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Film and the Arts

"Harlequinade" Revival From the American Ballet Theatre Dazzles

The new season of American Ballet Theater at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center opened magnificently with the revival of last year’s exquisite production of the breezy Harlequinade, one of the most delightful works in the company’s repertory, which I attended on the evening of Thursday, May 16th. This ballet, an hommage to the commedia dell’arte, is a scholarly reconstruction, staged with additional choreography, by the celebrated Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky of the original version by the legendary Marius Petipa, set to an enjoyable score by the underrated Riccardo Drigo, here effectively conducted by Ormsby Wilkins. The scenery and marvelous, colorful costumes were created by Robert Perdziola after the original 1900 designs by Orest Allegri and Ivan Vsevolozhsky.
The outstanding primary cast was led by the fabulous Daniil Simkin—as Harlequin—who has come into his own as one of the greatest male dancers in the company, alongside David Hallberg and Herman Cornejo. Simkin brought down the house in his astonishing solo amongst the divertissements that conclude the second act. He was excellently partnered by the accomplished Skylar Brandt as Columbine, who also had an extraordinary solo in Act II. Tremendous, too, was Hee Seo, one of the finest ballerinas in the company, as Pierrette, here beautifully partnered by Alexandre Hammoudi as the iconic Pierrot.
Tatiana Ratmansky portrayed the providential Good Fairy, while amusing in comic pantomime roles were Alexei Agoudine as Cassandre, Columbine’s Father, and Duncan Lyle as Léandre, her wealthy, foppish suitor. Amongst the secondary cast, one could appreciate the brilliant talents of many of the more notable members of the company, such as, to name a few, Thomas Forster, Joseph Gorak, Calvin Royal III, and Arron Scott. The admirable corps de ballet were characteristically superb. One can only hope that this glorious ballet becomes a staple of future seasons.

The "Fountain of Youth" Springs Forth from Carnegie Hall

Yuja Wang on piano with the New World Symphony, photo by Richard Termine
A terrific season at Carnegie Hall continued most memorably on the evening of Wednesday, May 1st, with the exciting appearance of the accomplished young musicians of the New World Symphony under the illustrious direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.
The program began thrillingly with the New York premiere of Julia Wolfe’s impressive, percussive and arresting Fountain of Youth, co-commissioned by this ensemble along with Carnegie Hall. The piece marvelously sustained interest across its full twenty-minute length, proving to be one of the most enjoyable new orchestral works of recent years.
The immensely popular, extraordinary virtuoso Yuja Wang, looking characteristically stunning in a sexy, sparkling green gown, then took the stage as soloist for a dazzling performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s quirkily brilliant Piano Concerto No. 5. The exuberant initial movement cleverly contrasted with the more eccentric second. The ensuing Toccata was requisitely energetic. Most enchanting was the magnificent Larghetto, while the finale recaptured the ebullience of the remarkable opening. After an enthusiastic ovation, Tilson Thomas introduced a superb encore, a jazzy composition of his own for solo piano and dedicated to Wang—entitled You Come Here Often?—which opus she executed with breath taking éclat.
The second half of the program was also superlative, devoted to an excellent account of Hector Berlioz’s perennial masterwork, Symphonie fantastique. In the first movement, the artists achieved the necessary, Romantic intensity,precedingan entrancing rendition of the second-movement Waltz. The following Scene in the Fields was unusually lucid, leading into the enthralling March to the Scaffold. The work concluded with a mesmerizing, vertiginous realization of the stunning Witches’ Sabbath. Tremendous applause elicited another wonderful encore, Richard Wagner’s sublime Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin—a perfect ending to a great concert.

"Pepperland" Shakes Up a Beatles' Classic for the Stage

Photo by Stephanie Berger
I predict that the finest premiere of a new dance work this year will be Pepperland by Mark Morris—one of the best of contemporary choreographers—which I attended on the opening night of Wednesday, May 8th, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Howard Gilman Opera House, and which runs through the 11th.
Apart from Morris’s marvelously inventive choreography—my favorite of his alongside that of The Hard Nut, which was presented at BAM last December — I’d like to especially highlight the delightful, colorful costume design of Elizabeth Kurtzman, as well as the lighting design by Nick Kolin. The piece is an homage to, and adaptation of selections from, the landmark record album by the Beatles released in the summer of 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with original music and arrangements by Ethan Iverson, performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble and with vocals by Clinton Curtis.
Morris’s artistry here is very much in the tradition of the the extraordinary populist ballets of Jerome Robbins and the satiric works by Paul Taylor, as well as the Hollywood musicals of the 1950s and 1960s, although on this occasion I was reminded of nothing so much as the fabulous dances conceived by the underrated Irish choreographer Norman Maen for the magnificent film by Jacques Demy, The Young Girls of Rochefort, also released in 1967.
The dazzling opening recapitulates the album’s immortal title track followed by a hilarious episode recreating its celebrated cover. The beautiful “With a Little Help from My Friends” was written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon for Ringo Starr who was never more memorable. McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four” was cleverly arranged as an instrumental. George Harrison’s contribution, the exotic “Within You Without You” struck a more serious note amidst the ebullient proceedings.
McCartney’s brilliant, nostalgic “Penny Lane” was originally released as a single (along with Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever”) and was first intended for the album but instead appeared on the subsequent Magical Mystery Tour. Morris wittily inverted the order of the two concluding tracks, with the haunting “A Day in the Life”—quirkily arranged here replete with an unexpected theremin—preceding the glorious reprise of the title track, which was the accompaniment to an exhilarating finale. I hope that this exquisite opus will receive the abundant exposure and acclaim that it deserves.

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


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.



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

Owen Wingrave

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

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