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December 2007 Archives

December 8, 2007

A Compelling Queen of Spades

The Dresser wonders how many operas running for nearly four hours with two intermissions can sustain a viewer’s attention. On December 6, 2007, the Kirov Opera and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, hosted by the Kennedy Center of Washington, DC, opened an engaging production of Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades.
Company.jpgPhoto by Valentin Baranovsky

Based on Alexander Pushkin’s short story by the same name, the three-act, seven-scene opera with libretto by the composer’s brother Modest Tchaikovsky explores the dual themes of gambling and madness within a context amorous betrayal.


Although the production had some short but dead pauses when the curtains were shut, the orchestra was silent, and the audience sat in dark, largely the show was outstanding. Contributing to the overall enjoyment was its pleasingly fluid concert and stage movement of players directed by Valery Gergiev, Irina Cherednikova’s beautifully detailed costumes, the joyful dancing of company players, and the elegant scenic design by Alexander Orlov accented by curtains so alive that the Dresser thought the fabric had transcended its objectness to become a living character.

Notable singers included Vladimir Galouzine who played the gambling obsessed Herman,
MIKYZ_KirovSpades_138a.jpgPhoto by Valentin Baranovsky
Alexander Gergalov who played Prince Yeletsky, and Evgeny NIkitin who plays Herman’s friend Tomsky. Mlada Khudoley who plays Lisa, the granddaughter of Countess (also known as the Queen of Spades), gave an uneven performance but became progressively better in the December 6 performance by Act III.


While the Dresser extols Galouzine’s emotionally convincing portrayal of Herman, she expected a much younger man in that role. Unlike Mirella Freni, who the Dresser saw as Joan of Arc in the 2005 Washington National Opera production of Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans, Galouzine was not able to evoke the energy or body movements of a young man. For Lisa’s hand, Galouzine as Herman plays the competitor of a younger Gergalov as Prince Yeletsky. This visible age difference did not work to Galouzine’s advantage. When Gergalov as Prince Yeletsky sings to his bride-to-be Lisa, “I love you so. I can’t help myself” and swears he will do anything for her (this aria is beautifully interpreted by Gergalov), the Dresser thought Lisa was a terrible fool. More puzzling was that the Dresser could not detect any emotional reaction from Khudoley as Lisa that would indicate she was listening to the prince, the man she chose to marry but spurns for Herman. Herman brings her down in disgrace because he is obsessed with learning her grandmother’s secret for winning at cards.
Photo by Valentin Baranovsky


One aspect of The Queen of Spades that made it longer in duration is that each act has a dance scene. The pastoral play within Act II was particularly fascinating. The dance play was situated between an audience of opera characters lining the back wall of the stage and the Kennedy Center audience. Curtains in this scene indicated, the Kennedy Center audience was viewing the pastoral as if we were behind stage. Also the costumes and wigs in various shades of blue-green and pale iridescent greens were attractively luxurious. The only dance number that was disappointing occurs in the gambling scene of Act III. The men mimic in a slow tempo Russian dance squats that should be fast, athletic, and energetic. The Dresser says bring on the expected Russian male folk dancers or do slow-mo but puleeze nothing in between.

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December 11, 2007

Hansel and Gretel: An Opera Not Just for Children

The audience at Washington, DC’s Lincoln Theatre bore out what the Dresser suspected—Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel is not just for children. Attending the December 7, 2007, performance were many childless adults who, judging by the consumption of such noisy items as potato chips, may have been attending their first opera. Snarkiness aside, the Dresser, who was experiencing for the first time Humperdinck’s masterpiece with libretto by his sister Adelheid Wette, was impressed by the vocal gymnastics required of the singers. Historically significant is that the December 23, 1893, premiere was conducted by Richard Strauss (known for his groundbreaking 1906 opera Salome) who said that Hansel and Gretel was "a masterpiece of the highest quality… all of it original, new, and so authentically German."


This Washington National Opera production under their “Access to Opera” program featured a cast of current and former Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists. Most of these particular young artists have appeared in WNO’s main stage productions. For example, soprano Amanda Pabyan, who creates a lively believable child as Gretel

and does justice to the vocal challenges demanded by Humperdinck’s music, played the Queen of the Night in the 2005 Die Zauberflöte (Mozart's The Magic Flute). Also soprano JiYoung Lee, who provides outstanding performances as Sandman and Dew Fairy,

has been seen in such WNO productions as Das Rheingold (2006 as Woglinde), La Clemenza di Tito (2006 as Servilia) and La Filled du Regiment (2007 as Marie).


Although there wasn’t anything technically amiss with Leslie Mutchler’s delivery of Hansel, the Dresser could not suspend belief to accept that Hansel as a character is a boy but the singer is a young woman. Many operatic roles, such as Cherubino in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) successfully employ women in what is known as “pants roles.” Often Hansel is cast as a mezzo-soprano. The challenge then is how to make the female singer appear to the audience as a boy.


Another less problematic but interesting cast choice was African-American soprano Aundi Marie Moore as the mother of Hansel and Gretel. In the Grimm fairy tale on which Adelheid Wette based the libretto for this opera, the mother is a stepmother who tells her husband when they are faced with starvation that he must take the children to the woods and leave them there. Although Wette, who asked her brother to write this opera for her children had cut out the cruel stepmother and her demand to her husband to abandon his children, when director David Gately cast a singer who visually stands apart from cast members playing Hansel, Gretel and the children’s father, the allusion to the original fairy tale comes quickly to mind. If Wette had been cast in such roles as Sandman, Dew Fairy, or Witch, the Dresser would not have noticed the casting choice and ventured into what might be frowned on as an unPC remark. What comes to mind for the Dresser is that when Director Nancy Rhodes was preparing Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On for its premiere, Rhodes kept shaking her head about all the svelte young women who wanted the role of Gertrude Stein.


What the Dresser liked best about the WNO production was Robin Vest’s sets (the tilted house where Hansel and Gretel lived, the gnarly barren trees of the forest with abstract angels made of crinoline fabric, the elaborate gingerbread house of the witch)
and Timm Burrow’s fanciful costumes for Dew Fairy, Witch and the woodland animals.

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December 12, 2007

Otello & the Lighthouse

The disadvantage of seeing an opera for the first time became apparent to the Dresser after she left the December 9, 2007, performance of the Kirov Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello. While the concert of Verdi’s complexly dark music was richly played by the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre under the baton of Valery Gergiev, other elements of the production—set, costumes, and direction—pulled this opera, first performed in 1887, into a more contemporary timeframe and mindset that the Dresser suspects did not add value.


Arrigo Boito’s libretto written in Italian, based on English playwright William Shakespeare’s tragic masterpiece Othello, progressively shows in four acts (the Kirov production runs three hours and twenty minutes with two intermissions) the psychological unraveling of the powerful general Otello (played by Vladimir Galouzine) who, as the opera opens, has returned triumphant to Cypress from a battle but was nearly killed by a raging storm at sea. His priority upon making it safely to shore is to see his beloved, new wife Desdemona (played in this performance unexpectedly by the young soprano Irina Mataeva). However, his ensign Iago (played by Sergey Murzaev), who Otello passed over for promotion in favor of the much younger Cassio (Sergy Semishkur), is bent on revenge. Using the unrequited affections for Desdemona of Rodrigo (Sergey Shkorokhodov), another naval officer in Otello’s company, Iago devises a strategy for convincing Otello that Desdemona has been unfaithful and bringing down Cassio.

Boito’s libretto sets the action of Otello at the end of the Fifteenth century. Gergiev, who is not only the conductor for but also the general director of the Kirov Opera, has moved his production forward in time to possibly the 1950s. The Dresser makes this guess based on the furniture used for Otello’s office in Act II. The centerpiece of Zinovy Margolin’s set design is a massive lighthouse with a revolving searchlight that one presumes to be automatic.
Photo by Valentin Baranovsky

While the costumes do not belong to the Fifteenth century and have lines more in keeping with contemporary styles, it is hard to identify their placement in time. The main male characters are mostly dressed in business suits that have overly long jackets. Desdemona and Iago’s wife Emilia (Lyubov Sokolova) wear long dresses and coats. Chorus members are dressed in long and mostly drab peasant attire with some men wearing suggestive naval uniforms that mix double-breasted dark coats with light colored, blousy pants.


The Dresser wonders what the costume designer Maria Danilova was thinking when she chose a grey-blue suit for Iago who, by the way, wears eyeglasses. In the Kirov production, Iago looks like a benign petty bureaucrat. Equally disconcerting was that Vladimir Galouzine as Otello had his face darkened with a brownish makeup application that made his lips and eyes pop out from his face and made the Dresser think of blackface makeup used in an American minstrel show. So while Iago tended to blend visually into the background, Otello, the Moor with a freakishly bad makeup application, stood out unintentionally.

Since the Dresser had just seen Galouzine as the gambling obsessed Herman in the Kirov Opera’s production of The Queen of Spades, she anticipated that Galouzine would deliver a credible Otello falling apart as Iago planted insidious seeds of slander against the innocent Desdemona.
Photo by Valentin Baranovsky

For the most part, the Dresser enjoyed Galouzine’s performance except for the end of Act III where he, believing the worst of Desdemona, writhes on the floor in such exaggerated agony that the Dresser found this segment of his performance melodramatic. Despite Galouzine's performance seeming a little more ragged than his performance in The Queen of Spades, he still stands out out as the most memorable singer in the cast.

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December 14, 2007

Spamalot: Girls, Gays, Jews, Oh My!

The antics of Monty Python have never been entertaining to the Dresser who does not groove on comedy that is chaotic, scatological, violent, and cheeky in that overly smart way that runs puns like a battering ram through the doorway of a listener’s mind. However, numerous friends and family members who have seen the successful Broadway musical Spamalot convinced the Dresser to have a look. So on December 12, 2007, she attend the national touring production at Washington, DC’s National Theatre starring Michael Siberry as King Arthur and Esther Stilwell as the Lady of the Lake and is shocked to say, she had a good time and ventures there is something in this show for everyone.


Which side of this question should the Dresser address first? Bright side of the moon—what makes Spamalot different from other Python creations? Dark side of the moon—how could the Dresser dislike the smart, innovative, and groundbreaking comedy of the British collective known since October 5, 1969, when their first BBC TV show aired as Monty Python?

Having caught the Python spirit, the Dresser will moon logic and leap into the middle of this two-act, twenty-scene play running two hours and twenty-two minutes with one interval (hey! That’s British speak for intermission). Just in case, Dear Reader, you don’t know, Spamalot, written by Eric Idle (book, lyrics) and John Du Pres & Eric Idle (music), is based on King Arthur (and his Knights of the Round Table) chasing after the Holy Grail in order to achieve the utopia of Camelot.

What the Dresser likes best about Spamalot, which has a lot in common with the 2001 acclaimed musical The Producers by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, is the scene where King Arthur gets the shrubbery needed to appease the huge Knight of Ni who is making passage through the “very expensive forest” impossible for King A. A is now alone with his sidekick Patsy, after he and all the Round Table knights were run off by a chorus line of abusive Frenchmen and can caners at the end of Act I. How A gets his shrubbery is that Sir Galahad’s mom (a fiercesome, stout woman with pendulous sagging breasts) strolls into the forest dragging her wagon (with shrubbery) like Bertol Brecht’s Mother Courage.

Oh, has the Dresser mentioned that for the most part in all things Monty Python that women are mostly sex objects and men who don’t meet a certain school boy standard are fairies—as in, feminine creatures with wings, well, not exactly fairies but fags, uh, you know men who prefer men or boys? This is precisely why the Dresser was delighted to see Galahad’s mum solve the King’s problem. Hold on, but wasn’t it the Lady of Lake who dispatched Arthur on his quest?

Yes, the scantily clad Lady of Lake and her cheerleading troupe of Laker Girls. Lady of Lake is a mover and shaker, but in the end all she really wants, despite her complaining in the song “The Diva’s Complaint,” is to marry the king.


Besides there being something to please everyone in this musical, the Dresser is certain there is also something to offend or confuse everyone in Spamalot. Take for example, the Knight of Ni’s second demand of Arthur that he produce a successful Broadway musical. (If this sounds like The Producers, go with this impulse.) This demand leads to the revelation by the fairy-est Round Table knight Sir Robin that you have to have a Jew involved in order to make it on Broadway.

(Does this sound something like a lead into Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Eva and Adolf at Berchtesgaden, the fictional musical within The Producers? Maybe.) The long and short of Arthur’s next quest—to find a Jew—is that Patsy, his sensible Sancho Panza to Arthur’s kooky Don Quixote, admits that he, Patsy, is a Jew, but only after he blurts that It wasn’t so easy to say this to a “heavily armed Christian.”

Continue reading "Spamalot: Girls, Gays, Jews, Oh My!" »

December 27, 2007

Through the Window of Annie Leibovitz's Camera

Mixing it up—the artistic work and the minute-by-hour-by-day-by-year events of an artist’s life makes perfect sense to the Dresser. Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005, an exhibition at Washington, DC’s Corcoran Gallery of Art through January 13, 2007, is an extraordinary window into an artist’s life.


For the Dresser, the photograph at the entrance of the show depicting a naked Cindy Crawford—with a large snake hooked around her neck, tail flowing down her chest between her luscious breasts, her right hand languorously holding aloft the snake’s head, her left hand poised at her privates—sums up what Leibovitz has achieved in this collage of what is art and what is the nitty gritty of every day birth-life-death. The subtext of the exhibition is Leibovitz’s nuclear family. Slowly the viewer is eased into the relationship that Leibovitz had with noted novelist, essayist, and critic Susan Sontag. Sontag died December 27, 2004, from a blood cancer. Sandwiched between luminous photos of Demi Moore with pregnant belly and Mark Morris in a worn-out undershirt, stubble on his chin, lips pinching a cigarette stub, ear cuffs curved into one ear, other ear pierced and bejeweled, one eyelid wrinkled with some worry, we are introduced to someone named Susan and then we see a photo of papers that documented the creation of The Volcano Lover.

“OMG,” the Dresser whispered to her husband Jim, “that Susan who looks bedraggled is Susan Sontag.” A little further along in the exhibition, we meet not only generals Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf with a F11A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter jet, but we also see the totally exposed writer (unnamed) floating in the bathtub of the photographer’s New York apartment. Then comes a stunning photo of Sontag (labeled “Susan Sontag at Petra, Jordan, 1994”), her back toward us standing in a rocky gap that leads to a spectacular white building. For the Dresser, this photo meshes with the one of Crawford. Both exude arresting awe, danger, and monumental sexuality.

So for two artists who kept their relationship unnamed publicly, Leibovitz’s exhibition is surprising but nonetheless emotionally moving. While we are looking up Brad Pit’s leopard-legged crotch (tight designer jeans) and focused on Jamie Foxx’s hand that embraces his be-suited balls (and his rusty red fedora, cocked just so), we are also witnessing a bike spun out in a trail of blood (the blood from a teenage Sarajevan boy who Leibovitz saw killed by a mortar attack as she was on her way to shoot Miss Sarajevo) and a bathroom with bloody footprints after a Tutsi massacre. But no less dramatic is an imposing portrait photo of Leibovitz’s mother who also lets it all hang out for her daughter.


By the time the Dresser has seen the politicos (Bush and his insiders, Bill Clinton, Hilary Clinton), the Olympiads, the dancers (including Mikhail Baryshnikov held aloft by Rob Besserer),
Photo by Annie Leibovitz
she was more intent on studying the photographer’s parents who settled in Silver Spring where the Dresser finished high school. The father died of lung cancer (same as the Dresser’s dad) just after the beloved Susan. But then a couple of miracles—twins who would carry the names of those lost—Susan and Samuel and born to a single mother (Leibovitz) over fifty.

This is an ambitious exhibition that also shows how these photos were selected. There are two long walls of snapshots displaying the celebrities versus the family as well as a video. The Dresser says to miss this show is to miss the opportunity to understand the process of an artist’s creativity.

Laura Davies Foley’ poem “The Thaw” creates vibrations in sympathy with those the Dresser felt after experiencing Annie Leibovitz’s: A Photographer’s Life.


Let the April rains come in.
I am a sloping hill with new buds piercing.
I have mothered an unlearning child.
I fear not death but a vacuum of life,
crumpled napkins hiding in corners of a chair,
gum wrappers littering an expanse of floor.
I am an extinct volcano always thought to be stable.
I wake to the heat of lava.
I have no skin.
My hair is gone.
The candle within draws deeper.

by Laura Davies Foley
from Mapping the Fourth Dimension

Copyright © 2007 Laura Davies Foley
Photograph © Annie Leibovitz

About December 2007

This page contains all entries posted to THE DRESSING in December 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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