National Symphony Orchestra

The National Symphony Orchestra
Sir Mark Elder, conductor
Stephen Hough, piano
David Hardy, cello
Daniel Foster, viola

Mark Elder is a passionate advocate of his countryman Elgar, so he made a few remarks before In the South to set in in Elgar’s larger oeuvre. He observed that the central maestoso section, with its open fifths, represented the ancient Roman influence—not only in Italy, but also in England. Elder said the section particularly represented ancient Roman roads, which go on and on and on in straight lines. Even in today’s England, he said, you can still find ten-mile stretches of perfectly straight roadbed. And he said that the following folk-like melody that followed was of Elgar’s own invention, but was a barcarolle like any gondolier might sing to his sweetheart. As you might imagine, the performance was lush and convincing.

Hough’s performance of the Liszt was rousing and energetic, but I thought it was a bit erratic. In particular, there was a long trill near the top of the keyboard in the slow movement that I thought was too loud. Yes, it was an impressive trill, but the musical interest lies elsewhere—in the piano, and in the orchestra—and the trill didn’t warrant the volume.

I thought there were a couple of balance problems in Don Quixote, too. Yes, the tenor tuba is part of the ensemble playing the role of Sancho Panza, but it was almost always too loud during its entrances. Interestingly, the tenor tuba was sitting in the midst of the strings, behind the cellos and in front of the double basses, and not with the rest of the bass, presumably to highlight its solo role. Hardy sat on a platform at the front of the cello section, facing the conductor, and not downstage like a full-blown soloist. I suppose this was because he played with the section when he wasn’t playing solo lines, so Elder was treating him as a sectional soloist. The concertmaster doesn’t need a platform in, say, Scheherazade, because he’s already down stage, so the platform gives the cellist a bit of a boost in being heard. In some of the early passages, the orchestra covered Hardy’s solos, but the balance improved as the work continued.

The playing in the Strauss was fine. This has always been one of my favorite Strauss tone poems, and it’s not one that gets performed (or played on the radio) frequently. Elder made some remarks about this work, too. He described the wandering line introduced by the violas at the beginning of the work as representing Quixote reading and reading, while the other parts of the orchestra represented the topics he was reading. These themes pile up and intertwine until, finally, Quixote goes bonkers, and sets out on his adventures.

I heard the wind machine in the seventh variation, but I didn’t see it. The mechanical wind machines I’m familiar with are these large round things that the percussionist cranks, faster and slower to vary the pitch. I saw a percussionist move after the variation, and if he was the wind machine player, then either it was offstage (except I didn’t notice him entering), or it was somehow synthesized on a keyboard (one of which did seem to be in the vicinity he was leaving). That’s progress, I guess.

Program

Edward Elgar In the South, Op. 50, “Alassio”

Franz Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major
  • Allegro maestoso
  • Quasi adagio—Allegretto vivace
  • Allegro marziale animato

Stephen Hough, piano

Intermission

Richard Strauss Don Quixote, Op. 35
  • Introduction
  • Don Quixote, the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance
  • Sancho Panza
  • Variation I: The Adventure of the Windmill
  • Variation II: The Battle with the Sheep (“The Victorious battle against the army of the great emperor Alifanfarón”)
  • Variation III: The Dialogue of Knight and Squire
  • Variation IV: The Unhappy Adventure with a Precession of Penitents
  • Variation V: The Knight’s Vigil
  • Variation VI: The Meeting with Dulcinea
  • Variation VII: The Ride through the Air
  • Variation VIII: The Unhappy Voyage in the Enchanted Boat
  • Variation IX: The Combat with the Supposed Magicians
  • Variation X: The Duel with the Knight of the White Moon
  • Finale: The Death of Don Quixote

David Hardy, cello
Daniel Foster, viola

Annapolis Symphony Orchestra

Annapolis Symphony Orchestra
José-Luis Novo, conductor
Peter Serkin, piano
Maryland Hall for the Performing Arts

Maestro Novo chose a rather ambitious program for this concert. While most everybody else is busy celebrating the bicentenaries of Wagner and Verdi, Novo was celebrating the centenary of Benjamin Britten, who is one of the truly great composers. (The BSO and the NSO are both celebrating with performances of his monumental War Requiem. I didn’t see the NSO performance, but I’ll see the BSO performance next week.)

And to make things interesting, he didn’t go with the obvious choices: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, or the Four Interludes from Peter Grimes. Novo chose an early work, the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, because he also wanted to play a work by Bridge himself, The Sea. (Bridge was Britten’s teacher, and Britten was Bridge’s only pupil.) The Variations are based on the second of Bridge’s Three Idylls for String Quartet—actually, just on the “A” section (the brief work is in A-B-A form, with a much more energetic “B” section). Although it wasn’t on the program, Novo had the chairs of the string sections play the Idyll before the full string sections played the Britten. This was a really nice touch, because it was clear how Britten took the theme and transformed it. Because the “A” section is really through–composed, and not your typical theme for variations, Britten’s variations are a lot looser and wide ranging. They’re not like his variations on Purcell’s Abdelazer, or Brahms’s Haydn Variations; they’re more like Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Alas, the Britten did not play to the ASO’s strengths—or rather, it played to their weakness. The ASO strings often lack precision when playing long, exposed lines in unison. This was particularly noticeable in the second variation, where the first and second violins played unison in their upper registers. They were much better in the faster sections, like the Moto perpetuo eighth variation.

Bridge’s The Sea went very well (the rest of the orchestra filed in for this work). Although written half a decade after Debussy’s La Mer, Bridge’s work is somewhat less modern. The program notes say Bridge was particularly influenced by Ravel and Scriabin, but I thought the resemblance to Elgar (a slightly older contemporary) was more evident. Britten, at the tender age of 10, was so enamored of the third movement, “Moonlight”, that he decided that Bridge would be his teacher. I didn’t quite see what Britten found so revelatory, but I enjoyed the work, and was glad of the opportunity to hear it.

The Brahms second piano concerto is my favorite work of all time, edging out Mahler’s Seventh and Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder. And I was really looking forward to hearing Peter Serkin, who was one of the preeminent pianists of his generation, and perhaps less heralded because of his affinity for the more demanding works in the repertory. (When I was in college, I heard him perform Messiaen’s Vingt regards sure l’enfant-Jesus.) But I was disappointed by his playing. I thought the opening arpeggios were stilted, and his playing was overly cautious. For example, the diverging arpeggios which recur throughout the first movement were very studied and carefully played; they were accurate, but instead of being exuberant, they were wooden. There were occasional flashes of bravura playing: it really depended on what technique was required (thundering octaves and scales were fine). The shape of things was fine, the phrasing was good, but it was not a relaxed performance. (Plus, Serkin has picked up this annoying habit of stomping with his left heel. It’s really, really loud.) Todd Thiel did a good job on the treacherous cello solo in the third movement.


I was invited to a reception after the concert. Maestro Novo was there, along with a couple of the string players (not Serkin). I had the opportunity to chat with the maestro, and to tell him (again) how much I appreciated his choice in programming. The lady at the wine and soda table, who was the organizer of the event, was a little distressed at the size of the crowd. There were maybe 30 or so people there, but apparently twice as many had RSVP’ed. I suggested it might have been the late hour; it was a long program, well over two hours (it was 2230 when we had this conversation), and since the ASO audience skews old, they probably just went home.

And I wondered why I was invited (not that I minded). There were lots of folks who were Trustees, or on the Board of Directors. There must be scores of subscribers like me, and dozens of donors (and I’m not even one of their high–rolling donors). And nobody from Development approached me about increasing my giving, or volunteering services or anything. Do you suppose they actually invited everybody, and this was all who accepted and then showed up? That seems so sad, when all they were trying to do was something nice, no strings attached.

Program

Benjamin Britten Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10
  • Introduction and Theme
  • Adagio
  • March
  • Romance
  • Aria italiana
  • Bourée classique
  • Wiener Waltzer
  • Moto perpetuo
  • Funeral march
  • Chante
  • Fugue and finale
Frank Bridge The Sea
  • Seascape
  • Sea–Foam
  • Moonlight
  • Storm

 
Intermission

Johannes Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 83
  • Allegro non troppo
  • Allegro appassionato
  • Andante
  • Allegretto grazioso

Peter Serkin, piano

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Music by Benjamin Britten
Libretto by the composer and Peter Pears
Based on the play by William Shakespeare

After the end of the second act, the woman next to me turned to her friend and said she thought that the opera was “charming”. Really? “On the ground, sleep sound” is ravishing. Britten’s opera is very carefully and cleverly constructed, but you don’t need to know that, because the orchestration choices manifest themselves on a subtle, emotional level. The three main character groups—fairies, mortal lovers, and “rustics” (as Britten calls the rude mechanicals)—have their own sound, and their own styles, so you always know where you are in the plot.

The first act set is a long panorama that slowly scrolls to the right as the action drifts slowly away from Athens and deeper into the woods. The second act is in a green frame with a green floor: the depths of the forest, close to the heart of mystery. The third act stage shifts from the forest to the open air of Athens, with a frame stage for the rustics’ play. Before the opera began, a crude drawing of a house spun slowly up the curtain and out of site, reminding me of Dorothy’s house. At the end, a full-size drawing descends, becoming the house into which the three wedding couples go, and that’s when the very odd stage floor, with it’s projection over the orchestra pit made sense: it’s the shadow of the house.

The costumes were interesting. In the first act, everyone is in basic twentieth–century business attire (although Puck’s and Oberon’s suits are covered with glittery sequins). The rustics are all working class men in their Sunday best, with hats and dark frame glasses. In the second act, the Athenian lovers are in long flowing gowns, sort of like night gowns with flowing trains. By the third act, they’re in long chitons, while Bottom and Flute, as Pyramus and Thisbe, are in 19th-century Graeco-Balkan folk costumes (a fustanella for him, and a long hoop skirt for “her”).

The cast was uniformly strong, but the three standouts (because of the way the parts are written), of course, were Oberon, Bottom, and Puck (listed as “guest artist”, because it’s a spoken part). Britten really was inspired when he cast Oberon as a countertenor, and all the fairies as children. (The quartet of named fairies were particularly good.) The program notes said that Peter Pears played Flute in the original production. Since he had generally had starring roles in Britten’s previous works, I thought that was commendable—especially since, at fifty years old, he wouldn’t have been particularly believable as an Athenian lover. But Flute has his flash of glory with his mini–mad scene during the play–within–a–play, so I suppose Pears got the attention he needed. I had to look it up to confirm it (because I always get the pairings mixed up), but the vocal ranges of the Athenian lover pairs are the same as those in Così fan tutte, which is undoubtedly an Easter egg homage from Britten (just like Tytania’s snide remark in response to Snout’s Sprechgesang as the wall).

Cast:
Oberon, King of the Fairies Iestyn Davies
Tytania, Queen of the Fairies Kathleen Kim
Puck Riley Costello
Theseus, Duke of Athens Ryan McKinny
Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons,
betrothed to Theseus
Tamara Mumford
Lysander, in love with Hermia Joseph Kaiser
Demetrius, in love with Hermia Elizabeth DeShong
Helenaa, in love with Demetrius Erin Wall
Bottom, a weaver Matthew Rose
Quince, a carpenter Patrick Carfizzi
Flute, a bellows–mender Barry Banks
Snug, a joiner Paul Corona
Snout, a tinker Scott Scully
Starveling, a tailor Evan Hughes
Cobweb, a fairy Seth Ewing-Crystal
Peaseblossom, a fairy Kiki Porter
Mustardseed, a fairly Benjamin P. Wenzelberg
Moth, a fairy Thatcher Pitkoff
Solo trumpet Billy R. Hunter, Jr
Cast:
Conductor James Conlon
Director Tim Albery
Set and Costume Designer Antony McDonald
Lighting Designer Matthew Richardson
Choregrapher Philippe Giradeau
Children’s Chorus Director Anthony Piccolo
Assistant Stage Directors Peter McClintock, J. Knighten Smit
English Coach Felicity Palmer
Ass’s Head Ralph Lee

The Nose

The Nose
Music by Dmitry Shostakovich
Libretto by the composer, with Yevgeny Zamyatin, Georgy Ionin, and Alexander Preis
Based on the story by Nikolai Gogol
Metropolitan Opera

The Nose is Shostakovich in his spiky, challenging mood. For the most part, there aren’t the searing melodies of the First Cello Concerto, or even the academic refinement of the 24 Preludes and Fugues. But the modern, discordant sounds suit the story, which is remarkably surreal, given when it was written. (Or maybe not: Gogol is a contemporary of Edgar Allen Poe.)

The video projections were particularly compelling in setting the bizarre reality of the story. Strange shadow images of people and horses seemed to assist in pulling the set components across the stage. A couple of the interludes featured the shadows of three-dimensional statues slowly rotating: in one instance, the strange jutting lines resolve into an outline bust of Shostakovich; in another, two rotating components finally resolve into the Nose astride a horse (an image which featured in many other projections). The tone of these projections reminded me of Fantastic Planet, a rather trippy French/Czech science fiction cartoon from 1973.

Although I enjoyed seeing the opera, I don’t think I’d listen to it. I avoided listening to it on a Met broadcast, because I didn’t want to hear it before I saw it. I wanted to get the full effect of a first–time experience. And I’m glad I did. This is very much a theater piece, and I don’t think it would work as fully without the visual of a human–sized nose capering and scampering across the stage, or without the crowds in their strange postures.

Interestingly, this production did nothing to hide Kovalyov’s nose once it went missing. (I thought that maybe Szot was going to surreptitiously slip a mask on as he was tossing and turning in bed at the beginning of the opera.) In the end, it didn’t matter (especially from where I was sitting); Szot held a handkerchief in front of his nose when he wasn’t singing, and the suspension of disbelief (or the acceptance of metaphor, as a friend put it) kicked in after that. And the scene where the life–sized nose is beaten down to its normal size was really well done. Even from my vantage point in the eyrie of the hall, I didn’t see the nose disappear once he was surrounded by the mob.

At this performance, I was surrounded by 30 or so high school boys, who were apparently there on a high school field trip. I’m not sure what they got out of it. I don’t think they were students of Russian, and I think a couple of them slept through most of it (a remarkable accomplishment). This isn’t the opera I would have chosen for a school field trip. The Nose may not be as inaccessible or challenging as Lulu or Wozzeck, but it’s no Carmen. I guess you go when the schedule works.

Cast:
Kovalyev Paulo Szot
Police Inspector Andrey Popov
The Nose Alexander Lewis
Act I
Scene 1: The Shop of the Barber Yakovlevich
Ivan Yakovlevich Vladimir Ognovenko
Scene 2: The Home of the Barber Yakovlevich and his Wife
Ivan Yakovlevich Vladimir Ognovenko
Praskovya Osipovna Claudia Waite
Scene 3: On the Embankment
Constable Grigory Soloviov
Ivan Yakovlevich Vladimir Ognovenko
Scene 4: Interlude
Scene 5: In Kovalyov’s Bedroom
Ivan, Kovalyov’s servant Sergey Skorokhodov
Scene 6: Gallop
Scene 7: Kazan Cathedral
Female Voice Ying Fang
Male Voice Tony Stevenson
Footman Brian Kontes
Act II
Scene 1: Outside the Police Office
Porter of the Police Inspector Sergey Skorokhodov
A cabby Gennady Bezzubenkof
Scene 2: The Newspaper Office
The newspaper clerk James Courtney
The Countess’s footman Ricardo Lugo
Caretakers Brian Kontes, Keven Burdette, Matt Boehler, Joseph Barron, Grigory Soloviov, Philip Cokorinos, Kevin Glavin, Christopher Job
Scene 3: Entr’acte
Scene 4: Kovalyov’s Apartment
Ivan, Kovalyov’s servant Sergey Skorokhodov
Act III
Scene 1: The outskirts of St Petersburg
Policemen Brian Kontes, Sergey Skorokhodov, Keven Burdette, Matt Boehler, Michael Myers, Joseph Barron, Brian Frutiger, Tony Stevenson, Jeffrey Behrens, Grigory Soloviov
Father Philip Cokorinos
A mother Maria Gavrilova
Sons Michael Forest, Christopher Job
Pyotr Fedorovitch Todd Wilander
Ivan Ivanovitch Ricardo Lugo
A matron Theodora Hanslowe
A pretzel vendor Claudia Waite
Coachman Kevin Glavin
Scene 2: The drawing rooms of Kovalyov and Madame Podtochina
Ivan, Kovalyov’s servant Sergey Skorokhodov
The doctor Gennady Bezzubenkof
Yaryzhkin Adam Klen
Mme Podtochina’s daughter Ying Fang
Mme Podtochina Barbara Dever
Scene 3: Intermezzo
Gentlemen Sergey Skorokhodov, Michael Myers, Brian Frutiger, Brian Kontes, Kevin Burdette, Joseph Barron, Tony Stevenson
Old man Jeffrey Behrens
Newcomers Michael Forest, Grigory Soloviov
Black Marketeer Matt Boehler
Distinguished Colonel Todd Wilander
Dandys Philip Cokorinos, Michael Myers
Someone Kevin Glavin
Students Sergey Skorokhodov, Brian Frutiger, Joseph Barron, Christopher Job, Tony Stevenson, Jeffrey Behrens, Todd Wilander, Richard Lugo
A respectable lady Kathryn Day
Respectable lady’s sons Kevin Burdette, Matthew Boehler
Khosrev–Mirza Vladimir Ognovenko
Scene 4: Kovalyov’s apartment
Ivan, Kovalyov’s servant Sergey Skorokhodov
Ivan Yakovlevich Vladimir Ognovenko
Scene 5: The Nevsky Prospect
Kovalyov’s acquaintances Brian Kontes, Michael Myers, Kevin Burdette
Mme Podtochina’s daughter Ying Fang
Mme Podtochina Barbara Dever
Acting ensemble Snezhana Chernova, Frank Colardo, Svetlana Kifa, Stass Klassen, Vadim Krol, Erik Parillo, Dan Renkin, Dina Rose Rivera, Sasha Semin, Tatyana Zbirovskaya
Crew:
Conductor Pavel Smelkov
Director William Kentridge
Stage Directors William Kentridge, Luc De Wit
Set Designers William Kentridge, Sabine Theunissen
Costume Designer Greta Goiris
Video Compositor and Editor Catherine Meyburgh
Lighting Designer Urs Schönebaum
Chorus Master Donald Palumbo
Video Control Kim Gunning
Assistant Stage Directors Eric Einhorn, Sarah Ina Meyers

Two Boys

Two Boys
Music by Nico Muhly
Libretto by Craig Lucas
U. S. Premiere
Metropolitan Opera

Warning: Contains spoilers below.

This was the opening night of the U.S. premiere of Two Boys. I didn’t realize that, but it meant that I got to see the composer, the librettist, and others (the choreographer and the projection designers?) take a bow at the end. The production has been workshopped since the London premiere a couple of years ago, given Muhly the opportunity to create “a more focused ending”. But there are still some issues, which I’ll discuss in a moment.

First, the production itself. I really enjoyed it. Muhly has a very rich musical vocabulary, and he writes really well for choral ensembles. His sensitivity in setting English text reminded me of Menotti more than Britten (whom Muhly claims as a major influence). He has worked closely with Philip Glass, but I think the forward impetus in his music is more like John Adams or Michael Torke. (There was one brief passage that particularly reminded me of Nixon in China.)

The overall production is dark, because of all the video projections, but that somehow suits the subject. The projections included the texts of the chat rooms, which appeared as the characters sang them. (Amusingly, the Met Titles preserved the internet spellings of the chat room: “r u there”, “c u l8r”, and so forth. Except for the occasionaly “lol”, which got typed, but not sung.) The chorus, representing the faceless masses of the internet, often singing overlapping and unintelligible text, often sat in rows of chairs, with their faces illuminated by their laptops, while abstract visuals and fragments of their chats scrolled across the back of the stage. The chorus was supplemented by a corps of dancers, who writhed and twisted among them. This was an addition since the London production, to lessen the static nature of the chorals scenes. One reviewer thought it was superfluous, but I thought it was an effective manifestation of the turbulent emotions that remain hidden and unspoken on teh interwebs.

There were also fragments of videos from the surveillance camera at the shopping mall where the stabbing takes place, which gives a gritty realism to the opera, but also is part of the undercutting of the plot. Which brings me to the “issues”. I think the opera has been misrepresented. The publicity makes it seem all about the two boys at the center of the story: one stabbing the other on the loading dock of a store. But it’s at least as much about the detective who is investigating the case. Think of Law & Order: Criminal Intent crossed with Tron. The guy next to me thought the detective’s back story and her issues with her invalid mother were superfluous. (She doesn’t want to take the case, because the boy who has been stabbed is the same age as the son she gave up in favor of her career. Apparently she divorced a husband, too, but not much is said about that. So did she give up the son before marrying, or only custody? The break would only be irrevocable if the former.) I suppose it was part of an attempt to “round out” the character, and I thought it was tenuous at best, but it was necessary, if only so that a chance remark by the detective’s mother could give her the clue to unlocking the case.

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* HERE BE SPOILERS *
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I was bothered by the casting of a young baritone as Jake, the boy who is stabbed and ultimately dies, because it has been made clear in the publicity, and in the video that runs on the scrim before the opera begins, that Jake is thirteen years old. (It’s a bit easier to accept a young tenor as Brian, who is sixteen.) It isn’t until late in the opera, when the boy soprano who had a solo in the Evensong sequence swaps places with the guy singing Jake, that I realized that the young man/baritone was Jake’s online persona, and that Brian didn’t realize Jake was thirteen until he shows up at Brian’s house. This also explains why Brian is so weirded out when the “boy soprano” in the choir keeps staring at him, when he thinks he’s going to meet Jake’s sister Rebecca at church. Jake has invented a whole cast of internet personas, using the names of his sister, a friend of his mother, and (perhaps) the family gardener, in order to get close to Brian. Part of the attraction is sexual—Jake gives Brian a blow job when he spends the night—but part is manipulative: Jake is goading Brian into killing him so that he (Jake) won’t have to endure a painful death from an inoperable brain tumor.

And that’s the clue that the detective’s mother provides to her computer–illiterate daughter: that it’s all a masquerade. On the internet, as the New Yorker cartoon says, nobody knows you’re a dog. It all makes sense at the end, of course, but the big reveal is a bit undercut, because the reveal that Jake–the–baritone is a creation of Jake–the–treble is itself undercut by knowing a priori that Jake is only thirteen—hence my confusion at the listed casting. (The boy soprano is credited only as “Boy soprano”, and not “IRL Jake”.)

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* HERE END THE SPOILERS *
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The guy next to me at the Met thought that this opera would be too easily dated, and thus wouldn’t really enter the repertory (although he was a big fan of Muhly’s music). And I suppose it is fixed in time (viz., 2001): that’s about as late as you can get to have a middle–aged professional woman be so totally ignorant of the internet. Even her boss is reasonably well clued in. My counter to that was that Menotti’s The Consul is fairly rooted in time—the Cold War—and that doesn’t prevent it from being revived. (Not often enough, I think; it’s unjustly neglected, and possibly Menotti’s best work.)

And the reviewers in The Washington Post (Anne Midgette) and The New York Times (Anthony Tommasini) also complained that the characters weren’t rounded enough, they were two–dimensional. As if the characters in Il Trovatore or Norma have such depth? The title character of Rigoletto has depth, but not so much the rest of the cast. (The Duke is all about sex; that’s all you need to know about him. And Gilda is really a simpleton, a fool for love, albeit a very expressive one.) So from that point of view, I think the opera is being a bit harshly over–judged. And if it becomes a neglected jugendwerk, like Puccini’s Le Villi, well, I guess there are worse fates. (I saw Le Villi a couple of years ago at Opera Vivente, and I thought it held up rather well. Puccini had already “found his voice”, it’s no more or less profound than Giselle.)

A quibble about the credits: they list Richard Cox as the “Celebrant”, when he really should be the “Officiant”. Muhly sets the whole opening of Evensong: the Preces, and the singing of Psalm 133 (with its subcontextual brethren dwelling in unity).

Cast:
Anne Strawson, Detective Inspector Alice Coote
Liam, Detective Chief Inspector Ennis Petersen
Doctor Marco Nisticò
Cynthia, Jake’s mother Caitlin Lynch
Brian Paul Appleby
Rebecca Jennifer Zetlan
Brian’s mother Maria Zifchak
Brian’s father Kyle Pfortmiller
Americal suburban moms Anne Nonnemacher, Maria D’Amato
American suburban girl Ashley Emerson
Celebrant Richard Cox
Boy soprano Andrew Pulver
Anne’s mum Judith Forst
Fiona Sandra Piques Eddy
American Congressman Noah Baetge
American Congressional page Juan José de León
Jake Christopher Bolduc
Peter Keith Miller
Goth girl Sarah Mostov
Crew:
Conductor David Robertson
Director Bartlett Sher
Set Designer Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer Catherine Zuber
Lighting Designer Donald Holder
Projections and Animation 59 Productions:
Leo warner, Mark Grimmer, Nicol Scott, Peter Stenhouse
Choreographer Hofesh Shechter
Chorus master Donald Palumbo
Dramaturg Paul Cremo
Fight Director Shad Ramsey
Assistant Choreograhper Christopher Evans
Assistant Stage Directors Jonathon Loy, Daniel Rigazzi, Kathleen Smith Belcher
English Coach Erie Mills

Detroit

Detroit
By Lisa D’Amour
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

So it’s just the way things worked out, but maybe I haven’t made the cheeriest choices of plays to see while furloughed. First Rancho Mirage, in which a couple is quietly going bankrupt while another couple’s marriage is disintegrating; now, Detroit, in which a couple’s lives unravel when he gets downsized and a couple of not-quite-recovered drug addicts move in next door.

This is one of those plays you can’t really call “enjoyable”, because it’s too disturbing and thought provoking. We really don’t know our neighbors like my generation used to; although even in my neighborhood, I don’t recall anyone going next door to borrow a cup of sugar. Still, our parents did get together for coffee and the like, people got invited over to dinner, kids roamed the neighborhood and beyond. (Shortly after the Beltway opened, a friend and I would creep through the drainage pipe under the inner loop and go exploring in the median, which was a small nature preserve with a running stream, and, if you went far enough south, a dam that had been built by beavers.) People don’t do that sort of thing these days, particularly because you might run into a pair of wackos like the two new neighbors. And yet, it’s Kenny’s and Sharon’s freespiritedness (once they fall of the wagon) that pushed Ben and Mary to the breaking point that allows them to move forward (although burning their house down might seem a bit extreme).

The set was really effective. Woolly’s backstage was filled with riser seating on the “north” side of the stage, which bisected the seating area. The backs of two two-storey houses rose at either end, and the small backyards abutted in the center. It’s a tricky layout, because occasionally an actor will only face half the audience when making a reaction-shot grimace. (I missed a couple of looks like that because a deck umbrella blocked my view, but fortunately it got taken down fairly quickly.)

There was a fair amount of mayhem in the play, including a couple of bodily injuries that were realistically done. Kenny gets his head cut when the aforementioned umbrella collapses, and Ben gashes his shin when he he steps through a plank in his neighbor’s unfinished deck. I know Ben’s blood pack was probably hidden under his pant leg the whole time, but I was completely surprised by Kenny’s bloody scalp. I guess the blood pack must have been hidden in the umbrella. Both injuries were so well done that they looked real.

This was an excellent cast, and there was also an excellent sense of ensemble. This was certainly an auspicious opening to Woolly’s season.

Cast:
Sharon Gabriela Fernández-Coffey
Kenny Danny Gavigan
Ben Tim Grtman
Mary Emily K. Townley
Frank Michael Willis
Crew:
Director John Vreeke
Set Designer Tom Kamm
Costume Designer Ivania Stack
Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills
Sound Designer Christopher Baine
Video Designer Erik Pearson
Fight Choreographer Joe Isenberg
Production Dramaturg Miriam Weisfeld
Production Stage Manager William Cruttenden III

Rancho Mirage

Rancho Mirage
By Steven Dietz
Olney Theatre Center
Olney Theatre Mainstage

The set for Rancho Mirage is stunning. It’s all unpainted wood, with this enormous window at the back, looking out over a lake to a golf course on the far side. It’s all very expansive and open. What takes in this living room, however, is rather convoluted and maybe even claustrophobic. The characters are all hemmed in and intertwined by shared secrets, some of which are a bit hard to take.

Steven Dietz apparently churns out plays like a machine—thirty original plays, and ten adaptations, in about as many years. I’ve never heard of any of the others, or of him, for that matter, so I wonder how perfunctory his oeuvre is. Rancho Mirage isn’t a bad play; it’s entertaining enough (at least in the first act; the second spirals rather grimly in on itself). But there are some secrets that don’t seem consistently kept.

For example, Diane Dahner tears into her friends Louise Parker and Trevor Neese when the latter admit that they vacationed in the same small Italian village at the same time as Diane and her husband… but they didn’t tell them, and managed to avoid them for ten days. (Diane is upset, because vacationing in Cortona was her idea, and she expected Louise and Trevor to join them; but the latter had claimed to have gone to Niagara Falls instead.) And yet not long after, we learn that Diane had, in fact, spotted Louise and Trevor in Cortona shortly after they all got there, and she had lunch with Trevor at the enoteca that both couples favored. I suppose I’d need to see the play again, or read the script, but it strikes me (after the fact) that Diane’s tirade doesn’t ring true, given her complete knowledge and lack of surprise. There are a couple of other revelations that don’t like up—secrets in the pasts of some of the non-married couples, that you think would have caused the characters to behave differently.

As I mentioned, the second act gets rather grim, and here it reminded me of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, where the characters’ revelations become increasingly destructive. Rancho Mirage doesn’t have the cruelty and vituperation that God of Carnage does, but it’s just as dark. At least Reza’s play left things at the bottom of the pit; Dietz’s uplifting ending doesn’t quite work (to my mind).

The six main actors (there’s a seventh with a very small part near the end) are all fine, established local actors, so I’m not sure why they had to be miked. Perhaps it was for the benefit of the geriatric audience. (I wonder if the audience skews younger for the Friday and Saturday evening performances, and if they leave off the mikes. Probably not.)


I see Olney has finally announced its holiday musical for December 2014: Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Seriously? I’ve never seen the film, primarily because I don’t approve of whitewashing Andersen’s tale, and I don’t think I can handle the saccharine music. So that’s one ticket I’ll be turning in for a charitable donation.

Cast:
Diane Dahner Tracy Lynn Olivera
Nick Dahner James Konicek
Louise Parker (Neese) Tonya Beckman
Pam Caldwell Susan Lynskey
Trevor Neese Paul Morella
Charlie Caldwell Michael Russotto
Julie Sydney Lemmon
Crew:
Director Jason Loewith
Scenic Designer Russell Parkman
Costume Designer Ivania Stack
Lighting Designer Joel Moritz
Sound Designer Veronika Vorel
Production Stage Manager Shari Silberglitt
Director of Production Dennis A. Blackledge

Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure
By William Shakespeare
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Lansburgh Theatre

Shakespeare’s “problem plays” are so called because they lie uneasily between comedy and tragedy; Wikipedia says “the situation faced by the protagonist is put forward by the author as a representative instance of a contemporary social problem”. Measure for Measure, however, is just problematic, and Munby’s staging doesn’t help things. Before the show proper, there was a fifteen-minute cabaret, which put us squarely in the same Berlin as the Cabaret that Christopher Isherwood invented. (Berlin, Vienna, whatever.) It was entertaining enough, but it also established a crucial bit of character background: the Duke is paying particular attention to one of the waiters, seemingly not for the first time. But this time he turns away in disgust, with himself, we presume. So this whole contorted plot is set off by the Duke’s own self-loathing? And just in case we forgot about it, late in the play there’s a brief contact of eyes between the Duke and his erstwhile object of affection, now a prisoner in the jail. This gay subcontext also adds a twist to the Duke’s protest (in the guise of the friar Lodowick) that the Duke isn’t interested in women. (“I never heard the absent duke much detected for women; he was not inclined that way.” III.2)

It doesn’t really help make sense of the play. Throughout the action, the Duke acts as a puppeteer, misdirecting people and causing them all sorts of mental anguish. He’s really one sick puppy, setting up Isabella to denounce Angelo to the Duke, and then subverting her, and letting her continue to think that her machinations were in vain, because her brother has already been executed. And then he has the temerity to ask for her hand in marriage? At least he’s denied that, in this production, because at the last, Isabella abandons him and goes off with the Mother Superior.

I was particularly struck by the scene where Isabella visits her brother in prison, and tells him of Angelo’s offer. At first, Claudio resolves to die, rather than ask his sister to sacrifice her virtue. But then he recoils from the thought of death, and begs Isabella to exchange her virtue for his life. And it was clear to me: Claudio does not believe in God. The only future he sees after his death is his body rotting in the earth. I thought that was a hauntingly modern perspective. His sister, on the other hand, truly believes, as you would expect of a postulant. And it’s this faith of hers that makes her actions, at least, consistent. At another point of the compass (you can hardly say, the other end of the spectrum) is Lucio, who lies continually and slanders everyone. What’s the point in that? A petty self-aggrandizement that brings him to ruin in the end.

Claudio, at least, has a plausible human motivation. He’s a self-centered prig, who abandons his fiancee because her dowry is lost at sea. He has this extreme, self-righteous sense of right and wrong, and when his lust erupts, he thinks he can get away with the same crimes he condemns in others. His arc, at least, makes sense, although being sentenced to marriage for his crimes seems a bit, well, odd. It would seem unfair to Mariana, except that she still seems to want Angelo desperately. Yeah, right.

I really liked the set and the staging. The set consisted of dual-level porticos on three sides, with the paint peeling as an echo of the decadence of the time. For a good bit of the play, panels of grill work and prison bars are rolled on and off, in dizzying formations like a cross between Noh screens and a marching band halftime show. At one point, a guard was trying to unlock one of the doors to let the Duke-as-Friar into an office, and the key didn’t work. I suspect that was an accident, since it went on too long. Fortunately, there was another door at the other end of the wall, and the guard let the Duke through that. For a moment, the audience thought they might simply walk around the wall, and there was a smattering of applause as the two actors took the upstage route.

The actors did well in their characterizations. In particular, Cameron Folmar’s Lucio stood out as the sleazy by-blow of Cabaret’s Emcee and a character out of Oscar Wilde, as did Hugh Nees’s malapropistic Elbow.

Cast:
Vincentio, the Duke Kurt Rhoads
Escalus, a Lord Jack Wetherall
Angelo, the Deputy Scott Parkinson
Lucio Cameron Folmar
Mistress Overdone, a Bawd Naomi Jacobson
Pompey, a Pimp Chris Genebach
Provost Eric Martin Brown
Claudio, a young gentleman Avery Clark
Juliet, beloved of Claudio Katie deBuys
Friar Peter John Lescault
Isabella, sister to Claudio Miriam Silverman
Justice John Lescault
Elbow, a constable Hugh Nees
Froth, a gentleman Ned Noyes
Mariana, engaged to Angelo Natascia Diaz
Abhorson, an executioner Andrew Criss
Barnadine, a prisoner Dan Istrate
Ensemble S. Lewis Feemster, Jacqui Jarrold, Manu Kumasi,
Michael Litchfield, Amber Mayberry, Jack Powers,
Grace Terzian, Jaysen Wright
Crew:
Director Jonathan Munby
Set Designer Alexander Dodge
Costume Designer Linda Cho
Lighting Designer Philip S. Rosenberg
Composer Adam Wernick
Sound Designer Walter Trarbach
Choreographer Daniel Pelzig
Fight Director Robb Hunter
Vocal Coach Ellen O’Brien
Literary Associate Drew Lichtenberg
Assistant Director Gus Heagerty
Production Stage Manager Joseph Smelser
Stage Manager Claire E. Zawa
Assistant Stage Manager Erin C. Patric
German Cabaret Lyrics Drew Lichtenberg
Original English Cabaret Lyrics Martin Hutson

Annapolis Symphony Orchestra

Annapolis Symphony Orchestra
José-Luis Novo, conductor
Mark Kosower, cello

This evening’s performance, being the opening program of the season, began with “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Nothing fancy, like the BSO, just the standard orchestral arrangement. And the audience sang along heartily. (I think the BSO would have sung, too—they have in the past—but the arrangement wasn’t singable.) Based on conversations over the course of the evening, I think the two guys sitting behind me were church musicians—organists, probably. They had pleasant voices, but I noticed that they shifted down an octave for the second half of the anthem. It really is unsingable, even by professionals.

As Novo pointed out in his remarks at the beginning of the second half, all of the works on this program are great, but neglected works; and in the case of Lalo, the composer himself is neglected. (The only thing of his you hear on the radio is the Symphonie espagnole, and that rarely.) Novo pointed out that twenty or thirty years ago, these works were much more common. I remember hearing the Lalo cello concerto fairly frequently on the radio when I was young. I said so to Novo when I spoke to him at the reception after the concert. (The Friends of the ASO were celebrating their 50th year of support to the symphony.) I also told him that I appreciated his occasionally eclectic programming. In fact, one of the reasons I subscribed originally to the ASO (it’s not like they’re really competition for the BSO or the NSO) was the interesting repertory: neglected works, like this evening; “niche” works, like the Spanish works Novo has chosen; and new works (the ASO has actually been fairly active in commissioning smaller works by younger composers).

The opening work was Barber’s Second Essay for orchestra. This work really suited the orchestra, and they made a good case for the work being played more often. The orchestra had a clean, crisp sound (with maybe a couple of brass flubs), and Novo brought the orchestra to a large, full conclusion without letting the sections get out of balance.

Mark Kosower had a full, rich sound in the Lalo. I wonder how much it’s the instrument, how much the player, and how much the acoustics of the hall that make it so easy for some soloists to balance the orchestra. In this case, Kowower had no problems (I don’t think Novo had to worry too much). The Allegro presto trio of the second movement was nice and bouncy. There was a bit of imprecision in the last movement—everybody wasn’t quite together in a few spots. But on the whole, I think this performance also made a good case for the Lalo.

The final work on the program was Sibelius’s First Symphony—again, not the usual choice. (I think I’ve heard the fifth and the seventh a couple of times each in the last few seasons.) Despite being a relatively early work, the First has all the hall marks of Sibelius: the instruments in thirds over a thrumming accompaniment, the modal shapes of melodies, the rhythmic snaps. There were plenty of places for soloists in the orchestra to shine—including the timpanist in the fierce Scherzo. This should be a good season for the orchestra.

Program

Samuel Barber Second Essay, Op. 17
Édouard Lalo Cello Concerto in D minor
  • Prelude: Lento—Allegro maestoso
  • Intermezzo: Andantino con moto—Allegro presto—Andantino, tempo I
  • Introduction: Andante—Allegro vivace

Mark Kosower, cello

 
Intermission

Jean Sibelius Symphony No. 1 in E minor
  • Andante, ma non troppo—Allegro energico
  • Andante (ma non troppo lento)
  • Scherzo: Allegro
  • Finale (Quasi una Fantasia): Andante—Allegro molto

Saint Joan

Saint Joan
By George Bernard Shaw
BEDLAM
Olney Theatre Center
Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab

What a remarkable performance. One woman playing St Joan, and then three men playing all the other parts, and, except for just a couple of moments, I never had any trouble telling which character any given actor was playing. Each character was marked by a bit of body language, or a characteristic vocal inflection—regardless of which actor was playing him. The Mulitz-Gudelsky theater was stripped bare: the audience was seated on risers on three sides, and the fourth side was the exposed wall (including the service bay door, which opened for a series of entrances and exits in the first act). Apparently this production was trimmed and adjusted from the original, which called for the audience to move around, and even sit on the floor at one point. That just wasn’t going to work with this largely geriatric audience. (I think I was in the youngest 20%.) There was a bit of interaction between the actors and the audience: at one point, a couple of audience members were singled out as examples of sinners, and near the end, one woman in the audience was called upon to read the brief history of Joan’s progression to canonization.

The layout was used to great effect in the trial scene in the third act. The lights were brought way down, with a couple of floods aimed at Joan, while the remaining three actors spoke mostly from the voms and from behind the audience bleachers. This helped give the impression that there were as many actors as parts, because the different parts came from different directions. And when pandemonium breaks out as Joan renounces her confession, the actors’ shouts from behind the audience in the dark really gave the impression of a large crowd.

The final scene, the epilogue in which Joan meets the other characters in some afterlife-like place, found the actors seated amongst the audience. (I guess this would be a problem if the show were completely sold out.) The play was incredibly fast-paced, and the three hours flew by. I can see how BEDLAM gets its reputation, and I’m looking forward to Hamlet.

Cast:
Saint Joan Andrus Nichols
Various (see chart) Ted Lewis
Various (see chart) Tom O’Keefe
Various (see chart) Eric Tucker
Crew:
Director Eric Tucker
Lighting Designer Marc Hurst
Fight Choreographer Trampis Thompson
Production Stage Manager Elisabeth A. Ribar
Director of Production Dennis A. Blackledge
BEDLAM Producing Director Andrus Nichols
BEDLAM Cast for Saint Joan

BEDLAM Cast for Saint Joan (Characters not marked with initials are played by multiple actors)

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