Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Wagner fans find Valhalla in Vermont

The emerging post-pandemic world is witnessing all kinds of artistic miracles but one of the most astonishing I've seen took place last week -- the resurrection of a wild, improbable idea that Richard Wagner's daunting operatic Ring cycle could be produced in the town of Brattleboro, Vermont (pop. 12,000).

The Latchis marquee also advertised
films in two of the theaters - "Emily"
 and "Beast."
Theatrical reawakening took place with two performances each of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, two of the four Ring operas, in a semi-staged performance at Brattleboro's historic, ornate Latchis Theater.

They were produced by a new company called Tundi Productions, the brainchild of conductor Hugh Keelan and soprano Jenna Rae, who are married.

With accompaniment by highly-skilled local orchestra players conducted with verve and finesse by Keelan, a company of professional opera singers threw their hearts into the work, communicating with dynamic beauty the essence of Wagner's deeply-felt insight into men, women and the gods of legend. 

There were excellent costumes, minimal stage furnishings and props, and video effects and surtitles on a scrim between the upstage orchestra and the downstage playing area. The focus was on the music. 

But first, some background, dating from pre-pandemic times.    

In August, 2019, Tundi staged Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, possibly as a four-hour hors d'oeuvre to the 21 hours of the Ring

Tristan (which gave its name to the production company, i.e. "T und I") and the Ring are usually performed by major companies since they require a full orchestra (plus some instruments that Wagner added, such as anvils and his invention, the Wagner tuba) and the kind of big, tireless voices that can soar above all that sound.

Though I had seen the company's Turandot in 2018, I'd never seen Tristan, coming late to the Wagner canon since my father had had a run-in with the Nazis (a small matter of a year in a prison camp) in World War II and, as a result, Wagner was never heard in my opera-loving household.
I'd had my first taste of the Bard of Bayreuth in the 1990s in Toronto, with Der Fliegende Holländer and my eyes were opened. What was this extraordinary sensory flow of constant music, somehow awakening deep emotion? How did he do that?

However, Götterdämmerung, at the Metropolitan Opera about a decade ago, was my entry portal to the Ring. Now, I'd made fun of those Ring crazies who'd pay many, many dollars to fly around the world for many, many hours of what had to be dense, tedious opera. I wasn't the only one. Who hasn't seen Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny in What's Opera, Doc?, singing "Kill the wabbit!" to the tune of "Ride of the Valkyries?" 

However, a tenor friend was an extra and offered me a ticket in the top ring of the opera house. I came equipped with a sandwich for this 5 1/2-hour marathon -- and was completely blown away by the music and the drama.

Why was Brunnhilde's family so awful and why was she so unlucky in love? Never mind that joking about a horned helmet and stout soprano, Brunnhilde met every betrayal with moral courage and was the true hero of the whole story! I was in tears at Siegfried's funeral music. I was aghast as Brunnhilde rode her faithful steed Grane into that enormous fire at the end.

I staggered out of the opera house, determined to go back and see the other three parts of the Ring - Rheingold, Walküre and Siegfried. I took my then-14-year-old daughter to see Rheingold at the opera house and saw the other two (saving $$) at the Met in HD at a local movie theater.  

The cast of Die Walküre (including the Valkyries)
takes a bow at the Latchis Theater.
Forward to Brattleboro. Tundi's Tristan, with tenor Alan Schneider and Rae in the title roles, measured up to the Met in the most important realm - vocal quality.

As the story of the lovers gave a new dynamic to “I hate you but I love you,” Schneider and Rae poured forth fabulous waves of sound, with Keelan conducting.

You can read that Tristan features "Wagner's unprecedented use of chromaticism, tonal ambiguity, orchestra color and harmonic suspension." Or you can simply marvel at the way the master storyteller keeps you wondering, musically, what's coming next.  

Jenna Rae
The two Ring operas again featured top-notch singers, with Rae as a passionate Brunnhilde, Cailin Marcel Manson as a dignified Wotan (the supreme god), Sondra Kelly as Wotan's wronged wife Fricka, Brian Ember as a riveting Alberich (the resentful dwarf who steals the Rhine gold) -- but it's difficult to single out particular cast members, as the entire ensemble was very strong.

Veda Crewe and Todd Lyon are credited in the program with costume design and I was particularly taken with Crewe's costumes for the giants, Fafner and Fasolt, who build Valhalla for Wotan. They looked like living columns of rock.

Possibly more love could have been given to the sparse stage furnishings and the program, with tiny type and no story synopsis.   
Hugh Keelan

I liked such staging delights as the three Rhinemaidens swirling strings of green lighted cords to symbolize the river's waves and the Valkyries using the balcony and side levels of the theater to join in their "ho jo to ho" battle call. 

With the orchestra driving the "Ride of the Valkyries" and eight sopranos, playing swaggering, badass women flying on magic horses, in full throat, the effect was absolutely thrilling. 
If Tundi can come out of a two-year pandemic pause with such vigor, then its future remains bright. A Ring cycle in maple syrup country? Sign me up!


Monday, August 8, 2022

Traveling down Heartbreak Road

"Fellow Travelers," a story set in the 1950s era of political paranoia dominated by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, is the contemporary work in this year's Seagle Festival opera program in the Adirondack mountain town of Schroon Lake, N.Y.

A work with a tender heart by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce, "Fellow Travelers" is based on the novel by Thomas Malton, which traces the doomed love affair of Timothy Laughlin and Hawkins Fuller, federal government employees.

McCarthy's zeal to root out supposed Communists in the State Department and the U.S. Army also included homosexuals who, the theory went, were security risks as they could be blackmailed by a foreign agent who might threaten to reveal their sexual orientation.

McCarthy (R-Wis.) exploited genuine concern about the rise of the Soviet Union, the Iron Curtain of repression across Eastern Europe, China's conversion to Communism and the conviction and execution of the Rosenbergs for passing classified nuclear weapons information to the Soviet Union.

Throughout the mid-50s, he and his lawyer ally, Roy Cohn, led or influenced campaigns of persecution, accusing people in government, academia, Hollywood and the military of being Communists, Soviet spies or sympathizers, i.e., "fellow travelers."

Daniel Esteban Lugo and Joel Clemens
 in "Fellow Travelers." Photo/Seagle Festival
In the opera, Fuller doesn't have to travel far to find Laughlin, who is a young reporter sitting on a park bench at Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle, reviewing the notes he took for a story about McCarthy's wedding. 

In a pre-show lecture, Seagle Artistic Director Darren K. Woods noted that Dupont Circle was a noted gay cruising area. As homosexual acts were illegal in many states, men often met clandestinely in public places, but were also vulnerable to arrest by undercover police. 

Laughlin, played with shy sweetness by Daniel Esteban Lugo, is drinking milk with his lunch, prompting the self-assured Fuller, known as Hawk, playfully to dub him "Skippy." Fuller, smoothly played by Joel Clemens, recommends Laughlin for a speechwriting job in the office of Sen. Potter, Laughlin sends him a thank-you gift and Fuller drops by Laughlin's apartment.

Daniel Esteban Lugo and Joel Clemens
 in "Fellow Travelers." Photo/Seagle Festival
Laughlin falls for Fuller's tough, savvy magnetism, tinged with danger - "I'm your first. I own you," Fuller tells him.

Spears has written music that brilliantly matches these vocal parts and characterizations, brought to life by Lugo's supple tenor and Clemens' thrilling baritone. They have a lovely duet, relaxing in Laughlin's apartment, just two men on a bed, singing about placing "my head on your arm."

After their sensual encounter, Laughlin has a slight problem - he's a devout Catholic, a denomination that to this day considers homosexuality "disordered." In a wonderful aria, he begins with "Forgive me, Holy Father, I confess," but ends with "Thank you, Holy Father, for sending him to me." Is there a more poignantly conflicted expression of love and faith, expressed without rancor?

From left, Daniel Esteban Lugo, Emily Finke, 
Joel Clemens and Shannon Richards in 
"Fellow Travelers." Photo/Seagle Festival
Although gay couples have lived peacefully together since the dawn of time, in this very different mid-century world, Laughlin and Fuller can't settle down together. 

Fuller doesn't even want to, proposing a threesome to the shocked Laughlin, then telling him he's not the monogamous type. 

In this shadow world, women play particularly fraught roles. Hawkins' assistant Mary Johnson is attracted to him, but accepts reality. In another gorgeous aria, Shannon Richards' glowing soprano expresses Mary's concern ("I worry") about the fates of the two men.

In a plot turn that seems to be dropped in from nowhere but has obvious ramifications to today's news, Johnson reveals she is pregnant from a one-night stand but "knows a doctor in New Orleans" who "takes care" of such things. 

When Laughlin, attempting to escape his anguished relationship, enlists in the Army, Hawkins marries another office worker, Lucy (Emily Finke), and tries to take up the life of a good suburban heterosexual husband. It was, and is, an all-too-common sham that devastated both men and women.

In the last few scenes, the story leans toward soap opera and seems to meander to its inevitable heartbroken farewell, but does reflect the ambivalence of each man's tie to their relationship.  

In his lecture, Woods said that composer Spears' inspirations are George Frederic Handel and Philip Glass -- 18th century Baroque and modern minimalism. Glass' typical repetitive musical phrases and Handel's graceful embellishments give Spears' music a shimmering beauty and endless interest. Seagle's cast of "fellow travellers" and the dual pianists, Music Director Neill Campbell and Assistant Music Director Lindsay Woodward, made the most of it. 

Under the overall stage direction of Richard Kagey, Evan Johnson's spare set design perfectly melded with Liza Schweitzer's lighting design. 

"Fellow Travelers," was co-commissioned by G. Sterling Zinsmeyer and Cincinnati Opera, premiered in 2016 and has had nine productions by major opera companies. It deserves many more. 

Thursday, February 10, 2022

‘The Music Man’ and Hugh Jackman: Seventy-six Trombone Therapy

Joy, joy, joy.

I needed a dose of the j-medicine badly, grousing through a mid-winter week that was gray, long and dispiriting.

COVID, Ukraine and the ordinary run of downers in the news galvanized me to buy a ticket to the Broadway revival of Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man,” starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, in previews now with a Feb. 10 opening.

It worked. Dr. Theater put his stethoscope to my heart and wrote out a prescription for two and a-half hours of musical brilliance that put a smile on my face under my mask for just about the whole time and kept the wintry blues at bay.  

Megastar Jackman as con man “Professor” Harold Hill and Foster as Marian Paroo, the librarian who resists his charms, light up this wonderful revival of the American stage classic that shot Robert Preston and Barbara Cook to stardom in the 1950s.

Jackman’s incandescent sex appeal and singing/dancing chops perfectly fit the character of a man who can convince an entire town to believe in phantom musical skills.

His dynamism and irresistible smile seduce the audience as well as the folks of River City, Iowa in such great numbers as “Ya Got Trouble” (convincing the town they need a band rather than a pool hall), “Seventy-Six Trombones” (overselling the magnificence of the band-to-be) and “Marian the Librarian” (dancing to the rhythm of readers opening and shutting books as he tries to woo Miss Paroo).

Foster’s shining, wholesome charisma stays under wraps early as Marian tries to interest the townspeople in literature, copes with loneliness and vows not to settle for the wrong man, but glows later as she realizes that forgiveness and understanding can inspire the wrong/right man.

From left, Shuler Hensley, Hugh Jackman and
 Sutton Foster in "The Music Man."
Her clear soprano voice explores Marian’s emotional depths in the lovely “Goodnight, My Someone” and “Till There Was You,” and most remarkably in a song that one needs to see on stage, since it never made it into the 1962 movie. In “My White Knight,” she seriously defines what she wants in a man. “I would like him to be more interested in me than he is in himself/And more interested in us than in me.”

This production tunes up “The Music Man” for a modern age but retains all its heartland charm, thanks to a team of veteran Broadway masters at the top of their game: director Jerry Zaks, choreographer Warren Carlyle, costume and scene designer Santo Loquasto, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, lighting designer Brian MacDevitt, sound designer Scott Lehrer, music director Patrick Vaccariello.

A tip of the hat also goes to Jackman and Foster, at ages 53 and 46, in great shape, although Jackman was breathing a bit heavily after a couple of numbers. Eight shows a week! I’m in awe.

This group, with decades of shows and awards in their back pockets (Tunick is 83!), freshens the show’s strong nod to female empowerment and presents a cast that’s about one-third African-American. Hill’s pursuit of Marian, which today could seem like creepy stalking, is given a light touch, especially in the library number.  

Loquasto’s red barn scrim and scenic green farmland backdrop strike the right Iowa country notes and the opening number, “Rock Island,” is one of the greatest, giving “The Music Man” the title of “first rap musical,” according to no less than Stephen Sondheim.

Jackman as a teenager auditioned for the show, playing all eight parts:

A motley crew of traveling salesmen riding the Rock Island line sound off – in the rhythm of the train – about a swindler named Harold Hill selling boys’ band instruments and uniforms to the unsuspecting rubes, except that “he don’t know one note from another” and skips town with the money.

Listen to the lyrics, because these 1912 salesmen are also talking about change that sounds very modern: "It’s different than it was.” “The Uneeda Biscuit in an air-tight sanitary package made the cracker barrel obsolete.” “Gone with the hogshead, cask and demijohn/Gone with the sugar barrel, pickle barrel, milk pan." “Why it's the Model T Ford made the trouble/Made the people wanna go.” “Who's gonna patronize a little bitty two by four kinda store anymore?”

Right from the start, that’s the answer to those who dismiss “The Music Man” as old-fashioned hokum, or “dated,” as two women said in the row in front of me. Yes, Zaks retains the silly, giggly girls in the ensemble, just a little, and the pressure on Marian not to be “an old maid” doesn’t line up with today’s sensibilities.

But the show has a tough spine, witnessed by the very next song: “Iowa Stubborn.” Willson wrote that “The Music Man” was “an attempt to pay tribute” to his home state, but he saw it with a clear eye: “There's an Iowa kind/A kind-a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude/We've never been without that we recall.”

At the end of “Rock Island,” a man who has been quietly listening behind a newspaper stands up – “Gentlemen you intrigue me. I think I’ll have to give Iowa a try.” His suitcase says “Professor Harold Hill,” and Jackman received a huge ovation.

The audience seemed to be saying, “Welcome back to Broadway and please use your awesome star power to help the theater return to health!” (Only 19 shows are running in Broadway’s 41 theaters.)

Hill is welcomed to town by an old friend, Marcellus Washburn, played with earnest good nature by Shuler Hensley, a memorable Jud Fry in the 1998 “Oklahoma!” revival that starred Jackman as Curly.

Jayne Houdyshell as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn
Among the supporting characters, Jefferson Mays and Jayne Houdyshell tear up the stage as River City mayor Shinn, a sputtering bully, and his wife, the majestic Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, who directs the town’s historical pageants featuring herself as the Statue of Liberty and “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean.”

Other standouts were the acrobatic dancer Gino Cosculluela as the local bad boy, Tommy, wanting to date Mayor Shinn’s daughter, Zaneeta (Emma Crow). Marie Mullen brings Irish spunk to Mrs. Paroo and Benjamin Pajak is a wonderful Winthrop, Marian’s little brother with a lisp who touches a level of compassion in Hill that he didn’t know he possessed. If that kid isn’t actually playing the cornet at the end with admirable skill, then I’m an Iowa cow.  

That this “Music Man” is finally opening on Broadway pays tribute to the courage and perseverance of all concerned. Rehearsals began in February 2020, with a planned fall opening. Oh, the anticipation. Hugh Jackman! Sutton Foster! A $30 million advance!

Then Jackman, Foster, Carlyle and then-producer Scott Rudin all came down with COVID and Broadway subsequently shut down for 18 months.

During that time Rudin withdrew from the show after accusations of abusive behavior with staff and the investing team brought in British producer Kate Horton.

Rehearsals began again in fall 2021, with previews starting in December – then Foster and Jackman tested positive for the latest go-round of COVID and the show shut down for 11 days in early January.

No matter. Though we may have had to line up outside the Winter Garden Theater with vaccine cards and IDs, and breathe into our facemasks throughout, when the full 25-piece orchestra struck up the first notes of the overture – the jaunty “Seventy-six Trombones” – we were in musical theater heaven.

In the end, “The Music Man” is about the transformative power of melody, rhythm and harmony - making a beautiful noise together. Harold Hill may have come to town looking for a wad of cash, but he really swindles Marian and the citizens out of their stiff-necked, rigid pride, while finally listening to his own heart song.

Strike up the band!