Category: Reviews

Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role and Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa in Bellini’s “Norma.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

 

Monday was opening night at the Metropolitan Opera. The evening was a chance to be seen, to be heard, to be loud. Half-drunk, piss-colored prosecco glasses hovered through the Met lobby. Red-headed twins in matching green dresses pranced down the stairs. Muted elegance hid in an alcove, a sentry with a light-blue, fluffy overthrow. Folks met colleagues with half-hearted smiles, and lovers embraced joyously. Noise echoed throughout the space, filled with exclamations of “You…look superb”, clacks of skyscraper heels, Italian murmurs, Russian rumors, small talk on the summer weather. Press congregated in an impenetrable, baseball-diamond formation. A gaggle of photographers snapped ferociously.

Eventually, an unseen magnet dragged us from the velvety mulling spaces into the theater. The performance began promptly 20 minutes late with a rendition of the National Anthem. Maestro James Levine conducted. The audience largely did not sing along.

Of course, there was an opera to be had tonight: Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma (1831). For those who don’t know Norma, here is a quick summary:

Norma is a priestess in Gaul (think France) during Roman occupation. She had two kids with a Roman governor, Pollione, but now he’s seeing Adalgisa, another priestess. Adalgisa tells Norma about Pollione, which makes her (understandably) furious. Act 1 ends in a heave.

Norma considers killing her children—Hello Medea!—but draws her dagger away at the last moment. Adalgisa enters and Norma is apparently A-Okay with her and Pollione: she even suggests that they run off to Rome together. Adalgisa is aghast. She hopes to reconnect Norma and Pollione.

Segue to a rather boring male chorus. The Druids want to revolt. But it’s not time yet, says Norma’s dad Oroveso. Snooze.

Final scene. Norma learns that Pollione will stay with Adalgisa. She strikes the war gong three times, the Druids fire up a frenzy (torches!). The drama blusters to a close: Norma tries to get back with Pollione, he refuses, she decides to kill herself, Pollione joins her and they walk into the pyre together (How sweet!).

For this vocal masterclass disguised as an opera, a producer could simply put a white backdrop on the Met’s stage without too much injustice. That said, I thought the staging admirably captured Bellini’s late romantic aesthetic. Dark, disorientating pines and scattered, encroaching moonshine complemented the characters’ interactions.

Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa in Bellini’s “Norma.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

As an audience member proclaimed at intermission, though, “people care mostly about the voices in this work.” Tenor Joseph Calleja (Pollione) was casual, reserved, despite the heady topic (love). He infused more devotion as his character was whirlpooled into the tragedy. Soprano Joyce DiDonato (Adalgisa) had a silvery tone when she sang high. Her acting felt spontaneous and intense. Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma) embodied tender, moving Romanticism in her famous aria, Casta Diva. Throughout the marathon, Radvanovsky executed rocket-powered scales, winding phrases, and dancing grace notes—markers of the bel canto style–with ease.

Although I haven’t seen it posited elsewhere, the bel canto singing style extends to instrumentalists at well. In Casta Diva I was impressed by the flutist’s phrasing and tone, which built a solid foundation for Radvanovsky. In an exposed clarinet and flute duet in the first act, the intonation was sparkling clean. Their effort created an appropriate holiness. Overall, the orchestra’s fortes just felt way too safe. More sound! (Please.)

Cadenzas—extended, solo passages usually for one or two musicians—allow singers to showcase their vocal prowess. Duet vocal cadenzas are especially difficult to execute because both singers must be perfectly synchronized in their tempo alterations and dynamic choices. Radvanovsky and DiDonato had to perform several of these duets. In the first act, their intonation suffered in their upper register. However, they solved the problem in the second act, summoning the pristine beauty of the bel canto style.

Although I have several reservations about the plot, one scene stands out for its drama. When the Druids find Pollione in their temple, they bring him to Norma to kill him. Instead, Norma tries to convince Pollione to return to her. He refuses; Norma indicates that she will kill Pollione’s lover. She recalls the Druids and announces that a guilty priestess shall burn on the pyre. They implore, “Who is she?” Norma hesitates. The Druids ask again, “Who is she?” Norma, “It is I.” The singers captured the tragedy of the moment with intense, palpable stillness. When the orchestra reentered on their soft sostenuto, the mood was solemn, desolate. Radvanovsky pleads and prays, her accepted devastation processes to its infernal . Here, I believe the production succeeded: the prolonged silence followed by the tragic orchestra created a poignant ping that made me empathize with Norma’s fate. Such pathos proves that a moving Norma is not just about the singers, rather how different operatic elements–orchestra, staging, choreography, ensemble–interact with each other. The experience can only be endured through a live performance.

 

Norma runs through December 16, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live October 7, at 1:00 PM, on WQXR 105.9 FM.

For anyone in MusicHum, this opera presents the perfect opportunity to see an archetype of bel canto. Tickets in the boonies aren’t as cheap as they once were: the best you can do is a $25 rush ticket the day of the performance on the Met’s website (rush tickets are cheaper than student tickets.). Information and ticket listings on metopera.org.

 

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Photo Courtesy of Matthew Murphy


Hal Prince has undoubtedly influenced the world of Broadway, inspiring others to pursue careers in the theatre industry. When entering the theatre, the expectation was that the show, in the process of highlighting Prince’s works, would using meaning

The Prince of Broadway celebrates sixteen shows that the legendary Hal Prince directed, and as the musical states, some of them were flops and some were successes, but all of them, he believed, were creatively daring and meaningful. Thus, it was up to the audience’s discretion for this show if they agreed with his direction of this somewhat-seeming self-serving musical, and with the statement aforementioned, some of the performances were flops and some were major successes.

Tony Yazbeck in Follies. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

For instance, Tony Yazbeck truly shined throughout all numbers he was in, most notably in “The Right Girl” from the musical Follies. His exquisite tap dancing followed by his intense acting sent the crowd roaring for more of his excellence. And that wasn’t the only star performance by Mr. Yazbeck. Even from his first spotlight on the Friedman theatre, one could tell by his poise that he would shine in every performance that he was staged in, success or flop.

However, with many successes, there are usually some flops tagged along. In this showcase of a musical, there were clearly some weaker moments. For example, pretty much every time the eponymous “Hal Prince” would narrate in the transitions between each performance, the delivery fell flat. It was almost to the point of cringeworthy between musicals that we were anticipating when the dialogue would end in exchange with the performances of yesteryear.

Overall, whether you are a Broadway aficionado wanting to relive some of the glories of the Great White Way or a newcomer wanting to delve deeper into the greats of the past, the Prince of Broadway is a wonderful showcase of brilliant performance and a pleasant night at the theatre.

Prince of Broadway is part of the Manhattan Theatre Club which offers a program called “30 Under 30” where anyone under the age of 30 can qualify for $30 rush tickets. Click here for more information.

Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone. Photo Courtesy of Joan Marcus.

“There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.”

Helena Rubinstein, cosmetics entrepreneur and rival of Elizabeth Arden, repeated that over the course of her career. Beauty was revolutionized by Rubinstein and Arden, but more importantly, they were powerful entrepreneurs in a male-dominated workforce. War Paint, a new musical at the Nederlander Theatre, gives us a glimpse of the day-to-day of the lives of these women and their rivalry.

The set design was beautiful, the costumes were magnificent, and, of course, the two-time Tony Award-winners Patti LuPone (Helena Rubinstein) and Christine Ebersole (Elizabeth Arden) were fantastic, as expected. The musical progresses from the advertised topic, the rivalry of these two beauty entrepreneurs, to a broader reflection on their internal struggles as powerful women. By the end of the musical, drugstore cosmetics lines have devalued the image of timeless beauty, and the two women are forced to reflect on the value and impact of their lives’ work.

While a compelling and moving narrative put to incredible music, the flow of the lyrics was sometimes stilted. Elizabeth Arden, despite her humble upbringing and incredible corporate empire, was portrayed as a brainless blonde in contrast to Helena Rubinstein. She was ‘obsessed’ with her packaging, as opposed to obsessed with how good her porcelain containers were for business. In wartime, the outfits of her sales representatives were exaggerated by ‘military women’ in short skirts, contrasted sharply by Rubenstein’s clinical containers and women in military-inspired uniforms. The rivalry between the two women was written with a strong hand and exaggerated dialogue, while their hesitant coming together seemed much more natural. And at the end of the performance, a question about the unresolved impact of cosmetics on women’s freedom seemed to be misplaced. The narrative of two successful women strong enough to create a lasting industry was diluted by the question of their lasting impact, not on professional women but on beauty standards.

Overall, War Paint brought this narrative into the 21st century with grace and respect for the immense task that both Rubinstein and Arden faced in building companies named after and run by women.

Photo courtesy of BBB.

Rousing applause closed the night at Bandstand, the latest of Broadway’s American musicals. Bandstand boasts an all-original storyline and an all-American plot, addressing the inaction of American government and society in addressing the needs of our veterans in a post-World War II, swing-era context. A tantalizing portrayal of the not-so-glorious aftermath of World War II, Bandstand catalogues the story of Donny Novitski (Corey Cott), a swing pianist from Cleveland with a desire to make it big in the city that never sleeps, and Julia Trojan (Laura Osnes), a recently widowed choir singer who decides to pursue the dream of being a jazz vocalist in order to cope with the unfortunate demise of her husband in the war.

The musical tells the story of a group of veterans gathered by Donny (in a wonderful scene in which each character has a chance to declare “I know a guy”) who form a band to compete in a national radio contest in New York City while struggling to fit into their old lives and deal with the lingering effects of the war. The prize could guarantee celebrity status to its winners, but dealing with complicated interpersonal relationships and the challenges of finding jobs in post-war America, provides obstacles to the band that confront not only the dismal treatment of veterans, but also the essential flaws haunting any pursuit of the American Dream.

Throughout the musical’s opening, Donny is tormented by his role in Julia’s late husband’s death, and is not alone in his burden. Every character bares the marks of the war on their minds, in their music, and in their hearts. Physical ailments are paired with post-traumatic stress and beautifully choreographed scenes wherein the actors physically struggle under the weight of men in military uniform— dragging their ghosts with them. Even Julia, as she joins the band of veterans, struggles with her own loss in the aftereffects of the war.

In addition to survivor’s guilt, Donny has to overcome his pride and fear. His failure to save Julia’s husband presents a very cutting scene on stage in part because Donny is the epitome of the trope of the overconfident male with complete faith in his ability to achieve the American Dream. In fact, in a beautifully belted solo, Danny even quite forcefully inserts himself among the era’s greats, denigrating Sinatra’s skills in comparison to his own.

Altogether, Bandstand hits on a sensitive and relevant topic in today’s society in a way reminiscent of White Christmas’ classic “What Can you Do with a General,” an early commentary on the aftereffects of war; however, with Bandstand modern theater brings us a portrayal more unapologetically gritty and honest…

And, as the musical clearly elucidates, contentious.

It is often hard to like Donny as he gives in to his pride and aggression, losing himself at times to his own mind, but as Julia comes around to see him in a different light, audience members cannot ignore his charm— nor the damage unfairly done to him by the lack of support and representation for returning veterans, veterans living in a society that does not want to acknowledge the scars inflicted on their brothers, fathers, and sons.

Occasionally the complexity of projecting multiple perspectives onto the stage (i.e. the first scene, which is both set at home with Julia and simultaneously abroad in the trenches) and pairing them with interpretive demonstrations of the characters’ mentalities manifests in Bandstand as strange staging and slightly confusing choreography. But, considering the massive scope of the undertaking, Bandstand does an impressive job of playing out its various plotlines.

The only real criticism that came to me in the mutterings of the audience and my own hesitations while watching Bandstand was the distinctly awkward inadmission of the concurrent issue of racial segregation during the 1940s and early 1950s. After all, Brown v. Board of Education didn’t even occur until 1954. As a result, it was a little disconcerting to see the token black character come to life in their use of Kevyn Morrow, the only POC cast member, as blanket ensemble in ambiguous roles with minimal speaking, the musical’s realism marred by its refusal to acknowledge its historical context in this regard. At one point, he is a preacher (for an all-white church), and, at another, he works as a radio executive (for an otherwise all-white station). To leave this unacknowledged is to pretend the harsh reality of the segregated social climate did not exist.

That being said, the musical dealt and dealt well with the issues it did confront, and it is understandable (though unfortunate and perhaps uncomfortable) that, in the stress of dealing with such a hugely important and controversial subject as the mistreatment of veterans, certain aspects of the play became “unreal” and certain unpalatable realities went unacknowledged.

Still, we can learn from Bandstand, in its message and its omitted lines, a great deal about the change that our society calls for, that America needs. So I would still call Bandstand a great American musical, and, with its hard-hitting message on veterans’ needs and its equally stunning choreography, certainly worth watching.

Photo Courtesy  of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Roald Dahl’s classic tale imagined in two drastically different film interpretations makes its sweet debut on the Broadway stage at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on 46th Street. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” can make the sun rise and sprinkle it with dew with the playful, child fantasy it creates, but some of the wonders that “must be believed to be seen,” as Grandpa Joe exclaims, do not live up to their hype and leave the audience disappointed with what they actually witness.

Back in my hometown, we have a small children’s theatre where new and old productions alike are performed. I distinctly remember that we had a small production of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Even though these productions were completely different and the songs in the Broadway version are much better, I was almost shocked when I saw the Broadway set as the set for my small children’s theatre all those years ago seemed to be of the same quality as the Broadway version, if not more profound. The magical world that is Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory is hyped by every single character in the musical, including by actors who do ostentatious jazz hands and sing a repetitive shout of “Willy Wonka!” in order to signal the wonder and whimsy of the titular character. However, when it came time in the second act to witness the chocolate factory for the first time, the result was pretty underwhelming. This was not something I expected from the magic and grandiosity of Broadway.
As for the show itself, Willy Wonka, played by Christian Borle, was the clear star. His hilarious interpretation of the chocolate connoisseur kept me engaged throughout the entire show as Borle combined the different character interpretations from the films while also putting in some of his own flavor. My attention was glued to him for the majority of the time as he would infect the audience with hilarity such as the variety of different impressions he utilized including but not limited to Harry Caray. Even through the cringeworthy moments, such as the ear-piercing yodeling of Augustus Gloop and his mother, Violet Beauregarde’s lackluster explosion, the unique (for lack of a nicer word) Oompa Loompa musical numbers, and even the shocking morbidity to the show, Borle was able to ground the show with his maniacal yet heartwarming interpretation of the epitomal candyman. Through the unique (for lack of a nicer word) Oompa Loompa costuming and the  It’s a shame that the set behind him did not match his world of pure imagination.