Review: Sunset Boulevard

A 40-piece orchestra – one of the largest ever to play on Broadway – is the real star of this revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. The score isn’t Webber’s absolute best; it’s very uneven, with passages that sound a little too close to numbers from other (frankly, better) musicals. The best moments, however, are among the best things Webber ever wrote, and hearing those lushly rendered by that enormous ensemble really is a treat.

Glenn Close is reprising the role of faded silent film star Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson in the 1950 Billy Wilder movie), for which Close won a Tony in 1995. Now as then, her performance is a triumph of acting and vocal interpretation. Close’s voice has never been the most powerful musical instrument, but she is canny about musical phrasing. Place this at the disposal of her ferocious acting instincts, and the results are rarely less than totally compelling.

I’m still not convinced that Wilder’s noir poison-pen-love-letter to Hollywood needs to be a musical (Wilder himself said it shouldn’t be one). As pleasurable as the lush arrangements and Close’s grand opera scale emoting are, it still feels like they add up to a bit less than the sum of their parts. Director Lonny Price’s minimalist staging doesn’t make any convincing arguments for it either. When something like “With One Look” or “As If We Never Said Goodbye” comes along, though, it’s hard to resist. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: I Puritani

Let us now praise Pretty Yende! No, it wasn’t her Met debut, nor is she an unknown quality in the opera world – it’s more like she’s a steadily rising young star. However, she’s not the established performer that Diana Damrau is, so the fact that she truly crushed it when taking over for the ill Damrau as Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani stands as a truly news-worthy event.

Now, I’ll admit that I hadn’t taken an active interest in 21st Century opera performers until I started covering opera in this blog a few years back. For almost all of the ’00s, I’d take note of a new opera by the likes of Glass, Adès, Dusapin or Heggie, but I wouldn’t really pay attention to who was singing (not that the superstars spend much time singing the postmoderns anyway). The last big star I knew anything about was Renée Fleming. So getting to know the likes of Damrau, Vittorio Grigolo, Michael Volle, Sondra Radvanovsky and so forth has been a real pleasure. With this I Puritani I’m definitely adding Yende to that stellar list.

Another slightly embarassing admission – this is the first time I’ve seen a complete opera by Bellini. I’ve heard his arias in concerts of bel canto singing, but in that context he tends to get overshadowed by the showier Rossini and Donizetti. He is famous for his melody, and now I understand why. Not catchy tunes mind you – go to Verdi or Puccini for that. No, for Bellini melody is a series of emotional moments that are strung together like pearls, or that flow like an unpredictable but somehow inevitable river of feeling. Yende has a perfect sense of this, and luckily her vocal instrument is liquid silver.

Also, let us now also properly praise the Metropolitan Chorus and Orchestra, as led by Donald Palumbo and Maurizio Benini respectively. The Act II opener “Ah, dolor! Ah terror!” is a glittering marvel for chorus and orchestra, and these massed forces delivered it with a passion and precision that made my hair stand on end. Oh, and I haven’t said a word about the plot, because I have never seen an opera where that matters less. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Jitney

I am a huge fan of playwright August Wilson; I consider him second only to Tennessee Williams in my reckoning of the greatest American playwrights of all time. Jitney was the first to be written of his “Century Cycle” plays – a set of ten incredibly powerful works about the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th Century – but the last to be produced on Broadway. It is also, I believe the only of the cycle plays to have been written in the decade it portrays.

Set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh (as most of the Century Cycle is) Jitney focuses on an office out of which a motley crew make a living by driving unlicensed cabs, the “Jitneys” of the title. When the city threatens to board up the business and the boss’ estranged son returns from prison, pressure reaches a boiling point.

Jitney is clearly the work of a young playwright – the exposition is presented a touch too baldly, and certain transitions are managed with a jarring suddenness that feels accidental rather than intentional. That said, the characters are every bit as vividly drawn as in any other Century Cycle play, and Wilson’s acclaimed mastery of language – in registers ranging from gleefully gritty to eloquently elevated – is already complete and confident.

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has been steeped in Wilson’s plays, as performer as well as director, more that just about anybody else. And indeed, Santiago-Hudson knows just where to lean into the young Wilson’s prophetically strong moments, and when to drive his ultra-solid cast carefully over the speed bump. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Rusalka

To make a longish story short, Rusalka is a tragic operatic Czech variation on The Little Mermaid. It also takes elements of the older fairy tale novella Undine (and all three have roots in the medieval legend of Melusine). There’s also a strong musical influence from Wagner here tooand not just musical: The opera opens with a trio of water spirits teasing a gnomish creature, exactly the same opening as Wagner’s Das Rheingold.

It is also very Czech. While Little Mermaid and Undine are obvious influences, the libretto takes much more directly from the fairy tales of Czech authors Karel Jaromír Erben and Božena Němcová. As with all of the works of the opera’s composer Antonín Dvořák, Rusalka draws directly on Czech folk music for its melodic and rhythmic sense. Also, Rusalka is a lake nymph in contrast to Little Mermaid‘s ocean -dwelling heroine, which makes sense for land-locked Czechia.

Director Mary Zimmerman, whose work is packed full with beauty and fantasy, is an ideal interpreter for this dark fantasy. Choreographer Austin McCormick is known for his baroque-inspired sexual fantasies, and his second act court dance goes all the way there, in breathtaking fashion. Rusalka is in the outer reaches of opera’s “standard repertoire” so I’m not surprised this is my first time hearing it. Conductor Sir Mark Elder gives it a rich and surging account which more than sold me on the opera’s many and varied pleasures.

The buzz about this production, though, is all about Kristine Opolais in the title role, and it is more than earned. She gives just the right luminescent lusciousness to the lovelorn nymph, especially in the gorgeous aria “Song to the Moon.” Eric Owens was a revelation as Nibelung dwarf Alberich in the Met’s recent Ring cycle, and he is marvelous again here as Dvořák’s similar (but much kinder) water goblin Vodník. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Marcos Valle & Celso Fonseca

I like bossa nova singer / songwriter and all around luminary Marcos Valle because he combines a strong sense of syncopation and groove with a rich and vibrant harmonic palette – these things will get my attention anytime. Add to that a sunny disposition and sensibility best expressed by his signature song “Summer Samba (So Nice)” (made famous by Astrud Gilberto), and I’m in musical love.

In his current club act at Birdland, Valle is backed by a trio of musicians whose precision and energy border on the supernatural. When they lock into the groove that Valle is playing on the keyboard – which is most of the time – the room positively levitates with musical excitement in its most direct form. The effect is so dynamic, in fact, that I found myself wishing that Birdland had a dance floor. Even more than your typical samba, this is music that moves.

About half of the concert is duets with a Brazilian singer / songwriter from the generation following Valle’s, Celso Fonseca. In contrast to Valle’s infectious brio, Fonseca emanates a wry laid-back quality that is described by his signature tune “Slow Motion Bossa Nova.” The two compliment each other surprisingly well, Valle energizing Fonseca, Fonseca contributing witty color to Valle’s drive. They made an album together in 2009, Página Central, and the instrumental selections from that album are the evening’s most fiery moments, taking as much from the funkier end of disco as from Brazilian music. Hot stuff, indeed!

Valle is also joined by his vocalist wife Patricia Alvi on a handful of numbers, and she brings a quality similar to the women of Sergio Mendes’s Brasil ’66, which works especially well on Valle’s 1967 bossa nova classic “Crickets.” Overall, one of the most stimulating cabaret shows I’ve seen in some time.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.