Thursday, October 31, 2013

Pugnacious And Rancorous

If proof ever were needed that Broadway is dead, the current Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie” would provide all the evidence necessary.

An overproduced play, poorly-cast, poorly-played and poorly-directed, utilizing a thrust-stage design in a proscenium theater, all attracting the most superlative notices: What more could one want?

Williams’s delicate and poetic memory play in the current Broadway staging is pugnacious and rancorous, staged with all the subtlety of The Battle Of Vicksburg. I believe all persons associated with the production suffered under the misapprehension that they were mounting an Arthur Miller family drama: I have never seen so much hatred expressed onstage.

The Amanda Wingfield was Cherry Jones, who does hatred very well. Indeed, hatred is the sole emotion Jones can express with conviction; Jones has based her entire career on expressing hatred, even in roles that require none. If theatergoers ever wanted to see Amanda Wingfield played as Beatrice Hunsdorfer from “The Effect Of Gamma Rays On Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds”, they now have their chance.

The Laura Wingfield was played as a total loon. Twice she appeared to go into catatonic trances. As Joshua said to me during the performance, “No wonder her mother is having so much trouble marrying her off.” I felt sorry for the young woman asked to play the role in so ridiculous a manner.

The Tom Wingfield was . . . bizarre. I believe the director was going for a “violence-about-to-erupt” quality, but I very well may be wrong, as the actor had so little talent it was difficult to tell.

The Gentleman Caller was vapid, and barely registered, but there was little doubt that he was a human being . . . which could not necessarily be said of the others onstage.

Persons seeing “The Glass Menagerie” for the first time in the current Broadway production would have a warped notion of what the play is all about—they would leave the theater thinking the play’s inspiration had come from an ancient biography of some long-forgotten figure, a battleaxe female army general who was mother to a very weird son and a very weird daughter.

I predict all sorts of awards . . .

“The Glass Menagerie” On Broadway

Broadway theaters are dark on Sunday evenings.

However, over three-day holiday weekends on which a Federal Holiday falls on Monday, custom is for one Broadway house—and only one—to offer a special early-curtain performance that Sunday evening. In my experience, it is invariably a straight play, and not a musical, that offers the special Sunday evening performance. (Such custom does not apply over the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year holidays, when ALL Broadway theaters adopt special schedules.)

Over Columbus Day Weekend, the special early-curtain Sunday evening performance was offered by the current Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie”.

We had no genuine interest in seeing “The Glass Menagerie” yet again, but we attended the performance for want of viable alternatives.

We had planned to go to the Joyce Theater and see Lar Lubovitch Dance Company that Sunday evening—but, for reasons unknown to us, the Sunday evening Lar Lubovitch Dance Company performance at the Joyce Theater had been cancelled not long after being announced.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Martin Archer-Shee And George Archer-Shee

Martin Archer-Shee and his son, George Archer-Shee, in a photograph taken shortly before the Archer-Shee family was to become a cause célèbre.

A Reduction, Not An Elevation

In October 1908, George Archer-Shee, a 13-year-old Royal Navy cadet at Osborne Naval College on the Isle Of Wight, was accused of stealing and cashing a five-shilling postal order (worth roughly $20.00 today). The only evidence against the young Archer-Shee came from an elderly postal clerk at the Osborne post office, who proved unable to identify Archer-Shee among other cadets when given an opportunity to do so.

Nonetheless, Archer-Shee was expelled from Osborne—without an opportunity to defend himself—and unceremoniously shipped home.

Archer-Shee’s father, Martin (grandson of the noted portrait painter, for whom he had been named), believed his son’s passionate protestations of innocence, and sought counsel to clear his son’s name. At great expense, the elder Archer-Shee engaged one of Britain’s most acclaimed barristers, Edward Carson. Carson, too, had a son at Osborne, and Carson was at first skeptical about the boy’s denial of the theft. Carson extensively, even cruelly, questioned the young Archer-Shee before accepting the boy’s innocence—and accepting the case.

Thus was set into motion one of the great dramas of the pre-war period, a drama that was to fill the pages of London’s newspapers for the next three years: an upper-middle-class family, at considerable risk to its reputation, was to take on the British government—against which legal recourse was normally impossible—in hopes of finding redress.

Since Osborne Naval College was an arm of The Admiralty, a civil action was not possible: the Crown was not amenable to suit. Only a “Petition Of Right”, for which Parliamentary approval was necessary, would allow the matter to be heard in special proceedings in the High Court.

For two years, Carson marshaled all of his skills with Parliament and the London press to pressure the government to relent and to allow a “Petition Of Right”. Carson was ultimately successful: the petition was granted in 1910.

A trial before the High Court convened shortly thereafter. On the fourth day at trial, the Solicitor-General, witnessing Carson’s demolition of The Admiralty’s case piece-by-piece, halted the proceedings and publicly acknowledged the young Archer-Shee’s innocence. The boy’s name was cleared at last.

But the matter was not at an end: the Archer-Shee family wanted compensation for its gargantuan legal bills—and Parliament, once again, was its only recourse.

Parliament proved sympathetic: in 1911, a resolution was attached to a Naval Bill, which as a practical matter forced The Admiralty—at risk of seeing its funding delayed—to concede to a private hearing to resolve the issue of compensation for the Archer-Shee family.

At the hearing a few weeks later, The Viscount Mersey sat in judgment. (The following year, The Viscount Mersey was to head The Board Of Inquiry investigation of the sinking of the RMS Titanic.) The Viscount Mersey awarded the Archer-Shee family the sum of 7210 Pounds—worth roughly $600,000 today—which The Admiralty promptly paid.

Having been vindicated, the young Archer-Shee went on to complete his education, after which he moved to New York to work on Wall Street.

With the advent of World War I, Archer-Shee returned to Britain to be commissioned into the British Army. He was to die only weeks later: he perished in October 1914 during the First Battle Of Ypres.


In 1946, playwright Terence Rattigan wrote a play inspired by the Archer-Shee affair, “The Winslow Boy”.

In creating his drama, Rattigan took many liberties with the real-life scenario, surely the prerogative of any dramatist—yet Rattigan’s liberties ultimately transformed such rich material into melodrama: Rattigan had not elevated the material, he had reduced it.

In Rattigan’s play, the father’s health and spirit are broken by the lengthy battle with the British government. An elder son is forced to withdraw from Oxford because the family can no longer afford the expense. A daughter’s engagement is terminated, her fiancé no longer wishing to be associated with a family whose name is under a cloud (yet the daughter quickly develops a romance with the powerful barrister hired to clear her brother’s name). Of most importance, the family in the play is much less financially secure than the Archer-Shee family, and receives no compensation from the British government at the conclusion of its travails.

“The Winslow Boy” is Rattigan’s most-produced play. It is a well-crafted drama, albeit old-fashioned and too inclined to tug at the heartstrings. The play is thought to merit revival from time to time.

On Sunday afternoon, October 13, we attended the current Broadway production of “The Winslow Boy” at American Airlines Theatre. The performance we attended was a preview performance; the production was to have its official opening four nights later.

The production had originated at London’s Old Vic in March. The New York director and the New York design team—the latter’s work was appalling—were the same as at the Old Vic, but the New York cast was a new one.

Lindsay Posner was the director. I had encountered Posner’s work before: a 2005 London production of David Mamet’s “A Life In The Theatre”; and a 2011 London production of Simon Gray’s “Butley”. My previous experience had revealed Posner to be a workaday director.

The current “Winslow Boy” is not a distinguished production. My mother described it as “pure summer stock”, and I cannot disagree with that assessment. The production is minimally competent, not particularly embarrassing—and utterly devoid of imagination and freshness.

Roger Rees—who had directed last season’s Guthrie production of  “The Primrose Path”—portrayed the father. His portrayal was one of excess. Rees’s overplaying induced discomfort, especially his overplaying of the character’s physical deterioration: Rees began the play with a limp, soon began using a cane—and ended up in a wheelchair. Toward the end of the play, we were expecting him to produce an oxygen mask.

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio played the mother. She barely registered in the part.

Charlotte Parry portrayed the sister. Parry cannot carry off period drama, as we had observed in 2011 when we had seen Parry in the Broadway production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance Of Being Earnest”. In “The Winslow Boy”, Parry was—once again—far too contemporary in tone and manner to be convincing.

The flamboyant barrister was played by Alessandro Nivola. Of all the cast members, Nivola came off best—but the role requires more bravura than Nivola could provide. (Curious jurisprudence note: in real life, barrister-playing Nivola is married to the daughter of the creator of “Rumpole Of The Bailey”—a fact that should have been mentioned in the program booklet, or so I would have thought.)

At the center of the play was the young actor playing the Winslow boy. He was much too old for the part—he looked and acted as if he were 25 years old—and such blatant miscasting fatally unbalanced the play and raised the play-killing question: since this strong, healthy, vibrant young man—he was anything but helpless—is so clearly able to take care of himself, why is everyone in his family getting so torqued up over a five-shilling postal order?

And therein lies one of the problems with Rattigan’s play: its overarching theme is the portrayal of a family falling apart, emotionally and financially, because of a dreadful external event—yet its protagonist/victim is the character least affected by the play’s events, and the one character prepared to move on with his life. It leads one to ask: perhaps the family would have been well-advised to drop the matter rather than destroy itself by taking on the British government?

I think Rattigan made a mistake in basing his play so closely on a real-life event from the past, and yet not allowing the triumphant final outcome that the real-life family had enjoyed. In changing all the particulars, what, fundamentally, was Rattigan’s point, other than the creation of weepy melodrama?

And weepy melodrama was precisely what the Broadway production of “The Winslow Boy” offered. In this sentimental, sappy staging, totally unconvincing and totally unmoving, the audience was invited to shed tears for the Winslow family, what with its reduced circumstances, ailing father, worried mother, jilted daughter and education-deprived older son. I found everything about the production uncomfortable; I squirmed.

The production made me rethink the play. Until two weeks ago, I had always admired the play because of its craft and its few moments of genuine drama. The New York production caused me to lose much of my admiration; where before I had seen some merit, I now see sentiment piled upon sentiment piled upon sentiment—and nothing redemptive.

I must not be the only one who disliked “The Winslow Boy”: the production—a limited run—is not selling. Now that it has officially opened, “The Winslow Boy” has been the subject of special discount offers everywhere—including on non-theater discount websites such as Travelzoo.

When a production is forced to enlist the aid and assistance of Travelzoo, it signifies that New York theatergoers are staying away in droves.

And when New York theatergoers are staying away in droves, there is a reason . . .

Monday, October 28, 2013

“The Winslow Boy” On Broadway

The current Broadway production of Terence Rattigan’s “The Winslow Boy”, which we caught on the Sunday matinee performance over Columbus Day Weekend.

The production was imported from the Old Vic in London, where it had played earlier this year.

The stage set was unbelievable—it looked as if it had been designed and constructed by high school kids for a high school production.

The producers of the Broadway version of “The Winslow Boy” made a major miscalculation in not commissioning new designs for New York.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Robert Fairchild

Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck in Angelin Preljocaj’s “Spectral Evidence”.

Fairchild, from Salt Lake City, became an apprentice dancer with New York City Ballet in 2005. Fairchild officially joined the company in 2006, was promoted to soloist in 2007, and was named a principal in 2009.

Fairchild’s older sister is also a member of New York City Ballet.

Below, Fairchild is joined by Sara Mearns and Wendy Whelan in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement”.

It has become a truism that choreographers invariably request the services of Fairchild when asked to create new ballets for New York City Ballet. That Fairchild is in such demand by the day’s finest choreographers is perhaps the most revealing testament regarding his gifts.

Fairchild, obviously, cannot like every new ballet in which he is asked to take part. In an interview two years ago, Fairchild remarked: “Those European things, they all just look the same.”

“Soirée Musicale”

New York City Ballet in “Soirée Musicale”, choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, music by Samuel Barber.

“Soirée Musicale” was created in 1998 as an end-of-year ballet for the School Of American Ballet, the dance academy affiliated with New York City Ballet.

The ballet entered the repertory of New York City Ballet this Spring; for the occasion, the choreographer created a new pas de deux.

New York City Ballet

In New York for Columbus Day Weekend, we attended the October 12 Saturday matinee performance at New York City Ballet.


The first work on the program was a new work, Angelin Preljocaj’s “Spectral Evidence”, which had received its first performance in September, on opening night of the current NYCB season. “Spectral Evidence” is set to recorded vocal (and electronic) music of John Cage.

Like everything by Preljocaj, “Spectral Evidence” was extremely peculiar. Its subject matter is witchcraft; it was inspired by the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693, convened to address one of the more bizarre outbreaks of mass hysteria to occur anywhere in the last thousand years.

The work is set for four female dancers and four male dancers. The women wear blood-stained white garments and the men wear semi-clerical black. The women are meant to be temptresses—and perhaps apparitions. The men are meant to be pure, unsullied and morally-upright—but in danger of being led astray.

The work is merely suggestive—the women appear to be put to death twice, once by burning and once by being buried alive (although the women also appear to commit joint suicides subsequent to the burnings and burials)—and to declare that “Spectral Evidence” has a plot would be a misstatement: it is a series of vague episodes on the themes of corruption and loss of innocence. The men remain onstage at the end, the women having vanished, while the audience is invited to speculate that the men themselves have become victims of diabolic spiritual possession.

“Spectral Evidence” has not been well-received, by critics or audiences, and it is destined quickly to disappear from NYCB schedules. The work has no choreographic interest—Preljocaj’s subject matter is always the presentation of chic, not the presentation of dance—and its pretensions are laughable, and often unpleasant.

At the ballet’s center was a remarkable performance by Robert Fairchild. Fairchild had clearly captivated the choreographer, and for Fairchild was created a role of startling range: Fairchild was required to be angelic one moment and full of fury the next (Fairchild was also called upon to lip-synch Cage’s “Aria No. 52”; to Fairchild’s credit, he carried it off without embarrassment). Watching Fairchild provided the only pleasure in “Spectral Evidence”. Fairchild is a very special dancer who has emerged as an important artist over the last half-dozen years.

In April 2012, we had attended Preljocaj’s evening-length “Snow White” in Minneapolis, performed by Preljocaj’s own company, Ballet Preljocaj, from Aix-En-Provence. “Snow White”, danced to Mahler, had been a tedious exercise in low-grade burlesque, leaving us disappointed that we had wasted our time. Preljocaj is a purveyor of pretentious kitsch; it amazes me that people in France take his work seriously.

Ballet Preljocaj returns to Minneapolis next week to offer the American premiere of another Preljocaj evening-length effort, “And then, one thousand years of peace”.

In promotional materials for “And then, one thousand years of peace”, the work is described as:

Another epic work inspired by visions of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelations. Visionary choreographer Angelin Preljocaj masterfully evokes what is nestled in the innermost recesses of our existence, rather than prophesizing about compulsive waves of catastrophe, irreparable destruction or the imminent end of the world. The use of intricate scenography and props such as chains, mirrors and flags, as well as the frequent costume changes, lend [sic] the piece an abstract theatricality. Preljocaj uses these tools to unveil elements of our everyday modern rituals in unexpected ways.

If the above paragraph does not frighten away prospective audience members, I cannot imagine what would. (And I must ask: Is someone paid to write such claptrap?)

We would not be able to sit through “And then, one thousand years of peace” without laughing ourselves silly.

We shall not be in attendance.


The second work on the NYCB program was Christopher Wheeldon’s “Soirée Musicale”, set to music of Samuel Barber.

“Soirée Musicale” was created for the School Of American Ballet in 1998; the ballet was added to NYCB’s repertory earlier this year (when the choreographer created a new pas de deux).

The ballet uses Barber’s orchestral version of “Souvenirs”.

When Barber wrote “Souvenirs” for piano four hands in 1952, he had not envisioned an orchestral version and he had not envisioned a ballet. It was Lincoln Kirstein who encouraged Barber to orchestrate the work and it was Kirstein who proposed that the orchestral version be used for a ballet.

Barber loved the idea, which is why he completed the task so quickly (Barber, usually a slow worker, completed the orchestration only months after the original piano composition). Barber’s publisher, Schirmer, loved the idea, too—and immediately began offering the orchestral score to orchestras throughout North America and Europe, an act that angered Barber greatly. Barber believed that “Souvenirs” should be known first as a ballet score, and not as an orchestral composition, and Barber urged Schirmer to withhold concert performances until the ballet had been unveiled.

Months of wrangling between composer and publisher followed, at the end of which it was agreed that there would be two concert performances—and only two—before “Souvenirs” was presented as a ballet: Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony would perform the score in November 1953; and a London concert performance would be authorized for 1954.

In the meantime, New York City Ballet made plans for a 1955 premiere for the ballet; George Balanchine intended to choreograph “Souvenirs” himself. A series of disagreements between composer and choreographer—Balanchine wanted to create a pure abstract ballet, while Barber wanted “Souvenirs” to receive story treatment—resulted in Balanchine walking away from the project, turning it over to Todd Bolender.

It was a stroke of luck for Bolender. Bolender loved the material—and Bolender, like Barber, saw “Souvenirs” as a story ballet. Bolender went on to create his one enduring work, a major hit at NYCB for several seasons—until “Souvenirs” was dropped, unceremoniously, from NYCB’s repertory, never to reappear.

(Joshua and I saw a performance of Bolender’s “Souvenirs” at Kansas City Ballet in May 2012. Bolender’s ballet is a minor masterpiece, and should be widely performed.)

Wheeldon’s choreography for Barber’s score is purely abstract, along the lines of what Balanchine himself had contemplated sixty years ago. Wheeldon treated the score as an opportunity for a series of incidental social dances, with nary a plotline or storyline in sight.

“Soirée Musicale” is one of Wheeldon’s earliest ballets—Wheeldon was still an active dancer at NYCB at the time he created “Soirée Musicale”—and “Soirée Musicale” probably should not be viewed as a mature work. It is blandly neo-Balanchine in style and effect—even the costuming is neo-Karinska—and shows little of the individuality and skill Wheeldon was to acquire in the following decade.

“Soirée Musicale” was, I thought, instantly forgettable.


The third work on the NYCB program was Alexei Ratmansky’s “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement”, premiered in 2010 and enjoying its first revival this season. It was the Ratmansky ballet that made our visit to NYCB worthwhile.

Working with Édouard Lalo’s complete ballet score from 1882, Ratmansky threw away the original scenario. In its place he presented a series of sparkling divertissements in which he used elements from the original scenario—sailors, pirates, gnomes, femme fatales (and the cigarette girl)—to comment, ironically, on 19th-Century ballet conventions. The ballet is both an hommage to and a deconstruction of 19th-Century Classical ballet.

There was an overabundance of ideas on display; one never knew where to look, there being so much quick-fire dance action onstage. Intelligence, sophistication, cleverness, wit, freshness, effervescence, joy—and ultimately warmth: all were evident in Ratmansky’s choreography.

A full contingent of dancers was used—principals, soloists, demi-caractère and corps—and the full range of Balanchine vocabulary was on display, starting with the most complicated, demanding pointe work imaginable, all danced up-to-speed. The virtuosity the ballet demands is staggering.

In a mark of his genius, Ratmansky kept the divertissement going for a full hour—and there were no lulls, no lagging episodes. Ratmansky held the audience’s attention tightly in his grip from first to last—and, at the end, the audience leapt to its feet and roared (as only a New York audience can).

“Namouna, A Grand Divertissement” is a masterpiece, and Ratmansky is a master choreographer.

We had seen Ratmansky’s “Russian Seasons” at NYCB in February 2007, and we had seen Ratmansky’s “Concerto DSCH” at NYCB in January 2009 and again in February 2011.

Neither of the two earlier Ratmansky ballets had prepared us for “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement”.

The ballet is worthy of Balanchine—and there is no higher praise.


On October 12, Robert Fairchild danced the male lead in “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement”. In 2010, the part had been created for Fairchild, but earlier performances this season had featured Tyler Angle in the role.

We were delighted to see Fairchild, and not Angle, dance the male lead. Fairchild may now be the finest American male dancer.

In terms of technique and stage presence, Fairchild now approaches the level of Ethan Stiefel when Stiefel was in his prime—except Stiefel was more naturally ebullient, if not a bit of a show-off. Fairchild has a noble dignity and reserve about his person that Stiefel lacked, and Fairchild can display a wider range of emotion than Stiefel ever could muster. Fairchild did not possess these qualities five years ago, and I strongly suspect that Peter Martins has devoted special care and special attention to Fairchild. Fairchild positively commands the stage at this point in his career; the next five years should bring even greater things.


Lalo’s exquisite score for “Namouna” should be better-known. It is one of the most brilliant jewels from late-19th-Century France.

The only complete recording of the score is a very bad David Robertson recording from 1995, originally released on the Valois label and re-released in 2001 on the Naïve label. The Robertson disc makes for grim listening.

In 1994, ASV released a recording of the two orchestral suites Lalo fashioned from his ballet score. The ASV disc is better than the Robertson, but nonetheless barely arises to stopgap status: it is a studio run-through by one of the London orchestras, sight-reading under the baton of Yondani Butt, an inexplicable conductor ubiquitous at the time on the ASV label. The ASV disc is hardly worth the effort to track down.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Minnesota 34 Nebraska 23

And we were stupid enough to skip the game (we thought Minnesota had no chance).

Today was Minnesota’s first win over Nebraska in fifty-three years.

Friday, October 25, 2013

“Spectral Evidence”

New York City Ballet in Angelin Preljocaj’s new work, “Spectral Evidence”, set to John Cage recorded vocal (and electronic) music.

“Spectral Evidence” premiered last month. We saw “Spectral Evidence” at the matinee performance of October 12.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

“Namouna, A Grand Divertissement”

New York City Ballet in “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement”, choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, music by Édouard Lalo.

In “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement”, Ratmansky used the complete score of Lalo’s “Namouna”, but discarded the original scenario (which accounts for NYCB’s augmentation of the ballet’s original title, NYCB not wishing to confuse or mislead dance aficionados).

Over Columbus Day Weekend, visiting New York, we saw “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement” at the Saturday matinee of October 12.

We were floored. The work is a first-tier masterpiece, the equal of any George Balanchine divertissement ballet.

In Ratmansky, I believe Balanchine—at long last—has a successor.

It has been a long wait.

Partial To Russian Opera

My first “Eugene Onegin” at the Metropolitan Opera was on December 28, 1992.

Between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day that year, my parents had taken my brothers and me to New York, where we caught performances of “The Nutcracker” at New York City Ballet and “Eugene Onegin” at the Metropolitan Opera.

In advance of the “Eugene Onegin” performance, my parents had informed my brothers and me that we were free to declare, at the end of each act, whether we wanted to remain at the performance. My brothers and I had no trouble sitting through the entire opera.

The December 28, 1992, performance was the penultimate presentation of the 1957 Metropolitan Opera production of “Eugene Onegin”. The production was to be retired—at the conclusion of thirty-five years of service—after its final presentation three days later, on New Year’s Eve.

Rolf Gérard had been the designer for the 1957 “Eugene Onegin”. The original stage director had been Peter Brook.

At the 1992 performance we attended, we heard Ljuba Kazarnovskaya (Tatiana), Dwayne Croft (Onegin) and Jerry Hadley (Lensky). James Levine was conductor.

My grandparents had witnessed the same production in 1958, when the Metropolitan Opera’s annual tour had included a performance of “Eugene Onegin” in Minneapolis.

My parents and my grandmother attended the same production in 1980, when the Met once again toured “Eugene Onegin” to Minneapolis—and my parents caught the production a further time in 1985, when the Met brought “Eugene Onegin” to Minneapolis for the production’s final Twin Cities appearance.


My second “Eugene Onegin” at the Met was on February 23, 2002.

We caught a performance that year during a family gathering in New York. I had flown in from Vienna, my older brother had flown in from London, my middle brother had flown in from Denver, and my parents had flown in from the Twin Cities. (At the time, it was easier for us to gather in New York for quick visits than anywhere else.)

2002 was our first encounter with the 1997 Robert Carsen production of “Eugene Onegin”.

At the 2002 performance, we heard Solveig Kringelborn (Tatiana), Thomas Hampson (Onegin) and Marcello Giordani (Lensky). Vladimir Jurowski was conductor.


My third “Eugene Onegin” at the Met was on February 18, 2009.

That year, my parents and Joshua and I had met in New York over Presidents’ Day Weekend—my parents had flown in from the Twin Cities while Josh and I had driven down from Boston—and we had elected to hear “Eugene Onegin” at the Met that weekend rather than Puccini’s “La Rondine” (it was not an easy decision for us, as I recall).

We witnessed, once again, the Carsen production.

At the 2009 performance, we heard Karita Mattila (Tatiana), Thomas Hampson (Onegin) and Piotr Beczala (Lensky). Jiří Bělohlávek was conductor.


“Eugene Onegin” is the only opera I have heard at the Met as many as four times.

The “Eugene Onegin” we attended ten days ago was the first Met performance Josh had attended in which Karita Mattila had NOT been the featured soprano (in succession, we had heard Mattila at the Met in “Jenufa”, “Salome”, “Manon Lescaut” and “Eugene Onegin”). Indeed, poor Josh had taken to calling the Met “The Karita Mattila Opera Company”.

We shall return to New York in February to attend the Met’s new production of Alexander Borodin’s “Prince Igor”.

Happily, we are all very partial to Russian opera.

Because there are no opportunities to hear Russian opera in the Twin Cities, we often make a point of catching Russian opera elsewhere whenever and wherever we may (such as Mussorgsky’s “Khovanshchina”, which we caught in January in Paris).


Next month, we intend to catch Richard Strauss’s “Arabella” at Minnesota Opera and Bedřich Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride” at University Of Minnesota Opera Theatre.

However, we have been known, as performance dates approach, to scratch things off our calendars. Nonetheless, I very much doubt we shall skip “Arabella”: Strauss operas are not often staged in the Twin Cities (nor Smetana operas, for that matter).

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Evoking Russia

The Guthrie Theater’s current production of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”, by and large disappointing, at least has a Russian look.

The Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”, also disappointing, evokes Russia not at all. The production has a peculiarly British look, entirely inapt for Alexander Pushkin’s tale.

The Met “Eugene Onegin” is so British through and through, it might as well be set in Chipping Cleghorn.

Gergiev Times Two: Evening Two—Tchaikovsky

The Saturday evening before last, we heard Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at the Metropolitan Opera. The conductor was Valery Gergiev.

Gergiev is now sixty years old. He has been conducting “Eugene Onegin”—all over the world—for almost four decades, and I question whether he still responds to the score. There was no affection in his reading, no sense of a propriety interest in the music. He offered a tired account of “Eugene Onegin”; the conducting lacked energy, concentration, focus—and polish.

Gergiev did not even rise to the big moments. Tatiana’s letter scene is as much a showcase for conductor as for soprano, yet Gergiev’s handling of the letter scene fell flat. The frenzied activity at the end of Act II, Scene I, lacked adrenaline (Georg Solti blew the roof off in this scene). There was no drama from the pit even during Tatiana’s and Onegin’s final parting in Act III.

“Eugene Onegin” is, above all, a conversational opera. The big moments are glorious and must make their effects, yet a performance cannot work unless the conductor understands how to shape the intimate conversations that constitute the heart of the drama. Musical tension must be sustained, yet the conversations must come across as natural and unaffected; the orchestra must offer ear-beguiling sounds, yet at the same time the conductor must acutely and dispassionately provide structure and continuous momentum. Gergiev met none of the requirements.

The big moments aside, Gergiev’s tempi were slow. The immediate effect was to lend a heavy quality to everything, including the rustic Act I, Scene I, which should be anything but heavy. Gergiev speeded up for the big moments, as if someone had slipped him an injection, but afterward he quickly returned to turgidly-slow tempi. Gergiev single-handedly killed the performance, what with the ponderousness he administered.

Gergiev is very free with tempi in music of Tchaikovsky. A too-free approach to tempi in Tchaikovsky drains the music of discipline and reserve—and discipline and reserve are key components of everything Tchaikovsky wrote, despite the composer allowing an occasional release of hysteria.

Gergiev takes a minute-by-minute approach to conducting; he is always in search of the next highlight. Anyone who has heard Gergiev’s near-laughable Tchaikovsky recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic (a great and noble Tchaikovsky orchestra) is already familiar with how Gergiev shamelessly stretches and pulls about Tchaikovsky’s music, to vulgar and brutal effect.

Gergiev was the fourth conductor I have heard lead “Eugene Onegin” at the Metropolitan Opera. The previous three conductors, in order, had been James Levine, Vladimir Jurowski and Jiří Bělohlávek. Of that group, only Jurowski had been a capable—although far from perfect—conductor of the score.

The Met needs to engage Gennadi Rozhdestvensky or Yuri Temirkanov or Daniele Gatti for future revivals of “Eugene Onegin”. All are exceptional Tchaikovsky conductors.


Anna Netrebko sang Tatiana. Netrebko’s voice is enormous; it has richness and color in abundance. It was a pleasure merely to sit back and listen to wave after wave of glorious sound. Otherwise, Netrebko’s Tatiana was oddly unaffecting—Netrebko did absolutely nothing with the part—and she appeared to have received no guidance from the stage director. (Netrebko was poorly costumed, which did not help matters.)

Onegin was Mariusz Kwiecien. Kwiecien’s voice is much smaller—and much drier—than Netrebko’s, which made it difficult for him to compete against his heroine. Kwiecien’s physical portrayal of Onegin, however, was very fine—and on occasion moving (Kwiecien presents a very likeable figure onstage). Kwiecien was the only singer among the principals with acting skills—and the only one with significant stage presence.

Piotr Beczala sang Lensky. Beczala had appeared as Lensky the last time I attended “Eugene Onegin” at the Met, and I found Beczala no more remarkable this go-around than last go-around. My ears do not find Beczala’s voice or artistry unique; he is a capable singer, nothing more. (Beczala, a wooden actor, is now too old for Lensky; Beczala looked like Kwiecien’s father, not Kwiecien’s peer—and Kwiecien himself is no spring chicken.)

I very much liked three members of the supporting cast, all complete artists: Oksana Volkova (Olga); Elena Zaremba (Madame Larina); and Larissa Diadkova (the nurse).

Everyone else onstage possessed talents more suited to Minnesota Opera than the Metropolitan Opera.


The physical production had premiered in 2011 at English National Opera, although Act I—at the Met’s insistence—had been significantly revised for the New York presentation.

The production was too small in scale for the Met; it probably would have been more successful in a smaller theater. (My father’s pithy dismissal: “This production might have been a big hit in Madison.”)

The action was advanced to the late 19th Century for no ostensible reason. The stage design and costume design were more British than Russian (many of the costumes looked like leftovers from an old “Peter Grimes” production).

All of Act I—including the letter scene—was played in what appeared to be a conservatory converted into a fruit market. Act III, Scene II, was played out-of-doors, in a snowstorm.

The direction was provincial, and included odd, gratuitous bits of staging, such as kisses exchanged between Tatiana and Onegin in Acts I and III. The peasant choruses and dances in Act I were turned into Russian Orthodox ceremonials, complete with religious icons. Tatiana, in Act III, was dressed like Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna.

Such a witless production should be sent back across the water promptly and not allowed to return to these shores.


The performance was sold out; all tickets were taken weeks before performance night.

We had obtained our tickets back in August. Had we delayed, we very well might have been left out.

The audience response to the performance was restrained, especially so given that Gergiev, Netrebko, Kwiecien and Beczala are all big names.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Valery Gergiev

I am not a fan.

Gergiev is, I believe, the perfect conductor for Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whose operas require constant, short bursts of energy—and little else—to come alive. In fact, I think Gergiev’s recordings of the Rimsky-Korsakov operas, on the Philips label, constitute the sole durable portion of an otherwise undistinguished and unremarkable discography.

During the year I lived in Vienna, everyone connected with the world of music said that Gergiev was schwul—and listed Gergiev’s various romantic entanglements, all much younger than Gergiev and all from the worlds of music and ballet. It was said that Gergiev specifically targeted young men capable of grasping that Gergiev was in a position significantly to advance their careers.

And Gergiev, indeed, did advance a few careers of romantic conquests, including that of a violinist whose career Gergiev inexplicably continues to promote—as violinist and as conductor—to this day, going so far as to give him an official position at The Mariinsky Theatre. (The two last vacationed together, in solitude, for two weeks, in the late summer of 2012, at a private resort two hours from Tbilisi.)

Most Gergiev conquests, however, were dropped as soon as they were no longer of use.

Gergiev Times Two: Evening One—Shostakovich

Last Friday night, we heard Valery Gergiev lead the Mariinsky Orchestra in music of Shostakovich at Carnegie Hall. It was Joshua’s first-ever visit to Carnegie Hall.

The composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Symphony No. 8 comprised the program. Denis Matsuev was soloist.

We last heard Gergiev in March 2009 in Boston, leading the London Symphony in music of Beethoven and Prokofiev. We last heard Matsuev in April 2009 in Boston, playing music of Rachmaninoff with The National Philharmonic Of Russia under Vladimir Spivakov.

Matsuev is not so much a pianist as a man who pounds keyboards. There was no pleasure to be gained in hearing Matsuev blast his way through Shostakovich’s lightweight, empty exercise in “jazz” writing. (Shostakovich’s idea of “jazz”’ is what Americans regard as salon music, ideal to accompany afternoon teas in palm courts of fading hotels.)

In both outer movements of the concerto, there were ensemble problems between soloist and orchestra, no doubt because conductor and soloist were unable to agree on tempi. Such lapses were inexcusable—the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1 is the least-demanding piano concerto in the entire repertory, requiring absolutely no virtuosity from soloist, orchestra or conductor. The composer, in possession of very modest keyboard skills, had written the concerto in “popular” style as a vehicle for his own personal use. The concerto’s concise if not bare-boned instrumentation, capable of being played by a chamber orchestra, may be attributed to the composer’s need to tour the piece widely, playing with a variety of small provincial ensembles of low quality, in order to earn performance fees.

What we heard at Carnegie was a throwaway performance of a very weak piece of music, one of the very weakest to have come from the composer’s pen. The performance was unworthy of serious attention.

Nonetheless, the Carnegie Hall audience gave the pianist a prolonged standing ovation—and, pursuant to audience demand, there were even two solo encores (Liadov, Grieg). The audience was, I believe, primed to convince itself that it was hearing something important.

Shostakovich’s three “panoramic” symphonies—the Seventh, Eighth and Eleventh—are inherently problematic, entirely dependent upon performers of genius if they are not to sound weakly-constructed and assembled from feeble materials and feeble ideas. I have never heard a truly fine live performance of any of the three.

In the Shostakovich Eighth, Gergiev was, as always, Gergiev: blatantly, blaringly obvious. Musical line and musical tension were not on display so much as a constant search for climaxes—of which Gergiev found far more in the score than other conductors are able to locate. I thought Gergiev’s leadership was abysmal if not embarrassing, always trying to obtain louder and louder fortissimos while musical tension dissipated, minute-by-minute, bar-by-bar. The climax-plagued performance put me in mind of Victor Hugo’s maxim: “Everything being a constant carnival, there is no carnival left.”

The Mariinsky Orchestra is not a virtuoso ensemble on the level of Cleveland, Chicago or Philadelphia—and it is inferior to Russia’s finest orchestra, the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic, itself far from the last word in terms of perfection of execution and beauty of sound. (We last heard the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic in April 2011 in Boston; we shall hear that orchestra again in February in New York.)

Among American orchestras, the Mariinsky reminded me of the San Francisco Symphony: both orchestras offer roughhewn, unsophisticated playing; both orchestras favor sheer mass of sound above transparency and translucency; and both orchestras find more fulfillment in dogged displays of power and energy than the more subtle pursuits of finesse and refinement.

It was not a good evening at Carnegie Hall—except for the box office, which made a killing. With surcharges, we had to pay $161.00 per ticket, surely the most we’ve ever laid out for concert tickets. Even the Berlin Philharmonic, appearing in Boston in November 2009, had set us back only $103.50 per ticket—and, disappointing as had been the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle, the Berlin under Rattle had been a vast sight better than the Mariinsky under Gergiev.


In the early 1990s, when Gergiev’s fees were still low, Gergiev appeared with some frequency in Minneapolis, leading the Minnesota Orchestra.

I was too young to attend concerts at the time, but my parents remember Gergiev’s Minnesota days. My parents recall that Gergiev obtained better results from the Minnesota musicians than the dull and dour (and profoundly unimaginative) Edo de Waart, then Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra.

However, my parents also relate that Gergiev’s Minnesota performances offered interpretations no less crude than his current ones.

That said, the man has undeniable intensity . . . a quality that, in itself, does not necessarily translate into good performances.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

“Eugene Onegin” At The Met

The aftermath of the duel in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at the Metropolitan Opera.

The production appeared to be a handsome one in published photographs. In person, the production was nowhere near as beautiful as the photographs had suggested and, further, the production—borrowed from English National Opera—was wrongly-scaled for the vast stage and vast auditorium of the Met.

What we encountered was a provincial production, given a provincial staging, precisely the sort of thing one sees at the Coliseum, home of ENO.

We were disappointed, and wondered whether we should have caught the matinee performance of Shostakovich’s “The Nose” instead.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


The bingo scene in Park Square Theatre’s production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People”, a tale of South Boston.

The Park Square Theatre production was expertly-cast and expertly-played. In fact, the production was 100 times better than the play itself—and the bingo scene was, indeed, a highlight.

One-Hit Wonders

American theater is populated with one-hit wonders.

Whether it be Mary Chase (“Harvey”) and Joseph Kesselring (“Arsenic And Old Lace”) from decades past or more recent examples personified by Margaret Edson (“Wit”) and John Logan (“Red”), American theater has produced a proliferation of playwrights known for producing one, and only one, commercial and artistic success—and in all such cases the identities of the authors quickly dropped from view while the titles of their single successes lived on.

How many persons, for instance, can name the respective creators of “Teahouse Of The August Moon” and “The Great White Hope”?

I was put in mind of American one-hit wonders the weekend before last, when Joshua and I took Josh’s sister, visiting us that weekend, to local performances of two contemporary American plays.


David Auburn’s “Proof”, first produced in 2000, is a play I admire. “Proof” is the only Auburn play ever to have gained traction.

“Proof” presents the story of a young woman who had cared for her late father, a mentally-ill mathematician, in his final years. During his decline, the father had filled notebook after notebook with mathematical formulas that may or may not have been little more than gibberish.

A former student of the mathematician arrives to review the notebooks to ascertain whether they contain anything of worth—and he judges everything to be worthless except for one exceptionally brilliant formulation.

To the former student’s surprise, the brilliant formulation turns out to be the work of the mathematician’s caregiver daughter—or so she claims.

It is in establishing proof of authorship—“proof” regarding the mathematical “proof”—that much of the drama hinges.

Tension is added by a budding romance between the two, as well as the arrival of a second daughter, efficient and practical beyond compare, who swiftly moves to wrap up her late father’s estate and close a chapter of life she found unsettling.

“Proof” was, deservedly, a great hit on Broadway. It ran for over two years—917 performances, a remarkable total for a drama—and won countless awards. I saw “Proof” toward the end of its Broadway run, when the production was on its second or third cast (and not in tip-top shape), and I thought the play worthwhile. I found the play even more intriguing upon a second acquaintance ten days ago.

The production, at Bloomington Civic Theatre, was very fine. The caregiver daughter and mathematician father (who appears in flashback) were particularly fine, the former student and second daughter somewhat less so.

I find “Proof” moving. It becomes more and more obvious, as the play progresses, that the caregiver daughter has inherited her late father’s mental illness. It is a sad, painful play.


David Lindsay-Abaire writes kitchen-sink drama, a genre I thought had long ago died out. The playwright’s “Rabbit Hole” is his only play produced with frequency, although I cannot understand why: “Rabbit Hole” reminds me of scripts for Bette Davis/Ernest Borgnine movies from the 1950s.

The playwright’s more recent “Good People” opened in 2011 on Broadway, where—despite star casting—it ran only for 101 performances. “Good People”, nowhere else a success, has proven to be a triumph at Saint Paul’s Park Square Theatre, where we attended a performance at the urging of friends.

“Good People” is a story of working-class persons from South Boston, one of whom has managed to get out and establish a thriving career as a physician. To his discomfort, he is contacted by a former girlfriend on the make, who is down-on-her-luck and looking for assistance wherever she can find it.

A series of uncomfortable encounters—“confrontations” is too strong a word—ensues, during which the former girlfriend tells the physician that she gave birth to his child many years ago, and that the child is disabled.

Nothing gets resolved, although at the end of the play the former girlfriend is presented with a sum of money (the money does not come from the physician).

There is no genuine drama in “Good People”. The play resembles a hastily-written script for a low-budget television film. “Good People” is not a unified work of art—it is two or three soap-opera episodes strung together.

Park Square Theatre gave the undistinguished material an exceptional production. It is the production, and not the play, that is drawing theatergoers to Saint Paul.

Much of the Saint Paul “Good People” was played for laughs—and, suitably, we laughed along. Nonetheless, while enjoying the colorful performances, many of which indeed were superb (if not wicked), I kept asking myself:

Is there a play here?


Playwrights David Auburn and David Lindsay-Abaire, whose plays we saw less than 48 hours apart, were both born on November 30, 1969.

It is one of those odd coincidences that can never be explained.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

“Uncle Vanya” At The Guthrie

The Guthrie Theater’s joke-filled production of “Uncle Vanya”.

Entire scenes were reminiscent of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys”—surely not what Anton Chekhov had in mind.

“Uncle Vanya” At The Guthrie

The weekend before last, Joshua and I took Josh’s sister, who was visiting us that weekend, to The Guthrie Theater to see the Guthrie’s production of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”.

Josh and I had last seen a staging of “Uncle Vanya” in December 2011, when the University Of Minnesota drama department had presented “Uncle Vanya” and “The Cherry Orchard” in repertory (in 2011, we had caught both university Chekhov productions on the same day).

The current Guthrie production of “Uncle Vanya” was beautifully designed. Stage design, costume design, lighting design: all were faultless and of the highest quality. Stage design at The Guthrie is the finest in the world, finer even than may be seen at New York City Ballet, the Wiener Staatsoper or Britain’s National Theatre.

Alas, as I have bemoaned many times over the years, everything else at The Guthrie takes a back seat to stage design. Once the company creates and constructs a striking, imaginative and dramatically-apt series of stage settings—which always look exorbitantly expensive—the company views its work as largely complete. Nothing else at The Guthrie is at the same exalted level as the work of the design department.

The Guthrie’s “Uncle Vanya” was lightweight. “Uncle Vanya” is a very philosophical play, raising issues no less profound than those raised by Plato, yet the Guthrie production was facile, very much on-the-surface and one-dimensional. I would describe the production, above all, as “pleasant”—and “pleasant” is not what “Uncle Vanya” is all about.

Joe Dowling, Artistic Director of The Guthrie, directed “Uncle Vanya”. Dowling used a new translation by Irish playwright Brian Friel. Friel’s translation was a very free one, more adaptation than translation. Everything was very jokey, and not entirely dissimilar to a Neil Simon comedy—and, suitably, the audience laughed, nonstop, throughout much of the performance. I wanted to scream.

The acting ensemble was not bad, although the actor portraying the title character was not good enough to carry the role (he seemed to have dropped in from a television comedy). No one onstage offered a multi-dimensional or penetrating performance.

As stage director, Dowling is a good fund-raiser. I have yet to see a Dowling production that was in any way memorable—or even admirable. There’s a reason why Dowling gets no work in New York or London.

I pray nightly that Dowling soon announces his retirement.

1899: “Uncle Vanya” At The Moscow Art Theatre

Anton Chekhov’s 1897 play, “Uncle Vanya”, in the 1899 Moscow Art Theatre production.

The Moscow Art Theatre production was directed by Constantin Stanislavski, who also played the doctor. In the photograph, Stanislavski may be seen third from the right.

To Stanislavski’s consternation, Chekhov declined to explain or expand upon the text of the play. However, as Stanislavski was later to relate, Chekhov’s refusal forced Stanislavski to dig beneath the surface of the text to find psychological truth—and the exercise changed Stanislavski’s life and work (and world theater as well).

Sunday, October 06, 2013

1963: The Guthrie Prepares To Open

Tyrone Guthrie, Artistic Director of The Guthrie Theater, conferring with the Production Manager and an Assistant Stage Manager during “Hamlet” rehearsals in 1963.

The Guthrie was to open that year with “Hamlet”—and the original Guthrie building was to close with another production of “Hamlet” forty-three years later.

Joshua’s one and only visit to the original Guthrie was during Easter Weekend 2006, when he and I attended a performance of that closing “Hamlet”.

I thought at the time—and I still think—that the demolition of the original Guthrie after only 43 years of use was a crime. It is my hope that the new building, a Jean Nouvel eyesore, enjoys a similarly-brief lifespan; I hope to live to see its demolition.

Guthrie stepped down as Artistic Director of The Guthrie in 1966, although he continued to direct at the theater that bore his name for another three years.

The final production Guthrie directed in Minneapolis was “Uncle Vanya”, a production that opened in 1969.

Last weekend, Josh and I took Josh’s sister downtown to see the current Guthrie production of “Uncle Vanya”.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Infuriating As Often As Not

Until this summer, we had never visited The Stratford Festival. It is unlikely we shall return anytime soon.

I thought The Stratford Festival was a mirror image of The Guthrie: both are major theatrical enterprises that have fundamentally lost their ways. In both enterprises, one-half of the attention is devoted to producing popular fare (for which no state subsidy—in theory—is warranted) and one-half of the attention is devoted to classic repertory. In both enterprises, popular repertory is presented with more conviction and flair than classic repertory, where productions are inept—if not infuriating—as often as not.

The international reputation of The Stratford Festival peaked in the 1970s, a decade during which The Stratford Festival served as the summer home for actors and directors from New York and London. The glory days for Stratford were short-lived: since 1980 or thereabouts, Stratford has served primarily as a venue for Canadian actors and directors. The result is that the Festival is now largely a provincial affair.

I was amazed, reading actor and director biographies in the Stratford program booklet, how few Stratford actors and directors had ever enjoyed a single professional appearance outside Canada. There was only a handful of New York or London credits to be counted in the lengthy Stratford cast lists and director lists.

The Festival’s practice of employing Canadians, and only Canadians, is a major mistake. Casting offices should be opened in New York and London in order to raise the quality of Festival casting. (I said much the same thing last year when discussing The Shaw Festival.) Until that occurs, The Stratford Festival will remain a big-budget yet insular institution, unworthy of international attention and respect.


Tyrone Guthrie probably did not stay at Stratford long enough to give the Festival the deep roots it needed, artistically, to thrive long-term. Having helped found the Festival in 1953, Guthrie left Stratford in 1955.

Much the same thing happened in Minneapolis: having helped found The Guthrie (which opened in 1963), Guthrie left Minneapolis in 1966.

It strikes me as odd that a man of genius would work tirelessly to establish a new enterprise, only to walk away before a firm foundation had been put into place to secure that genius’s long-term vision.

Would George Balanchine have walked away from New York City Ballet in 1949?


Tyrone Guthrie’s fondness for thrust stages may be seen, not only in Stratford and Minneapolis, but also in Chichester and London: Chichester Festival Theatre and the Olivier Theatre at The National Theatre employ thrust stages.

The era of thrust stages coincided perfectly with the period of Guthrie’s influence. As Guthrie’s influence waned, so did the construction of theaters with thrust stages.

I prefer proscenium theaters above all others, and I hold a slight preference for theater-in-the-round stages over thrust stages (the modern advent of theater-in-the-round stages occurred precisely at the same time as the modern advent of thrust stages; both were contemporaneous—and short-lived—phenomena). Too many design compromises and too many directorial compromises arise when productions are mounted on thrust stages. Only genius directors are capable of surmounting the obstacles; other directors carry on as if directing on a conventional proscenium stage—which more or less negates the supposed strengths and advantages of a thrust stage.

The Guthrie long ago figured out how to design for a thrust stage. Based upon what we observed this summer at Stratford, The Stratford Festival has yet to figure out how to design for a thrust stage. We were dumbfounded at the poor stage design we encountered at Stratford, production after production after production.

Stage design at last year’s Shaw Festival had been of the highest standard.

Stage design at this year’s Stratford Festival was so bad, it became depressing.


There was nothing for us to do in Stratford other than attend theater performances.

Stratford, as a town, has the allure and charm of Mankato. Shorn of its theater festival, Stratford would be visited by no one.

Niagara-On-The-Lake, home of The Shaw Festival, had been much more festival-like and much more visitor-friendly. Niagara-On-The-Lake possessed countless fine restaurants, and many charming shops, and much old architecture—and historic Fort George was nearby, as was Niagara Falls.

We had enjoyed Niagara-On-The-Lake immensely. For us, The Shaw Festival truly had been a festival.

The Stratford Festival, in contrast, provided nothing more than a theater excursion.

We arrived, attended eight performances in four days, and departed.

(At Stratford, huge numbers of attendees are day-trippers from Toronto, who arrive by chartered bus, attend a single performance, and depart by chartered bus.)


For the first quarter-century of The Stratford Festival, music was an important component of the program. Many of the finest musicians of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s appeared at The Stratford Festival, often on multiple occasions.

Glenn Gould, in recital, inaugurated the music program at Stratford in 1953. Gould was to return to the Festival often until retiring from the concert stage.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf appeared at the Festival three times in a single week in 1955, twice in recital and once in concert—and was to return to Stratford for a recital in 1969.

Claudio Arrau was in residence at the Festival in 1956, appearing in recital and in concert throughout the summer; Arrau was to return frequently in later seasons.

Among the many artists that graced The Stratford Festival: Pierre Bernac; Julian Bream; Benjamin Britten; Aaron Copland; Rudolf Firkušný; Maureen Forrester; Lynn Harrell; Eugene Istomin; Peter Pears; Itzhak Perlman; Jacqueline du Pré; Jean-Pierre Rampal; Pepe Romero; Leonard Rose; Mstislav Rostropovich; Peter Serkin; Rudolf Serkin; Gérard Souzay; János Starker; Isaac Stern; Paul Tortelier; Barry Tuckwell; Van Cliburn; Shirley Verrett; and Jon Vickers.

Among ensembles that appeared at The Stratford Festival: the Guarneri Quartet; the English Chamber Orchestra; the New York Philharmonic; and the Chicago Symphony.

The music program at The Stratford Festival ended in 1978, a likely victim of finances. Louis Quilico and Gino Quilico, father-and-son opera singers (and both Canadian), gave the final Stratford recital in the late summer of that year.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Tim Zavadumb Thinks He’s “Norma Rae”

Tim Zavadumb thinks he’s reenacting “Norma Rae” when in reality he’s stuck in a remake of “On The Waterfront”.

Ah, the members of the Hormel Symphony . . .

“All For One, One For All”

On our final evening in Stratford, we attended a performance of “The Three Musketeers”, a stage adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas novel by Peter Raby, one-time dramaturge at The Stratford Festival.

Raby’s adaptation, from 1968, is not good, and I cannot imagine why The Stratford Festival continues to revive the adaptation from time to time (Raby’s “Three Musketeers” had earlier been revived in 1988 and 2000).

Act I, which goes on forever, is mostly exposition, while Act II, which also goes on forever, is an attempt to cover Dumas’s themes (such as they are).

“The Three Musketeers” has integrity only if presented as pure adventure yarn (the Richard Lester movies, in my opinion, captured the necessary tone to perfection). If a writer tries to make sense of the plot, or attempts to lend “depth” to the proceedings by presenting the story in political terms, the enterprise is doomed to fail.

Raby’s adaptation assiduously—and unsuccessfully—attempts to explain the background of the conflict between Britain and France that led to the siege of La Rochelle, on which much of the plot hinges. Far too much attention is devoted to the presentation of “back-story” and other pseudo-historic incidentals, such as explanations for the significance of Anne Of Austria’s diamonds, while far too little attention is paid to the motivations of key personages, such as Cardinal Richelieu. Scene by scene, Richelieu is portrayed as dark villain one moment and noble saint the next, surely a confusing state of affairs for anyone unfamiliar with the story—and much the same goes for the other figures borrowed from history. Theatergoers entering the auditorium without advance knowledge of the plot would have been unable to make sense of the complications and contradictions, and would have thrown their hands up in despair only minutes into the action.

Raby’s adaptation is so poor that I cannot imagine a competent stage director agreeing to touch the thing—and it was clear, five minutes into the performance, that The Stratford Festival in fact had not managed to engage a competent director. The blocking was poor (of the “line ‘em up side-by-side and have ‘em face the audience” school), the casting was bizarre (the Louis XIII and Anne Of Austria had to be seen to be believed), and the “acting” was execrable (total ineptitude coupled with what I would call “vamping”, a peculiarly-unpleasant combination). The Stratford “Three Musketeers” was one of the worse things I have ever seen.

Approximately one-third of the audience failed to return after intermission. We would have departed, too, but we had nowhere to go other than to return to our hotel—so we sat through the whole thing, trying for three hours to figure out why The Stratford Festival had not pulled the plug on this deplorable production early in the rehearsal period.

“The Three Musketeers” had been intended to provide a boost to the Festival’s box office this season, but we were told—accurately or no—that the production had not been bringing in the customers as expected. Apparently word-of-mouth about the production has been negative, in Canada and in the U.S., and prospective audience members have been warned off or scared off.

For us, “The Three Musketeers” provided a disappointing conclusion to the Festival. We had not expected much from “The Three Musketeers”—but we HAD expected something minimally competent and minimally enjoyable. Neither competence nor enjoyment was delivered.

One thing I can predict with some confidence: the Raby adaptation will never again be revived at Stratford.