Archive for April, 2010

Music Review: David Olney – Dutchman’s Curve

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

David Olney's been knocking around since the '70s; the difference is that now there's a comfortable label to apply to his alternately scrappy and lyrical sound. "Americana" was invented for this kind of stuff. His wizened baritone can rock ("Train Wreck") and soothe ("Red Tail Hawk"): "Where my legs go/I will follow/Where the wind blows/I don't care/As long as I know/That you love me/Wherever I go/You'll be there." Simple tiles like this build colorful mosaics of hard-earned knowledge transformed into art that's solemn, celebratory, and sometime playful too, as in the '50s-rock-style "Little Sparrow," about—unexpectedly—Edith Piaf.

Olney sounds tired in some of the songs, his voice pulling away; one wonders if it's done on purpose to draw the listener in. The laid-back sound certainly pays off in "I've Got a Lot On My Mind," where a besotted "lazy so-and-so" explodes into an exuberant scat—all he can produce in light of the "beauty and the power and the danger" of his inamorata.

By contrast, in the gently rolling "Mister Vermeer," contemplating an image of "Girl with a Pearl Earring" inspires the singer to verbalize: "I could rule the world/If that look were meant for me." He talks the verses, Townes Van Zandt-style, as if no melody could match the beauty of the painted image, as perhaps none can. Together with the sweetest song about an armed train robbery that's probably ever been conceived, "Covington Girl," it forms the warm nucleus of this 13-song disc.

Highlights of the second half include the bluesy grumble "Way Down Deep," with its braying horns and melodic echo of the Beatles' "Helter Skelter"; Olney's droopy, roughened take on the Flamingos' undying "I Only Have Eyes for You"; and the homey, comely love song that closes the CD. But pretty much every track here has its charms. Olney and his main co-writer, John Hadley, have felt-tipped a subtle new entry into the Great American/Americana Songbook.

Opera Review: Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas at the Met

Monday, April 5th, 2010

I learned quite a bit from seeing Hamlet, by French composer Ambroise Thomas.

The Met hadn't staged this opera for 113 years. Critics in the English-speaking world apparently hadn't been able to deal with the fact that it wasn't Shakespeare's play. With less death, a drinking song, and originally a "happy ending"—and a revised one that feels like Romeo and Juliet superimposed onto Hamlet—it certainly isn't.

What it is: a fine example of 19th century Parisian grand opera, with much beautiful music. In scene after scene, lovely lyrical arabesques lead into macabre and dramatic passages, all here brightly rendered by the impeccable Met orchestra under the swiftly paced direction of Louis Langrée. The Hamlet story, much of the essence of which is retained, turns out to be excellent material for this sort of music, which while it may not be absolutely the most divine opera music ever written, has many virtues that are showcased extremely well in this production.

The slinky clarinet (or what I thought was a clarinet) solo accompanying the first part of the "Murder of Gonzago" scene, which sounded remarkably like a saxophone, turned out to be—a saxophone! Apparently Thomas felt the newly invented instrument was perfect for the leering pantomime with which Hamlet endeavors to catch the conscience of the king. The play-within-a-play scene was the climax of the production—funny and spectacular.

Simon Keenlyside, in the title role, lived up to his hype. The charismatic British baritone slips into Hamlet like he's played the role all his life. Slumping, drinking, raging, he positively seethes with the moral paralysis at the center of the story, his voice fluting between passion and control. In the Hamlet-Gertrude scene he addresses his mother repeatedly, bitingly, as "Madame," then softly and sadly as "ma mère"—just one example of the way Thomas's music effectively conveys the characters' psychology; and with a singer whose acting skills match the high standards of his singing, the creators' skills are effectively highlighted—both Thomas's music and the affecting libretto, by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier, who were also responsible for the books of much better known operas like Gounod's Faust and Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann.

However, Marlis Petersen as Ophélie nearly stole the show, first in her early love scene with Hamlet and especially in her long, showstopping solo mad scene, which is so over-the-top I started to laugh even while appreciating her liquid tone and wonderful passagework. I'd heard about her last-minute casting, replacing the ill Natalie Dessay with only three days to prepare, but you'd never guess Ms. Petersen hadn't been on tour with the show all along (it originated in Switzerland, at the Grand Théâtre de Gèneve). She was absolutely delightful.

The intense Jennifer Larmore's grave, dark tones suited the role of Gertrude well, and tenor Toby Spence did a nice job as Laërte. In fact the entire cast was strong, right down to the gravediggers.

Hamlet runs for two more performances, April 5 and April 9, at the Metropolitan Opera.

Photo of Marlis Petersen by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Theater Review: Alice in Slasherland

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

The latest horror-geek gorefest spoof from playwright Qui Nguyen, director Robert Ross Parker, and the Vampire Cowboys company is more tightly plotted than their spectacular but somewhat scattershot Soul Samurai was, and has shorter fight scenes. These are both good things. Otherwise, it's the same sort of hilarious romp through the Fangoria/slasher/Buffy wing of pop culture, bursting at the seams with nervy whimsy and nutty abandon.

This time out, a creature who looks and moves like the nightmare from The Ring appears in an archetypical American town, presaging havoc. Aside from the interloper's name, which is Alice, and her arrival from another world, nothing about this tale resembles Alice in Wonderland; in case we're looking for parallels, our high school heroes helpfully inform us not to bother. But does this monstrous yet curiously sympathetic and kinda sexy Alice (Amy Kim Waschke) actually have a heart of gold, or just melted lead? A touch of Buffy-back-from-the-grave confusion moderates her menace; so does her clingy attachment to the nonplussed Lewis.

As hellish minions murder their way through the townsfolk, Alice and a sassy teddy-bear demon (a puppet brilliantly operated and voiced by Sheldon Best) help shy, intellectual Lewis (Carlo Alban) and his unrequited love, cheerleader Margaret (Bonnie Sherman) stay one step ahead of the marauding beasties. But the absurd plot isn't at all the point. The clever videos and the spot-on use of pop music (from Bonnie Tyler to Lordi) are key, but what makes this production a knockout is a one-two-three punch: the skilled and scarily energetic cast; the stylized, silly gore; and Nguyen's hilarious and pointed dialogue.

Edgar: You're mom's hot…I think she wants me.
Margaret: You're a stuffed animal.
Edgar: Yo, that's racist.
Margaret: That's not racist.
Edgar: You're suggesting that your mom wouldn't date me because of something as small as my genetic makeup.

Besides the abovementioned actors, Andrea Marie Smith and Tom Myers each steal the show at various points in various roles. But there's no point detailing the great moments. Just catch this flashy, good-natured send-up of everything geeky and gory and youthful and fun. Visit the HERE Arts Center website for tickets.