Au revoir, Paris: Our Photo Album

Bon soir, mes amis! This will be my last entry on our holiday trip to Paris and, instead of a lot of gabbing, it’s just going to be photos taken while we were there. Some you may have seen in earlier entries but there are some new ones here, too.

Enjoy!

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Friday evening: British Airways offers on-the-ground-buffet dining for some overnight flights

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AAC, CPA taking advantage of same

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Our Open Skies cabin

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Saturday morning: Checking into the fabulous Peninsula Paris

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Saturday afternoon: AAC, CPA arrives at the Arch de Triomphe: Bon jour, Paris!

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And then grabs lunch at Ladurée just down the Champs Elysses

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Classic Club Ladurée

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The hotel provides us with our own stockings

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Saturday evening: Negronis at Bar Kléber at the Peninsula

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Followed by Christmas Eve dinner at Bistrot de L’Oulette

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Sunday morning: Christmas continental breakfast at Le Lobby

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Sunday afternoon: checking out the competition – Four Seasons George V

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Sunday evening: Pre-opera dinner at L’Opera

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Followed by AAC, CPA at the Palais Garnier

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The grand foyer and Christmas tree at the Palais Garnier

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Iphigénie en Tauride curtain call

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Christmas Night: the Champs Elysses all gussied up

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Monday morning: Irina, of Paris Muse, shows us the Louvre

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And we get to see the Mona Lisa. Wait, what???

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Monday evening: AAC, CPA arrives at Le Grand Véfour

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The jewel-box dining room at Le Grand Véfour

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Sensational duck liver ravioli – one of their “Classics”

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Post-dinner view from our Uber on the way back to the hotel

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Tuesday morning: AAC, CPA takes Le Metro to our next Paris Muse tour

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AAC, CPA outside of Notre Dame Cathedral

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And with our terrific Paris Muse guide, Jason

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Tuesday evening: Cocktails and dinner at Monsieur Bleu

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Cool light fixtures at Monsieur Bleu

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View from the best tables at Monsieur Bleu

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Wednesday afternoon: Lunch at Caviar Kaspia

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You always get pickles with your caviar – a Russian thing?

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2nd course of “The Rasputin Set” – caviar with a baked potato

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Famous sites on the way back to the hotel: the Madeline

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Place de la Concorde – late afternoon

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Wednesday evening: 42nd Street at Théâtre du Châtelet

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AAC, CPA at Théâtre du Châtelet

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42nd Street onstage at Théâtre du Châtelet

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Thursday morning: Paying a visit to Jeu de Paume

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Seeing the exhibit “Uprisings”

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Thursday afternoon: And now over to Bibliothèque nationale de France

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AAC, CPA pays homage to Richard Avedon and Audrey Hepburn

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Part of the Avedon exhibit at Bibliothèque nationale de France

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Thursday evening: Gala farewell dinner at L’Oiseau Blanc atop the Peninsula Paris

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The view from our table at L’Oiseau Blanc

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AAC, CPA takes a picture at L’Oiseau Blanc

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A replica of the actual L’Oiseau Blanc (The White Bird)

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Friday morning: AAC, CPA heads back to reality and New York City

That’s all, folks!!

A Night at the Opera

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AAC, CPA; TheCulturedTraveler and Unnamed Guest

So, our Paris adventure continued last night (Christmas) when we attended an opera at the Palais Garnier – Iphigénie en Tauride, by Christoph Willibald Gluck – preceded by dinner at L’Opera, the restaurant adjacent to the historic opera house. So adjacent, in fact, that you can enter the opera house from inside the restaurant – more about that later.

It had always been intended that there would be a restaurant adjacent to the Palais Garnier. But it took almost 140 years for L’Opera to be opened in 2009. The restaurant is where the original carriage entrance was located and patrons were dropped off to attend performances. While architecturally trendy and modern, L’Opera pays respect to its renowned neighbor. Additionally, due to the fact that the Palais Garnier is a national monument, the restaurant’s structure was forbidden from touching any of the existing wall, pillars or ceiling. The cuisine under the direction of Chef Chihiro Yamazaki is modern, yet classic, with an Asian influence. The menu also features many seasonal ingredients.

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AAC, CPA arrives for pre-opera dinner

We were immediately shown to a lovely table and looked over the menu, as we snacked on a delicious amuse bouche, a truffled mushroom mousse. Here’s what we had for dinner:

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Smoked salmon, black radish, red currant, pomegranate and lemony cream for me

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Duck fois gras, apple and arugula jelly, gingerbread for AAC, CPA

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Miso-marinated black cod, kohlrabi with saffron, daikon turnip for me

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Beef tataki, small grenaille potatoes with lemon and thyme for AAC, CPA

Every bite was a taste sensation, generously portioned, very fresh ingredients, beautifully prepared, as you can see.

We opted to skip dessert, as we didn’t need a sugar rush before the opera, if you know what I mean. The cost of the above, with a large bottle of Evian, was just 100 EUR which, we felt, was a bit of a bargain.

CUISINE TIP: L’Opera Restaurant

From there, we went through a black door, down a corridor and, somehow, we were inside the opera house. What’s most interesting – although I probably shouldn’t share it with you – is that we somehow ended up beyond the point at which our tickets should have been scanned for admittance. I hope that no one will take advantage of this information – you know who you are!

Although we had been inside the Palais Garnier many times – in the old days, one could wander around unattended on non-performance days – we hadn’t been inside the building in about 12 years. As we had some time before the performance, we wanted to revisit this amazing building.

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The world famous, Palais Garnier, home of the Opéra National de Paris

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AAC, CPA somehow gets in without having to show his ticket

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AAC, CPA in the grand foyer by the Christmas tree

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The grand foyer and Christmas tree at the far end

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The grand stairway leading to the main floor of the auditorium

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AAC, CPA overlooking the grand staircase.

We had wonderful seats on the main floor, 8th row center.

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AAC, CPA seated and waiting for the show to begin

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The mylar show curtain, which reflected the auditorium.

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The auditorium behind where we were sitting

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More of the auditorium

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The sensational Chagall chandelier

The Krzysztof Warlikowski production of Iphigénie en Tauride was a revival originally presented in 2006. It was a pretty wild affair, presented as a memory play as the now elderly Iphigénie recalls the events of the opera, which was a bit confusing if you weren’t familiar with the story, but never mind. It was very theatrical and entertaining in its unusual way. The performance was sensitively conducted by Bertrand de Billy, who we’ve previously seen at the Met in New York.

While the performance – the last of its current run – was warmly received, there were a very few unhappy attendees who felt it necessary to boo. I rarely approve of booing, but can sometimes understand it if the director and the production are so misconceived that showing displeasure should be encouraged but, in this case, it was unacceptable. I mean you don’t boo the chorus under any circumstances – they’re simply doing their job. There was no ambiguity regarding the principals, all of whom received deserved ovations.

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Curtain call

CULTURE TIP: National Opéra de Paris

And, so, our magical evening at the Paris Opera came to an end. We retrieved our overcoats from L’Opera and called for our Uber. Upon entering our car, we glanced over our shoulders for one last look at the Palais Garnier as we headed back home to the Peninsula.

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A Return Visit to Bayreuth!

Gentle Readers:

Over the past 10 months, TheCulturedTraveler has presented fresh content for every blog entry. However – and for the 1st time ever – I’m reblogging and updating a post from last November in honor of the start of the Bayreuth Festival in the little town of Bayreuth, Germany. In less than 2 hours from the publication of this post, the 2016 season will be underway.

Of course, what would a Bayreuth Festival be without some gossip and lots of controversy and, of course, this season is no exception. Each year, the Festival presents one new production. This year, it’s the Meister’s ultimate work, Parsifal, which is replacing a landmark production by Stefan Herbeim, retired in 2012. This year’s production was to have been conducted by Andris Nelsons but, less than 4 weeks before the premiere performance, which starts this afternoon at 4:00 PM Bayreuth time, he abruptly walked out of the production and out of Bayreuth.

Read about it here:

New York Times
And something a little more dishy here:
Slipped Disc
 
So I hope you enjoy our little trip down Bayreuth’s memory lane. Here goes:
There is a opera house in Bayreuth (pronounced bye-roit) Germany, which was built between 1872 – 75 for the express purpose of presenting Richard Wagner’s magnum opus, Der Ring des Nibelungen. For those of you unfamiliar with the Ring, Wagner spent over 20 years composing these 4 operas or, more specifically, a Prologue (Das Rheingold) with 3 operas to follow (Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung). If nothing else, the audacity of an artist creating an entirely new style of music and operatic presentation spread over 4 evenings (and 15+ hours) has to be respected. This grand work would be presented as a Festival and, indeed his theatre is called the Festspielhaus (Festival House). The demands (and, hopefully, the rewards) of presenting the Ring placed upon the singers, orchestra, designers and, not least, the audience, would be unprecedented.

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Richard Wagner – The Meister

Why Bayreuth? Wagner wanted a location that was far away from virtually anything that would interfere with the audience’s complete concentration on and attention to his Ring. Additionally, he needed a huge stage on which to present the operas. There is another opera house in Bayreuth that Wagner thought might work, as the stage was unusually deep. However, when Wagner saw the opera house, he thought it was too rococo for him and the Ring. He wanted something much simpler that, again, would not distract his audience from what he had called his Gesamtkunstwerk, defined by Webster as “an art work produced by a synthesis of various art forms (such as music and drama)”.

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The other opera house – too rococo??

And another challenge that continues to this day: Bayreuth is not easy to get to (unless you live somewhere in Europe and like to drive). The first time I attended the Festival, I was able to fly from New York to Frankfurt and then fly on a “puddle-hopper” to Bayreuth. Nowadays, you’d need a private plane to fly into Bayreuth, which, in the alternative, leaves you with a 4+ hour train ride from Frankfurt (with a change of train in Nuremberg). Or you could fly from Frankfurt to Nuremberg and then train it to Bayreuth. Any way you slice it, it’s a LONG trip!

Bayreuth Map
Getting to Bayreuth

In order to get his theatre built, Wagner finagled the funds from mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, who was entirely under Wagner’s spell ever since he had seen a performance of Lohengrin as a child. (Wagner had that effect on many people. He was, by most accounts, a specious person but, also, he was extremely seductive when he wanted something from you, and Wagner was, arguably, the most important and influential artist of the 19th century.)

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King Ludwig of Bavaria

The theatre was unique when it was built and still is. Inspired by the Greek amphitheaters, the main floor is fan-shaped and has 30 rows. Behind and above are several sections (loge and balcony) and, of course, a royal box for the Swan King (Ludwig). There are 1,900 seats altogether and no boxes for the “important people”. Seating was intended to be entirely democratic.


The Festspielehaus

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Inside the Festspielhaus

The most unusual feature of the theatre is that the orchestra pit is famously and entirely concealed from view of the audience. Wagner intentionally designed it this way so that there would be no distractions when watching his grand works. Additionally, Wagner’s theatre was the first ever to present the operas with the house lights entirely turned off, an innovation at the time. In this way, the audience, sitting entirely in the dark, couldn’t “yoo-hoo” at friends and frenemies during the performance and had to pay attention. The beginning ofDas Rheingold with its ominous E-flat bass notes which morph into the music of the Rhine river is played in complete darkness, so dark that you can barely see your hand in front of your face. Imagine what that must have been like for audiences accustomed to a totally different experience when attending the opera. It was nothing less than revolutionary.

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The invisible orchestra pit

Wagner originally had the crazy idea that he would build this theatre, the Ringwould be presented and, afterwards, the theatre would be torn down. Well, that didn’t happen, did it? Wiser heads (including his own) prevailed and after the world premiere of the completed Ring in 1876, plans were immediately made for another Festival at which all of the mistakes of the first year (and there were many, many mistakes) would be corrected.

But it was another 6 years before the next Festival and, as it happened, the Ringwas not presented. Instead, it was the world premiere of Parsifal that the audience heard and which Wagner had composed with the Festspielhaus’ unique acoustic in mind. This time, Wagner had a complete triumph: the perfect opera, with the perfect cast and a perfect production (perfect, at least, for 1882). Buoyed by this success, plans were made to get the Ring back into the theatre pronto. And then, 6 months later, Wagner died in Venice.

It took several years, but the Festival was eventually resurrected by Wagner’s widow, Cosima (who, incidentally, was the daughter of Franz Liszt).

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Family Portrait: Cosima, Siegfried, Richard

Over time, certain traditions were created that continue to the present day. It was decided that, in addition to the Ring and Parsifal, only the Master’s matureworks (Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde) would be presented. Without fail, the Festival would open each year on July 25th and close on August 28th. The Festival would be a workshop, at which each production would be presented for several years and, in each successive season, return to the rehearsal studio to refine, improve and rethink each opus.

After Cosima’s death, the Festival was handed over to her son, Siegfried (who, by the way, was GAY, but people didn’t talk about such things back then). Upon his premature death in 1930, the Festival was taken over (stolen??) by his widow (wait – he was MARRIED????), Winifred, who presided over the Festival for the next 14 tumultuous years.

You see, during the 1920s, she had become friends with this up and coming politician of whom she was much enamored. In fact, she was so bewitched by this charismatic young man that, or so the story goes, she provided him with the paper on which he wrote his most famous book: Mein Kampf. And that’s how Adolf Hitler – who was Richard Wagner’s #1 fan – came to be a fixture at Bayreuth through the 1930s and, finally, the 1944 Festival, after which the theatre shut down (almost for good).

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Winifred, Adolf and Wagner Progeny

But wait: Siegfried and Winifred had 2 sons – Wieland and Wolfgang who, after the war (and after being denazified), were allowed to reopen the Festival in 1951. Because there was no money, and because there could be no compromises on the presentation of the music, Wieland caused another revolution by what he put on the stage which was, basically, nothing except the singers, some very simple set pieces (such as a circular platform for the presentation of the Ring) and the most effective lighting that had to that time been seen in a theatre. It caused a sensation: although the old guard was outraged at what they were (or more correctly, weren’t) seeing, there were others who were enchanted and, in fact, relieved not to be seeing all that Teutonic stuff strewn all over the stage.

I think it was a masterstroke of luck that the Festival was practically bankrupt after the war, which enabled Wieland and, to a much lesser extent, Wolfgang (who didn’t possess anywhere near the talent of his brother) to create a new style of presenting their grandfather’s work, which completely severed it from any connection to Hitler and the Nazis. In fact, Wieland was solely responsible for ushering in “Der Neue Bayreuther” or New Bayreuth.

Compare and contrast:

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The original Rhinemaidens, 1876

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Patrice Chereau’s Rhinemaidens, 1976

Since 1951 and the reopening of the postwar Festival, there have been more revolutions: the Centenary Ring in 1976, staged by the late, great Patrice Chereau and conducted by Pierre Boulez. It was Chereau’s concept to present the operas in Wagner’s own time (and during the Industrial Revolution) and to focus on the evils of capitalism and anti-Semitism. Chereau, who had directed only one opera before taking on the Ring, was a masterful director who had no preconceived notions about these operas and worked from the text. The singers in this production who most benefitted from working with Chereau – Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde, Donald McIntyre as Wotan, Peter Hofmann as Siegmund and Heinz Zednik as both Loge and Mime – gave the performances of their careers and presented acting that was so natural and believable that it created a very special experience for the audience.

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Patrice Chereau, ca. 1976

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Bayreuth Chereau Walkure

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Images from the Chereau Centenary Ring, 1976

Some interesting anecdotes about these premiere performances:

The initial performance of each opera was broadcast around the world and the audience got more and more testy as each production unfolded. Now it wasn’t necessarily unusual to hear booing at the Festspielhaus at the end of a performance, but how about at the beginning of Act III of GötterdämmerungDURING THE MUSIC?? You can actually hear the opening of the act, imagine the curtain rising and, then, there it is – LOTS of boos, along with some segments of the audience “shushing” the dissenters, or were THEY the dissenters?? The production was so controversial that it’s hard to tell.

My favorite report from that premiere Ring season – perhaps apocryphal – is the story of the two grande dames – middle or late age, impeccably dressed, of some importance – who got into a bit of an altercation at the conclusion of one of the performances. What began with some pushing and shoving and lots of verbal abuse, quickly escalated when one of them decided to pull off the other’s earring, not realizing that the other dame had pierced ears. Yes, you got it: she removed not only the other dame’s earring but the earlobe as well. Yes, Wagnerites are so passionate about the Master’s works that blood will be spilled.

Fast forward to the Festival of 1980 and the retirement of Chereau’s Ring. I happened to hear the very last performance of  Götterdämmerung on a radio broadcast and what a difference 4 years makes. At the conclusion ofGötterdämmerung, the curtain calls (and cheering, no boos this time) lasted for something like NINETY minutes! Whatever it was that repelled and outraged the audience in 1976, they were now completely under the spell of a masterful and game changing production.

So, after all that, you wanna go to Bayreuth? Any opera lover worth her salt should make that pilgrimage at least once. Hold on. It’s not that easy.

Remember when I said that the theatre had 1,900 seats? Generally speaking, there are 30 performances presented each year for a total of 57,000 available seats. However, attendees to Bayreuth are not going to travel all that way to see one show – they’ll probably want to see everything presented that season (usually the Ring and 3 other operas).

So, there are 57,000 available seats. But each year, the Festival gets something like 250,000 requests for seats. And each of those people wants to see everything, too. In the past, ticketing was managed by the “Wagner computer” and, if you applied every year without fail (you’d be punished if you missed even one year), the typical waiting period to actually get seats was about 10 years!!! Nowadays, some tickets for each season are available on the internet at the Festival’s website and, if you’re fast and lucky enough, you might even secure seats. These intrepid souls may actually hop to the front of the line and get in, and good luck to you!

2016 UPDATE: I just happened to go onto the Festival’s website this past weekend and – lo and behold!! – it was possible to snag a pair of excellent seats for the 2nd Ring, which starts in about 2 weeks. Over the past few years – due, in part to the German government’s intervention – tickets to the festival are becoming somewhat easier to obtain. If you are an intrepid (and somewhat obsessed) Wagnerite, you can now get to Bayreuth without waiting 10 years for the Wagner computer to admit you. Ho-jo-to-ho!!!

And even if you should be one of the chosen few, Wagner never factored comfort into the design of the theatre. What do I mean? Well, for instance, the seats are pretty uncomfortable (not much padding and no arm rests) and the theatre is not air conditioned. This may not seem like much, but I’ve been to Bayreuth during incredible heat waves and the temperature inside the auditorium rises to over 100 degrees. In the old days – I don’t know about now – formal attired was REQUIRED, so there you were in your tuxedo with the sweat running down your back.

And did I mention that Wagner’s operas are LONG?? Das Rheingold, the “prologue” to the Ring, runs anywhere from two hours, fifteen minutes to two hours, forty-five minutes (depending on the conductor) and is played in ONE ACT!!!!! No intermission!!!!!!! No bathroom breaks – no one would DARE to attempt to leave the theatre during a performance, and you couldn’t even if you wanted to!!! And in a theatre in which, during a heat wave, you could bake a cake!!!!!

But guess what? It’s totally worth it. On the right night, with the right singers and conductor, and with a director who knows what s/he’s doing, you will have the most magical, inspiring and moving experience you’re likely to have in an opera house.

CULTURE TIP: Bayreuth Festival Website

A Week in the (Cultural) Life – Part Two: Not Your Parent’s Figaro

In 1784, La Folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (The Crazy Day, or The Marriage of Figaro), Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’s sequel to his hugely success The Barber of Seville had its delayed premiere at the Comédie-Francąise – delayed as the author had written the play from 1775-78, but the Parisian censors wouldn’t allow the play to be produced until then.

Remember that these were the years leading up to the French Revolution, and a play in which the main themes are social inequality and outright contempt for the nobility and, not least, portraying the servant class as more humane than and able to outwit the aristocracy, made for a very dangerous evening at the theatre.

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Print from early production of the Beaumarchais play

A scant two years later, Lorenzo Da Ponte reworked the play into arguably Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s operatic masterpiece, Le Nozze di Figaro. As is always the case when translating a play into an opera, Da Ponte brilliantly condensed Beaumarchais’s provocative play into tight narrative and, in doing so, deleted most of the politics and revolutionary ideas. What remained was a work of art from which future generations of operagoers could enjoy a “light” entertainment about how the servant outwits his master and all is forgiven at the end of the evening.

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From the Met’s current production of the opera, as seen in the 2014-15 season

(It should be pointed out that Da Ponte’s libretto was totally at the liberty of the Viennese censors, who demanded that he delete or play down the more controversial aspects of the play so that Mozart’s sponsor and patron, the Emperor Joseph II, could not possibly be offended.)

What’s interesting is that, when it came time to present the opera in Paris (in 1792), the French Revolution was at its height. As a result, it was decided to reinstate the more controversial aspects of the original source material. As Mozart was now dead, revising the opera was out of the question. Instead, Beaumarchais was brought in to decide which parts of his play were to be included. In order for the opera to have a manageable length, Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s recitatives were excised and, in their place, Beaumarchais inserted dialogue from the play.

Mozart’s charming opera would now become a highly-charged political amalgam of the play and the opera. Let them eat cake, indeed.

It cannot be denied that Beaumarchais’s play was a pungent satire with a striking political edge, and that Mozart’s opera downplayed the more controversial elements while retaining its punch for those who were able to see past the charm elements. However and, perhaps, most significantly, both the play and the opera conclude with the Countess generously forgiving the Count his transgressions and the evening ends on a hopeful note of reconciliation.

It’s probably difficult – if not downright impossible – for 21st century audiences to appreciate what it might have been like to attend the earliest productions of the play and opera. The aristocracy was probably outraged and not a little bit nervous over what they were seeing, while the general population may have felt validated to see people like them standing up for themselves and daring to talk back to their masters.

Interestingly, modern audiences now have the opportunity to encounter an updated version of the story: ¡Figaro! (90210), Vin Guerrerio’s uproarious “revisal” of the Beaumarchais/Mozart/Da Ponte source material. Originally presented under the auspices of LA Opera Off Grand, you have until Saturday, April 3rd to see this witty and extremely relevant iteration at The Duke on 42nd Street in New York City.

Figaro 90210 - 01

Set in modern day Beverly Hills, Figaro and his intended, Susannah, are now undocumented illegals; the Count and his Countess are now Paul Conti, a somewhat shady real estate developer and his Botox-ed actress wife, Roxanne. The Count’s page, Cherubino, is now the aspiring hip-hop artist, Li’l B-Man. You get the idea.

Figaro 90210 - 03

Mr. Guerrerio’s brilliant and cleverly reimagined libretto is performed in English and “Spanglish”. Most importantly, it once again makes the story relevant, but in a highly entertaining way. Indeed, this is not your parent’s Figaro.

So, within the space of 3 days, we saw a hugely entertaining production of Puccini’s Tosca at a former bus terminal in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn and, now, a “ripped from the headlines” and highly relevant production of ¡Figaro! (90210).

Opera is very much alive and thriving in New York.

CULTURE TIP: ¡Figaro! (90210)

 

 

A Week in the (Cultural) Life – Part One

Greetings and Salutations! Yes, we’ve been away for a few weeks, but now we come roaring back. I hope everyone made it through the winter and is enjoying some milder weather and the expectation of warmer things to come.

We’ve been very busy ourselves, although we haven’t been out of the city since our return from Antarctica and Buenos Aires. The cultural scene has been extremely busy and will continue for the next month or so.

I thought you might be interested to know what we’ve been up to over the past week. It’s been all culture and eclectic culture at that. The accent has been mostly on opera. However, it hasn’t been your mom and pop’s opera, as you will soon see.

Last Saturday night, we returned to Brooklyn to attend LoftOpera’s first production of the year, Puccini’s Tosca. You may recall that, this past December, we visited LoftOpera for the 1st time to see their production of The Rape of Lucretia and were pretty much blown away by the audacity of the experience.

In the first place, LoftOpera has made a commitment to take the “elite” out of opera, without sacrificing what’s important: great works being performed by talented up and coming singers in unusual surroundings at affordable prices and with a real party vibe.

Tosca - AAC
AAC CPA arrives with the ArcAngel Michael over his shoulder

Did I mention that the audience is mostly comprised of youngsters (i.e., the under 30-crowd) looking for a great night on the town?

Or that, one of LoftOpera’s sponsors is the Brooklyn Brewery, so that beer is available throughout the performance? (One of the more piquant enjoyments of this Tosca performance was to hear the tinkling of beer bottles tipping over now and then and yet again.)

Oh, and did I mention that Tosca was presented in an old bus depot in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn in so isolated a part of town that even Uber had a hard time finding the place?

Tosca - Opera Sign
How we found the bus depot – this sign in the darkness

Or that, during intermission, the beer continues to flow freely while house music blasts over the speakers?

Tosca - Audience
The cool and young audience enjoying culture and the party atmosphere

Or that, most importantly, this Tosca was the best production of Puccini’s “shabby little shocker” on the opera scene in New York (and I include a certain production of the work in the repertoire of a certain opera company located at Lincoln Center).

Oh yeah, and tickets are $30. Yes, you read that right: $30 will get you an opera.

Backed by a 32-piece orchestra and energetically conducted by Dean Buck, this Tosca took flight. The cast, headed by Eleni Calenos in the title role (diminutive in appearance, but packing a huge soprano voice well versed in the verismo style), James Chamberlain (our Cavaradossi with his beautiful upper register and thrilling high notes) and Kevin Wetzel (the perverse – and I mean that in a good way – Baron Scarpia) put it all out there at what was the closing performance of the run.

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Cavaradossi and Tosca, Act I

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Baron Scarpia – Act I (Te Deum)

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Tosca takes matters into her own (bloody) hands

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Tosca and Cavaradossi – Act III

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Spoiler Alert: It ends badly for everyone

And I have to give a shout-out to Jordan Pitts as Scarpia’s head henchman, Spoletta (and one of the creepiest and most threatening Spolettas I’ve ever witnessed – you wouldn’t want to run into this guy late at night in Bushwick!). Normally a comprimario role that disappears into the scenery, this Spoletta was a junior Scarpia in training.

Although the performance was sold out with over 500 people attending, the performance space allowed for an intimacy between the characters and the audience that would be impossible at almost any other venue. I’m not kidding when I tell you that there were times that the singers were literally within 2 feet of where we were sitting. And, in fact, the performance was SO sold out that there were about a dozen people sitting on the floor in front of what would be the first row.

(In fact, the company’s executive producer (and set designer for this performance), Daniel Ellis-Ferris, was sitting directly in front of us (on the floor) as he synchronized the projected titles onto a screen over the set.)

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How the titles work (Thanks, Dan!)

The production was imaginatively staged and authentic to the creators’ opus, notwithstanding a number of anachronisms that were both witty and yet, somehow, appropriate (although I doubt that Spoletta would have received the news of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo via his cellphone).

Bottom line: kudos to Dan and Brianna (LoftOpera’s general manager), the cast and all involved with this very successful production of Tosca.

NY Times on LoftOpera’s Tosca

Next up for LoftOpera: Rossini’s Le Comte Ory in June. Stay tuned or, better yet, order your tickets as soon as they go on sale!

CULTURE TIP: LoftOpera

Buenos Aires – Day Four

Culture, culture, culture! Today was about visiting one of the world’s preeminent opera houses, the magnificent Teatro Colon. It’s an easy 20 minute stroll from our hotel, the Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt hotel, along Avenue Libertad.

The original theatre dates back to 1857 but, within 30 years, it became clear that a new theatre was needed and, following a 20-year period, the new theatre made its debut in 1908, with a performance of Verdi’s Aida.

Considered one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world and with perfect acoustics, all of the great singers from Maria Callas to Luciano Pavarotti performed there well into the 1980s, after which the theatre fell into disrepair. In order to return the opera house to its former glory, a complete restoration was undertaken from 2006 – 2010.

Speaking of Pavarotti, the great tenor feared performing at Teatro Colon because – he said – the acoustics were so excellent that any mistake on his part would be clearly heard by the audience. No place to run, no place to hide. Talk about performance anxiety!

Guided tours in English are available during the day, and more information can be found at the opera house’s website. If you’re planning a trip to Buenos Aires, it should not be missed. Even better, if you’re visiting from February through November, it’s possible to see an opera or ballet performance there.

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Entrance to the magnificent Teatro Colon

Teatro Foyer
Staircase in the foyer

Teatro Stairway
Stairway detail

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Leslie and AAC CPA admire the sights

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The Golden Hall

Teatro Venus & Cupid
Statue of the Secret: What is Cupid whispering to Venus?

Teatro Auditorium
Inside the auditorium 

Teatro Auditorium Ceiling
Auditorium ceiling as seen from the President’s box

Callas Buenos Aires Turandot
Archival photo of Maria Callas as Turandot at Teatro Colon, 1949

CULTURE TIP: Teatro Colon

Following this excellent tour, we returned to the hotel, had a spot of lunch and relaxed for a few hours on the beautiful hotel grounds. It was a perfect summer day, warm but not too much and with very low humidity.

Lunch
That’s a yummy cold tomato and cucumber soup with langoustines

Tonight’s dinner was at the excellent Don Julio in the Palermo district. Unlike last night’s disappointing experience at La Cabrera, we could not have asked for a more delightful meal. The service was impeccable and the food was delicious. Once again, we split several cuts of beef and pork with various side dishes and shared the inevitable bottle of Malbec.

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Inside Don Julio

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Carnivores delight at Don Julio

(See all the wine bottles going up to the ceiling? Customers write notes on the bottle labels.)

I haven’t yet mentioned it but, for those of us who are used to eating out in New York or in San Francisco, the price of dining in Buenos Aires is a great bargain. Tonight’s meal, which included 2 appetizers, 3 different cuts of beef, 2 side dishes, 1 dessert and the Malbec worked out to about worked out to about $47 per person. In the States, we’d easily be spending more than twice that amount.

CUISINE TIP: Don Julio

It’s hard to believe that tomorrow will be our last full day in Buenos Aires.

2015 Wrap-Up, Part III: Culture

OK – this post is a few days late!! But, in the rush of spending Christmas week in London, New Year’s Eve, and preparing to leave next Thursday for Buenos Aires, I fell a bit behind. I’m sure you’ll forgive my tardiness.

Ahem: As I was saying:

At this time of year, everyone seems to be publishing “best-of” lists. As I’ve only been blogging for barely 3 months, I thought I’d challenge myself to post 3 of these lists: one each for travel, culture, and cuisine.

My final year-end post highlights the cultural events that made a real impression on me in 2015.

In alphabetical order:

Apotheosis Opera – New York

“Hey, kids! Let’s put on an opera!!”

Let’s say that you’re 25 years old and you’re just out of school and it’s always been your dream to conduct and stage an opera. And you get together with a buddy of yours’ and you both agree to start from scratch and – to make it really interesting – you’re not going to produce just any old opera but – why the heck not? – you choose, as the 1st production of your fledgling opera company, Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser.

We’re talking about an opera in which the title role is so treacherous (à la Siegfried or Tristan) that there are probably less than a dozen tenors worldwide who regularly perform it.

Throwing caution to the wind, that’s exactly what Matthew Jenkins Jaroszewicz and Sam Bartlett did. They found themselves an orchestra and a talented group of young up-and-coming singers and a venue, the Museo del Barrio on upper Fifth Avenue and, for 3 performances last summer and at a top ticket price of $45.00, you could see a complete Wagnerian opera. IN ENGLISH (even with supertitles!)!! And it wasn’t half bad. In fact, the audacity of it made for one of the cultural highlights last summer in New York.

Welcome to Apotheosis Opera.

One of the best things about attending the performance was seeing the audience – a very diverse one at that – and how excited they were to be there. And, because the pit wasn’t lowered below the main floor as in most theaters and was fully visible to the audience, it was fascinating to watch the orchestra warm up. We were particularly obsessed with one young percussionist rehearsing a tambourine solo over and over again. These were, for the most part, young professional musicians performing Wagner, possibly for the 1st time.

And then there was our young conductor, Mr. Jaroszewicz, whose enthusiasm was palpable and infectious.

I won’t tell you that it was a perfect performance but it had the elements of something very special happening for the first time.

Apotheosis

Opening Night Tannhäuser Curtain Call

The Tannhäuser run was successful enough that, next summer, the Apotheosis guys will present their 2nd production, Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, another opera not often performed and with its own special set of challenges.

Look for it next July.

CULTURE TIP: Apotheosis Opera

The New York Times on Apotheosis Opera

Awake & Sing! – The National Asian American Theatre Company 

Clifford Odets’ quintessential depression-era play about a Jewish family of dreamers and realists living in a cramped apartment in the Bronx had a brief run at the Public Theater last summer and it proved two things: first: NAATCO is a theater company of the 1st order; and second: you don’t have to be or look Jewish to make a compelling case for the play. In fact, it showed, once again, how an excellent production of a seminal play transcends any particular demographic community and becomes, instead, a story of any family that could take place anywhere and anytime.

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The Awake & Sing! Company

CULTURE TIP: National Asian American Theatre Company

The New York Times on Awake & Sing!

Gypsy – London

Performed on the West End for only the 2nd time, since Angela Lansbury’s spectacular 1973 turn as Rose, Gypsy returned in triumph, following a brief run at the Chichester Festival the previous fall. Starring Imelda Staunton as the indomitable Madame Rose, and directed by Jonathan Kent (both of whom collaborated on the 2012 production of Sweeney Todd), this Gypsy was a sensation, and particularly so for Ms. Staunton.

Her fearless and boldly unsympathetic performance is one for the ages: this Rose takes no prisoners. When she says at the end of the play: “I guess I did do it for me”, you know exactly what she means. Yes, she’s a mother and she’s a lover but her ambition lays waste to everything and everyone in her path. She plays the ruthless monster who, through circumstance (because she “was born too soon and started too late”), gets her comeuppance but fails to understand or to accept what has happened to her.

One of the best aspects of this production is that it has been reimagined after so many productions in New York directed by the original librettist, Arthur Laurents. It frees up all of the creatives and allows them to start fresh. Even the original Jerome Robbins’ choreography – except for the brilliant transition when the kids grow up in front of our eyes – is given a fresh coat of paint.

But the main reason to see this Gypsy was to see Staunton’s Rose. Every moment and every movement was completely thought out and yet retained complete spontaneity. Her specificity of thought and deed was riveting.

Fortunately for anyone unable to see the performance live in London may yet have a chance to see this production: It was filmed for BBC several months ago and will be televised in the UK during the holidays; perhaps it will cross the pond and eventually be shown here.

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Imelda Staunton takes on Madame Rose

Variety reviews Gypsy

Hamilton – New York

Is there anyone left who hasn’t heard of the juggernaut called Hamilton? Inconceivable! Playing its initial run at the Public Theater last winter, it arrived on Broadway in triumph this past summer.

And everything you’ve heard is true. It is a landmark musical and Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius.

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The insanely talented Lyn-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton

Based on Ron Chernow’s 800+ page book, Alexander Hamilton, the musical is a faithful adaptation, performed in rap! Before Miranda’s previous musical – In the Heights – opened and proved me wrong that rap couldn’t succeed and flourish on the musical stage, I was a complete naysayer. But using rap to tell Hamilton’s story – and utilizing the talents of a supremely talented cast of diverse actors – turns out to be a brilliant conceit. Not only that, but the diversity of the cast which, if you look closely, resembles what America looks like today, draws a direct line from the late 18th century to the early 21st century. All of which contributes to the diverse audience clamoring for seats to this show for which tickets are nearly impossible to obtain, unless you have extremely deep pockets (and possibly not even then).

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The Hamilton Company

For those of you with long memories, you may recall that exactly 40 years ago another show opened at the Public Theater and, after a resoundingly successful run there, moved quickly to Broadway, where it swept all the theatre awards that season – and the Pulitzer Prize – and went on to run for 15 years. That show was A Chorus Line, and it’s entirely possible that history is about to repeat itself.

CULTURE TIP: Hamilton

The New York Times on Hamilton

The King and I – Lincoln Center Theater

Sometimes, there’s nothing like an old-fashioned musical to lift your spirits. But what’s even better is seeing a new production of a classic show that feels fresh and new. That’s how I felt about Gypsy on the West End and it’s exactly how I feel about Bart Sher’s production of The King and I, now playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center. Sher has a great talent in mining the texts and scores of well-loved shows, but always finding something new to say, while still respecting the original material. In The King and I, he’s managed to do it in two ways.

First, he’s swept away all of the “far East exotica” that seems highly theatrical but also, perhaps, inauthentic. Instead, Sher and his designers have created an austere and yet incredibly beautiful playing area that suggests Siam and inhabits every inch of the vast Beaumont stage. It is spare and, at the same time, sumptuous. There’s also a marvelous coup-de-theatre that opens the show – which I won’t spoil for you here – that, again, shows off what the Beaumont stage can do.

King and I - 01
Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe – Act I Finale

Second: Sher has reexamined the text and understood, perhaps for the first time, that not only Mrs. Anna Leonowens, but also Lady Thiang and Tuptim, are strong powerful characters and he has directed them in just this way. In Lady Thiang’s case, she has always been presented as subordinate to the King, with little or no character of her own. Not this Lady Thiang, as played by Ruthie Ann Miles, in a Tony-winning performance. She is a prime mover and shaker at the Siamese court and a true power behind the throne. For the first time, I felt that “Something Wonderful” was played not as a plea by a weak woman to a strong woman but, rather, as drawing a line in the sand and daring Mrs. Anna to do what she knows is right.

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Ruthie Ann Miles – Something Wonderful

Ashley Park’s Tuptim is also made of sterner stuff. She knows what she wants and she goes after it. Unfortunately for her, it doesn’t end well.

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Ashley Parks and Ruthie Ann Miles

Ken Watanabe brought great stage presence and charisma to the stage but, unfortunately, he was almost unintelligible during most of the preview period and into the run. Although his diction markedly improved, he left the cast when his contract was up last summer and has been succeeded first by Jose Llana and now by Hoon Lee, both more experienced in the art of theatrical musical performance than Mr. Watanabe.

King and I - 02
The 11:00 Number

Finally, 6 must be the charm for Kelli O’Hara, who triumphantly won her 1st Tony award last Spring (and did her version of “The Worm” as part of her acceptance speech). While her Mrs. Anna was not to everyone’s taste – and she had to compete with Kristen Chenoweth’s brilliant and wacky Lily Garland in the revival of On the Twentieth Century – O’Hara brought dignity and a sumptuous voice to this classic role.

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Kelli O’Hara

CULTURE TIP: The King and I

LoftOpera – Brooklyn

I covered LoftOpera in a post earlier last month, but I want to reiterate what I said then. With slim resources, but with lots of imagination, talent and integrity, this young company is performing opera for the peeps. Since the venerable New York City Opera went under in 2013 (although it is making some kind of comeback in 2016), and with the unexpected loss of Gotham Opera last year, it will be interesting to see if LoftOpera can continue on its trajectory to becoming the new “People’s Opera”. For as little as $160, can purchase a membership to their 2016 season of 4 operas (beginning with Puccini’s Tosca and ending with Weill’s and Brecht’s Mahagonny) and I’m telling you that you won’t regret making that investment of time and money.

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LoftOpera’s 2015 production of Lucrezia Borgia

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The audience and the performers are one

CULTURE TIP: LoftOpera

Lyrics & Lyricists – the 92nd Street Y

This venerable subscription series, which has been in business for many years, turned its attention this past year to Sheldon Harnick and, arguably, his magnum opus, Fiddler on the Roof, to commemorate the musical’s 50th anniversary. While we all expected a Fiddler redux with Sheldon telling stories and hearing that wonderful score performed by a talented bunch of singers, what we actually got was something of an archeological dig. Mr. Harnick presented an intriguing evening of some 20 songs composed for Fiddler that, for a myriad of reasons, never made it into the finished show.

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Sheldon Harnick gives us the skivvy

For instance, the original opening number for the show was intended to be We’ve Never Missed a Sabbath Yet for Golde and her 5 daughters. It was an OK sort of number, but didn’t really set up the show for its audience. It took months of director Jerome Robbins haranguing the writers and producer Hal Prince: “What is the show ABOUT?” It took many meetings before one of them blurted out an exasperated something about the community’s traditions and how, over the course of the show, they began to disperse in the same way the characters would at the end of the play. “That’s it!!” Jerry cried, and continued: “But, if that’s what the show is about, then you have to write an opening number that tells the audience what they’re about to see.” And so Tradition, arguably one of the greatest opening numbers of any musical was born.

But I digress. The evening we spent at the 92nd Street Y and with Sheldon and his cast was full of discoveries. We heard incredibly good songs and lyrics that, for reasons explained by Sheldon, just didn’t make the cut. This was not untalented material, just not right for the show.

Harnick - 02
The cast performs the Fiddler songs we’ve never heard

And that was the most interesting aspect of the evening: how consummate theatre craftsman collaborate – “laden with happiness and tears” – and arrive at the right place to create one of the last great musicals of Broadway’s fabled Golden Age.

CULTURE TIP: Lyrics & Lyricists

Nutcracker Rouge – New York

Part ballet, part Cirque du Soleil, part cabaret, part burlesque, and part Marquis de Sade, Nutcracker Rouge will get your pulse racing in more ways than one. Presented as the middle production of Company XIV’s 2015-16 season, Nutcracker Rouge is the creation and inspiration of company Artistic Director and Founder, Austin McCormick. He and his extremely talented company of dancers/singers/actors presented one of the most raucously enjoyable evenings in New York last year.

Nutcracker - AAC
AAC CPA prepares to enjoy Nutcracker Rouge

I had expected an updated version of the Nutcracker that you and I remember from our childhoods. But, from the moment you entered the (faux) smoke-filled theater and saw all those red lights, you knew you were about to see something special and much more racy.

Nutcracker - JS-01

While you will most certainly recognize many familiar elements of the Nutcracker, the story takes many twists and turns, courtesy of the many novelty acts, none of which will I spoil for you here.

Your portal into this enterprise is Madame Drosselmeyer, who assumes many identities during the evening and changes costumes more times than Angela Lansbury in the original production of Mame. Think an extremely benign Emcee from Cabaret and you get the idea. Played with absolute insouciance by Shelly Watson, she has a fabulous voice and creates the perfect atmosphere through which the audience enters the delightful and demented world of Nutcracker Rouge. Oh, and she dances, too.

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One of Madame Drosselmeyer’s many guises

Each cast member has his or her moment to shine, which they do as does the most brilliant precious stone. While time and space limits me from mentioning everyone, I would like to single out Laura Careless as Marie-Claire. In addition to her exquisite abilities as a prima ballerina, she is also a wonderful mime and comic. And she takes both her character and the audience on quite a journey towards enlightenment during the course of the evening.

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Laura Careless (center)

Somehow, by the end of the evening and after all of the novelty acts, pole dancers, tricks and stunts, you will find yourself very moved when Marie-Claire’s Nutcracker Cavalier (charismatically portrayed by Steven Trumon Gray) emerges from the audience and takes the stage as the evening climaxes with their ecstatic pas de deux. The winning combination of Tchaikovsky’s irresistible music and the absolute commitment of the dancers make for a heartstopping moment.

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If you can’t see Nutcracker Rouge, which plays through January 17th, I encourage you to see the company’s final production of the season, Snow White, which begins on January 26th and runs through March 12th.

I, for one, can’t wait to see what the company does to THAT fairy tale!

CULTURE TIP: Company XIV

A View From the Bridge – New York

Who would have thought that New York would have been ready for – or needed – another production of Arthur Miller’s 1956 play, A View from the Bridge, particularly after the 2010 revival, directed by Gregory Mosher and starring Liev Schreiber as Eddie Carbone?

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Phoebe Fox, Mark Strong and Nicola Walker

As it turns out, this galvanic new production, which originated at London’s Young Vic, presents one of the most intense theater-going experiences of my life. Directed by the controversial but intensely talented Ivo van Hove, I attended the last press preview, at which the audience sat spellbound and breathless for the two-hour intermissionless performance, at the end of which the audience was stunned into silence.

The company is led by Mark Strong’s galvanic performance as Eddie Carbone. I knew him only as an action figure in movies and had no idea of the depth of his acting chops. His tortured and confused but, somehow, very sexy Eddie doesn’t make a false move throughout the evening. Totally believable and heartbreaking at the same time, he held the audience in the palm of his hand.

View from the Bridge - 02
Russell Tovey, Mark Strong and Phoebe Fox

The entire company was exquisite, none of whom struck a false note.

Van Hove’s great talent – depending on your point of view – is to reimagine plays in ways you never considered. This View is presented inside a square box with no props, no scene changes, and with all the actors barefoot. It must be very challenging for the actors to work in such a space, but they do.

The climax of the play is stunningly staged, and you will be thinking about it for days afterwards.

If you care at all about great theatre, you have only until February 21st to see this remarkable production.

CULTURE TIP: A View From the Bridge

The New York Times on A View From the Bridge

Happy New Year, everyone!