the Times having long since appointed Ed Rothstein as its critic for non-artistic museums and exhibitions. This was one of the smartest ideas that the Times cultural editors - whoever they were when the decision was made -- have come up with in years, for two reasons. One is that there had been an awkward gap in the paper's coverage of such events, which consume a lot of money and effort and make up a big part of the museum experience but which weren't really covered by the fine-arts critics. And two, it found the perfect niche for Rothstein, who had sort of kicked around the Times cultural department, as beatless critics tend to do, and who now has a field that's all his own and that perfectly suits his manifold interests.
Ed actually did review this show on April 25, but the real friend connection to it is Robert Paxton, listed as guest co-curator. Paxton is a now-retired professor of French history at Columbia, but as a young faculty member he taught a course in French historiography that I took as a graduate student at Berkeley in the 1960's. Met a lifelong friend in that class, but I've also remained friendly with Paxton over the decades. World's Greatest Expert on Vichy France, which is why he was brought in to organize this show (and co-write the catalogue) from largely French archival material.
The show itself, after all that self-referential throat-clearing, is richly textured and compulsively involving. When the Nazis steam-rollered the French, they eventually occupied the northern half of the country, roughly, including Paris, and turned over the rest to a puppet regime led by Marshall Petain, a right-leaning hero of World War I. The exhibition is subtitled French Literary Life Under Nazi Occupation, but it covers all of France and not just literature, though that's the focus.
For those us us fascinated by that era -- had I remained in academia, my field of specialization would have been domestic life in Germany 1933-45, especially cultural life -- this show's amplitude of exhibits and wall texts and photographs and film just sucks one in. To see famous figures from French cultural life and discover more about their involvement (Germaine Lubin, the great Wagner soprano) or giddy complicity (Cocteau, who liked the parties) or more ambiguous activity (Sartre) or clandestine resistance (Marguerite Duras).is revelatory, like peering into a secret family trunk filled with incendiary letters and documents. I wonder what yet another friend, Alan Riding, who succeeded me as the Times's Paris-based European Cultural Correspondent and who last I heard is working on a book on cultural life in Paris during the Nazi period, would think of it.
The news that the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the Merce Cunningham Foundation and the Merce Cunningham Trust (so many entities! though the first two will apparently wither away) have sorted out their future was interesting to me on two counts, one obvious and one less obvious.
The obvious one is the mess Martha Graham made of her own legacy: turning over the leadership to a person incapable of winning the confidence of all the people he needed to carry on, with the result that the company was tied up in court for years, lost invaluable fund-raising momentum and is still deprived of several Graham classics, above all "Seraphic Dialogue." But Graham can at least be credited for terrifying still-active choreographers into taking their own legacies more seriously. Cunningham -- the sad Graham history was cited in the news release about his legacy arrangement -- is just the first; others, like Paul Taylor and Trisha Brown and even the younger Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris, will presumably follow suit, one way or another.
The boldest, bravest step the Cunningham entities have taken is to agree to disband the company. This will only occur when Cunningham, now 90, is no longer capable of leading it, which will first trigger a two-year world farewell tour. But after that, nada. No attempt to keep an active company going. No watching the purity of the chorographer-overseen style and technique erode (which has been the problem with the Balanchine legacy, however well you feel that one company or another has kept it alive). No awkward decisions about whether to bring in younger choregraphers to freshen the repertory, in the spirit of the departed master or not.
In Cunningham's case, there will be what they call "dance capsules" -- preserved records of every accountable aspect of a given dance's parameters and details -- plus, of course, trust-overseen coaching from former dancers, as well as an as yet ill-defined shadow cadre of apprentice dancers still under the Cunningham banner, all to help other companies receate the work. So Cunningham's masterpieces will be reborn as accurately as possible, but without a full-scale Cunningham company as model -- or target for disgruntled nostalgists.
The less obvious point of interest for me in this announcement came in conversation with a senior Cunningham staff member, who flatly dismissed any element of dance notation in the legacy project. His position was that Labanotation had been tried once on a Cunningham dance and it hadn't worked satisfactorily. "In the age of video," he added, or words to this effect, "there's no need for notation."
That will offend the dance notation community, but it is perfectly in accord with Cunningham's long-standing fascination with contemporary technology. The dance notation specialists with whom I have talked over the years have discounted video for its two-dimensionality. Yet multiple cameras and the brain's ability to imagine three dimensions from two-dimensional information might seem to compensate for that. Of course, a film is not the same as a live performance, let alone the mind and muscle memory from actually dancing the dance. But if the Cunningham precedent prevails, it will strike a blow against the perhaps quixotic efforts of the dance notationalists to preserve their craft. Whether you see this as a sad mistake or the inevitable march of progress depends on you.
There are a lot of different kinds of dance out there, but two performances recently at the Kitchen made me think about dance that seems intended to make you think. I don't want to get all journalistic-pompous here, and proclaim a new trend. Any dance -- any thing -- can make you trhink, and one aspect of the choreographer's art has always been to construct layers of meaning and allusions to other artworks or prisate fantasies in a more or less communicable way.
Still, Robbinschilds's "Sonya and Layla Go Camping" and Sarah Michelson's "Dover Beach" seem emblematic of a kind of post-modern dance that deliberately contains multiple, sometimes mysterious allusions way beyond purely abstract movement. These are not exactly dance theater; they're more like dance philosophy.
I should mention that Robbinschilds consists of Sonya Robbins and Layla Childs. I know Layla through Sonya, and I know Sonya because she's the daughter of good friends of mine from California. I ran into the two dancers most recently at the Movement Reseach Gala at the Judson Church, which is itself always beautiful and full of downtown dance history ghosts. The gala was a llvely affair, honoring Molly Davies and Steve Paxton, but I'm not going to write about that here.
"Sonya and Layla Go Camping" involved the juxtasposition of movement, dialogue, music and video, a constant in their work. In this case the video, elegantly shot, replicated in French a conversation previously rendered live in English in the theater. The French allusions were born of a homage to Jacques Rivette's three-hour semi-surrealist film "Celene and Julie Go Boating," which I haven't seen in 35 years, if ever.
Like so much of this kind of dance, this one could be enjoyed on a moment-by-moment level, for the calm ingenuity of the movement, for the wit of the dialogue and conceits (a naked male God with big white puffy comforting hands), for the beauty of the shots of Paris and of pastoral nature. Whether you found it resonant or opaque or intermittently both depended on you. I liked it a lot, without pretending to understand it.
"Dover Beach" was even more complex or more opaque, depending. It was certainly more disturbing than Robbinsvhilds's genial outing. Michelson, whom I have never met, seems like the kind of person who likes to put up her dukes and dare you to understand her. Or even like her, maybe.
For "Dover Beach," she and her longtime designer Parker Lutz divided the stage with an ornate grate the formed a cage for the dancers on audience right. Those of us on the left had a hard time seeing what was going on over/in there, but it seemed to be mostly two handsome women doing virtuosic moves, many involving long and punishing leg extensions. They looked impassively seductive, but they were hidden in a cage, so who knows?
Over on the left all kinds of strange things occured. There was a set piece consisting for two rings with light fixtures that revolved, noisily. There were two young girls in stylish, backless jockey costumes. There was a horse (actually, a human with a horse's head). There was a mature man in aristocratic horsy garb and a very young, coldly impassive girl in a black leotard. Other girl-children wandered in and out. There was a neon portait of a woman (Michelson?), later replicated. There were surf sounds and a recorded recitation of Matthew Arnold's despairing, romantic poem.
I don't know what it all meant, and I suspect that Michelson's multiple meanings rather stumbled over one another. Still, the mood of sllghtly creepy, ominous sexuality was palpable and potent, and the sometimes complex demands on the dancers were impressively realized. A talent, all right, and one who makes you think. I just wonder, sometimes, with this kind of dance, when complexity and intensely personal meaning tip too far into the obscure.
What is it about odor that leads those who emit it in the name of art to proclaim themselves revolutionary innovators, despite a long and not too interesting history of previous emitters? The creators of "Green Aria: A Scent Opera," which played for five sold-out performances at the modest-sized theater in the sub-basement of the Guggenheim Museum last weekend, portrayed themselves as path-breaking extenders of Wagner's theory of the "total work of art," even though their effort was limited to smell, sound and some explanatory projected text.
Of course this is to ignore the long tale of synesthesia, studied scientifically and explored artistically. Scriabin's color organ comes to mind, as does the long tale of composers associating keys with colors. And of course there was Aromarama, born in the days when the film industry was searching desperately for gimmicks to outflank television. As in Cinemascope, Todd-AO, 3D and the like. Aromarama involved pumping odors (orange, as an orange was being sliced onscreen, as a film-director friend reminded me) into a theater, waiting for that odor to disperse and then pumping in a new one. Elephantine.
"Green Aria" was conceived by Stewart Matthew, a former DJ, mathematician and Wall Streeter who, it says here, "recently formed companies dedicated to creating new forms of art and entertainment using affective and cognitive technologies." He seems to have a knack for marketing and publicity, too. He worked with Christophe Laudamiel, a "perfumer" who has devised fragrances for lots of well-known perfume brands.
Together they oversaw the one truly innovative aspect of their "opera," "scent microphones" that audience-members could position at will near their noses and that allowed the relatively rapid dispersion of odors (every five or ten seconds or so) from a "scent organ" in the back (this was "designed and manufactured by Flakt Woods"). The technical aspects of this system, which involved tubes snaking through the theater and the microphones mounted to each seat, all spiffily done, were ingenious. The odors had to be pumped into the tubing in such a way that each seat, no matter how far from the "scent organ," got the same scent at the same time. The scents had to build on one another, so that the residue of one augmented the next.
But to what end? The "opera" was described in the press as an hour long. But that included panel discussions at the outset of each show, a "cast of characters" with the their associated scents, the opera itself, and a credit list with all the characters and their odors repeated. The actual "opera" lasted 17 minutes. Which was more than enough, since some listeners/smellers complained afterwards of headaches and sinus issues. As we left the auditorium we were each handed a smelly program.
The "opera" consisted of a fatuous allegory involving nature, technology and their fusion.There were five elements (the expected four plus "base metal") and 18 characters with names like Evangelical Green, Funky Green Impostor, Meretricious Green and Runaway Crunchy Green. The 17 minutes consisted of scents and associated sounds, and I don't think I was alone in losing track of the "story" in the first minute.
The prerecorded instrumental and electronic sounds came courtesy of Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurdsson, best known as Bjork's producer and as the producer of Muhly's first CD. As a documented admirer of Muhly, very much including that first CD, the best I can say about the "Scent Opera" score was that it was trivial. Muhly has made some wonderful music, but he's also made some blandly anonymous music, too, as in his orchestral score a couple of years ago for American Ballet Theatre and his noodling soundtrack for the film "The Reader." He works too much, accepts too many projects in his first rush of fame. I hope he settles down and focusses, because his is too great a talent to waste. Maybe he thought "Green Aria" was just a joke. If so it was a pretty expensive and elaborate joke.
As for the future of scented opera, I remain dubious. Scratch 'n' sniff advertisements are widely resented. Aromarama didn't last. The technical systems are expensive. Most odors are stubbornly unspecific. Having a plausible plot and some singing might help. But a gimmick is still a gimmick, and one suspects Matthew knows that full well.
I've been erratic about sustaining this blog for all kinds of reasons. Some time back I tried to start catching up, with reports on things from late last year. Here now is a chronological accounting of things operatic and quasi-operatic I've seen so far this year. It's an odd list, perhaps, partly because of my (to some, not to me) odd sensibility, partly because Volpe-planned productions at the Met mostly haven't moved me to attend, partly because the New York City Opera has gone away. Anyhow:
Jan. 5: Thais at the Met. Worth seeing, I thought, for Renee Fleming, who turned out to be in poor voice (from which she has reportedly recovered): acidic tone, pinched top notes. Thomas Hampson was excellent as Athanael; I guess slightly priggish pomposity suits him, but seriously, folks, he sounded solid and strong. Otherwise, a creaky, old-fashioned John Cox production from Chicago, laughably billed as new, hootchy-kootch galore.
Jan. 17: Celestial Excusions at La MaMa. Robert Ashley bills his wonderfully strange, poetically involving sing-song monologues to washes of electronic sound as operas, and if he says so, why not? Celestial Excursions was part of a trilogy of his more recent operatic endeavors at La MaMa, the other two being Dust and Made Out of Concrete. An acquired taste, but for those of us who have acquired it, a celestially lulling experience.
Jan. 31: The Death of Klinghoffer at the Juilliard School. The climax of Joel Sach's typically thought-provoking (if to my Bay Area taste rather too wide-ranging) survey of newish music from California, this first-class, semi-staged production, conducted by the composer, with cuts from Penny Woolcock's fine film restored and a strong "student" cast of near-professionals, made another honorable New York case for this opera. I put it that way because of the visceral Jewish neo-con hostility to it by a coterie of New York critics. Nixon in China will be at the Met soon and Dr. Atomic has come and gone there, but this one is still marginalized. In my long contemplation of the opera and its reception, dating from the world premiere, the New York objections, largely unique to this city, are that it's anti-Semitic and even if balanced it's anti-Semitic because the only good Arab is a dead Arab. Perhaps the critics would seek a more nuanced wording of their position, but my version is pretty close. For the rest of us, very much including most Jewish opera-lovers I know, balance is worth seeking, and the opera itself contains so much that is impassioned and elegiac and tragic that its semi-banishment from New York is close to a crime.
Feb. 4: Le Deserteur by Opera Lafayette at the Rose Theater. I don't walk out of many performances early, but I bagged this one by the Washington D.C.-based company after 20 minutes. Monsigny's deservedly obscure score was saddled with a so-coy-your-glands-hurt semi-staged production, and the musical performance seemed barely perfunctory.
Feb. 21: L'Isola Disabitata by the Gotham Chamber Opera at the John Jay College Theater. A fine performance, well sung and played with an imaginative choice of stage director. The problems were, first, that despite periodic efforts to revive his opera reputation, Haydn did not have the operatic gift: his works in that genre sound sound stiff and formulaic. And Mark Morris's production, confined to a cramped revolving island unit set, was worthy without in any way rising to the normal heights of his imagination, in opera or dance.
March 1: Sarka at the Dicapo Opera Theatre. Janacek's first opera, a barn-burning heroic/legendary affair with tough, seductive lady warriors, proved well worth hearing. I went partly because Walter Sutcliffe, whom I don't know but who is the son of my friend Tom Sutcliffe, directed (he was also staging David McVicar's Trovatore production at the Met at the time). He did a bang-up job, miraculously making a small cast on a small stage convincingly convey the sweep and breadth of Janacek's vision. The singing and playing were excellent, too, starting with Kristin Sampson's Sarka. Rewarding on all counts.
March 15: Il Trovatore at the Met. See above re Walter Sutcliffe. McVicar's Goya-era production made colorful sense out of this sorta-senseless opera. I didn't hear either Salvatore Licitra, who pulled out as Manrico before the run began, or Marcelo Alvarez, but Philip Webb was decent enough in his big-bodied way (he transposed Di quelle pira down, but so reportedly had Alvarez). I also didn't hear Dolores Zajick, but Luciana D'Intino sang a forceful, idiomatic Azucena. Otherwise, Dmitiri Hvorostovsky was a noble, mellifluous, slightly wooly-voiced di Luna, and Sondra Radvanovsky, that all-American girl whose name sounds like a Russian import and who is the Leonora du jour worldwide, held up her end strongly. Gianandrea Noseda conducted briskly but convincingly. A good repertory-standards night at the Met, if you like that kind of thing.
April 1 and 8: Das Rheingold and Gotterdammerung at the Zurich Opera. Flanking my visit to the Salzburg Easter Festival I caught the beginning and end of Robert Wilson's several-years-old Ring in Zurich. The production, carefully restaged, has all the stylistic tradmarks/mannerisms of latter-day Wilson, but it works very well, about as close to Wieland Wagner's radiant minimalism as anyone has achieved since. What was otherwise impressive was the quality of the musical performance, which bodes well for the Salzburg's summer festival from 2011 on. Philippe Jordan, Armin's son, who is taking over the musical direction at the Paris Opera and who has not particularly impressed me in other repertory, was doing his first Rings and was first-rate, as was the orchestra. The cast was strong up and down the line, with the Latvian Egils Silins a fine Wotan, the veteran Rudolf Schasching a practiced, convincing Siegfried, Matti Salminen a scenery-chewing but amusingly powerful Hagen, Eva Johansson a visually and vocally strong Brunnhilde and the young Wiebke Lehmkuhl a discovery as Erda and the First Norn.
April 4: Siegfried at the Salzburg Easter Festival. The third fourth of my three-quarters European Ring came courtesy of Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. Ben Heppner dropped out of the title role, which removed a lot of the potential allure of the evening. Lance Ryan, who deserves all kinds of credit for leaping in on two days notice and mastering so much of Stephane Braunschweig's stage business, has received good notices; vocally, he struck me as pretty ordinary. The production was decent but no more and the rest of the cast was strong, especially Katarina Dalayman as Brunnhilde, though Anna Larsson's Erda, Stephen Milling's Fafner and Willard White's Wanderer were all fine, too.
April 5: La Resurrezione in Salzburg. The young Handel had operatic successes in Italy, but the Vatican forbade operas in Rome. La Resurrezzione is a sacred drama, an opera in all but name. Emmanuelle Haim led an honorable concert performance at the Mozarteum, but the long runs of arias (punctuated by the very occasional duet or ensemble) can be a plod for all concerned. Still the cast, headed by Kate Royal and Camilla Tilling, did nobly.
April 7: Die Sieben Todsunden in Salzburg. One of Rattle's Berlin Phil concerts included (along with Strauss's second horn concertro and Beethoven's fifth symphony) Weill and Brecht's semi-operatic, semi-terpsichoric Seven Deadly Sins. Stripped of staging and dance, this was notable for Angelika Kirschschlager's sweetly earnest effort to butch up her ingenue image into a hard-bitten Berlin dame. She did it well, and managed neatly to combine Lenya's shaky young soprano and leathery older contralto into a single vocal performance.
April 9: Marie Victoire at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. The German premiere of Respighi's opera, composed in 1912 and only first performed in Rome in 2004. A French Revolutionary verismo melodrama, this might seem a candidate for wider dissemination, especially after its effective second act. But by the end Respighi has piled on so much lurid business that the whole confection collapses. A clever, outwardly old-fashioned, inwardly sly production from the veteran Johannes Schaaf (which earned him some unfair boos) and a solid vocal performance from the big cast.
April 10: Armida at the Komische Oper, Berlin. I went because I had a free night (ditto April 9) and because I used to spend at lot of time at the Komische Oper when Walter Felsenstein was still with us and because I had never seen a production by the notorious Calixto Bieto. Gluck's music is stern and grand, even if the score was heavily cut, Caroline Melzer looked good and sang OK in the title role, and Konrad Junghanel conducted superbly. Bieto gave us tons of male nudity, avoided extreme silliness and managed a chilling final tableau, with the vengeful Armida on a catwalk triumphantly surveying the carnage below. Worth waiting around for that scene.
April 12: Shakespeare's Sonnets at the Berliner Ensemble. Robert Wilson's latest venture at Brecht's old theater (following his wildly successful Threepenny Opera a couple of years ago), this was quasi-operatic in that there were a bunch of sonnets set to music by Rufus Wainwright (songs, not the presumably more overtly operatic music he will unleash this summer in Manchester). The format was akin to Wilson's Fables de La Fontaine with the Comedie Francaise, though the sonnets don't lend themselves to extended dramatic treatment like the fables. Still, there was much to enjoy, not least Wilson's love for vivid old character actors, who blossom anew under his ministrations.
April 21: La Didone by the Wooster Group at the St. Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn. Thiis was really another Wooster Group theatrical hybrid extravaganza more than a performance of Cavalli's opera, although the musical values went admirably unslighted. Elizabeth LeCompte, as is her wont, chose here to combine a Baroque opera about Dido and Aeneas with a cheesy Italian science fiction flic from the 1960's, Terrore nello spazio. The two plots dovetailed weirdly well, though to camp up the Cavalli is to undercut his intended seriousness. But the point was not Cavalli, nor Terrore, for that matter, but the Wooster Groups' cross-cultural cleverness, and clever they are.
End of chronicle. Now, tonight, it's off to this "scent opera" at the Guggenheim with Nico Muhly et al., Aromarama reborn!