Music by the Beatles; choreographed by Mark Morris
Performances May 8-12, 2019
Composed by Benjamin Britten; directed by Philip Shneidman
Performances May 9-12, 2019
Pepperland (photo: Mat Hayward)
For the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the city of Liverpool commissioned Mark Morris to create Pepperland, a dance fantasia inspired by the Beatles’ classic album. Finally arriving at BAM last weekend, the hour-long work has flashes of Morris’s wit and playfulness but often feels like something done in half-measures, only intermittently catching the Fab Four’s gleeful exuberance and restless experimentation.
Comprising Ethan Iverson’s arresting arrangements of seven Beatles songs and his own compositions—he was also in the pit playing piano as part of a bright septet—Pepperland glistens with “summer of love” sights and sounds. Elizabeth Kurtzman’s brightly colored costumes hint at the flamboyant uniforms the band wears on the Sgt. Pepper cover, and Nick Kolin’s clever lighting follows suit, especially in a sequence where the dancers strike poses of various celebrities—among them Albert Einstein and Shirley Temple—adorning the album’s cover collage.
Iverson’s tunes—which take a Beatles riff or chord, winding their long and winding way around them—and arrangements of seven songs from the Sgt. Pepper sessions (title track/reprise, “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “When I’m 64,” “Within You Without You,” the single “Penny Lane” and “A Day in the Life”) are compressed or stretched out, depending on their usefulness for Morris. The musical highlight is the bizarrely apposite “A Day in the Life” for piano and theremin, the latter “singing” Lennon and McCartney’s vocal lines as spookily as the original track.
It’s too bad, then, that in “Penny Lane” and “A Day in the Life,” Morris seems content to coast, letting his talented dancers mime the actions in the words. “On the corner is a banker with a motorcar/and little children laugh at him behind his back/And the banker never wears a mac/ In the pouring rain, very strange” and “Found my coat and grabbed my hat/Made the bus in seconds flat” are rather routinely acted out.
There’s far more inventiveness in other numbers, notably “When I’m 64,” as the dancers delightfully pair off in varied configurations, changing partners at will, and “Within You Without You,” conveying the pseudo-profundities of George Harrison’s earnest lyrics and tuneful Indian-influenced melody as the troupe fans out across the stage, embodying the song’s introspective universality. If only more of Pepperland was that musically and balletically engaging.
Augusta Caso and Michael Weyandt in Owen Wingrave (photo: Tina Buckman)
Benjamin Britten’s opera Owen Wingrave has never been performed in New York before—not surprising, since it was a TV opera written for the BBC, premiering in 1971—but thanks to the enterprising Little Opera Theatre of NY, it finally arrived last weekend in Brooklyn.
Based on a story by Henry James and with a libretto by Myfanwy Piper (who also did the honors on Britten’s adaptation of James’ ghostly The Turn of the Screw), Owen Wingrave deals with a subject close to Britten’s heart: pacifism. The opera’s title character makes the decision, while in military school, that he wants out: unlike the long line of military people in his family, war is not in his blood.
Owen returns home where he finds his family against him: even his grandfather disinherits him. Lurking in the background are the specters of his ancestors, visualized by their formal portraits projected onto the back wall. While didactic in its war/peace dichotomy, the opera contains much haunting and tautly dramatic music, its spare orchestration (the chamber version was arranged by David Matthews) anticipating Britten’s final operatic masterpiece, Death in Venice, completed three years before his own death, in 1976 at age 63.
This often captivating staging made striking use of the GK ArtsCenter’s cramped quarters, as Philip Shneidman’s resourceful direction went a long way toward making the opera less a soapbox tirade and more an unsettling morality play. Richard Cordova persuasively conducted Britten’s gripping score, and his fine orchestral ensemble was up to the challenge.
The performance I saw was sung superbly by the ensemble cast, which included a quartet of young boys that deftly handled the difficult vocal writing, along with the staging (offstage for much of their time singing, they also had to climb up a staircase while performing). Best of all was Augusta Caso, whose Kate, the young woman who loves Owen (a stentorian Michael Weyandt) but cannot reconcile her feelings with his hardened anti-war stance, was the most touching and tragic figure in the opera.
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, NY
Little Opera Theatre of NY; 29 Jay Street, Brooklyn, NY