Now playing at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater on Broadway.
Few theatrical experiences are as awkward as a tearjerker that fails to jerk tears from you. In the case of War Horse, a play that attempts to dramatize all the suffering of the First World War through the suffering of a single horse, I'm prepared to concede that my own discomfort around horses (they might be beautiful from a distance, but they're intimidating and off-puttingly alien up close) couldn't possibly give me much of an affinity for this material. But I still think the problem transcends my own prejudices because, ironically, the problem is not the horse. All of the animals in War Horse are represented onstage by life-size puppets so gracefully naturalistic and expressive that you needn't be one of those inexplicable horse-lovers to find them affecting.
No, the problem isn't the three-dimensional animals but the one-dimensional humans, particularly the horse-besotted hero who doesn't seem to care a whit about the death and anguish of any of the people he meets, not compared to the loss of his goddamn horse. His astonishing lack of empathy poisons everything. It makes me recoil from the play's human lead and instinctively resist the animal lead, so when that final lachrymose climax rolls around, I'm more annoyed than touched.
If it weren't for the puppetry, War Horse would be an utter failure. Instead, the puppetry of the production is so haunting and powerful that it redeems the play to a great extent. I don't know quite what to make of that, but there it is: the spectacle of the production is so artful that it makes a flat, treacly, ill-conceived play worth seeing.
Blue Heron at the Cloisters on Sunday, March 25.
When we picture ancient Greek statues, we see alabaster marble, solemn and immaculate, but writings from the time and—perhaps more to the point— archaeological investigations using ultraviolet light indicate that those statues were actually painted in bold, even garish colors that, to modern eyes, look far more kitschy than noble. As interesting as the historical re-creations are, it's hard not to miss the mythologized statues we know better.
I admit I thought of those statues when I first read about Blue Heron, a Boston-based ensemble committed to performing fifteenth- and sixteenth-century choral music with the guidance of historical documents on how they were performed when first composed: not a capella but rather with a few brass instruments thrown into the mix. Did I really want to hear Josquin's pure vocal sonorities tarnished by an early trombone? Perish the thought.
But my instinctive flinch was premature (not to mention ignorant, but let's move on from that). Of course the instruments are still performing fifteenth- and sixteenth-century music, not the anachronistic slides and dissonant bleats I was hearing in my head, and they complemented the choir's voices beautifully. Set in the re-created Fuentidueña Chapel, Blue Heron's concert was not the unbearably academic, awkward program I had secretly, foolishly feared but rather a lovely musical revelation, taking what I adore about the familiar repertory and giving it new resonance.
The Metropolitan Opera on Saturday, March 24.
L'Elisir d'Amore is exactly the sort of silly fluff that makes opera's roots as mass entertainment abundantly clear: if there were ever an opera that resembled some dumb contemporary rom com, this is it. The whole story turns on the staggering stupidity and naïveté of the main characters, whose repeated attempts to inspire love by feigning indifference are so over-the-top and petty that middle schoolers would find them childish.
And yet Donizetti's music is so beautiful and charming—and sung here with such joy and vivacity—that I could never be so dismissive when I'm actually experiencing it. If L'Elisir is a dumb rom com, it's the dumb rom com that I actually kind of love in spite of myself. Greater than the sum of its parts, L'Elisir is a work of alchemy.
Now playing at the Ambassador Theatre on Broadway.
The central conceit of the musical Chicago—the vaudeville setup, in which every character is both acting out the story and performing for a literal audience*—is so strong, so sly and sharp, that it's all but impossible to screw up. So it's no surprise that the Broadway revival of Fred Ebb and John Kander's irrepressible classic is indeed unrepressed. The long-running production is like a well-oiled machine; having been around for more than fifteen years, it no longer attracts top-tier stars, but even the more modest parts keep things moving along. I mean, really, if you can't make "All That Jazz," "Cell Block Tango," and "Razzle Dazzle" fun, you have no business on a Broadway stage.
Now playing at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway.
I have always suspected that for some star-making roles, the magic is all in the part itself and any competent actor lucky enough to land the role could ride it to acclaim. But if that's true in some cases, it absolutely isn't true of Venus in Fur. Nina Arianda is unforgettable as Vanda, the dominant presence in the play (in every sense), but that's in large part because it's such a high-wire role. It's all too easy to imagine how unconvincing the character could be in other hands. Capturing Vanda's subtle wit and quicksilver tonal shifts cannot possibly be easy, and few actresses have the burning charisma and imposing physicality required to convey the woman's utter mastery of the action on stage. Playwright David Ives needed nothing short of a goddess to make Venus in Fur work; it is to everyone's good fortune that the play's producers landed upon Arianda.
The New York City Ballet on Sunday, February 5.
I learned after the fact that New York City Ballet's all-Wheeldon program was a special honor for the relatively young choreographer, something usually done only with the works of George Balanchine or Jerome Robbins, but when I bought my ticket, it never occurred to me that the programming was anything out of the ordinary. Wheeldon's work has been a constant in City Ballet repertory for the half a dozen (!) years I've been attending, and I'm sure I've seen more of his pieces than Robbins's.
The program this weekend demonstrated why that's the case, why the company created the role of resident choreographer for Wheeldon in 2001 and why it continues to champion his work even after his departure in 2008. Even in his weaker pieces, Wheeldon's aesthetic fits New York City Ballet. Often playful but always elegant, acutely conscious of music, making gorgeous use of the corps, his work truly does feel descended from (though not derivative of) Balanchine's. He can justify a full program easily.
The MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Sunday, January 15.
The clarinet is often described as the instrument closest, in timbre and range, to the human voice. I never gave the idea much thought before this concert, but the juxtaposition put forth by the Metropolitan Opera's exquisite orchestra turned out to be lovely. Alternating between supporting a clarinet soloist and accompanying soprano Renée Fleming highlighted the voice-like qualities of the wind instrument, the agility and virtuosity of Fleming's voice, and the fine musicianship of both. The program itself was a bit quirky, starting with Mozart and ending with several hyper-romantic arias from twentieth-century American operas, but it pulled together beautifully behind its talented soloists.
At the Blue Note on Wednesday, January 11.
Jazz is never going to be my thing. I have tried (and tried and tried and tried), but I always feel at sea to some extent. Sometimes I get something out of it, and sometimes I simply don't, but the music never truly speaks to me the way other genres do. I feel bad about that (I feel bad about lots of things), but there it is.
That said, the surest way to pull me out a little bit is to feature a good pianist, and McCoy Tyner happens to be a great one. His résumé—pianist for the John Coltrane Quartet as well as sideman on numerous albums for Blue Note Records and eventual bandleader—is obviously pretty striking (it's generally a good sign if even I recognize the names), but it wasn't just Tyner's credentials that impressed me. He's an incredible pianist, in a way that transcends genre altogether.
Chanticleer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Thursday, December 1.
I'm late getting this post up, and for once, it's not so much that I've been overly busy (though I have) or that I've been trying to smother my stress playing an assassin type in a video game (oh my god, Skyrim is SO FUN!). It's mainly that this was the fourth time I've attended one of Chanticleer's gorgeous Christmas concerts and I've mostly run out of things to say about the program.
The London Symphony Orchestra at the White Light Festival on Sunday, October 23.
The most creative, haunting thing about Benjamin Britten's War Requiem is the text, juxtaposing liturgical Latin against verses by war poet Wilfred Owen. It's an audacious choice, sometimes subverting, sometimes embracing the religious significance of the traditional requiem. The music itself doesn't always rise to the level of that simple, provocative brilliance, but it has does have moments of vivid text-painting and unsettling tonal shifts and a genuinely profound finale, gorgeously lush and then heartbreakingly stark. Even if its extramusical credentials weren't impeccable, War Requiem might well have entered the classical music pantheon.