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November 4, 2008

Lucrezia Borgia--WYSWIG? Not!

Recently-old tags like babelicious, studly, and racy are the words that come to the Dresser's tongue about John Pascoe's new production of Lucrezia Borgia, a bel canto opera that first premiered in 1833 by composer Gaetano Donizetti with a libretto by Felice Romani based on Victor Hugo's play by the same name. On November 1, 2008, the Dresser attended Washington National Opera's packed opening night performance with Plácido Domingo conducting.

The story involves a ruthless, beautiful woman who encounters her grown up illegitimate son and thinks he could redeem all her evil doings. The trouble is her jealous husband believes this young man is his wife's lover and therefore wants the other man dead.Renee Fleming as Lucrezia_Act II_credit Karin Cooper.jpg


In the starring role, Renée Fleming made a spectacular WNO singing debut though not because she is a master or mistress of the challenges presented by bel canto. With her décolleté and not-quite-spiky pixie haircut that is a new look not matching her publicity shots for this show, she proved to be the sexually alluring blonde even a lost son would rise or fall for. And initially Gennaro, Lucrezia's unacknowledged son, could tentpole over the magically babelicious woman who wakes him from a nap al fresco with a kiss.

Vittorio Grigolo as Gennaro_Lucrezia Borgia_credit Karin Cooper.jpgBefore you, Dear Reader, cry not, the Dresser must hurry on to say that although the spiky-haired blond, dishy, and full-throated tenor Vittorio Grigolo playing Gennaro (and you ask how is it possible with the same hairdresser that no one told him about Lucrezia, the Hottie?) was aroused by his poisonous mother, he really had the hots for his sword buddy Maffio Orsini. Whoa, Dude! Here's where things got heated up and were sooo not what they appeared.


Lusty mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich in a pants role plays Maffio Orsini. When Gennaro and Maffio kiss passionately, the Dresser lit up like a Vegas slot machine when all the lights and horns flash and blare. What exactly was happening on stage? That excellent young tenor Vittorio Grigolo (reputed to carry Pavarotti's torch sang the role of Rodolfo in the 2007 WNO production of La bohème), who surely most women and some men in the Kennedy Center were panting for, was kissing who? Oh, mezzo Kate Aldrich--a guy kissing a gal--but No! This was Gennaro kissing his male friend Maffio. Forget incest between two pieces of ear-and-eye candy, in this case, same-sex interaction was much more racy because it was so confusing.Grigolo, Aldrich_Lucrezia Borgia_credit Karin Cooper.jpg


And what happens when the boys party on? Well, Mistress Borgia, whose name Gennaro defiles by kicking off the "B" from "Borgia" which was mounted on a family monument, shows up looking for revenge at the Negroni palace for what is, in fact, an "orgia" (Italian for orgy). Wearing a suit of armor that mirrors her son's, she suspects the culprit is one of Gennaro's friends. Surprise! All the men who are friends of Maffio and Gennaro have been poisoned by the wine and ditto the lover boys. Gennaro goes after Lucrezia with a sword, but stops when she reveals that she is his mother. This is Gennaro's second time around at being poisoned that day by his mom's lethal wine. He knows Lucrezia can save him, but he refuses the antidote because she doesn't have enough to save Maffio.

Continue reading "Lucrezia Borgia--WYSWIG? Not!" »

November 20, 2008

Finding the Russian in Carmen

Now that the Dresser knows about the connection between George Bizet's opera Carmen and Alexander Pushkin's poem "The Gypsies," she believes that she has found a new way to think about her departed, green-eyed mother. But first, let the Dresser backup and provide some anchoring details.


CARMEN_11-08_291TiedUp.jpgOn Sunday, November 16, 2008, the Dresser attended a performance of Washington National Opera's production of Carmen. In the lead role for that day's show was the powerhouse mezzo Denyce Graves. And even performing for a matinee audience typically filled with elderly operagoers, Ms. Graves exuded an unbridled sexuality that exceeded the energy expended by her leading men--Thiago Arancam as Don José and Alexander Vinogradov as the bullfighter Escamillo. The Dresser suspects that both Arancam, who bills himself as the Italian Brazilian lirico spinto tenor (spinto meaning "pushed" and characterized by the capability of being heard over a full Romantic orchestra), and Vinogradov, who possesses a rich bass-baritone, were capable of more vibratory passion in their singing. She also thought the chorus was dragging down the energy. CARMEN_11-08_172Escamillo.jpg

What was the low energy about--Sunday should be a day of rest? For this performance, Steven Gathman substituted for conductor Julius Rudel and therefore the conductor didn't have the connection with the players on stage? Everyone in the cast was so awed by Ms. Graves that they wanted to spend their energy absorbing her performance? The Dresser does not know--her eyes were fixed on the electrifying brightness of Washington's own diva. Denyce Graves graduated from the Duke Ellington Performing Arts School and she loves performing in Washington, DC, where audiences rightly stand up for her.


Carmen, filled with some of the best known and loved operatic songs-- "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" (Carmen's seductive Habanera "Love is a Rebellious Bird"), Carmen's lilting seguidilla folksong and dance tune "Près des remparts de Séville" ("Near the ramparts of Seville/At the place of my friend Lillas Pastia") and Escamillo's Toreador song ("Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre" ("Your toast, I can give it to you")--concerns the story of a fiercely independent gypsy woman who steals the soldier Don José from his fiancée, gets him into trouble with his commanding officer (who wants the sexual favors of Carmen), makes Don José choose between her life as a smuggler and the honest life of a soldier, and then dumps him for the bullfighter Escamillo. Although Carmen's fate is to die at the hands of Don José, this work is categorized as an opéra comique and was premiered in March 1875 at the Opéra Comique of Paris. The Dresser notes that according to the French operatic tradition, opéra comique combines singing with spoken dialogue, similar to the German Singspiel music drama (for example, Mozart's The Magic Flute). However, opéra comique derives from popular French vaudevilles.


The libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy is based on Prosper Mérimée 1845 novella Carmen. Mérimée's character Carmen was drawn from the real life Countess of Montijo, mother of Empress Eugénie of France (Eugénie was the wife of Napoleon III). Cycling back to the Dresser's opening statement, Mérimée's story was influenced by Pushkin's poem "The Gypsies," which Mérimée translated into French along with other works from Pushkin such as "The Queen of Spades." (Tchaikovsky, who was influenced by Bizet's Carmen, based his 1890 opera The Queen of Spades on Pushkin's short story.) What fascinated Mérimée about Pushkin was his attention to cruelty and psychological drama.

Pushkin's story of gypsies, like Mérimée's, concerns a man on the run from the law who takes refuge with gypsies. Unlike Mérimée's Carmen, the outlaw is the focus of Pushkin's tale. In the opera, Carmen's defiant challenge to Don José is to kill her or let her go. This comes directly from Pushkin's poem.

Continue reading "Finding the Russian in Carmen" »

November 23, 2008

Between Trains: The Nakedness of Becoming


Between Trains
by Juanita Rockwell and directed by Leslie Felbain in it's first fully staged production at the University of Maryland Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center is a theatrical experience aimed at addressing all the senses. Start with water dripping from the ceiling of the performance space and puddling on the floor. Eventually, in the mini lake, Dawkes (played by Aaron Bliden), a benign crazy man, floats his toy sailboat. He sits in the shallow water, but did the Dresser mention Wendell, the protagonist who emerges from a fetal curl at the edge of this lake? Wendell played by Kelly McGuigan stands up slowly in the darkened theater. Her youthful female figure and blond hair conjure Botticelli's Venus in his painting "The Birth of Venus," and, yes, Wendell is naked, though quickly shielded from view with a shocked stranger's newspaper. Soon after, she finds a coat in a valise left by a careless traveler.


Hunger presents itself as a basic human need--Wendell, who first has no clothes, also has no food. When she finds a dog biscuit in the pocket of the newly acquired coat, the owner of the so-called cookie makes her read what is inscribed on the hard surface of the bone-shaped biscuit. "For Dawkes." "That's me," he says. She gives it back saying she is so hungry, but he licks it, then bites into it. Is he a dog masquerading as a human? Wendell, who has now migrated from Venus on the half shelf to the naked Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden, takes on the life of Alice-in-Wonderland--what happens if she had eaten the bone cookie? Would Wendell, like Alice, grow into a giant? A midget?

The Dresser doesn't know, because the scene quickly changed to a primitive version of the Tom Jones eating scene (in the film based on Henry Fielding's novel by the same name). Carrying a picnic thrown into a checkered cloth, Momo and Mimi erupted on stage bantering in a strange language of their own making. Mimi says, "Warm encrusted lamborghini mahi mahi xbox botox." Momo answers, "Sweet godiva spagghettini drown in oil well buttered rolex." Is this a food fight or are they playing like two rutting mammals ready to engage in a procreative act? As Wendell hid under a railroad station bench, Momo (Mark David Halpern) and Mimi (Judith Ingber) carelessly allowed an apple to escape from the picnic cloth and the apple rolled to Wendell's open hand. Later like Eve, she got her bite, but no more before Mimi snatched the apple from her mouth. A compassionate hot dog vendor (Zachary Fernebok) with a tiny points-of-light umbrella (don't expect this parasol to shield the user from sun or rain) struck a Depression era bargain with her and she walked away with not one, but two hot dogs. DSC_5306HotDogs.jpg


While the audience, sitting in two sets of seats that faced each other with the performance space positioned like a runway between, did not smell those hot dogs, the man smoking a cigarette made up for that lacking olfactory experience. The auditory was best experienced through the sound design and original songs of Chas Marsh. Even before the show began, musicians circulated through the audience. DSC_3957Saxman.jpgOne played a saxophone; another a guitar and ukulele. Plain lyrics were married to simple melodies. This musical approach worked for a sojourn of a naïve like Wendell. For example, the lyrics to "No Sense" is set to a lilting ditty that sticks in the head.

one word followed by another word
followed by another word
followed by another word
shattering music
making no sense
shattering music
no sense


The Dresser believes that she has provided enough of the playwright's process to say that the play is about process, the process of sensing and becoming. As the playwright states in her notes, Between Trains is a journey through the six realms of Samsara. Those realms from bottom to top deal with hell, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, demi-gods, and gods. It's a subject to pour a lifetime of study, but the Dresser thinks the audience can be ignorant about the playwright's inspiration and still leave the play with a lot to think about. From the beginning, the Dresser got a lot to ponder from Rockwell's New York workshop of this play done in 2006.

Continue reading "Between Trains: The Nakedness of Becoming" »

November 24, 2008

The Mysteries of Grey Gardens

Before the Dresser can make any cogent remarks about Studio Theatre of Washington, DC's production of the Tony award-winning musical Grey Gardens with book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, she needs to reconstruct why she wanted to see this documentary-turned-Broadway-hit. GGLittleEdie.jpg


Reason number one: she is favorably familiar with some of the operatic libretti by Michael Korie and most recently The Grapes of Wrath.

Reason number two: every political family in the public limelight has their back rooms of relatives who embarrass them. This was the case for the former First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy whose aunt and cousin are the eccentric protagonists of Grey Gardens. As the United States moves closer to the day when President-elect Barack Obama moves into the White House, the issue of a problematic relative (a Kenyan aunt in trouble with the U.S. Immigration Service) has already surfaced. So understanding one political family's scandal often informs another's.

Reason number three: The show got ten Tony nominations, including Best Musical. The story has a life of its own. Besides being based on the film documentary, there are also two plays inspired by the story--Little Edie & the Marble Faun and A Few Small Repairs--as well as a film made for HBO by the same name. Furthermore, fans who saw the Broadway production multiple times were known to dress up in odd costumes.


Like the oddball film Running with Scissors, the story of Grey Gardens involves a would-be artist (poet in Scissors; singer in Gardens) who creates problems for her child. In both Scissors and Gardens, the man of the house quickly steps out of the picture. Both works are based on the lives of real people. The antics of real people are often more puzzling than fictitious characters and the Dresser likes to think about the complexity of puzzling characters.

The two-act musical with a prologue is set at the East Hampton estate known as Grey Gardens. The prologue and second act take place in 1973 and the first act, in 1941. The hinging event is an engagement party for Little Edie Beale and her fiancé Joseph Kennedy, Jr., the older brother of the U.S. president-to-be John F. Kennedy. At the party is prepubescent Jacqueline Bouvier and her younger sister Lee. The party is spoiled by the big Edie's intention to use the party guests as an audience for her singing performance, but worse occurs when Edie scares off Joe Kennedy either as a way to protect her daughter from Joe's chauvinism or because she (the mother) is jealous of her daughter's good fortune. The second act reveals an aged mother and daughter living together with an uncounted but impossibly large population of cats and raccoons among the ruins of the once splendid estate.


The music like any popular Broadway musical is catchy and even infectious, but in that old way of musicals of the 1930s and '40s. Especially songs like "The Revolutionary Costume." By act II, Little Edie has morphed from a debutante sought by the most powerful men in the United States (other suitors were Howard Hughes and J. Paul Getty) to a whacky over-the-hill spinster who thinks wearing her skirts upside down (waistband at the knees, if you please, with the hem gathered up and tied at the waist) is a trendsetting revolution in fashion. GreyGardensCostume.jpgThe lyrics compliment the perky song. Here's a small snatch of Little Edie's fashion philosophy from this song: "The best kind of clothes for a protest pose is this ensemble of pantyhose, pulled over the shorts, worn under the skirt that doubles as a cape." Part of this number involves spoken dialogue such as this repartee about East Hampton, "They can get you for wearing red shoes on a Thursday. It's a mean, nasty Republican town." But hey! Although Jackie and Lee came back in real life to save their relatives from being thrown out of their house (Jackie put $25,000 into the house for repairs) for health code violations, the democratic relatives were more concerned about political embarrassment than the well being of their aunt and cousin. (And the Bouvier sisters were not seen or spoken about in Act II.)


Barbara Walsh who plays Little Edie in the Prologue and the second act, but takes the role of big Edie in Act I, carries the show as the actress must in this play. She is convincing as the debutante's annoying mother who is trying to steal the attention away from her blonde daughter (played by Jenna Sokolowski). In short, Walsh covers the craziest roles with convincing equanimity. To someone like the Dresser whose mother for many decades could wear the Dresser's clothes and look good in them, having the same actress play the younger mother and later play the ageing daughter presented that torturous nightmare that elicits from the Dresser--Oh, my God, don't let me turn into my mother!

Continue reading "The Mysteries of Grey Gardens" »

About November 2008

This page contains all entries posted to THE DRESSING in November 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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