Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 26, 2010

The Met Lives-from radio to movie screens to NYC

by Shera Cohen

My love of opera began in the womb. Mom listened faithfully to Saturday matinees broadcast directly from the Metropolitan Opera. Actually, she started this habit when she was a youngster and has rarely missed a literal beat in the past 70 years. Therefore, if I was home on any given Saturday, I was more or less forced to hear opera.

Roberto Alagana
in Verdi's "Don Carlo"
December 11, 2010
During my elementary school years, this music was torture to my ears. How could it compete with Elvis, Joey Dee, and the doo-wop quartets? But Mom turned up the volume for her favorite arias (the love song in Act I of "La Boheme," "Habanera" of "Carmen," and "Nessun Dorma" from "Turandot") and even Little Peggy March lost the battle of the high notes. So, I grabbed my Ginny doll, went to my room, and closed the door for some peace from this noise.

A few years passed, and I received the gift of a tiny transistor radio that only got the AM dial. [Remember when they were cool to be small, later they grew into boom boxes, and now small again?] I discovered the Top 40, the Beatles, and on occasion and even on purpose a bit of opera. I hid around the corner of the den to listen. Mom never noticed me - I think. For the most part, I continued to believe that opera was for those who understood languages other than English and/or for old people.

I'm in high school, and that seed of music appreciation that began 16 years prior, didn't quite blossom but, at the very least, germinated. At the time, if I had to list my personal Top 10, it would have included songs of Roy Orbison, Tom Jones, and anything by The Four Seasons. Among the remaining six, was "Un belle di" from "Madama Butterfly." Did I grow up? Did my undiscerning ears finally detect true beauty in music - unbelievable beauty and emotion - from opera? Perhaps a bit ashamed to admit it, the answer was "yes." Ashamed because I waited many years to appreciate the sounds that filled the house each Saturday, or ashamed because I was a teenager and was not "supposed" to like opera? I think the answer is "both."

Juan Diego Florez
"Le Comte Ory"
March 24, 2011
The 2010/11 season is the 80th anniversary of the Saturday matinee radio broadcasts, now heard on NPR stations as well as throughout the world on the International Radio Network. The series runs from December through May. This is FREE opera at its very best. I now try to run my Saturday comings and goings with an approximate three-hour time span to sit by the stereo for opera listening. Mom often said that she was "glued to the radio" for the Texaco Opera Broadcasts (now sponsored by the Toll Brothers). While I didn't exactly become glued, it was difficult to pull me away from any piece composed by Puccini, Verdi, Bizet, or Donezetti. However, listening to Wagner once was enough. Save for vacations and otherwise special occasions, I have been faithful to these live Met broadcasts for decades. Basically, there was only thing that could pry me away from the matinees on radio - the matinees at the movies.

And then came the big screen! Live in HD. The Met launched its award-winning first season of live, HD performances in 2006. For the first time, simultaneous performances of those at the Met came to a movie theatre near you - and me. Now in its fifth season, HD operas have been seen by nearly 2 million on 1000 movie screens in over 40 countries. Officials at the Met now call what was a "calculated risk" a "worldwide phenomenon."

Before the movie series began, there must have been so many practical questions. Only time would tell for the responses. Would traditional opera goers not attend live performances? Would they go to these movies instead? Would those who might have thought about going to New York, abandon that idea for a trip a few miles down the road to the cinema? Does money talk? Can one put a dollar value on music? On opera? Then there are sociological questions. Is opera for the elite? Is it accessible? Will someone under age 50 be the youngest person in the audience?

It seems that one of the Met's plans was to increase audience numbers. According to Executive Director Peter Gelb, the series has surpassed the goal. Yet, that in itself has been criticized by those who believe that the appeal of live opera has been undermined. "Nothing replaces the experience of being at the Metropolitan Opera House," he said. For me, opera is the combination of music + dance + acting. Those onstage are not "just" the world's best singers; they are among the best of today's actors.

Last season's series broadcast nine performances. I attended five. Mom attended all. On those select Saturday afternoons, I was "introduced" to those who I "knew" in passing - Rene Fleming, Placido Domingo, Susan Graham, Natalie Dessay - new faces like Marcello Giordani and Marina Poplavskaya, and heartthrobs including Simon Keenlyside and Anna Netrebko. While several of the productions were called "new," this did not affect me, as the closest that I had come to the Met was radio.

Susan Graham
"Iphigenie en Tauride"
February 26, 2011
For readers only vaguely familiar with opera, here are some helpful pointers. The plots are relatively simple for both the tragedies and comedies. The former far outnumber the latter. And, it's not a spoiler to write that leading characters often die - by sword, jumping off cliffs, live burial, hanging, and just plain illnesses. If the story gets even a bit confusing, a synopsis is read on the radio, or read your own on the movie's one pager, and the program book at the Met. Supertitles translated into English provide word for word text of the lyrics. One recommendation is to avoid reading on occasion. The music translates through notes and images far better than the written English. Notice that while most operas are expected by purists to appear exactly as the composer drew them, some are updated in costume and design. "La Traviata" and "The Magic Flute," for instance, have taken on numerous identities. Operas penned by composers Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, and Rossini are probably the best for Opera 101 classes to attend. It is not by accident that Puccini's works are among the most well-known even by people who have never heard of opera.

Of course, I had seen several PBS televised performances through the years. They were sporadic. Live in HD, however, is much different than in front of one's TV, particularly for five excellent reasons. 1) There's the thrill of almost being there in this huge, beautiful venue in New York alongside the thousands in attendance. And, surprisingly to some, many are teens and tweens. 2) The performance becomes three dimensional instead of two dimensional in the television format. 3) While there is a cost to see HD, it's not much more than that of a "regular" movie, and far less than the cost of a play or sports game. 4) Renee Fleming (MC) interviews conductors, singers, et al, before or after they set foot on stage, giving the movie audience something that the live audience does not hear. 5) As a theatre person (I've done everything but act), it is a wonderful treat to see the intricate choreography of set changes. If, for some reason, the opera is not outstanding, the accoutrements are; i.e. sets, costumes, lighting, coifs. Last season's "Aida" and "Turandot" were spectacular to see and hear.

Yet, do I know of what I write? On what was the single snowy, cold, slippery, raw day that we experienced in the unusually easy winter of 2010, I finally went to the Met. So, my answer is "yes," I can now compare the three: opera on radio, movies Live in HD, and Live at the Met in NYC. The opera - Puccini's "La Boheme." It was my third favorite, but Mom's #1 since the time she was a kid. This was her 89th birthday gift. Lincoln Center's setting was amassed with snowflake chandeliers, red and gold everywhere, and many opera lovers dressed up. However, the latter is far from a requirement, especially for the youngsters. It was wonderful seeing so many children appreciating the music of opera.

The plot of "La Boheme" is simple. Girl meets boy (girl is the aggressive one in the relationship), have one hour to fall in love, struggle though poor, have equally down-and-out friends, yet all enjoy life on the streets of Paris. Girl thinks that she is a burden to boy, leaves for another who she does not love, gets really sick, returns to boy, and dies in his arms. The gorgeous, sensual Anna Netrebko played girl, and Piotr Beczala played boy. The sets - the disheveled artists' garret, the lavish and populated promenade of Paris, a snowy landscape - are relatively dark (after all, this is one of the most tragic of tragedies set to paper) yet distinct and honest. The supporting cast goes above and beyond what one would expect from secondary roles; these singers are exemplary actors as well. Let me not forget that one voice that never stops throughout the three hours - the symphony of the Metropolitan Opera, with conductor Marco Armiliato.

I used the word "simple" to describe the story. I will stick with that, yet "La Boheme," the Metropolitan Opera, the red carpet, the giant curtain, the bravos after each aria, and the experience of sitting next to other people who I didn't know but who loved what I loved is not simple. I also sat next to Mom.

The 2010-2011 Live in HD season begins October 9th with Wagner's "Das Rheingold." The series includes 11 operas and ends on May 14th.  For information on each opera, dates, movie theatres, and the entire Live at the Met (in NYC) season check

Credit: Elena Park, Live in HD and Radio Guide, 2009-10 season

August 23, 2010

The Winter's Tale

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 5, 2010
by Shera Cohen

"The Winter's Tale" is not your usual Shakespeare fare. It's not a "history" play as royalty populating the story are fiction. It's not a comedy, because there is death. "Tale" is among The Bard's quartet of Romance Plays - neither comedy or tragedy but what today might be termed tragicomedy.

The plot of misplaced jealousy and kind forgiveness, of kings and queens, of the mundane and mysticism, makes for a wonderful tale, no matter what the season. Many questions arise pertaining to morals, integrity, and betrayal. One of Shakespeare's most accessible writings, it is a shame that it is not often performed. Shakespeare & Co. has rectified that in this visually beautiful set depicting two countries with characters dressed and coiffed to fit any ancient century. Most interesting is the profound difference between Act I and II - the first, tragic and dramatic; the second, frothy and comic. After intermission, 16 years have passed and with it the characters' lives. Director Kevin Coleman has balanced the two acts as perfectly as a seesaw with strength equal on both sides.

Many from the cadre of regulars take lead roles in "Tale," including Jonathan Epstein and Johnny Lee Davenport as the two kings. They are an excellent match, yet Epstein seems a bit affected. Corinna May pours every ounce of fury into her character Paulina, Malcolm Ingram creates a loveable shepherd, Josh Aaron McCabe embodies a moral man asked to do horrible deeds, and Jason Asprey intentionally steals the show as a con man. It is Wolfe Coleman as the young shepherd, a relative newcomer to the troupe, who portrays innocence, sweetness, and stupidity with physical humor to delight his audience.

In what is otherwise a nearly perfectly executed production, one suggestion remains - to significantly cut and/or tighten up the long festival scene in Act II. While it adds flavor (literally and figuratively) to the play, the music, dance, singing, picnicking, and even more dance stretches out to enhance little to all that is so powerful and funny in "The Winter's Tale."

Bad Dates

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 12, 2010
by Shera Cohen

This is an easy review. Simply go back in time, specifically to January, 2009 and November, 2008 to read the preview and review of "Bad Dates" on this website. The play was so much fun then, that it was brought back for a seven-week run in 2010. Only this time, it's funnier. Usually, repeat performances are not as good. However, solo star Elizabeth Aspenlieder had the audience, albeit mostly women, in a personal conversation. The big subject was shoes, somewhat like the "Sex in the City's" second most often topic of discussion.

August 9, 2010

Tanglewood - Indoors and Out

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
by Shera Cohen

There are thousands of seats to choose from in front of the Tanglewood shed. Mine was a bit in the sun. As the afternoon progressed so did the shade. The "seats" are actually bring-your-own chairs and blankets, placed anywhere and everywhere on this ever so pristine lawn. On a Sunday afternoon with a temperature of 83 degrees and a shining sun, I was as close to nature as this city "girl" likes to get. The music of the Boston Symphony Orchestra had not yet begun, and that was just fine, as time was needed to first take in the experience of this landscape called Tanglewood.

While I did have an assigned seat in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, I immediately chose the outdoor setting instead. I was one of thousands (as mentioned) who enjoyed this open-air amphitheatre. Prime seating seemed to be under the many tall leafy trees. Families, couples, seniors, babies - it was a who's who of people that I didn't know. While watching and listening from my lawn chair (one from the 1960s and not the new fold-ups), I discovered important facts that I was unaware of: sushi can be eaten warm, people still use Red Flyers, women are quicker and more efficient than men at setting up picnics, multi-tasking is a big deal (listen to music, drink a soda, read a novel, participate in conversations), many listeners leave the concert half-way through the final movements (that seems a shame), kids aren't into Frisbees as much as they used to be, men wear Red Sox baseball caps, women wear huge straw hats, and everyone wears sun lotion. This is a colorful place - the newly cut green grass, blue sky with wisps of off-white clouds, tablecloths of flowers, and a sea of motley colored umbrellas.

The clang of bells alerted those with seats inside the shed and outside that the concert was set to start. Without fanfare, conductor Christoph Von Dohnanyi led the BSO through two exquisite compositions. My critiques of music are far from expert, which is why this article does not focus on the soft strings, trumpet alerts, and dynamic percussion. As far as this layman is concerned, Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D, Opus 61 featuring Arabella Steinbacher deserved the long standing ovation which it and she received. Following intermission, Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 in G, Opus 88 was musically riveting. Not that anyone would notice, but I was among those lawn listeners who stood and applauded in awe. Was the music really captured in the breezes that surrounded me? Probably not.

My place on the lawn became a small expedition, as I walked the entire perimeter to the high bushes setting the division line between Tanglewood and the Berkshire mountains and lake. My secret place (apparently not so secret as others had been on my same course) was the maze of trees, grass, shrubs, and vineyard. Not quite edible yet, blue and green grapes hung disorderly on their vines. I ran into three teens who said to each other that they were lost, but they didn't seem to care. I observed that the longest lines were not to the women's facilities, but to Ben & Jerry's cart.

When I arrived, I had asked the gatekeepers, sitting on small stools between the parking lot and the box office, if they were able to hear the concert from their distant location. How sad it would be to sit so close and not appreciate the music. They smiled and answered, "Yes." Apparently, every "seat in the house" at Tanglewood is a great one.

(Photo Credit: Al Solomon)


Berkshire Theater Festival, Stockbridge
through August 14, 2010
by Stacie Beland

Few would argue that "Macbeth" is a play which demonstrates how evil perpetuates, mixes with ambition and envy, and rarely comes to a clean resolution. Macbeth is urged by his wife's undermining his manhood until he consents to take fortune into his own hands. As Macbeth moves to carry out his destiny, the bodies begin to pile up and Macbeth grows literally mad with ambition.

The production, which was laden with quasi-Japanese elements, was stylistically flavored with elements of honor and precisely choreographed, war-like movement. The recitation of the text and the movement by the actors were very stiff and, although correct in the rhythm and musicality of the speech, the line delivery suffered because of this. It was almost as if the stylized movement and costuming stilted the flow of the language and acting. Truly, the production value of this show was extraordinarily high. The performances, however, weren't quite up to the par of the visuals. The rigidity of the movement, the costuming, and the line delivery juxtaposed with the primeval stage dressing, left for a muddled show.

Few can argue that the defining relationship to highlight is that between Macbeth and his Lady. Unfortunately, there seemed to be no discernable connection between the two characters in this production. While C.J. Wilson (Macbeth) and Keira Naughton (Lady Macbeth) are both clearly gifted actors, the relationship between their characters seemed to lag beyond anything past a superficial connection.

As the most striking part of the production, the Three Witches deserve special mention. Their collective performance was quite good, perhaps dangerously so as they sometimes appeared to be in a different show from the rest of the cast. Though more could have been done with their cauldron which was left onstage and unused for the vast majority of the show, it did prove an effective set piece when used.

Berkshire Theatre Festival offers a visually beautiful production of "Macbeth," though there was a disappointing lack of connection between design and the execution of theme. While stunning in its precision, the show ultimately fails in connecting all of its elements.

August 8, 2010


Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT
through September 18, 2010
by Karo Sadowicz

It takes something special to stand out as the oddball in a group of circus performers, and "Carnival's" heroine, Lili (Lauren Worsham), has it in spades. Recently arrived from a tiny village in late 1940s France, the penniless and naïve orphan hopes to find work in a traveling circus. Her wide-eyed innocence is met with cynicism and disdain at first, but eventually wins over the jaded performers, and a bitter puppeteer who falls for her.

Worsham plays Lili without a hint of irony or self-deprecation, making her naïve to the point of being confounding. But it's Lily's childlike way and kindness that make the circus puppet show a smash hit and charm Paul, the puppeteer (Adam Monley). Paul is brooding and at times relentlessly cruel, showing kindness only through his puppets, and Monley makes great use of them to express the facets on Paul that can't be revealed otherwise.

The ensemble cast makes magic on stage with elaborate displays of acrobatic prowess and serious dance chops. The beautifully detailed set is outfitted with ladders, ropes, and a trapeze, transforming swiftly from a beachside boardwalk to a circus tent. The costumes and set dazzle with bold colors and rich details, and the actors are not outfitted for just a play, but for a show. The lighting is designed to amplify the dizzying mix of colors and movement, recalling the way a circus may seem to a child when seen for the first time.

Mike McGowan is sleazy but charming as Marco the Magnificent, the circus headliner and lothario. Michelle Blakely is saucy and hilarious as his longtime partner and girlfriend. The ensemble of performers seems to triple in size, creating the illusion of a much larger venue.

Goodspeed's presentation of "Carnival!" delivers the awe and delight of a circus. What the show lacks in memorable songs, it makes up for in outstanding song, dance, and acrobatic performances. The well-rehearsed troupe create everything from a carnival funhouse to a Paris nightclub on stage, earning oohs, aahs, and much applause from the enthralled audience. At its best, "Carnival!" transports the audience, using just color, rhythm, and glitter.

August 2, 2010

Elgar and Mussorgsky

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 1, 2010
by Debra Tinkhim

Renowned cellist, Yo-Yo Ma stole the show in his solo performance of Edward Elgar’s “Cello Concerto in E minor.”

Concertgoers waited patiently through Jean Sibelius’ short, three movement “Karelia Suite” in anticipation of Maestro Ma. Before he started, he was welcomed with a standing ovation. The beginning “Adagio” was mesmerizingly eerie, robust and beautiful. For the novice listener, “Schindler’s List” magically wove this theme throughout the movie. Ma’s compassion and artistry were all too touching and guest conductor, Charles Dutoit, with a very impressive background, artfully shared his orchestra and Ma equally.

In all of Elgar’s 79 years, he only composed music for 20 years, becoming reclusive after the death of his wife. He wrote this masterpiece at the age of 62, and conducted it in 1919. It was first performed at Tanglewood in 1969, by the renowned Jacqueline Du Pre. More tragic is that the illness debilitated her at the young age of 28. Ma made his 1712 Stradivarius empower melancholy. Multi-thousands of listeners listened in silent awe to the man who enabled this beautiful piece of machinery.

As Hugh MacDonald, an annotator and speaker for the Boston Symphony Orchestra said, “We discern this Concerto a sentiment of resignation and even of despair generated from within by that strong vein of melancholy that had always been an inescapable element of Elgar’s music…”

Short-lived composer Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was an innovator of Russian music during the romantic period. His desire was to achieve a unique Russian musical identity, and did so in “Pictures at an Exhibition.” These pictures were written hastily, in order to perform as a tribute for his friend, Victor Hartmann. Mussorgsky, who pictured himself rowing through these 12 pictures, painted a complicated story and each had a plethora of information behind them. They are a good read.

Tower of Power

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
August 2, 2010
by Eric Sutter

East Bay soul power from the Oakland area of California powerhoused through a 40+ year repertoire of soul, funk and R&B with their horn centered ten member group. Formed in 1968, the band is absolutely synonymous with world class horns that helped define R&B in the 70's and 80's and continue to play 200 dates around the world every year. Tower of Power started with "We Came To Play" pumped up by the lively horn section of Emilio Castillo on second tenor saxaphone, Stephen ("Doc") Kupka on baritone saxaphone, Tom Politzer on first tenor saxaphone and alto saxaphone, Adolfo Acosta on second trumpet and flugelhorn and Mic Gillette on lead trumpet, flugelhorn and trombone. They swept away the blues with some sweet soul music on "I Like Soul" and "Souled Out" with lead vocalist Larry Braggs' open-throated soulful vocals soaring out front.

"Get Your Feet Back On The Ground" featured a saxaphone solo by Emilio Castillo and a smokin' hot electric guitar solo by Jerry Cortez. Frontman Braggs showed off some fancy James Brown style dance moves throughout the night with the horn section soulfully swaying to the beat. This was funky music for a diverse audience. The soul continued -- he was as proficient at the strong delivery of slower soul ballads as he nailed the hit "So Very Hard To Go" and "Me And Mrs. Jones" from their 20th recording from 2009, "The Great American Songbook" which is a collection of old soul songs that influenced their sound. The band flourished on "Maybe It Will Rub Off" and "Got To Groove." Things got really funkifized with a James Brown medley, "Diggin' on James Brown." The hit "What Is Hip?" had people dancing jazzily in their seats and aisles.

The group slowed the tempo with the cool energy of their mellow early 70's hit, "You're Still A Young Man." The hot R&B surge spilled over with the loose limbed motion of "Turn Me Loose." They encored with the loud funk of "There Is Only So Much Oil In The Ground." Did I mention this show was funky?

All Brahms Evening

Berkshire Choral Festival
Berkshire School, Sheffield MA
July 31, 2010

by Barbara Stroup

The Alpine-like setting of The Berkshire School provides a beautiful backdrop to the Festival’s season, when choristers from all over the world choose one of four intensive week-long ‘camps’ to rehearse and concertize under notable conductors. Vance Y. George led this week’s group in a program of Brahms that ranged, in his words, from the ‘sublime to the gutsy.’

George began with the sublime, “Schicksaslied” (Song of Destiny). This work started with orchestra lushness, and the instrumentalists kept it calm and sedate, allowing the audience to enjoy the magnificent harmonies of the score. The chorus was on top of their role – indeed throughout the program-- never stumbling over the language, managing a vocal balance and avoiding shrillness even at the top of the required range. The confidence of their singing speaks well of both the skill they bring to the program and to the ability of their conductor to prepare these 100 adult singers. Orchestral support was solid, with bold solos of flute and oboe and deep resonance from the basses.

Both the orchestra and chorus achieved a light effect on the “Liebeslieder Waltzer” but returned to the sublime for “Nänie.” George’s explication of the mythological references was valuable to the audience, and the chorus’ achievement was once again successful in intonation and in ensemble presentation with the orchestra.

George added a “Hallelujah Chorus” to the program as a surprise offering, but the real surprise of the evening was the beauty of the contrapuntal writing and the Amen section that closes the short “Geistlicheslied.” Brahms wrote this ten years before completing “Ein deutsches Requiem,” but it foreshadowed many of the fugal effects he used in the later work -- both works were movingly performed.

What this evening lacked, in contrast to performances during previous seasons, was a feeling of energy and drive. There was a restraint from the stage that exceeded the respect due these pieces. The chorus was smaller by half than in the other weeks of the Festival, and the audience filled only half the seats. The new facility gives back a dry sound, but this reviewer hopes that future Festival programs will be able to reverberate with more excitement.

August 1, 2010

Richard III

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 5, 2010
by Shera Cohen

Is it shameful to pity a murderer? Not just any murderer, but one who has so much blood on his hands that could make a river turn red? Each audience member will ask him/herself this question upon experiencing "Richard III." The Bard has taken liberties with history in creating his Richard, but no one cares. This is a play, and one of the most powerful pieces of theatre and portrayals of humans in literature. Richard is the bad guy, but why? This man could be a psychiatrist's dream subject. Straight from the womb, Richard is physically deformed. He becomes a man, psychologically deformed with rage and hate. Yet, is he pure evil?

It is hard to imagine that any cast could outshine the actors in this performance. Every actor, from the regulars (Annette Miller, Nigel Gore, Tod Randolph) to relative newcomers (Leia Espericueta, Ryan Winkles), personify his/her role. The venue has mounted "Richard" in the past, with each production surpassing the last in characterization, staging, and accessibility. As for the latter, "Richard" is a confusing play simply because its plot involves several generations of kings, queens, lords, dukes, et al. With so many of these nobles losing their heads or bludgeoned, it is hard to keep track of who remains standing. The program's synopsis and cast list are a great help to the audience.

John Douglas Thompson is even more dynamic and multi-leveled in his portrayal of Richard as he was as last year's lead in "Othello" - if that is possible. Physically, Thompson embodies the role with a crooked stance and booming yet articulate voice. He becomes evil personified. Yet surprisingly, he is full of wit (there is humor and even audience participation) coupled with bravado - thus the audience's discomfort in laughing and pitying the situation and the character.

Jonathan Croy's precise and balanced direction of good and evil and the so important shades of grey, costume designer Arthur Oliver's regal 16th century depiction, and set designer Patrick Brennan's minimal use of movable arches bring the play's eloquent words off the page to life on the stage. Kudos goes to Ryan Winkles who double duties as an actor and fight choreographer. The battle scene finale, with seemingly a cast of thousands (actually, probably 12) is chilling.