In an era when even the worst shows on Broadway are greeted with standing ovations, there is something perversely appealing about the way that opera audiences have no hang-ups about expressing their displeasure with a production.
On the opening night of “La Sonnambula” at the Metropolitan Opera a few weeks ago, director Mary Zimmerman was loudly booed and the production has had the opera blogs buzzing ever since.
Mary Zimmerman is the theater director who caused a sensation with her production of “Metamorphoses” eight years ago. The gorgeous re-examination of myths — set in and around a giant pool of water — struck an emotional chord with jittery New York audiences in the wake of 9/11 and it became a surprise commercial hit.
Zimmerman loves bold “concept” stagings of old stories. Shifting to opera, she decided that the plot of “La Sonnambula” was rather ludicrous and that a rethinking might be in order to showcase the beautiful score and the male and female lead roles.
The heroine, Amina, nearly loses her beloved, Elvino, because she sleepwalks and one night ends up in the bedroom of another man. Elvino dumps Amina and becomes immediately engaged to another woman. Reason is restored when Elvino witnesses one of Amina’s sleepwalking jaunts — one which almost kills her — and realizes the error of his ways.
The story is silly and hard to swallow — No one in her small village knows that Amina sleepwalks? Elvino’s “love” is so shallow that he is ready to marry another woman almost immediately after he dumps Amina?
Zimmerman decided to experiment with the opera by setting the story in a contemporary rehearsal hall where a company of singer-actors is working on “La Sonnambula.” The logic of this premise is a little unclear — the performer playing Amina is named Amina and her co-star lover’s name in Elvino.
The director didn’t meddle with the starry charisma of Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez in the leading roles and their performances were greeted with tremendous ovations at the Saturday night performance I attended (Zimmerman didn’t risk a bow that night!).
Florez ended one spectacular aria with a sweeping bow and the subsequent pandemonium in the house kept him frozen in that position for several minutes
The boo birds at the opening night of “La Sonnambula” apparently did not think the performances were enough to redeem the night, but Saturday’s crowd seemed more than satisfied by the singing and acting of Dessay and Florez (they might be the sexiest couple on a New York stage at this moment).
I got a kick out of reading the hysterical condemnations of the production on Parterre Box — one of the funniest blogs on the Internet — but agreed with the one anonymous poster who went against the tide:
“My goodness people, you would think this was the first unsuccessful production in Met history…Some of you really need to take a breath, or three. Nobody died or was injured last night, not even Sonnambula. I really don’t think the Supreme Court would uphold the death penalty for green lighting ONE disaster…Artistic success is all about taking risks, and sometimes the results ain’t so great…Apparently the sophisticated opera goers of NYC aren’t able to deal with a wee bit of experimentation (or more to the point, they’re never satisfied with anything that didn’t die or retire at least 20 years ago).”
(“La Sonnambula” will receive its final staging this season on Friday at 8 p.m.)
Archive for March, 2009
In an era when even the worst shows on Broadway are greeted with standing ovations, there is something perversely appealing about the way that opera audiences have no hang-ups about expressing their displeasure with a production.
Barry Eisler has the rare gift of writing about amoral people without endorsing their (sometimes) nihilistic feelings.
In his wonderful series of novels about the assassin John Rain, Eisler has shared some of the same turf as Patricia Highsmith’s famous Ripley novels about the killer-without-a-conscience Tom Ripley, but Eisler makes us care about Rain in a way we never do about Ripley.
Highsmith deals in icy black comedy that’s slightly larger than life, Eisler presents Rain realistically as a reflection of the darker elements of the world we actually live in.
Perhaps the glints of humanity and empathy in the Rain novels are due to the fact that Eisler really knows what he is writing about. The author spent time in a covert CIA job and lives part of the year in Tokyo which figures prominently in the books (Eisler has a black belt in judo).
In his gripping new stand-alone novel, “Fault Line” (Ballantine Books), Eisler again uses his knowledge of the world of covert operations (i.e. government-sanctioned assassinations) but combines it with his other career as a technology lawyer and Internet executive in Silicon Valley.
The novel follows two estranged brothers — one working as a CIA assassin, the other as a lawyer specializing in high-tech — who are brought back together by a horrifying wave of violence surrounding the invention of a revolutionary new encryption application.
The lawyer, Alex Treven, thinks he is about to be named a partner in his Silicon Valley firm and become very wealthy because of his handling of the Internet breakthrough. But, on the morning of the big meeting finalizing the deal, the inventor is murdered. Alex and everyone else at the firm assumes this was a random mugging/killing — until somebody tries to kill Alex in his home.
Meanhile in Turkey, Alex’s older brother, Ben, is relayed a desperate message from Alex just after Ben has pulled off a double-hit of two Iranian nuclear scientists.
Alex and Ben haven’t seen each other in years — since a series of tragedies destroyed their sister and their parents.
“Fault Line” combines the page-turning paranoia of the Rain novels with the slowly unfolding (and very powerful) family drama of two brothers wondering if they will ever reconnect in a meaningful way.
There were points in the book where I was reminded of William Goldman’s terrific brother thriller “Marathon Man” (the novel, not the movie). Add some very pleasing dashes of those two classic 1970s intelligence world paranoia films, “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Parallax View” and you’ve got a fantastic reading experience.
Eisler allows a reader to see the strengths and the flaws in both Alex and Ben, although the killer spy’s world view seems to be a bit more grounded in 21st century reality.
“The thing was, most Americans wanted nothing more than to be safe,” Ben notes early in the story. “Maybe it hadn’t always been that way, in fact he suspected things had once been different, but these days America had become a nation of sheep…and someone had to keep the sheep safe from the wolves. He understood at some level that the b——t restrictions and the second-guessing just came with the territory. Still, it was galling to be put in a position where he was more afraid of CNN than he was of al Qaeda.”
The new documentary, “Guest of Cindy Sherman,” is more interesting than a month’s worth of standard Hollywood narrative filmmaking.
The movie is a collaboration between Paul Hasegawa-Overacker (who calls himself “Paul H-O”) and Tom Donahue and it goes off in so many different directions that it is impossible to boil it down to a brief synopsis.
The title is derived from the sections of the documentary that deal with Paul H-O’s unexpected relationship with the photographer Cindy Sherman (above), who has become legendary over the past 30 years for a seemingly endless series of pictures of herself in various guises.
Paul met the photographer in his role as the host and producer of a New York cable access TV show, “Gallery Beat,” that developed a large cult following as it charted the changes in the city’s art scene over two decades.
Paul interviewed the reclusive Sherman — who believes her work should speak for itself — and surprised her friends and associates when she agreed to follow-up segments and then began a romantic relationship with the undeground TV host.
After the first flush of romantic excitement passed, Paul started to feel the frustration of almost anyone who becomes the significant other of a famous person. His situation seemed to come to a head at a big party where he was seated at a separate table from his girlfriend, with the placecard simply reading “Guest of Cindy Sherman.”
The documentary has a free-flowing ease that is very compelling. We never get the impression that Paul H-O and Donahue are telling us how we should feel about the material we’re watching.
The movie allows us room to question Paul’s common sense in getting closer to such a powerful person and then complaining about the loss of his own identity. We also wonder what role the constant filming of their life together might have played in the eventual split between Sherman and H-O (of course, the famous photographer has made a name for herself exploring the whole idea of exposure and identity and was a willing subject for Paul’s TV and film projects).
The movie is packed with other goodies, too, including large samples of the segments Paul did for “Gallery Beat” where his goofy, slightly intrusive style both seduced and angered artists (we see Julian Schnabel blasting Paul and his partner for a segment that the famous artist believed trivialized his work).
Stimulating, funny and challenging, “Guest of Cindy Sherman” should inspire some of the best post-movie discussions/arguments of the spring.
(The film opens next Friday at Cinema Village in Manhattan and will be shown on The Sundance Channel later this year.)
Marjorie Kernan has written the sort of totally charming, mood-elevating novel that you finish quickly and then want to pass along to all of your friends.
Indeed, if I could, I would reach out to you from cyberspace right now and put a copy of “The Ballad of West Tenth Street” (Harper Perennial) into your hands.
It’s a first novel, but you would never guess that fact from the assured comic tone, the freshness of the characterization and the completely original way that Kernan turns life in contemporary downtown Manhattan into a hip fable that a reader wants to believe could be true.
There is no way that I could convey Kernan’s style or boil down her daffy plot in this brief review. The book did remind me a bit of the distinctive charm of the “Tales of the City” novels by Armistead Maupin; Kernan gives her urban neighborhood a small village feeling that echoes Maupin and most of the story hangs on a fantastically charismatic middle-aged woman (in the vein of Maupin’s Anna Madrigal) who seems to embrace life in any form that crosses her path.
Kernan shares Maupin’s belief that city living can be truly cozy because every inhabitant eventually carves out their own little corner of the vast metropolis.
“The Ballad of West Tenth Street” is set in a very realistically detailed Greenwich Village, but Kernan uses the architecture of the place and the neighborhood’s history of eccentricity and bohemian acceptance to spin a tale that is just a bit larger than life.
Sadie Hollander is the widow of a legendary Golden Age of Rock figure who overdosed after fathering three children, but left Sadie with a very comfortable income from royalties and the other spin-off revenue surrounding iconic baby boomer music.
Sadie presides over an elegant old brick townhouse that she shares with her precocious 12-year-old son Hamish and 14-year-old daughter Ondine. An older daughter, Gretchen, is in an expensive Connecticut institution after cutting herself and deciding to cease speaking.
The manner in which Kernan blends the downs and ups of family life into her story — while keeping the reader assured that the Hollanders will be OK when they come out the other end of their tragedies — is quite amazing.
Things begin to change radically on West Tenth Street — and more magic is added to Kernan’s narrative — when a rich old Southern man mysteriously buys the townhouse next door and eases his way into the lives of the Hollanders.
That’s all I will say about the plot and the many changes the cast of characters go through on their way to the final paragraph when our omniscient narrator simply moves us away from the two houses on West Tenth Street and into the teeming life of the city: “Back to the noise and traffic on Seventh that thunders and roars like a great river, past sushi joints and newstands, head shops, book shops, and solid brownstones, their shutters prudently closed against the curious gaze of those passing by.”
The Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth had a run of good fortune in the 1980s but then suffered a humiliating Hollywood experience working on “Being Human” in the early 1990s that made him decide to give up active filmmaking.
Tonight, it will be my pleasure to introduce Forsyth’s 1983 masterpiece, “Local Hero,” at a free “Martini and a Movie” screening at the Fairfield Theatre Company.
The film is the third in a series of business-related comedies that I programmed at the FTC for this winter of our discontent.
“Local Hero” is a hard-to-describe comedy-drama about a young Houston oil executive named Mac (Peter Riegert) who is sent to a small town on the coast of Scotland that his company plans to buy and turn into a refinery complex.
Mac is an all-business stereotypical 1980s yuppie who wants to fly in, get the negotiations done quickly, and then fly back to Texas.
But, the young man sees what he has been missing in life — leisure, friendship, real romantic attachments — and is seduced by the people and the place. He comes to regret what his company is planning to do to the area.
The first big whimsical twist in Forsyth’s story is that many of the villagers can’t wait to sell out and reap the consumerist rewards they’ve been denied in their coastal isolation.
Burt Lancaster gives one of his best late performances as Felix Happer, the head of the oil company, who is used to getting whatever he wants out of whoever he asks. Happer becomes annoyed by the delay in Mac’s negotiations and flies in to takeover the business deal himself.
Lancaster was perhaps the most adventurous of all Old Hollywood stars in terms of using his clout to push himself as an actor. He left the United States regularly to find daring work in Europe starting in the early 1960s. Unlike such peers as Henry Fonda and Kirk Douglas, Lancaster was willing to take enormous chances with his “image” by working with decidedly anti-Hollywood filmmakers such as Luchino Visconti and Bernardo Bertolucci.
Lancaster’s determination to keep expanding his range as an artist continued into his 60s and 70s. As a result, the star had two big late-in-life triumphs — first in his great Oscar-nominated performance as the sad old numbers runner in Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City” (1981) and then two years later as the scary and funny mogul in the Forsyth comedy.
(“Local Hero” will be screened tonight at 8 p.m. at the Fairfield Theatre Company, 70 Sanford St. Doors will open at 7 p.m.)
Sunday’s issue of “T” — The New York Times Style Magazine — had a characteristically smart piece on actors by Lynn Hirschberg.
Called “Screen Test: Can These TV Guys Make the Leap to the Cineplex?” the article looked at a bunch of current stars of the small screen to see if they have what it takes to become “big-time movie stars.”
TV has been a breeding ground for movie stars almost since its invention, with James Dean and Paul Newman making the leap in the 1950s, James Garner and Steve McQueen doing likewise in the 1960s, and John Travolta becoming a multimedia icon in the 1970s.
It used to be said that there was a wall between TV and movies — that the nature of stardom in TV was different from what paying audiences wanted to see at the movies — but that has never really been true. Indeed, the biggest male star of the modern era, Clint Eastwood, was already a household name from “Rawhide” on TV before he made his first major film, “A Fistful of Dollars” in 1964.
Some of candidates in the Hirschberg piece are Taylor Kitsch of “Friday Night Lights” (above), Eric Dane of “Grey’s Anatomy,” and Joshua Jackson of “Fringe.”
The elements that constitute a movie star seem to differ from person to person and sex to sex. (Hirschberg’s choices skew to a female, beefcake view of male stardom — she sees Kitsch as a “sex god”).
There are stars whose power is derived, for the most part, from being sex symbols to the opposite sex — Richard Gere for women, Scarlett Johansson for men. There are bigger stars who are enjoyed by both sexes — Julia Roberts and George Clooney both fall into this very remunerative category.
If you talk to people in the movie industry, however, a real star is someone whose presence above the title of a film is almost guaranteed to sell tickets. These folks are very rare and most often are not the ones whose faces are on the covers of mass-circulation magazines. Clooney has had as many flops as hits, Meryl Streep is a great and remarkably versatile 59-year-old actress who never had a global box-office blockbuster until “Mamma Mia!” opened last summer.
By the Hollywood measure, Adam Sandler is probably the biggest “star” of our time — a critically reviled, press-shy comic actor whose pictures almost always score big at the box-office (and he has been doing this for well over a decade).
From the mid-1960s through the end of the century, Eastwood’s box-office consistency was extraordinary. While the press and the Oscar voters worshipped at the shrines of Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis et al, Eastwood was a sure-fire ticket seller all over the world.
Like Sandler, Eastwood largely eschewed personal press coverage and was viewed in some circles as a one-note actor, but he was money-in-the-bank for the studios that released his films, whether he appeared in westerns, urban cop pictures or one of those zany orangutan comedies. It is because of all the money Eastwood generated for Warner Bros. and Universal for more than 30 years that he was finally given the power (and the financing) to make off-beat “arty” pictures like “Changeling” and “Million Dollar Baby” in recent years.
Right wing revisionists have been tearing away at FDR’s reputation since January in a hilariously misguided attempt to attack Barack Obama’s recovery plans (with their echoes of the Great Depression and the New Deal).
The gist of the conservative spiel has been that FDR didn’t end the Depression with his various social programs 70 years ago, it was World War II that finally bailed out the country.
Perhaps all of this huffing and puffing about Roosevelt is just a way for the right wing pundits to try to keep the rest of us from looking back a mere two decades to ponder the role their hero Ronald Reagan might have played in the mess we are in now.
Reagan has become a secular saint in some quarters — worthy of addition to Mount Rushmore — even though his deregulation mania might have played a major role in the eventual collapse of banking and credit and the financial services industry.
The acolytes also conveniently overlook the Iran-Contra scandal, the savings and loan debacle and such small Reagan embarrassments as his taking part in a Nazi memorial ceremony at the Bitburg cemetery in Germany (above) or having a secret second inauguration ceremony (at midnight) to please his wife’s astrologer.
The bizarre elevation of Reagan to the status of being a “great” president worthy of comparison with Washington and Lincoln is the subject of a long overdue reassessment in Will Bunch’s new book “Tear Down This Myth” (Free Press) which is subtitled “How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future.”
Bunch makes a good case that the Reagan years were a Hollywood-style fantasy that the country shared for eight years.
Since then, the myth has been carefully edited for maximum sentiment and nostalgia. Ronnie’s “performance” as president was so good, Bunch asserts, that the fantasy has endured and even grown over the past two decades.
“Like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ the story line has (become) more iconic in the frequent rebroadcasts than when it was actually in theaters. The postpresidency Reagan became not just the most revered figure in modern American history but so much more — a kind of homespun public intellectual…,” the author writes.
Few bother to look back at what Reagan actually said and did as president and, before that, as governor of California.
“Politicians — mostly Republicans but even some Democrats — routinely run for office claiming they will be another Reagan, often by promising things that were the exact opposite of what the 1980s president accomplished, or didn’t,” Bunch notes.
“His promise to shrink government was uttered so often that many acolyties believe it really happened, but in fact Reagan expanded the federal payroll, added a new cabinet post, and created a huge debt that ultimately tripped up his handpicked successor, George W. Bush. What he did shrink was government regulation and oversight, which critics have linked to a series of unfortunate events from the savings-and-loan crisis of the late 1980s to the subprime mortgage crisis of the late 2000s.”
Rosemary Harris is part of a new breed of mystery writers who are breaking through the arbitrary barrier that once divided the crime fiction genre — with the tough and grisly “hard-boiled” novels on one side of the fence and the lighter and warmer “cozies” on the other side.
Harris’s new book “The Big Dirt Nap” (Minotaur Books) is the follow-up to last year’s “Pushing Up Daisies” which introduced amateur sleuth Paula Holliday, a Manhattan media pro who decides to give up her life in the city to start a gardening business in Southwestern Connecticut.
Paula is franker and funnier than the traditional cozy mystery heroine. Paula makes it clear that she enjoys sex — even if she hasn’t had much lately — and her speculations about other people’s sexual activities spark some good bawdy asides as she goes about her business.
Like some of the other new writers in the genre, Harris is willing to risk turning off older and more conservative cozy readers with her sophisticated approach to character and comedy. “The Big Dirt Nap” is still what you would call good light entertainment, but you never get the feeling — so prevalent in cozies — that the author is writing down to a presumed mature and rather square readership.
The new book takes Paula to the Eastern reaches of Connecticut where she becomes embroiled in a murder at a hotel near the two Indian casinos. Paula is there at the invitation of her Manhattan TV journalist pal Lucy who is being comped on a press junket.
The Titans Hotel is a slightly seedy joint that depends on the cheapskate gamblers who don’t want to fork over bigger bucks to stay at one of the casinos. Shortly after she arrives, Paula meets Nick Vigoriti who hits on her in the bar and then helps her use a tricky key card to get into her room.
Paula is drawn to the guy — in an on-the-road, one-night-stand sort of way — but decides she’s on “an all girls weekend” and gives Nick the brush off.
Nick soon turns up dead in the Dumpster behind the Titans and Paula is — briefly — a suspect since she was one of the last people seen with him.
The story expands as Paula becomes worried by her no-show friend’s cryptic text messages.
Harris uses the locale for an acerbic look at Indian gaming and life in the towns surrounding the casinos. The suspense builds as Paula starts to wonder if something terrible has happened to Lucy and if it might be connected to the murder at the hotel.
The plotting is as strong as the humor and the characterization so you will probably polish off this highly entertaining novel in a few sittings.