Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 30, 2013

Canadian Mission: To visit the Top 10 English-speaking theatre cities in the world

By Shera Cohen

My mission was not an easy task for a white-knuckle flyer. Yet, after my journeys to New York City, then London, Toronto was next. There were many weeks of arrangements: booking the cheapest, direct flight on a name-brand airline; travel within Canada that included every mode of transportation except boat; lodging in Tripadvisor recommended hotels; and most important, choosing the plays and other cultural destinations.

I had always wanted to attend the Stratford Festival, near Toronto. In googling the particulars, I discovered the Shaw Festival, also near Toronto and at the same time of year. With Toronto in the middle, as Stratford and Shaw were each 90 minutes travel on either side, the trip beckoned to me.

There were no “falls” to be seen from Niagara-on-the-Lake, home of the Shaw Festival. Who needed a noisy water backdrop when enjoying one of the quaintest towns and best theatre series on the continent? Shaw’s two venues, within walking distance of each other, offered plays by George Bernard as well as other writers whose works were of the same era and/or style.

Having traveled all day, we started with only one play, Shaw’s classic “Major Barbara” at the Royal George Theatre – an ornate venue built in 1915. Onto “Our Betters” the next day and “Lady Windermere’s Fan” that night. After the matinee, it was a thrill to receive a private tour by Shaw’s publicity director, particularly to see the inner workings of changing sets. Shaw is a repertory company, meaning that actors perform in at least two plays and sets transform from one to another within hours. This task is so well choreographed that the “dance” does not skip a beat in presenting a perfectly crafted stage. Overnight, “Barbara” turned into “Guys & Dolls.” In a rush to catch a train, we thought of skipping “Guys,” but that would have been a shame, as this was the best production of the musical that I’d ever seen. Shaw Festival hosts 10 plays and ends October 27, 2013.

Onto Toronto to primarily visit some “buildings”; i.e. the world-famous Royal Museum of Ontario, the Bata Shoe Museum (not-just-for-shoe-lovers), the Toronto Reference Library (largest in the world), and “the castle around the corner” – Casa Loma. BTW, you know those hokey double-decker tour buses? We tried it, finding the trips fun and funny, depending on your effervescent college-age guide. Fitting in at least one play was a must. The Young Arts Center’s performance of a shaved-down Broadwayesque version of “The Barber of Seville” was a hoot.

We trained it to Stratford Festival for five plays, two of which were by the Bard. Like Shaw, the actors are in repertory, as is the crew. Performing two plays, some on the same day, is a task for only the best stage actors, and Stratford is a standout in this respect. First up at Stratford was “Fiddler on the Roof.” As with “Guys & Dolls,” I wondered how I could ever appreciate yet another “Fiddler”. And, as with “Guys,” this was the best version of “Fiddler” I’ve ever experienced. Next, the matinee of “The Three Musketeers.” Perhaps planned as a play for school kids (there were a lot in the audience), “Musketeers” was every bit as much for adults, myself included, who enjoyed the plot, scenery, humor, and intricately designed sword fights.

Shakespeare, of course, was a must see. The afternoon’s depiction of the tried and true “Romeo and Juliet” was followed by the evening’s execution of “Mary Stuart.” No lavish staging was necessary for either production, as the scenery was minimal in each to focus on the performances. Although the two women rivals lived some 500 years ago, Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scotts could not have been more real. Stratford presents 12 plays on four stages and ends on October 19, 2013.

If this reads like a whirlwind 11 days, it was. I will schedule some down time in the future, not to mention time to eat at a real restaurant. BWT, the Canadians are sincerely the nicest people on this or any other continent. Not only did they give us directions (we frequently got lost), but usually took us to our destinations.

Sydney, Australia is #4 on the list of theatre cities, but that’s a flight that I don’t think I’m ready for. Maybe I won’t travel in chronological order?

Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
We begin the Shaw Festival with Shaw. Not to be repetitive, but that seems the best place to start.

“Major Barbara,” penned in 1905, and set in that era, compares a family of means with the lower classes. Our heroine Barbara, is idealistic, stubborn, and/or naïve about her ability to make a difference in the world. She scoffs at her trappings to become a soldier in the Salvation Army. The subject is money, how it’s made, and what it can and can’t do. Could one’s bank account save a soul? Toss politics and war into the mix, as Shaw not so subtlety comments on social differences.

Common to each of the Shaw Festival plays is the exceptional qualities of their actors. From star to the smallest role, these are consummate performers. Also, because of the company is repertory, one play’s leading man is the next day’s play’s butler.

“Our Betters,” by W. Somerset Maugham in 1915, is similar in concept concerning social differences and the necessity of pretense and even deceit to climb the ladder of success. Our dubious and clever Bessie is a winsome manipulator ever aware of the social mores and life (everyone drinks tea a lot, then plays tennis), division of the classes and sexes. Women of means go to the highest male bidder. But Bessie is a smart cookie, and it’s fun to watch the gears in her head move precisely as her plans unfold.

Another commonality of the Festival’s Shaw plays (written by Shaw or others) is their staging. “Barbara” and “Betters” take place at the Royal George Theatre. Amazingly, the first play’s set, with lots of scaffolding and steel, is carefully dismantled to be replaced by the next afternoon’s play depicting a full living room of the early 1900’s.

“Lady Windermere’s Fan,” written by Oscar Wilde in 1892, literally graces the stage of the Festival Theatre (the largest and newest Shaw venue). Beginning with tableaus and window-like boxes on a white set, the audience is allowed to slowly examine the lives of three people, first superficially, then under a magnifying glass. The white images become grey, just as the characters morph from flat to detailed and bumpy. Interestingly, Wilde makes fun of himself in the text, as depicted by a bored fop.

“Guys and Dolls,” the musical based on Damon Runyon stories, brings the streets and underground of New York City alive because “in the ring” it’s gambling vs. religion. Once again, the Salvation Army tries to come to the rescue of sinners. Just as the title states, this show’s script is familiar – guy gets girl, guy loses girl, you know the drill, although in this case, there are two pair. I’ve probably seen “Guys” eight times. After enjoying the thrill of the music and exceptional dance, I seem to have forgotten the seven previous productions.

Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ontario
Not that we planned it on purpose, but our scheduled week just happened to be the week of opening nights.

“Fiddler on the Roof,” inspired by stories of Sholem Aleichem, shows off the superior talents of actors, musicians, singers, and choreographer. The audience cares about the life of Tevya and his family living in Russia which is as uncertain and precarious as a fiddler on the roof. I’m not sure what’s in the water in Ontario that makes their musicals so sweet, but this was surely the finest and most emotional “Fiddler” that I have seen. And my “Fiddler” tally is above 10.

Stratford, like Shaw, hosts plays in two main theatres. “Fiddler,” set in the huge Festival Theatre, permits the large cast of leading characters and those portraying town folks to spread out as they create their home – their village of Anatevka.

“The Three Musketeers,” adapted from Alexandre Dumas’ novel, leaps onto the Festival Theatre stage for a fun matinee for all – like the line, “All for one, and one for all.” Stratford could have easily presented a less than lavish show, because kid audiences will like it no matter what the scenery, but they opt for nothing but the best in staging, actor skills, costume design, intriguing lighting, and dexterous carefully plotted sword fights. With 40 scenes, “Musketeers” is a big show.

“Measure for Measure” was the first Shakespeare play that we saw in Stratford. The performance in the smaller Tom Patterson Theatre, offers a different visual perspective on plays, as the stage juts out into the audience. Not one of the Bard’s often produced plays, perhaps because its ending is not a clear happy one (comedy) or one with bodies strewn on the floor (tragedy), it is more difficult. While not a Shakespeare purist, updating “Measure” to the 1940’s is a curious choice. The cast performs admirably.

“Romeo and Juliet” takes us to, perhaps, the most performed of any by Shakespeare. The essentially bare-bones staging focuses on the superior acting. Elizabethan era costumes are sumptuous, and the only nod to modern technology is the tomb scene where Juliet’s body, lying on a bier, rises. Actors play to the audience – the majority high school students – and several were so caught up in the play, they were heard to shout, “No, no, don’t do that,” as Romeo drinks the poison.

Important about Shaw and Stratford is the variety available. On any given day at either venue there can be eight events; i.e. six plays and two forums/lectures/talks.

Photo by Don Dixon
“Mary Stuart,” by Friedrich Schiller, tops off our working vacation with “best in show.” Appropriately staged in the intimate Patterson Theatre, is the fictionalized portrait of the conflict between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots; in other words, Protestantism vs. Catholicism. A tour-de-force by the two lead actresses gives the audience a look into16th century politics and religion. At the crux of the story is the relationship between two women, both strong-willed, yet with human weaknesses which they use against each other.

August 26, 2013

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 15, 2013
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Kevin Spraugue
Playwright Martin McDonagh may have become Ireland’s version of prolific Neil Simon. With no offence to the latter, this Gaelic writer continuously succeeds at grabbing the human condition, balancing it with humor and outright pain. “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” is similar in text to McDonagh’s other works – raw and raunchy, poignant and pathetic. This play, however, offers a meaty mystery plot which attracts its audience more so than the author’s pieces which stress humorous dialogue over storyline.

At its core, “Beauty Queen” is the dysfunctional relationship between mother and daughter. The location (on this well designed set) is a home in rural Ireland. The mother, portrayed as a disgusting and conniving creature that clings to her daughter, who has her own problems in addition to caring for mom. Maureen shouts, “You’re old and you’re stupid!” Mother Mag retorts with constant belittling. This is not a pretty play.

What a difference an excellent director makes in executing a production. Matthew Penn’s movement of characters in perfect timing with the lilting and oftentimes poetic language takes “Beauty Queen” steps above what the play could have easily slid into – uncomfortable audience laughs and groans. In spite of this saga of “creature” and her offspring on the road to becoming cliché, these are two actual people. The audience needs to know their stories and outcomes.

The same truth applies to casting decisions. No two actors on the Berkshire scene could have portrayed this duo better. Pairing Elizabeth Aspenlieder (Maureen) and Tina Packer (Mag) is an equally talented match. Aspenlieder has taken on a role atypical of most of her prior characters at this venue where she is the resident female protagonist, often frothy and on a mission. Aspenlieder’s “Beauty Queen” mission is survival, portrayed with heartache, longing, and corruption.

Tina Packer, donned in an ugly wig and unwashed nightgown, plays Mag as the epitome of harsh, unsympathetic, and formidable. Mag’s weak mannerisms unmistakably convey power and control. For two-hours, Packer becomes Mag.

In smaller, yet extremely significant roles are the men: David Sedgwick (the beaux) whose gentleness and understanding is beautiful to watch and Edmund Donovan (young neighbor) whose combination of charm and exasperation is delightful.

This summer’s repertoire at Shakespeare & Company has presented exceptional plays, emphasizing “& Company” part of the venue’s title. In addition to “Beauty Queen” were “Heroes,” “Mother Courage,” and “Master Class.”

Scott & Hem in the Garden of Allah

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through September 29, 2013
by Shera Cohen

Being a Mark St. Germain “groupie” is not as juvenile as it might sound. After all, this man is not a one-song rock singer or actor of ephemeral fame, but an accomplished playwright whose dialogue is snappy repartee covered with wisdom, intellect, humor, bravado, and warmth. Previous works included “Freud’s Last Session,” “Best of Enemies,” and “Dr. Ruth.” At the most, his pieces number three characters which permit the audience the opportunity to delve into the personalities, as is the case with St. Germain’s latest play, “Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah.”

Literally hot off the computer is the rolling world premiere (translation: opens in several cities simultaneously) of a portrait of two of the most well-known authors in the English language – F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemmingway. St. Germain has studied his subjects extremely well, composing textbook research into conversation, utilizing the writers’ rule, “Show, don’t tell.”

The staging – one of the most elaborate yet at Barrington – is a Hollywood hotel one day in 1937. To call the writers “friends” might be a stretch; perhaps their relationship was that of rivals and/or student and teacher (Scott at the nadir of his career and Hem at the zenith). What make them compatriots are their writing, alcoholism, insecurities, and microscopic knowledge of each other. They speak of death, depression, and sexuality; each cushioned with much humor – not jokes but humor as they look at and question each other and themselves.

by Kevin Spraugue
Joey Collins as Scott and Ted Koch as Hem personify the visual and aural images most have of these two men. Collins’ Scott is prim, proper, and as gentle as his alcoholic demeanor permits. Koch’s Hem is boisterous and hard-edged. The actors seemingly know each other as well as the writers did. Although in a smaller role, Angela Pierce, as a top level secretary holds her own piece of the stage formidably. The authors’ chummy banter drifts into provocative exploratory psychological sessions. The actors/characters have captured their audience.

Kudos to Ryan Winkles’ choreography of the knock-down, drag-out, furniture-tossing fight in which only the actors go unscathed. It’s not always a wise move for the writer to direct his own play, but except for one point at the play’s conclusion (this would be a spoiler), St. Germain has enough talent to take on both important jobs.

The Preview

by Shera Cohen

What is a play preview, and why would you attend a preview instead of the “real thing”?

A preview is usually the entire production of a play, where a few blips, bumps, and forgotten lines are acceptable. The preview is essentially the final dress rehearsal, yet in front of an audience.

My philosophy on theatre is that a play is never complete without the essential element of an audience. Yes, the text is the crucial start. Add an astute director, creative designers, exceptional actors, exquisite sets, perfect costumes and coifs, talented crew, on-their-toes front of house staff, and all of the necessary rehearsals, and this is not quite yet a play. I fall back on the saying, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?” I don’t know enough science to answer that question. But, I do know that without people to react to the words and movement on the stage, the play is not complete. The individuals in their seats, hopefully you, are a vital component in the play production business.

That said, a preview is very important as it is the first time an audience can react to the production. The director and actors certainly have their own opinions. Facing the proverbial music, however, means receiving the opinions of the audience. An audience is also never “right” or “wrong” because it changes from day to day.

Why attend? You help make the production better. You experience theatre somewhat at the ground level and learn a little more about the process. You usually pay less for tickets.

Are you seeing a “lesser” theatre production? Having seen many previews in the past 30+ years, I have yet to say that a preview has been in any way mediocre to the real deal.

My recent summer viewing included several previews, oftentimes because some previews fit my schedule and other times because I purposely sought the experience of participating in a preview. Except for some tweaking, Berkshire Theatre Festival’s “Anna Christie” was perfect in its execution and acting. Frankly (and who am I to be so boastful), I would have changed some of Eugene O’Neill’s script. One single word was forgotten by Olympia Dukakis, start of Shakespeare & Company’s “Mother Courage and Her Children.” At age 82, with the onus of this long production on her, one word is certainly forgivable.

Last summer, I enjoyed the preview of the new play “Edith” at Berkshire Theatre so much that I returned to see the final performance three weeks later, particularly to see if any changes had been made in production value and/or actors’ conveyance of characters. The play and actors did not skip a beat – perfect from start to finish. However, if that had not been the case, that’s perfectly fine with me.

Daniil Trifonov

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 22, 2013
by Michael J. Moran

Much buzz has followed the young (22-year-old) Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov in the classical music world since he won medals at three international piano competitions in 2010-2011. Local concert goers had a chance to see what all the fuss is about when Trifonov recently made a triumphant Tanglewood debut.

Coming on stage he looked stiff, boyish, and even a bit shy. But as soon as his fingers touched the keyboard, he was a changed man and never looked back. He luxuriated in the rich sonorities of the first movement and the restless harmonies of the second in Scriabin’s 1897 Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp minor. Both its roots in the lyricism of Chopin and its hints of Scriabin’s later mystical style were carefully balanced in an exquisite performance.

Contrasts were then heightened in a visceral interpretation of Liszt’s 1853 Sonata in B minor. The slow, portentous opening followed by a grand, dramatic statement of the second theme set a pattern in which slow passages were slower than usual, fast were faster, and the dynamic range was extremely wide. Trifonov’s playing in the fugue was breathtaking, and the sublime closing notes achieved a rapt stillness.

The second half of the concert was devoted to a dazzling account of Chopin’s Twenty-four Preludes, Opus 28. Published in 1839, these miniatures vary from Agtatos and Vivaces that flash past in less than a minute to several Largos and Lentos which take five minutes or more to unfold. Trifonov played them without pause, emphasizing their mercurial nature with solid technique, full-bodied tone, and subtle nuance.

Thunderous applause was rewarded with three encores: two rarely heard Fairy Tales by Nicolai Medtner, delicately played, and an arrangement by Guido Agosti of the Infernal Dance from Stravinsky’s Firebird in an athletic but sensitive rendition.

As Trifonov’s career develops and his artistry matures, it will be interesting to see how he approaches the core Germanic repertoire by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Meanwhile, this rising star proved at Tanglewood that he has few peers in the romantic Slavic repertoire with which he seems to feel most at home.

Bard Music Festival

Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY
August 9-18, 2013
by Michael J. Moran

Fisher Center
Over two weekends every August since 1990, the Bard Music Festival has focused on a single composer, along with predecessors, contemporaries, and successors who influenced or were influenced by that composer. What distinguishes Bard from other music festivals is the annual publication by Princeton University Press of an accompanying book with essays contributed by scholars who also participate as speakers and panelists at festival programs.

The 2013 festival, “Stravinsky and His World,” presented 11concerts, three panel discussions, and two film showings on the Bard College campus. Most evening concerts featured orchestral music played by members of the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bard President and ASO Music Director Leon Botstein in the 900-seat Sosnoff Theater of the distinctive Richard B. Fisher Center designed in 2003 by Frank Gehry. Daytime concerts offered mainly chamber and instrumental works in the 200-seat Olin Humanities Building auditorium, where the panels were also held.  

While the “Rite of Spring” centennial was duly observed in Weekend One, a highlight of Weekend Two was a live ASO performance of Hanns Eisler’s modest score for Resnais’ watershed Holocaust documentary “Night and Fog,” projected behind the orchestra (in a rare political statement, Stravinsky defended the Communist Eisler against the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee in 1948). The festival climaxed with a double bill of Stravinsky’s pastoral melodrama “Persephone” and his shattering opera-oratorio “Oedipus Rex,” both imaginatively semi-staged by Doug Fitch.

To hear these pieces in the context of other work by major influences (Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov) and contemporaries (Bartok, Varese), lesser-known colleagues (Tansman, Lourie), and the variety of Stravinsky’s own invention, from solo piano miniatures (“Madrid”) to serial chamber music (the Septet) and austere choral music (“Requiem Canticles”) was to appreciate anew Stravinsky’s protean talent.

Performances by ASO musicians and their guests were consistently fine. Of special note were mezzo-soprano Jean Stilwell as Persephone, tenor Gordon Gietz as Oedipus, and pianist Piers Lane, who turned Antheil’s knuckle-busting “Sonata Sauvage” into a showstopper. James Bagwell led the Bard Festival Chorale in a stunning choral concert that ranged from a glowing “Beatus Vir” by Monteverdi to a lovely, if challenging, lamentation by Krenek, of which Bagwell wryly noted, quoting Ringo Starr, “it don’t come easy.”

With a packed schedule at the festival, time to visit such nearby attractions as the historic town of Rhinebeck and museums in Hyde Park celebrating the Roosevelt and Vanderbilt families can be scarce, but the natural beauty of the Hudson Valley rewards all visitors to the area.

Boston Symphony Chamber Players

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 20, 2013
by Michael J. Moran

Many orchestral musicians have long professed their love for playing chamber music. In a nod to this time-honored tradition, 17 members of the BSO presented a wide-ranging program dedicated to the memory of Elliott Carter, who died last November a month short of his 104th birthday.

Two short pieces by Carter opened the program. The first, a jazzy ten-minute “Woodwind Quintet” in two short movements, written in 1948, sounded very different from the starker, more challenging four-minute “Figment III” for double bass solo, written in 2007, which followed it. The five woodwind soloists were impeccable, and double bass player Edwin Barker was entertainingly virtuosic.

The first half of the concert closed with the original chamber version for 13 instruments of
Photo by Hilary Scott
Copland’s Suite from the ballet “Appalachian Spring.” BSO assistant conductor Marcelo Lehninger led a ravishing account of this classic score, which sounded even more transparent than usual in this scaled down version. Special kudos were earned by flutist Elizabeth Rowe and clarinetist Michael Wayne, whose sensitive playing made the most of the familiar big tunes.

While the first half of the evening showcased some newer and younger BSO members, the half following intermission belonged to an older generation, as 90-year-old pianist Menahem Pressler and three elder statesmen of the BSO took the stage. In 2012 Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag wrote his haunting two-minute “Hungarian Impromptu” for Pressler, a member of the Beaux Arts Trio from its 1955 Tanglewood debut through its disbanding in 2008.

Pressler’s delicate performance of the Impromptu led without pause into a genial rendition of Mozart’s Quartet in E-flat, K. 493, to close the program. The partnership of BSO concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, violist Steven Ansell, and cellist Jules Eskin with Pressler yielded a vigorous opening Allegro, a lush but restrained Larghetto, and a joyous closing Allegretto.

The obvious pleasure that all the musicians took in each other’s company was echoed in the three standing ovations they received from an appreciative audience at the end of this memorable musical soiree.

August 15, 2013

Emerson String Quartet

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 14, 2013
by Michael J. Moran

The 2013 appearance of favorite Tanglewood guest artists the Emerson String Quartet featured a notable debut by their new Welsh-born cellist, Paul Watkins, who succeeded David Finckel in that role several months ago. Finckel had been the Emerson’s cellist since 1979, and the other players are all original members of the group, which was formed in 1976: violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, and violist Lawrence Dutton.

They presented classic quartets from three centuries, opening with Haydn’s 1772 Quartet No. 26, Opus 20/3. From the spirited first movement, through the stately Minuetto, tender slow movement, and whirlwind finale, the legendary technical precision, transparency of texture, and interpretive acumen of this ensemble were abundantly clear. This rendition sounded lighter, more graceful, indeed, more aptly classical than the Emerson’s 2001 Haydn quartet recordings.

The centerpiece of the program was Britten’s Quartet No. 3, played as part of Tanglewood’s celebration of that composer’s centennial this year. Written the year before he died in 1976, the first four movements of this piece prepare for the culminating slow finale, a “Recitative and Passacaglia” subtitled “La Serenissima” because it quotes themes from Britten’s final opera, “Death in Venice.” The Emerson performance was deeply felt, capturing all the angst of the two short fast movements and the poignancy of the moving finale.  

Intermission was followed by a thrilling account of Beethoven’s Quartet No. 7, Opus 59/1, the first of his three “Razumovsky” quartets, named for the Russian ambassador in Vienna who commissioned them in 1806. Just as Britten had sounded more classic after Haydn, Beethoven sounded more modern after Britten. This performance was more expansive and relaxed, and several minutes longer, than that in the Emerson’s 1997 recording of Beethoven’s complete quartets.  But it was even more dramatic for the greater contrasts, especially between the ravishing Adagio and the lively finale, which features a Russian theme in Razumovsky’s honor.

The large audience was rewarded with an encore of the six-minute finale from the third Razumovsky quartet, which the Emersons played with all the excitement required by its relentless “Allego molto” tempo and by the crowd’s enthusiasm.

August 14, 2013

Benjamin: Written on Skin

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 12, 2013
by Michael J. Moran

The 2013 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music concluded with the U.S. premiere of "Written on Skin," the latest opera by English composer George Benjamin, who also conducted vocal and instrumental Tanglewood Music Center fellows in this concert performance.

The piece is based on the 13th century Provencal story "William of Cabestanh – The Eaten Heart," in which a troubador falls in love with the wife of a king for whom her plays. The opera’s lead character is an illuminator of manuscripts, called "the Boy," who is taken into his home by "the Protector" to produce an illustrated book in celebration of the Protector’s life and good deeds. The other characters are the Protector’s wife, Agnes, her sister, Marie, and Marie’s husband, John. The singers portraying the Boy, Marie, and John also play three angels.

The 15 short scenes of the 90-minute work are performed with only brief pauses between its three acts. The spare and stylized text by English playwright and previous Benjamin collaborator Martin Crimp clearly set the action in the distant past, but the sensitive performances by all five cast members made it easy for a contemporary audience to identify with the characters’ emotions.

Soprano Lauren Snouffer was gut-wrenching as the tortured Agnes, and countertenor Augustine Mercante brilliantly rendered the Boy’s growth from otherworldly innocence to human wisdom. Bass-baritone Evan Hughes balanced the menacing authority of the Protector with bewilderment in the later scenes at his wife’s new independence through love of the Boy. Mezzo-soprano Tammy Coil and tenor Isaiah Bell were versatile and affecting as Marie and John.

The huge orchestra filled every corner of the Ozawa Hall stage, with an expanded percussion section that included a glass harmonica, steel drums, and maracas. The colorful and haunting score both reflected and moved beyond the influence of Benjamin’s teacher Messiaen, from sensuous and exotic harmonies to clashing dissonance. He drew a thrilling and flawless performance from the virtuosic TMC players.

Projections of the text on screens at either side of the stage completed a stellar presentation that earned multiple standing ovations from the modest but enthusiastic audience.

August 13, 2013

Glimmerglass Festival

Cooperstown, NY
July 6- August 24, 2013
by Michael J. Moran

The Glimmerglass Festival’s 39th season presents five works in four programs, all of which can be
seen in one weekend during August in the exemplary acoustics of its 900-seat Alice Busch Opera Theater. This year’s festival celebrates “the Romantics,” notably the bicentennials of Verdi and Wagner.

Verdi’s early (1840) comedy of mistaken identity “Un Giorno di Regno,” here presented in an English adaptation by Kelley Rourke as “King for a Day,” proved an entertaining rarity, with a perky score and intricate plot evoking both Rossini and Gilbert and Sullivan. Baritone Alex Lawrence was a hoot in the title role, with especially hilarious support from mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson and baritone Andrew Wilkowske and rousing accompaniment by the festival orchestra under their new music director Joseph Colaneri.

Written just three years later, Wagner’s tragedy “The Flying Dutchman” sounded more like its composer’s mature works in Glimmerglass’s dramatic production, which was galvanized by the riveting bass-baritone Ryan McKinny in the title role. Soprano Melody Moore as Senta, the woman who could rescue the Dutchman from his endless seafaring, stood out among a strong supporting cast, and John Keenan led the energetic orchestra.

An innovative pairing of Pergolesi’s 1736 “Stabat Mater” and David Lang’s 2007 “Little Match Girl Passion” showed contrasting perspectives on suffering: Mary’s witnessing of her son Jesus’s crucifixion; and the Hans Christian Andersen character’s death by freezing on New Year’s Eve.
Soprano Nadine Sierra and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo were moving soloists in the “Stabat Mater,” and they joined eight nonsinging Glimmerglass “young artists” as dancers in this visual interpretation of the text. Four other young artists sang Lang’s “Passion” text, played several soft percussion instruments, and were joined by the Glimmerglass Festival Children’s Chorus, whose distinguished work was a tribute to the festival’s community education programs in local schools. Speranza Scappucci (Pergolesi) and David Moody (Lang) conducted eloquently. 

An exuberant production of Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot,” this year’s installment in the festival’s annual mounting of a classic Broadway musical, showcased the talented local-born conductor James Lowe. Baritone Nathan Gunn, 2013 festival “artist-in-residence,” was a dashing Lancelot, but soprano Andriana Churchman as Guinevere and baritone David Pittsinger as Arthur made even stronger impressions.

Such nearby attractions as the Baseball Hall of Fame, scenic Otsego Lake, and the Fenimore Art Museum, this summer featuring several exhibitions on American Romantics, offer worthwhile diversions from the busy Glimmerglass schedule.

August 9, 2013


Art on the lay of the land at The Mount
through October 31, 2013
by Shera Cohen

If you have been to Edith Wharton’s The Mount in Lenox, the beauty and history of what was once this famous writer’s home is always worth another visit. I have had wonderful opportunities of listening to the Authors’ Lecture Series, participating in Wharton Readings on the Terrace, watching Wharton Salon plays, and journeying through the flower garden.

A special reason for a return to this stately house and its grounds is SculptureNow. While the creative and elaborative project is in its sixteenth year, for the first time, it “now” expands the 40 acres of The Mount’s estate. These pieces of contemporary outdoor art are huge and heavy – up to 60,000 pounds.

In the meantime – through October 31 – this art is for all to experience on the wide open, seemingly manicured lawn of The Mount. Twenty-four professional sculptors, many of national renown, were selected for this juried show. The material used to create their works include stone, steel, clothe, soil, glass, granite, rope, wood, and/or industrial waste products.

Last week, Ann Jon, SculptureNow’s Executive Director and a sculptor whose art is also in the show, gave my friends and me a sculpture-by-sculptor tour. She explained that not only are the types of art, subject matter, materials, and shape considered when executing a sculpture show, also and literally, the lay of the land. Some designs fit nooks and crannies on the acreage; others naturally fall into valleys or on hills, while others lay perfectly on slopes. Certain colors and textures show off in woodsy areas, while bronze structures seem to naturally lie on the pristine green grass. Setting the theme, called Confluence, is Jon’s job.

Names like George Rickey, Jonathan Prince, Richard Erdman, and Tim Prentice are the who’s who in the world of sculpture, each with art in the exhibit. The talents of 20 other crafters, one-third from Berkshire County, along with art students from Pittsfield High School (who created one exquisite triangular piece of drawings on metal, which was also the very first art sold), make the show complete.

We walked nearly the entire grounds of The Mount, finding sculpture easy for the viewing and others a bit hidden. My favorites were “Edith Wharton Takes a Walk,” made of metal, painted white, in the shape of a women in full dress of the early 1900’s whose shape was identical from all angles; and “The Writing Hut,” seemly simple, made of brown wood nailed together to look like a large box, inside a steel desk inviting writers (perhaps me) to enter. I did.

Another work of art was titled “Erratic.” Not my favorite, although on the list of one of my friends’ best choices, this big stone and, undoubtedly, heavy cavernous creation with a slight opening permitted her to enter, albeit sideways and dipping her head until in the center. Not for the claustrophobic.

Some sculptures are easily identifiable such as a giant steel paperclip. Others are a bit more mysterious. And most leave interpretation to the viewer. Many are stable, yet some have movable parts when pushed or prodded by the wind.

Jon calls the exhibit at The Mount, “an amazing green gallery.” Yet, there were other factors to weigh besides beauty when choosing the sculpture and designing the configuration at The Mount. The judges asked questions as they made the selections: was the piece creative, how well was it built, will it withstand four months in all kinds of weather, and was it safe? The last factor was particularly important because sculpture might have sharp points or jutting edges, for example.

The exhibit is free with admission to The Mount. Guided tours are offered on August 18, September 22, and October 20. SculptureNow is a non-profit agency, working in collaboration with The Mount, with the assistance of the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. For information contact or

August 7, 2013

The Bridges of Madison County

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Willamstown, MA
through August 18, 2013
by Walt Haggerty

“Together we all make magical, memorable summertime bliss.” Those are the final words of Artistic Director Jenny Gersten’s opening letter to this summer’s audience at Williamstown Theatre Festival, and a perfect introduction to the final production of the season on the Festival’s Main Stage.

In “The Bridges of Madison County,” impeccably directed by Bartlett Sher, all of the values and forces of great theatre come together handsomely in a wonderful evening that reaches the highest level of professionalism, a hallmark of Williamstown productions.

From the opening notes of an incredible, to the single, full ensemble bow by the marvelous cast, the experience is exhilarating. In the program notes from a joint interview with book author, Marsha Norman and music and lyrics contributor, Jason Robert Brown, Brown commented, “What I wanted to write was like ‘La Traviata,’ where people sing with that much passion.” It is a pleasure to report that the pair has succeeded admirably.

While never imitative of Verdi, Brown’s score overflows with rich, glorious melody that begs to be heard again, and again. The score includes 22 numbers performed beautifully. The principal roles of Francesca and Robert, acted and sung magnificently by Elena Shaddow and Steven Pasquale, include a series of solos and duets, virtual arias in some cases, each performed with appropriate passion.

Every role has been cast perfectly. Daniel Jenkins is Bud, a husband who has taken too much for granted. The rambunctious teen-age children are exuberantly performed by Caitlin Kinnunen as Carolyn and Nick Bailey as Michael. Neighbors, Marge and Charlie, are played by Michael X. Martin and Cass Morgan, with Morgan especially effective in her “Get Closer” solo.

A panoramic portrait of Iowa farm country stretching off to the horizon, by set designer Michael Yeargan, provides a distinctive backdrop to the constantly changing action. Alternating with the farmland setting is a generously star splattered night sky. Simple frameworks represent farm houses and the symbolic bridge.

“The Bridges of Madison County,” heading for Broadway later this season, is certain to be a prime contender for Tony Awards. This is the perfect opportunity to be “one up” on New Yorkers. “Madison County” is already a winner.

A Shakespeare Duo

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through August 17, 2013
by Joan Mento

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” comes full circle as Shakespeare & Company returns to the Mount with "Midsummer"—its 1978 inaugural production. This 2013 special 90-minute production features seven young actors (directly from their New England tour) playing all the roles. The stage consists of a grassy dell surrounded by woods through which the energetic actors romped. Hilarious were the high jinks of the young lovers, the fairies, and especially the workmen when they put on the Pyramus and Thisbe play for the wedding festivities. Despite the heat, the audience enthusiastically responded to the many antics of the youthful actors.

None But the Lonely Heart
ended August 3, 2013
by Joan Mento

On the intimate Bernstein Stage are four musicians (from The Ensemble for the Romantic Century) flanked by two Shakespeare & Company actors, Jonathan Epstein and Ariel Bock. The production fused classical music, theatre, a vocalist and a ballet dancer. The play was mostly a vehicle for Tchaikovsky’s music as it portrayed the strange platonic relationship between Tchaikovsky and his patron Madam Von Meck, a millionaire widow. Each actor’s “monologues” were based on letters, diaries, and memoirs. Even though the composer and his patron’s relationship spanned 13 years, they never actually met, and their communication consisted of letters. The play proved to be an engaging concert of Tchaikovsky pieces.