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Film and the Arts

Hungarian State Opera Makes U.S. Debut with "Bánk Bán"

Photo by Szilvia Csibi, Attila Nagy
On the evening of Tuesday, October 30th, at the David Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, the U.S. debut of the Hungarian State Opera inaugurated an exciting series of events (which will also include the debut of the Hungarian National Ballet) beginning with a stellar performance of the powerful, exceedingly beautiful 19th century opera by Ferenc Erkel, Bánk Bán. The program was introduced by the Hungarian ambassador to the United Nations and she highlighted several state dignitaries who were in the audience as well as legendary tenor Plácido Domingo who is serving as the Patron of the New York tour.
This magnificent work, which deserves an honored place in the classical repertory, is rarely staged outside of Hungary and was not performed in New York until 1984, in a version with a reduced orchestra and sung in English. The opera is striking in that, apart from a few elements, dramatically and musically it is solidly in the European mainstream—its exoticism lies in its subject matter, in this case that of the malign Meranian influence on the Hungarian monarchy in the 13th century, the deploring of which here becomes a vehicle for the expression of Magyar nationalism. The libretto is adapted from the eponymous historical tragedy by József Katona, often described as the greatest Hungarian drama its century.
The weakest aspect of this 2018 production, directed by Attila Vidnyánszky, was its visual dimension, a perennial problem in contemporary opera and theater—although there were a few effective moments of spectacle, the art direction by Oleksandr Bilozub on the whole lacked interest. However, the costumes designed by Viktória Nagy effectively evoked the medieval setting.
The event was most remarkable for its extraordinary cast, who deserve enumeration, beginning with the excellent baritone—there is a long tradition of the part being sung by a tenor—Levente Molnár in the title role. His co-star, soprano Zita Szemere—as Melinda, the viceroy’s wife—was the most glorious member of the ensemble.
Also outstanding were: Marcell Bakonyi as King Endre II; Judit Németh as Gertrud, his queen; István Horváth as Otto, her brother; István Rácz as Tiborc, the peasant; Zsolt Haja as Petur, the leader of the nobles; and Antal Cseh as Biberach, the knight-errant. Also superlative were the fabulous musicians and singers of the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra and Chorus under the sterling direction of conductor Balázs Kocsár.
Bánk Bánis being repeated at the same location on the evening of Saturday, November 3rd and simply must be seen.

October '18 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week 

Mamma Mia 2—Here We Go Again 


In this otherwise turgid sequel to the inexplicably beloved stage and screen musical comprising many Abba songs, Lily James (as Meryl Streep’s character when younger) is quite charming, outclassing the dull Amanda Seyfried as Streep’s daughter.




Since the hits were crammed into the first movie, this one gets mainly leftovers, with a few repeats (“Waterloo,” “Dancing Queen”) added. Actors’ paychecks were cashed (the redoubtable Christine Baranski comes off best), and nice Greek locales sparkle, and that’s about all one can say. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include deleted scenes/songs with director commentary; featurettes; interviews; commentaries.


Death in Venice 


Benjamin Britten’s final—and greatest—opera was based on Thomas Mann’s classic novella of a blocked elderly writer whose visit to the Italian city breaks him mentally and physically; it’s an ultimately moving exploration of fatal longing.




Willy Decker’s 2014 Madrid Teatro Real staging combines theatrical flair and closed-off emotions, summoned by the dynamic performance of John Daszak as the author Aschenbach. Conductor Alejo Pérez deftly leads the orchestra and chorus to bring Britten’s spare, bleak and brilliant score to life; both hi-def audio and video are top-notch.






Elena Ferrante on Film 

(Film Movement Classics)

The mysterious Italian author pseudonymously named Elena Ferrante has written several best-selling novels while keeping her identity secret, and two of her stories have made it to the screen. 2005’s The Days of Abandonment is director Roberto Faenza’s solid if unspectacular adaptation about a middle-age wife and mother whose husband leaves her for a younger woman; Marguerita Buy is compelling in the lead.




1995’s Troubling Love, directed by Mario Martone, is anchored by Anna Bonaiuto’s quietly riveting performance as a woman who returns to Naples to discover how her mother died. There are fine hi-def transfers; extras are featurettes on the films and author.


Les Parents Terribles 

(Cohen Film Collection)

Jean Cocteau’s powerfully nasty play about the ultimate dysfunctional family has been smartly cast and directed by Cocteau himself: the 1948 adaptation keeps many of the stage performers: the result is a blistering study of selfishness, incestuous feelings and pure greed—with a little romantic tragedy thrown in.




The cast is perfect: Yvonne de Bray and Marcel André as the middle-aged parents, Gabrielle Dorziat as the spinster sister-in-law, Jean Marais as the 22-year-old son and Josette Day as his fiancée and his dad’s former mistress. It’s captivating from first to last, and Cocteau’s visual inventiveness is as impressive as his writing. The hi-def transfer, from a recent restoration, is terrific; extras are a Richard Pena intro, interview with assistant director Claude Pinoteau and camera test footage. 


DVDs of the Week 

Anna Karenina 


This 2000 British television adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel about a married aristocratic woman who agonizingly plunges into an affair with a dashing military man is given an old-fashioned but utterly absorbing reading that remains faithful enough to its source over its four-plus hour running time.




In the leads, Helen McCrory is quite a sensual Anna, Kevin McKidd her aggressively handsome lover Count Vronsky and Stephen Dillane her properly bemused and angry husband Karenin. 


Egon Schiele—Death and the Maiden 

(Film Movement)

The tragically short life of the great—and, in his day, pornographic—Austrian artist Egon Schiele makes for an engrossing drama that explores his art and its relationship to those around him, particularly his younger sister and several mistresses.




Director Dieter Berner intimately dramatizes events in Schiele’s life, while his cast (Noah Saavedra as Schiele, Maresi Riegner as sister Gerti and Valerie Pachner, Larissa Aimee Breidbach and Marie Jung as his mistresses) provides the heart of this mournful story. Extras include deleted scenes, interviews, casting and rehearsal footage and short film Nothing Happens by Michelle and Uri Kranot.

Elīna Garanča Breathes Life into Bizet at Carnegie Hall

Elīna Garanča and Kevin Murphy. Photo by Jennifer Taylor
A stellar recital—on the evening of Tuesday, October 23rd—by the incandescent mezzo-soprano, Elīna Garanča—excellently accompanied by pianist Kevin Murphy, replacing the renowned Malcolm Martineau—has further gilded the beginning of the thus far superb new season at Carnegie Hall, which has already featured outstanding concerts given by the San Francisco Symphony, Jonas Kaufmann with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.
The singer looked ravishing with her hair down, wearing a stunning purple gown, and hauntingly performed an exquisite opening set drawn from Robert Schumann’s incomparable early song cycle, Myrthen. Few lieder in the literature could be lovelier than the first two selections, “Widmung”—with a text by Friedrich Rückert—and “Der Nussbaum” but the other songs were also extraordinary, including “Jemand” (after a poem by Robert Burns) and two other Rückertlieder: the “Bride’s Song I & II.
This was followed by Richard Wagner’s celebrated early song-cycle, the Wesendonck Lieder, also magnificently realized. The first half of the program closed astonishingly with an unforgettable rendition of “Träume”, one of the greatestliederin the classical music canon.
For the second part of the evening, Garanča wore her hair up and was clothed in a bewitching red gown, opening with Maurice Ravel’s lush cycle, Shéhérazade, a setting of poems by Tristan Klingsor, a member of the early 20th century Parisian avant-garde circle, Les Apaches—the singer achieved some of her most sublime moments of the evening in passages from the first and longest of the three songs, “Asie”.
One of the most welcome facets of this recital was the opportunity to hear some less familiar repertory, in this case the Six Popular Spanish Songs of Manuel de Falla, the final set on the program, beautifully delivered by Garanča.
Ardent applause was rewarded with three indelible encores. First Garanča affectingly sang the enchanting song, “Aizver actiņas un smaidi” by her eminent and pioneering countryman, Jāzeps Vītols, possibly the finest Latvian composer. She then introduced a thrilling, dramatic performance of the exhilarating "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" (Habanera) from Carmen by Georges Bizet—she has played the title role to enormous acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera—with the remark that this is “the reason I have the red dress on”. She concluded the evening gloriously with a luminous rendering of the gorgeous aria "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" from Samson et Dalila by Camille Saint-Saëns—she has been appearing in the lead role of the new production of this opera at the Metropolitan Opera, opposite Roberto Alagna. I eagerly await her return to Carnegie Hall.

October '18 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 


(RLJ Entertainment) 

In this pitch-black comedy that swings for the fences but falls short, Danny McBride is a frustrated home owner who’s been foreclosed on and who takes it out on the real estate agency that sold him the house—as he makes more lunatic decisions, he leaves a trail of blood and bodies.




McBride is fiendishly funny as the crazed nutcase and Rosemarie Dewitt is a persuasively resourceful hostage, but Luke del Tredici’s script and Jonathan Watson’s direction bumpily alternate trenchant dark humor about people at the end of their rope with crass violence that undermines, rather than underlines, their point. The Blu-ray transfer is excellent; lone extra is a making-of featurette. 


Bad Ronald 

(Warner Archive)

This unnerving 1974 TV movie has a basic premise—teenage mama’s boy accidentally kills girl, mom hides him in a secret room of their house, she dies, the house is sold, he starts to terrorize the new family, especially the teenage daughter—and director Buzz Kulik keeps it simple and straightforward, making it that much more plausible and effective.




Scott Jacoby is frightfully credible as the bad seed Ronald, while Kim Hunter brings a smothering creepiness to Ronald’s mom. The hi-def transfer is crisp and clear.







City Slickers 

Get Shorty

(Shout Select)

The latest Shout Select releases are two ’90s films that pleased a lot of people, and even (in the case of the former) garnered Jack Palance his only Oscar. 1991’s City Slickers has an amusing premise and entertaining support from Palance, Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby, but it all depends on one’s tolerance for Billy Crystal (I have little).




Likewise, 1995’s Get Shorty is a decent Hollywood takedown—though not as nasty as Altman’s The Player—with wonderfully weird work from Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Dennis Farina, Delroy Lindo and a pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini, although again I find John Travolta and Rene Russo to be wet blankets. Both films have solid new hi-def transfers and vintage extras like featurettes, interviews and commentaries.


Down a Dark Hall 


Based on Lois Duncan’s 1974 young-adult novel, this stylishly convoluted gothic horror set in a foreboding old house that’s currently a convent for wayward young women has moments of suspense and even an occasional fright, but is mostly pretty tame.




Director Rodrigo Cortés makes everything look right, including his protagonists—AnnaSophia Robb as the young heroine and Uma Thurman as the eccentric schoolmarm—but it remains empty and dull at times. There’s a great-looking hi-def transfer; extras are a making-of and deleted scene.









Warren Beatty and Robert Towne wrote a scathing script about disaffected Hollywood types, circa 1968—when a loathsome Nixon was elected—but Hal Ashby’s scattershot 1975 satire doesn’t equal the sum of its parts. Despite terrific acting by Goldie Hawn, Julie Christie, Oscar winner Lee Grant, Tony Bill and Jack Warden, and with Beatty’s hairdresser hopping in and out of various beds, the movie feels unfinished, its humor and observations topical but superficial.




Criterion’s release does the film no favors; there’s a top-notch hi-def transfer, but contextualizing extras are needed for such a divisive and controversial film; instead, we get 10 minutes of a 1998 Beatty profile and a 30-minute talk between critics Frank Rich and Bob Harris.




When a movie opens showing forced intercourse between a teenager and his mother—whose brains are blown out while he is still thrusting—you know you’re in for something particularly and peculiarly demented. And that’s what Chilean director Lucio Rojas’ grotesquely horrific drama is.




The boy grows up to be a madman who tortures a quartet of young women, all subjected to endless moments of nasty and even nauseating violence that end up making those opening moments seem relatively docile. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer that catches all the minutiae of Rojas’ gorefest.









Kevin Macdonald’s documentary about the short, sad life of Whitney Houston (who drowned in a bathtub at age 48 in 2012) makes some strange directorial choices—like all of the “current-events” archival footage during some song performances—but it still paints an illuminatingly ugly portrait of a brilliant singer who lost her way because of family, friends, fame, money, and, worst of all, marriage to Bobby Brown.




Interviews with some of the main people in Whitney’s life, like her brothers, former husband, mother and even Kevin Costner—with whom she famously starred in the smash The Bodyguard—present a cautionary tale that’s all too familiar but still depressing. The film looks fine on Blu-ray; lone extra is a Macdonald commentary.


DVD of the Week

Generation Wealth 


Lauren Greenfield returns to the scene of many of her photographs and her previous film The Queen of Versailles: the ultra-rich whose conspicuous consumption—from plastic surgery on themselves and their pets to flying a teenage son to Amsterdam to lose his virginity to a prostitute—is the ultimate in American exceptionalism.




This parade of grossly self-centered narcissists makes Donald Trump seem modest, but Greenfield also shows that this is the world we’ve created, and it could actually get worse: soon, we might pine for the halcyon days of Kardashians and Trumps.

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