Saturday, May 13, 2017

High Society, Marriage, And Mayhem In Vienna

 If you've never heard of Richard Strauss' opera Der Rosenkavalier, where have you been?  This opera could be considered the early 20th Century counterpart to Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro.  And it's not hard to see why; you've got a lonely noblewoman, a teenage boy with the hots for said noblewoman, you have the pretty teenage girl whom the boy ends up with in the end, and you've got the lascivious baritone character.  And there are all sorts of crazy deceptions and shenanigans before it gets cleared at the end.  
    Despite their parallels Rosenkavalier and Fiagro are two entirely different pieces.  Besides the obvious musical differences, Figaro is a wacky and lighthearted rom com with the lascivious Count recognizing that he messed up and reconciling with his wife.  Rosenkavalier by contrast is a more sophisticated piece with a lot of bittersweet elements relating to the Marschallin and the passing of time.  

Today's performance of Der Rosenkavalier featured soprano Renee Flemming and mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča in their final performances of their signature roles or the
Marschallin and her teenage lover the Count Octavian.  Soprano Erin Morley was the Fraulein Sophie von Faninal, the sixteen-year-old girl who falls in love with Octavian.  And baritone Günther Groissböck was licentious and overbearing Baron Ochs (with a name like that, what do you expect?).

The plot has many twists and turns so I'm going to give a very basic synopsis.  The thirty two-year-old Marschallin has been carrying on an affair with the seventeen-year-old Count Octavian for some time.  However, the Marschallin knows the affair will not last much longer because she is already married and fifteen years older than Octavian.  When the boorish Baron Ochs comes to talk about his engagement to the young and pretty Sophie von Faninal, the Marschallin sends Octavian to deliver the traditional gift of a silver rose to the bride-to-be.  Octavian does this willingly, but when he sees Sophie for the first time, he falls instantly in love with her.  Horrified at the prospect of Sophie marrying a creep like Ochs, Octavian becomes determined to protect her at all costs.  And a lot of wild and crazy hijinks ensue before the final trio.  

This new production updated the setting from the mid-18th Century to the year 1910 (the year the opera first premiered).  The idea behind the production was the theme of time passing.  In 1910 the Austro-Hungarian Empire was in its final days, and political tensions throughout Europe were sowing the seeds of World War I.  It's as if the production is saying that the world of Marschallin and Octavian is going to get blown away by bloody carnage in four short years (yikes!). 
    Act 1 is in the Marschallin's spacious bedchamber with it's various antechambers and mid-19th Century architecture.  Footmen open and close each of the double doors in almost perfect unison whenever someone enters or leaves.  At one point the Marschallin recieves guests in the room, including an Italian tenor (performed in this production by Matthew Polenzani channeling Enrico Caruso). 
     Act 2 takes place in Herr von Faninal's much more spartan house with grey walls and an ancient Greek battle scene adorning the upper wall.  And von Faninal somehow has enough money and egotism to have two massive anti-aircraft guns in his living room.  Patient servants struggle to put the finishing touches on Sophie's wedding dress while she's fidgeting excitedly waiting for her bridegroom.  The baron's soldiers drink and brawl while von Faninal's majordomo tired to stop their rowdy behavior. 
     And then Act 3 is set in an overly decorated brothel, complete with slightly dim lighting and borderline nauseating 19th Century erotic pictures.  Prostitutes in little more than bodices and stockings revel with soldiers in full uniform.  A proprietor who looks like the great-grandfather of Dr. Frank N. Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (and is just as creepy I might add), assists Octavian who wants to teach Ochs a lesson.  "Apparitions" in the form of half naked men randomly walking in and out of the room and nightmare fuel/brain bleach images of dancing harlots frighten the Baron (and me). 

Renee Flemming fits the role of the Marschallin like a glove.  This is the only time I will ever see her perform the role, but she was superb.  And while the Marschallin doesn't appear much (she dominates Act 1, but is absent in Act 2 and only appears toward the end of Act 3), her character is very rich and layered.  And Flemming knows how to bring out the range of emotions very well.  In Act 1 in particular, the Marschallin's mood shifts between happy, sad, annoyed, nervous,amused, delighted, it's no wonder that Flemming calls the role demanding.  The Marschallin is married, but her husband is away at war much of the time, and so she's desperately lonely.  This may explain her consuming obsession with time and fear of growing old.  But she also knows that Octavian will leave her for a girl closer in age to him, and that it will be better for both of them if their love affair ends.  And it does in a glorious trio
    This is the third time I have seen Elīna Garanča Live in HD.  This is also her last performance as Octavian.  This role is a very demanding role for mezzo because there is a lot of music, and Richard Strauss' music isn't the easiest to sing.  But Garanča nailed this role.  She is very convincing as a boy, although it was easier to believe she was a boy playing a girl in Act 1 than in act 3.  While Octavian has frequently been compared to the page boy Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro, his character is vastly different.  Unlike Cherubino, Octavian is a nobleman.  While he is a hormonal seventeen-year-old boy who wants to live in the now, he now has more responsibilities and needs to grow up.  From the looks of it, Octavian's father must have died because otherwise he wouldn't have the title of Count already.  
     Erin Morley is a relatively new performer whom I have only just heard recently.  She was very good as Sophie, although I am getting tired of the popular trope of making heroines feisty.  But that minor annoyance didn't mean that I hated Morley's performance.  In fact, she was splendid.  Even if Sophie is not as big a role as Octavian, it's still demanding and requires someone like Morley to handle the music and acting.  Sophie sticks up for herself when she says that she won't marry a man who doesn't love her.  It should be worth noting that Sophie is initially enthusiastic about the marriage until Ochs himself shows up.  And when he starts examining her like a prize mare instead of properly kissing her hand when he meets her, that's when she protests.  
      And now we come to Günther Groissböck as the Baron Ochs.  Along with Octavian, this role is a very demanding one.  Not only does the baron have a huge range (low E flat to high G sharp), but this production really amped up the physical action.  Ochs is a boor, a creep, and treats everyone around him like dirt, even those he considers his equals.  Devoid of empathy and  tenderness, he brags about his engagement to the Marschallin while harassing the disguised Octavian, only wants Sophie because of her father's bank account, and acts like he's been mortally injured when he receives a very minor flesh wound.  And Groissböck nailed this role.  

This performance was a success, and a good way for two of opera's greatest stars to say good bye to signature roles. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017


Here I am wondering if my favorite Russian baritone will come back to the stage, and wouldn't you know it, he does a surprise performance at the Met's 50th Annniversay-At-Lincoln-Center Gala!  Either Dima is made of iron, or else he's got Rainbow Dash's determination. 

Monday, May 8, 2017

Addendum on Documentaries Post

As I've been binging on the Space Race (and right in the middle of finishing a Titanic/Eastland project no less!), I have made a couple of further observations about documentaries.  I did not mention these in my main post on the topic and so I will speak of them here.  

The first thing I talked about was listening to how writers use the language in the documentary.  A good writer will be precise in his language and back up his assertions with facts. 
    Sometimes you will get a piece about something in history or science that isn't very well-known.  This is to be expected as history and science are always on the move.  But beware of titles that say "The Untold Story", "The True/Real Story", "The Forgotten Story", or anything like that.  Titles like these sound dramatic and may get the viewer interested, but they make an assertion that may or may not be true.  
        I have read and reread a book called The Sinking of the EASTLAND: America's Forgotten Tragedy.  This is one of the few cases in which the "forgotten" label is justified.  The capsizing has become largely obscure despite happening right in the middle of the Chicago Harbor.  So when the book says that it's a forgotten tragedy, I can believe it.  
        Last week I saw a documentary called "Apollo 13: The Real Story".  How are the makers sure that it's the "real story"?  Most people in the U.S. know about the incident and so to try to claim that there is a real story is foolish at best. 

Which brings me to my second point.  Take note of the documentary's tone.  Every now and then you will get a documentary written by someone with an axe to grind be it political, social, or whatever.  When that happens you sometimes get conspiracy theories.  And conspiracy theories will be heavy handed and unpleasant.  Last week I tried watching a documentary called Secret Space: The Soyuz 1 Coverup.  I wanted to know about the Soyuz 1 disaster that killed Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov.  The documentary indulged in the Ilyushin myth and even claimed that Yuri Gagarin's death in a plane crash was engineered by Brezhnev.  And the narration throughout the documentary was harsh and unsubtle.  
     It is true that the Soviet government tried to cover up a lot of things.  But the conspiracy theories and overall harsh tone of the documentary made it unwatchable.  

I like documentaries that are objective with their language.  If you want to say that something is the "Untold/Real/Forgotten Story" or whatever, you have to be able to back up your assertion.  While something may be genuinely obscure like in the case of the Eastland, others may seem obscure but turn out to be little more than fringe activities that had been part of an ongoing issue.  Or it may turn out be a conspiracy theory, which means someone is telling a lie.  Use language precisely.  

Tuesday, May 2, 2017


Can someone please explain why a very good documentary on the Soviet Space Program is produced by a company with the name UFOTV? 

Saturday, April 22, 2017


I am listening to Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin right now.  Peter Mattei is a good singer, and no doubt he's a good Onegin, but it still hurts somewhat to think that Dmitri Hvorostovsky had to cancel his performance in this same role in this same production due to cancer.  I wish good luck for Mattei and a swift recovery and a speeedy return to the stage for Dima. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Morgado's Misstep

Two years ago I wrote a rather scathing review of the movie Son of God, and one of negative points I listed was having and attractive actor play Jesus as though having Christ look attractive was bad thing.  In retrospect this was unfairly harsh as Christ has been portrayed as beautiful for centuries.  
      I now recognize that this has more to do with reverence for His deity more than anything else.  Even if Isaiah did prophesy that Christ would "have no beauty that we should desire Him", we still want to be reverent in how we depict Him.  And portraying Him as looking rather plain just wouldn't fit.  Also, Isaiah's prophesy refers more to a flash-and-bang style of charisma than physical appearance.

I guess what bothered me about Diogo Morgado's portrayal of Christ in Son of God was the fact that he looked too handsome.  This wasn't the reverent beauty so often found in art, this was the Hollywood-It-Guy variety.  And having Jesus look like the hottest male celebrity distracts the audience and takes away from our LORD's deity.  
     And the performance was too soft.  There was no righteous fury evident in the Cleansing of the Temple scene, nor did Morgado seem to show any real emotion other than hippie-style tranquility, the only major exception of course being the crucifixion.  Heck, he even smiled after turning the tables over, whatever happened to, "IT IS WRITTEN, 'MY HOUSE IS TO BE A HOUSE OF PRAYER', AND YOU HAVE TURNED INTO A DEN OF THIEVES!"?  Yes, Jesus would have roared those words at the top of His lungs.  The veins in His forehead would have been popping.  He was literally flipping over tables and driving the thieving merchants off the premises!  He was releasing animals out of their cages and out of the temple.  He. was. furious.  And to not see that present was a major misstep. 

To make a long story short, irreverent Hollywood good looks and a Nice-Guy portrayal of Jesus Christ derailed the film Son of God

Tuesday, March 7, 2017


Many years ago my maternal grandfather boasted that he was old enough to remember when the weatherman was right.  Well, considering the mild inaccuracies I'm seeing in tonight's forecast, I think he may have had a point.