Seen at the Opera:
This past week has been a whirlwind of opera: four productions totaling almost 15 hours. And the productions have been wildly different, from Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria and L’Incoronazione di Poppea in BAM’s Monteverdi Cycle to Don Giovanni and The Glass Blowers in New York City Opera’s spring season. Wow! What a range of music, from Monteverdi and Mozart to John Philip Sousa, whose rarely performed comic opera, The Glass Blowers, was produced in a stylish co-production with Glimmerglass Opera. John Conklin’s huge set is a large “glass” box which serves as the backdrop for various locales, from a Fifth Avenue mansion to a battlefield in Cuba, as well as the glassworks referred to in the title. The walls morph from white to red, yellow, and green as Mark McCullough’s lighting helps establish the different scenes and moods of the piece. Gabriel Berry’s brightly colored costumes (lots of hot pinks, reds, and purples, as well as green and yellow) add to the comic nature of the evening. Christopher Alden’s crisp direction adds to the humor as well, while conductor Jonathan Sheffer (making his NYCO debut) keeps a very lively tempo in the pit.
Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria
Not so much fun is NYCO’s production of Don Giovanni, which I found very gray (especially Riccardo Hernandez’s imposing but not too successful sets and Christine Binder’s lighting) and not sexy enough (remember the Peter Sellars version?). David Woolard’s costumes are very beautiful, but once again I’d have preferred an inset of hot pink or red in a black beaded gown (rather than dark green), or lower-cut bodices to emphasize the mood of seduction and lust.
Also problematic is the Dutch National Opera’s production of Poppea, directed by Pierre Audi with harsh abstract sets by Michel Simon and highly stylized (and rather ugly) costumes by Emi Wada. In keeping with the environment, Jean Kalman’s lighting is also harsh, using large HMI sources juxtaposed with warmer tungsten as the singers move in and out of the light rather jarringly. On the other hand, the singers are quite extraordinary, and it is an interesting if not entirely appreciated production.
So that leaves the Ulysses! And what a bijou it is. Directed by RSC’s Adrian Noble for Les Arts Florissants, with sets and costumes by the talented Anthony Ward and shimmering illumination by Jean Kalman, this perfect little production nestles quite perfectly into the BAM Harvey Theatre. Even musical director William Christie is beaming as he plays the harpsichord, and rumor has it he loves this space so much that he only wants to perform there on his future visits to Brooklyn.--Ellen Lampert-Greaux
Seen & Heard for Eight Hours: Prince does it three times a night. At every stop on the One Nite Alone...with Prince tour, His Royal Badness performs a total of three concerts for his most loyal subjects. First, official fan club members are invited to attend the sound check, 4-7pm. When I saw the show Tuesday, April 9, at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Prince (wearing a deep magenta crushed velvet jacket) was actually sitting in the audience for this (although separated by at least 10 rows of empty seats), sometimes singing, sometimes chatting with fans.
The concert proper lasts three hours, until a little after 11pm. This show is touring theatres, usually ones with prosceniums (although Avery Fisher Hall doesn't have one). Gary Westcott is the LD for this tour, and he also designed the set, which has ruched crushed velvet drapes dyed a specific Pantone color that Prince prefers--a deep purple, of course. The rig is horseshoe-shaped and can expand and contract for different-sized and -shaped venues.
Prince's concept for this tour was for it to look like an old-fashioned smoky blues club/bordello. He likes the show to be rather dark, and he favors having the band, the New Power Generation, silhouetted against a deep-colored cyc. Prince also frequently asks "GW" to turn up the house lights so he can see and interact with the crowd. The middle section of the show features Prince alone at a bank of keyboards center stage, where he performs several ballads. The lighting for this section is lower in intensity and deeper in color, with several instruments focused on Prince, backlighting him, and creating a very intimate atmosphere.
In most cities, an aftershow performance is held at a local club, at which Prince and his band (which includes a saxophonist who is a veteran of James Brown's band) jam for a couple more hours. The NYC aftershow was held at Club World, in the basement of the WWF restaurant on Times Square. George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic were just finishing up their set when I arrived with Gary, who has to go into these clubs sight unseen, take stock of the equipment, and quickly program some looks to simulate the main concert's design. Luckily, Club World is nicely equipped and the venue's LD, John Taccone, was on hand to assist.
The highlight of these aftershows (as if basking in the presence of The Purple One for a couple more hours isn't enough) is the guest stars who come onstage and jam with the band. In NYC, special appearances were made by old-school rapper Doug E. Fresh and recent multiple-Grammy-winner Alicia Keys, who played keyboards with Prince. I heard that Lenny Kravitz and Will Smith were also backstage, but they did not come out and perform. The aftershow ran about 2-4am. Gary said that Prince would even do another show after that if he could. I got home at 5am Wednesday and had to come into the office late. Luckily, the crew had a travel day and then a day off before the next performance. For more Prince info, including fan show reviews, go to www.npgmusicclub.com.-- Amy L. Slingerland
Seen Off Broadway: The famous Yiddish play The Golem, at Manhattan Ensemble Theatre, is getting a rare New York production, thanks to the new Manhattan Ensemble Theatre. It’s a kind of theological Frankenstein story, set in 16th-century Prague; a rabbi (Robert Prosky) creates a monster out of clay to defend the Jewish community from anti-Semitic attacks—but you known what they say about those who live by the sword. Much newspaper space has been expended noting the play’s importance as a parable of Israel’s current dilemma, but the really relevant points here are the play’s clunky structure, its wooden dialogue (at least in David Fishelson’s adaptation), and the overwrought performances. Anyway, Beowulf Borritt’s cave-like setting is suitably creepy, with some excellent stone fabrication, and Michael Chybowski’s lighting adds to the eerie, dank atmosphere. Tracy Dorman’s costumes, in this context, seem a little over-elaborate—a more stylized approach might have been better. The sound design by Daniel Levy and Timothy J. Anderson is rather good, especially the effects for the scenes when the invisible monster strikes. In the final analysis, however, this is a very long 90 minutes…
Swimming with Watermelons, at the Vineyard Theatre, is writer-director Diane Paulus’ (she collaborated with Randy Weiner) memoir about her parents’ romance in postwar Japan. For some reason, it has been conceived as an amateurish semi-musical, with an all-female cast singing along to pop records of the 40s. If this sounds appealing to you, then you have been notified. The design, including Myung Hee Cho’s setting, Ilona Somogyi’s costumes, and Brett Jarvis’ sound, is pretty ordinary, although lighting designer Michael Chybowski’s red-white-and-blue color palette is amusing. I should mention that Emily Hellstrom is charming as the heroine.
Seen On Broadway: The Elephant Man was one of the biggest hits of the 80s, partly because of its novelty value—at the time, no one had ever heard of John Merrick, the famously afflicted 19th-century Englishman, whose body was disfigured by sac-like skin growths. But the play also offers three juicy lead roles. Sean Mathias’ new Broadway revival doesn’t disguise the play’s problems—most especially the fact that it fails to fully dramatize the story’s main point, which is the spiritual breakdown of Frederic Treves, Merrick’s doctor—but it is a first-class revival all the way, with superb performances by Billy Crudup (as Merrick), Rupert Graves (as Treves), and Kate Burton (a delight as the witty actress Mrs. Kendal, who befriends Merrick). Santo Loquasto’s Brechtian settings—a skeletal metal structure surrounded by curtains and mirrors--and his black Victorian costumes are some of his best recent work, and James F. Ingalls’ lighting skillfully reshapes the stage as necessary. Both designers should be remembered at awards time. Michael Clark’s projections and David Shapiro’s sound are very well done, as well. If nothing else, this production makes a compelling case for reviving The Elephant Man.--David Barbour
Seen at the Movies: "Live Free…Die Well!" Such is the advice imparted to us by The Rock, in his cinematic starring debut vehicle The Scorpion King. You may recall that the wrestling champ, ne Dwayne Douglas Johnson, has already played this character, in a cameo appearance in last year's The Mummy Returns. Actually, The Scorpion King, which is directed by Chuck Russell, makes that blockbuster franchise entry look like a model of coherent plotting and visual restraint. Set in what I gather is meant to be pre-dynastic Egypt, this consummate April release—mindless but not too expensive--is all fighting, fighting, fighting, punctuated by a few lame wisecracks and periodic flexing and grimacing matches between The Rock and costar Michael Clarke Duncan. What the movie disappointingly lacks are any reanimated mummies, or any other monsters, for that matter—unless you count a swarm of tacky digital fire ants.
The Rock means business
Digital tackiness is pretty much the technical credo of The Scorpion King, which underwent post work at Centropolis and R!OT effects houses. Production designer Ed Verreaux brings us an ancient Mideastern marketplace by way of "Spartacus Square" on the Universal backlot, and costume designer John Bloomfield supplies leather leggings for the star. DP John R. Leonetti and gaffer Derrick Kolus created proper 5,000-year-old firelight sources with rings of gelled light bulbs on dimmer. An end title proudly proclaims that The Scorpion King was shot in its entirety in California. I guess Canada just wouldn't do.--John Calhoun