October 9th, 2011

Skylight Opera Theater, "The Rivals"

The Rivals is a new comic opera, words and music by Kirke Mechem, based on the play of the same title, by Ricard Brinsley Sheridan. It made its world premier in this run at the Skylight, opening their new season. We went to see it on Oct. 1, and were very pleased.

Not only is The Rivals a new opera, it is a new comic opera.  A new comic opera with tunes and melodies! A new comic opera with tunes and melodies AND an actual poetic libretto that rhymes!  Not that this last is something I would have requested or expected--Sheridan's play is not in verse--but it was a charming surprise, and, we thought, did a lot to enhance the period setting of the piece.

The action of the piece is moved from the spa town of Bath, in England, to the resort town of Newport, Rhode Island, in the early 1900's, which has a similar milieu of being both a playground for the well-do-do and a marriage mart.  Mrs. Malaprop (Diane Lane) is trying to find a husband for her niece, Lydia Larkspur (Alicia Berneche), and has her mind set on a titled suitor. Lydia, on the other hand is, enamored of "romance" and longs to find marital bliss starving in a garret with a talented but impoverished artist. To that end, she has become involved with "Waverly," a supposed opera composer. (There are a number of enjoyable jabs at the institution of opera in the witty libretto--.)  However. "Waverly" is in reality Captain Jack Absolute, naval attache, and heir to an earldom.  Complications ensue when Jack's father, Sir Anthony, enters into a marriage agreement for Jack and Lydia with Mrs. Malaprop, putting Jack into the decidedly uncomfortable position of not only being his own rival for Lydia's hand, but of having his imposture revealed untimely. 

Further adding to the fun are Matthew DiBattista as Jasper Vanderbilt, another unsuccessful suitor for Lydia's hand, and Zach Boirchevsky and Katherine M. Pracht as Nicholas Astor and Lydia's cousin Julia, whose love keeps coming off the rails due to Nicholas' low self image and conviction that everyone only likes him for his money.

Diane Lane gave us a handsome and vivacious Mrs. Malaprop, and carried off her fractured syntax, frenetic activity, and over-the-top gowns in fine style. Ms. Berneche starts off the show "languishing"--the character's name in Sheridan is "Lydia Languish,"--but shows some real fire when she learns how she has been manipulated. Christopher Burchett was very fine as the handsome Captain Jack, showing both an excellent voice and comic timing.  They were well supported by Borichevsky as the depressive Nicholas, Pracht as sensible Julia, Robert Orth as Sir Anthony Absolute, DiBattista as the hayseed Jasper, and Andrew Wilkowske as the conniving Baron von Hackenbock.  There was also an ensemble of servants, lead by Christine Robertson as Lucy, in a classic "clever servant" role.

The score was tuneful and pretty, easy to listen to, and borrowing period elements. We were pleased to hear actual duets, trios, and choruses, things we miss in other contemporary operas.

(It seems that modern atonal/a-tune-al music just doesn't lend itself to ensembles, which, upon reflection, seems to make sense. If you don't have melody, how can you have harmony? By contrast, consider Of Mice and Men, a 1970 work by Carlisle Floyd. It's pretty much all solo voices with occasional singers countering one another, and the "bunkhouse chorus", which is the only ensemble number in the piece. It's not bad, but, having heard it we are giving the Florentine's production of Floyd's Susannah this season a miss--.)

The production was handsomely costumed, and mounted on a cleverly used turntable set. The show was enlivened by the kind of clever stage business that has become a Skylight trademark, and the orchestra, under the direction of Richard Casey played well if a bit too loudly occasionally.

Mechem's treatment of The Rivals was thoroughly enjoyable, and we can hope it will find a place in the light opera repertory.

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West Allis Classic Car Show

Sunday, October second was the annual "Classic Car Show," which takes place along Greenfield Avenue in West Allis between S. 70th and S. 76th Street. This was a nice day for it, and there was a very good turnout. As distinct from the Milwaukee Masterpiece show, which is heavy on antiques, classics, and restorations, the West Allis show is much more of a "hot rod" show, with emphasis on American cars, "street rods" and customs. It's great fun to walk along the street and reminisce about cars that our parents, relatives, or neighbors had, the cars we would have liked to have had, or the ones we would STILL like to have. It's free, and local charities and West Allis merchants vend food, one of the radio stations plays music, and the West Allis Police D.A.R.E. program has a booth, all of which make it a very nice community event.

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Young Goethe In Love

The 2011 Milwaukee Film Festival ended Oct. 2nd, and we went up to the North Shore Cinemas to see "Young Goethe in Love," which deals with a critical period in the life of Germany's most famous poet and playwright. It's not a good time for the 23-year old. In rapid succession, he has flunked out of law school, had a play rejected in humiliating terms, and been told by his father that unless he shapes up and accepts a legal apprenticeship Dad has arranged for him in the backwater town of Wetzlar, there will be no more parental support and he's out on his own. With no other prospects, Johann grudgingly agrees and takes up the grim and regimented life of a court clerk.

Things eventually begin to get better as he builds a friendship with his deskmate, Wilhelm Jerusalem, gains the respect of his superior, Counsellor Kestner, and falls in love with Charlotte "Lotte" Buff, the daughter of a struggling farmer--not knowing that Lotte's father is in the process of arranging a marriage for her with Kestner in order to save the farm.

There's no coincidence in the English release being titled "Young Goethe in Love," since the movie (simply titled "Goethe!" in the original) is giving Goethe the "Shakespeare In Love" treatment--i.e., creating a romanticized and fictionalized story out of events that have a loose relationship to the film plot. That being said, it's a very enjoyable film. It is beautifully shot and looks well, with late 18th Century Germany looking appropriately gritty, sooty, muddy, dusty, and dim (interiors are mostly candle-lit) so that Goethe's escapes to the beautiful countryside are quite easy to understand.

The cast is very fine. Alexander Fehling as Goethe even looks rather like the young author, and deals with his ups and downs very well. As is often the case with European films, most of the cast can out-act typical Hollywood actors without saying a word, as in the scene where Johann and Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu) make the mutually horribly embarrassing discovery that Lotte (Miriam Stein)is both Kestner's fiance and Johann's lover. The profound discomfort all three of them are feeling comes clearly across, although rigid propriety is maintained by the characters.

Good fun, good to look at, and very enjoyable although only a 'biopic' in the loosest sense, although it did inspire me to look up more about Goethe, who was in fact a genius and a fascinating character in his own right.

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Early Music Now, Jordi Savall and Ferran Savall

On Saturday evening, October 8th, we went to the Zelazo Center at UW-M for Early Music Now's season-opening concert, featuring Jordi and Ferran Savall.

Jordi Savall is a very well-known figure in the study of historical music, specializing in the recovery and reconstruction of early music. In particular, he has developed an extensive repertoire for the viola da gamba. He has found three musical ensembles, recorded 160 albums, performs on average 140 concerts per year, and has won numerous awards, including one for the soundtrack of "All the Mornings of the World" (Tous Les Matins du Monde).

Ferran Savall is Jordi's son, and absorbed music at home from his earliest days, and plays Funk, Blues, Soul, Jazz, and "Flamenco Fusion" when not performing with his father.

For this concert, Jordi alternated between playing a Lira da Gamba, a viola-sized instrument, which is held upright and bowed like a miniature cello, and a seven-stringed bass viol de gamba, which is a cello-sized instrument with roughly that range. We were sitting on the left (the "cheap seats" for an EMN concert) which gave us an excellent view of Sr. Ferran's remarkable bowing technique. Since the bass viol has seven strings, it has quite a distinct arch to the strings in order to make them all playable, which results in the bow moving in an almost semi-circular fashion as distinct from the flatter bowing style possible with a four-stringed instrument. Given that Ferran also bows "underhanded" in the antique style (with the open side of the hand upward), he was quite fascinating to watch as well as to listen to. We also had a good view of Ferran's fingering on his chosen instrument for the night, the theorbo. (A theorbo is long-necked lute with extra strings and a second pegbox.)

The concert was titled "Folias and Romances: Musical Dialogs Between Orient and Occident, and Between Ancient Europe and the New World."

In this case, "Orient" was given the classical sense of the the Levant and Mideast, with the easternmost piece coming from Afghanistan. The concert opened with Sephardic, Hebrew, and Afghan music, representing the Orient. In the first piece, the Lira da Gamba predominated, while the theorbo provided a continuo. In the second, the theorbo and Ferran singing took the lead. In the third, the Lira wrapped a counter-tune around the theorbo's lead.

The second section of the concert was "The Celtic Traditions," in which the elder Savall soloed on  the viol for a medley of strathspeys, reels, and hornpipes. It was very interesting to hear well-known Celtic musical figures played on this instrument. Savall was able to make the bass strings of the viol drone like bagpipes while playing a lively tune on the upper strings.

Next was "The Catalan Traditions" (well known to the Savalls, who are natives of Catalonia), then "The Spanish Folias," "From Occident" (Breton and more Catalonia), "Dialogues: The Mediterranean Traditions", and "Ostinatos from the Old and New World."

The "Dialogues" was one of the most interesting sections. Jordi gave us one of his rare remarks, explaining that each of the four pieces in the segment was based on the same tune: a Greek dance, a Sephardic lullaby, a faster Morrocan piece in a minor mode, and a Turkish version similar in many ways to the Greek.  Sr. Ferran noted that each culture claimed their version as the "original" but that they were probably all wrong in that each had evolved from a common ancestor dating back to 500AD--.

The full house gave them a lengthy standing ovation, which eventually drew an encore, with Jordi playing a piece by Martin Marais, and Ferran one of his own compositions.

Occasionally, we are privileged to experience a true master at work, and that was the case this evening. Jordi Savall's playing is magical, and Ferran Savall is a worthy son to his masterly father.

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