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Scottish Ballet's Gothic 'Crucible' lands at the Kennedy Center

Scottish Ballet's production of Helen Pickett's The Crucible. Photo: Andy Ross

Helen Pickett created her choreographed adaptation of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible for the Edinburgh Festival in 2019. The troupe that premiered it, the Scottish Ballet, is finally touring it in the United States. (The work's planned premiere at the Kennedy Center, in May 2020, was canceled for obvious reasons.) After its run at the Kennedy Center, which opened on Wednesday, the production will go to the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. The play's setting, the Salem Witch Trials, and the subtext of its premiere, the Red Scare led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, are both eras of American history we should not be wanting to repeat but may be doomed to do. Pickett's grim and grimy version, with its techno- and electronica-infused score by Peter Salem, seemed more timely than ever at the second performance, Thursday night, in the Eisenhower Theater.

Pickett's adaptation both telescopes the action of the play and fleshes out some of the characters by examining their motives. Act I opens with Abigail, the orphan girl whom the Proctor family has hired as a servant, dreaming of a happy family life. Elizabeth Proctor, burdened with a baby and perhaps suffering from post-partum depression, learns that her husband, John Proctor, has had an affair with the girl. Discovered dancing naked together in the forest, Abigail and a group of local girls accuse Tituba, an enslaved woman, of leading them into witchcraft. A council of churchmen, determined to root out the devil in their midst, solicit more accusations from the girls, leading to the eventual downfall of the Proctors.
Other Articles:

Kyra Laubacher, Scottish Ballet Tours Helen Pickett’s The Crucible to the U.S., Bringing Miller’s Tale to Its Home Soil (Pointe, May 15)

Elliot Lanes, Interview: Theatre Life with Peter Salem (Broadway World, May 25)

The Crucible is a mixture of theater and ballet, which deprives itself of the greatest strengths of both art forms. The accusing shrieks of the girls and even talking by some characters shatters the idea of a story told exclusively by movement, but the use of ballet like periodic arias partially undermines the potential realism of theater. The set pieces, designed by Emma Kingsbury and David Finn, float and tilt into different shapes, with occasional hanging pieces of fabric, all creating the sense of a drab industrial environment.

The most effective use of dance was in the church scenes, where unified movement became a metaphor for the group-think of religious conformity: the gray-swathed congregants moving in lockstep and imitating faithfully the movements of their pastors. The Men of God, whom the work's creators reportedly thought of "as a menacing flock of birds," leapt and spun with bravado and more than the occasional hint of Merce Cunningham's Preacher in Appalachian Spring. The duet between Kayla-Maree Tarantolo's needy Abigail and Bruno Micchiardi's conflicted John Proctor is striking for its overt sexuality, balanced by the latter's tender scenes with Bethany Kingsley-Garner's Elizabeth Proctor.

Salem's score is austere, with a bass-heavy string ensemble (two violins, one on a part, against three violas, three cellos, and two basses) providing drones and keening melodies, conducted by Daniel Parkinson. The instruments in the pit are all miked, and Salem has added reverb for atmospheric effect at times. In addition to live oboe, flute, bassoon, and trombone, two keyboards and electronic sample pads mix in other sounds. The score leaned most to the electronic side in the forest scene, with over-amplified thudding rhythm giving the nude dancing scene the air of a night club. Salem's next collaboration with Pickett is reportedly a new ballet based on Flaubert's Madame Bovary, planned for this November at the National Ballet of Canada.

The Crucible runs through May 28.


Ionarts-at-Large: Muscular Lyricism. A Stupendous Budapest Festival Orchestra Visit to Vienna

A week after Riccardo Chailly had been in town with the Filarmonica della Scala – a curiously disappointing affair, it was time to listen to Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, this time over at the Musikverein, in a triple-B program.

Bach’s Fourth Orchestral Suite, individual glitches aside, was a gorgeous rendering that reminded, how badly missed Bach is in such orchestral concerts, ever since the composer has been left to the HIP-specialists, except for the high holidays when the choral works get wheeled out. And in fact, it was the BFO’s own early-music wing that entered onto the stage of the Golden Hall, outfitted with a set of age-appropriate instruments. Stately yet driven, this set the auspicious tone.

Harpsichord went, Steinway came, and with it András Schiff for the lyrical Third Piano Concerto. From the first note, the noble power, stately restraint, and again the brimming forward momentum, stood out. Schiff’s matter-of-factly lyricism was coupled with a sweet, forceful touch and the orchestra was full of verve and color.

It seemed hard for Brahms’ Third to better this. But the tight, propelling way Fischer had with it, leaving no chance for rhythmic confusion in that tricky first movement, just about did that. It’s rare to hear an orchestra play with such purpose, concentration, and beauty of tone – and on this evening, all those elements were in place, in spades. But then, this almost shouldn’t come as a surprise anymore, with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Or maybe any orchestra from Budapest, for that matter.

Wiener Zeitung

Muskulöse Lyrik

Das Budapest Festival Orchestra mit einer Sternstunde.

...Brahms‘ Dritte Symphonie musste da schon zum Ereignis werden, um mithalten zu können. Wurde sie: Dominant, musikalische Rufzeichen, treibende Bässe und gezügelte Kraft. Energie wurde hier zu Masse, nicht Geschwindigkeit. Alles spielte mit gleicher, fast ungehöriger Intensität, gerne laut, aber ebenso konsequent in leiseren, lyrischen Momenten. Zu guter Letzt transformierte sich das Orchester noch zum Chor für die Zugabe von Brahms‘ "Liebe Schwalbe, kleine Schwalbe". Fünf Sternchen? Fünf Herzchen! [weiterlesen]

Photo: © Sonja Werner


Kennedy Center revives clownish "Spamalot"

Cast of Spamalot in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Monty Python nerds and opera fans, rejoice: this month the Kennedy Center has righted the backwards state of things at the arts venue on the Potomac. The city's leading presenter is mounting an opera in its Opera House and a musical in the Eisenhower Theater, the way things are supposed to be. Your choices are devastating tragedy, in a fine production of Puccini's La Bohème, or inane comedy with a hilarious revival of Eric Idle and John Du Prez's 2005 Broadway hit, Spamalot, seen on Sunday evening. Or one can have both, as it should be.

The best musicals of recent years have tested the boundaries of vulgarity and inappropriate humor: Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon, and Matilda come to mind. Likewise, the Pythons have been grandfathered into the present age with their politically incorrect wit intact. Most of the scenes we all quote from Monty Python and the Holy Grail are transformed into stage action, often in ways that are transparently low-tech, which only makes them funnier: the killer Rabbit of Caerbannog, the Black Knight ("It's only a flesh wound"), the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, the cow-catapulting French soldiers who spout absurd insults. Other jokes, like the troll's three questions ending on a stumper about the air velocity of an unladen swallow, are worked into the show in other ways. For good measure, other great Python musical numbers, including "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from Monty Python's Life of Brian and the fish-slapping scene from The Flying Circus, also make an appearance.

Other Reviews:

Peter Marks, ‘Spamalot’ might be retro, but it’s still a riot (Washington Post, May 15)
Josh Rhodes directs this zany Broadway Center Stage production, which features not a weak link in its very strong ensemble cast, including many faces Broadway fans will recognize. James Monroe Iglehart makes an amusingly clueless King Arthur, who gathers together the Knights of the Round Table from the misfits he meets in his travels, assisted by the true-hearted Matthew Saldivar as his sidekick, Patsy. Alex Brightman's vain Sir Lancelot, in a 21st-century twist, learns something about himself thanks to his rescue of Rob McClure's fey Prince Herbert, the young man who only wants to sing and not marry the woman with the large tracts of land coveted by his father.
Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer camps it up as the Lady of the Lake, with a classic Liza Minnelli send-up in the Vegas as Camelot scene and an acidic parody of a Broadway prima donna in "Whatever Happened to My Part" in the second act. Michael Urie's cowardly Sir Robin gets the best number in the show, "You Won't Succeed on Broadway," which prompts King Arthur to search for that quintessential element for the success of any musical, Jews. In the list of the Chosen People projected on the screen (Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg...) is the name of a certain "Jew-ish" freshman congressman from New York. John Bell conducts members of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, seated out of view on a high platform at the back of the stage. The amplification makes them sound like pre-recorded tracks at times, but they really are live.

Spamalot runs through May 21.


Ionarts-at-Large: Riccardo Chailly, Filarmonica della Scala, and Mao Fujita at the Konzertaus (@ Wiener Zeitung)

The expectations for the concert of the Filarmonica della Scala were high, what with Riccardo Chailly bringing Stravinsky's rather recently re-discovered Chant funèbre, op.5, to the Konzerthaus: the work he has given such a tantalizing premiere-recording with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. (Review on Forbes). To boot, the whole thing was embedded in a program of Russian gorgeousness: Rachmaninov's Third and Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony.

Mao Fujita, second-place winner at the last Tchaikovsky Competition, was the soloist – and he, too, has left a very fine recent memory on record, with his young, neatly considered cycle of Mozart Sonatas. His performance, replete with some curious rythmic accentuations, was met by roaring applause and localized Bravos – and perhaps for the sheer athleticism of that work and not being sidetracked during a minute-long rogue hearing-aid vaguely going along with the music, auto-tune-like, they deserved it. But the orchestra sounded muffled, with strange balances and instruments popping out of the mix unexpectedly. The short, tart little trumpet accents that blurted like an 1970s Fiat honking in brief anger, were a solitary delight amid a strange, massive, energized listlessness. Chailly seemed to do all the right things but the sound wanted to tell another story.

That was the problem with the Chant funèbre, too, where there was little left of that Wagner-goes-Tchaikovsky-reaches-Dukas magic, that his recording suggests. The strings seemed wooden, the cellos were scarcely audible, and while the double basses did their best, even they couldn’t push the greater apparatus into gear. The Prokofiev Seventh (with the coda-finale) – too nice a symphony to be taken seriously – was a little better in most regards, including balance, but still a brooding lump of sound. The Glockenspiel whinged and a lusty tuba brought smiles to faces. The two “3-Orange” encores, loud and fun, began to show some vigor – but still didn’t suggest that one had just heard a great orchestra on even a decent day.

Wiener Zeitung

Robuste Romantik

Die Filarmonica della Scala gastierte im Konzerthaus..

Nach der Wiederauffindung des "Chant funèbre" war es Riccardo Chailly, der das atmosphärisch funkelnde Strawinsky-Frühwerk beeindruckend ersteingespielt hat. Zusammen mit der Filarmonica della Scala im Wiener Konzerthaus brachte er nun mittels eines kraftvoll warmen, jedoch nicht sonderlich differenzierten Klangteppichs immerhin etwas von dieser von Wagner zu Tschaikowski bis Paul Dukas reichenden Magie über die Bühne... [weiterlesen]

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