Issue XCVI

21 OCT 2016

Arts

11/07/2013

Bringing the Sinatra Style Out in ‘Rigoletto’

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Shortly into Act I of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” which opened on Monday night, the boyishly exuberant tenor Piotr Beczala, playing the Duke as a Frank Sinatra-like playboy in a stylish white tuxedo, grabs a microphone — fake, of course. He then sings the aria “Questa o quella” to a rowdy, decadent crowd at the Duke’s gaudy casino.

For a moment there seems real potential in the director Michael Mayer’s concept, “the Rat Pack ‘Rigoletto,’ ” as it has come to be known from the advance publicity and reporting. Mr. Mayer and his production team zap the story from 16th-century Mantua to the Las Vegas of the early 1960s. As originally conceived, Verdi’s Duke is a licentious ruler attended to by crude courtiers who procure him women and envy his power. To Mr. Mayer this practically screamed Las Vegas in the heyday of the Rat Pack.

His concept is hardly audacious. It is not even that original, since the director Jonathan Miller set his landmark “Rigoletto” — first seen at the English National Opera in 1982 and much revived — in the Little Italy of 1950s New York, with the Duke transformed into a mob boss.

But Mr. Mayer, who won a deserved Tony Award for his hypercharged directing of the musical “Spring Awakening,” has brought theatrical flair to his operatic debut, and there are dynamic elements in this colorful, if muddled and ill-defined, “Rigoletto.” Especially at the start, when Mr. Beczala sings the boastful aria “Questa o quella.” To the Duke all women — this one, that one — are the same, and jealous husbands can just back off.

Christine Jones’s wonderfully ornate set depicts the casino against a back wall of beckoning neon signs. Susan Hilferty’s costumes for the Duke’s hangers-on include tuxedo jackets in varying colors and patterns that compete for tackiness. When the Duke sings, sequined showgirls bearing huge feathered fans surround him.

And Mr. Beczala, looking jaunty and loose, sings with ringing tone and ardor, accompanied deftly by the 33-year-old Italian conductor Michele Mariotti, who has a sure feel for the give-and-take singers need to shape a Verdi line. This was an excellent outing for this rising conductor, who made his Met debut last fall in Bizet’s...


Superb Rigoletto Set in 1960s Las Vegas

This new production of Rigoletto from the Met transfers the action from 16th Century Mantua to 1960’s Las Vegas. Michael Mayer, who has overseen production design in a number of hit Broadway shows including ‘Spring Awakening’, was making his debut for the Met. The main action was set in a casino with neon signs lighting up the stage and giving a glitzy feel to the evening’s proceedings. The production makes allusions to various members of the ‘Rat Pack’ with cast members wearing tuxedos, singing from microphones and doing some dance numbers, while dancing girls cross the stage wearing sequined dresses and carrying huge brightly coloured fans. This production is very much in the mould of the earlier Jonathan Miller ENO re-working which sets the action in New York’s Little Italy and transforms the Duke into a mob boss.

Piotr Beczala’s Duke is an exuberant rogue who is out to have fun and to seduce as many women as he can irrespective of the consequences. He plays the part brilliantly exuding charisma and charm with flashing smiles and an easy manner while at the same time giving us an insight into the malicious and superficial elements of the character. He gets the party going with ‘Questo o quella’ which he sings with fake microphone in hand very much in the Sinatra mould. Beczala has a wonderfully resonant and expressive voice and was able to handle the upper register notes with effortless ease.

Serbian baritone, Zelijko Lucic, really gets beneath the skin of Rigoletto and shows us the breadth of this character in all his flawed humanity. He uses a range of tone colour to give us insights into this fascinating and multi-faceted character while deploying some highly expressive and nuanced phrasing. German soprano, Diana Damrau, has previously played the Queen of the Night and Zerbinetta in ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’ so she can handle high voltage coloratura. She gave us some exquisitely executed coloratura in this role and deployed a rich vibrato and wonderfully full tone when required. The Act 1 duets between Rigoletto and his daughter were superb with the two performers showing a real rapport and shared understanding of the score and creating a feeling of warmth and intimacy.

In Act 2 the action is set in the Duke’s penthouse apartment. Lucic’s performance of the great aria where Rigoletto pleads with the Duke’s entourage to return his daughter was heart...



11/06/2013

Review: 'Thor' sequel gets lost in space

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Comic book movies are increasingly, like Sandra Bullock in "Gravity," lost in space.

Following the summer's glumly bombastic "Man of Steel," which added a heavy dose of Krypton politics to Superman's once pleasantly silly story, comes "Thor: The Dark World," in which Thor's Asgard, a celestial home of gods floating somewhere in the universe, is the primary setting. Earth is an afterthought -- just one of the "nine realms," albeit the one with Natalie Portman.

Gone are the earthbound pleasures of a superhero amid us mortals. Such was the joy of the "Spider-Man" movies and the first "Thor," when Chris Hemsworth's lofty, hammer-wielding Norse warrior, exiled to Earth, so happily encountered a cup of coffee for the first time.

As Marvel's latest 3-D behemoth, "Thor: The Dark World" isn't so much a sequel as the latest plug-and-play into the comic book company's blockbuster algorithm. It's a reliably bankable formula of world-saving action sequences, new villain introductions and clever quips from women on the side, (and they, most assuredly, are always off to the side).

The expansive Marvel universe is carefully stitched together across its many properties. "The Dark World" (with director Alan Taylor of "Game of Thrones" taking over for Kenneth Branaugh) follows "The Avengers" in chronology and runs alongside the current, unremarkable ABC series "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."

Each is referred to with something less than, say, the binding connections of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. Instead we get cloying winks. The great city of New York, for example, is reduced to shorthand for the climactic battle in "The Avengers," as if we're still so consumed by that movie. Yes, we're all very impressed it made so much money.

Thor has spent the last two years restoring order to the nine realms of the cosmos, but just as peace settles, a previously locked-away dark energy called the Aether seeps out. It leaks into Portman's astrophysicist, Jane Foster, awakening a previously vanquished species of Dark Elves, led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). They would like to see the universe returned to complete darkness. Not a day person, this Malekith.

This occurs as the nine realms are lining up in a rare convergence that makes them particularly susceptible to Aether-spread ruin. There's not a lick of...


Thor: The Dark World Review

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I’m not sure Thor (2011) was anyone’s favourite Marvel film. It was great, and I know it’s loved by a lot of people including myself, but I don’t think it was many people’s favourite. How does Thor: The Dark World compare to the rest of the Marvel movie universe?

Thor 2 starts off with some heavy exposition, but it’s not too bad because it looks AWESOME. It’s about how Odin’s father Bor vanquished Malekith and his dark elves and it’s a really great scene with some brilliant special effects. After this we get our first glimpse of everyone’s favourite Tom Hiddleston as Loki, being sentenced for his crimes in New York. A lot of praise for this movie has been aimed at Tom Hiddleston, and yeah he great. But in some reviews it’s been said that the film is just crap when he isn’t on screen, IGN actually titled their review “NO LOKI, NO LIKEY”. Fine, Loki is great and his scenes with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) are really funny. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the movie should be discounted.

Meanwhile on Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is trying to get on with her life after being abandoned by Thor at the end of the first movie. But trouble just seems to keep finding her! Or she keeps finding trouble. She ends up getting a big helping of the “Aether”, the magical element Odin’s Dad had banished so many years earlier. This sets things into motion, Malekith is re-awakened and Thor returns to Earth.

The performances in Thor 2 are great. Chris Hemsworth takes centre stage as Thor himself and is still the perfect choice for the proud Asgardian in my eyes. Tom Hiddleston is as awesome as you’ve no doubt heard as well. The supporting cast includes Natalie Portman as Jane Foster who is lovely, if not a little damsel in distress-y. Idris Elba finally gets his own action set-piece as Heimdall, as a ship attacks Asgard he jumps and climbs the side of it, taking it down single-handed. He doesn’t get much else to do but he got that bit, even if it was only me cheering in the cinema. One character who was unexpectedly hilarious was Stellan Skarsgård, returning here as Erik Selvig. He has some really funny lines and scenes, and I didn’t see it coming. That’s one thing that surprised me about Thor: The Dark World, how funny it is. It’s not quite as funny as Iron Man 3 but...



11/05/2013

Eminem's 'The Marshall Mathers LP 2' review: Sequel doesn't work

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For the sequel to his 2000 album "The Marshall Mathers LP," Eminem again wrestles with his various personas to, theoretically, try to build a life as an adult.

Though sequels may work for movie blockbusters, "The Marshall Mathers LP 2" (Aftermath) shows why they don't work for musical ones.

From a musical standpoint, all the looking back has promise, especially in the Rick Rubin-produced throwback "Berzerk." Thematically, though, figuring out how to be a man may be an understandable theme for a 28-year-old, but it's ridiculous for a 41-year-old, especially one as accomplished and respected as Eminem. And lyrically, Em's old targets just don't hold up well 13 years later.

"I'm frustrated cause ain't no more 'NSync, now I'm all out of whack," he raps in "Evil Twin." "I'm all out of Backstreet Boys to call out and attack." Worse yet, he ruins "Rap God," which really does showcase his impressive rapping skill and clever rhymes, with homophobic slurs and a lengthy rant about a "little gay-looking boy" that's meant as a put-down, but just makes Em seem even more insecure.

How can he claim to be a "Rap God" one moment and so worried about challengers the next? Oh right, he's Eminem. He somehow turns The Zombies love song "Time of the Season" into something boastful, yet self-pitying.

And in his update of "Stan," Eminem has a character take him to task, rapping, "I'm your karma closing in with each stroke of a pen." Well, the fastest way out of this hole, Em, is to stop digging.


EMINEM

"The Marshall Mathers LP 2"

GRADE B-

BOTTOM LINE Mining the past for musical and lyrical inspiration.


Review: 'Marshall Mathers LP 2' - Eminem Keeps Hip-Hop Alive And Well On MMLP2

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It seems like a decade since hip-hop was considered to be “dead” – well it’s nearly been a decade actually. Nas went so far to memorialize the genre on his 2006 album Hip Hop is Dead.  Again, in 2013, we have a rap vet who takes a similar perspective that the genre has fallen on hard times due to playing up dumb, meaningless clichés.  While it is arguable (depending on who you ask) whether Eminem is truly the “Rap God” as he asserts, what is true is that rap definitely has its less ‘artistic’ MC’s. In other words, rap has went so ‘stupid’ it’s gone plumb ‘dumb’! Sure, Eminem is known for his twisted sense of humor and irresponsible inappropriateness, but he does possess a gift for words, raw or not.  Perhaps not as shocking as the original,The Marshall Mathers LP 2 definitely infuses an injection of creativity and artistry into the game. “God” may push it, but Em is definitely still an MC to beat.

“Bad Guy” unsurprisingly stars MMLP2 with a bang.  Eminem holds nothing back, and we… well most of us wouldn’t have it any other way.  “Can I hold grudges, mind is saying ‘let it go, f*ck this’ / heart is saying ‘I will, once I bury this b***h alive / hide the shovel and then drive off in the sunset’” (Notice I said ‘most of us’).  As always, Eminem has some issues with women, much like he did back-when, and he basically admits it – orSarah Jaffe does on the hook: “I flee the scene like it was my last ride / you see right through, oh you had me pegged the first time / you can’t see the truth but it’s easier to justify what’s bad is good / and I hate to be the bad guy, I just had to be the bad guy.”  Even so, he’s still killing it: “I am your lack of a conscience / I’m the ringing in your ears / I’m the polyps on the back of your tonsils / eating your vocal cords after your concerts…” Yep, he’s a bad guy alright.

After the obligatory skit (“Parking Lot”), “Rhyme or Reason” samples “The Time of the Season”, incorporating that signature Eminem pop-rap. Here, Eminem is still dealing with his various issues, which started at the beginning apparently: “My mother reproduced like a Komodo dragon /...



11/02/2013

About Time - Richard Curtis's directorial swan song is Awful, Actually

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I felt very sorry for the young woman at the screening of Richard Curtis's new film who found herself sitting right by the muttering loony; on and on he went, cursing beneath his breath, clicking his tongue in exasperation and quietly repeating the words "I hate this film" as if it were a mantra. Unconscionable, really. In fact, I'd like to offer her a personal apology and give an assurance that I'll try not to behave like that in a cinema again. But I couldn't help myself.

About Time is actually an improvement on Richard Curtis's previous outing as writer-director, the repulsively sleazy and puerile The Boat That Rocked. Its cast is strong, the location work is attractive, and Domhnall Gleeson is so disarming in the lead role that at times the film becomes almost bearable. He plays Tim, a lanky, pale, ginger-haired young fellow who at certain angles looks positively handsome; he is, in the Curtisian way, a hopeful romantic. On his 21st birthday, Tim is informed by his father (Billy Nighy) that the men of their family are secretly blessed with the gift of time-travel. You just nip into a dark closet or cupboard, clench your fists and, hey presto, you're off. But the small print reveals it's travel of a limited kind: the beneficiaries can only trip back (not forwards) within their own lifetime, so there's no assassinating Hitler or saving the Titanic or whatever.

Tim, in any case, knows straightaway how he's going to use his power: he wants to get a girlfriend. Things look promising when he meets a cute American, Mary (Rachel McAdam, already a veteran of such whimsy from The Time-Traveler's Wife) but on account of a glitch he "loses" that first encounter and has to woo her all over again. Then, deploying his time-bending lark to edit out all his gaffes on their Big Night – a stumble on the stair, a fumble with the bra, a tumble in the sack that's not quite perfect – he makes smooth the course of true love without Mary suspecting a thing. This might have struck us as a clever conceit had we not seen it done with far more wit, heart and precision 20 years ago in Groundhog Day. It's the same routine that Bill Murray's misanthropic weatherman follows, obliged to rehearse the same moves and learn the same lines over one eternal day until he wins round the woman he loves.

The moral tension there lay in character: Murray starts out as a creep who becomes...


It's 'About Time' For Romance — And Rather More

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Time-travel movies usually have a clear end in sight, some situation that needs fixing. Marty McFly needs his parents to get together; John Connor needs to avoid Terminators long enough to grow up; the guys from Hot Tub Time Machine need to stop messing up the past and get back in their ... hot tub time machine.

When the imperative and the ticking clock are removed, though, the time-travel power becomes a subtler narrative gimmick. About Time deploys it to tell a small, personal story — the sort where a father sits his son down in his study on the kid's 21 birthday to tell him about a family secret. Here, it's that both of them — all the men in their family, in fact — can travel in time. (Whether or why the women don't inherit the same ability goes unaddressed.)

 

It's a big deal, sure, but it's not limitless. As his cheerful father (Bill Nighy) explains, Tim (Domnhall Gleeson) can Quantum Leap within his own lifetime, jumping to a moment in his past and then back to the now. Narrowing the scope and defining the stakes of the movie, Dad cautions him against using the ability for money or power — other relatives have, with inauspicious results — and instead to pursue what he truly cares about. For his dad, it's family and good books. For the bright-eyed Tim, it's love.

 

Lanky, well-meaning, but not the smoothest with women, Tim uses his ability to go back and set right what once went socially awkward. There's a Groundhog Day-like slickness to sequences in which he tries to escape mortification with a do-over, only to muck things up a second time. With one intimidating summer crush (Margot Robbie) the chance to repeat a moment allows Tim to understand a lesson it might otherwise have taken him years to realize.

The slow growth of character and relationships is the film's focus more than any complicated plot, but there's complex machinery working in the background to make the time travel coherent — good thing, when multiple characters can up and play around with chronology. But the film takes few of the liberties you'd expect from its genre, and it conforms to an internal logic throughout.

In fact, for all the science-fiction flourishes, life is rendered here with specifics that feel authentic. When Tim meets the bookish Mary (Rachel McAdams), their flirtatious banter feels real; a misspoken word becomes an inside joke, and a common...



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