Tuesday, June 11, 2013

I'm now a Branagh-phile

Mr. Kenneth Branagh's movie vision of The Magic Flute is set to open in US theaters today, June 11, and through the generosity of Revolver Entertainment your faithful reporter has been allowed to view an advance (in the US) copy. Some of you might have intuited over the years a special fondness I have for this opera, so I was thrilled when they asked me to view the DVD and post my impressions.

Three Ladies, Tamino, Papageno
Courtesy Revolver Entertainment
The brilliant Mr. Branagh and his librettist, magical comic actor, television host, and writer Stephen Fry, have set their movie version in World War I, in Flanders' fields, it appears, reliving the horror of trench warfare. This leads to the use of clouds of tear gas as the serpent that begins the opera and Sarastro's castle as a hospital. I've made it quite clear where I usually stand on updating a story from the remote past to the merely distant past, but in this case the usual stated purpose--new insights into character and power structures--does not go completely unmet. And through movie magic we are able to see the effects of good winning over evil--sorry if that's a spoiler--immediately, as the war-torn fields transition very quickly from the setting of All Quiet on the Western Front to the setting of Bambi.

What's that you say? How was the singing? I was quite pleased with all of it. From the lead couples all the way down to the minor roles, all the singing actors were quite accomplished. Who can fault René Pape as Sarastro and Joseph Kaiser as Tamino? Both are experienced in these and countless other roles, and a pleasure to hear and to look at! The Queen of the Night was Lyuba Petrova, veteran of the Met's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and current star in top-level houses around the world. I liked her manipulative desperation, and I especially liked how the melismatic tirade of the "Der Hölle Rache", the infamous second act aria with the high Fs, became more of a mad scene than we normally see. Papageno was Benjamin Jay Davis, who might have been the only American in the cast. Although he was charmingly goofy as Papageno the birdman--the one who used a canary to test the air after gas attacks--I can't say I was fond of his overuse of a Southern accent. But I've seen that accent used before when directors want to portray naiveté. Or stupidity. Amy Carson was a pleasing and beautiful Pamina. The Three Lusty Wenches Ladies were well sung and acted by Teuta Koço, Louise Callinan and Kim-Marie Woodhouse. A delightfully evil Monostatos was Tom Randle, himself a veteran Tamino in many European houses.

Spoilers: Bits I especially liked included having Sarastro himself as the Speaker, adding poignancy to his interview with Tamino. Both Monostatos and the Queen have touching moments when Sarastro offers the hand of peace and forgiveness, and one can almost see the internal deliberations as they realize they simply can not live in such a world, and choose not to. And who wouldn't adore veteran British character actress Liz Smith as old Papagena?

Lovers of Die Zauberflöte, hie thee (or ye) to see this movie. Whether you love it or not, you will certain see some new things in it, and hear a lot of perfectly beautiful singing.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

I've been Villi-fied

Jennifer Rowley
Photo credit:  Arielle Doneson
I've never made a secret of the fact I'm a big fan of lovely soprano Jennifer Rowley. Knowing a bit of her performance schedule for this year, I debated whether to travel to Finland to see her first Violetta at the Savonlinna Festival in July, or to Charleston to see her in Mr. Puccini's rarely performed Le Villi and Mr. Giordano's even more rarely performed Mese Mariano at the Spoleto Festival USA. Finances, the opportunity to combine a Charleston trip with a family visit in NC, and the fun of a road trip in my mid-life crisis new-ish BMW made the decision rather obvious. (By coincidence, this opera production was sponsored by BMW Manufacturing Co. They're not compensating me for this statement. I think that situation needs to be rectified.) I will indeed make it to Finland one day, but it was not to be this year.

Umberto Giordano's 1910 mess Mese Mariano, or Mary's Month (libretto by Salvatore di Giacomo, based on his own short story), is a short work with a rather unsatisfying story. Carmela visits the orphanage where she had been forced by her husband to place her illegitimate child. The nuns won't allow her to see the boy, inexplicably hiding from her the fact the child has just died, and she leaves in tears. While Carmela's music is gorgeous, especially when performed by a soprano voice as full and supple as that of Miss Rowley, the opera as a whole leaves one confused more than moved. Why did the nuns conceal the truth? When will they tell Carmela her child is dead? Why is this opera being resurrected at all?

One must make mention of the charming children's chorus, however, and its skillful preparation by Amanda Castellone. One must also commend director Stefano Vizioli, who made the most of children's comic moments in what one imagines was an effort to minimize the disjointed and incomplete story arc.

Jennifer Rowley and Dinyar Vania
Courtesy SpoletoUSA.org
Mr. Puccini's first opera, Le Villi (1884, libretto by Ferdinando Fontana) suffers for the opposite reason. Where Mese Mariano had more opera than story, Le Villi has more story than opera. Leaving his engagement celebration to collect a large inheritance, Roberto is seduced by sirens along the way and led astray. Anna, his betrothed, dies of madness and grief, as 19th century maidens were wont to do, and joins the Willis--the spirits of girls who have died of broken hearts, come back to seek revenge on the men who betrayed them. In spite of his (eventual) repentance and grief, Roberto is taunted to death by the Willis. Rather than scenes showing Roberto's seduction and fate thereafter, however, there is narration and an interlude. This was a mistake by Messrs. Fontana and Puccini, in the opinion of this humble blogger. Expanding the libretto into a full opera rather than three scenes and two interludes would have benefitted the story immeasurably. Given the beauty and inventiveness of the music we have, including the oft-excerpted soprano aria Se come voi piccina, there can be little doubt Mr. Puccini would have completed the score with just as much beauty and inventiveness.

Once again the lovely Miss Rowley was the star of the show, and deservedly so, but in this case was accompanied by very fine tenor Dinyar Vania as Roberto and equally fine baritone Levi Hernandez as Guglielmo, Anna's father. The three were joined by a flock of dancers from Dancefx Charleston, first at the celebration and then as the Willis, as well as the Westminster Choir as townspeople. Given the excellent but convulsive choreography by Pierluigi “Pigi” Vanelli and the updated setting in an insane asylum, one wanted to make jokes about seeing Willi[e]s flop about openly on stage, but one is too mature to write such things.

I don't understand the trend of updating stories from the remote past to another period in the past. The best reason I know for it is saving money on costumes, and low-budget companies do it all the time. The most frequently heard reason given by larger companies and high-profile directors is to make individual class distinctions and dynamics more clear, but I've never seen this work. It wasn't too distracting in Mese Mariano, especially once the school gymnasium backdrop was covered up by a projection screen. (I have other issues with that projection screen, most notably the scene behind the screen showing Carmela's recently deceased son.)

Updating was more disconcerting with Le Villi. I say that 19th-century (and earlier) maidens were especially prone to dying of broken hearts, but by 1962, I think they'd gotten past that. And one wonders just what kind of sirens young men had to deal with in 1962. While I understand the charm of updating to early 60s costuming--it was a wonderful time in women's clothing and styling--the look the designers wound up with didn't flatter everyone.  The change from forest to insane asylum also didn't work for me. It created some interesting visual effects and the opportunity for the aforementioned non-traditional choreography, but forced the director to change the actual story so that Anna and Roberto are really mad instead of dead. Or are they?

Reviews for Miss Rowley and for the production have been stellar.  Syndicated columnist Perry Tannenbaum writes, "Jennifer Rowley is the most powerful soprano voice to hit Spoleto Festival USA since Sondra Radvanovsky sang the title role of Verdi's Luisa Miller in 2000." Regular readers will not be surprised to learn this blogger prefers Jennifer Rowley's singing to Sondra Radvanovsky's! Adam Parker rhapsodizes in the SC Post and Courier, "Spoleto audiences are fortunate to get this chance to hear a star in the making." I couldn't agree more.