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Dance and Opera Reviews—The Beatles and Britten in Brooklyn: “Pepperland” and “Owen Wingrave”

Pepperland

Music by the Beatles; choreographed by Mark Morris

Performances May 8-12, 2019

 

Owen Wingrave

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.

 

Pepperland

BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, NY

bam.org


Owen Wingrave

Little Opera Theatre of NY; 29 Jay Street, Brooklyn, NY

lotny.org

May '19 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

Funny Games 

(Criterion)

German enfant terrible Michael Haneke made this provocative, self-reflexive thriller in 1997, and its defects—obviousness, humorlessness, pointlessness—are still in glaring evidence, although it must be admitted that, thanks to committed performances by two great actors, Ulrich Mühe and Susanne Lothar (both died far too young), and nasty turns by young Aldo Frisch and Frank Giering, it’s an effective piece of trashy claptrap.

 

 

 

But Haneke’s thesis—that audiences are complicit in onscreen sadism and violence—rings hollow; still, this Criterion release makes little sense without Haneke’s own shot-for-shot 2007 American remake as a “bonus.” The hi-def transfer is immaculate; extras comprise new interviews with Haneke, Frisch and film historian Alexander Horwath and the Cannes Film Festival press conference featuring Haneke, Lothar and Mühe.

 

Hal 

(Oscilloscope)

Hal Ashby (who died in 1988) was beloved for several ‘70s films ranging from The Landlord and The Last Detail to Coming Home and Being There, films championed even while they—and he—never broke through to a wide audience.

 

 

 

Amy Scott’s engrossing if overly reverent documentary recounts his difficult career surviving in Hollywood (the 80s were one disaster after another for him), aided by ear-opening archival interviews of Ashby and new interviews with many who worked with (and worshipped) him, from Jane Fonda, Jon Voight and Norman Jewison to Robert Towne and Lee Grant. But conspicuous by their absence are Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. The Blu-ray looks excellent; extras are a commentary and additional interviews.

 

 

 

 

 

The Young Debussy 

(LSO Live)

This 2018 concert by the London Symphony Orchestra is built around a recently discovered early work by French master Claude Debussy: his Premiere Suite for Orchestra, which sounds like the kind of attractive, occasionally soaring piece a talented 21-year-old composer might write. The excellent performance—conducted by Francois-Xavier Roth, the last of his three programs commemorating the centenary of Debussy’s death—opens with Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture and ends with a suite from Jules Massenet’s ballet Le Cid.

 

 

 

After the Wagner work is the formidable cellist Edgar Moreau playing Eduardo Lalo’s Cello Concerto; he follows that up with a masterly encore of a Bach cello suite. Hi-def video and audio are top-notch. 

 

DVDs of the Week

Bosch—The Garden of Dreams 

(Film Movement)

Hieronymus Bosch, the 15th/16th century Dutch master, created some of the most strangely compelling images ever committed to canvas, and his painting in Madrid’s Prado, The Garden of Earthly Delights, is a magnificent if unsettling triptych that has mesmerized and mystified art historians, other artists and the public for half a millennium.

 

 

 

José Luis López-Linares’ superb documentary delves into the painting—at times literally—with fascinating discussion from talking heads as diverse as soprano Renee Fleming, novelist Salman Rushdie and conductor William Christie, along with dozens of artists, writers and historians who take in this gorgeous if baffling masterpiece. The lone quibble with this release is that a film crammed with exquisite visuals is not available on Blu-ray.

 

 

 

 

 

Never Ever 

(Film Movement)

This is yet another routine drama by French director Benoit Jacquot, whose breakthrough, 1995’s A Single Girl, got by on the magnetism of leading lady Virginie Ledoyen; his latest—a wobbly adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel—wastes both of his stars.

 

 

 

Although Julia Roy (who also wrote the messy script) has an undeniable presence, she and her usually interesting co-star Mathieu Amalric can do little with the forced, pandering ghost story that Jacquot shovels at us.

 

Nina 

(Film Movement)

Polish director Olga Chajdas’ incessantly gloomy debut feature follows Nina and her husband Wojtek, unable to have a baby, who decide that free-spirited Magda can be their surrogate: then Nina inconveniently falls in love with the young woman.

 

 

 

Chajdas’s direction tries to be too flashy at the expense of her own characters, and incongruous plot twists and implausible plot twists don’t help. Her committed actors, especially Julia Kijowska (Nina) and Eliza Rycembel (Magda), give fierce portrayals in a vacuum. Lone extra is a short, Social Butterfly, by director Lauren Wolkstein. 

 

CD of the Week 

American Rapture 

(Azica)

This disc’s title refers to the three works the intrepid Rochester Philharmonic plays under its music director Ward Stare: Jennifer Higdon’s new harp concerto, Samuel Barber’s exhilarating first symphony and Patrick Harlin’s Rapture; both Rapture (2011) and Higdon’s 2018 concerto receive their world premiere recordings. 

 

 

 

Rapture is an exuberant closer and Barber’s classic sounds great even in a perfunctory reading, which this decidedly is not. The concerto was composed for and dedicated to American harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, who brings out the many subtle facets of her instrument throughout the four movements, from the chamber-like lyricism that most associate with the harp to exhilarating rhythmic bursts.

May '19 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

All About Lily Chou-Chou 

(Film Movement Classics)

Shunji Iwai’s often mesmerizing 2001 drama follows two boys who are huge fans of a superstar pop singer named Lily Chou-Chou: we see how music can make a difference in someone’s life, especially when it’s filled with personal difficulty and tragedy.

 

 

 

Iwai shrewdly visualizes his young protagonists’ points-of-view through postings on a message board dedicated to the singer, but at nearly 2-1/2 hours, Iwai’s meaningful psychological exploration eventually wears thin, repeating itself to diminishing returns. The film looks fine on Blu; lone extra is a substantial making-of featurette.

 

Level 16 

(Dark Sky)

This relentlessly dour dystopian nightmare follows several teenage girls who realize that their “school” is really a prison farm from which they are drugged and sold off to rich people who pay a pretty penny for their skin—literally.

 

 

 

Writer-director Danshika Esterhazy mistakes blatancy for depth, ending up with a film that’s less an unsettling cautionary tale than an entirely humorless way to spend 100 minutes. There’s a good hi-def transfer; extras are 90 minutes of cast/crew interviews and a making-of featurette.

 

 

 

 

 

Summer Stock 

(Warner Archive)

This isn’t a highlight of Judy Garland's or Gene Kelly’s career: a 1950 musical about a farmer (Garland) whose actress sister’s troupe, led by Kelly, arrives to perform in the family barn—one thing leads to another and soon Garland and Kelly are an item on and offstage.

 

 

 

It’s risible stuff redeemed by a few choice numbers: the pair’s challenge dance in “Portland Fancy,” Kelly’s marvelous solo turn in a deserted barn, and Garland’s climactic “Get Happy.” At least the colors pop beautifully in hi-def; extras include audio of an excised number, vintage featurette about the film and classic cartoons.

 

DVDs of the Week

George Carlin—40 Years of Comedy 

(MPI)

This seemingly random release finally brings George Carlin’s tenth HBO special to DVD: shot in 1997 at the Aspen Opera House, it’s something of a mixed bag, beginning with a youthful Jon Stewart introducing Carlin clips from earlier HBO specials, followed by about 30 minutes of Carlin standup and 15 minutes of Stewart interviewing Carlin.

 

 

 

It’s interesting, insightful, and funny, but too short; if it was two hours instead of one, it would have been more memorable.

 

 

 

 

 

Naples in Veils 

(Breaking Glass Pictures)

In yet another of Italian director Ferzan Ozpetek’s elegant but empty dramas, Naples itself co-stars in this weird tale of a medical examiner—after an amazing one-night stand—discovering that not only might her conquest be the corpse she’s studying, but that he may have a twin brother whom she (naturally) begins to fall for.

 

 

 

As always, Giovanna Mezzogiorno invests the heroine with as much humanity, honesty and charm as she can, but Ozpetek’s cutesiness disallows much originality from seeping in. Extras comprise deleted scenes and cast/crew interviews.

 

Unforgotten—Complete 3rd Season 

(PBS Masterpiece Mystery)

Investigating another long-unsolved murder when human remains are unearthed in a highway median, our intrepid detectives Cassie and Sunny run headlong into a lion’s den of liars and deceivers—men whose long-ago privilege is disappearing as they age: but is one of them actually a 16-year-old girl’s killer?

 

 

 

Once again, the excellent lead performances by Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar dominate this intelligent and absorbing crime drama. Extras include on-set interviews and featurettes.

Brits Off Broadway Review—“Caroline’s Kitchen” by Torben Betts

Caroline’s Kitchen

Written by Torben Betts; directed by Alastair Whatley

Performances through May 25, 2019

 

Tom England, Aden Gillett and Elizabeth Boag in Caroline's Kitchen (photo: Sam Taylor)

Playwright Torben Betts—whose last play, Invincible, was a bit too slavishly indebted to the master, Alan Ayckbourn—returns with Caroline’s Kitchen, much less enervating and far more entertaining.

 

The setting of the play’s title is where Caroline—a famous at-home chef whose videos explode online—goes through a hell of a day. Leo, her beloved son, just graduated with honors from Cambridge, returns home wondering why she hasn’t told his dad that he’s gay. He also drops a bombshell: he’s refusing their money for an apartment to travel to Syria for humanitarian purposes. Her retired banker husband Mike has just returned from his regular golf game and will hear nothing of their son’s sexual proclivities or future plans. Amanda, Caroline’s new assistant, is a bitch on wheels with an obvious—if unrequited—crush on Graeme, Caroline’s strapping young handyman, with whom Caroline’s has been carrying on an affair. Finally, Sally, Graeme’s wife, arrives, having just discovered proof of the adulterous couple (Graeme conveniently forgot his phone that morning): but she is mistakenly believed to be a potential buyer of Caroline and Mike’s house.

 

In 90 minutes, Betts skillfully orchestrates the escalating insanity among these six people, the misunderstandings and anger, the amorous and murderous moments. It all comes to a head when Amanda is banished from the house, Sally grabs a knife sitting on the kitchen’s island, and a terrifying thunderstorm threatens to bring down the wrath of God, literally and figuratively. 

 

Director Alistair Whatley sublimely orchestrates the controlled onstage chaos, aided spectacularly by the increasingly (and hilariously) unhinged performances by his peerless cast of six: the standouts are Aden Gillett’s utterly unctuous Mike and Elizabeth Hoag’s more subtly characterized Sally. Betts has learned from Ayckbourn to take what’s moving along as sheer farce and stop on a dime, shift gears completely and create something fantastically, even touchingly indelible. 

 

Although Betts ratchets up the lunacy and manipulates his characters for his own ends more blatantly than Ayckbour—which may be why Betts' play ends with a whimper instead of a comic bang—Caroline’s Kitchen has been written, staged and acted with such ferocious wit that its minor shortcomings ultimately don’t matter.

 

Caroline’s Kitchen

Brits Off Broadway, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

59e59.org

 
 

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