August 2010

A London Summer with Huntley Dent

Valery Gergiev, BBC Proms 2010

Capo di tutti capi. If you must have a gang invade your turf, let it be a gang of scintillating Russian conductors. The UK is in that enviable position - for some reason the Russians haven’t made real inroads in America - and Valery Gergiev in particular has London at his feet. All but the critics, that is. They are grumpy about Gergiev, and admittedly he is a grandstander. His first concert this summer was a program of almost amusing arrogance as he led the World Orchestra for Peace in the Mahler Fourth and Fifth symphonies. One knew in advance that it would be too much of a glorious thing. The mega-wattage of the orchestra, which draws its roster from the great orchestras of the world (even the back bench violins are first and second desk players at home) insured an evening of thrills. This ad hoc ensemble premiered in 1995, the brain child of Sir Georg Solti, who wanted it to symbolize harmony among all peoples. High-flown sentiments, but on the rare occasions when the World Orchestra assembles, with Gergiev now at the head, even the citizens of Berlin and Vienna have to take notice. This is orchestral playing of sizzling virtuosity.
A London Summer with Huntley Dent

Arthur Miller’s All My Sons at the Apollo Theatre

Missing in action. A play is greatly fortunate when it receives a performance better than it is. The current revival of Arthur Miller’s family drama from 1947, All My Sons, needs that kind of help. You hear hollow echoes throughout of socialist catch phrases and pat Depression-era notions about the working Joe as mythic hero. Money stinks. Bosses are glint-eyed bastards. In the Soviet system such virtuous cant was backed up by totalitarian terror: if you didn’t write a paean to the crews who built a new dam in Omsk, the secret police were ready to stimulate your inspiration with a midnight visit. Miller wanted to be a good leftist and a great writer at the same time. We can be thankful that his artistic ambitiousness won out. Otherwise, All My Sons would be like a Christmas pudding studded with thumbtacks — as it is, the action stops for mini sermons on one-worldism, war profiteers, the corrupting decay of capitalism, and so on. Finger wagging isn’t helpful when you aim to be the working-class Sophocles. Who cares if Oedipus paid his charioteer a decent wage at the crossroad to Thebes?
A London Summer with Huntley Dent

Spur of the Moment at the Royal Court Theatre

Her dark materials. I’m sure that the parents of Anya Reiss are bursting with pride that their daughter has written an acclaimed debut play, Spur of the Moment, at the unheard-of age of seventeen. But aren’t they horrified, too? As staged by the adventurous Royal Court Theatre, whose young writers program nurtured Reiss, the play is Ozzie and Harriet Burn in Hell. Their precocious offspring wasn’t just listening at doors to what the adults were squabbling about. She was prying into their psyches with sharpened tweezers, as coldly objective as Nabokov with his butterflies skewered and pinned on a board. Mums and dads across the land must be applying double insulation to their bedrooms.
At the Bayreuth Festival

A Note from Bayreuth

I had originally planned this commentary simply to let you, our readers, know about the changes in our usual coverage for the remainder of the summer: Larry Wallach, Seth Lachterman, and Keith Kibler will bravely continue their coverage of summer festivals in the Berkshires and Hudson Valley, while I visit Bayreuth, to review the entire 2010 season: Tankred Dorst's production of the Ring, along with the controversial productions of Parsifal (Stefan Herheim, 2008), Die Meistersinger (Katharina Wagner, 2007), and Lohengrin (Hans Neuenfels, 2010). I left my rat-catching gear at home, not wishing to incur overweight charges and thinking it might be cheaper simply to purchase the necessaries here, but all the ratting supply stores in Bayreuth are sold out of equipment, and I realize that I simply have to remain unrattled, while the rodents run free.

A London Summer with Huntley Dent

Henry Moore Exhibition at the Tate Britain

Ship of state. In his long lifetime, which spanned the buggy whip and the atom bomb, Henry Moore’s sculptures were never derided for being “lumpy, swollen, etiolated, hunched, extruded, squashed, and dismembered” by anyone who championed modern art. Such disdain has been saved for our time. The quote is from a London daily's art critic on the opening of Tate Britain’s large Moore exhibit, and she has no patience for the artist’s repetitiveness, lack of originality, overproduction (the museum culled over a hundred sculptures and drawings from a possible 11,000), endless borrowing from his betters (particularly Picasso), ubiquity as a favorite of corporations and colleges that need to art up the place (my college boasts a large, expensive Moore outside my old dorm), and so on. Such are the whines of twerpdom, which every iconic artist endures as the generations change. The only exception I can think of is the Teflon-coated reputation of Cezanne.
New York Arts

Lewis Spratlan’s Opera “Life is a Dream” Premiered at the Santa Fe Opera

The story has been well told in the musical press by now about the delay in production of Lewis Spratlan’s great opera Life Is a Dream — commissioned in the late 1970s by an opera company that went out of business before the opera could be produced; rejected numerous times by other American and European companies; awarded the Pulitzer Prize a decade ago for a concert performance of Act II; more rejections for a full staging… Congratulations and thanks are due at last to General Director Charles Mackay and the Santa Fe Opera for taking a new look at this work, seeing its intrinsic worth and its great potential as staged music drama, believing in it, and now giving it a committed and brilliant production. This occasion is a triumph for all concerned. Here palpably, for the eyes and ears and mind, is one of the great American operas, one of the great modern operas, one of the great operas.
A London Summer with Huntley Dent

La Bête by David Hirson at the Comedy Theatre, London

The muse unleashed. The wildest frolic in London is being had by Mark Rylance the first moment he wanders onstage as Valere, a street clown in 17th-century France. In his hand he clutches a glass of red wine and two pieces of green melon. A broken pheasant plume in his hat trails behind. Within thirty seconds he has burped, farted, spit, dribbled melon seeds on his chin, and retired to a commode, after which he wipes his bum with loose pages from a rival writer's manuscript. For Valere is, unbelievably, a poet and playwright brought to farcical life as a bulging-eyed creature out of Hogarth – or as Rylance plays him, an entire menagerie of Hogarthian sots and loons. He commences on a rapid-fire soliloquy in rhyming couplets that lasts, without taking a breath, for twenty-five minutes.
A London Summer with Huntley Dent

Sondheim at 80 – excerpts from Sondheim Works

Master of all trades. Stephen Sondheim’s career has been a slippery alloy of brilliance and spite. The brilliance is entirely his; the spite seeps from Broadway‘s “vultures, hangers on, and harbingers of bad news.” The quote is from a BBC interview this spring, indicating that at 80, Sondheim either feels the old barbs or is reconciled to being the perpetual outsider. His melodies can be as sweet as cream toffee, but you have to walk over broken glass to get to them. Addicted to puzzles and word games, he inserts them liberally into his lyrics, which are never for the dull witted. Before him, the American musical was a national pastime. Show tunes made the top 40, and everyone knew the numbers from Oklahoma. (In Sondheim, the corn is as high as a salamander‘s eye.) Even Kurt Weill cottoned that he had to transform the scabrous ironies of his Berlin work into something anodyne and folksy once he crossed the Atlantic. Sondheim alone was willing to write with a razor and strop. The way that critics reviled him, you’d think he filched the champagne from Die Fledermaus and substituted cyanide.
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