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Vladimir Jurowski: “I Can Surprise People And Also Be Surprised Myself”

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Photo: (c) Simon Pauly

2018 has been a busy one for Vladimir Jurowski. Since I interviewed the Moscow-born conductor about composer Claude Vivier in February, he’s been on a non-stop train of events, announcements, and ceremonies. He was in the middle of a very hectic spring tour with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra when news came that he’d won the Conductor of the Year at the 2018 International Opera Awards. On May 9th, he won the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS) Music Awards for Conductor. The Awards, described as “the Oscars, the BAFTAs and the Grammys all in one” for classical music, were broadcast on BBC Radio 3 recently.

Currently in Paris preparing a new production of Mussorgsky’s historical drama Boris Godunov with Belgian director Ivo van Hove, the conductor — well-read, artistically adventurous, very articulate — is on the cusp of entering something of a new world. It March it was announced that he’ll become the next General Music Director of the prestigious Bayerische Staatsoper (Bavarian State Opera), alongside Serge Dorny (currently Director of the Opéra National de Lyon), as Intendant in the 2021-2022 season. He’ll also lead a new production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, directed by Komische Oper Berlin Intendant Barry Kosky, opening at the famed Munich house in the first half of 2021.

I write “something of a new world” because, of course, Jurowski has been immersed in various facets of the new throughout his life. Raised in Moscow, the son of a conductor and hailing from a long line of artists and musicians, Jurowski and his family moved to Germany as a teenager; not long after, he had his first opera conducting job at the Wexford Festival Opera, and then made his Royal Opera House debut (with Verdi’s Nabucco) in 1996. From there, Jurowski developed something of a “wunderkind” reputation, but proved, with great flair and a creative confidence, that he was far more than a youthful flash-in-the-pan. Among many appointments, he was, from 2001 to 2013, Music Director of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, a celebrated summer event known for its theatrical and musical adventurousness. Last year he returned there to conduct the world premiere of Hamlet — based on the famous Shakespeare work —by Australian composer Brett Dean. (I liked this.) He’s made celebrated recordings and led performances of both opera and symphonic repertoire at a variety of famous houses, including numerous appearances at the Metropolitan Opera.

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Lights at the Metropolitan Opera House. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

In 2013, his reading of Die frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without A Shadow) was hailed (rightly) by critics, and remains, one of my most cherished musical experiences — one that, in fact, opened the door to my hearing and feeling Strauss in a way I, being raised on a diet of melodious opera chestnuts by a Verdi-obsessed mother, hadn’t dreamed could ever be possible. The opera is lengthy, but time flew by that particular evening, and I remember the mix of feelings I experienced at its end (joy, sadness, contemplation) — but mainly, I remember the wordless…  ecstasy.

Whether it’s Sleeping Beauty or Petrushka, Stravinsky or Prokofiev, Brahms or Bruckner, Jurowski is an artist who sees no lines between the thinking and the feeling aspects of music-making, and indeed, music experiencing. Heaven and earth, Emotion and intellect, heart and mind, flesh and spirit; these things are not separate to or within Jurowski’s artistry or approach. It makes his work exciting to experience, and sometimes, even life-changing.

As such, it logically follows that he’s busy. Titles include being Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), Principal Artist of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE), Artistic Director of both the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia (Evgeny Svetlanov), and Artistic Director of the George Enescu International Festival in Romania. As of last fall, he is also Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB), who announced their new (and very creative) season just days after we spoke in Berlin earlier this year.

Once I flipped through the immense program (which came bound by a plantable peppermint seed wrapper), I wanted to chat with him again, about the new season and its clear underpinnings in social consciousness – as well as about the LPO, and most especially the Munich appointment. Opera people like to talk (and/or argue) about the relative merits of updating works, the need to attract new audiences, and what role (or not) tradition might play. If you asked a classical music person what needs to happen in opera, you’d get a predictably wide array of opinions. I wanted to ask Jurowski the implications of bringing a forward-looking ethos to Munich, one of the most famous of houses, and discuss the expectations being brought to an art form that has, at various points and locales, been the antithesis of innovation.

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Vladimir Jurowski leading the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin in September 2017 as part of Musikfest Berlin. Photo: (c) Kai Bienert

There’s a real thread of social conscience in the new RSB season — the theme of “humans and their habitats” features strong ideas around nature and responsibility, both in the music and in the extracurricular programming choices. Why this theme, now?

Well, I do not believe that music can alleviate societal ills. I don’t believe classical music can cure anything in society or change people We know about so many terrible human beings who were classical music fans, including Hitler, Goebbels and Stalin; they loved their classical music and it didn’t make them better people in terms of their behaviour. We also know Nazi doctors had classical music playing while executing their terrible experiments. My personal feeling is that we should make classical music again become an important, ideally an indispensable, part of our communal life. Obviously we cannot quite reach the status of classical music in the 19th century, where it was the central social event, but we can at least refer back to not-so-distant past. For instance, back in 1989, when the uprising started in Eastern Germany and there was a real fear of the Eastern German government employing military force against people on the street, it was Kurt Masur who made the Gewandhaus the place of peaceful discussions — he agreed with the government and authorities that there would be no weapons used. So music can become the “territory of peace” even at times of war. The main ability of music is to establish a non-verbal communication between people and make them forget, for a while, their day-to-day existence in favour of higher realms of beauty and truth which music is able to communicate.

My main aim is to show to people that (classical musicians) can be an important part of this society, but we cannot expect people to come to us, we have to go out. That’s the difference today. We have to compete on so many levels, with social media and various types of mechanical reproduction of music; musicians who create live music have to make their — our — concerts indispensable events, and one of the ways to attract audiences is pulling their attention at certain aspects of our life and society, which are not directly related to music but have a universal impact on the entire life. One of those aspects is nature; the idea to make a whole season dedicated to nature is because it is something that concerns us all, none of all can exist in this world without nature intact and functioning. Because there is so much music inspired by nature, why not try and inspire more people to be more conscious and more active in protecting the environment through the classical form?

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Photo: (c) Roman Gontcharov

Your new partner in Munich, Serge Dorny, said in an interview recently that “we cannot simply experience the Arts as goods to be consumed. The Arts should oblige people to think and ask questions and maybe fundamentally change people’s perceptions. It doesn’t mean we give answers but I hope the way you emerge from a performance has made a difference to your life and that it has changed your perception.”  To my mind, that complements something Graham Vick said at the International Opera Forum in Madrid, that perceptions have to be actualized in practises, productions, and operations.

I agree in principal with Serge, and I have always been saying the same thing. I’m against the consumption of the art; I’m for the active co-involvement of the audience, because obviously that’s how I’ve been raised myself. When listening to a concert, I participate actively via listening, feeling, and thinking. And I like Graham Vick’s work a lot – I’ve done a lot of opera with him, and I completely share his political and social views on these things. I think there’s a lot we can do if we stop seeing only the entertainment side of art. Of course there has to be the entertainment there somewhere, and there has to be a lot of beauty in what with do, but if it’s only about beauty, and nothing about the truth of life, then I think there is no real way forwards.

You said in an interview last year that you hope to inspire people to think for themselves, outside of a herd mentality,away from a knee-jerk reaction. That feels as if it’s reflected in your programming at both at the RSB and the LPO.

I think it’s always two sides: one thing is thinking for yourself, the other is feeling for yourself. That means not coming to a concert with a programmed expectation of an ecstasy at the end. You don’t know what it is — let yourself be surprised, and maybe even shocked! I think there is a real deficit of real emotion nowadays. We are dealing with so much surrogate emotion, and surrogate feeling in day-to-day life, and particularly in the mass media; it’s highly important to provoke real feelings. I was speaking earlier today with Dmitri Tcherniakov, and he said, “You know, it’s an exhilarating feeling when I bring to a whole audience of 2000 people an opera score they haven’t heard before.” He was referring to Rimsky-Korsakov’s La Fille de neige which he did recently in Paris, and is still an unknown piece in France and many other countries. That’s what I am hoping I can continue so long as I am actively involved in musical life, be it in concerts now in Berlin, London, or Moscow  — or future opera in Munich: I can surprise people and also be surprised myself.

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The exterior of the Bavarian State Opera, Munich. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

There was so much hand-wringing over the retirement of the Schenk production of Die Rosenkavalier in Munich. It’s as if people have already made their minds up about the version you’ll be doing with Barry Kosky in 2020.

Yes, but it’s always been like this. It’s still like this with the classical ballet, in fact it’s much worse in the blogs. I know that because my daughter always tells me how frustrating she finds reading those classical ballet blogs; people don’t want any innovation at all, they don’t want any new reading of Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake because it would insult the gods somehow.

“I want elephants in my Aida!”

Yes! But to be fair, I also have been through this myself, because as a kid, I used to go into the Stanislavsky Theatre where my dad was conducting, and since the age of six would watch the Eugene Onegin production by Konstantin Stanislavsky from, believe it or not, 1922. So the year I was born, this production had celebrated its 50th birthday already; by the time I came to watching the production it was already approaching 60… I loved that production. It was also the only one I knew of Onegin. I watched it again on DVD (as an adult), a filming of this same later performance from the 1990s, and I couldn’t watch without a smile, even where a smile was not very appropriate, simply because it suddenly felt so dated. I think it is the nature of theatre: the innovation becomes tradition and then gets old-fashioned. If we were to look at the great theatre productions of, say, Vsevolod Meyerhold or Max Reinhardt, or Giorgio Strehler or Luca Ronconi — great revolutionaries of their time — most probably we would find their productions hopelessly dated today because they were very much products of their time. It’s a natural process and one has to endure a certain amount of moaning and criticism from people who don’t want to see anything else; eventually they get used to it.

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A scene from the Lev Dodin production of Pique Dame. (Photo: @Elisa Haberer, Opéra national de Paris, 2011-2012 season)

I remember when I conducted a staging of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame by (director) Lev Dodin in Paris in 1999, and we were booed every night, every single night, at the Bastille. Two years later, we revived it, and there was no booing… and then this production became a fashion. Now people will be moaning if they decide to stop the production.

New theatre has to offend, insult and shock, then the audience — and critics — gets used to it and eventually becomes so dependent that would not want to see anything else — that’s how it usually happens. So letting go of old theatre productions is more or less like accepting the sad truth that your older relatives, however much you love them, will age and die one day because it’s a universal law. One grows to accept those things.

But I think it’s hard for new and younger audiences. I asked my students what they think of when I play opera documentaries, and it’s always, “Wigs! Corsets! Big dresses!” That’s the automatic association with opera. 

Every process of innovation takes time, but for me it’s highly important that new audiences come to opera not just because they want to see elephants and camels in Aida, or the Kremlin, cossacks and the boyars’ dresses in Boris Godunov but in order to witness the human drama of two people falling in love in the middle of a war and thus becoming traitors of their people, or the struggle of a man at a peak of his power against his own conscience. (Boris Godunov) is about our times as well as about 1604, as it was about Pushkin’s time when he was writing it 1825, or Mussorgsky when he was writing the opera in 1869. Times change, but peoples’ characters don’t change. Do people come to Shakespeare only to see the Elizabethan costumes? I hope not.

How does locale influence this kind of approach? I would think Moscow-Berlin-London have really left their mark on you as an artist.

I am highly adaptable to various cultural habitats. Obviously the fact that I left my native country at 18 has contributed partly to this adaptability and the chosen profession and all the travelling which came with it made me even more of a cosmopolitan. I enjoy learning new languages and studying people and their cultural traditions in the countries where I have lived and worked today I could survive in almost any culture. I never prepare myself specifically for a new working situation; the only thing I study before I go to a new place is a little bit of the language and a little bit of the history. Then I simply wait for my first impressions of the place, of the new situation before I decide how to act further.

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Photo: (c) Simon Pauly

It’s very similar to performing in a new hall or theatre: you play a note or a musical phrase, and then you wait for the return of the sound, for the resonance and then you react accordingly… what I can offer to any new place is my artistic vision, which is roughly always the same, but many paths can lead to Rome as they say, so I am prepared to amend my path if I see there is a short cut. Munich will be different to Berlin, London and Moscow, and yet, you know, we’re all humans and we all love music and theatre — there is something we all have in common and we share.

Interview Archive

Tributes:

Bernard Haitink
Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Christa Ludwig
Graham Vick

Conductors:

Harry Bicket
Johannes Debus
Jordan de Souza
Justin Doyle
Michail Jurowski
Vladimir Jurowski (2018) (2021)
Cornelius Meister
Vasily Petrenko (May 2019; November 2019
Alexander Shelley
Ralf Sochaczewsky

Collectives:

Philharmonix (Noah Bendix-Balgley, First Concertmaster, & Stephan Koncz, Cello; Berlin Philharmonic)
VOPERA 2020: Rachael Hewer (director) and Tamzin Aitken (producer)

Singers:

Frédéric Antoun
Paul Appleby
Ilker Arcayürek
Piotr Beczala
Joseph Calleja
Allan Clayton
John Daszak & Brindley Sherratt (joint interview; 2020)
Gerald Finley
Catherine Foster
Hibla Gerzmava
Wallis Giunta
Christine Goerke
Paul Groves
Thomas Hampson
Samantha Hankey & Katharina Konradi (joint interview)
Hui He
Christian Immler
Ermonela Jaho
Tomasz Konieczny
Dominik Köninger
Lisette Oropesa (2019) (2021)
Marlis Petersen
Lyubov Petrova
Saimir Pirgu
Luca Pisaroni
Marcelo Puente
Christoph Prégardien
Chen Reiss (2019) (2020)
Matthew Rose
Golda Schultz
Brindley Sherratt
Nicky Spence
Krisztina Szabó

Soloists:

Gautier Capuçon (2018) (2019)
Lucas Debargue
Helmut Deutsch
James Ehnes
Daniel Hope
Jan Lisiecki
Johannes Moser
Alexandra Silocea
Yuja Wang

Company Leaders:

David Devan (General Director & President, Opera Philadelphia)
Andreas Homoki (Intendant, Opernhaus Zurich)
Barrie Kosky (Intendant, Komische Oper Berlin)
Michael Mori (Artistic Director, Tapestry Opera)
Alexander Neef (Ex-General Director, Canadian Opera Company), 2017; 2020

Creative & Writing:

Lera Auerbach (Composer, Conductor, Writer, Artist)
Jack Bertinshaw (First Soloist, National Ballet of Canada)
Jessica Duchen (Critic / Author / Librettist)
Waldemar Januszczak (Art Critic / Documentary Filmmaker)
Matthew Jocelyn (Director / Writer)
Julie McIsaac (Theatre Artist, Dramaturge)
Douglas McNabney (Ex-Artistic Director, Toronto Summer Music Festival)
Edward Seckerson (Writer/Broadcaster)
Jacopo Spirei (Director; Part 1, Part 2)
Alaina Viau (Artistic Director, Loose Tea Music Theatre)

Academic:

Mark Berry and Nicholas Vazsonyi (Co-editors, The Cambridge Companion to Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, Cambridge University Press, 2020)
Marina Frolova-Walker, Professor of Music History & Director of Studies in Music, Clare College, Cambridge
Una Hunt (Professor, DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama; Soloist)
Jari Kallio (Music writer; Teacher)
Anna Shternshis (Professor, Yiddish Studies. University of Toronto; Executive Producer, Yiddish Glory)
Martha Sprigge, Assistant Professor of Musicology, University of California, Santa Barbara

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Danke, meine Damen!

Looking up at the Komische Oper. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Trips to Berlin always seem like a whirlwind. My first visit in January was essentially just that, part of a larger two-week European winter opera jaunt that also included explorations through Belgium and France. In the four nights I spent in Berlin this past winter, I ensured visits to the Komische Oper, Deutsche Oper, and of course, the Berlin Philharmonic, even as temperatures dropped and Siberian winds made me glad to have brought my mukluks and wooly sweaters.

Returning to Berlin in spring, visits to productions by these organizations were a foregone conclusion, but because I had the luxury of more time this particular jaunt, I included others as well (notably the Staatsoper Berlin, as well as NYC’s Metropolitan Opera, at the very end), which yielded a bouquet of thought-provoking experiences. Of the panoply of cultural riches I experienced over the course of my recent two week trip, what connected everything, and stands out in retrospect, were incredible performances by women. Longing, love, loneliness, intimacy, identity, community — all of these themes were covered, in moving, creative ways that felt all too familiar and close at times. Each performer embarked on different types of journeys that would intersect, move apart, race in parallel lines, only to twist and turn again. Looking for love, finding love, rejecting love; looking for self, finding self, reinventing self; seeking kindred spirits, finding those spirits leaving or being abandoned by them — all this, plus narratives of dedication, deception, and rejection, helped to elevate the performances I saw from mere entertainment into real (and very familiar, for me) human experience. Despite the cool and rainy Berlin spring, there was something warming about all of it. That isn’t to say everything I saw was comforting, though some of it was certainly entertaining.

The work of Komische Oper left a strong impression, visually, sonically, and theatrically. This fine company (which translates literally as “comic opera,” though the work it presents isn’t strictly comedic) impressed me during my previous visit, when I attended opening night of its whimsical double-bill production (working together with British production outfit 1927) of Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges. Vibrancy, color, and imagination, together with a deep respect for the scores and great, rave performances, left me wanting more.

Returning to Berlin, I saw three productions at the Komische, which is located just steps from the famous Brandenburg Gate. Ball im Savoy (Ball At The Savoy) is a fun, naughty 1932 operetta by Paul Abraham,  a Jewish-Hungarian composer who enjoyed immense success in the 1930s with a string of musical hits and big screen adaptations. Originally presented by the KOB in 2013 as director Barry Kosky’s closing work to mark his first season as Chief Director for the company, this was a fantastic, uproarious production, filled with solid performances, beautiful designs, and smart commentary on the nature of human relating, particularly within the sometimes complicated sphere of sexual intimacy.

L-R Katharine Mehrling, Dagmar Manzel, and Christiane Oertel in Ball im Savoy.
Photo: Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

I especially appreciated the casting and performance of Dagmar Manzel a well-known, deeply entertaining German actor who, like many artists in Berlin, goes totally against the Hollywood aesthetic of young, cute, and Instagram-hot; Manzel is pushing sixty, broad-shouldered and large of laugh, with a raspy, sexy, low voice and a a wonderfully confident stage presence. What a treat it would be to see her live again; Manzel is an eminently watchable performer, who ably delivered a smart, nuanced performance playing Madeleine,  the just-married wife of Aristide (Christoph Späth), a man with a past, and who seemed frequently more attached to his fear than to his wife. The scenes between the two crackled with a spicy, natural chemistry and volcanic verve. As Opera News reviewer A.J. Goldmann noted in his 2013 review of Ball im Savoy, “Not only is the KOB an ideal forum for rescuing such works from obscurity; the works themselves — and the worthy productions they come packaged in — add immeasurably to the company’s luster.” No kidding.

Manzel will appear at Komische Oper next season in two productions, both of which I’m keen to see: as the lead in the 1923 musical Die Perlen der Cleopatra (The Pearls of Cleopatra) by Oscar Straus, in a production directed by Barry Kosky (which she’s also doing this July as part of the KOB’s Summer Festival); and in another Straus work, this one from 1932, helmed again by Australia-born director, Eine Frau, die weiß, was sie will! (A Woman Who Knows What She Wants!). The latter will be staged this fall, when I am planning on possibly making a return visit to Berlin, so… stay tuned.

Gunter Papendell as Don Giovanni.
Photo: Monika Rittershaus

More color and entertainment at the Komische came in the form of a very surreal, commedia dell’arte-influenced staging of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which was sung in German, a choice which I found myself initially stunned at sonically, but grew to eventually appreciate, even adore. Very purposely leaving the lyricism, romance, and poetry of the original behind, director Herbert Fritsch, together with conductor Jordan de Souza, produced a raucously entertaining spectacle that, while not offering any emotionally moving moments for me personally, did offer a bold canvas onto which Fritsch painted his garish vision.

Philipp Meierhofer’s Leporello, costumed in baggy black but clearly embodying a Pulcinella-style characterization and presentation, was the sort of wise man figure to Günter Papendell’s Don Giovanni, a lithe, foppish figure with clear visual references to the Joker and, more directly, German actor Conrad Veitch in cinema classic The Man Who Laughs. Singing a feisty, sexy, diva-tastic Donna Elvira was Nina Bernsteiner, whose steaming middle voice and glassy tones perfectly reflected both Fritsch’s opera buffa-first approach, as well as the earthy nature of the woman behind, or perhaps physically manifesting, the fabulously grand Victoria Behr-designed yellow gown; Elvira wasn’t playing at being a needy diva, she simply was a True Actual Diva (and she made sure her purple-suited Lothario knew it). From its surreal opening, featuring assorted smashings, to the indelible image — Giovanni’s outstretched hand — of its sudden close (a nod to Mozart’s alternate ending), this was a strong vision for a work that aways provokes strong opinions. Was I moved? Not especially.  Did I have a new appreciation for the characters? Yes. Was I entertained as all hell? You bet. Sometimes it’s nice to see something you thought you knew very well, to be surprised by it in new ways, and find out there is still yet more to discover; this was one of those moments.

Peter Renz, Katazyna Wlodarczyk, Talya Libermann. Photo: Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

This year being the 450th birthday of Claudio Monteverdi (an important moment for opera), I couldn’t resist seeing The Coronation of Poppea (Die Kronung der Poppea), the third Komische production I attended, and easily the one that left the strongest impression. I’m going to be exploring this work, and the KOB’s very sexy, very disturbing production in a future post which will feature the talented German baritone Dominik Köninger (who sings Nero in the show), but suffice for now to say that of the seven operas I saw in Berlin, this one has stayed with me the most. The story of the Emperor Nero, of his decadent world, and his ruthless murder of Seneca (Jens Larsen), his casual tossing-aside of wife Octavia (Karolina Gumos) and his lust for (and with) Poppea (Alma Sadé), were staged with class, intelligence, and vision. That’s not to say there weren’t some shocking scenes; Nero’s coterie includes some fully nude celebrants (male and female), and Seneca’s murder featured both frontal male nudity and a copious (/ disturbing) amount of (stage) blood.

Monteverdi’s original, stately score has been given a very creative re-working by composer Elena Kats-Chernin that features modern instrumentation (the orchestra includes a banjo!) and the transposition of not only instruments but roles (including Nero, from a counter-tenor to a baritone), bringing a new-meets-old sound that places firm emphasis on music as storytelling, and perfectly matches Director Barry Kosky’s decadent, stylish production and Music Director Matthew Toogood’s detailed approach. Presented as a remount for the KOB (Poppea is part of a Monteverdi cycle by the company, originally done in 2012), the piece kept a perfect respect for Monteverdi’s original vision while contemporizing its subtext; there was something alarmingly timely (and of course, timeless) about the ruthlessness and greedy ambition of its sordid cast of characters, and, led by Köninger’s snarling, sexy, utterly magnetic performance this was a coronation that felt, at times, far too close. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything so highly charged on an opera stage in a long time. More on this one soon, but for now, in a word: WOW.

Curtain calls at Staatsoper Berlin’s La Traviata. Photo: mine (via). Please do not reproduce without permission.

There were more big “wow” moments this trip, too. Verdi’s La Traviata was given a high-concept treatment that made liberal use of sand (truth: if I see another heavily symbolic, time-is-running-out-for-Violetta production, I will scream) but the singing, specifically that of Ailyn Perez in the lead, and Simone Piazzola as Giorgio Germont, was gorgeous. Her rendering of “Sempre Libera” (“Always Free”) specifically, was defiant, almost angry, a nice contrast to the puffy, cute, la-la-la interpretations I’ve seen over many decades now. (I kept hearing Perez’s version play, over and over, in my head on the plane ride home, in fact.) Soprano Perez’s Violetta was indeed defiant, angry, — and also, I felt, tired: tired of her life, tired of the fake people around her and the phony relationships, tired of the obsessive little boys she attracts. Her scenes with baritone Piazzola, in particular, brimmed with humanity, and highlighted an intriguing subtext, that perhaps Violetta had met her equal not with Alfredo (tenor Abdellah Lasri), but with his father. There was an emotional rawness to the charged, dramatic scene between Germont Sr. and Violetta, where he comes to beg her to break things off with his son for the sake of his family’s reputation. Piazzola (who sang the role in a circus-themed production directed by Roland Villazon in 2015) offered a poetic portrayal of a man who’d perhaps had fatherhood foisted onto him far too young, and who had little to no real relationship with the son whose reputation he wants to protect. These were wonderfully alive, complex, human performances, and I am looking forward to seeing more of Perez and Piazzola sing again soon. (Ernani at La Scala next September is certainly tempting, if a bit far off!)

Cristina Pasaroiu as Magda in Deutsche Oper’s production of La Rondine. Photo: Bettina Stöß (via)

Other performers I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing again are soprano Cristina Pasaroiu, a beautiful, bell-toned lead in Puccini’s beautiful La Rondine (The Swallow) at Deutsche Oper, and soprano Dorothea Röschmann, whose portrayal of the Countess in the Staatsoper’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) was one of the most honest portrayals I’ve ever witnessed. Both performers gave truly memorable performances, with Pasaroiu providing a lovely focal point for Rolando Villazon’s gorgeous, colorful production of Puccini’s 1916 work, and delivering a searing rendition of the famous “Chi il bel sogno di doretta” aria. Confession: I ruined my mascara at Pasaroiu’s interpretation; she captured the deep longing at the heart of this aria so, so perfectly. (Saturday night’s alright for crying, clearly.) Even standing still, watching Ruggero (Vincenzo Costanzo) in a club, or leaving him at the opera’s close, Pasaroiu said so much with such simple, elegant body language; I got the impression, in watching her, that she would have been a great silent film star. The Romanian soprano projects such rich poetry with her every gesture (and in Rondine‘s case, a beautiful sadness), which clearly translates vocally, something conductor Roberto Rizzi Brignoli sensed at a very intrinsic level, particularly with his careful shaping of the string section.

Another conductor with a very deep sense of relationship with his performers, Pablo Heras Casado, led a buoyant if equally thoughtful orchestra in Jurgen Flimm’s very funny (if occasionally tiresome) production of Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) at the Staatsoper Berlin, a remount of a production from November 2015, with the same cast intact. Heras-Casado kept all the drama and tension (particularly hierarchical ones) of the original play (by Pierre Beaumarchais) fully intact, employing a rhythmic undercurrent that powered the score while keeping players inspired to provide a true heartbeat, and some needed counterpoint, to the slapstick-like follies and shenanigans that characterized much of Flimm’s production.

Anna Prohaska and Dorothea Röschmann in Staatsoper Berlin’s Le nozze di Figaro.
Photo: Staatsoper Berlin / Clarchen and Matthias Baus (via)

Dorothea Röschmann, reprising her role as Countess Almaviva, offered the most authentic characterization I may have ever seen Hers was a woman who loves, or wants to love, deeply, who is deeply saddened at the way her position, and the ridiculous behaviour of her husband the Count (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo), by extension, has separated her from this desired intimacy. Röschmann proved her acting chops in small but powerful ways; the way she gazed at Cherubino (a fantastic Marianne Crebassa) at points, the way she squeezed her eyes shut and swallowed her words in admitting to the Count who was hiding in the closet, the way she looked at him when the great reveal finally happened — all were highly theatrical moments that offered small slices of humanity amidst a zany comic staging. Her’s “Dove sono i bei momenti“(“Where are they, the beautiful moments”) was lushly voiced and achingly human, her scenes with Susanna (a sparky Anna Prohaska) brimming with vitality. This was a smart, nuanced, adult portrayal, and even with the nearly non-stop comedy that filled Flimm’s production, Röschmann’s Countess came off as authentic, sincere, and truly, deeply heartbroken, even at the opera’s end, when all is supposedly forgiven.

Renee Fleming at the curtain call
for Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

This post about my latest opera travels wouldn’t be at all complete without briefly exploring its incredible conclusion: experiencing Renée Fleming and Elina Garanča at the Metropolitan Opera in the penultimate performance of Der Rosenkavalier for the season. Seeing the two singers together in what amounted to a beautiful exploration of love, loss, aging, and acceptance felt like the apotheosis of a trip that carried with it strong undercurrents of disappointment and sadness, but also discovery and quiet renewal. I felt tears brimming listening to Fleming, especially as her character, the Marschallin moved between ponderings on the capricious nature of men (“Da geht er hin…” / “There he goes… ) and her relationship with the young Octavian (Garanča), to the inevitable (and cruel) passing of time (“Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding” / “Time, it is a weird thing“) at the end of the first act. She didn’t just act the role of the aging, glamorous Marschallin here, or churn out something mediocre, maudlin, or in any way predictable; she was living her soul, bearing it, live, in front of the Metropolitan Opera audience, and it was breathtaking to behold.

Tired but happy me in Berlin. (via)
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Fleming’s signature creamy soprano was lilting, spinning, soaring, twisting and arching, and joined with Garanča’s gorgeous, chocolate-toned mezzo in a seemingly effortless series of tiny tornados that spun in, around and through the audience. Both women were fiercely confident and utterly loving in their embrace of Strauss’ poetic score, and fully committed to Robert Carsen’s beautiful vision of a world about to completely vanish, in both micro and macro ways; these ladies surely vanished into their respective roles, musically, dramatically, spiritually. Bye composer, bye mascara…  by God, bravissime!

I’m saving my symphony-going experiences for a future post, but suffice (for now) to say that seeing conductors Mariss Jansons, Herbert Blomstedt, and Daniel Barenboim live was very special; I had my mind changed about Sibelius and Bruckner in ways I never thought would happen. Danke Berlin…. Danke NYC… you ladies especially made it very beautiful, very memorable, and very worth every tube of mascara. Wahrheit!

The Women Understand

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Confession: I finally saw the classic 1980s movie The Breakfast Club in its entirety last week. I’d only ever seen it in bits and pieces before, like a giant, talky jigsaw; viewing it all the way through, uninterrupted, proved to be a revelation.

As a child of the 1980s, it’s strange to think this symbol of an era passed me by, because of all of John Hughes’ films, The Breakfast Club is perhaps the most celebrated, widely known, and deeply loved. It’s surreal seeing symbols from my generation being embraced -indeed, appropriated, worshipped, and idolized -by far younger generations. Following the movie’s screening, I combed through various websites and tweets, curious to gauge reaction, get a sense of the age of these new fans, and investigate how they expressed their love. The level of passion for a 28-year-old film, from a generation populated by those sometimes young enough to be my own kids (gulp), is nothing short of astonishing. Yes, the film is fascinating, funny, and captivating in its poetic simplicity as well as timeless in its themes -but I honestly did not expect the intense love from millenials that I found.

In the years since John Hughes’ untimely passing, I hadn’t thought much about his films, or his characters -or indeed, the chemistry of his ensembles, the genius behind his casting choices, or the thought-provoking subtext of his characters. At the time of writing my 2009 tribute to Hughes, I was floating in a sea of nostalgia. I recalled how Pretty In Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off made me feel then, as a kid -not now, an adult. While it’s strange to think I missed the TBC (and perhaps it’s a bit of a shame, because I was strangely oblivious to the cultural earthquake it created –thanks very much, MJ, Duran Duran, and childhood best friend), seeing it now, as an adult woman, has allowed a very unique insight into the nature of youthful infatuation versus adult attraction. While the “popular” boys of Hughes’ films have implied sexual histories, there’s precious little to indicate they enjoyed “it.” While that’s partly down to language -Hughes seriously toned down the vulgar vernacular that so characterizes teenaged boys -it’s also deeply related to how he portrayed female characters. Hughes consistently placed his “good” boys with supposedly “skanky” girls. It’s curious (and, looking back on them now, depressing) that sexually experienced females are portrayed as mean sluts.

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Perhaps this was a symbol of the director’s identification (/fascination//obsession) with his (perennially virginal) female lead, a sort of latter-day outcast Elizabeth I, who was never allowed to be friends with “those”sorts of girls (if Ringwald’s character in TBC was, we never saw it). Andie’s buddy Jena in Pretty In Pink is a possible-maybe exception to this rule, though the nature of female-female relating in that film seems geared entirely toward Andie’s glaringly absent mother. Regardless of the “good” boys dating the “slutty” girls in Hughes’ movies, I get the sense now, watching them as an adult woman, that there is an implied (if very identifiable) subtext of the boys never really enjoying the sex they were getting -even though it happened to be with females who had considerable power on the social ladder and were aware of that power. The boys were getting it, not feeling it, and that was an important (if romantically teenaged) distinction in the world(s) Hughes created.

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The act itself comes across as dirty or perhaps ridiculous (ie, The Geek or Long-Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles) -surely not pleasurable, but silly, reckless, something belonging to the (supposedly) joyless world of adulthood, and as a result, there’s something curiously sexless about the male characters; sure, that’s part of their innate charm -they are awkward teenagers, after all -but, viewing them from an adult perspective, it’s still curious. Hughes was portraying class-challenged kids (his forte), but the sexual dynamics, and the realism of their energy, are of particular importance for to the works’ continued watchability; casting is central to this energy. Michael Schoeffling, Andrew McCarthy, Eric Stotlz, Matthew Broderick, and Emilio Estevez, as they appear in Hughes’ movies, are all boyish, pretty, and entirely unthreatening. In The Breakfast Club, Estevez’ Andy fits in perfectly with the handsome-boy archetype Hughes was developing -heightening the idealizing is Andy’s being an athlete (albeit unwillingly) -and proves himself a nice guy in making himself available as a confessional figure in whom the shy Alison can trust. All these male characters (who appeared in Hughes’ films between 1984 and 1987) have two important things in common: conventional good looks and moral fortitude. You could take Jake, Blaine, Keith, Ferris, or Andy home to mom, and mom would surely approve.

The Breakfast Club‘s John Bender however, is a different breed. Unsettling and damaged, he’s the guy you’d never take home to mom. But despite – or because -of this, I think Bender is far and away Hughes’ most interesting creation -and perhaps the one best-suited to an audience beyond the one intended. Featured between Sixteen Candles (1984) and Pretty In Pink (1986) (The Breakfast Club was released in 1985), the role was originally meant to be played by John Cusack, but eventually went to then-25-year-old Judd Nelson, who was so committed to the role he emulated “Bender” between takes and ad-libbed some of the film’s most beloved moments and lines. He brings a mesmerizing, deeply authentic sexual heat unlike any other actor in the Hughes canon. It is certainly not a teenaged vibe (at least to my mind), and while it’s fair criticism that quality lessens the “realism” of the film Hughes was so keen on capturing, I’d argue it’s greatly contributed TBC‘s enduring popularity for close to three decades.

Unlike Hughes’ other male leads (including Estevez), Nelson is not conventionally handsome (though very striking, he is certainly not from the same mould as model-turned-actor Michael Schoeffling), and his character is clearly not morally upstanding. Nelson transcends his character’s wrong-side-of-the-tracks cliche, using charm, smarm, a jangly physicality and greatly contrasting speaking volumes (shouting/silence); his attractiveness is intensified as a result. The ensuing soupcon of tangibles and intangibles (bad attitude, tender vulnerability, physical prowess, louche fashion and verbal dexterity) is something online fangirls understand, just as they try to analyze him and daydream about his future with Claire. It’s interesting how Hughes gives short shrift to sex appeal and its role in attraction; The Breakfast Club, interestingly, hints at just this. Claire’s correcting Bender in his pronunciation of “Moliere” is fascinating (Ringwald’s flashing smile suggests, to me anyway, far more than mere friendliness), and in another memorable scene, we see the “Princess” looking through the various photos of females the “Criminal” keeps in his wallet. He simultaneously examines the contents of her purse, and the two converse. He asks her why she carries so much stuff around; she asks him why he has so many girlfriends. Claire eventually tells him she never throws anything away, to which he neatly responds, “Neither do I.” The look on Nelson’s face here, similar to when Claire later visits him in the closet, is wonderful to behold. Voila, a Hughes character who clearly, unabashedly enjoys sex. Bravo!

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There is a distinct (and refreshing) lack of innocence about Bender that goes far, far beyond the romantic “bad boy” image so popular in cinematic history (and which many fans revel in). This isn’t to say he isn’t sensitive -he is, clearly -or that he isn’t afraid -again, he clearly is, as are the others. But Bender is menacing -an angry, abusive, violent figure living in a violent situation, horrified at exposure of his own vulnerability but simultaneously dying to put it on a stage for attention. He is also sexually confident. When he’s hiding under the table, he sees Claire’s white-pantied crotch beneath her skirt, and, integrating both sexual and provocative instincts (perhaps correctly guessing at this point that she’s a virgin), moves his face between her legs before the mortified Claire kicks him, surely a perfect example of the repulsion/attraction principle at work. Bender openly questions others’ virginity and is looked up to, becoming a de facto leader of the “club” not only because of his detention experience, but, I suspect, because of his sexual experience. This, to my mind anyway, is in line with teenaged mores.

What’s more, Bender is able to use language in a way the others may not because of that experience -even when he’s only talking to himself. His joke as he crawls through the air duct, with its vulgar element of the “two foot salami” and the naked, poodle-carrying blonde, is left famously unanswered; it’s an interesting (and I think, genius) choice Nelson made in ad-libbing the punchline-free joke, with Bender bolstering his own confidence and soothing his nerves by referencing images with such clear sexual underpinnings. It reveals so much about Bender as a person -his past, his attitudes, his values, even, dare I say, his self-opinion.

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That doesn’t necessarily mean he isn’t sexually confident, and it’s notable, therefore, that the character isn’t punished for his carnal confidence or knowledge (unless you count his abusive home environment), nor is he rewarded for them (though some may argue the virginal Claire is his reward, but it’s interesting their overture is left purposely unresolved); he is, rather, used as a symbol for the alienation all of the characters feel, his raised fist, both defiant and victorious, closing the film. Might he also be an unintentional beacon of a burgeoning sexual confidence in the others? And can he, through associating with the virgin Claire, “redeem” himself? Of what?! Should he be sorry about his past deeds? Should he burn all those girlfriend photos? Should he go hawk Claire’s earring? Some contemporary fans seem devoted to the idea of romance between the two (or not), and though my little teenaged heart sighs at the thought, my adult heart scowls.

It’s rather ironic an image of Bender closes The Breakfast Club; never again would film audiences see such an unapologetic, likeable, sexually potent figure in a John Hughes movie. Sadly (if unsurprisingly), Hughes never cast Nelson again. (One can only conjecture over why.) Does all this now mean I don’t enjoy Hughes’ movies? Certainly not. I look at old favorites like Pretty In Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as warm, comforting old chums, momentos from the “woolly cotton brains” of youth. Twenty-first century teens, saturated as they are with internet culture, with easy access to porn, having grown up with a myriad of saucy images and sexting, feel an affinity with his work (especially TBC) and it lives on in various ways, through various media. Perhaps, if I’d seen the movie when it came out, my reaction would’ve been similarly worshipful. Then again, as a youngin, I always preferred the smooth, pretty boys, the ones with the nice cars and the good manners who I could bring home. I loved Duckie because he was sweet, silly, and protective of his best friend; I loved Ferris for his posh tastes and intelligence. Fantasy was fun, but those fantasy figures had to conform to a certain standard of acceptability in my social and familial circles. No creeps were allowed, especially sexy, dangerous creeps. Eeeeek.

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It’s only been with time and experience -life -that I’ve thrown out ideas around acceptability and come up with my own definitions. These days, my head has been turned, not by aesthetics or fantastical ideas, but by that undefinable quality that manifests itself as a mix of confidence, charm, curiosity, respect, and knowingness. Everyone gets older, and in the process, everyone gets clearer on what they want in life and love.

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What happened on Monday? That’s the question everyone who’s seen The Breakfast Club asks. Forget romance! My rose-colored glasses of teendom are long gone; I hope Bender ditched class and paid a visit to the Principal’s wife. I’d expect nothing less -or more. Neither should you. Life goes on… carpe diem. Don’t you forget.

(Photo credits: Emilio Estevez as Andrew Clark via; Andrew McCarthy as Blaine McDonnagh via; Eric Stoltz as Keith Nelson via)

At Last

Hollywood awards season is a test of endurance for me. More of a clubby series of self-congratulatory pageants dressed in designer finery than a credible display of artistic achievement, the Oscars are perhaps the most obvious of high school popularity contests. And yet my stomach was all butterflies as I anxiously checked the list of Best Actor Oscar nominees this morning. There’s something about big-name recognition of longtime favorites that is immensely satisfying, popularity contest or not.

It was amazing – beyond amazing -to see Gary Oldman finally, at long last, get nominated for an Academy Award. Longtime friends will tell you I had a huge crush on him – or rather, on Oldman’s awesome, inspiring, occasionally terrifying talent. For all his talk of despising “the method,” he seemed to live what he acted. It was thrilling to watch him move between genres so easily, and become so unreservedly, uninhibitedly lost in a role. It still is, I’m discovering.

Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead cemented my love of language and literature. What impressed me in the film, along with Oldman and fellow Brit Pack-er Tim Roth’s comfort with that language, was their sparky natural chemistry. Taking cues from older traditions (Godot especially) and mixing them with the best of British vaudeville (Laurel and Hardy especially), Oldman and Roth are a tag team of interconnected excellence. I was enchanted by Oldman as the dimwit of the pair, whether he was tinkering with Foucault’s pendulum or watching sailboats in the bathtub. But it didn’t prepare me for JFK, where I was struck dumb by his performance as Lee Harvey Oswald. Far from being merely imitative, the slight, mushy-mouthed, supposed lone-gun-assassin suddenly becomes very human – a lonely, tortured figure, demonized by his own swirlingly persistent, painfully obvious need to belong. Oldman gets the “lone” part of “Lone Gunman” absolutely dead-on.
Oldman’s performance -those urgent blue eyes, the slumped shoulders, the quick temper -seared itself on my young mind. I found State Of Grace and again was astonished. The performance as the wild-card gangster Jackie – haunted, passionate, angry -is simply one of the most memorable ever committed to film. When Bram Stoker’s Dracula was released in November 1992, I was well-versed in Oldman’s canon, and had no trouble picturing the guy who’d played Sid Vicious years before becoming the sexy demonic Count. He’s a great actor – and that’s what great actors do. They’re not supposed to be pretty. Right? I didn’t like Gary because he was pretty. I liked him because he was brilliant. Barely recognizable from one role to the next, Oldman has a great, unsung habit of plumbing the depths of despair, celebrating the heights of absurdity, and living the vida loca (sometimes for real) across the cinematic universe. He is every color in the artist’s paintbox, every hue and beam and shadow on the canvas.
So while some of his choices haven’t inspired – the reductive baddies in Air Force One, Lost In Space, The Fifth Element and The Book Of Eli come to mind -he’s always been eminently watchable. As Radio Times reporter Danny Leigh so eloquently put it, “A chameleon full of indelibletics who all but disappeared inside his characters, Oldman made average films good, and good ones spectacular.” Neither the Harry Potter nor Batman re-envisionings were on my cultural radar, but late one night about a year ago, I was watching TV and saw Christian Bale’s square jaw jutting out of the famous black cowl on television, and a flood of inspired memories returned, of nights spent worshipping a choir of spectacularly realized misfits I felt I knew so well. Joe, Sid, Jackie, Rosencrantz, Lee, Ludwig, Norman, Jack, Drexel. Dracula. That guy. Then George Smiley sauntered in.
Like many, I’ve questioned why the Academy Awards -or indeed its poorer Golden cousin -haven’t recognized Oldman for his work. He said on NPR Fresh Air recently that he thinks of himself as a “character actor” more than anything, which is a huge shame. Could a character actor so beautifully personify John Le Carre’s quietly complex spy? Come now. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a slow-burn sort of work. Its passion is whispered, not declaimed, in the most adult kind of way. Much has been made of how “quiet” Oldman’s performance is too. Yet don’t confuse that term with “small”; his Smiley is as grand and fiery as anything else he’s ever done over the past three decades. It’s an inner sort of flame, the sort you can see running across his probing blue eyes when Smiley carefully takes his morning swim, each stroke a calculated piece of focus and concentration. We sense the innate heartbreak Oldman’s so excelled at portraying onscreen in the past, when Smiley catches his wife being unfaithful with a co-worker: the gaping mouth, the stunted breath, the wide eyes and wild blinking. We sense that fierce passion when George takes a seat in the film’s final moments, straightening his shoulders, jutting out his chin ever so slightly, the merest hint of a smile crossing his lips. You want to shriek at the perfection of it all.
As it is, I’m left, at the end of today, wanting to shriek with joy over that nomination, and yet quietly taking a few deep breaths of joy, contemplating that genius might, just might, be recognized by the popular kids. Some of us think it’s about time.
Top illustration by Matthew Brazier.

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