Archive for June, 2010

LUMINATO 2010 presents PRIMA DONNA reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

The plangent opening strains of the first act overture redolent of Puccini and Mascagni signal that Rufus Wainwright’s debut opera Prima Donna is going to be a  trip down operatic memory lane. But my spirits lifted when the curtain went up to reveal Antony McDonald’s awesome exterior architecture of a Paris apartment enhanced by Thomas Hase’s lighting. Framed in the window appears Regine (the diva queen) who has been hiding out for six years since the premiere of her greatest hit as queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Soprano Janis Kelly sings and acts convincingly, though the music is pretty boring, and the libretto, co-written by Wainwright and Bernadette Colomine, floats us in the atmosphere of self-indulgent, injured narcissism that this prima donna is hoping to step out of if today’s visit by a young journalist goes right.

Most of the first act is free of any drama beyond the fuss by butler and maid to get the place ready to receive a visitor. The music is emotionally flat.  Enter Colin Ainsworth as the visitor. His good looks and piercing tenor brighten the scene considerably. Towards the end of the first act, Regine seduces him into a duet which she actually leads at the piano, and that is the first superior musical moment.  The first dramatic moment is when they almost kiss. This heightened mood is sustained by a vocal  quartet when the maid and the ‘heavy’ butler ably played by baritone Gregory Dahl get into the act.

The second act, right from the overture, is more satisfying than the first: more passion, more drama, better music–some minimalistic pulses behind the neo-romantic pastiches, and an inspired dreamlike flashback to six years ago and the night of Regine’s original triumph in music and disappointment in love. Set and costumes dazzle. It’s a high when you can feel that an aria is going to be applauded as two are: Charlotte Ellet as Marie the maid hits a high note that earns one, and Miss Kelly’s signature aria ending on the word “tristesse’ is truly touching.  You can get past the claustrophobic ‘Sunset Boulevard’ ravings of an old queen and feel for her as she lets go of everyone in her life who stand between her and her naked loneliness.

In the final scene, she is again at the open window of her apartment, alone, in her slip, watching the fireworks in the street below, blessing the happy revellers and accepting with some grandeur the prison of her loneliness.

LUMINATO 2010 presents THE INFERNAL COMEDY reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, June 14th, 2010

Friday, June 11, 2010, Massey Hall, Toronto.

“You all came, because you want to know the truth…You want to know, if I killed that women? Or twelve others?”  says John Malkovich as real-life convicted lady-killer Jack Unterweger speaking directly to the audience during the closing moments of this excellent entertainment. And does  John-Jack-Malkovich-Unterweger tell us the truth? Not in so many words. Instead we get this excuse: “I am longing for the truth as much as you are…but it has not been given to me. I cannot produce any true word.”

In fact, there is a great deal of truth in this endlessly engaging stage-play for a Baroque Orchestra, two Sopranos and one actor written and directed by Michael Sturminger. The truth comes out in Malkovich’s acting, and the in the music of Vivaldi, Gluck, Boccherini, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Weber, performed by  the Vienna Academy Orchestra and affectingly sung by Bernarda Bobro and Marie Arnet.

For example, early in the play, Malkovich-Unterweger tells the audience he will sit at his book-signing table (the stage is set up as for a ‘reading’) and look over his notes while the onstage orchestra behind him plays Boccherini’s “Ciacona” from the 1766 sinfonia La Casa Del Diavolo. After a few bars, though he does nothing overt to show it, you can sense how the music is irritating him, and sure enough, after a few more bars, he gets up, waves to the conductor to stop the music and says to the audience,”I am not able to stand this kind of music. It makes me physically stressed… 
Especially, when I am trying to think.” His words are so right, that we laugh at the rightness of them. The inescapable truth here is the truth of the feeling—the nervous irritability that Malkovich generates even before he actually shows it. That kind of genuine ‘acting’ is the truth of Malkovich’s art, the kind of consistent performance that I believe the poet John Keats had in mind when he wrote the lines “Beauty is truth, truth beauty…”

Then there is the truth of the musical passages. There is a rightness from the start because the music is so totally incongruous. The  opening instrumental piece played even before Malkovich saunters onto the stage is the final Ciacona–“L’enfer”–from Gluck’s Don Juan’s Journey Through Hell. Unless you are the one in a million or more who would recognize the passage and its aptness to the concerns of the play, you have to wonder about the choice of a stately 1760’s composition to introduce the life and death of a serial killer who flourished from 1980-1994. Yet it turns out with this piece, as with the six exquisite love arias sung by the two soprano’s whom we witness being dominated and strangled onstage, their very incongruity is what makes them beautiful artifices or monuments to the truths of love that rise above and reign over the squalour of the story spawned by Unterweger’s base urges. Their seemingly out-of-place beauty glows like  innocence trust you might see in the eyes of a famine-starved child.

Here one must acknowledge conductor Martin Haselbock’s brilliance in choosing scores that are historically and thematically related to each other and to the themes of this play. The Haydn and Beethoven arias (“Scena di Berenice”, and “Ah, Perfidio”) celebrate the same doomed heroine Berenice lamenting the death of her ‘perfidious lover (as if in sympathy for Unterweger who committed suicide in his jail-cell). The songs by Mozart (“Ah, lo previdi”), C.M von Weber (“Ah, se Edmundo fosse”), and Vivaldi (“Sposa son disprezzata”) also involve the longings of frustrated lovers who have failed to reach their beloved and incline towards reunion in death. Sung, before during and after episodes where Malkovich writhes on the floor convincingly strangling the women with their own bras, these exquisite musical performances by Mlles. Bobro and Arnet actually show us how the incongruous truth of beauty can coexist within hopelessly sordid deception.

I have to add, to be accurate about the total effect of the play and the pleasure it gives, these words from an interview with Malkovich himself:“It’s actually a comedy.Quite a bleak one, but it’s mostly funny, if you ask me.”