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Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Semiramide Revival Has a Death by Baton

Ancient Babylonia, photo @ Ken Howard
You might have recalled that a month ago I was dithering about whether to see Semiramide or a second performance of Parsifal. Wagner beat out Rossini. The great thing about living in NYC though is that I had a chance to see Semiramide as well. Win-win I guess. So last night I was transported back to the magical world of ancient Babylonia ...

Oh who am I kidding? This revival of Semiramide was lifeless and uninspiring and didn't transport me anywhere except to constant glances at my watch. It wasn't really the singers' fault per se, nor was it the production's -- John Copley's 1991 production presented this opera seria with some picturesque tableaus and fabulous costumes. Instead the energy-killer last night was conductor Maurizio Benini.

The opera was heavily cut -- about 45 minutes worth of music. But instead of cutting entire numbers, there were a bunch of disfiguring internal cuts. Arias or choruses jumped from the first stanza to the "final" cabaletta stanza without any transition in between. So as a result the opera actually seemed longer because it was so repetitive -- choral interludes or chances to decorate the second verses were gone. It became one number after another with no connections.

Benini also managed to conduct Rossini while avoiding any hint of the famous Rossini crescendo. I don't know how that's possible, but there it is. It all was smoothed over into some sort of primo ottocento easy listening muzak. I'm not that familiar with this score but even I could tell that there were moments like the appearance of Semiramide's murdered husband's ghost where the music was supposed to sound much more atmospheric and ominous than it did. Bleh.

Meade and Abdrazakov, photo @ Ken Howard
The cast was okay-ish. Angela Meade in the title role has a large, competent dramatic coloratura soprano voice which she used to fairly good effect for most of the opera. A few caveats: her ornamentation mostly consists of blasting high notes in alt which might be crowd-pleasing but definitely isn't Rossinian. Her voice in the middle register can sound abrasive -- there's a hard edge to it that is not exactly ugly but not pretty either. "Bel raggio" had a pennywhistle high E. My thing about these extreme notes in alt is that they better be great. Meade's high notes are there, but they're thin and disconnected from the rest of her voice.

More bothersome was her complete disengagement from the character. She never seemed more than slightly perturbed at all the storyline surrounding her. "My dead husband whom I murdered has returned as a ghost. Oh well." "The man I love is actually my son. Oops." Changes in mood were indicated by turning her face -- face away from a character = upset. A face towards a character = happy. An appearance of her murdered husband's ghost caused her to simply look down at her hands. When she read the letter that informed Arsace of his real parentage her response was to crumple the letter up and then take a seat in the temple. Very dramatic.

Sarah Mesko
Elisabeth DeShong in the trouser role of Arsace was sick and replaced by Sarah Mesko. Mesko was obviously nervous and shaky in her Act 1 aria "Ah! Quel giorno" but once her voice settled in she was a pleasant mezzo-soprano who managed the music well despite having a voice that sits too high for this role. Brava to her for stepping in on such short notice and giving a creditable performance. She's also a tall handsome woman who looked believable as a young man.

Ildar Abdrazakov as Assur was more problematic. His voice is no longer flexible enough to really handle Rossini roulades and so the coloratura was sketched rather than truly sung. He also does not have the low notes needed for the role -- they came out as a sort of growl. He did look great in those shirtless costumes, I'll give him that.

For a comparison, here's Ildar in the Act 2 mad scene vs. Samuel Ramey. You can hear how much richer and more flexible Ramey's voice is.

Camarena, photo @ Ken Howard
The best, most consistent singing of the night came from the characters with the most tangential relation to the plot. Ryan Speedo Green projected real authority as Oroe the high priest. His voice has a rather prominent vibrato which might not be to everyone's taste but this is a major voice and I can't wait to see what he does next. Javier Camarena's role in the opera is even weaker -- Idreno loves Azema who loves Arsace who is loved by Semiramide. So that's like 4 degrees of separation from the central drama. But he does have two show-stopping arias, one in the first act and one in the second act. Alas, Rossini roulades are not really Camarena's specialty either (a lot of his runs were aspirated), but his bright, pingy voice and astonishing upper register (I lost track of how many high notes he interpolated) were definitely a much-needed jolt of adrenaline. Old timers often lament "lack of squillo." Camarena definitely has squillo.

Peter Gelb has made it known he loves primo ottocento opera, and under his reign the Met has finally "caught up" to the rest of the world in the sense that works like the Three Queens Trilogy, Le Comte Ory, Guillaume Tell, and La Donna del Lago were finally staged, and warhorses like L'elisir, La Cenerentola, Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Pasquale, Norma, La Sonnambula, I Puritani, La Fille du Regiment, and Il Barbiere di Siviglia get more play-time. This is all to the good. But casting for these works remains inconsistent -- disfigured by old-fashioned cuts, sung by singers who have intermittent understanding of primo ottocento style, conducted by routiniers. Last night someone who had never heard any Rossini before might have concluded that he was a dull, ponderous, repetitive composer. Do it right or don't do it at all.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Why I Walked Out of Angels in America UPDATED: Saw Perestroika!

At the end of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches I had a choice to make. I could either grab some dinner, and return for the evening performance of Perestroika, or I could go home. I decided to go home.

I shocked myself. I had been looking forward to seeing Angels in America for a long time. The production (a transfer from National Theatre Live) had racked up plaudits and awards all over the place. During Millennium Approaches I found Tony Kushner's writing alternatively funny, biting, insightful, thought-provoking. There were parts that in my opinion could have used some judicious cutting -- (one example: the opening monologue with the rabbi went on for way too long) but overall I was impressed with how little this play has dated. AIDS is no longer a death sentence and the artistic community is no longer losing so many talents to this dreaded disease but a good play is a good play. The many references to 1980's hot button issues also serve as a timely reminder about just how heartless Ronald Reagan was towards AIDS patients as nowadays many Democrats seem to view him through a gaze of nostalgia in comparison to Donald Trump.

Instead I walked out and decided not to return for the second part because I thought Kushner's play deserved a better presentation than it received. I don't think I've ever seen a production hampered by so many poor directorial and acting choices. (edit: I was also sick as a dog which is why I decided to see Perestroika later -- see below).

Lee Pace and Denise Gough
Where do I start? The #1 mistake was the casting of Lee Pace as Joe Pitt. Joe is already an unlikable character but Pace just about killed him. Pace's delivery of his lines was so wooden, so lifeless, that he sucked the energy out of every scene he was in. He really seemed like he was reading straight from cue cards or a powerpoint. In fact I've seen corporate keynote addresses that had more sparkle than Pace. I could not believe he read for this part and director Marianne Elliot said "Yes that's it. He's our guy." The scenes between Joe and Louis, Joe and Roy Cohn, Joe and Harper, were all sapped of any vitality. For instance in the painful scenes between Joe and Harper I think we're supposed to sense that Joe is genuinely tormented by his poor treatment of Harper. Joe delivered his lines with all the passion of a 5th grader in a spelling bee. The conflict and guilt that Joe feels is just not there and thus a hard-to-like character becomes simply annoying.

McArdle and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize, photo @ Helen Maybanks
Running a close second to Lee Pace was the choice to cast James McArdle as Louis. Louis is one of those stereotypical neurotic Jewish characters that populate theater. The thing about these characters is that if played the right way they can be endearing. I hate Woody Allen's personal life choices but damn if he isn't lovable in Annie Hall. McArdle makes Louis all whine, all whimpering, ZERO humor or charm. His long monologue on race relations that started the third act was what cemented my decision to go home. Three and a half hours with McArdle and Pace was already 3.5 hours too much. I couldn't bear to imagine having to spend another 4.5 hours with them.

Gough and Stewart-Jarrett, photo @ Helen Maybanks
I had been impressed with Denise Gough in People, Places and Things. I was therefore surprised at how unaffecting her Harper Pitt was. She recycled some of the same tics and mannerisms she used in People, Places and Things but Emma and Harper are very different characters. Gough also seemed like she was concentrating so hard on getting that flat "typical" American accent just right that she ignored the character's pathos. These strung-out, drug-addled miserable wives are a beloved theater trope for a good reason: they work in touching the heart. Actresses always want to play Mary Tyrone or Birdie Hubbard. Gough made Harper ... well, she made her annoying. For someone who is addicted to valium Gough read her lines like she'd popped too many speed pills instead. And she also didn't get the occasional flashes of humor and irony in Harper that give the audience hope that underneath the drug addiction there's a spirit waiting to come out. In fairness to Gough Kushner's writing for Harper is very tricky. Lots of rambling about ozone layers and Antarctica and other flights of fancy to show that Harper isn't all there. But it can sound very stagey.

And finally there was Susan Brown in the many roles: rabbi, Hannah Pitt (Joe's Mormon, unforgiving mother), Ethel Rosenberg. She played every single character with a cold, hard, steely demeanor. It got monotonous. One of the play's most memorable moments is when Roy Cohn remembers his machinations in getting Ethel executed. This is the "big reveal" moment when the audience realizes that Roy Cohn is even more monstrous than we expected. So his ghostly encounter with Ethel should show some sign that Ethel was someone sympathetic right? Not with Susan Brown.

Nathan Lane, photo @ Helen Maybanks
It's a shame because amidst all this disappointing acting Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter and Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn gave the play so much energy and life. Nathan Lane can't resist making Roy Cohn a funny bastard more than a truly evil man. But then again, Roy Cohn probably did have a sort of snake oil charm to him and Lane knows how to deliver lines and jokes with timing, precision, character. All things sorely missing from Pace, McArdle, and Gough. And as a result Cohn became one of the few "likable" characters onstage in the sense that I was interested in his storyline arc and wanted to follow him. Cohn might have been a loathsome socipath in real life, but in this production at least he has spunk and doesn't talk like a zombie.

Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter also transformed himself completely from the star of the Spiderman movies into a sickly AIDS patient who is abandoned by his lover Louis. Prior Walter is a tricky character to play: I didn't stay for the second half but it's clear even in the first half that he's being set up to be some sort of savior/messiah. Those types of characters can be hard to pull off as flesh and blood people. But Garfield manages to do it, and makes Walter's hallucinations with all the "prior" Prior Walters funny. I also liked Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize.

Andrew Garfield, photo @ Helen Maybanks
I wasn't just disappointed with the acting. I thought some of Marianne Elliot's directorial choices were head-scratching. First of all, Adrian Sutton's music that accompanies the play has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It's loud, bombastic, and frankly unlikable. The three storylines were done on a turntable with each "set" looking like the waiting room in a dentist's office. The "angel" reveal was this: the theater blacked out, and then there was an explosion, and the angel (Beth Malone in this performance) was held up by two puppeteers. The audience was screaming. Why? It was a cheap effect.

And so I decided to take an "L" for the day and went home. Since this show has been popping up with some regularity on TDF I'll try to see the second part sometime. But yeah, so basically I left Angels in America not because I didn't like the play but because I liked the play too much to see it killed by some uninspired acting. I'm reminded by Roy Cohn's speech:
I would have pulled the switch if they let me. Why? Because I hate traitors. I HATE communists. Was it legal? FUCK legal. Not nice? Fuck nice. The Nation says I'm not nice? FUCK THE NATION. Do you wanna be NICE? Or you wanna be EFFECTIVE.
 Tony Kushner's play cannot handle the Lee Pace/James McArdle "nice" performances. It needs way more energy to be effective.

The final tableau

UPDATE: Part of the reason I responded so poorly to Millennium Approaches was I was coming down with a nasty virus. I'm still home sick. But I am seeing Perestroika on 3/16 so I will update this as soon as I see Perestroika.

March 16, 2018

Ethel Rosenberg visits Cohn
I went back to see Perestroika a little less than a week after I walked out on the double header. I was no longer feeling the effects of the nasty virus and was determined to give the entire Angels in America a chance.

Overall I found Perestroika to be a much weaker work than Millennium Approaches.Ushers told me that between last week and this week they had cut about 20 minutes of Perestroika. Well the play still felt endless. There are no doubt some brilliant scenes (Roy Cohn's death being one of them) but the play felt much more preachy, less organic, and more self -indulgent.  Perestroika unlike Millennium Approaches does not have a very tight dramatic structure. The play weaves in and out between realism and surrealism, ozone layer and atmosphere,  heaven and earth, angels and mortals. Sometimes I felt like I was listening to several a PhD thesis on religion, law, and politics.

In Millennium Approaches I recognized the brilliance of Kushner's play and was frustrated that I didn't think the actors were maximizing the impact. In Perestroika I'm not sure the greatest actors in the world could have made some of the monologues work. The opening monologue by some Soviet diplomat about, well, perestroika, was longer and even more unfunny than the rabbi's monologue that opened Millennium. Louis's long rant to Joe about legal decisions took some important political points and then proceeded to drain them of any interest because the tone of the monologue was so didactic and without nuance.

Garfield and Stewart-Jarrett, photo @ Helen Maybanks
With that being said, Perestroika also exposed the limits of Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield's acting abilities. I had liked them a lot in Millennium Approaches but in Perestroika their approaches were too one-note. Garfield in particular must have shrieked the entire time he was onstage. He started at a level 10 of hysteria and had nowhere to go. Nathan Lane also tried too hard to wring humor and laughter out of Cohn's character. Cohn is in such a grim state of affairs in Perestroika that the slick humor that was believable in Millennium Approaches (when Cohn still had the facade of luxury and power) did not work when Cohn was desperate, dying, on a morphine drip, and disbarred. Even with these weaknesses though Lane is still bar none the best actor of the production.

Susan Brown and Andrew Garfield, photo @ Helen Maybanks
But the whole production suffers from some weak casting in principal and supporting parts. Lee Pace in Perestroika has to go the full monty but his awkward, stilted delivery was as much of an energy sucker as it had been in Millennium. Susan Brown in Perestroika has a scene that if done right should absolutely break the heart. Hannah Pitt has to accompany Prior to the hospital after he faints at the Mormon center. Prior shows Hannah the lesions that have wrecked his body. Hannah quietly holds Prior's hand. Susan Brown keeps a stiff upper lip in this scene when some sentiment and softness are needed. And James McArdle's Louis went from annoying in Millennium to truly unbearable in Perestroika.  He played him as so shrill, whiny, selfish that he just gave us no reason why we should care about this guy. Denise Gough's character of Harper has a smaller role in Perestroika and she faded almost completely out of the play, her monotonous droning voice simply becoming a nuisance. I also thought Nathan Stewart-Jarrett's Belize was stereotypical to the point of being offensive.

McArdle and Pace
The directorial choices in Perestroika were also questionable: again, Marianne Elliot resisted any effort to put the play in a specific place and time. But Perestroika has even more of a 1980's/early 90's zeitgeist than Millennium. The long discussions about Ronald Reagan and the end of the Cold War make the nowhere-land approach mind-boggling. It also dulled the impact of one of the play's most famous moments: when Prior breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience about how "the great work begins":

“And the dead will be commemorated and we’ll struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.” 

When this speech played in the 1990's, I can only imagine its impact. People in the United States were still dying of AIDS at a shocking rate. The anti-retroviral medicines had yet to be developed. There was no guarantee that the "great work" would even continue. Today AIDS is still a horrible virus that infects millions of people around the world, but with the right medications it's not a death sentence. But even with the improvements in life expectancy among those who are HIV+ the "great work" continues and it's now concentrated in places like sub-Saharan Africa where the countries lack the means to provide their patients with life-saving medication.

So Prior's speech TODAY should give us a reminder of what life was like back then, and how far we've come, but how much "great work" needs to done still. Yet this moment went for very little. Andrew Garfield's speech was nervous and jittery, and without any time, place and perspective the opportunity for a history lesson is lost.

If you want to see a truly great version of Angels in America, I highly recommend the HBO miniseries. Even if you don't have HBO it's available to rent on Amazon. The performances there are so pitch-perfect without a single false note and everyone is a flesh and blood character. And then here are extensive clips of the OBC in 1993. Watch how real those actors were, how little artifice there was. They are raw and powerful. In other words, they are everything that this revival of Angels in America is not.

This production is a lost opportunity. The great work continues, but this production is not the one that will inspire people to continue that great work.

Monday, March 5, 2018

An Elektra With No Charge

Goerke as Elektra, photo @ Karen Almond
If there was one event at the Met that I was looking forward to all season, it was Elektra. I was certain that in an otherwise safe and dull season Elektra would blow the roof off the place. I wasn't basing this on mere conjecture. I was convinced that this Elektra would be absolutely elektrifying (sic) because in 2015 I heard Christine Goerke sing an Elektra at Carnegie Hall for which demented is too mild a word. It was one of those evenings where the oldest, quietest gentlemen in the upper rings of the balcony were screaming their lungs off. Surely when she sang Elektra at the Met it would be just as great, if not even greater?

The sisters, photo @ Karen Almond
So it was with these sky-high expectations that I went to tonight's performance. And things started promisingly. The cavernous, organ-like quality Goerke's voice made her opening phrases in the "Allein" monologue crackle with excitement. Just the way she bellowed "Agamemnon!" gave one a visceral thrill. But as the monologue went on and the tessitura went higher I began to realize that this was a singer in major vocal trouble. Her upper register is completely disconnected to the rich, contralto-like core of her voice. Her top notes are alternately thin, wobbly, shrill, and at times inaudible. I give Elektra bonus points because the relentless assaults into the upper register can be taxing for even the strongest of voices, but even with that "it's Elektra" mindset, there were times when the sounds Goerke was making wasn't music, but noise.

It's a shame because Goerke's interpretation of Elektra was interesting and very different from Nina Stemme's cold, zombie-like portrayal. Goerke portrayed Elektra as much younger, with more life and spunk left in her. At times she appeared to be in arrested development as she clung to a security blanket and hugged her hated mother almost out of habit. It was thus a disappointment to see Goerke's dramatic choices in the final moments of the opera. Goerke had played Elektra as full of fury and fight, and I expected her to do what she did in Carnegie Hall, which was dance around the stage (or in the case of Carnegie Hall, the tiny platform) in a frenzy. But Goerke decided upon a series of rather slow, jerky movements and ended the opera sitting onstage in a daze, still very alive, as her sister entreated her to follow Orest and start a new life. I think had Patrice Chereau been alive he no doubt would have worked out an ending that worked better for Goerke's own stage personality. As it was, the finale which is usually thrilling was just awkward.

I mean just look at the wild abandon of Goerke in this scene compared to Stemme's more closed off portrayal. I just feel like that energy was not utilized for much of the opera.

Schuster, photo @ Karen Almond
Goerke's vocal struggles contrasted with Elsa van den Heever, who had a complete triumph. She sang Chrysothemis with pure tone, gleaming upper register, and an evenly distributed voice. Dramatically she hit the right notes too, as the sympathetic sister who still hopes for a good life. Her duet with Elektra was alternately tender and chilling. Her final entreaties to Elektra soared over the orchestra and one ended the opera hoping that Chrysothemis really has that family and kids that she longs for.

Michaela Schuster as Klytämnestra was also vocally a huge improvement over Waltraud Meier, the previous Klyt of this production. Meier looked like a million bucks and acted the hell out of the role, making her a sort of glamorous monster. But she barely had a voice. Schuster wasn't as gorgeous physically but she actually had a voice (a rather gravelly mezzo), and her confrontation with Elektra felt more evenly matched. She also played Klytämnestra more sympathetically than Meier. Meier was Cersei v. 2.0. All fake glitz and sympathy. Schuster sounded genuinely traumatized and made us remember that in the Greek myth Klytämnestra's hatred for her dead husband is justified -- he sacrificed her daughter Iphigenia.

I also enjoyed Mikhail Petrenko's Orest more than Eric Owens' portrayal. Petrenko's bass is kind of dry, cold and colorless, but his portrayal is more vivid. For one, he looked creepy. He looked like a man who has been to hell and back and is used to lurking in the shadows. Owens had a tendency to sing his lines with little regard for the Elektra of that production (Nina Stemme). With Petrenko and Goerke, the recognition scene felt like a real dialogue and that also happened to be the part of the score which was the most simpatico to Goerke's voice.

Goerke and Petrenko, photo @ Karen Almond
Jay Hunter Morris was Aegisth and his never-beautiful tenor has now turned very thin and sour indeed. Aegisth is a short role though. I was also disappointed with the singing of the maids and servants and Orest's guardian (Kevin Short). I realize this is a revival but the maids are an important part of the fabric of Elektra and all that screeching did not make for a good introduction to the opera.

I am in the minority on this but I did not care for Yannick Nézet Séguin's conducting. It's very loud, very exciting and the audiences loved it but I thought it was totally insensitive to the singers. When a conductor hears a singer struggling the way Goerke was during the performance, it is NOT time to turn up that 100-member orchestra to a level 10. I noticed this tendency to bluster through in Parsifal as well -- when René Pape was struggling, YNS swept the orchestra right along until Pape was just about drowned out. Right now he's still conducting like an orchestral conductor, and not an opera conductor.  Just my opinion.

The Chereau production on a rewatch looks a lot weaker. The cerebral approach (it starts with maids silently sweeping) takes a lot of the juice from Strauss and von Hofmannstahl's masterwork. And some of the blocking now looks ridiculous. For instance, Klytämnestra is not killed offstage, but dragged onstage. Elektra then beckons Aegisth towards the discovery of her body with a candle. This would make sense if Klytämnestra was offstage. But it makes less sense when Elektra is leading Aegisth around the stage for five minutes and his wife's body is two feet away from him. The mechanism for him discovering the body is also very contrived -- Klytämnestra's body has apparently been meticulously placed on this sliding panel on the floor, so it can be pushed upstage so tada! Aegisth finally sees his wife's corpse after being in a 2-foot vicinity for five minutes. It's very artificial, and Elektra is primal. As a result the audience response after the final chord was the most muted I've ever experienced.

It doesn't make me happy to write this review. I went in fully expecting to love it, and I think Goerke has a lot to give as a singer and as an artist. The richness of the core of her voice is very special indeed. There are many dramatic soprano parts that do not require such punishing tessitura. I would love to hear Goerke sing those roles. But I think her Elektra days are over. As a side note, her predecessor in this production, Nina Stemme, also did not sound her best as Elektra. The next season she sang Isolde magnificently. Hint hint for Christine?

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Winter Season Diaries: All Stravinsky Closes Season

de Luz and Fairchild in Baiser, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The true mark of a NYCB devotee is how much they look forward to the all-Stravinsky programs. The leotard ballets and spiky scores can still bring the jitters in people who adore Jewels, Serenade or Theme and Variations, but if just the thought of that diagonal of soldier-girls in Symphony in Three Movements gives you the tingles, then I'd say you're all in. So it's fitting that NYCB ended its winter season with an excellent all-Stravinsky/Balanchine bill of the rarely performed Divertimento From Baiser de la Fée and long with repertory staples Agon, Duo Concertant, and Symphony in Three Movements. For one, it's a test of the company's resilience. It's also a test of the audiences' loyalty. The dancers more than rose to the occasion. And the audiences' enthusiastic responses indicated that company loyalty among ballet-goers is still strong.

Coll and Hyltin as the lovers, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Earlier in the season I saw a performance of Peter Martins' Romeo + Juliet that had a lovely, lyrical Juliet in Sterling Hyltin, an appealingly ardent Romeo in Harrison Coll (making his debut), and some virtuosos in the roles of Mercutio (Daniel Ulbricht), Tybalt (Joaquin de Luz), and Benvolio (Joseph Gordon). But Martins' version of this warhorse still fails to sing. Martins' version is best in the fight scenes, where the violence escalates in a very organic, tense way, and there's also some realistic pushing/shoving that mimics the kind of fighting of hotheaded adolescents. But in the extended love duets the choreography is simply too static. There's an over-reliance on Juliet stretching her leg in arabesque and throwing her arms up in ecstasy, and also the predictably acrobatic lifts. But unlike the versions of MacMillan or Lavrovsky, with Martins you never feel the buildup of passion that culminates in the passionate kiss that ends the balcony scene nor does the despair of the lovers in the bedroom scene register. In fact, they're still giggling like little kids. Still, this has been a breakout season for Harrison Coll who has brought an irrepressible energy to everything he's danced, and a great showcase for Sterling Hyltin's talents.

I also disagreed with the decision to eliminate Lord Capulet's slap of Juliet as she disobeyed his orders. Shakespeare (and Prokofiev) created a violent world and Juliet's rebellious headstrong nature is very much in both the play and ballet's DNA. Lord Capulet striking Juliet was one of Martins' rare moments of correct dramatic instinct -- the audience has to know that Juliet is a maverick. Without the slap the scenes with Juliet's parents fell flat. Ask La Cour and Maria Kowroski didn't inject much personality into their roles either. The best acting performance actually came from Russell Janzen who played Paris as exactly the kind of nice young man parents love.

There's more feeling in the last five minutes of Divertimento From Baiser de la Fée than there is during the entirety of Romeo + Juliet. To the strains of "None But the Lonely Heart" the lovers are inextricably separated. The once-jolly corps (dressed in neat village frocks that remind one of Act One of Giselle) turn into implacable Wilis who pull the lovers apart until they are no longer aware of each others' presence. One by one they step between the embracing lovers who eventually give up trying to fight the force. They end the ballet barely aware of each others' presence. Patricia McBride, the originator of the role, was brought in to coach this ballet. I saw two casts. Megan Fairchild and Joaquin de Luz brought more depth to their roles. Megan has a sweetness and tenderness that suits this ballet well. Tiler Peck and Anthony Huxley were technically smoother but dramatically opaque. Otherwise the ballet is not one of Balanchine's finest. The first 20 minutes seem like filler until the drama-filled final moments of the ballet. Unlike, say, Serenade the ominous, mystical feeling is not accumulated throughout the ballet.

Peck, Stanley, Finlay, Bouder, Kowroski, Danchig-Waring
Agon is a full-blown masterpiece and the ballet is looking great. The pas de deux which has looked formulaic in some recent performances was given a sizzling rendition by Maria Kowroski and Adrian Danchig-Waring. Kowroski, who can seem overwhelmed in the classical Balanchine tutu roles was amazingly sexy and daring, and managed all the quick changes in center of gravity with aplomb including the most famous moments where the woman suddenly wraps her leg around the man's neck and the promenade balance in which she has to drag the man who is lying on the floor. Danchig-Waring is so strong, so solid, that the pas de deux truly became a dangerous mating ritual. It was an overall great performance -- Anthony Huxley, Lauren King and Ashley Laracey were very fine in the first pas de trois. Savannah Lowery had some shaky balances in the second pas de trois but Devin Alberda and Daniel Applebaum cleverly disguised this with expert partnering.

The second cast of Agon was not nearly as inspired. Chase Finlay is an odd choice for the pas de deux -- partnering has never been his strength, and Tess Reichlen who I've seen totally rock this pas de deux tried but she couldn't hide the labored partnering. As a result the iconic moves seemed to chug along awkwardly. The famous drag across stage barely happened. And in the pas de trois Peter Walker didn't seem comfortable with the role. Ashly Isaacs also had a few moments of hesitancy but Harrison Coll and Joseph Gorden were great in the second pas de trois. I went back the next day for a second performance and there must have been some major cleanup/rehearsals because while Finlay is still not ideal the partnering between him and Tess was much smoother.

Hyltin, Danchig-Waring, Fairchild, Janzen, Huxley, Peck
Programs closed with two extremely opposite ballets: the intimate, romantic Duo Concertant and the aggressive, militaristic Symphony in 3 Movements. Symphony in 3 ends with the men crouching down as if preparing for trench warfare, whereas the women are making signs that seem to be rallying the troops for battle. Duo had two different casts -- Bouder and Finlay were physically well-matched but both too self-absorbed to get the sweetness of this ballet, while Fairchild and Janzen did capture the romance but were physically mismatched with Janzen toweing over Fairchild. IMO the performances of Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild set the standard very high for this ballet and no other combo has been able to match their magic.

Symphony in Three Movements also had two very different casts. Tiler Peck/Taylor Stanley/Daniel Ulbricht/Erica Pereira/Megan LeCrone/Joseph Gordon had the better supporting cast, but this role doesn't really seem to fit Tiler Peck. She can do that ménage of pique turns where the ballerina has to weave in between the jogging girls with breathtaking speed but there's something too square about her presentation for the pas de deux to make its full impact. She doesn't get the undulating arm movements of the pas de deux, nor do the famous lifts where woman covers her eyes as she's being hauled in the air look as bizarre as they should. To see what I mean here's some footage NYCB put up. It's way too much arm and hand flapping without the shoulder/back movement that gives those arm movements momentum. How do those Russian ballerinas get such great swan arms? Because they know that the movement comes from working the back and shoulders, and not just the arms.

Hyltin and Danchig-Waring, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The second cast had Sterling Hyltin/Adrian Danchig-Waring/Troy Schumacher/Lauren King/Savannah Lowery/Sean Suozzi was overall superior. Lauren King did not really get enough height and distance on those sideways leapfrog jumps, but Hyltin and Danchig-Waring (making his debut!) were simply fantastic. Hyltin is not technically as strong as Peck, but she finds ways to make her performance of this role more exciting -- for instance, in the ménage of pique turns she starts out slowly and accelerates into the wings with so much force she looks like she'll crash from the momentum. In the pas de deux she and Adrian were just about perfect -- physically and stylistically well-matched, with both of them paying close attention to the Oriental accents of Balanchine's choreography. And Hyltin DID use her shoulders and back to push the movement through her arms.

So that's a wrap for the Winter Season. A few MVP's:

- Adrian Danchig-Waring, who had a potentially career-ending injury, dancing almost every night in so many different ballets (Apollo, Chaconne, Agon, dance odysseyFour Seasons, Symphony in Three Movements) and knocking each performance out of the park.

- Russell Janzen, whose partnering is smooth as silk and whose range is expanding -- he was once mostly a prince/cavalier type but his awesome Phlegmatic in Four Temperaments and tender Duo shows an artist growing in leaps and bounds.

- Joaquin de Luz, who at age 41 is showing the youngsters how it's done. His barnstorming performance of Four Seasons was extraordinary.

- Harrison Coll who is a corps member but dancing like a soloist, and Joseph Gordon who is a soloist dancing as a principal. I am supremely bummed that I missed the Gordon/Pereira Baiser performance as it was apparently great.

- And finally, that stable of female principals (Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck, Tess Reichlen, Sterling Hyltin, Ashley Bouder and Megan Fairchild) who go out there night after night and do their thing, and do it with humor.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Parsifal Marathon #2

Cast of tonight's Parsifal

I attended my second performance of Parsifal this season. I did not come to this decision lightly. Originally I had a ticket for tomorrow night's Semiramide. But the thought of experiencing Parsifal with René Pape and Peter Mattei was tempting, and I agonized all week about whether to swap out my Semiramide ticket for Parsifal. This included making a poll on Facebook and drawing up pros and cons on an index card. Yeah, I know. But finally after listening to a less-than-impressive livestream of the Semiramide premiere and also armed with the knowledge that there were only 2 performances of Parsifal left while Semiramide is likely to improve during its run, Parsifal it was.

Parsifal marathon buddy
The performance tonight was made more enjoyable because I got to experience it with my friend Bart who flew in from Florida. Wagner is tough to see alone -- those 50 minute intermissions can seem lonely. But with Bart the six hours -- well they didn't fly by but they seemed shorter. I also was sitting in the grand tier tonight as opposed to the orchestra the first night and there really is no comparison with regards to the sight and sound -- the Grand Tier wins unilaterally. You can see the patterns of Carolyn Choa's choreography better, you can see the set better (the blood on the floor of Act 2 and the shallow graves in Act 3 can barely be seen from the orchestra), you can hear everyone better. No wonder seats are so expensive in the Grand Tier.

As for the performance René Pape was not in very good voice tonight -- he seemed to struggle especially in Act 1. I couldn't believe his long monologue which sounded so powerful two weeks ago was barely audible tonight. However, Peter Mattei was even more beautiful and heartbreaking than in the previous performance and Klaus Florian Vogt and Evelyn Herlitzius were vastly improved.  Herlitzius's voice really warmed up in Act 2. It's not my favorite type of voice but much of the thin shrillness was gone. Her acting also improved -- it was less melodramatic, more human. Vogt's acting was way more detailed with less of him being glued to the prompter. I decided I just don't like his interpretation for Parsifal as an extremely detached cold fish and I also am not crazy about the sound of his voice. But Vogt is musical and I'm happy to have finally heard what the fuss was all about. Nikitin is a hoot as Klingsor. Yannick Nezét Séguin's conducting still favors the blustery, dissonant portions of the score but the overall reading was tighter (and faster) than the previous performance I attended. The chorus was amazing.

Another thing about the Girard production: Act One ends with Parsifal peering into the vagina and putting his fingers inside out of curiosity (naughty boy). Act Two takes place in the bloody vagina. At the end of the act the bed even has menstrual blood stains all over it. In Act Three Parsifal puts his spear into the Grail which is being held up by Kundry. Kundry then falls dead from ecstasy (the French call an orgasm "le petite mort"). So I guess Parsifal and Kundry finally consummate the relationship but in a healthy way? So it is a totally "Biblical" experience!

Parsifal and Kundry's consummation?

During intermissions I had a bit of fun imitating the various arm movements of Choa's choreography. Here's a video I made. First I'm the Knights, then I'm Klingsor, then I'm the Flower Maidens. Compare it to the actual video. How'd I do?

Anyway it was a wonderful night. This opera only gets richer upon repeated viewings. In the Met program notes there is a quote by Cosima Wagner that Parsifal "is all so direct!" I hate to agree with Cosima but she is 100% correct -- the love, forgiveness and healing can hit anyone in the solar plexus. Doesn't matter if you're an opera newbie to a hardened opera vet. In other news for the past two weeks I've been glued to the Winter Olympics. I love the summer Olympics but the Winter Olympics has sports that really scare the bejeezus out of me. And of course I love figure skating most, where skaters are asked to form the most vertigo-inducing skills while skating in fancy, flimsy costumes. So many memorable moments but my favorite has to be Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot's gold medal winning performance. I had seen Savchenko in three previous Olympics with a different partner. She was always a powerful skater, but not necessarily a graceful one. But with Bruno Massot she achieved that rare combination of athleticism (those throws! Those lifts!) with artistry. She improved so much in speed, presentation, grace. Who said an old dog can't learn new tricks?

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Parsifal Lifts the Spirits and Heals the Soul

Parsifal, photo @ Ken Howard

Five years ago I survived my first ever live Parsifal. I had a lot of problems with the storyline back then. Since that time I've seen the error of my ways, boned up on my Schopenhauer, and eagerly awaited a return trip to Richard Wagner's final work. And so with my Parsifal prep package of snacks, juice, a pen to take notes, and ipad to read during the 40+ minute intermissions, off I went.

Looking back the 2013 production really assembled a dream cast. Jonas Kaufmann, René Pape, Peter Mattei, Evgeny Nikitin were just about perfect and Katerina Dalayman was very good. It was with some trepidation that I approached the 2018 revival cast. I'd never heard Klaus Florian Vogt and Evelyn Herlitzius live but what I had heard of them through videos and recordings I hadn't particularly liked. And Parsifal is one of those works where you better like those voices, because you're stuck with them for six hours.

Pape and Mattei, photo @ Ken Howard
So how was the revival? The good news first: René Pape (Gurmenanz) and Peter Mattei (Amfortas) anchored the first and third acts with performances that were every bit as fine as their 2013 portrayals. Pape's voice has lost a bit in volume -- in the third act monologue he actually was drowned out by the orchestra. But the richness and beauty of his voice are very much intact, and as a result he could make the long monologues really sing. For example the expository monologue on Klingsor's "unmanning" can meander but with Pape's magnificent bass I was riveted. He's not much of an actor though. Pape has always been about The Voice. I do wish his Gurmenanz could have been more specific with the acting but that's a small gripe.

He is capable of much more detailed acting. Just look at this clip of him in the Tcherniakov production:

Peter Mattei's Amfortas is a master class of what Wagner sounds like when sung with legato 100% of the time. There's no barking, there's no snarled consonants. Amfortas' anguished monologues actually sounded like bel canto mad scenes, with his voice flying and soaring. Blood poisoning never sounded so beautiful. "Mein vater!" was especially heart-rending. Dramatically he hit all the right notes. He's naturally one of those tall handsome barihunks but his lanky body crumpled over with pain. And his handsome face added another dimension to this Amfortas -- one could totally believe that once upon a time this King was a ladies man. Bravo. This is a classic performance. He got by far the loudest ovation of the night at the curtain calls.

Nikitin chewing the scenery, photo @ Ken Howard
Evgeny Nikitin also reprised his portrayal of Klingsor and was a fun, over the top villain. His voice is very different from the mellifluous voices of Pape and Mattei. There was definitely some Bayreuth bark in his voice but it was appropriate, and he chewed the scenery and left blood on the stage (pun intended). The Flower Maidens sounded absolutely lovely, like real sirens, and I love their look: the dark hair, the spears, the white nightgowns.

Herlitzius and Vogt, photo @ Ken Howard
Evelyn Herlitzius has one of those thin, screechy shrill voices that somehow always find their way to Kundry/Elektra/Ortud. Dramatically she throws herself into the part, but vocally there's nothing seductive or sensuous about her sound, so her as the raison d'etre of Klingsor's Castle of Temptation strains belief. She does do the big octave drop in "Ich sah ihn und lachte" well. And she does a good cackle. But this is a voice I just don't want to hear again.

Klaus Florian Vogt's voice was definitely a surprise. I had heard him on recordings and always wondered how that high boy soprano sound would carry in a big house over a Wagnerian orchestra. Well Vogt has plenty of volume. You could always hear him. And that flute-like voice is preferable to the old fashioned helden-barkers. What he does not have is a voice that has enough color to make the big moments have any real impact. For instance "Amfortas! Die wunde!" is Parsifal's epiphany and I remember when Jonas Kaufmann sang it 5 years ago it shook me out of my seat. The same moment went for nothing with Vogt. I realize I'm in the minority on this one but I preferred Kaufmann to Vogt.

Here's a back to back comparison of the two tenors in the same moment:

I was also disappointed by Vogt's acting. He looked bored much of the time. In Act Two there was no sense that Parsifal is tempted by Kundry and exploring his own sexual desires. Vogt's body language conveyed nothing but "I better not get any blood on my clothes." He also spent 95% of the time staring at the prompter, which sometimes involved a pivot of the head that Joey from Friends immortalized as "smell the fart" acting. In Act Three Vogt looked disengaged. Parsifal is supposed to be a "pure fool, enlightened by compassion." Vogt plays the "pure fool" bit well but doesn't give his Parsifal enough of an emotional arc so his final anointment as the leader of the Knights of Grail has less impact than it should.

Yannick Nezét Séguin led a performance that was better in the more dissonant, exciting portions of the work. For instance the stormy music that continues throughout Act Two had incredible momentum. He did less well with the quieter, more contemplative moments of the score. The Vorspiel sounded beautiful but the Transformation was oddly ponderous and the Dresden amen music was not as ethereal as it could have been. The orchestration calls for seven harps for chrissakes! The performance was also anchored by the magnificent Met chorus, who were stunning in the Transformation Music and the finale of the opera.

The Francois Girard production is a mixed bag. I think Act One is the best-staged with the men and woman on opposite sides of a chasm that looks suspiciously like a female genital organ. Girard depicts the knights as a closed society/cult, and the rot within the society is a result of its narrow minded worldview. At the end of Act One the crevice opens to a visible vagina and Parisfal lies down on his stomach and peers into the hole. Very subtle. But in general this act conveys the ambiguous feelings about women and sexuality that the knights have.

The infamous bloody vagina, photo @ Ken Howard

Act 2 opens in the infamous bloody vagina which actually dilates (heh) at Parsifal's entrance. The Flower Maidens have the toughest job of all in this act -- they are onstage for the entire 70 minutes or so. One Flower Maiden passed out an a crew guy walked onstage via the stage right wing and carried the poor thing offstage. The idea for this act might have been clever but I've seen two casts and it's hard to make this act work dramatically when singers seem so uncomfortable. Both Kaufmann and Vogt fought a valiant fight of emerging from Act 2 without blood on their hands (pun intended), while Dalayman and Herlitzius struggled to come across as seductive while their nighties were soaked with the fake blood. Also one of the biggest moments of the opera came and went -- when Klingsor "throws" the spear at Parsifal in this production Vogt just turned his back and made a "talk to the hand" gesture to Klingsor. This not-so-polite brushoff freezes Klingsor and voila the spear is Parsifal's and Klingsor's Castle falls apart but not before the Flower Maidens dip their hair in the blood one more time. This actually elicited giggles from the audience.

Vogt and the Grail, photo @ Ken Howard
Act 3 is a barren post-apocalyptic world (of course), and onscreen projections seem to indicate a lunar eclipse. But this is where Girard sort of runs out of ideas. Parsifal is anointed the "redeemer" by ... getting a fresh white shirt. (For those keeping track, unlike Kaufmann Vogt does not go shirtless in this production.) During the final moments of the opera the Knights of the Grail also dramatically shed their dark jackets and all are wearing white shirts. The women now co-mingle with the men. Kundry takes out the grail and gives it to Parsifal. The end.

I think that there's quite a few things about the Parsifal libretto that are disturbing -- the fact that Amfortas is punished so severely for one moment of temptation and the linking of Kundry to Herodias brings some icky feelings of misogyny and anti-Semitism into the work. However it should be noted that Kundry is the only explicitly Jewish character Wagner ever wrote. There's theories on Alberich, Beckmesser and Mime but they are just theories. And Kundry the not-so-nice Jewish girl is treated with compassion by Wagner.

But ... this is the most important part. When Parsifal finally healed Amfortas with the spear and as the  mesmerizing Dreden Amen music played I started crying. Not just a few tears. I was having an ugly cry in my seat. The ending of this opera is full of beauty and hope. In 2018, the idea of compassion, forgiveness and healing is so powerful. Parsifal is not just an opera , it's an experience that lifts the spirits and heals the soul.

By the way, here's my Parsifal prep packet;

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Winter Season Diaries: The Groundhog Says Six More Weeks of Winter ...

Amazing Groundhog Day Four Seasons cast
February 2, 2018 - Groundhog Day. And according to the weathermen, the groundhog predicted six more weeks of winter! It was fitting then that NYCB's second week of the winter season showed a company getting its mojo back. The first week had a few uncharacteristic stumbles, bloopers, and sloppiness, but after the Groundhog Day performance of, fittingly, The Four Seasons, all felt right with the world. The fact that last night was one of those ART series performances where all tickets were $30 and they gave free beer and kaleidoscope glasses to everyone after the show sweetened the deal.

The evening actually started out rather unpromisingly: an unexpectedly sloppy performance of Square Dance with Ashley Bouder being off the music (the coda was particularly bad, as she seemed to be on a different beat than the rest of the corps), with leaden jumps. The gargouillades and coupé jetés usually bring about applause but not tonight. She also displayed her worst instincts of constant mugging to the audience. If this was another ballerina we'd probably say "good job" but Bouder has set the bar so high on this, one of her trademark roles, that when she's below par it's immediately noticeable. Taylor Stanley was very fine in his adagio solo. Very flexible back. I went back to a later performance on February 6 and the Ashley got both her jumps and her speed and musicality back. This time her feet did go "wickety wack" so much that it got spontaneous applause.

Bouder and Stanley in Square Dance, photo @ Paul Kolnik

Oltremare suitcase pose
Then we got Mauro Bigonzetti's Oltremare, or Ellis Island Orgy as I like to call it. The whole stage is dressed in vaguely early 20th century clothing. They are all carrying suitcases. They start the ballet sitting on their suitcases in a semi-circle. Then they dance. And there's basically one step for an entire minute ballet: man turns woman upside down, woman spreads eagle and in an upside down crotch baring split. There were two main pas de deux (Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle, then Tiler Peck and Peter Walker) but they basically contained that same move. Only difference: Maria's long legs made those upside down crotch splits slightly more aesthetically appealing. The worst part is: this went on for about 35 minutes. This is one of those "never again" ballets.

The ageless Joaquin de Luz and Tiler Peck in "Fall", photo @ Andrea Mohin
Thankfully Robbins' Four Seasons saved the evening. It was one of those "perfect" performances. By perfect I don't mean not a step was out of place and there were no mistakes. But the performance had a joy, energy and momentum that made you leave the theater on a high. Props must go to Joseph Gordon, Harrison Coll, and Indiana Woodward for their debuts in Winter -- this is the one part of the ballet that can be a bit precious with all that shivering but this trio (and the wonderful corps) was so naturally ebullient that it was cute rather than cutesy. Spring brought a charming, lyrical performance from Sterling Hyltin (subbing for an injured Sara Mearns). Jared Angle partnered her admirably. Their "walking" duet was particularly lovely. The move in Spring that brought about the biggest applause was when the four corps men (Daniel Applebaum, Spartak Hoxha, Lars Nelson, and Sebastian Villarini-Velez) did their simultaneous frog leaps. On February 6 Sara Mearns was back in Spring with Jared Angle and she brought a very different kind of grandness to the role.  I love them both.

Dieck, LaFrenier, Farley, Frances, Chamblee, photo @ Paul Kolnik 
Reichlen and Danchig-Waring, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Teresa Reichlen and Adrian Danchig-Waring looked like sultry mythical deities in Summer. Tess shines in roles where she is asked to be sexy. Danchig-Waring seems to be getting stronger in every performance. He did have a slight problem with the final lift which goes from a fishdive to a shoulder sit. Finally, Tiler Peck, Joaquin de Luz and Daniel Ulbricht as the Puck figure brought down the house in the bacchanalian Fall. Peck of course did multiple fouettés, de Luz is in his 40's but still has fresh legs and amazing pirouettes a la seconde, and Ulbricht continues to maximize his limited stage appearances. It's hard to compete with the virtuoso technique of a role that was created on Mikhail Baryshikov but de Luz did himself proud. He even did those mid-pirouette jumps which were a Baryshnikov speciality. What a lovely performance of a ballet City Ballet dancers obviously love doing.

Second cast of Divertimento
February 3 - the last of the Divertimento #15/Four Temperaments/Chaconne all-Balanchine bill. The second Divertimento #15 cast had stronger men (Chase Finlay/Joseph Gordon/Cameron Dieck) but women who while on their own are fine dancers were just unsuited to the lyricism of this ballet. Indiana Woodward, Erica Pereira, Unity Phelan, Ashly Isaacs and Ashley Bouder all have strong, straightforward technique but except for Woodward they aren't very lyrical. This was especially apparent in the andante, when none of the women could really transport you to another world. This included perhaps the most famous moment of the ballet, when the men and women both make a circular "petal" pattern -- you could see that the women were not really stretching their fingertips to maximize that effect. Perhaps the most disappointing was Unity Phelan as the third variation -- compared to Ashley Laracey Phelan projected nothing but a rather geometrical strength. Mozart needs to be about more than that.

Four Temperaments also was less taut and exciting than last week -- there were some last minute substitutions and the ballet had an under-rehearsed look. Mearns was out of Sanguinic and Savannah Lowery replaced her. She's good, but doesn't have the sharp attack of, say, Tiler Peck or Sara Mearns. In turn Megan LeCrone replaced Lowery in Choleric. Lecrone is one of those soloists who works hard but is rarely compelling to watch. Olivia Boisson (who danced the first theme) had a scary wipeout in Choleric -- she just toppled over and the audience gasped. Later she seemed to have trouble holding herself up in a supported arabesque. Hope she's not injured. Sean Suozzi is an old hand at Melancholic. Russell Janzen shone in Phlegmatic -- he really emphasized the arm twisting positions of the variation more than any recent Phlegmatic that I can remember. There have been better performances of 4T's.

Adrian and Maria
Thankfully Chaconne saved the day. Maria Kowroski is much more suited for Chaconne than Mozartiana. This role allowed her to show off what she still has -- long, beautiful lines and pleasing adagio work. Adrian had an easier time partnering her than he did Sara Mearns and his solo work continues to get stronger as he's danced every Chaconne since the season started. Harrison Coll and Lauren King were a very charming and spritely in the "blue" pas de deux. In the Mandolin trio Andrew Scordato overdid the strumming (it looked more like air guitar) but Ashley Hod and Isabella La Freniere continue to be two of the loveliest female corps members. Overall a good performance of a rather fragile ballet.

dance odyssey, photo @ Andrea Mohin
February 9 - Went to this performance mainly to see the sole "new ballet" of the winter season, Peter Walker's dance odyssey. This is Walker's second ballet for the company (the first being ten in seven) and other than a pretentious e e cummings-like disdain for capital letters, Walker has some good instincts as a choreographer. The first is that he's not afraid to make his ballets pretty. The curtain goes up and the stage is awash in a palette of pastels -- lavenders, aquas, blues. There is a neon strip-light that emits a warm glow. The music by British composer Oliver Davis is similarly tuneful, pleasing to the ears. There's no screeching dissonant violins.

Peck and Catazaro, photo @ Paul Kolnik
Unfortunately the ballet doesn't ever develop beyond "nice." This isn't an "odyssey," it's more like a stroll in the park. There first pas de deux was between Tiler Peck and Zachary Catazaro. He lifted her high like a crane. She spread her legs towards the heavens. More turning, more lifting, more athletic partnering, more, more, more. But the duet remains blank and anonymous and at the end we don't know anything more about these two dancers than at the beginning. The final moments of the ballet are dominated by a slower pas de deux between Ashley Laracey (in a floaty lavender dress) and Peter Walker (subbing for Adrian Danchig-Waring). Similar type partnering, but again, anonymous. The corps have a flurry of steps that are too busy to give the feeling of jauntiness that I think Walker was aiming for.

The ballet's one moment that definitely had character was an idyllic pas de deux between the two male soloists Devin Alberda and Sebastian Villarini-Velez (subbing for Anthony Huxley). The two men dance playfully, mirroring each other's steps. The mood is light and flirtatious, much like a Fred-and-Ginger "getting to know you" number. The Michael Jackson moonwalk is cleverly referenced. This pas has all the intimacy and sweetness the ballet's heterosexual pairings lacked. It will be interesting to see where Peter Walker goes from here. Right now he definitely has talent, but not enough maturity to package it all into one great ballet. But that's okay. I recently revisited Justin Peck's Year of the Rabbit and found it rather amateurish.

Ratmansky's Russian Seasons closed the program. This work remains pretty much indestructible. I've seen numerous casts from numerous companies tackle this ballet and the effects work every time. The predictability makes it a bit limited but one can admire the craftsmanship. Ratmansky draws out qualities from dancers that aren't immediately apparent in other ballets. Unity Phelan made an arresting debut as the bride -- there could have been more fear in her eyes at the close of the ballet but that's a small gripe. Otherwise the ballet is dominated by the playful antics of a flurry of characters. Ratmansky as early as 2006 was not afraid to be different -- the ballet has many unorthodox steps like males lying on the ground kicking their legs in the air, or people running in place, or chasing each other offstage. Megan Fairchild reprised one of her best roles as the Green Girl -- in the pas de quatre she was with three guys (Cameron Dieck, Ask La Cour, and Sean Suozzi) who could surround and isolate her but  could not dominate her. In a show of strength she performed the ballet's most iconic moment in which she "stepped" up the staircase of male hands. The role brings out her best qualities: her humor and spunk. Other standouts: Joseph Gordon and Kristen Segin as the Purple Boy and Girl, Emilie Gerrity being more dramatic than I've ever seen her as the Red Girl. The ballet's closing moments are haunting: the crowd watches this joyless, ritualistic marriage and then fall to the floor. Have they died? Is it a spiritual death? Ratmansky is smart enough to keep the audiences thinking and guessing.

Some noticings about the interim team that's currently running the company: they respect seniority -- Maria Kowroski is being given more assignments than she's perhaps able to take on at this point in her career. At the same time they clearly are grooming a few corps de ballet members for bigger things. Harrison Coll and Devin Alberda are dancing more than they ever had under Peter Martins's reign. They seem more open to having older dancers coach the current crop: this photo shows Patricia McBride coaching Megan Fairchild. There's still some untidiness that one imagines Peter would have fixed quickly. But overall the feeling is that the company is being run by people who are scrupulous and conscientious, and that's a good thing.