Tom Stoppard’s Rock and Roll in San Francisco

September 17, 2008
Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard’s newest Play Rock and Roll is having its first west coast performances at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. It covers the years 1968 to 1990 from the perspective of Jan a graduate student at Cambridge who returns to his native Czechoslovakia after the Soviets crushed the “The Prague Spring” in 1968. The audience is taken for a wordy – very wordy – trip through each of these years. Jan, who starts out as a collaborator of the repressive Czech regime (we only find this out at the end, by which time you’re likely not to care) ends up as their prisoner and then their garbage. While all this is going on we return repeatedly to the home of the world’s longest surviving communist professor – Max – and his family in Cambridge. Stoppard who left Czechoslovakia when he was two has used his native country and various other passions to make this concoction about freedom, music, politics, repression, and pretension.

Max who enjoys all the fruits of capitalism is given to long speeches about the need for a workers government while endlessly disparaging the workers judgment for not seeing things his way. Occasionally he says something which he and his fellow players consider clever. His wife Eleanor is dying of breast cancer, she takes all of the long first act to do it, and is less interested in materialism than in emotional comfort which Max seems to ration like the fruits of labor. They have a flower child daughter, Esme, who goes to a commune where she gets knocked up by a man who later appears as a shallow journalist, though truth be told everything about the play is shallow. There’s a sub plot about Syd Barrett, one of the founders of Pink Floyd which goes no where.

There is also another rock band, The Plastic People of the Universe, a Czech group noted for its metaphorical connection to resistance to Czech repression and for its poor musicianship. They, like Syd, never appear onstage though there is a lot of talk about them. Rock and roll in general is the symbol for dignity in the face of dictatorship. Late in the play Jan’s record collection get tossed out of his apartment window. It would have been better for the audience if it had happened in the first scene.

Stoppard is given to long digressions meant to show how knowledgeable he is about arcana like Sapphic verse. There is also much discussion and playing of a host of rock bands almost all of them unknown to me. The play might mean more to a rock aficionado. The horrors of Czech life continue to assail the audience in the second act, but back in Cambridge Max is older but none the wiser. Esme has returned home with her daughter Alice. Esme is a reformed meat head who is trying in her late thirties to learn something. Alice, on the other hand, is an intellectual whiz who gains early admission to Cambridge while keeping a flame lit for the off stage Syd Barrett. Why? No reason given. The only character your apt to care much about is the doomed Eleanor. There’s also Lenka, another Czech, who was Eleanor’s student and who moves in with Max at the play’s end coincident with Alice running off with Jan. They return to Czechoslovakia where life is finally good and where people can, if they wish, substitute porn for Rock and Roll. If any of this sounds interesting it’s not.

All of this and more, I’ve left out a few characters, take about as long as Lohengrin to perform. If Stoppard could be a little less clever the play could have been over an hour earlier. If you’re interested in the corrosive effects of the loss of freedom under a communist regime see The Lives of Others which is far more effective and shorter even at 137 minutes. There may have been a play in the material Stoppard amalgamated but it’s like a chunk of marble before the sculptor arrived. I think its audience is meant to be people who desparately want to recognize something arch and cultured – clever people.

The worth of the play aside, it was very professionally mounted and performed. The acting was uniformly good. Manoel Felciano managed to appear young at the beginning and middle aged at the end. Jack Willis, the overfed Max, spouted off with all the pomposity required by the character he was impersonating. RenĂ© Augesen was quite touching as the cancer stricken Eleanor and later as her mature daughter Esme. Summer Serafin was spaced out as the young Esme and teen age sharp as her daughter Alice. The rest of the cast were all good. The basic set was taken from a photo of an apartment complex. The picture was taken from the ground pointing up. The set put the sky at the stage’s background.

Director Carey Perloff obviously believed in her material and staged the play with as much effectiveness as possible. Why she was so taken with this pretentious melange was not clear to me. San Francisco is likely a good place for this sort of stuff. The audience was full and seemed to appreciate the long evening. There are probably a lot of Max wannabes in the Bay Area.

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Simon Boccanegra in San Francisco

September 16, 2008
Dimitri Hvorostovsky

Dimitri Hvorostovsky

The San Francisco Opera presented Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra on Friday September 12th. The last time I heard Verdi’s flawed masterpiece was also in San Francisco. Paolo Gavanelli sang the title role in the company’s 2001 production. The performance I heard was a disaster. Gavanelli’s voice was somewhere else yet he attempted to sing. A whisper was the best he could manage. The council chamber scene was a travesty; the absence of the protagonist’s voice ruined one of Verdi’s most inspired moments. I felt that the SF Opera had taken my money fraudulently. Gavanelli was replaced for the opera’s second act, but the damage was irreparable.

Fortunately this time around Dimitri Hvorostovsky was Boccanegra and he was in fine form. Hvorostovsky’s voice has everything needed for the great Verdi baritone roles except size. His tone is dark and beautiful. His high notes are focused and brilliant. He is a handsome and and is an excellent actor. But he just doesn’t have the vocal heft of Leonard Warren or Cornell MacNeil. This lack of volume likely explains his reluctance to sing the big Verdi roles in the big houses. It’s a pity that the gain couldn’t be turned up a bit because he has everything else one would want in a Verdi baritone.

Interestingly, the diminutive Patrick Carfizzi who sang Paolo has a bigger voice than Hvorostovsky though it is not as burnished and roundly produced as the Russian’s. Marcus Haddock sang Gabriele Adorno with power and precision. He has the opposite problem from that of Hvorostovsky. His voice is large but not very pleasant. Barabara Fritoli who was was making her local debut in this run of Boccanegra is an uneven artist. From one moment to the next her tone goes from sure to unsteady. At times she showed the power needed for the large Verdi sopranos, but she never displayed the long molten line equally necessary for these roles. She got nothing from her first act aria (“Come in quest’ora bruna”) including applause. I’ve never heard the aria received with total silence before. The remaining principal voice was that of bass Vitalij Kowaljow. The Ukrainian bass looked like a tenor – short and pudgy. His bass was not very large or powered in its low register. He was satisfactory.

Boccanegra has a libretto that makes Il Trovatore look like the model for the well made play. Almost nothing in it makes sense. How come Fiesco who has been living with Amalia for 25 years has never noticed that she wears a picture of his dead daughter around her neck? And that she has a story which fits that of his long lost granddaughter. Boccanegra figures out who she is after three minutes. When Adorno thinks Amalia is Boccanegra’s mistress why doesn’t she tell him that the Doge is her father? And there’s Amalia’s age. She’s 30 years old. Ancient by the standards of mid 14th century Italy. No one, not even the second baritone, would think her nubile, certainly not the tenor.

The first version of the opera had no dramatic core. This is why Boito and Verdi added the council chamber scene. It’s one of the composer’s finest scenes. It sounds like something right out of Otello. It’s a marvel of operatic construction. The tumult of the patricians and plebians, Boccanegra’s impassioned plea for peace, the great quartet with chorus (“Il suo commoso”), capped by the coup de theatre of the villain forced to curse himself make the scene worth a trip to the opera house all by itself.

All of Verdi’s operas need great conductors, but this is especially true for Simon Boccanegra. Maestro Donald Runnicles was up to all of the opera’s challenges. He brought out all of the operas lyrical moments and brought whip lash intensity to the great scene that closes the first act. Perhaps being left handed conveys an advantage to a Verdi conductor.

The sets were generic. They were open and could have been used for any number of operas. The only time they enclosed the action was during the council chamber scene where the confined space was oppressive. Everybody got on and off the stage without getting in each others way. In summary, a fine performance by Hvorostovsky and a great one by Runnicles made the evening a success.


Mark O’Connor at the Allen Theater

September 5, 2008
Mark O'Connor

Mark O'Connor

Mark O’Connor performed a solo recital at the Allen Theater at Texas Tech University on Thursday September 4, 2008. All the music, except the evening’s only encore – America, was written by Mr O’Connor. He has developed a style that attempts to combine American fiddle music with classic European music for the violin. The result sounds like Vivaldi after a trip to Appalachia.

O’Connor who started out as a string player in a recording orchestra has carved a niche in American music that he occupies by himself. A performer-composer he hearkens back to an era, about two hundred years ago, when the combination was relatively common. Today he stands alone.

With the exception of one piece, Poem, Mr O’Connor’s program contained music that was fast, incredibly difficult to play, and which was short on melody. O’Connor is as great a violin virtuoso as appears before the public in any idiom. Vadim Repin would play O’Connor’s compositions with great difficulty. He has written two violin concertos, the first called The Fiddle Concerto, which he has reduced to solo pieces. He played both at this recital. Among the other pieces he played were The Appalachian Waltz and three improvisations. Typical of O’Connor’s music is that the interest lies not so much in the music itself, but rather in the performance. Without O’Connor the soloist I doubt that O’Connor’s music would garner much interest. But O’Connor the virtuoso is so dazzling that an evening spent listening to him is well worth the time and cost. In fact, so strong is his technique that it would be interesting to him play some of the signature violin music of the classical European tradition. He’d be perfect for Shostakovitch.

A comparison of him to Paganini is not far fetched. It has obviously occurred to O’Connor who has written six caprices for violin, all of which he played brilliantly at his recital. Paganini was a great virtuoso who wrote extraordinarily difficult music designed to show off his legendary skill. The Italian, however, had a great melodic gift. O’Connor is a unique artist. If you’re in the vicinity of any of his concerts I’d advise you go. The audience was wildly enthusiastic as befits the level of the performance. A tour de force.