Monday, December 26, 2016

L'Amour de Loin: operatic dream world

Opera may be the most tradition-bound of art forms (on a par with symphony orchestras), but the Metropolitan Opera continues to explore exciting new methods of musical storytelling with its new production of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin (Love from afar).

The production has made headlines because it's only the second opera by a female composer produced in the Met's 133-year history. In addition, it's only the fourth time that a woman has taken the podium -- the Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki.

Far from a gimmick, both women are in the midst of respected careers and it seems a shame that the New York classical music world would seem to be a bit behind Europe and other areas in creating opportunities for female artistic leaders.

Now, L'Amour de Loin (which premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2000) has very little action and practically no change of scene. However, Canadian director Robert LePage and set/costume designer Michael Curry have created a visual world that moves while exploring such non-physical realms as mind and emotion. 

Left to right, Tamara Mumford, Susanna Phillips
 and Eric Owens in L'Amour de Loin
The plot concerns the 12th century French poet and troubador, Jaufré Rudel, who was said to have fallen in love with the Countess of Tripoli (one of the Crusader states in what is now Lebanon) simply from descriptions of her virtues brought to France by pilgrim travelers. He sets sail across the Mediterranean to see her, falls ill on the journey and, upon arrival, dies in her arms.

This is wholly in keeping with improbably opera plots, but as is often the case, plot isn't the main point. Inhabiting the mythical status of the story, L'Amour de Loin explores the quality of purity in love, divorced from love's object. The poetic libretto by Amin Maalouf even asks, "What good is love from afar?"

The undulating sea is suggested by rows of thousands of LED lights suspended across the stage. A pilgrim traveler (Tamara Mumford) and Rudel (Eric Owens) travel in a small boat, but a large set piece resembling a bridge on a single pivot also suggests a boat and, when stationary, a shore or the rim of a castle. The lights swirl with color and are separated by enough space that the chorus seems to rise from the sea.

The work of lighting designer Kevin Adams, lighting image designer Lionel Arnould and sound designer Mark Grey is seamlessly integrated.    

While firmly tonal, Saariaho's music includes electronic sounds. Each character, the chorus and the orchestra is given differentiated music. (I was particularly struck by the nearly-human quality of the woodwind voices.)

Malkki's conducting drew out all the sectional qualities with a clear sense of pace. However, the score's overall flowing, dreamlike quality did produce one unintended effect: my seat companion and I found our eyelids lowering during the first half. At intermission, we agreed that we were so fascinated by what we were seeing and hearing that we were fighting the somnolent urge.

The small cast was thrillingly committed to the music. An announcement before the performance told us that Owens was battling bronchitis, but "he wishes to sing for you." His commanding bass-baritone voice seemed slightly diminished in power, with an occasional cough, but beautifully expressed Rudel's discontent and longing. I was glad Owens made the effort.

Mumford's pilgrim traveler shuttled between the lovers with a sturdy sense of mission and compassion. As the countess, soprano Susanna Phillips seemed to glow with both physical beauty and wistfulness, soaring in her final moments as she rails against fate and prays to - whom? God or her "love from afar?" The mysterious qualities of love seem to intersect with faith to pose eternal questions.  

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Never stop the presses

I visited an old theatrical friend last fall - a limited Broadway run of the 1928 classic play about newspaper journalism, The Front Page.

As far as I'm concerned, no play to this day has captured better the sheer exuberant adventure of being a newspaper reporter, wrapped in long hours, grubby conditions and low pay. With its brilliant structured plot, rapid-fire overlapping dialogue and snappy pace, The Front Page remains sensationally entertaining nearly 90 years later.

I first encountered this look at the raucous world of Chicago journalism in a 1969 Broadway revival, then in a 1994 production at Canada's Shaw Festival.

The current production, starring Nathan Lane, not only unwittingly illustrates the seismic 21st century changes in the newspaper business but also, in today's overwrought political landscape, how journalism may well save us. That may be too heavy a load to place on the shoulders of what is intended as a comedy, but it's there, nonetheless.

John Slattery, left, as Hildy Johnson and
 Nathan Lane, right, as Walter Burns. Photo/Variety 
It all takes place in the press room of the downtown Criminal Courts Building on the eve of a hanging. Reporters on the courts beat make this room their home - phoning updates to their copy desks while passing the time playing cards and cracking wise.

They seek to drum up stories from the police scanner, leading to one of my favorite lines, from McCue of the City Press: "Is is true, madame, that you were the victim of a Peeping Tom?"

They are a powerful group - representing eight newspapers in a pre-television and certainly pre-Internet age. Radio was just beginning to grow in popularity.

Into their midst swaggers Hildy Johnson (played by John Slattery), star reporter for the Examiner, about to get married and move to New York for the plush confines of advertising and a salary of $150 a week. Not, however, if his editor, Walter Burns (played by Lane, whom we initially hear simply as an irascible voice barking orders over the phone) has anything to say about it.

The condemned man, Earl Williams (John Magaro), makes an improbable jailbreak, Hildy and Walter try to hide him for the scoop of all time, and the mayor (Dann Florek) and sheriff (John Goodman) are exposed as craven and corrupt opportunists.

Hildy tries to break free of the Examiner, Burns and the thrill of chasing the next big story as fiancee Peggy (Halley Feiffer) and her mother (Holland Taylor) grow impatient.

From left, John Goodman, John Slattery and Nathan Lane.
Photo Sara Krulwich/New York Times
It's not fair to compare performances, but the definitive Walter Burns for me was craggy Robert Ryan in the 1969 revival. Lane can play many things, but a tough guy isn't one of them. In fact, I was surprised to see him playing Walter and Slattery playing Hildy; the roles should have been reversed. Where Ryan prowled, Lane bustles.

Douglas W. Schmidt's wood-paneled set beautifully evokes the shabby grandeur of a 19th century municipal building.

The pace of the production could have been faster, however, and the comedy style a little less "knowing." Farce is at its best when it's played completely sincerely; any sort of "comment" on the action dilutes the fun for the audience.

As a former newspaper reporter and current editor, I love this play with all my heart. To me, the most romantic sentence is, "I am a newspaper reporter." The Canadian production got it wrong when it thought it was a critique of the business.

The Front Page glories in the raffish adventure of newspaper journalism, the adrenaline high of chasing the story, beating the competition, pounding out the words - even as it skewers with a clear eye the grubbier aspects of the process.

In covering and meddling in the saga of Earl Williams' escape, Hildy, Walter and the Examiner expose the incompetent sheriff and corrupt mayor - exactly what journalism is supposed to do.

The standup telephones are now smartphones and the typewriters now laptops, but journalism is more necessary than ever.