Friday, December 22, 2017

Les Misérables 

Les Misérables— despite its title which means  “the wretched” —  is wondrous! 

This new production of the phenomenon known as Les Miz brings a much needed spark of hope of the possibilities of love to hearts that have been broken or whose hopes have been dashed by the exigencies of life. 

 Les Miz’s music is haunting as befits the life journey of selfless sacrifice leading to salvation for one man and the tragic ending of the obsession of another.  It calls for a complex web of characters employing wide vocal choices  to follow the stories of these two men who are engaged in a life long bitter tug of war.  The dramatic tenor role of Jean Valjean is most poignantly sung by Nick Cartell.  Valjean has suffered a great injustice in  being imprisoned for 19 years for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread.  He escapes for a  life of hiding from his relentless pursuer, the conflicted  officer of the law,  Javert,  sung  with operatic intenseness by baritone Andrew Love.

For those who know Les Miserables well,  there are a few surprises in this  production  with this exciting new staging and scenery. Not only was the story inspired by Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel,  but the scenery has been reimagined, inspired by Hugo’s  drawings and paintings (over 4000).  

This celebrated opera-musical has broken records at the box office (in 32 years, seen by 70 million people in 44 countries and in 22 languages around the globe). What  is not measurable is how often its songs—“I Dreamed A Dream,”“On My Own,”“Stars,” “Bring Him Home,”“One Day More” —have lifted  human spirits.   

At the National Theater in Washington DC,  until January 7, 2018—  Les Miz is the ultimate Christmas gift.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


Hansel and Gretel is so many things.   A folk tale adapted by the Grimm brothers,  Englebert Humperdinck’s beloved opera, and even a 20th century novel of  the nightmare of the Nazi era.   

The Met Live In HD rebroadcast of its 2008 production puts this tale of these two hungry kids with sweet tooths lost in the dark woods into a different light.

 Food is the theme for the three scenes set in three different kitchens.

The opener is the home of Hansel and Gretel, (Alice Coote and Christine Schäfer) and most appropriates for  the folksy qualities of poor family (the father is a seller of brooms and brushes not a woodcutter).   The “real” kitchen  has been compared to the kitchen in the The Honeymooners, with the father Peter (Alan Held) most resembling  a somewhat drunken Jackie Gleason, and the mother Gertrude (Rosalind Plowrights) like his  bewildered wife Alice?

The dream in the forest scene features a fabulous kitchen — right out of a German Expressionist painting —where 14 cook (instead of those inspiring 14 angels)  in totally weirdism costumes.  A fish headed maitre d’ serves the two kids a lavish meal, beyond what they could imagine. (so was it really a dream?)

The final scene, is in a kitchen  not be believed.  Yes! the witch-Rosina Leckermaul "Raisin Sweet-tooth”— (Philip Langridge) has the best kitchen of all.  A oven as large as an SUV,   A walk in refrigerator.  Pans are as huge,  table long.  Fantastical—this Theater of the Absurd—is absolutely believable for what will necessarily follow.

So many levels of meaning but the moral of this tale—what  might  that be?

 For some, it is that the excesses of greed —hungry children desperate for only the sweet treats in life—which will only lead to  doom.  

For others, it is that power in cleverness in overcome the difficulties that result  following these follies, by a technique of literally  “fighting fire with fire.”  That they will  push the witch in to the oven she intended for them.  (something they were able to achieve by using the formula hexes that she had employed in containing them.) …Is that the moral?—that we can overcome the bad results of our weak choices by cleverness with the aid of a few stock nonsensical phrases.

All this search for meanings,  can lead to overlooking the music of this opera — how  folk music (which is why Humperdinck’s sister wanted him to write an opera ) has been wrapped into lush Wagnerian orchestral pieces —all  under the brilliant direction of Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski.   

It’s debatable if Hansel and Gretel  with all these grim themes really is for children.  While productions can go in many directions, and the moral of the story might morph,  this music that is centuries old, continues to put Hansel and Gretel  on the top ten opera hit list for all ages. 

Curve of Departure  —Studio Theater

In Studio Theatre’s brilliant offering of the season—Curve of Departure —Rachel Bonds  has like a clever spider weaving a perfect web created a play that is complex, fragile and beautiful for its finely threaded connections of human emotions.

There are five characters.

The one character that the play revolves about is never seen.  Cyrus. He is the one for whom there is this family gathering for his funeral, in a motel in  Sante Fe, New Mexico (some know it as “The Land of Enchantment”).  

His father Rudy (Peter Van Wagner) is now in and out of dementia, and on the constant verge of attacks of incontinence.  This grand patriarch wanders between confusion and distraction, bitterness and wisdom.  He  enjoys the silly in life like soap operas while focusing on his end of life decision.  

 Linda (Ora Jones) is the ex-wife. The good woman—she cares for her ex-father-in-law enough to be planning to  give up her day job as what else—a teacher.

Her son Felix(Justin Weaks) arrives with his lover Jackson (Sebastian Arboleda).  The son still angry at his father, wants to cut the funeral events to the minimum to get back to LA.  Jackson is distracted by messages on his phone. 

There is clearly a mystery here, one that causes pain.   Linda had opened the play while ironing Rudy’s pants, and as it follows,  Linda  will find what needs to be to iron out the conflicts of the son she loves and his lover.

 It’s very simple: There are no bad people in the play, but these four characters are dealing with the legacies of bad people who exist in their world outside of this time and place which brings them together. 

How this all works in a brief  85 minutes play  that covers the time span of an evening and an early morning sunrise— is  the beauty of this careful  crafted piece.  Using the shared spaces of a hotel room— beds and bathroom—with outside   hallway for secret phone calls, and  the patio for a group gathering before the funeral—the four characters navigate to have separate snippets of conversation that uncover secrets,  to share experiences, to come to understandings.

No play is expected to conform to equal employment guidelines for its characters.  The diversity of age, race, sex and sexual choices, add to this story that these circumstances are possible across all demographic lines.   There is nothing  so moralistic that turns these outer characteristics  into a sermon. 

Instead the play concentrates on what we know to be the good that is shared as humans, that is,  Linda’s empathy, Felix’s love for Jackson, Jackson’s commitment to family and a walloping dose of Rudy’s wisdom to top it off.  


Monday, November 20, 2017


People often are surprised that the operas that they love the best— those that have survived several centuries on stage—had the most negative critical reviews  of their first performances. 
So what are we to make of the reviews of a modern opera that has received a continuum of comments  —- from “must see” (NYTimes) to “felt like I was being locked in the opera house to stay” (comment).
There is no quick test to know if this is a great gift to the future generations but for the here and now, Thomas  Adès' The Exterminating Angel, is something to experience. 
No one disagrees over the facts:  It is surreal, complex, and stresses the highest range possible coming from a human voice.   High emotional moments were matched with higher vocal ranges as delivered by Audrey Luna, in the role of  Leticia (an opera diva in the opera), who reaches up to an A above high C.
No one gives a simple explanation to what it might all mean however— this story of elite who cannot leave their after-the opera- dinner party.  They are not being held hostage by a terrorist as Bel Canto for instance but in some invisible wall that stuns them like a laser preventing their exit. The servants all knew something was up and had left early before these guests arrived home, with only one, a butler remaining.
Could this be so simple to say this is a political response to the Franco regime by the Spanish elite, that Luis Buñuel is targeting in his 1962 movie on which the opera is based.  Or is it philosophical exploration of the exasperations in human experience.
Or is it just art of its time, of characters trapped in a traditional horror movies (the orchestration features the ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument used for the eerie sounds in horror movies ).
The casting involves 15 top notch singers, who are the guests, with a variety of interactions  through the almost 3 hours that cover the fateful evening. There is no one aria as such but a continuous flow through the emotions of the guests throughout.  There are also three sheep—Mary, Lucy and Ruby in their Met debut —and who are integral  the story.  Oh, yes there is a bear. 
One does not leave this opera humming any melody, even though there is something very familiar about patches of music throughout,  but in a strange way, not only do the opera singers  get into feeling  their character (as one said in the intermission interview) but at some point, one might feel one is at this dinner party too.
In short, I found that given all that was said about it and as odd as many moments were, I liked it!
BOTTOM LINE:  For all that can be said about seeing something in person at the Met, yes, do that.  But for The Exterminating Angel, this is one that seeing the Fathom Live in HD first in theaters will greatly enhance the experience before you get to see it on the great stage.  

Monday, November 6, 2017

Washington National Opera

Alcina is a sorceress living on fantasy island who turns her lovers into stones or other objects when she is through with them. There is a long backstory before the complex history of all the characters surrounding her in  Handel’s opera Alcina even starts to unfold.  In short by the end,  Alcina gets what she deserves.  
Handel’s opera Alcina also got what it deserves— Washington National Opera’s  assembly of a cast of grand singers, set on a glorious stage with lighting to evoke their emotional states along with graceful dancers flowing throughout. 
It leaves no surprise that Angela Meade would take ownership of this role of Alcina, adding sorceress to her impressive resume of fantasy characters like the Druid high priestess Norma and the Babylonian queen Semiramide.  Her singing is the stuff that legends are made of, her power in unleashing the hidden glories in Handel’s score.
Elizabeth DeShong is Ruggiero, her current lover, who has deserted his fiancee for this fantasy romantic escapade.  The mezzo soprano has one of the most beautiful arias  "Verdi prati" ("Green meadows”)  when he knows he must depart this beautiful illusion for real life.   DeShong captures our hearts in her rendering, as convincingly as Alcina has captured Ruggiero.
Ying Fang is Morgana, Alcina’s sister who is also a sorceress.  Fang sings with delightful youthfulness, her voice well suited for Baroque opera.
Daniela Mack is Bradamante, the jilted fiancee of Ruggiero, who disguises herself as a man to find him,  only to add to the confusion of the two sorceresses who see Bradamante as a possible boyfriend.   Her role has the most relationship complications with her determination fueling emotions from jealous anger to devoted love. All this she must  experience and which Mack conveys in her singing. 
Neil Patel’s  scenery and Christopher Akerlind’s  lightening meld together as the moon-shaped background change shades of colors as the moods changed.  Choreographer Barney O’Hanlon  created illusions in the imagination with four spirits whose twisting movements like waves arise  and then disappear into shadows.  
This is WNO’s first production of Alcina,  an opera with  the core theme of obsessive attraction that is  wide open for interpretations.  There are the didactic possibilities like a  recent production which emphasized a modern day  theme of Alcina representing  drug addiction (as seen in an illusionary fascination which  also  turns people into stones, or animals or whatever and which in the end has to die out,  so that love and life can return to normal).  The other extreme, interpreting this with a 18th century staged setting and costumes  is impractically for  most budgets.     
What WNO has achieved with their production led by director Anne Bogart with renowned Baroque Music  Conductor June Glover is to appeal to modern sensibilities with an artistic production, giving  the music its due while being pleasing to the eye.
What more could you ask for, but this treat of art for its own sake, and let the  moral lessons fall for another day.  
In  The Eisenhower Theater at The Kennedy Center, Washington DC,  Nov. 4-19 2017.

Monday, October 16, 2017


Antony and Cleopatra is a study in contrasts.

It will go from this— 

To this.... in two hours in front of our eyes.

For starters, their relationship has been explored and exploited in every form.  As one of Cleopatra’s modern biographers,  Stacy Schiff has observed —she has had the busiest of afterlives with incarnations as “an asteroid, a video game, a cliché, a cigarette, a slot machine, a strip club, a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor.”   Antony on the other has been documented in detail in Roman history.  Together the two some have been featured in  plays and movies (including one horror film) and opera. 
The  Folger production uses for the stage  a triangular platform in the center of the theater, very simple but an effective way to remove all distraction from the core of the story and bring the audience into the circle of the experience.
The costumes are lavish from Cleopatra’s gold crown and lovely capes to Mark Antony’s military uniform.  These are not just ornaments but part of who these characters are, literally the most powerful people of their day.

Yes, and yet their vulnerabilities of their shared love is profoundly doomed.

Shirine Babb as Cleopatra and Cody Nickell as Mark Antony,  bring to their roles both the magnificence of this powerful political pair in a shared passion that ranges from bed to battlefield and back again.  They deliver some very funny lines as well as  embrace their ultimate tragic endings most convincingly. (I observed some people sitting on the edge of their seat as if this was a breaking news story.)
 Shakespeare of course had other royal characters and other doomed pairs of lovers.  Antony and Cleopatra might remind us of some them, while being ever unique among his works.
Folger Theatre 

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Robert Richmond
On stage at Folger Theatre, October 10 – November 19, 2017.

Scenic Design by Tony Cisek, Costume Design by Mariah Hale, Lighting Design by Andrew F. Griffin, Sound Design by Adam Stamper, Wig Design by Tommy Kurzman.

Photos by Teresa Wood.

Cody Nickell & Shirine Babb talk Cleopatra:  

Cleopatra explained in 30 seconds:    

Theater Timelapse Video:      

Die Zauberflöte
The Met: Live in HD

While the flute is probably the oldest of musical instruments (at least according to archeological finds that places at 40-60,000 years ago),  on  the top ten most popular operas performed today (according to Operabase) there is the forever young Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute.

This fairy tale opera seen Live in HD has everything going for it:  Mozart’s music,  the fantasy of Julie Taymor’s production, and the cast  with Golda Schultz as Pamina to Charles Castronovo’s Tamino,  Rene Pape as Sarastro to
Kathryn Lewek as Queen of the Night and Markus Werba as Papageno.  

But there is more!  One of the joys of seeing this in Live in HD was Conductor James Levine’s smiles of joy as he directed! 

Another was  watching interviews by hostess Nadine Sierra as she talked to not only the singers but the puppeteers  (one of the bears did a tap dance  for movie viewers).  

Following the progression of man’s beliefs with Tamino’s trials and Papageno’s errors, through history from the initial struggle with the serpant, to superstitions promulgated by the Queen of the Night and the Ladies, onward to the Age of Enlightenment of Sarastro and Priests, at last Tamino and Pamina arrive victorously at the finale with  "Dann ist die Erd' ein Himmelreich, und Sterbliche den Göttern gleich."

Yes! “the Earth a heavenly kingdom, and mortals like the gods.”

While there are many interpretations of what this  all might mean—Free Mason rituals versus the established church and the empress queen or popular musical entertainment— there is something undeniable universal in the story and in Tamino's hopes—with his magic flute— as he finds his way through it all.   

 The Magic Flute  is not just going to see an opera but about spending time with joyful music and for the message of joy that music brings.   

Monday, October 9, 2017


An opera to make hearts swoon
The Met: Live in HD

When Norma, that Druid priestess chooses to walk into her death by fire for her sins, she stepped into opera immortality, only to be resurrected every decade when a cast of singers converge who can give divine deliverance of Bellini’s blessed opera. 

That day is now — with the Met’s production of Norma, with Sondra Radvanovsky in the lead role.  Her protege priestess-in-training  and rival in love is Joyce DiDonato in her first undertaking of the role of Adalgisa. 

 The pairing of the two for the beloved soprano duets, is wrought with the conflicting emotions of two very good women entangled in relationships with one forbidden lover.  (Tenor Joseph Calleja is the Roman proconsul, Pollione) 

 And if it seems too unbelievable that these good women are so enthralled with the deity while fighting over a man,  their singing together has been proclaimed divine in this production where Conductor Carlo Rizzi and producer Sir David McVicar wrap the beauty of Bellini’s music into a primitive Druid forest of nature and ancient ritual.

History tells of  the Romans conquering tribal people and Rome was to eventually fall from invaders from the north. 

 Fast forward update— it was really opera that conquered Italy, the Roman homeland, in the 19th century.

It was claimed that 'opera mania' had for a century 'absorbed all the artistic energies of the nation’ and there  were no symphonies and plays because 'music was opera, drama was opera', with even painters forsaking canvas to create  the sacred groves of Norma.  Theaters were built for huge audiences, even if there were not enough musicians to perform.  Etc.   (from The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmore). 

You guessed it.  Norma was a leader of the pack of operas from the glorious three: Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. 
Wagner praised Bellini’s opera in the19th century.  Callas  and Sutherland took the role to the heights into the 20th.  Now Norma  marches into the  21st  century, on the big screen and into our swooning hearts.

And the best news— 
The Met: Live in HD has expanded its repeat showings.
Upcoming is Mozart’s  Die Zauberflöte
 Check it out  at


Tuesday, October 3, 2017



Clouds, bubbles, and spider webs

What can they have in common?  

Each is a model from nature, a masterpiece of architectural design, in which to view not only beauty but adaptability and integrity in natural formations. 

Tomas Saraceno is an Argentinian-born, Berlin-based artist and architect inspired by these structures. 


His exhibit Entangled Orbits at the Baltimore Museum of Art until June 2018, will undoubtedly inspire others.

Saraceno’s works are diverse with a underlying quality of engaging the mind and the spirit simultaneously.

 Each of the four major works are in their own space, offering both contrasts in styles and continuity of themes of the artist’s work.

Entangled Orbits captures the light and sky of the outdoors blending with the floors and the walls the East Lobby to direct one’s vision upwards  for an exhilarating entrance to the museum

80SW Iridescent/Flying Gardens/Air-Port City  made of transparent pillows and black rope and iridescent foil, is a shimmering work that brings a smile as one walks around and beneath the hanging structure with its changing colors and
sparkling lights.

Zonal Harmonic 2N 110/13 and Zonal Harmonic 3N+1D 200/16 are mobiles  of metal, robe, fishing line and steel thread.  Lacking the multi-color lightness of the other pieces on exhibit, their beauty is in their perfect balance and portioned design.

Hybrid solitary solitary semi-social semi-social semi-social Amateru built by: a solo Nephila senegalensis - one week, a duet of Cyrtophora citricola - three weeks, a solo Cyrtophora citricola - a quartet of Cyrtophora citricola juveniles - two weeks, Is an intriguing work made of spidersilk, carbon fiber, glass and metal.  

There is an explanation that different spiders work different ways, some together and some solitary, and sometimes where other spiders have come and gone.

While the first works are so obviously part of an exhibit that one can walk through, the last one takes time and offers the most reflection. Viewed in a dark room within its glass casing, the sheer threads which would be invisible in daylight are seen in their intricate design.  A marvel of a creature that is blind, as spiders are, not noted for their brains, but which give our minds and eyes such a wonder to behold.

You have never thought of the spiderweb in the dusty corner as a work of art.  That is precisely the point.  Entangled Orbits whether from the man designed networks of the large installation pieces  or like the spider webs,  this is art which regales in the beauty of design.