Les Arts Florissants bring Campra to BAM


In 1697, the Comédie-Italienne almost managed to make fun of the court of Louis XIV but were forcibly disbanded for their trouble. In 1710, André Campra’s opera-ballet Les fêtes vénitiennes tried to bring the italianisme and the politics back to Paris.

Last weekend, Les Arts Florissants brought it to New York.

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Anna Nicole: a new $#@*ing opera

Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas have brought Anna Nicole Smith’s silicone-enhanced charms to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in a co-production with the New York City Opera.

cMark-Anthony Turnage (score) and Richard Thomas (libretto),
Anna Nicole. Brooklyn Academy of Music, September 19, 2013 (BAM and New York City Opera co-production). Production by Richard Jones, conducted by Steven Sloane with Sarah Joy Miller (Anna Nicole), Susan Bickley (Virgie), Rod Gilfry (Stern), Robert Brubaker (J. Howard Marhsall II), Christina Sajous (Blossom), many more

The basic conceit of Anna Nicole is that people singing obscenities at top operatic volume is really funny. You may or may not agree with this; personally, I found the effect wore off after about five minutes. Its comic effect depends on our expectations for opera as a highfalutin’ cultural activity.  Anna Nicole’s story isn’t unusual in opera–she’s a modern Manon–but the soloists and chorus screaming out naughty language are, and to a lesser extent the score’s slides into jazz are also mildly transgressive. (Redneck caricatures coloratura-ing a blue streak are what made librettist Richard Thomas famous in his earlier work, Jerry Springer: The Opera. That was a scruffier Fringe Festival endeavor compared to Anna Nicole’s Royal Opera House–where the opera was first seen in 2011–high gloss. I think this kind of cheeky fusion is more convincing on a lower budget.)

We open with the chorus, describing Anna Nicole’s tale in a prologue that seems to be borrowed from Sweeney Todd. They present her as both an “absurdist tale of woe” and a “fabulous eccentric.” The first half of the opera presents in a series of short scenes a relatively amusing, obvious satire of American trashiness. This shows Anna’s rise to fame through fast food, teen motherhood, and stripperdom. Finally she marries the elderly oil baron J. Howard Marshall II. In the second half, Marshall dies and the opera suddenly makes an awkward jump of a decade to show Anna in addicted decay. It leaves out the years of Anna Nicole’s legal fights in favor of showing her final months and attempts to be a tragedy and indict the grotesque pleasure we took in the first half. The chorus becomes a creepy voiceless swarm of dancers with cameras as their heads.

It doesn’t really work; the creators want to have their satiric cake and eat it too. One problem is that Anna is left more or less a spectator in her own story. She is presented as superficial and incredibly stupid (the occasional note that she was “smart” doesn’t counteract what it is showing us the rest of the time), as well as passive and reactive. The libretto’s baffling lacuna is also at fault here, excising the years where she was a Famous Big Personality but rather showing her pathetically trying to deal with the consequences. The original soprano who sang Anna Nicole, Eva-Maria Westbroek, has a hefty voice and was imposing and ungainly onstage. Sarah Joy Miller, singing Anna Nicole here, has a much slighter presence both physically and vocally. Her default expression is a deer-in-the-headlights look of smiling amazement, which is, to be fair, just about all the libretto gives her to work with. Lacking agency, personality, and much in the way of self-reflection, Anna succeeds as neither a heroine or an antiheroine.

The libretto is incredibly wordy. Thomas loves lists (more Gilbert cluttered than Cole Porter languid), and his verse starts tripping over itself when getting stuck on long lists of synonyms for breasts, deadbeats, etc. I swear that the composition of this libretto must have involved a very profane thesaurus. These lists usually end with a line like “you get the picture,” as if the situation is simply too outrageous for his words to contain. The language is an intentionally heightened, stilted colloquialism that is sometimes funny but mostly vocally unfriendly and sometimes less stylized than just plain dated (even my family doesn’t say “harsh the vibe” anymore).

It would really be better if the music could do more narration and the words less. The voice developed by Turnage is a jazzy sort of Sondheim with some operatic effects used for comedy and, occasionally, a more lyrical arioso. Mostly, he sets the words dryly for maximum comprehensibility. You can understand most of them, but there’s a lack of a controlling musical voice. The score could have done a lot to reconcile and prepare for the mood shift between the two halves, it could have deepened the characters, but instead it contents itself with being inconsequential. The best stretch is instrumental–in the interlude bridging the libretto’s decade gap–but its would-be Wozzeck moment doesn’t have a dramatic context. Similarly, the orchestra could do more–though to be fair, it was probably doing a lot that I didn’t notice. From my seat, the sound design was both obviously miked and heavily favored the voices. (Steven Sloane conducted, but I could hear so little orchestra I can’t say anything about him. It stayed together, and seemed well-paced.)

The strongest element of the opera is Richard Jones’s inventive, fluent production, which has been transferred from London. It keeps the action moving and offers genuinely amusing visuals. Miriam Buether’s colorful sets and Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes are also great: there is a lot of bright pink, giant plastic animals, a giant mattress, and a tendency for dying characters to finagle their own body bags. The ensemble is less universally strong and dramatically attuned than it was in London, but they’re all giving it their best and their Texas accents are far more consistent. Miller seems a little too cute for Anna Nicole, and never convincingly debauched. Susan Bickley, the lone holdover from London, makes a strong impression as her mother, but the character is awkwardly transformed from a monster to the voice of conscience. Broadway stalwarts James Barbour and Mary Testa are wasted in the tiny roles of Anna’s father and aunt, while Richard Troxell has a better cameo as her plastic surgeon. Robert Brubaker is funny and loud as J. Howard Marshall II, and Rod Gilfrey is also wasted in the small role of lawyer Howard Stern (reportedly cut down before the London premiere due to threats of litigation from the real Howard Stern–fittingly, the character frequently enters pronouncing his intention to sue everyone).

I remain somewhat uncomfortable with this opera. It makes me feel unexpectedly sorry for the real Anna Nicole, who seemed never fully in command of herself, exploited by others in death just as she was in life. I don’t want to be naive about this or say she was just a victim, she knew how to play the game and took what she could. (Besides, I don’t know anything about her.) But we never really see that in the opera, which seems to have plenty of interest in watching a hot mess but no interest in understanding a person. (Its most persuasive act of empathy is for her son.) I can’t quite shake the feeling that here we have a bunch of privileged men again profiting from Anna Nicole’s lack of privilege. It leaves a bitter aftertaste to an opera that already is somehow less than the sum of some formidable parts.

This brings me to City Opera itself. This is a co-production with BAM, which seems to be just the right place to produce it: it’s an institution that has long explored works that cross between high culture and low. But the City Opera, now in desperate financial straits, is promoting itself as “The People’s Opera.” This seems tone-deaf. “People’s Opera” implies something populist, an element that is family-friendly, and accessible. That’s City Opera’s history. But now they put on a small season of Johann Christian Bach and Telemann operas. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, we need people who will tread where the Met doesn’t, and I hope they’re able to keep doing it. But that’s a boutique company, not a populist one. The Met’s outreach and HD series makes it look much more populist than City Opera does right now. So I hope the company survives, but am worried about their apparent confusion of mission, and wonder how they got here. If this is their last production, at least they went out with something that seems appropriate to their aims.

Anna Nicole
plays through September 28.

Photos copyright Stephanie Berger.

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Les Arts Florissant’s David et Jonathas at BAM

I went to see David et Jonathas by Les Arts Florissants at BAM and I wrote about it for Bachtrack:

New York is again lucky to host William
Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Their visits are always special, and it’s not just because the unique
nature of their repertory – Baroque opera, usually French, which is
neglected by most of New York’s major companies – nor the virtuosic ease
with which they embody this otherwise-foreign idiom. Their productions
have a passionate unity of purpose and a loving, handcrafted quality
that somehow seems antithetical to many of our more slick and snarky
local efforts. Their present offering, a touching production of
Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s David et Jonathas, has little in common with
2011’s Atys, but fortunately these virtues are again in full force.

You can read the whole thing here. Highly recommended. It’s a great and extremely unusual work with a fantastic musical performance and a smart production. Performances that meet one of these three requirements are unusual enough, ones that fulfill all three far more so. Still could have used some program notes, however.

This production will also be released on DVD on April 30.

Photo copyright Julia Cervantes

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Einstein on Lafayette Avenue

Chucks and sand: only one of these things is found in Einstein on the Beach

On Saturday night I said to a friend that I had never fallen asleep at a concert or opera. It was true, at the time. (We were at an electroacoustic concert that was far too fun and loud for the possibility to arise.) But on Sunday I went to see the Philip Glass/Robert Wilson/Lucinda Childs quasi-opera extravaganza Einstein on the Beach at BAM, and I can say this no longer. Sometime as the train dancer was going diagonally forwards and backwards for the nth time, I drifted off. And woke up, and she was still yo-yoing, and I dozed off again. As you may know, this is during the first full scene.

I know that as a theoretically hip arts lover, I’m supposed to find a Einstein on the Beach to be total genius. And if I don’t love it and feel like I don’t get it that means I’m doing it wrong because I am told that “there’s nothing to get.” But, seriously, guys. There’s something I’m totally missing here. I have no idea why this is supposed to be great. It seems like a very small number of mildly striking images stretched out to gargantuan proportions to no effect other than mind-numbing boredom, over a soundtrack of finger exercises.

Maybe you had to be there. In 1976, I mean. Because while this revival preserves Robert Wilson’s production and the disco-y electronics of the score, Einstein occupies a very different cultural space today than it did then. In 1976 it was only semi-professional, its creators at the beginnings of their careers, its sounds and sights presumably fresher than they are now (at least people would get the Patty Hearst references). Now it arrives with classic status, an influential masterpiece. But while it might have seemed otherworldly and mysterious, now it’s more or less a known quantity, and the actual work seems, when stacked up against its legend, so thin that it could almost float away.

As you probably know, it’s not about Einstein, really, though apparently the great scientist liked trains, who knew? The “opera” is a series of mysterious scenes, dances, and texts. Of the latter most are non sequiturs and almost all, in this extremely poorly amplified production, were completely incomprehensible.* People come and go, they stay stuff. A chorus energetically sings numbers over and over and over. But nothing makes sense, we don’t know why there’s a trial and why there’s a bed in the courtroom, or why a rectangular beam of light slowly moves from a horizontal to vertical position over the course of fifteen or twenty minutes of a single arpeggiated chord. The dances that are like the most boring parts of Paul Taylor’s Esplanade repeated 250 times without the Bach.

I love abstraction but there’s nothing here that makes me care about or have any interest in anything I’m seeing. There’s no humanity, no emotion, just a trancelike randomness. The music is subservient to the images, bubbling along in harmless arpeggios before moving on to another predictable, dull harmony to no particular effect. It’s not unpleasant, exactly, but going to a yoga class wouldn’t have taken almost four and a half hours, and my legs wouldn’t have been so stiff afterwards.

It must be murder to perform this music, and it sounded polished to me. My favorite sections were the solo saxophone in “Building” (played by Andrew Sterman) and Jennifer Koh’s solo violin Einstein. Both had a personality and inflection to their musical performance, particularly Koh, not found anywhere else in this anonymous scale book. The amplification wasn’t nice, but it seemed to give Koh’s deep, earthy tone a metallic edge that was quite striking.

There’s something off-puttingly self-indulgent or masturbatory about Einstein‘s determined, willful meaninglessness and lack of content, its presentation of itself as a cryptic yet substance-free alien object with no need obligation to justify its existence. I guess I will be told I have no soul because I lack the key that will unlock this thing; I have a short attention span when it comes to bass lines and an appetite for answers that I can write down. But I can’t help it, I want art that seems to have a soul itself, art that has something to say.

Glass/Wilson/Childs, Einstein on the Beach. Brooklyn Academy of Music, 9/16/12. With Helga Davis, Kate Moran, Jennifer Koh, and many others, and the Philip Glass Ensemble conducted by Michael Riesman.

*But since you hear each at least 20 times, you might pick up all the words by the end. I guess Young Bob Wilson wouldn’t care if you could understand the text or not but it was being enunciated clearly I assumed you were supposed to understand it here, it was just given an acoustic that sounded, from the balcony seating, like it was underwater.

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Les Arts Florissants bring Atys to BAM

Happy fall, everyone! The opera season in New York started this weekend with Atys at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and I went and wrote about it at Bachtrack.

In 1676, Louis XIV’s court composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully, wrote Atys,
an unusually tragic opera that became a favorite of the king. In 1987,
William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants revived it in an acclaimed
series of performances in Paris and eventually at the Brooklyn Academy
of Music. Like Louis XIV centuries before, modern audiences were
enchanted by the work’s austere, pure declamation, grand choruses, and
graceful dances and its success was again influential.

Click here to read the whole thing. (By the way, I am blogging again. I’ll report from the Anna Bolena dress at the Met on Thursday, such as one can report on a dress rehearsal. I can’t go to opening night, unfortunately.)

This was a great performance, but I personally preferred LAF’s last big BAM project, The Fairy Queen. This is probably because it was so funny and different and as a semi-opera had a lot of novelty value for me. This is the kind of novelty that Atys had when it was first performed in NYC in 1987 1989. Lully opera has become more established but hardly commonplace since, so some of that freshness is still there today, but not to the same radical degree–I’ve certainly heard a lot more Lully than I have semi-opera. How much of Atys‘s original success was due to the novelty of French Baroque and how much due to the production’s undeniable excellence?

This is part of the reason why I’m a little disappointed that Les Arts Florissants have redone Atys instead of creating another production to expand our limited repertoire of French Baroque opera in New York (LAF has done a lot more in their home base in Europe but only a few of those productions have come to BAM). I know that this new iteration came into existence solely because of the generosity of a philanthropist, and we should be grateful for that! And 22 years is a long time, perhaps too long to begrudge a repeat. But I still am a fan of variety, and if you only know Atys you don’t know the full diversity of the French Baroque. I recommended some DVDs in the review, here are some clips. Most of these productions are a lot more daring and modern than Villégier’s Atys.

Most similar to Atys is Lully’s Armide, which is way better than Rossini’s and the LAF’s DVD is awesome. The Armide is Stephanie d’Oustrac who was Cybèle in Atys in France (and in the forthcoming DVD) but did not come to New York, unfortunately. Her replacement was talented but a little undersized for the role. D’Oustrac is epic.

I love this goofy, almost all dance production of Rameau’s Les Paladins.

Finally, this isn’t Les Arts Florissants, but I remind you of the DVD of Cavalli’s Ercole amante from De Nederlandse Opera that I wrote about a year ago, which is a fusion of French and Italian

Photo above © Pierre Grosbois

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Fantastic, fantastical Fairy Queen at BAM

Purcell, The Fairy Queen.  Glyndebourne Festival Opera as presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 3/23/2010.  Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie.  Directed by Jonathan Kent.

Bless thee, Bottom!  Thou art translated!  This week’s desecration of the Bard is a particularly delightful one, Purcell’s exceedingly obscure semi-opera The Fairy Queen. It’s a spectacular, epic, and magical production from the Glyndebourne Festival, but leave the Glyndebourne dress code at home and find a plaid shirt, it’s at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

It’s an unusual piece, and BAM astonishingly does not provide any program notes (the Les Arts Florissants discography is nice, but a few paragraphs of history would be better).  But luckily I did my homework so here are the basics.  Semi-operas were popular in London in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, before Handel and Porpora moved in and converted the British to full-blown opera.  They consist of a full spoken play performed by non-singing actors which is periodically interrupted by songs and extended masque-like interludes in which singers and dancers appear and do their thing, somehow prompted by the plot.  The music and dance don’t advance the story, they add atmosphere.  So these pieces are somewhat slow-moving and LONG.  This one is more or less uncut, and runs around four hours, around 50/50 semi- and opera.  If you saw Mark Morris’s production of Purcell’s King Arthur at the City Opera a few years ago, you just saw the music, the play was eliminated entirely.

The Fairy Queen, dating from 1692, despite all appearances, is not based on Spenser but a much more familiar source, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The play, though, was rewritten by an anonymous late seventeenth-century playwright: the Greek references are removed, it is somewhat condensed (so long, Hippolyta), and somewhat rearranged.  But most disconcertingly if you know that Shakespeare, many of the lines have been changed to regularize the meter, take out the obscure references, and sometimes un-Shakespearize it.  If you know the play, it’s weird to hear familiar lines mixed with new ones.  For example:

You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen.
Newts and blindworms, do not wrong.
Come not near our Fairy Queen.


Now joyn your Warbling Voices all,
Sing while we trip it on the Green;
But no ill Vapours rise or fall,
Nothing offend our Fairy Queen

As you may guess, a common criticism of semi-operas are that the plays aren’t any good, despite the delight of the music.  That was what Mark Morris said when he cut Dryden’s play entirely from King Arthur.  Also, that they don’t hold together.  But a semi-opera is a complete work in some form, not just blocks of music alternating with blocks of text.  Even though the two don’t interact in Rogers and Hammerstein fashion, they still comprise a whole of a sort–one that this production proves is theatrically viable.  Seeing a semi-opera with both play and music in place is rare, and would be worth seeing even if this one weren’t so good in itself.


Another reason semi-operas died out was they were so expensive to produce. The Fairy Queen apparently was always quite an endeavor to put on, as the Prologue notes:

“But that this Play may in its Pomp appear
Pray let our Stage from thronging Beaux be clear.
For what e’re cost we’re at, what e’re we do,
In Scenes, Dress, Dances…”

The set descriptions show where some of this money went:

The Scene changes to a great Wood; a long row of large Trees on each side: A River in the middle: Two rows of lesser Trees of a different kind just on the side of the River, which meet in the middle, and make so many Arches: Two great Dragons make a Bridge over the River; their Bodies form two Arches, through which two Swans are seen in the River at a great distance.

Sorry, that was just an excuse to quote more 1693 English.  Kent and Christie have swans, but no dragons.


Jonathan Kent and William Christie’s production isn’t relentlessly faithful to the original text (it Shakespeares it up somewhat, for one thing), but its liberties aren’t great.  Its remarkable achievement is how it balances well-acted text and well-sung and danced music and creates something that is both coherent and entertaining.  The lovers are initially period (17th-c), the Mechanicals out of Keeping Up Appearances, the fairies somewhat more current but with wings. 

In the forest, the lovers lose their big clothes and, as in Midsummer, enter the world of irrationality–which, broadly speaking, is the world of music.  The semi-opera doesn’t allow them to sing, but they do, masque-like, become part of the show.  The role of the Drunken Poet in the First Masque is given to Bottom, making the First Masque almost a plot event marking the Mechanicals’ entrance into the forest.  The Second Masque puts Titania to sleep, the Third Masque is on seduction, the Fourth on the new day and seasons (yeah, this one is the most tangential), the Fifth on marriage.

The masques are like a ballet in their plot, sometimes narrating a bit but mostly just on the way to the next delight.  And the staging is endlessly inventive, steadily building in outrageousness and silliness from the relatively tame early masques to crowds of giant amorous rabbits,  trailer trash couples (anti-masquers!), and more surprises that I should not ruin for you.  The final Masque of Marriage contains a lament (“O let me weep”) that reminds ups how screwed up marriage was back then.  FYI, Kent’s “Adam and Eve” was originally a Chinese couple (their Daphne was “Xansi”), who have apparently disappeared for a less offensive, more nekkid, more Cranach-y alternative.

So it’s a lot to take in, and occasionally overwhelming.  The actors are all, as far as the program indicated, British, and very good, giving an entertaining, bawdy rendition of this somewhat crooked Dream with appropriately youthful lovers and most of the usual highlights–short jokes, chasing, etc.  As any good Bottom, Desmond Barritt is a highlight, the Mechanicals in general a hilariously dim bunch, and their play a truly epic disaster.  The play is good enough to not wish we get straight to the music, and that’s saying something.

The music.  Les Arts Florissants are an institution, and this piece displays them to great advantage.  The orchestra is large and amazingly colorful, and Christie’s tempos are quick.  The soloists doubled various roles in various masques and were universally good (and stylistically accurate, of course), but my favorites were Emmanuelle de Negri as Night and the lamenter, and Andrew Foster-Williams in a variety of bass-baritone roles.  There is also a lot of dancing, which I haven’t yet mentioned because I found it the least interesting part of the show, the choreography (by Kim Brandstrup) struck my uneducated eye as dully athletic.  But you get lots of glorious dance music.

The set isn’t quite as extravagant as the above description, but it’s full of surprises.  We start in a period study lined with cabinets of curiosities, this room expands to become the forest, the fairies emerging from the cabinets and through the windows and floor.  The mini-dramas of the masques are staged like different strange things pulled out of the cabinets too, without adherence to any particular period or theme.  It’s elegant and moves smoothly between play and music, and is technically very impressive (nice flying). 

So does it tell a story?  Eh, not quite, but that isn’t the point.  It’s a spectacle, and is appropriate spectacular and diverting, and frequently delightful.  Tommasini seems to think that the glam and current touches that make Christie’s productions so exciting is somewhat disreputable, tarting up (he says ”juicing up“) something which is perhaps more properly buttoned-up and without bunny orgies.  Nonsense.  This is supposed to be exciting stuff, we know people found it exciting then, and to frump it up today when we could be having fun is doing the material a disservice, not to mention the audience.  So go enjoy without guilt!

Next: I don’t know!  Partenope if I can make it, especially after the encouragement of the commenters below, or possibly nothing until second-cast Tosca on April 17–noch einmal with Luc Bondy.  Yes, Armida will also be happening, but probably not until after that!

Jonathan Kent on the staging in the Guardian
William Christie on the music:

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