Arts » Performing Arts

My Great Western Adventure

CL's theater critic hits the dusty trails

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For the past three summers, my wife and I have crossed the Atlantic to sample the theater, opera, museums, restaurants, architecture, scenery and tourist traps of Europe. In the wake of September 11, 2001, Sue and I reevaluated our summer ritual. So this summer, we looked westward. We confirmed that the region is teeming with stellar activity in all the performing arts. Instead of thinking Europe for a lively arts vacation next summer, you can definitely go west.

Colorado: Running for nine full weeks during the summer, the Aspen Music Festival is one of the crown jewels of the classical music world. Hardly a week goes by without an appearance from a pre-eminent concert soloist and/or chamber group. Big orchestral concerts are usually presented in the afternoons at the Benedict Music Tent, a beautiful 2,000-seat structure with wondrous acoustics. Evening chamber concerts are given at the adjacent 500-seat Harris Concert Hall, a warm cozy venue that enfolds you in wood accents. Program notes and pre-concert lectures are on a consistently high plane, and there is absolutely no pandering in the musical lineup.We heard the Emerson String Quartet playing all six of Bartok's quartets over a span of two successive evenings. Frankly, I was disappointed -- both in the Emersons and the vaunted Harris acoustics. When I heard two of these quartets at Spoleto USA, performed by the youthful St. Lawrence Quartet at Dock Street Theatre, there was far more sinew and electricity. After winning two Grammys for their recordings of this cycle, the Emersons sounded less engaged.

Until Quartet #6, in fact, much of the musicmaking sounded downright complacent. Then first violinist Philip Setzer worked himself up to a sufficient lather to pop a string. The performance was abruptly stopped so that Setzer could restring. A new urgency and purposefulness engulfed the quartet as this unexpected element of drama intruded.

The Sunday afternoon orchestral concert under the tent began with an exquisite tone poem by Chinese composer Chou Wen-chung, And the Fallen Petals (1954). Then composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse came onstage and introduced his 1991 Pulitzer Prize winner, Trombone Concerto, an elegy to Leonard Bernstein. Guest soloist Timothy Myers played the elegiac and cacophonous cadenzas with equal aplomb.

Fittingly, the program concluded with Bernstein's Songfest. This joyous mercurial piece presents settings to a fine selection of 13 poems, ranging from the lyricism of Edna St. Vincent Millay to the defiance of Langston Hughes to the zaniness of Gregory Corso. It should be heard far more often.

During our four days in Colorado, we discovered numerous other facilities and festivals that we've bookmarked for trips to come. There's a pair of beautiful theaters in Vail and Beaver Creek, and the Vail Valley Music Festival brought an impressive slate of divas and virtuosi to ski country. The Vail International Dance Festival uses the same venues. If you're craving some theater to fill out your Colorado vacation, Colorado Shakespeare Festival is worth considering.

New Mexico: Just a few miles north of downtown, the Santa Fe Opera is supremely attuned to the simmering Southwest climate. During the first five weekends of SFO's summer season, shows don't begin until 9pm. Arrive at the theater one half hour early as recommended and you can watch the sun set over the mountains -- through the rear of the stage. Showtimes later changed to 8:30pm and then to 8pm as the season concluded.

In the newest evolution of the theater, you're covered by a roof wherever you sit -- and pampered with a personal supertitle screen that's every bit as fine as the Met's. You can watch the moon and stars come out through the open sides of the hall. But you're likely to enjoy it better if you remember to bring a blanket.

Each of the three operas we saw was magnificently sung -- and boldly directed on the smallish stage. Santa Fe's production of The Italian Girl in Algiers outclassed the Rossini La Cenerentola we saw at La Scala last summer in almost every respect, merely equaling the Milanese in over-the-top comedy mayhem. International star Stephanie Blythe made her Santa Fe debut in the title role, and stage director Edward Hastings engagingly altered Isabella's arrival in Algiers. Shipwreck became plane crash -- but only after a tacky little bi-plane careened through the audience during Rossini's overture.

Blythe in bomber jacket and goggles was a sight to behold. But until she hit stride in Act 2, the mezzo was roundly upstaged by tenor William Burden as Lindoro, her

captive lover. Stealing scenes from both was basso Mark Doss as Mustafa, the tyrannical buffoon who has enslaved Lindoro and fancies Isabella for his harem.

With baritone superstar Rodney Gilfrey taking sick leave, some of the glitter was taken from Eugene Onegin. As Tatyana, soprano Patricia Racette was equally convincing as the ardent country girl Onegin disdains and the regal princess she ultimately becomes. Pinch-hitting for Gilfry, baritone Nicolai Janitzky sang competently and captured the conceit of Onegin. But the SFO apprentice delivered little of the Tchaikovsky antihero's elegance and charm.

Santa Fe avoids trotting out tired warhorses as resolutely as Aspen. Musically, Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito is well worth bringing onstage for its company debut, beautifully sung by Richard Croft and a couple of mezzos in pants roles, Kristine Jepson and Joyce Di Donato. But director Chas Rader-Shieber struggled with the lame libretto. Scenic/costume designer David Zinn didn't help, nearly draining the production of all color. But hey, this was Mozart, and Kenneth Montgomery's elastic conducting complemented the fine singing beautifully.

Mainly, the chamber lineups are heavyweight classical. We had the privilege of watching vivacious pianist Cecile Licad tear into Beethoven's Archduke Trio with one of the world's supreme violin virtuosos, Cho-Liang Lin. The venue -- pueblo-styled St. Francis Auditorium at the Museum of Fine Arts -- was nearly as memorable as the music, with rich, resonant acoustics.

We took in only four events during our six days in Santa Fe. But we could have done more. Santa Fe Stages brings in a fine assortment of top-drawer theater, dance and music, and Shakespeare in Santa Fe, New Mexico's pro festival, can also be dropped into your Southwest vacation mix.

Nevada: On weekends year-round, you can catch both Cirque du Soleil extravaganzas on the same night in Vegas, shuttling from the 7:30 and 10:30 performances at both Treasure Island and Bellagio. Each, however, is worth savoring separately.

If you saw Quidam up at Lowe's Speedway this past spring under Cirque's amazing tent, then you have a foretaste of what Mystere has to offer at Treasure Island. While this show isn't as cohesive, evocative or surreal as Quidam, I'd say that Mystere is more visually and theatrically spectacular, with swifter pacing. With Britisher Brian Dewhurst as our devilish host, Mystere probably has the best clowning of all the Cirque spectacles.

Nothing I'd seen quite prepared me for the wonders of O at Bellagio. This was simply the most amazing theatrical event I've ever witnessed. One minute, the stage is flat and dry for a fire act blending island ritual and martial arts. Minutes later, there's water deep enough onstage for four men to wow us with acrobatic high dives from 60 feet above the stage. The varied configurations of the stage -- and the prodigious feats performed in the water and the air above -- are breathtaking.

O's clowning is somewhat subpar by Cirque standards, and audience members plucked onstage are obvious plants. But this fabulous deluge of music, lighting, costumes, theatrical imagery, baggy pants shtick and circus magic triumphs over all quibbles.

Yes, it's worth $121 a pop for the 90-minute show. That and more.

We found more legit theater on the Sin City strip than we thought. Notre Dame de Paris, a touted French musical that floundered in London, plays at the Vegas version of Paris, and Blue Man Group is wowing "em at the Luxor. The Bard may be barred in Vegas, but there's the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival at Sand Harbor if you don't mind mingling with the jet set.

Oregon: As soon as we walked into the New Theatre in downtown Ashland, I had an inkling that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (February 22-November 3) would far surpass my modest expectations. In two days, we saw three plays at three theaters, working our way from the smallest, most intimate space to the largest and most Elizabethan.

We began with Playboy of the West Indies, a freewheeling Caribbean update of J.M. Synge's Irish comedy classic. That evening, we saw Julius Caesar at the Angus Bowmer, a space that reminds me of Royal National's Olivier Theatre, where I vividly remember director Trevor Nunn's reimagining of Troilus and Cressida. OSF's Julius is the most purposeful and profound modernization of Shakespeare that I've seen in the three years since.

Our last evening out was spent under the stars at the Elizabethan Theatre, the oldest theater of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. There we saw a gloriously gory production of Titus Andronicus.

I left Ashland believing that the executive and creative leadership of the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival -- and High Point community leaders -- need to visit Ashland without delay. Because this is what a Shakespeare festival can and should be.

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