Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Don lives

Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień returned to the title role in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”  a mere two weeks after having surgery on a herniated disc, aggravated during a rehearsal for The Metropolitan Opera’s new production. In an interview during a rebroadcast of “The Met: Live in HD” transmission, seen recently at City Center 15: Cinema de Lux in White Plains and venues worldwide, Kwiecień (KVEE tchen) told host Renée Fleming that he’s been singing the Don – who spends a lot of time exerting himself with the ladies – for nine years.

“Gee,” one City Center attendee whispered to her friend, “no wonder he hurt his back.”
Yes, that’s one of the many treats of experiencing  the “Live in HD” simulcasts: The (mostly senior) audience is almost as delicious as the operas.
For the uninitiated, The Met began simulcasting select productions into venues likes City Center, Regal New Roc Stadium 18 & IMAX in New Rochelle, Fairfield University’s Regina A. Quick Center and The Ridgefield Playhouse in 2006, adding locations worldwide and increasing the number of offerings each year. What might’ve appeared to be counterintuitive – taking audiences away from the opera house itself – turned out to be a stroke of genius on the part of Met General Manager Peter Gelb, the former SONY Classical president (and son of onetime New York Times’ managing editor Arthur Gelb) who started out at The Met as a teen usher and took over the top job four months before launching “Live in HD.” Since then, the series has sold nearly eight million tickets, while the 2011–12 season is being seen on more than 1,500 screens in more than 50 countries across six continents. Not only has “Live in HD” not detracted from The Met audience, it has helped the opera house to thrive at a time when other big cultural institutions are struggling.
It’s not surprising: The Nov. 16 rebroadcast of “Don Giovanni” at City Center alone filled two sold-out theaters, which is typical of the simulcasts. At roughly $20 a ticket, “Live in HD” is infinitely cheaper and more convenient than attending performances at The Met. Although nothing can replace the experience of being there, “Live in HD” has its own pleasures – the visceral thrill of the big screen, intermission interviews with the production principals that take viewers behind the scenes and ushers who hand out program material and cater to the audience’s every whim.
That audience is, again not surprisingly, overwhelming post-AARP, which is both a challenge and a delight. Get there early. This is a tough crowd that likes to stake out the best perches and looks askance at saving seats for latecomers. On the other hand, senior opera-goers – Sadly, is there any other kind these days? – bring sophisticated tastes to viewership. You didn’t have to explain to this group that “Non più andrai” from Wolfgang’s “The Marriage of Figaro” makes a guest appearance in “Don G’s” chilling climactic party scene. The seniors were laughing in recognition before Leporello, the Don’s cowering servant, sang: “I know this tune.”
Best of all, none of the musical and sexual complexity of “Don G” was lost either on the City Center throng or on The Met production, which has been given a Spanish Old Masters look by director Michael Grandage (who did the Broadway “Hamlet” with Jude Law).  The opera was beautifully sung by an A-list cast featuring Marina Rebeka, Barbara Frittoli, Luca Pisarino and Ramón Vargas, with Fabio Luisi, The Met’s new principal conductor, at the podium.
As for the Don himself, Kwiecień brought his impeccable baritone and an Errol Flynn swagger to the part.
Apparently, his back is all better.

Performances of “Don Giovanni” continue in February and March at The Metropolitan Opera with Gerald Finley, so compelling as J. Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic,” as the rakish Don. For ticket information, click on to

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

“The Met: Live in HD” continues with these works:

 Dec. 10 – “Faust” – Hunky tenor Jonas Kaufman is the titular antihero with the devil of a problem, bass René Pape is You-Know-Who and soprano Marina Poplavskaya is Marguerite, Faust’s pure love, in this Des McAnuff update. Rebroadcast Jan. 11.
Jan. 4  (rebroadcast) – “Rodelinda” – Soprano Renée Fleming and mezzo Stephanie Blythe have all the Baroque they can Handel in this reprise of the acclaimed Stephen Wadsworth production.
Jan. 21 – “The Enchanted Island” – The Met goes for Baroque in this pastiche that blends Handel’s,  Rameau’s and Vivaldi’s music with the Bard’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Tempest.” Rebroadcast Feb. 8
Feb. 11 – “Götterdämmerung” – It’s “Twilight of the Gods” time as The Met concludes its new “Ring” with soprano Deborah Voigt and tenor Jay Hunter Morris as Brünnhilde and Siegfried, Wagner’s ill-fated lovers. Rebroadcast TBA
Feb. 25 – “Ernani” – Soprano Angela Meade, who caused a sensation in Caramoor’s production of Rossini’s “Semiramide,” heads the cast of this early Verdi work, which co-stars Marcello Giordano as her ill-suited lover. Rebroadcast March 14
April 7 – “Manon” – Soprano Anna Netrebko suffers exquisitely (and gets to look fab in a fuchsia gown with jeweled halter straps) as Massenet’s heroine, who loves much but not wisely. Rebroadcast April 25
April 14 – “La Traviata” – Coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay offers her first Met Violetta, perhaps opera’s ultimate consumptive heroine, in this Willy Decker production that owes as much to Hitchcock and Salvador Dalí as it does to Verdi. Rebroadcast May 2
For times and venues, click on to

Monday, December 5, 2011

Holiday Movies

One of the great family traditions around holiday time – right up there with politely avoiding the fruitcake, unraveling the Gordion’s knot of Christmas tree lights and warming yourself by “The Yule Log” on the CW 11 – is popping in a Christmas movie or two. Everyone has his or her favorite. Some of them may even be on this list. But it is our hope here that you might find a new fave to tickle the funny bone, bring a tear to the eye, inspire the mind or warm the heart:

• “Always Remember I Love You” (1990) – This made-for-TV movie is the Holy Grail of holiday films as it is not available either on DVD or Amazon. But if you happen to see it listed on the tube, do not miss it. Stephen Dorff – who recently won acclaim as the disaffected movie star in Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” and should’ve had a big career – is extraordinary as a teen who spends one Christmas with the birth parents he was taken from as a baby, without initially revealing to them who he really is. The final revelatory moment is one of the most heartbreaking we’ve ever seen on film. Patty Duke matches Dorff note for emotional note as the birth mother who has never gotten over her loss.

• “The Gathering” (1977) – Another high-quality telefilm, this time about a gruff, self-centered businessman (a superb Ed Asner), with only a few months to live, who enlists his estranged wife (an equally marvelous Maureen Stapleton) in bringing their scattered family together for one last holiday. Like “A Christmas Carol,” it’s a sentimental but timely reminder that it’s never too late for forgiveness and redemption.

• “The Holiday” (2006) – Forget life: “The Holiday” is like a box of chocolates – high in calories, relatively low in nutritional value but oh-so-irresistible. You know a movie is a complete fantasy when the heroines (Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet) have glamorous jobs that make no real demands on them, live in homes right out of Architectural Digest and Cottage Living and have two near-perfect beaus (Jude Law, Jack Black) who are only concerned with their girlfriends’ feelings, plus a twinkly, elderly neighbor who dispenses sage advice (a charming Eli Wallach). Yet what can we say? This picture had us at “Hello.” (Oh, that’s another movie.)

• “Home Alone” (1990) and “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” (1992) – This is a case of an instant classic and a not-bad sequel. The original – about an incorrigible youngster (Where have you gone, Macaulay Culkin?) who discovers his true mettle when he’s left to defend the family home single-handedly against bumbling burglars (a change-of-pace Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern) – is just priceless. But it’s hard to beat the opening of “Home Alone,” part deux, in which our hero’s temper gets the better of him during the school’s Christmas concert.

• “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) – Remember the year Thirteen/WNET decided to cut the film to fit into its pledge drive and got so many angry letters the station had to apologize and show it uncut and uninterrupted? Thirteen won’t make that mistake again. Quite possibly the most popular holiday movie ever made, with James Stewart heading a first-rate cast in a poignant reminder that no life is insignificant.

• “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947 and 1994) – Another take-your-pick moment. The original, about a department-store Santa (Edmund Gwenn) who just may be the real St. Nick, is a well-loved classic. But the remake, with Richard Attenborough doing the red-suit honors, is a nice contemporary update that nonetheless honors the original.

• “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” (1962) – We know what you’re thinking: This is one of the greatest versions of the Dickens’ classic? Really? Really. First and foremost, it contains an absolutely top-notch score by Jule Styne, who wrote the music for “Gypsy” and “Funny Girl,” among other memorable musicals. Indeed, it’s worth the price of the DVD just to hear Belle, young Ebeneezer’s spurned fiancée, sing the poignant “Winter Was Warm.’ (She’s voiced by Connecticut’s own Jane Kean, Trixie on the later “Honeymooners.”) Jack Cassidy is another standout as Bob Cratchit, as is Jim Backus’ irrepressibly myopic Magoo. As he would say, “Magoo, you’ve done it again.”

• “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (1989) – For anyone who’s ever hated the holidays – the cooking and decorating disasters, the disappointing gifts, the dreaded shopping, the disgruntled relatives – this is a movie for you. The chuckles build to a crescendo as the hapless Griswold household, headed by Westchester’s Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, confront an errant squirrel, an AWOL cat, a randy dog, a conflagration and a S.W.A.T. team. As Aunt Bethany exclaims, “Play Ball!”

• “The Nutcracker” – Another twofer: “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” (1993) is a film record of the grandfather of all “Nuts,” with Macaulay Culkin (again) as the little Nutcracker Prince transformed by the power of love. This New York City Ballet production is good for kids, though it has many of the challenges you’ll find with dance on film. A better film of “The Nutcracker” is the 1977 version starring Rockland’s Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland in a decidedly Freudian interpretation. Save this one for when the kiddies go to bed.

• “White Christmas” (1954) – This Irving Berlin pastiche remains another beloved holiday tradition, and it’s easy to see why. With Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney crooning, Vera-Ellen supplying the toe-tapping and Danny Kaye the yucks, it’s a can’t-miss. Some of the best numbers are set in the pre-Christmas Florida opening. It’s hard not to like “Sisters,” with Crosby and Kaye making like Clooney and Vera-Ellen, and the fabulous sequence to “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” which displays just how talented Kaye and Vera-Ellen were.