A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler / Theater

A Singer’s Notes 33: Favorite Thespians

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Kate Abbruzzese, who played Hamlet in Shakespeare & Co.'s touring production.
Kate Abbruzzese, who played Hamlet in Shakespeare & Co.'s touring production.

Shakespeare and Company’s touring production of Hamlet was swift and sharp. It had something of the intransigence of youth about it. The focus was sharply on Katherine Abbruzzese’s performance in the title role. All other roles were ably, nimbly taken by several actors who needed to be able to move quickly. This necessarily pushed the play toward melodrama. This was not bad. Ms. Abbruzzese was well-able to provide us with the energy and the virtuosity made necessary by the fleet, never-stopping direction. She seemed to be able to inhabit a world between genders without effort, like Hamlet seems to. This made me see Ophelia as more female than female, and that had a knife-edge tenderness. This made me see the graveyard reconciliation of Hamlet and Laertes as a lyrical event. What I missed most particularly were the Players. Hamlet the play is a slippery illusion, and the arrival of the Players paradoxically always makes me feel more grounded. I notice that Hamlet himself seems to feel the same way. The play makes us feel that the play’s the thing—the thing that we can hang onto. On the up side, its absence only added to the straight-to-the-end momentum of the entire production. This was a Hamlet that moved like Macbeth. Ms. Abbruzzese did not belabor her private pronouncements to us; they were also compelled to dazzle. I found that they worked very well that way. I didn’t have much time to think, and they seemed fresh, not separate from the main body of the play, just moments where it became more focused. This was a well-practiced performance with all the players connected in a simple and complete trust. The appreciative audience was well-pleased.

There were two great things in the two evenings I saw of Tina Packer’s “Women of Will’. Her partner in this venture as always was Nigel Gore, an actor I have more estimation for every time I see him. First there was a scene from Much Ado About Nothing. Part of the reason it worked so well was that it fit the ages of the actors. They were quite remarkable impersonating characters older and younger than themselves. In this scene that was never an issue. What was so excellent was that they conveyed that Beatrice and Benedict, these virtuosos of words, were nearly entrapped in their brilliance. David Mamet likes to say there are no characters; only words. I almost believed him watching this scene. It seemed like a struggle for simplicity—simple, direct, warm sounds.

Packer and Gore made the back-and-forth between Beatrice and Benedict a difficult progress from characters, who maybe were just words, to lovers with heart. They helped each other escape. This seemed to me absolutely right, and it was wonderful, beyond my ability to say, in a performance that had most of the spontaneity of a rehearsal. But even finer was Gore’s depiction of Leontes’ jealousy in The Winter’s Tale. Unlike the brave attempt Jonathan Epstein made last year, in which his jealousy nearly destroyed the sense of his speeches, Gore’s way with the text was one of sadness. No energy was accumulated in his acting that was not soon interrupted with a silence wonderfully sad, rendering him not destructive of the language, but unable to go on with it. This was the most moving enactment of this scene I have ever seen. Again in a setting more like a rehearsal than a performance. Then there were the few lines of Paulina that Ms. Packer spoke- the scene where she shows the frantic Leontes his infant daughter, and the scene where she brings the statue of his wife, Hermione, to life. Almost every performance of Paulina I have seen involves harshness, a kind of reproving desire that is excessive. Critics have often noted that Shakespeare is most connected with the dicta of St. Paul in his biblical rewordings, and Paulina often has the same hard clarity. Packer showed pity, and out of this pity came her formidable strength. As she said when discussing the play, Leontes and Paulina have spent many years together. Her resurrection of Hermione was not a magic act but a merciful act. Not a demonstration of power, but the natural result of contrition which is at the same time a miracle.

How can this happen in a loose format which was like a rehearsal and a chat? I don’t know. All I know is, for me these things were crystal clear. Packer and Gore are formidable and dear actors. Few trappings are needed if the talent is there.

It was sweet to see Brian Bedford play Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell on the big screen at The Clark, straight from Broadway. He wasn’t a caricature of the old battle-ax; he was an old battle-ax. Like all the other characters, he has to deliver one zinger after another. Coming from him, they seemed her regular speech. There was much that could be seen in this Live in HD format. The play is itself a series of quips and perhaps less dependent on projection of a complete personality, which requires in my view being with a live actor in an actual room. There was a sizeable audience at this event, and they thoroughly enjoyed themselves. I found though, at the end when we were all happy and laughing, and the audience in New York City was clapping, it feels strange to applaud a movie screen and our clapping gently left us, as we listened to the to the clapping in New York.


A Thank You

For several years there has been an operatic experience at Tanglewood that could not be had anywhere else in the world.  We had the best young singers, and we had a great conductor. And there was time to work. I will dearly miss this. Some things I will always remember:

Maestro Levine playing the rest of Donna Anna’s aria with an ineffable singingness when the young soprano tired in class. His saying to the young conductor in that same masterclass on Don Giovanni “Just don’t conduct, listen to your Zerlina…. she will tell you everything you need to know. Levine’s encouragement of his young singers in Cosi fan tutte to sing the end of the sextet and the end of the first act finale at a nearly impossible pace. They did it. Best of all, there is somehow in Levine’s conducting always the deep meaning of singing. He has a philosophers understanding of it. My fondest memory: listening to him rehearse the Prelude to the Third act of Meistersinger. In the Tanglewood Fellows he had an orchestra which was in perfect sympathy with his unhurried ability to make every line vocal, to wait for every phrase to start in its own time, to let the intensity of the piece build out of its vocality, not be shoved forward with a kind of obvious conductor’s energy. How he did this I do not know. This is the great mystery. How do the movements or facial expressions of a conductor, who is in no way excessive, do this? Why do some singers make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, and others (with better voices) do not? I really think of Maestro Levine as a singer, and I miss hearing his voice.

3 thoughts on “A Singer’s Notes 33: Favorite Thespians

  1. A contrarian view! I sometimes think James Levine’s legacy may be the MET Orchestra more than the BSO. He built its manner from the ground up–and yes, always thinking of the vocal line. But one shouldn’t let this obscure the fact that Levine is not really a “sonority” conductor, like Gergiev. Orchestrally, he’s primarily an “energy” guy. There is a tightness in his results that can remind you of Toscanini or Reiner, and very much their sort of energy, but less immediate sensual sense than many conductors. You don’t hear a Levine performance and think of Stokowski or Barbirolli, or imagine he would want to conduct Delius or Vaughan Williams or Howard Hanson —and mean it. And unlike Munch, who brought Toscaninian fire to Chausson and Debussy, I do not see that Levine would ever have equalled him. Munch be sensually seductive in Faure, then bring the house down with Roussel. The essence of my comment is this. At the core, I find in Levine’s music-making a chilling inner coldness…

  2. Thanks for the response,Steven. Michael has kindly allowed me to write about things I admire,even love. I try not to play the comparison game, but listen to what is in front of me. Rehearsals are where artists work and teach. They are really the heart of the matter. Certainly,Maestro Levine has energy. But he achieved great speed and accuracy in the Cosi ensembles by pushing his young singers toward risk in rehearsal, I think, and then bringing the whole ensemble up to their singing way with it. No ensemble seems fast unless it really is fast for the singers. It comes off the singing. The final movement in his Tanglewood Mahler 3 (2007) was a elemental song which risked all on sustaining a tempo of broadness in the singing of it. I cannot hear these things as heartless.

  3. Very nice. Katherine and I and Huntley heard at Tanglewood an amazing
    performance of Goetterdaemmerung Act III under Levine with the student
    orchestra. Deborah Voight sang really well, and a marvelous tenor whose name I
    can’t remember – but orchestra was just glorious.

    I saw an interview with Levine some years ago where he talked about his main
    motivation in his career – love of opera and wanting to make it sound really
    right – surely identification with singing is the point. – CW

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