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Critic's Notebook for March 2, 2015

by Christine Emba

Posted: Mar 02, 2015 07:15 PM


 

Julia Sinelnikova, Cyrstal Fragments, 2014-15

 

Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every Monday—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in New York and beyond, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.

This week: False prophets, buried giants, and meaningful marginalia.

FictionThe Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf): Ishiguro’s first new novel in a decade, The Buried Giant is set in medieval England—not the cheery land of Arthurian tales, but a gloomy, foggy country still recovering from recent Saxon invasions. Axl and Beatrice, an elderly, ailing couple, embark on a pilgrimage to the village of their half-forgotten son, setting into motion a revisiting of their own past and a resonant story of love, vengeance, and war. —CE

Nonfiction:  Liberty’s First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech, by Charles Slack (Grove Atlantic): Readers of The New Criterion know of the many threats to the First Amendment today. But this is hardly the first time we’ve been faced with the possibility of losing one of our most cherished rights. In Liberty's First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech, Charles Slack describes one of the first great threats to freedom of speech: the 1798 Sedition Act, which ignited a fierce fight between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. Slack shows how passionately and skillfully Americans of the early republic fought to preserve their hard-won freedoms. –RH

Poetry: The Opposite House, by Claudia Emerson (Southern Messenger Poets): The late Emerson, a 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winner, filled her last work with detailed portraits of subjects ranging from inanimate objects to archetypal characters. These depictions are rendered in spare, discreet strokes that nevertheless convey emotions sharply felt.   —CE

Art: Beat Nite with Norte Maar (Friday, March 6): If you find New York Art Fair Week has gone from fizz to fizzle, Friday's Bushwick Beat Nite is a welcome tonic. This biannual late-night gallery crawl, organized by Norte Maar and this time curated by the critic Ben Sutton, is the perfect way to survey this outer-borough art scene. And unlike on the piers, we are all on the full-access VIP list. The select galleries are open 6-10pm, with an after party (10-1am) at The Vasquez (93 Forrest Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn). —JP

Music: Neighborhood Concert: Ensemble ACJW at Carnegie Hall (Sunday, March 8): Musicians from Ensemble ACJW, Carnegie Hall's young artists program, come together on Sunday to perform two of the greatest works of the chamber repertoire. Six musicians will present two trios, Beethoven's famous "Ghost" trio and Brahms's Horn Trio in E-flat Major, the first and greatest piece for such an instrumentation. The concert at Our Saviour's Atonement Lutheran Church on 189th Street is free and open to the public. —ECS

Other: Readers Make Their Mark: Annotated Books at the New York Society Library (February 5—August  15): Marginalia matter—while texts themselves tend to be the main attractions, the oft-uncensored commentary from other readers can provide useful (or hilarious) new insight. Readers Make Their Mark explores the practice of reading through the many handwritten notes left in the margins of books from the New York Society Library’s Special Collections. The handwritten finds span a wide range, from a Renaissance-era schoolboy’s notes in his copy of Virgil to George Bernard Shaw’s annotations on a proof of his play Too True to be Good. —CE

From the archive: The false prophet, by Anthony Daniels. On the false profundity of Kahlil Gibran.

From our latest issue: Piano plays Harvard, by Peter Pennoyer: A review of the new Harvard Art Museums, designed by Renzo Piano.

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Music from discord

by Eric C. Simpson

Posted: Mar 02, 2015 12:42 PM


Julian Wachner

I heard an ambitious concert at Carnegie Hall a Saturday ago: Julian Wachner, who commands the musical forces of Trinity Wall Street and the Washington Chorus, brought just about every musician at his disposal to perform two comparatively rare works.

About the first, Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 4, I won’t say much other than that it is a strong (if somewhat scattered) piece that received a strong (if somewhat scattered) performance.

The second piece, Ginastera’s Turbae ad passionem Gregorianam, was entirely unfamiliar to me—as I’m sure it was to the rest of the audience. It received its premiere in 1975, and since then has been performed only a few times, no more than a dozen or so. It is a revelation.

The Turbae is a difficult work to listen to, much as Hedda Gabler is a difficult play to watch, or Heart of Darkness a difficult book to read. It is emotionally trying—terrifying, really. The speeches of Christ, the Evangelist, and the other characters (Judas, Longinus, etc.) are simply intoned by three soloists, but they are not the main attraction. Ginastera distills the narrative of the Passion to its crowd scenes, making the chorus the driving force of his work.

There is not much in the way of beauty here, at least not superficial beauty—there are some moments of lyricism to be found, but the music mostly impresses by sheer force, the violent discord of the chorus reminding the listener of his insignificance, his helplessness. Much of the chorus’s text is whispered, chanted, hissed, or even screamed. To these furious episodes the speakers’ occasional interludes act both as a soothing antidote and a point of comparison, exaggerating the madness of the crowd.

But to say that Saturday’s performance was “ugly” or even “unpleasant” would be missing the point. Listening to Wachner and his musicians produced an adrenal thrill—the tumult of the crowd was repellent, but at the same time it had a certain allure. Even as I felt surrounded, threatened on all sides, I had a sense of just how easily one could be swept up in the fanatic frenzy of the mob.

When the concert finished, a sense of relief washed over the hall as Wachner held up the enormous score in triumph. After the chorus had roared at the audience for an hour, it seemed only too appropriate that we should roar back.

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In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: Feb 27, 2015 03:25 PM


Edgar Degas, Two Dancers at Rest or Dancers in Blue, c.1898

 

Recent links of note:

ISIS Destroys Mosum Museum Collection and Ancient Assyrian Statues
Benjamin Sutton, Hyperallergic
Luckily, many of the statues were replicas, but the group has moved on to burning books and ancient manuscripts.

Why digital natives prefer reading in print. Yes, you read that right. 
Michael S. Rosenwald,The Washington Post
Kids these days, with their completely understandable reactionary tendencies... 

A Reputation More Durable Than Marble
Adam Kirsch, Standpoint Magazine
Has ambition become unethical? Today, writers no longer seek immortality through their work. (Except for yours truly, of course—I expect you'll be reading these long after I'm gone. Right?)

The man who made Monet: how impressionism was saved from obscurity
Michael Progder, The Guardian
The French dealer Paul Durand-Ruel not only spotted talent, but promoted it indefatigably.  

Edmund Burke's Enduring Relevance
Gerard Wilson, Quadrant Online
"Burke’s conception of reason and human society provides intellectual tools to meet the radical political theories that are undermining the polities of the West." We at TNC agree, which is why our Award for Service to Culture and Society is bestowed in his name. Join us at this year's gala

 

From our pages:

The Boston Raphael
Marco Grassi
A review of The Boston Raphael: A Mysterious Painting, an Embattled Mueseum in an Era of Change, and a Daughter's Search for the Truth by Belinda Rathbone

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Theatre of war

by James Bowman

Posted: Feb 27, 2015 12:34 PM


Ewan Donald as Malcolm in Dunsinane. Photo by Jason Ma.

Is it just me or has the theatrical culture of the English-speaking world gone into a terminal decline? I would think that perception a sign of my advancing age but for the occasional straws in the wind to suggest that I am not entirely alone. Janice Turner in The Times of London, for example, writes that she recently walked out of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie Inherent Vice.

 

After 30 minutes of letting bonged-out hippy ramblings “wash over” me, I was imploring my husband to leave. We lasted an hour. And as we burst into the foyer, enjoying that same exquisite pleasure as when escaping a boring dinner or almost any play, two others followed us. “What the hell was that about?” we all cried.

Can you guess what words in that passage leap out at me? I’ll tell you. “Almost any play.” Yes! I can barely remember the last play that I didn’t at least want to walk out of at intermission. And I have now walked out of the last two I have seen at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington. A few nights ago it was Dunsinane by David Greig, presented by the National Theatre of Scotland. To be sure, my dissatisfaction wasn’t entirely the fault of the play, which wasn’t quite so bad as I had expected—not that that is saying very much for it. It was pretty bad, at least what I could hear of it. A combination of the uncompromising Scottish accents (why is making the actors speak comprehensibly to American ears the only bit of pandering to the audience’s ignorance that the producers won’t do?) and poor enunciation and acoustics meant that I found only about half of the play understandable.

And what I could understand made precious little sense of any but the most literal kind. The big idea of Mr. Greig’s play, in case you don’t know, is to bill itself as a sequel to Macbeth, with the occupying English army in Scotland of the 11th century seen as analogous to the Americans and British in Iraq or Afghanistan in the 21st. Shakespeare, as is usual these days in the theatre company that bears his name along with that of the Father of Our Country, is nothing but a convenient peg on which to hang contemporary and remarkably facile political commentary of a predictably left-wing sort—which is thus meant to take on a certain lustre from its association with his brand-name drama.

Yet the analogy itself is a potentially interesting one. The historian Niall Ferguson made it in connection with last year’s Scottish independence referendum. Writing of a period half a millennium after that in which the play is set, he pointed out that,

 

for most of the early modern period, the Scots kingdom was Europe’s Afghanistan. In the Highlands and the Hebrides, feudal warlords ruled over an utterly impoverished populace in conditions of lawlessness and internecine clan conflict. In the Lowlands, religious zealots who fantasised about a Calvinist theocracy — government by the godly Elect — prohibited dancing, drinking and drama. John Knox and his ilk were the Taliban of the Reformation. Witches were burnt in large numbers in Scotland, not in England.

Yet this intriguing comparison, and anything it might have had to teach us about what we and the world are up against in the war on Islamic terrorism, conveys nothing to the playwright or the players or the Shakespeare Theatre audience apart from the smug self-satisfaction of knowing that they would have been smarter than to get involved in some other country’s civil war.

Mind you, we’re talking here about something very much better than the worst of the politicized theatre (or movies) spawned by the wars of the last decade. Siward, the English general played by Darrell D’Silva, is much more sympathetically portrayed than might have been expected: a good man with the best of motives in overthrowing the tyrant Macbeth. He tries to do his best for the subject Scots, but he is in way over his head and subject to continual manipulation by the duplicitous Malcolm (Ewan Donald), his own corrupt lieutanant Egham (Alex Mann) and the beautiful but ruthless and treacherous Lady Macbeth—here called Gruach and played by Siobhan Redmond, who created the role in 2010—imagined as having survived her husband’s defeat to treat with Malcolm and the English as a rival power center among the feuding Highland warlords. Siward’s good intentions are to the play’s credit, but they are made to seem hopelessly naive and turn him into nothing more worthy of our respect than the fools he is being compared to.

But what propelled me out the door at the first opportunity wasn’t even that there was exactly zero effort to imagine what people of a thousand years ago would have looked or thought or talked like—assuming they could speak comprehensible contemporary English. Like the fights, which were all stylized and made no pretense of realism, the characters were not even supposed to look like the world they were ostensibly representing. But no, what bothered me about seeing my contemporaries pretending so unconvincingly to be people of the Middle Ages is that they seemed to have been doing it as a positive reproof to the audience’s now very much latent desire to see something other than themselves reflected back at them. “Don’t go there!” Mr. Greig’s puppets appear to me to be saying. “You won’t find anything in the vast graveyard of the past to compare in interest to the mugs you already know all too well and whom we are once again putting on stage for you to feel superior to.” Maybe, unlike them, I’m just tired of feeling superior.

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A capital night of Rossini at the Met

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Feb 24, 2015 12:34 PM


Joyce DiDonato as Elena and Juan Diego Flórez as Giacomo V in La donna del lago

The Metropolitan Opera is now presenting La donna del lago, by Rossini. It has never done so before. That title, in English, is The Lady of the Lake. Sir Walter Scott wrote his narrative poem in 1810, and Rossini made an opera out of it within the decade.

It is one of his magnificent works. It has two famous arias, including the one that it ends with: “Tanti affetti.” There is no greater showpiece aria in bel canto. The other famous aria is “Mura felici,” slain by Marilyn Horne, among others.

Longtime readers are familiar with a theme of mine: The conductor is regularly the most important person in an opera performance. This may be obvious in a work such as Wagner’s Parsifal. But is it true in bel canto as well? Oh, yes. Won’t some Italian journeyman do, beating time while the singers onstage spin their lines? Oh, no.

The conductor makes a huge difference in bel canto. A good one can redeem the night when the singing is subpar. A poor one deflates the night, even if Callas and Stignani are onstage.

Friday night’s Donna del lago had splendid conducting from Michele Mariotti, whom we have met before. For instance, he conducted Bellini’s Puritani last season, while his wife, Olga Peretyatko, sang the soprano role onstage. In La donna del lago, Mariotti was taut, graceful, and smart. He has the style, a style hard for many to absorb.

The star tenor of the night was Juan Diego Flórez, the bel canto tenor of our day. He had the little bleat in his voice—the caprino—which is not to everyone’s taste. But he has bestridden the world with it. And, on this occasion, he was at his absolute best. He was confident, secure, and gleaming. And musical. And thoroughly Italianate. There was nothing for the listener to worry about. You could sit back in your seat and merely enjoy the Flórezness.

Also, he was believable as the Scottish king he was portraying, Giacomo (James), initially disguised as a fellow named Uberto. What do I mean by “believable”? I mean, primarily, that Flórez carried himself regally. He squared his shoulders, held his head erect, and sang.

No offense, but I would not have bet my life savings that Flórez could be convincingly kingly. I could have, should have, made that bet.

Given Flórez’s presence in the cast, you would not have envied the second tenor involved, John Osborn. He sang the role of Rodrigo, “chief of the Highlanders.” When he began, he gave us a very poor low C. But then there were high C’s—which were excellent. One was soft, and especially admirable (because so difficult to pull off). Throughout the opera, Osborn acquitted himself with honor, even nobly.

By the way, we have met him before, too. I wrote about him from Salzburg two summers ago. He was Pollione opposite Cecilia Bartoli’s Norma in Bellini’s opera of that name (Norma, I mean). He shone on that night, singing with both beauty and strength.

If you wouldn’t have envied Osborn, because of Flórez, you really wouldn’t have envied Daniela Barcellona, given who the principal mezzo was. (More about her in due course.) Barcellona was the No. 2 mezzo, so to speak, singing Malcolm, a pants role (as the name tells you). In this production, Malcolm is a kilt role.

Yes, Barcellona was outfitted in a kilt, as well as a beard and mustache (if I saw correctly). She could almost have joined the circus. She was not a pretty sight, I’m afraid. But she was not there to be pretty: She was there to sing Malcolm.

To him falls one of those smash arias, “Mura felici,” and Barcellona did not do her best in it. She was underpowered and off pitch (sharp, mainly). But she was clearly intelligent. And why do I say she did not “do her best”? How do I know that? Because in the subsequent act—Act II—she was much stronger. A better singer, all the way around, justifying her hire.

Singing Duglas, father of our heroine, Elena, was Oren Gradus, a bass. He had a certain parental authority. What he did not have was sound—volume. That made his air of authority all the more important.

La donna del lago is virtually a clarinet concerto. There are more important singers than the clarinet in this piece, but not many—just a few. Jessica Phillips Rieske was our principal, and she handled her music with agility, lyricism, and flair.

The Met chorus is accustomed to being lauded, and rightly so. On Friday night, the women sang delicately and precisely. The men, singing separately, had a less laudable night. They did not meet their usual standard of crispness. But the chorus has set the bar in this house very high.

Of course, the Met orchestra has done the same. In La donna del lago, the orchestra in general was limpid, fleet, and other things that Rossini wants.

The production is in the hands of Paul Curran, a Scottish director (for a Scottish opera, or a “Scottish” one). I will pick on it for a bit. The Highland warriors do a kind of football huddle, which comes off as silly. (I’m talking about American football, not the other kind.) They beat their breasts, which, again, comes off as silly, in my view. There is Braveheart war paint—a bit silly.

At one point, men come in bearing scenery: trees. Birnam Wood on the move? That’s Scottish too, isn’t it?

I could mock on. There were hoots from the audience, and not desired hoots. That was painful. But I liked this production. I will first give it some negative praise, which is praise nonetheless.

The production does not try to alter, distort, or hijack the opera. It does not make itself front and center. Rather, it serves the opera. Frames the opera. Complements it. The director is not an egotist, spilling himself all over the stage, and Rossini’s work.

Moreover, I thought the sky was striking, and James’s throne room splendid.

I have not yet mentioned the star of the show, the mezzo singing Elena, Joyce DiDonato. Frankly, I am out of words. Also frankly, I’m sick of saying “I am out of words.” For the last ten years, I have written more about Joyce DiDonato than I have to my own mother. I first heard her in the negligible role of Stéphano, in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. I was floored. I have had no reason to get off the floor since.

At least twice already this season, I have reviewed DiDonato. She appeared in a concert performance of Handel’s opera Alcina. I had a lot to say about her here. She also gave a recital. For my review, go here.

I should not say nothing about her Elena, so I will say something—just one thing. I have heard her sing “Tanti affetti” several times. But I had never heard her sing it in the context of the opera. She acts the thing, too. It’s enough to sing it—but she actually acts it, and affectingly.

Holy mackerel.

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Critic's Notebook for February 23, 2015

by Christine Emba

Posted: Feb 23, 2015 03:54 PM


 

Brett Baker, night table, 2014-2015

 

Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every Monday—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in New York and beyond, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.

 

This week: Lovers, paintings, and disagreements.

FictionThe American Lover, by Rose Tremain (W. W. Norton and Company): Confined to her London apartment, an author recovers from the car accident that broke both her legs by reminiscing about the older man who seduced her in 1960s Paris. Two high school girls, both field hockey players, set their sights on a young female teacher. A father, having finally escaped his daughter’s demands, embarks on a long swim from his lakeside retreat. The settings and subjects vary, but throughout this book of short stories, the Man Booker–shortlisted Tremain delivers exquisite prose. —CE

Nonfiction: Operation Chowhound: The Most Risky, Most Glorious US Bomber Mission of WWII, by Stephen Dando-Collins (Palgrave Macmillan): For the World War II buffs out there, Stephen Dando-Collins has written a fast-paced, detailed account of Operation Chowhound. Starting on May 1, 1945, the U.S. Air Force, with German consent, flew just 400 feet above Nazi-occupied Holland and dropped food to the more than three million starving Dutch civilians below.  This program, along with the corresponding efforts by the British and Canadian Air Forces (called Operation Manna), kept many Dutch alive until the end of the war. In a show of thanks, Dutch civilians spelled out “MANY THANKS” in Tulips for the pilots to see. –RH

Poetry: From the New World: Poems 1976-2014, by Jorie Graham (Ecco): Jorie Graham has been described as “one of the most celebrated poets of the American post-war generation.” Drawing on the eleven volumes Graham has published over the course of her Pulitzer Prize–winning career, this new volume reveals thematic threads that tie her poems together, from the earliest to the newest. —CE

Art: Brett Baker: Recent Paintings at Elizabeth Harris Gallery (on view through March 28): Take a look at the dates of Brett Baker's latest paintings at Elizabeth Harris and you will invariably see a dash. Although they may measure just a few inches on each side, Baker's simple striped canvases may stretch over many years, with at least one in production since 2009. The rough result reveals years of accretion, as one stripe of oil is added to the next. As I wrote of Baker’s first show at the gallery two years ago, these devotional compositions have a "compulsive, outsider-artist intensity.... The effort is plain to see, even if we cannot imagine why it was done." —JP

Music: The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall (Friday, February 27 - Sunday, March 1): This weekend, the Vienna Philharmonic comes to Carnegie Hall for a three-concert stand to present Brahms's greatest orchestral works, including the complete cycle of symphonies. They lead off on Friday with Symphonies 1 and 3, and finish on Sunday with Ein Deutsches Requiem. If you can only go for one night, pick Saturday—Symphonies 2 and 4, under the leadership of the dynamic Daniele Gatti, should be memorable. —ECS

Other: Mahler Chamber Orchestra: Leif Ove Andsnes (Monday, February 23 & Wednesday, February 25): Leif Ove Andsnes's "Beethoven Journey," his four-year exploration of the master's piano works, might not be the most daring project a musician has ever undertaken. But if it allows us to hear great performances of these towering works, so be it: tonight, Adsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra perform Beethoven's second, third, and fourth piano concerti (the glowing fourth being my personal favorite of the bunch) at Carnegie Hall, with the first and fifth to follow on Wednesday. Tonight's concert will be broadcast live on WQXR. —ECS

From the archive: Fish-eating, whiskey, death, & rebirth, by Christopher Carduff: On Joseph Mitchell.

From our latest issue: Letters: The monument’s men: Alfred Geduldig disagrees with Bruce Cole’s January piece, and Cole himself replies.

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Cold comfort

by Natasha Simons

Posted: Feb 23, 2015 12:44 PM


Photo Credit: Richard Termine

The Iceman Cometh is one of those plays that many feel they have to see only once—and perhaps not even quite that many times. Edgar Allen Poe, a gifted literary critic as well as a powerful creative force, wrote that any work of literary art must observe the "limit of a single sitting.” I can say with some certainty that Eugene O'Neill was not concerned with that limit when he wrote Iceman, an endurance test of approximately five hours. As a matter of principle, any review of the play must come back to the facticity of its length; it is a difficult and taxing experience no matter the excellence of the acting, design, or directing—which, luckily, is all there in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s recent staging of the 2012 Goodman Theatre production.

The year is 1912, and the setting is a grimly lit saloon and rooming house. The impoverished residents of said rooming house conduct their lives with the zombified air of those who have devoted the rest of their meager lives to drink. They spend their days waiting for a visit from the razzle-dazzle con man Theodore “Hickey” Hickman (Nathan Lane), who typically bestows upon them free drinks and lively stories. But that is not the way of it during Iceman. Hickey has suddenly given up alcohol and, with the cheerful fervor of a convert, unfolds a bizarre plan to divest the regulars of their “pipe dreams” of ever returning to a normal life outside the bar’s four walls.

There was rather a lot of breathless coverage at a funnyman playing the lead in one of the most hopeless plays of our modern age. But Iceman, for all its dreariness, is not without humor, and the ubiquity of the idea of the sad clown should demonstrate that our comedians appreciate a certain attraction to pathos. Mr. Lane in the role is marvelous, although it is simple to describe his performance: imagine you or I, when asked to do an impression of Nathan Lane, enacted about the broadest impression in our imagination. Lane’s mannerisms are themselves cultural icons, but they do serve the charming, manipulative Theodore Hickman perfectly. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the stoic, rough-hewn Brian Dennehy in the same role, which he played in a 1990 production. In this staging, he delivers his own heavily contemplative stillness as the erstwhile anarchist Larry Slade.

The play begins in near complete darkness, an oneiric beginning that perhaps was too on-the-nose: even in the haughty and well-heeled BAM, I observed many audience members nodding off in the first act. (The lighting director Natasha Katz has enacted her craft here with the artistry of a painting: the fact that I noticed it not once, but throughout, speaks to the intelligence of her design.)  This darkness partnered with the whispers of Mr. Dennehy and his shiftless counterparts create an atmosphere of somnolence that Mr. Lane boisterously breaks, somewhat of a relief to your humble correspondent and the audience in general, judging from the sudden straightened backs.

The acting cannot be faulted in this production: not only do Lane and Dennehy deserve accolades, but in some of the less showy roles, Steven Ouimette is devastating as proprietor Harry, and John Douglas Thompson as Joe Mott does more than can be expected with the ham-fisted race material he's given, lending gravity to a role that, although likely quite progressive when it was written in 1939, feels dated in the modern day. Patrick Andrews does teeter into stridency as the childish revolutionary Don Parritt, who comes out of Larry’s past to interrupt his apathetic, intoxicated fog with remembrances of Don’s free-spirited mother, Larry’s former lover, who seems to be modeled in part on the anarchist Emma Goldman.

Eugene O’Neill’s America is one of no dreams at all, and Iceman heads in equal part for the throat of anarchism (in Larry) and capitalism (in Hickey). Set against each other throughout the course of the play, the two come to resemble each other as much as anything else. This production is unusually deft at revealing the spiritual emptiness behind both of their dogmas, in a play in which little can be called subtle. (Actual dialogue: “For Death was the Iceman Hickey called to his home!” —in case you were curious as to what the Iceman symbolized.)

But Hickey himself comes in both the guise of Death and the Savior, a messianic comparison drawn particularly in the second act, with Ms. Katz’s glowing spotlight centered all-too-knowingly overhead on Hickey—who stands direct center of a long table, recalling The Last Supper. In the end, however, he is more Antichrist than Christ: his attempt to rouse the patrons of the bar is merely one last, great con from the master who can see through anyone. The third act is the crowning achievement of this theme, and of this production in general. The set design by Kevin Depinet is especially clever, a trompe l’oeil effect of the saloon’s main room that narrows the floorboards as they approach the requisite swinging double doors. The eye is drawn toward the exit, much like the eyes of the drunks themselves, who wake up from their respective fogs and drift out of the bar, some for the first time in years—however temporary their departures prove. Mr. Oumiette is heartbreaking as he attempts his usual liquid escape in the face of Hickey’s soapboxing, speaking the famous lines: “What did you do to this booze, Hickey? There’s no damned life in it.”

But here we come to the fourth and final act, in which the upholstered seats at BAM begin to divest themselves of their patrons, leaving a decimated bunch of survivors to muddle through the last act, which, frankly, is a mess. Not even Mr. Lane’s admirable scenery-chewing can save this last hour-and-change from its meandering and repetitive speeches. If O’Neill and director Robert Falls’s intention is to create the same weariness in the viewer as in the patrons of the bar, they have succeeded. Knowing why something is done, however, is not quite the same thing as appreciating it, and here the hours begin to make themselves known. But the ending, which faces the wildly noisy soullessness of the once-again oblivious barflies against Larry’s all-too-knowing silence, is a terrifying apotheosis of the themes of the play, restoring a unity to the proceedings that almost—almost—makes one forget the time.

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Sisyphus ascendant

by Eric C. Simpson

Posted: Feb 20, 2015 04:15 PM


Vince B. Vincent in Sisyphus; photo by Reuben Radding

I won’t attempt to give you a plot summary of Sisyphus, an opera I attended last Friday, if only because a linear plot isn’t part of the creative team’s objective. The titular mythological figure is represented, albeit as a self-obsessed club kahuna. Present too is the nymph Aegina, whose fling with Zeus, given a flippant treatment at first, later serves as the basis for the opera’s brightest poetry. In the corner alone is Brianna, an artist struggling almost as much to find inspiration as she is to find romance. All of these scenes fit together somehow, though the exact configuration is neither clear nor terribly important.

Sisyphus is the latest project of Experiments in Opera, a small company that performs in the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side. Jointly created by the group’s three artistic directors (Jason Cady, Aaron Siegel, and Matthew Welch), the fifty-some-minute chamber opera is an endearing piece, featuring a witty, fresh libretto brought to life by a trio of impressive young singers in various roles.

The score, which calls for cello, double bass, vibraphone, and modular synthesizer, in addition to the singers, has a tendency to fall into certain common traps of contemporary composition. The most egregious of these comes in a pair of dialogue scenes, one a conversation at the gym, the other a planning session for a bank heist. The characters here mostly sing back and forth on a minor third, with an occasional fifth on top thrown in to spice things up. As a way of creating a sort of modernist recitative-equivalent, this might be intentional. It is also dull.

When flexing their melodic muscle, though, the composers create spacious, arching lyricism that fits the soaring poetry of Aegina’s (or rather, the teenaged Aegie's) ruminations on the flight of the eagle (sung with an easy, sweet warble by Lucy Dhegrae). Elsewhere, the jagged, manic lines fit perfectly over the spiky text of Brianna’s obsessive episodes (more on her later). Sisyphus (played by the brassy-voiced tenor Vince B. Vincent) reaches his greatest passion in a tormented monologue during which he throws his boulder (a giant inflatable ball) about the stage and into the audience. The judicious but effective orchestration was admirably performed, especially by the cellist, Meaghan Burke, whose recurring frantic arpeggios created a sense of constant motion.

Ethan Heard, the production’s director, shows a keen understanding of the work’s substance in his staging. With the orchestra along the back wall, he divides the space into three main playing areas. Stage left presents Aegie's bedroom, where a computer monitor facing the audience gives us a glimpse into the young woman’s imagination with videos of eagles on the wing. The center of the stage, in front of the ensemble, is left open, providing a versatile playing space for a variety of scenes.

Heard’s most brilliant touch is his treatment of Brianna, who spends the entire opera alone in a cage stage right, with implied blank walls on all sides, furnished only by a smaller cube in the center. Trapped in a prison of her own imagining, she approaches a state of mania in fevered moments of inspiration, attacking the imaginary wall with violent brush strokes as the lighting (designed by Masha Tsimring) cycles rapidly through an array of colors. Her only contacts with the outside world, a bizarrely ecstatic delivery order and a series of awkward Tinder messages, elicited sympathetic groans and knowing laughter in equal measure. Kate Maroney’s performance as Brianna was transfixing, her assertive sound matching the high-pitched intensity of her character.

When the New York City Opera finally ran down the curtain in 2013, talk in the musical world revolved around what might replace it. A new company on the same scale seems unlikely in the immediate future, but we have seen instead the flourishing of smaller outfits devoted to presenting rare and experimental works that, for practical reasons, lie outside the scope of large houses like the Met. Launched in 2011, EiO has quickly become a vital part of that subculture, testing boundaries and changing the way we think of opera as a genre.


Sisyphus continues Friday, February 20 and Saturday, February 21 at Abrons Arts Center. For tickets and information, visit http://experimentsinopera.com/portfolio-item/sisyphus/ 

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In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: Feb 20, 2015 11:05 AM


Tomas Balaztena, Winter in Quaker Ridge, 2012. 

It's cold outside. 

 

Recent links of note:

What Must We Think About When We Think About Politics?
Myron Magnet, City Journal
Data isn't enough. 

Frank Lloyd Wright buildings nominated by the United States for UNESCO Heritage List
ArtDaily.org
Nine of them, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York and Taliesin West in Arizona. 

The age-old art of musical page turning is under threat from the accursed iPad
Simon Usborne, The Independent
Like everything good in life. (You can also use the infernal machine to read TNC.)

The Art World's 60-Year Rut: Could a New Golden Age be on the Horizon?
New York Observer
"This is how we know precisely that we’re not in any Golden Age for visual art: There’s the spectacle of obsessive, laser-like bidding on lonely, singular canvasses by the few, but no broadly shared delight and conversation."

A Long Decline
The Economist
Kids these days can't write a clean sentence, but the kids of the past were just as bad. 

 

From our pages:

Philosophical Roughage
Christie Davies
A review of Žižek's Jokes: Did You Hear the One about Hegel and Negation?

 

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Critic's Notebook for February 17, 2015

by Christine Emba

Posted: Feb 17, 2015 07:26 PM


 

Katherine Bradford, Desire for Transport, 2007

Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every Monday—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in New York and beyond, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.

 

This week: Science, Caesar, and Submission.

FictionThe Hunger of the Wolf, by Stephen Marche (Simon & Schuster): Jamie Cabot grew up in isolated Alberta, Canada, where his parents work for the elusive and enigmatic Wylie family, one of the richest business dynasties in the world. When Jamie finds the Wylies’ heir dead in the snow, he sets out to uncover how and why the man died. Marche’s novel explores the nature of family bonds and the dangers of wealth and power, using suspense and elements of the supernatural to create a compelling tale.  —CE

Nonfiction: To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science, by Steven Weinberg (Harper): Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg has written an impressive history of science from the ancient Greeks to the modern era. Through descriptions of monumental scientific institutions such as Plato’s Academy, the Museum of Alexandria, and the Royal Society of London, as well as the scientists who worked in these establishments, Weinberg reveals how far science, or, rather, our understanding of the universe, has come. –RH

Poetry: Young Man Langston: A Dramatic Reading at 92Y (Monday, February 23): Two of New York’s finest stage actors—Aaron Clifton Moten and John Douglas Thompson—star in the premiere of Young Man Langston, a dramatic reading from the letters of Langston Hughes that looks at the poet’s formative years. The script is by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel, editors of the newly published Selected Letters of Langston Hughes. —CE

Art: Back to the Future Part II, at Life on Mars (February 20-March 15): Who here remembers Williamsburg back when it was Williamsburg? Yes, there was a time when the Bedford Street stop on the L train didn't just lead to a scrum of hipsters and a thicket of condominiums. Leave it to Michael David, the director of Bushwick gallery Life on Mars, to go "Back to the Future" with a survey of the Williamsburg painting scene of the 1980s. Opening Friday, his second part of his retrospective series features Peter Acheson, Katherine Bradford, Rick Briggs, Bill Jensen, Margrit Lewczuk, Chris Martin, Joyce Pensato, James Siena, and Amy Sillman. —JP

Music: Jamie Barton & Bradley Moore at Carnegie Hall (Tuesday, February 17): Tonight Jamie Barton, one of America's great young mezzo-sopranos, presents a program of art song with Bradley Moore in Carnegie's Zankel Hall. Works by Dvorak and Chausson will be performed, along with the world premiere of "The Work at Hand" by Jake Heggie. And, because one never tires of hearing his lieder, Schubert will be performed, including his seminal "Gretchen am Spinnrade," the work that helped to put art song on the map.  —ECS

Other: The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassin, by Barry Strauss (Simon & Schuster): If you are looking for a book that (as the poet Horace put it) delights as well as instructs, that possesses the narrative velocity of a classic Agatha Christie whodunnit and the historical interest of Gibbon, this engaging account of the murder of Julius Caesar—subduer of all Gaul (which is divided in three parts), reformer of the calendar (into the one that, with small changes, we still use), master of oratory, seducer of many wives, perpetual dictator and (we have good reason for believing) the man who would be king—this book by the high-octane classicist Barry Strauss is for you. Rome had been a sequence of bloodbaths in the century before Caesar started his astounding ascent. And though the Romans loved a winner, they couldn't abide a king. Caesar, they suddenly recognized, hankered after that reality even if he was willing to forgo the title. Brutus and the others mobilized to stop him. Strauss retells this most famous of murder mysteries starting from Caesar’s return to Rome in 45 B.C. after the last battle of the civil war which he sparked by crossing the Rubicon, and continues the story up to the ascension of Caesar’s young grandnephew, Octavian, known to the world as Augustus. It is a gripping tale, well told. –RK

From the archive: The human race: success or failure?, by Paul Johnson: On the precarious survival of humanity.

From our latest issue: France’s “Submission”, by Anthony Daniels: A review of Michel Houllebecq’s newest novel, Soumission.

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About ArmaVirumque

 

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In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.

 

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