Mar. 30th, 2017

On Saturday evening, March 18th, we went to the Skylight to see their new production of Beauty and the Beast, based upon Zemire et Azor, a 1771 opera by André Ernest Modeste Grétry, with libretto by Jean François Marmontel, after the story La belle et la bête by Jeanne Marie Le Prince de Beaumont and the play Amour pour amour by P.C. Nivelle de La Chaussée.

Largely forgotten nowadays, Grétry was popular in his time, composed more than fifty operas, and was hired by Queen Marie Antoinette as her court music director. The opera was a favorite of Mozart’s, and the music stands the test of time very well.

The story follows the classic version of the tale of Beauty and the Beast, with a few tweaks. The merchant Sander (Eric McKeever) is shipwrecked, along with his servant, Ali (Nicholas Nestorak). They seek shelter in what appears at first to be an abandoned palace, Ali with great reluctance as he fears the place is haunted. The palace’s invisible servants (Alex Campea, Bria Cloyd, Sean Anthony Jackson, and Alex Mace) lay out a feast for them. Ali’s fears are dispelled by the excellent wine, but Sander becomes the fearful one when the playful spirits start levitating the drunken Ali around the room.

Comes the dawn, Sander literally drags the hung-over Ali out the door, but stops to pluck a rose for his daughter, Zemire. which prompts the appearance of the outraged Beast, Azor. In this production, the Beast is represented by an eight-foot tall and equally broad puppet figure manipulated by the spirits, and given voice by tenor Chaz’men Williams Ali. The fearsome Beast walks like a gorilla, has a spiky carapace like a crab, the horns and ears of a water buffalo, fangs, and tusks. Accusing Sander of theft and ingratitude, the Beast eventually agrees to give Sander his life, his freedom, and wealth, if he will send Azor his daughter, Zemire. Azor swears that she will come to no harm, but Sander and Ali aren’t sure when Azor summons up a wind spirit (another puppet, reminiscent of a small version of the “Snow Dragon” seen at the Skylight in 2015) that bears them home.

At home, they are greeted by Sander’s daughters, spoiled materialists Fatme and Lisbe (Erin Sura and Sarah Thompson Johansen), and the good and virtuous Zemire (Gillian Hollis). Fatme and Lisbe are dismayed that their father has lost everything, but Zemire is just glad to have him back. Then, he produces the rose, and tells them of the dreadful bargain he has made. While the others all think about ways to get out of it, Zemire compels Ali to take her to the Beast’s palace, so that the Beast will keep his promise and her family be provided for. She bravely enters the palace, but, on seeing the Beast for the first time, faints dead away.

When she revives, Azor is kind to her, and tells her that she may command him and the spirits for any thing she wishes. She replies that she is not made happy by things. Instead, she sings a song for him, and dances with the spirits.

After a time, she wishes to know how her family is faring. Despite misgivings, Azor brings out a magic mirror, which will not only show her whom she wishes to see, but allow her to hear their thoughts as well. Her now richly adorned sisters are more spoiled than ever, but her father, aged by his ordeal, is deeply sunk in grief over the loss of Zemire. Zemire declares that she must go to him. Azor protests that this is an excuse to leave him. Giving her a magic ring that will allow her instant travel, Azor gets her to promise to return by sunset, because he has realized that he loves her, and it was foretold him by the spirit that enchanted him, that on the day he was able to love, his “cursed life would end.”

Zemire transports herself to the family home, to her father’s joy, but he and her sisters attempt to keep her there. With Ali’s help she escapes back to the Beast’s palace, arriving just as night has fallen. She calls out to Azor, and he is able to answer, because his “cursed life” has ended by his being transformed back into his normal, kingly, form. Sander, Ali, Fatme and Lisbe arrive, intent on rescuing Zemire once and for all, in time to take part in the happy ending.

This production was just charming all the way through: the story, the setting, the costumes, the music, the singing, the dancing were all lovely. The English translation of the libretto, by Colin Graham, further adapted by Director James Ortiz and Shari Rhoads, was witty and enjoyable. Of course, the monster in the room is the huge Azor puppet, which was very effective. The “spirits” manipulating it did a wonderful and graceful job of bringing it to life, and most of the time the “ventriloquism” effect worked well, making it easy to accept that the puppet was singing. It didn’t work when Mr. Williams Ali, who sings the Beast’s role as a hooded figure on stage, gets too far down front and in the action, but this only happened a couple of times. One episode in which the puppet manipulation was distracting came in the first scene, during Sander’s song lamenting his dilemma, during which the Beast kept nervously moving its head, which distracted from Sander’s singing. Even puppets should obey the basic rule of stagecraft to not pull eyes away from the focus of the scene.

This was a really excellent, creative, and entertaining production, and we were very glad to have seen it.
On Sunday afternoon, March 19th, we went to the Marcus Center for the Florentine Opera’s production of Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni.”

This was a revival of a 2006 production (reviewed back then in this journal) played mostly on a bare stage set with a few necessary pieces and with light. There seemed to be some tweaks to the new appearance: we believed the lighting was brighter and more colorful than in the past.

This was perhaps musically one of the best casts we have heard in a long time. Alexander Dobson (Don Giovanni), Emily Birsan (Donna Anna), Emily Fons (Donna Elvira), Musa Ngqungwana (Leporello), Brian Stuckey (Don Ottavio), Ariana Douglas (Zerlina), and Leroy V. Davis (Masetto) all sang beautifully and acted very well into the bargain. The brightest jewel of the collection was Ms. Fons, who sang the role of the obsessive Donna Elvira with power and tragic beauty while still managing some genuinely funny interactions with the other characters. David Leigh as the Commendatore gave good support (and got to come down front in the final scene, an improvement in staging from 2006), and shows promise for the future.

We still didn’t care for the purposeless hooded figures stalking across the stage, or the “escape from Hell” joke at the end, but the singing made it not matter.

Maestro Joseph Resigno once again conducted, leading the orchestra flawlessly.
On Friday evening, March 24th, we went to hear Great Lakes Baroque’s first concert of the year, featuring mezzo soprano Suzanne Lommler, cellist Paul Dwyer, and founder and harpsichordist Jory Vinokur.

Besides being a wonderful singer and operatic performer, Ms. Lommler also demonstrated that she is a real trouper, showing up despite having one foot in a cast, and standing up to sing all her pieces

In the first half, she gave us lovely renditions of “Amanti, io vi so dire,” by Benedetto Ferrari, and “L’Eraclito amoroso,” by Barbara Strozzi, whose proto-fado, proto-blues music we particularly enjoy. Then, Mr. Vinokur soloed on the Handel Suite in E Major, HWV 430 (“The Harmonious Blacksmith”) which displayed his virtuosic level of skill on the harpsichord.
Then, Ms. Lommler gave us a very passionate rendition of Handel’s La Lucrezia, wherein we got a good sample of her operatic skills in song, expression, and gesture. The cantata adopts the same classical story as Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece,” and the portion in which Lucrezia curses her attacker, Tarquin, is truly fiery.

Mr. Dwyer accompanied La Lucrezia also, and did a beautiful job of it. The singing tone of the cello was truly a duet with the human voice.

In the second half, Mr. Vinokur moved to a fortepiano, to accompany Ms. Lommler on first, a set of songs by Franz Joseph Haydn, which set to music “She Never Told Her Love” (Shakespeare), “The Mermaid’s Song”(Anne Hunter), “O Tuneful Voice” (Anne Hunter), and “Cupido” (G. Leon).
This was followed by a second set of songs set to music by Mozart: “As Luise Burned the Letters of her Unfaithful Lover” (Gabriele von Baumberg); “In A Dark and Secluded Wood” (Antoine Houdart de la Motte); “Contentment” (Christian Felix Weisse); “Evening Thoughts” (Joachim Heinrich Campe); and “To Chloe” by Johann Georg Jacobi.

After a rapturous ovation, all three performers joined in an encore, also a Mozart piece that I did not catch the name of.

Pretty much all this music was new to me, and I very much enjoyed it all.
On Sunday, March 26, we went to see the new movie of Beauty and the Beast, the Disney (mostly) live action adaptation of their 1991 all-animated feature. I say “mostly” live action: Belle, her father Maurice, villain Gaston, Le Fou, and the other villagers are live-action. Dan Steven’s Beast form and all of the enchanted servants, Lumiere, Cogsworth, et al, are CGI until the curse is lifted from them.

The movie looks great. The village is beautiful, the Beast’s castle fantastic, costumes excellent and casting all very good.

There are significant changes from the original other than the medium. There are some “new” songs, brought in from the musical play version, and some minutes of new music specifically for the film, none of which are very consequential or memorable. Some, such as “Evermore,” a song for the Beast mourning Belle’s departure to rescue Maurice, seem strongly influenced by Andrew Lloyd Weber.

My major disappointment with the 1991 movie was that Belle had no “big song.” It was a letdown when the orchestral musical buildup following “Belle” (“Isn’t she a funny girl—“) peaking in her sung line “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere!” just stops. Brave, bookish Belle is my favorite Disney/fairy tale heroine, and I’ve always wanted her to have her own anthem, her own equivalent of “Let it Go,” but we still don’t have it. To be fair, the Beast doesn’t get a “big” song either: all the really memorable songs are for the ensemble or the servants: “Belle,” “Gaston”, “Be Our Guest,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and that hasn’t changed.

The singing is very good, and on the film, you will hear the actual actors doing the songs, which shows that Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans (Gaston), Kevin Kline (Maurice), Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), and Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) all have very creditable singing voices. Frankly, I think they are preferable to some of the more professional singers that are featured on the soundtrack album.

There are some significant changes to the characters, which are mostly to the good. Maurice is played with more dignity and as less of a screwball, which makes him a more sympathetic character, but makes Gaston’s railroading him into the madhouse less credible.

Gaston, as played by Mr. Evans, initially comes over a bit more likeable. He seems humanly smitten/obsessed with Belle, and less just convinced of his entitlement to her. Ultimately though, he’s even more rotten than his cartoon counterpart, as his murderous streak comes out earlier in the film. He’s also a bit psychotic: LeFou (Josh Gad) heads off a berserk episode by saying, “Go to your happy place, Gaston! The war! All those widows!” “Widows!” murmurs Gaston in reply, with a glassy grin. Whether he’s remembering exploiting them or creating them is left unsaid--.

While I kind of miss the evil Monsieur D’Arque and the “Maison de Lune” song, it’s apparent they don’t fit in with the style of the new production. Instead, we have more dialog, particularly between Belle and the Beast which helps develop the growth of their relationship.

There were some bits that were overdone: “Be Our Guest” is always an over-the-top production number, but this version went ridiculously far. It’s a bit much even for magically animated crockery and flatware to improvise indoor fireworks and disco lighting effects on short notice.

So, it’s a really good film, and we liked it a lot. I still think I like the cartoon one better, though.
Just a quick note. We went to a preview of the new "Ghost in the Shell" film on Wednesday night. It was really good and fantastic to look at. The cityscape is, as Georgie put it, "Blade Runner all grown up!" Long review to follow--.
We noticed in the newspaper that Mason Street Grill was having a monthly special series based on movies, with the first one being “Julie and Julia,” the movie about the young woman who cooked her way through Julia Child’s “The Art of French Cooking.” We loved that movie, love the cookbook, and the special dishes looked really yummy, so we thought we’d give it a try.

The Mason Street Grill is a very nice place. If you are an old Milwaukeean, you might remember the space they are in as having been Grenadiers’ years ago. It has been entirely redecorated since then, of course, with a lot of dark wood and tasteful accents.

If you want the “movie menu”, you have to sit at “The Chef’s Corner,” which is a less-formal seating location at a marble-topped counter, with a good view of the open kitchen. Our server, Ryan, was very friendly and informative.

We ordered a starter of the charcuterie, which was good, but not special. The only home-made part was the chopped liver on toast. The sausage and ham were good, but probably not anything you couldn’t have gotten elsewhere (or at the grocery store). An amuse-bouche of a crostini with grilled tomatoes and cheese also comes with the movie menu (Georgie was able to brush the cheese off this--). That was tasty also. The breadbasket came with cottage cheese bread and a parmesan flatbread. I tasted both, but of course Georgie couldn’t eat either and it would have been nice to have had a non-cheese offering.

For main course, I ordered the Lobster Thermidor. This is bits of lobster, sautéed in cognac, in sauce, topped with bread crumbs, and broiled in half a lobster shell. I found it very tasty and good, and was glad to have had the opportunity to try this preparation.

Georgie ordered the Poulet au Porto, which was a lovely portion of roasted chicken, sauced with a port wine, cognac, cream and mushroom reduction, and accompanied by tiny fingerling potatoes. The Amish chicken was some of the best we had had, and the sauce was delicious.

For dessert, we had the Mouselline au Chocolate, which was a chocolate tart with whipped cream on top. The chocolate filling had a lovely texture, very rich and smooth. It was also flavored with espresso, which was a bit stronger than I liked, and pretty well overpowered the Grand Marnier element. The tart crust for some reason was unusually hard, (made from crushed ladyfingers) but was quite delicious in flavor. If you could manage a bite with crust, filling and whipped cream, it was a very mellow and luscious dessert.

All in all, a very pleasant and delicious dining experience. We would definitely eat there again. (But maybe not for the April movie theme, which is "The Big Night." Georgie has trouble finding any Italian dish that doesn't have cheese in it--.)

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