Category Archives: Movie and Screening Reviews

Review: Vienna State Opera’s “Faust”

This is yet another endeavor to break out of the happy-frivolous-Italian-opera funk this blog has recently supported. And so I ask you to behold: The ultimate satire on happy frivolous operas.

Satan in Faust opera

Faust is an operagoer’s opera, and is revered because of it’s often-grandeur staging. The Devil (in the guise of a demon-esque figure called Mephistopheles) is there, and the whole bloody tale begins with a deal with him. The doomed doctor in this 1985 production is by Francisco Araiza, a Mexican tenor with a voice robust enough to play any doomed figure he wants. He is presented to us as a tortured Galileo figure. above humanity but still moved by their pleas. He proclaims boldly, “This God, what can he do for me?”

Answering his prayers is Mephistopheles, played by the wonderful Ruggero Raimondi. This rogue steals the show right away. The physicality he brings to the role, from small flicks of his wrist to careless tosses of glitter, makes for a wonderful spectacle. The moment where Mephistopheles turns a cross into chocolate and eats it is the most entertaining in the entire show. Raimondi holds his own, even when presenting himself apart from Faust. We cannot take our eyes off him during his song about the fabled Golden Calf, even with lascivious golden maidens running around.

With this demon in position, we hear Faust’s great wish: To be young again, and pursue love. Mephistopheles grants his wish, and we’re whiz-bang into the plot. Faust sets his eye on Marguerite, a recently initiated nun played by Gabriela Benacková. He attempts to seduces her as any young cad would, with the blessing of Mephostopheles. Eventually, Marguerite is pregnant, and we learn just what kind of man Faust was longing to be again.

Marguerite spinning wheel aria Faust 1985

This show must have been wonderful to watch. I say “must have” because I wasn’t there in the audience back in 1985, when this tape was filmed. That was clearly the more superior experience compared to watching it on video. The audience back in 1985 didn’t have imposed shots of dancers over the action they were watching. They knew which side of the stage Faust’s “delightful vision” was coming from in Act 1. And as a result, they saw the better show.

Moments of brilliance occasionally come through in this production. The direction suggests an inner theme of the arrogance of men, with even Marguerite’s soldier brother Valentin (played by Walton Grönroos) peacocking about the stage. The famous Soldier’s Chorus includes a couple of cancan girls, tending to the “needs” of the returning soldiers. The most sympathetic male character is Siébel, a trouser role played by the wonderful Gabriele Sima. But he is a rare character of complexity, among both men and women. Marguerite’s character at first is deliciously complicated—why did she take Faust’s wooing jewels so willingly, and only refuse them when others were nearby? But she only truly becomes compelling wo watch when she is a “fallen woman.”

It is tragic that we the video audience are deprived of some of the most brilliant and original moments in the show. Faust’s seduction of Marguerite had moments of brilliance. But we they viewing audience couldn’t see them because a shot of the Devil watching them from somewhere on stage was super imposed over the shot. Conversely, the dullest and most stagnant moments are shot without a bit of variation. The prime example of this is Araiza’s Salut, demeure chaste et pure, a pure example of a Park And Bark if I ever saw one. I was literally able to get up and clean the room while the aria played, and feel as if I missed nothing.

Francisco Araiza aria Faust

Also, his constant smug look while singing was extremely annoying.

This definitely isn’t an opera production I would recommend watching. But I’m not happy about it. Opera is still learning how to be a TV- and video-friendly medium. There are versions of operas that are strictly movies, without any pretense that they are being performed in front of an audience. That’s completely fine to do. In fact, it might be a great way to introduce younger people to opera. But Faust, like so many video productions, has not decided what it wants to be. Is it a filming of a live opera performance? A film based on a live performance? No one can decide, and we are presented with a Frankenstein monster of a film. While it has moments of beautiful insight, it falters under the test of fire.

About the Author: Brit McGinnis writes regularly for nerdy blogs, awesome magazines, and random video game sites that feature Sasquatch. In her free time, she edits and writes even more things. You can see some samples of her work on her website. She also loves running, watching horror movies, and playing video games.

You can find Brit on FacebookGoogle+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also find her on Pinterest, if you like social media articles and Bioshock fan art.

Review: The Glyndebourne Festival’s “Così Fan Tutti”

Cosi Fan Tutte at the Glyndebourne Festival

The Glyndebourne Festival Opera is an annual opera festival held in the English country house of Glyndebourne,  and attracts thousands of opera lovers from all over the world. It is not at all subsidized by the government, and caused a rumpus in 2003 by placing ads for its shows for the first time ever. But the shows of this year’s festival seem fairly diverse, and will go into late August.

But this week, I decided to dip into a past Glyndebourne production. Così Fan Tutti was one of the inaugural operas for the opera house, and I was excited to see the 2006 revival. I was lucky to stumble upon an online version of the screening, despite the fact that the festival had not yet instituted the streaming options it now has for certain shows. I meant no harm through watching in this way, and was only acting out of a desire for a timely review. The intention was not to purposefully deny money to the Glyndebourne Festival Opera. Goodness knows all opera houses can use some help nowadays.

Cosi fan Tutte at Glyndebourne Festival

Now, on to Tutti. This is definitely a fluffy Romantic opera, so the challenge is to put these shows on with a fresh eye. You definitely don’t have to make an updated version of the story, and there are definitely examples of productions that do well because they go full-out traditional in production. This aims for a rustic italian setting, and it works quite well in pointing out the difference in class between servants and nobles.

It also doesn’t hurt that the camera loves these singers. There are hardly any shots of the entire stage, but it hardly matters. The close-up shots of the lovers embracing each other before being parted by war, tenderly singing “Be true to me!” could easily be the production’s title images. Ditto with a pre-wedding scene in Act 2, where amidst all lovely drunken passion the camera finds one of the male leads muttering bitterly, “I wish they’d [the women] drunk poison.” Even the transitions between scenes (very good in their own right) are filmed tastefully. The whole experience is immersive, but not showy.

Glyndebourne Cosi fan Tutte

The two leading women, Miah Persson and Anke Vondung, shine on their duets together. They taunt servants and tenderly hug each other with equal ferocity. Their relationship is a delight to watch throughout. But their onstage lovers, Topi Lehtipuu and Luca Pisaroni, are the real stars of the show. The scene of their initial wager with Don Alonso (played by the stately and well-cast Nicolas Rivenq) over their lovers’ fidelity sets the tone as one of close friendship. And there is never a doubt in our heads that this is so. Each of their romantic relationships is very different, adding weight to the various romantic hijinks that take place. But there are many lighthearted moments, especially when Lehtipuu and Pisaroni are forced to go into disguise. They immerse themselves into their cheesy Jack Sparrow personas completely, to everyone’s delight. You find yourself laughing with them when they start singing about the quality of their moustaches.

Unfortunately, this opera suffers greatly from what I lovingly refer to as the Billy Connolly Problem. It was greatly referred to in Billy Connolly’s Live in New York special, which the link leads to. Here’s a summary: An opera can sometimes experience drag because the libretto itself contains a lot of repetition. But the libretto isn’t the problem in this case; it’s the company itself, not knowing what to do with themselves during the points of repetition. It’s not knowing the precise moment to move about the stage, or throw their hands up, or even to grimace between individual phrases. It makes for a highly monotonous experience for the audience. The scene after a very dramatic (and fake poisoning) at the end of Act 1 suffers this fate. It’s unfortunate, because it directly follows a very action-filled scene that proves the depths of Lehtipuu and Pisaroni. So it goes.

Glyndebourne Festival Così Fan Tutti

This blog is definitely gaining a reputation for nitpicking divas, and I will not spare this opera in doing so. Miah Persson is excellent as the (mostly) faithful Fiordiligi, but her aria is the Billy Connolly Problem incarnate. She plants herself on stage and never only seems to alter her facial expression twice throughout the entire number. In earlier and later scenes, Persson lends a gravity to her character that few could ever conjure. But in her aria, she settles into being a diva.

When the singers are allowed to freely interpret a scene, it goes very well. Lehtipuu and Vondung are particularly good at coming up with “filler” movements and character decisions, which make the characters all the more entertaining to watch. Anhoa Garmendia, as the scheming and freethinking servant Despina, is an absolute joy to watch for her character interpretation. She pops in and out of costume, and her most memorable moments are when she is in disguise. That can actually be said for the entire cast; when in disguise, or given moments of repose, they are lovely to observe. We can sympathize and bond with them then. But when everyone remembers that they are performing a Very Important Classic Opera, the scene becomes stiff and boring. Only the stolen moments are gold.

About the Author: Brit McGinnis writes regularly for nerdy blogs, awesome magazines, and random video game sites that feature Sasquatch. In her free time, she edits and writes even more things. You can see some samples of her work on her website. She also loves running, watching horror movies, and playing video games.

You can find Brit on FacebookGoogle+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also find her on Pinterest, if you like social media articles and Bioshock fan art.

Review: Opera Australia’s “The Turn of the Screw”

There were way too many fluffy reviews happening on this blog. So I decided to go a little dark this time.

The Turn of the Screw opera Australia

The recorded opera I decided to review this week is a rendition of The Turn of the ScrewA horror opera based upon a horror novella, this is one of the few operas touted for being genuinely frightening. This production was originally released in 2008, and was filmed at His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth, Western Australia.

It’s been a while since I reviewed a dramatic opera, and the time away from them had made me suspicious. What would this opera do to be scary? And would the fact that it was an English translation have any effect?

To my delight, the English language actually enhanced the experience of this opera. Sentences like “She was full of doubt” carried extra weight, and brought to mind the atmosphere created in a particularly well-made production of Sweeney ToddIndeed, the entire production is staged like a penny dreadful, and it absolutely works. The set itself is very impressive, and plays well to the show’s claustrophobic themes. Set pieces switch between opaque and mirrored sides, creating a lovely eerie feeling. It also helps that there is not a voice among the cast that isn’t as docile as the music itself. No one sticks as trying to sing in a separate style, only lending to the beautiful atmosphere. However, watching this film with subtitles is definitely preferable to listening without. The ghosts in particularly are hard to listen to with a “naked ear,” but they are so lovely and confident in their acting that it is still a delight to see.

Opera Australia The Turn of the Screw

In terms of acting, Eilene Hannan is absolutely astounding as the Governess. Not only is she very capable of singing in English, but she is one of the very few singers I’ve ever seen capable of singing fearfully. She knows how to convey fear in a way that the audience understands, but stays perfectly in line with the music. Margaret Haggart is also lovely as housekeeper Mrs. Grose, though she is slightly less clear speaking in English. Her phrasing of one “Dear God…” is masterful in the middle of Act 1, elegant to hear but barely discernible. But I have to give her plenty of credit for a small thing she does that I hardly ever see people able to pull off: Staying in character through scene transitions.

The children Flora and Miles (played by Lanette Jones and Patrick Littlemore, respectively) are both very comfortable within their roles. Jones has more than one eerie as a too-clever-for-her-own-good child of horror. She’s biting, and very capable of being terrifying. Littlemore is a force of nature by himself, and his smug expression at the news of his sister running off in Act 2 is worth watching the entire second half. But the two children’s chemistry with the more mysterious entities of the show makes for some of the most compelling scenes in the opera. Tenor Anson Austin, who plays the evil Peter Quint is absolutely delicious to hear. No spoilers on if he’s alive or not!

This is a lovely film for people looking to switch up their opera diet, and may even delight a few horror film fans. The symbols of classic works are there, and the setting absolutely fits the story. The singers are all lovely actors, including the children. The singing is not perfectly clear without subtitles, but the grace of every voices makes it still worthy of watching. It’s well worth watching in the dark.

About the Author: Brit McGinnis writes regularly for nerdy blogs, awesome magazines, and random video game sites that feature Sasquatch. In her free time, she edits and writes even more things. You can see some samples of her work on her website. She also loves running, watching horror movies, and playing video games.

You can find Brit on FacebookGoogle+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also find her on Pinterest, if you like social media articles and Bioshock fan art.

Review: Vanderbilt University’s “The Marriage of Figaro”

I have to start off this review with complete disclosure: I was originally going to watch a Youtube screening of this opera performance. I fully believe that people should review filmed screenings of operas, because that is slowly becoming the new normal. More people will likely be exposed to opera through film than through actually seeing an opera live. The Met certainly has adapted for that, so I feel it is my duty as someone who writes about opera to write about filmed opera productions. Especially if, like this production of The Marriage of Figaro put on by Vanderbilt University, they are placed in such a way that people who would probably not be looking for opera may come upon it. Even if that production isn’t stellar, I still feel compelled to expose them to the world. So here is the first of these pieces.

Knowing that, imagine my surprise upon discovering that not only is there a pirated screening of this opera up on Youtube (which actually turned out to be incomplete), but there is an actual legitimate video of this opera on the university’s website. Go ahead. Try both links. And please notice, the university uploaded the Youtube version themselves. How cool is that? It’s as if they actually wanted people to access opera for free!

Sherlock GIF saying

I will occasionally use GIFs to describe opera. Strap in.

But let us begin. Despite my searching, I could find no solid cast list for this production. Quite a fascinating thing for the Internet age, but there you have it. I would truly love to be able to see what happened to these singers after college, because they all have such unique ways of singing. In this production, Susanna (intended wife of the utterly charming Figaro) is pretty near perfectly cast. Her energy never seems to run out, and she keeps the rough edges of her English in check just enough to be a sexy, but still earthbound, servant character. The Countess, conversely, shines early on but fades with time. It’s not a matter of skill — the Countess simply looks tired from being on stage so much. It’s quite sad.

The Countess, Count, and Susanna from "The Marriage of Figaro"

But to be fair, the Count and Countess lose steam in the second half of the show, and it appears to be out of pure exhaustion. The Duke’s aria is truly disappointing, because unlike Doctor Bartolo he does not give into his own stereotype. The singer appears too afraid to dive into his part, when to have a successful opera you must be prepared to go the full Pagliacci. He does later on, when the character has more to do with a scene. But Cherubino is somewhat less afraid to immerse her/himself in the part (it’s a drag role, I don’t know what the f^%k protocol is) on a consistent level. But again, I wish I was able to find out what these singers were up to now. I would have loved to have heard them all now, when they were more season and less afraid to look ridiculous.

One complaint I’ve read in the comments for the Youtube version of this performance concerns the fact that the performance is in English. It’s not Le Nozze de Figaro, it’s The Marriage of Figaro. All I have to say to these people is: Pick your f%^king battles. This university saw fit to make an opera, and it appears to be cast mostly of college students who know how to sing opera. Their vowels are very pure, and vibratos are great all around. I feel it is much more worrisome if the singers cast could not treat the music with as much respect because it was in English, or if their operatic phrasing skills did not extend to English. This cast sinks into the latter at times, but in general they have a very good handle on the music’s direction and on the plot itself. It is believable as an English adaptation of the original score and book, as opposed to a translation.

Marcellina, Basilio, Doctor Bartolo, and the Count from "The Marriage of Figaro"

A word on the video production: It is very very grainy. It helps drastically to heighten the light settings on your laptop if you are using a Mac like me. But even then, I had to watch the opera with a blanket covering my head in the same manner as I would if I were eating ortolan. The incomplete Youtube edition also goes up to only 480p, but the sound quality is substantially better. The quality of the filming also chopped  Considering the production was filmed in 2010, this is highly disappointing But there you are.

This production bears many marks of a low-budget opera production, for good and ill. The set is minimal, and the pieces are originally moved out by members of the case themselves. The costumes are limited in scope, and the actors are forced to work within a very intimate set. But the overture mostly consists of the characters moving the set pieces over to their desired position, interacting with those they meet entirely in character. It’s a splendid way to establish who is who, and that feeling of intimacy can be harder to duplicate with a more costly show. As for the costumes, there are occasional moments of humor only possible through simplicity. Basilio the gossipy music teacher carries around a small dog that counters colorblocked garb, and it was funny because it looked more alive than the character himself.

Overall, I would recommend this production purely as a “starter opera” — a production to show someone new to opera what it’s all about, and to show what some of the symbols and stock characters are. Seasoned opera fans may be frustrated by the English phrasing, but it’s all well and good for newbies. I strongly believe that not every opera production has to be perfect, so long as it’s not trying to mimic past performances of it too much. This production feels so self-contained, so cozy, that I would send it to others as a starter any day.

 

About the Author: Brit McGinnis writes regularly for nerdy blogs, awesome magazines, and even the odd eBook. In her free time, she edits and writes even more things. You can see some samples of her work on her website. She also loves running, watching horror movies, and playing video games.

You can find Brit on FacebookGoogle+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also find her on Pinterest, if you like social media articles and Bioshock fan art.