Review: Galas

Diva! Here we have one diva (in the most positive goddess-like sense) playing another diva (in both senses). Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. We have a man with goddess-like acting gifts (Everett Quinton) portraying a fictionalized version of opera diva Maria Callas. Drag doesn’t get much higher than this.

The play is Galas by the late great Charles Ludlam, Everett’s partner in art and life – and the greatest playwright to come out of the Ridiculous Theatre movement. Now Quinton is directing and playing the lead role in Galas in its first New York revival since its original 1983 run.

As director, Everett fills the play with truly “Ridiculous”detail, as well as lots of warmth and romanticism, appropriate to the story of a diva with such great skills at singing Romantic Era opera. As an actor, Galas confirms Quinton as the greatest living actor in the Ridiculous tradition – and among the best in any tradition, as far as I’m concerned.

He attacks the role with great precision, and the almost supernatural conviction that is the hallmark of great Ridiculous acting, expertly playing the deep seriousness of this tragicomedy as well (its actual subtitle is “A Modern Tragedy” but it’s far too funny for that). Everett is the ideal interpreter of Ludlam’s plays, knowing when to be loyal to what Charles had already done, and when to push things even further into preposterousness to keep it fresh.

This is above all a star vehicle for the actor playing Galas, but there is one other fantastic performance in this production, as well as someone who shines in a smaller part. On the fantastic side is Jenne Vath as the diva’s mad maid Bruna. The role is nutty as hell and Vath plays it to the hilt. And, as Galas’s romantic rival Athina, Maude Lardener Burke leads you to believe – in a very few lines – that she is every bit as formidable as the great singer.

The production’s venue is the acoustically unforgiving main hall of St. John’s Lutheran Church, and its biggest flaw is lack of vocal projection equal to the echo-y space. That is for sure, a mere quibble when you are seeing such a great artist as Quinton vigorously at work. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Interview: Everett Quinton in “Galas”

I have had the great pleasure of directing Ridiculous Theatre legend Everett Quinton twice, in the New York premiere of Tennessee Williams’s Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws and a staged reading of Charles Ludlam’s Medea. The Williams play got some terrific reviews, which you can read here (and you can see some lovely photos here). Charles Ludlam was perhaps the greatest playwright to come out of the Ridiculous Theatre movement, and Everett was his partner in art and life.

Now Quinton is directing and playing the lead role in Ludlam’s fictionalized tribute to opera diva Maria Callas, entitled Galas, in its first New York revival since its original 1983 run. I sat down with this humble genius to talk about it.

So how did this revival of Galas come about?

It was suggested last fall. I’ve been working with the Yorick Theatre Company. Chris Johnson, who is the Artistic Director of Yorick, talked with Pastor Mark Erson who is the Artistic Director of Theatre at St. John’s Church on Christoper Street, where Yorick performs. They came up with the idea of doing Galas – because of the Stonewall 50th anniversary and World Pride – suggested it to me and I said “good.”

Is this a role you’ve wanted to do?

Yeah, people over the years have suggested it, but there was never the opportunity to do it. Now that it has, I’d be a fool to say no; its a terrific part. I’m having fun with it. When you’re directing it and you’re in it, like I am with this, there are so many pots on the stove. But now me and the other actors are starting to cook! [Laughs] I love the actors in this group, they’re a wonderful group and we’re finding our way.

There’s humor in everything Charles wrote, but am I right in thinking this is one of his more serious plays?

It does play as more serious, yes. That’s the beauty of it. It starts out one way and it flips midway, which is not accidental on Charles’s part. You carefully study the script and he sets up the flip early on. I’m really enjoying exploring that. When I was in the original production, for which I also did the costumes, I didn’t worry about the big picture. So that’s a joy of this production for me. It’s around this time that Charles blossoms from a good writer into a really fabulous one, so skillful. We all improve as we go along, right?

Funny thing is, this big play was originally supposed to be a two-hander for me and him, about an actress and her maid. I don’t know what was going on at the time that provoked him to turn it into a life of Maria Callas. Because usually that’s the way he worked, something in the air tweaked him.

I know this is fictionalized – she’s named Galas not Callas – but I recall that it actually tracks pretty closely with Callas’s life.

Pretty closely, except there’s a couple of things I couldn’t make sense of and then I realized that’s the fictionalized part. I thought I knew from the original production that the last act takes place in Paris – and it doesn’t [Laughs], that’s the fictional part. But it is a close tribute, and I’m using her speaking voice. All of the scene changes are her singing.

I love that Callas demanded a dollar more than all her contemporaries – she would say “so-and-so’s getting so much so I want a dollar more.” I love her arrogance, and when you realize who those contemporaries were, you realize oh my God she had cojones, she had ovaries. [Laughs]

Are you an opera fan yourself?

A fan, yeah. I have no intellectual conceptions about it, I just love it. Tony Randall called it the greatest of art forms, which is arguable. Those singers just do so many wonderful things. I mean I walk around the apartment pretending to be one. When I got the costumes for the original production, I had a decent budget and I found this beautiful green dress for Charles to wear as Galas. But when I first got it home, I wore it and went around the apartment pretending I was soprano Shirley Verrett [Laughs]. So I’m a lip synch opera queen. Charles liked opera but there were bigger opera queens in the company and our chatter could annoy him. I called it “gay baseball,” we talk about opera and musicals like straight guys talk about baseball.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: La Cifra

This 1789 comic opera by composer Antonio Salieri – only now having it’s American premiere with Dell’Arte Opera – put a permanent grin on my face throughout, and made me openly guffaw more often than any other opera I can think of. It is actually laugh out loud funny.

This is partially due to the work of librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, my pick for greatest opera librettist of all time. He’s most famous for his collaborations with Mozart (La Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte). Mozart called all three opera buffa or “funny opera,” but they are generally more wry, satirical and thoughtful than the gleefully low farce we find in La Cifra. Still – and this is the particular genius of Da Ponte – every now and again there’s a single line that cuts through to very human truths, or casts things in a more ambivalent light. La Cifra made me laugh – a lot – but also frequently made me pause for thought.

Salieri deserves a big part of the credit too. There are some luscious melodies here, but what really stands out is his comic timing, not a terribly common gift in operatic composers. In the Act I finale the ensemble hits a loud chord at the least expected moment, causing one to laugh from sheer surprise. When the cast is puzzling over an important cipher (the titular cifra) in the final scene, Salieri has fun spacing out the letters of this mysterious code. And these are only the most obvious examples of Salieri’s pervasive musical wit.

The character with the most stage time is Rusticone (Angky Budiardjono), a greedy scheming father, a stock type descending from the character Pantalone in commedia dell’arte. Da Ponte comes close to making us sympathize with the wily bastard, to the point of the whole story being seen from his point of view. Budiardjono takes that and runs with it, conspiratorially taking the audience into his confidence. Budiardjono has a vigorous yet precise sense of timing in every way, musically, comically, physically and more.

The plot is fluff directly out of commedia with all sorts of frustrated love, mistaken identity and general buffoonery. Stage director Brittany Goodwin had the savvy to lean into this commedia quality, encouraging the cast to go for a broad physicality which fits the material exceptionally well.

The cast is uniformly strong vocally, but what really matters here is that they are also all gifted comic actors. Standouts in this area include Allison Gish, who gives us Rusticone’s hedonistic daughter Lisotta with infectious exuberance, and Jay Chacon, who is clownish perfection as love-struck peasant Sandrino. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Piramo e Tisbe

What a gorgeous piece of music from an unjustly forgotten composer! Johann Adolph Hasse was one of the most important opera composers between Handel and Mozart. He was a proponent of a style of music called galant or empfindsamer stil (“sensitive style”), more interested in melody than the earlier Baroque style, but more ornamented than the Classical style that would follow. By the time he wrote Piramo e Tisbe (1768) – based on an ancient tale of star-crossed lovers that inspired Romeo & Juliet – this style was falling out of fashion, but Hasse bucked prevailing trends to write an opera that was among the most melodically elaborate he ever wrote.

Director Phillip Shneidman sets the action in a vaguely contemporary setting to mixed effect; Alex Basco Koch’s subtle projection design gives the production some appropriately melancholy atmospherics. Musically, this luscious opera is being given a gorgeous account under the baton of New Vintage Baroque’s Elliot Figg.

Most of the vocal pyrotechnics go to the cross-dressed “pants role” Piramo, and mezzo Kristin Gornstein makes a musically brilliant and powerful impact in the role. Soprano Kelly Curtin’s role Tisbe is full of expressive passages, and she delivers them with elegance and strength. In the role of Tisbe’s father, known only as Padre, tenor Glenn Seven Allen deftly negotiates a role that demands a balance of galant lightness and a father’s stony fury. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Idomeneo

The first of Mozart’s operas written entirely during his adulthood, Idomeneo is a nod to an older, now unfairly ignored, operatic form, opera seria, that was undergoing intense reform at the time (1781). But it also includes innovations that point towards later Romanticism, a style that forms the core of the operatic standard repertoire as we know it today. It connects what was glorious about both ages of opera, and is a great musical glory itself. The gorgeous treatment it is currently being given at the Met under conductor James Levine’s still powerful baton – as well as the always-magnificent Met Chorus under Donald Palumbo – is a must-hear.

Is it a must-see? Well, the production by the late director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle is certainly impressive and handsome, with sepia-toned backdrops inspired by 18th Century etchings by Giambattista Piranesi of Roman ruins. But it has a whiff of the academic about it. Opera seria was an art form aimed at, and patronized by, European nobility, with Greek myths refashioned to give object lessons in good government. Sound a bit dry doesn’t it? And that’s the feel Ponnelle evokes, albeit with a grandeur befitting the Met. I prefer to think of opera seria as action-adventure stories where the action moves at a stately pace, sort of a more majestic Gaurdians of the Galaxy. At least I think that’s the best way to express the many but strange charms of opera seria to a 21st Century audience. In short, a fine production, but not exactly to my taste.

One of the more Romantic-feeling things in Idomeneo is Elettra’s mad scene ”D’Oreste, d’Aiace” and Elza van den Heever hits it with an exciting fury and precision, as well as gestures so wild they border on the comic. What fun! In the title role, Matthew Polenzani correctly pitched his performance toward the light elegance expected from tenors in opera seria (very different from the vocal heroics that fill most of the tenor repertoire), while also allowing Idomeneo’s most emotionally expressive passages full play.

Mezzo Alice Coote make a fine and strong impression as Idamante, Idomeneo’s son, a role originally written for a male castrato soprano. As Ilia, the Trojan princess, Nadine Sierra sang with a considered yet warm beauty closely comparable to Polenzani’s, with a confident strength that carried to the large house with no sign of strain. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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: 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.