Wednesday, July 11, 2012

WHAT A VIRGIN!

MADONNA World Tour 2012
Lanxess Arena Cologne
10 JULY 2012 

© SAM H. SHIRAKAWA 

Take a look at the photograph (not retouched) above and pretend you don’t recognize her.  How old would you say she is? 25?  30?  35?

At age 53, Madonna can still look and sing “Like a Virgin” as sensually as she first performed it 28 years ago.  But she now imbues the lyrics with new and deeply touching resonance. 

How would I know?  I heard her sing it at the Lanxess Arena in Cologne on Tuesday night, during the last of three concerts she gave in Germany on her current MDNA World Tour -- 26 cities in Europe and Israel, 26 coming up in North America and still more in Australia and Latin America. 



Madonna’s achievement in stopping the show with what’s become a chestnut in her repertoire signals more than a walk down Memory Lane.  While women may forever be at the mercy of their biological timeclocks, Madonna has also become living proof that her gender need not wither as time goes by.  And to walk the talk,  she performs non-stop for nearly two hours, disappearing only to quick-change into costumes, one more spectacular than the other. Along the way, she chats with the audience, preaches tolerance, encourages crowd participation and sings and dances about 20 more songs including "Revolver," "Vogue," "Papa Don’t Preach to Me" and "Celebration."  


Her show (the credits for which I can’t locate) realizes what an extravaganza ought to be:  Two wide catwalks protrude from the stage, dovetail into an ample performing space and form a triangle that encloses about 200 spectators.  Madonna spends a lot of time performing up close and in the midst of the masses, where she has her public literally at her feet. Behind this mini-stage, multiple hydraulic lifts rise, sink and even turn in uncountable combinations, carrying her and a dozen dazzling terps to and from backstage oblivion.   A segment in which the dancers leap and somersault among three sets of box cars, while the world is blowing up behind them, takes the breath away (see photo below).  The sets and graphic projections melt into each other with scintillating cool. The dizzying lighting effects include an all-too brief appearance by a mammoth triple-tier chandelier.   
Photo: Frank Michelotta

The show is slick, inventive and exciting.  But not perfect:

> The pair of jumbotrons flanking the stage are much too small for an event that seeks to be epic.  
> The warm-up act consisted of a DJ spinning what we should have been hearing live.  For over an hour yet.  C’mon!  If Judy Garland was able to procure up-and-comer Alan King for her warm up at the Mastbaum in Philadelphia (1957), surely the Queen of Pop can come up with somebody who's a somebody for her opener in Cologne. 
> Perambulating vendors selling beer blocked views of the stage during the performance.
> The show was 45 minutes late in getting started -- actually 2 and quarter hours behind target. The scheduled start was set for 8 pm, but it was tacitly understood that the show would get underway about 9.30. Madonna finally appeared at 10.15. She may well be the Queen of Pop, but many restive members of the audience would remind her that punctuality is the politeness of kings and their consorts.


The show did not quite sell out; about 15-thousand attended.  200 Euros for a premium seat may have had something to do with hawkers selling bags of spares at substantial discount outside the Arena. 

I am not a Madonna worshiper, but I’ve always liked her, especially when she appeared in David Mamet’s Speed the Plow on Broadway some years back (1988).  I think much of her appeal has to do with her success in continually re-inventing herself and in redefining splash and style irresistibly.  Time dubbed her “one of the 25 most powerful women of the 20th Century.”  Her concert in Cologne certainly exploded with power.  She is, for better or worse, a force to be reckoned with in any millenium.
 

Grafix: Sam H. Shirakawa 

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Monday, July 09, 2012

A TALE OF TWO BOYBANDS

THE 12 TENORS
Tipi am Kanzleramt Berlin
6 July 2012
CROSSOVER BERLIN STYLE 
(MEISTERSINGER / COMEDIAN HARMONISTS)
Komische Oper / Komödie am Kurfürstendamm Berlin
7 July 2012


© SAM H. SHIRAKAWA
The 12 Tenors
Last week I had a couple of engagements in Berlin.  I had planned to spend my two free evenings attending opera, concerts or the theater, until an advertisement for a show caught my attention.  Simply titled The 12 Tenors, it was playing at what turned out to be a jumbo tent housing a dinner theater.  Even if I were to turn back, which I wanted to do, it was too late to find an alternative: Tipi am Kanzleramt is located smack in the woods of the Tiergarten, positioned between, but still far from, the Brandenburg Gate and the Federal Enclave known as the Bundestag.  In fact, Tipi isn’t near anything.  


So I went in.  It's a pleasant showplace seating several hundred patrons at tables set on graduated risers. Everybody has a clear view of the stage. The wait staff don't hustle you.
Tipi am Kanzleramt Berlin
As the dozen tenors, all 30ish, all talented, finished their last number before intermission, one of the performers pointed to the bar, advising the audience:  “The more you drink, the better we sound!”  Actually, I was finding that the more I drank, the louder they sounded.  By the time I got to my second bottle of mineral water, I had a headache the size of the Reichstag.  


I have to say straight on, that the 12 tenors work harder than apostles. They put on a reasonably good show, and they succeed in being moderately entertaining.  But net-net I found the show a deeply depressing affair, which was hardly ameliorated by the two ladies seated at my table, who kept clucking at each other, like hens on uppers.  
Half a dozen of the 12 Tenors

The overwhelming impediment that prevented the show from going ballistic for me was immediately obvious:  The woeful sound design made the guys sound bloated, all alike, and worst of all, unmusical.  A pity, because all 12 tenors are blessed with gifts that only God can tender. But the issues behind the deadliness of The 12 Tenors run deeper than a sadistic sound system, and I spent a troubled night trying to figure out where the nexus of the problem lay.  


The next day, I was faced with the irritating dilemma of having to choose between two events: the final Meistersinger this season at the Komische Oper near Unter den Linden and a performance of Veronika der Lenz ist da: The Comedian Harmonists, the long-running show about the daddy of all boy bands at the Komödie, an historic boulevard theater on the Kurfürstendamm across town.  Since the former started at 5 pm and the latter at 8,  I decided to catch the first act of Meistersinger, grab a snack, and dash to the Komödie. 
Marco Jentzsche (above) Tómas Tómassen
Meistersinger @ Komische Oper

The first epiphany struck me as the Prelude to Meistersinger segued into the thrilling chorale (“Da zu Dir Heilland kam...”) that begins the first act.  Wagner’s power in writing for mixed voices nears its apogee in this moment, as the ordinariness of human utterance accrues Handelian glory through empyrean harmony and sublime counterpoint.  And it occurred to me as the chorale ended, that The 12 Tenors are bereft of the slightest trace of that glory to which, arguably, only the tenor voice can aspire.  But they are not to blame. The part writing for their grab bag of pop songs and smatterings of classics is at best routine, at worst dull, and made insufferable by the amplification. 

The most enlightening revelations dawned on me, though, as I took my seat at the Komödie a few minutes late, at the beginning of the long scene in which members of a newly formed boy band work long, hard and without money to forge a repertoire and a unique sound profile.  That sound, modeled after an American group called The Revelers, was conceived largely by Harry Frommermann (a tenor), and it is still imitated today. Once it was refined, this profile, combined with Frommermann's witty arrangements, brought the world racing to their feet for a brief shining moment before the Nazis banned them. 


As one of the characters in the show admits, no one member of the Comedian Harmonists is a great, even distinguished singer.  But together, they are a miracle. None of the 12 Tenors is great nor distinguished either.  As a group, unfortunately, they are also no miracle.  
Harry Frommermann (1906-1975)

Which doesn’t mean that they can’t invent themselves.  But they need a vision like the one Harry Frommermann had to transform themselves into a Democracy of Kings.  They have a tour of 80 cities ahead of them -- a rare chance to develop a compelling sound that is theirs alone.

Meanwhile, for pity’s sake, guys, don’t keep asking if I’m enjoying the show, because given the conditions hamstringing the group now, no, I'm not.  Did the Comedian Harmonists ever once need to ask? 

By the way, what little I heard of the Komische Oper’s Meistersinger was musically even better than when I first saw the current production two seasons ago.  The cast, which has remained largely intact, has developed in the right direction.  Tómas Tómassen (Sachs), Marco Jentzsch (von Stolzing), Tom Erik Lie (Beckmesser), Ina Kringelborn (Eva) and Thomas Ebenstein (David) all sounded more relaxed and involved.  I hope Tómassen and Jentzsch didn’t run out of steam, as they did the night I first saw them in 2010.   Patrick Lange paced the first act nicely.  I hope he took more flexible tempi in the last hour.

Veronika der Lenz ist da: The Comedian Harmonists by Gottfried Greifenhagen must be approaching a record tally of performances, having played virtually non-stop at various venues in Berlin and on tour since 1997.  Four of the original cast members are still with the show, which maintains its freshness, possibly because it has undergone some revisions since its premiere.  My visit this past weekend was the fourth time I’ve seen it since it first opened, and it probably won’t be the last.
Original Comedian Harmonists ca. 1931

There are palpable reasons why this show keeps running.  The guys in The 12 Tenors and the guns behind them would be well advised to see it and learn something. They could, for example, sing a capella without microphones in ways that only tenors can articulate effectively.  Even in a theater as large as Tipi, they could be heard just fine without amplification.  They could also bring unaccompanied scat (for 12 tenor voices!) to an exciting new level.  


Eighty years after their roman candle lit up the world, The Comedian Harmonists still offer boy bands like The 12 Tenors golden opportunities to aurify what they’re pissing away. 

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WOMAN SCORNED

MEDEA IN CORINTO 
Bayerische Staatsoper
Münchner Opern Festspiele
1 JULY 2012


© SAM H. SHIRAKAWA

Ramon Vargas, Nadja Michael
Musikalische Leitung Ivor Bolton
Inszenierung Hans Neuenfels
Bühne Anna Viebrock
Kostüme Elina Schnizler
Licht Michael Bauer
Dramaturgie Rainer Karlitschek
Chor Sören Eckhoff

Creonte Alastair Miles
Egeo Emanuele D'Aguanno
Medea Nadja Michael
Giasone Ramón Vargas
Creusa Laura Tatulescu
Evandro Kenneth Roberson
Tideo Francesco Petrozzi
Ismene Golda Schultz

Bayerisches Staatsorchester
Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper
 


As told by Euripides, the legend of Medea is nothing if not operatic, a tabloid tale made for singing:  After saving the life of the warrior-adventurer Jason, even to the point of killing her father and brother, the princess of Colchis Medea runs off with him, marries him, bears him children and settles down with him in Corinth.   But Jason eventually abandons Medea, when he plans to further himself by wedding Cruesa, the daughter of Corinth’s king, Creon. In an effort to forestall any trouble Medea may cause, Creon banishes Medea.  Before she departs Corinth, though, Medea sets fire to Cruesa and kills her own children.

The Bavarian State Opera enjoyed considerable success two years ago, when it mounted Hans Neuenfels’ production of Medea in Corinto (1813), a rarely performed opera by  Johann Simon Mayr (1783-1845), a prolific composer, who was born in Germany, but made his career in Italy.  Now, the opera is being showcased as part of Munich’s annual Opera Festival.

Mayr composed about 60 works for the lyric stage, and many of them were huge hits during his lifetime, but most of his compositions are forgotten today.  Guesses on why his biggest success Medea in Corinto has come to be performed so rarely are at best desultory.   But witness Nadja Michael in the title roles, and you find a couple of key clues.   She is a dramatic coloratura, who is comfortable in all registers.  She can turn on a theatrical dime from piteous to unpardonable.  Michael seems also to be inexhaustible, though she strays from pitch here and there, and she commands the stage whenever she appears.  Who else can do all that these days?  There are few sopranos of Michael’s calibre and even fewer who would put their voices at such risk to learn the role.  (Small wonder: the part was composed to challenge Isabella Colbran.)  Leyla Gencer and Marisa Galvany are two who tried and, say some, succeeded. 

With such a powerhouse to compete with, singers might think twice before learning the other roles.  But Ramon Vargas has the star power and the vocal requirements to portray Giasone as more than a cheap hustler.  His voice also appears to be maturing in the lower register without foregoing brilliance at the top.  Alastair Miles is a cool and mean Creonte.   Emanuele D’Aguanno is at his finest in the florid passages assigned to Egeo, Cruesa’s erstwhile suitor.  The role may well exceed the vocal demands made of Giasone, for Mayr composed the part for no less than Manuel Garcia the Senior.  American-born Laura Tutulescu makes a meal out of the crumby role that Cruesa must play out in the battle between Medea and Giasone.  She shone in her long aria “Caro albergo in cui felice ad amari incominciai,” accompanied brilliantly on stage by Maria Clearly on a period-style harp.
Julis Drausecker, Nadja Michael

Mayr’s unusual instrumentation also includes a violin solo that accompanies Medea’s big monologue “Sommi Dei, chi i guiramenti de’ mortali custodite,” played with virtuoso sovereignty by Julia Dausacker -- again  on stage.   The demands made by the solo instrumental parts Mayr composed may also go some way toward explaining why Medea in Corinto has disappeared from the standard repertory.  Musicians with the requisite musical razzle and the technical dazzle for what essentially are cameos tend to be rare in any age.

Also hard to find are conductors who are committed to unearthing the treasures in scores that don't readily play themselves out.  But Ivor Bolton is an unusual musician, having made it to the big stages of the current opera scene, after slogging in the backwoods of Great Britain for many years with several opera touring companies.  He’s learned his craft the hard way.  His enthusiasm for the work infects the players of the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra, and they respond with many exciting moments that might elude a less amicable collaboration.

All the more remarkable in the face of Hans Neuenfels’ elaborate, sometimes distracting production.  His view of the story centers (correctly, in my view) on the fear Medea generates, now that she is persona non grata and about to be banished.  That fear is exacerbated, according to Neuenfells, by violence and the scapegoating of Medea, stemming from the disintegration of Corinth into an unstable, corrupt state.  But Medea ultimately shows her hostile coevals a thing or two about perpetrating violence.  If that weren't enough, Neuenfels appears to take particular delight in interpolating all kinds of savagery against the backdrop of a massive triple-tier set-- designed by Anna Viebrock -- topped off by a temple in the classical style.  Lest the relevance of Neuenfels' views to recent and comtemporary history be overlooked, Elina Schnitzler’s costumes and wigs for the women are 1930s retro-chic.

Euripides' political concerns are of less concern to Mayr and his librettist Felice Romani than Medea’s failed relationship with Jason and her isolation among Corinthians.  Not for nothing is “in Corinth” included in their title.  In their hands, she also becomes that rarity among hero/heroine types of the 19th century:  a Byronic hero in drag.  The opera received its premiere in Naples at the onset of the furor Lord Byron was igniting throughout Europe with the publication of his metrical romances, in which his alienated heroes rattle the social systems to which they find themselves opposed.  Unlike most of Byron’s romance heroes, though, Medea stands up to the Establishment and lives to tell about it.

As a purely musical experience, Mayr’s opera may also be problematic for today’s listeners because its sound profile is somewhat vague.  On one hand, it harkens back to the crystalline elegance of Mozart’s opera seria and avoids Cherubini's gallery-directed outbursts (Ho dato tutto a te!).  On the other hand, it looks forward to the gutsier bel canto inventions of Mayr’s most famous pupil Gaetano Donizetti.  But the Bavarian State Opera's revival is oddly fascinating, if you can overlook some excesses in Neuenfels’ provocative staging. 


How ever you may regard Neuenfels' views on Medea in Corinto, the opera and the legend that inspired it make gripping theater.  Medea is arguably the Mother of all Outsiders.  She is the matron of abandoned wives, the doyenne of single mothers and probably the Cain of kiddie killers.  Her rap sheet also includes patricide, fratricide and sundry other homicides.  Nice lady.


Note: The production is available on DVD, but it is an event filtered through a video director and sound engineers. It is a poor substitute for experiencing the opera live. 

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