Last weekend, Joshua and I gave my parents a rewarding yet relaxing four days in Boston. We attended a few interesting performances, but we did not attempt to run ourselves ragged.
My parents did not fly in until Veterans’ Day—they did not want to fly in late Wednesday night—and on Thursday they took the most sensible nonstop flight of the day from Minneapolis: the 10:00 a.m. flight, which arrives in Boston shortly before 2:00 p.m. local time.
Josh had class on Thursday, so I went to the airport by myself to retrieve my parents and bring them home. Josh returned from class not long after my parents and I arrived at the apartment—and, once Josh was home, we all sat down for a late and satisfying lunch. We had Dutch Chowder, which I had prepared on Wednesday night and which we ate with three different salads: a tomato-cucumber salad; a cabbage-carrot-onion salad; and my mother’s version of Waldorf salad.
Not long after our very late lunch, we began preparing ourselves for our evening activity, a Boston Ballet performance, which featured an early curtain of 7:00 p.m.
The ballet presentation was the full-length “La Bayadere”, a Marius Petipa stage work first performed in 1877. The local presentation was billed as a new production by Boston Ballet.
Boston Ballet’s current “La Bayadere”, staged by Florence Clerc, former dancer with the Paris Opera Ballet, is an adaptation of the 1992 production Rudolf Nureyev created for the Paris Opera Ballet shortly before his death.
Until I actually saw the present Boston production, I had assumed that the stage design and costume design, too, would be based upon the Nureyev Paris production.
They were not.
One of the chief pleasures of “La Bayadere” is that the ballet—set in pre-British India—is a designer’s dream, generally presented as exotic visual feast. The Nureyev production for Paris, breathtakingly beautiful, featured legendary stage designs by Ezio Frigerio and legendary costume designs by Franca Squarciapino. The even more famous 1980 Natalia Makarova production for American Ballet Theatre, also breathtakingly beautiful, featured legendary stage designs by PierLuigi Samaritani and legendary costume designs by Theoni V. Aldredge.
Boston Ballet’s production of “La Bayadere” was anything but visual feast.
Although Boston Ballet had presented a variant of the Nureyev production, the designs were entirely different. Sergiy Spevyakin was credited as creator of both the Boston stage designs and the Boston costume designs. According to the Boston Ballet program booklet, the Boston stage designs were “adapted” and the costume designs were “new”.
From what source had the Boston stage designs been “adapted”?
As it turns out, the “adapted” stage designs were based upon Boston Ballet’s previous presentation of “La Bayadere”, an Anna-Marie Holmes production from 2000 that was never revived. None of the Boston reviewers had bothered to note this very important fact in their notices. In fact, I was able to ascertain the genesis of the designs only by undertaking an extensive search for information about the original source of Spevyakin’s designs. In my search, I stumbled upon a September 30, 2000, press release from Boston Ballet, a press release issued in conjunction with the company’s presentation of “La Bayadere” a decade ago: The costumes and sets for "La Bayadère" were designed by Sergiy Spevyakin and created by The Art of Donbass, a production company in Donetsk, Ukraine.
Spevyakin’s designs, whether of 2000 vintage or 2010 vintage, were not attractive and had no eye appeal whatsoever. Spevyakin had used a subdued, muted color scheme for the stage settings, comprised mostly of earth tones, and he had used a garish color scheme for the costumes, a color scheme that would not have been out of place in a Las Vegas revue. The result was not pleasing and nowise befitted the ballet’s regal India setting.
The stage and costume designs were not the only surprise in store for us upon attending Boston Ballet’s “La Bayadere”.
For viewers familiar with “La Bayadere” through Makarova’s ABT production, the Boston staging had a peculiarity: the ballet ended, not with the dramatic destruction of the temple and all of its inhabitants, but with the ballet’s most famous set piece, “The Kingdom Of The Shades” scene.
I found this to be a very unfulfilling conclusion to the ballet. Although “The Kingdom Of The Shades” scene is the choreographic highlight of “La Bayadere”, it is nothing more than a dream sequence and was never intended by the ballet’s creators to provide a satisfying dramatic resolution for the ballet. Ending “La Bayadere” with “The Kingdom Of The Shades” scene was a short-lived (and silly) Soviet-era practice originating in 1924, a practice intended to provide the ballet with the requisite happy ending Soviet authorities believed the masses needed to be served—and a practice abandoned by the Russians themselves in 2001. Why is this outdated ending, a decayed remnant from the Soviet period, being perpetuated in Boston in 2010?
“La Bayadere” is a very difficult ballet to bring off. Ludwig Minkus’s score is insufferably bland if not atrocious—has there ever been a more conspicuous example of music written “by the yard”?—and the only choreographic item of interest is “The Kingdom Of The Shades” scene. Absent eye-popping designs, “La Bayadere” can be a very long ballet for an audience to endure (shorn of its final act, the Boston “La Bayadere” nonetheless lasted almost three hours).
The Boston performance was nothing to applaud. In addition to requiring brilliant design, “La Bayadere” requires three star dancers—one male, two female—to make an impact, and Boston Ballet has no stars on its roster of dancers. Further, the corps de ballet for “The Kingdom Of The Shades” scene was comprised of 24 dancers, not the requisite 32—and, consequently, the scene did not create the necessary overwhelming and magical effect (nor was the Boston corps up to the technical demands of the scene). Things were not helped by the fact that the orchestra was in very bad form on Thursday evening.
Yet the Boston performance was nothing to deplore. It was a sincere effort by a regional ballet company to mount an extravagant stage spectacle—a spectacle never seen in its entirety outside Russia until 1980—and it was a valiant attempt by a regional ballet company to bring to life an old-fashioned, outdated curiosity.
However, “La Bayadere” is little more than historic artifact—and a very musty artifact it is indeed. The ballet, truly, is no longer stage-worthy.
When the complete “La Bayadere” was first performed in New York in 1980, the great dance writer, Arlene Croce, noted that the Mariinsky trunk had been raided, and that it had been discovered that the trunk was bare.
Miss Croce was referring purely to the choreography, and Miss Croce was correct: there is little in “La Bayadere” to sustain the dance viewer’s interest. The lone indication of Petipa’s genius on display in “La Bayadere”, the legendary “Kingdom Of The Shades” scene, was already known to ballet lovers everywhere by 1980. It is the lone segment of the ballet worth preserving; the rest is filler.
I predict that the current run of popularity of “La Bayadere” will have run its course once the extravagant Makarova production is retired in New York and once the extravagant Nureyev production is retired in Paris. After those two productions have been shelved, “La Bayadere” will live on, at least in the West, solely by “The Kingdom Of The Shades” extract.
At the very least, companies that insist upon presenting “La Bayadere” should now base their productions upon the 2001 Mariinsky revival, a scholarly and authoritative restaging of the final Petipa-supervised production of 1900 (unseen even in Russia between 1916, the year of its final revival, and 2001, the year of its recreation).
The 2001 Mariinsky production is based upon a complete set of dance notations from the 1900 production as well as upon Minkus’s original score with original orchestrations, unearthed in the Mariinsky library in the course of preparations for the 2001 restoration of the 1900 Petipa production.
In contrast, the music for the current Nureyev and Makarova productions is entirely corrupt, a bizarre mishmash of re-orchestrated snippets adduced by John Lanchbery from incomplete (if not spurious) piano arrangements of the original score—to which have been added pages and pages of newly-composed music (also by Lanchbery). Such corrupt—if not idiotic—versions of the “La Bayadere” score were rendered superfluous in 2001 upon discovery of the manuscript score as well as a set of complete orchestral parts.
Further, the choreography for the current Nureyev and Makarova productions is based upon corrupt choreography deriving from any one of several non-authoritative Soviet stagings of the ballet in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s—except that some of the Nureyev/Makarova choreography is simply made from scratch. (All of Act IV of the Makarova production, for instance, is entirely specious, consisting solely of new choreography.)
The only non-corrupt version of “La Bayadere” to be seen and heard today is in Saint Petersburg. All other versions—including the “new” Boston version—should be withdrawn. Companies that insist upon mounting the ballet should, at the very least, work from the most pristine source. Perpetuating a corrupt Nureyev production, as Boston Ballet has done (at considerable expense), does not honor the ballet and does not honor the ballet public.
After the long ballet performance, we returned home to have a very late and very simple and very easy-to-prepare dinner: chicken breasts baked in a cream-pepper sauce, seasoned rice (from a package), fresh greens beans and cranberry-orange relish (from a jar). After our dinner, we immediately turned in, because I had to go to work early Friday morning and because Josh had to go to class early Friday morning.
The next day, Josh and I headed out very early (even before my parents had awakened). We left my parents to their own devices until early afternoon, when we all planned to meet up at Symphony Hall for Friday afternoon’s Boston Symphony concert.
My parents had access to transportation, because Josh and I had left our car behind for my parents’ use. Nonetheless my parents did not make use of the car to go anywhere, remaining in the apartment all morning until it was time for them to leave for Symphony Hall.
Friday afternoon’s Boston Symphony subscription concert was a Mozart-Haydn affair: two Mozart Piano Concertos (Nos. 15 and 16) and two Haydn Symphonies (Nos. 80 and 95). The conductor and soloist was Christian Zacharias.
Had my parents not been in town, Josh and I would certainly have skipped the concert—I have never been particularly impressed with Zacharias—but we knew that my parents would not want to miss an opportunity to hear the Boston Symphony, no matter the program and no matter the conductor. The Boston Symphony has not appeared in Minneapolis in an aeon.
For Josh and me, Friday afternoon was our first Boston Symphony concert of the season.
For my parents, Friday afternoon was the third consecutive year in which, visiting Boston, they had had to settle for a Boston Symphony program that was far from ideal. When my parents were in town two years ago, we had suffered through a James Levine Schumann-Tchaikovsky concert that had lacked a single spark of musical imagination. When my parents were in town one year ago, we had attended a very disappointing Vasily Petrenko concert of Russian music—having purchased tickets for a Daniele Gatti Brahms-Hindemith concert before becoming victimized by one of the Boston Symphony’s frequent bait-and-switch routines, endemic in Boston in recent years.
Zacharias is a competent—but hardly peerless—Mozart pianist, but he is not much of a conductor, either from the keyboard or from the podium. There was not much of interest to be heard in his Mozart or Haydn on Friday afternoon. The performances, above all, were perfunctory, making the concert largely a non-event, one of those subscription weeks used to fill out an annual schedule.
I had not heard Zacharias in ten or twelve years, and I was shocked when he first appeared on the stage platform: he had aged thirty years since the last time I had seen him. He is now an old man.
There were no insights of age to be heard in his work on Friday. His performances were dull and colorless, lacking both the sparkle of youth as well as the depth and wisdom that is supposed to come with advancing years. If anything, Zacharias’s readings were less interesting—and certainly less fresh—than those to be heard on the many Mozart recordings Zacharias made twenty and thirty years ago.
The Boston Symphony did not play well for Zacharias. Despite a reduced orchestra, the ensemble’s sound was thick and undifferentiated, and lacked all transparency. Phrasing was abrupt, even graceless. There was a heavy, lumbering quality to the Haydn that drained all life out of the scores. I doubt I shall ever want to hear Zacharias as conductor again.
After the concert, we returned home, where we remained for the rest of the day.
No one had had lunch, and no one had had a substantial breakfast—Josh and I had had grapefruit and cereal, my parents had settled for English muffins and cream cheese—so we ate a belated lunch as soon as we arrived home. No one having had eggs that morning, I made cheese soufflés, which for inexplicable reasons are within my capability (the secret, I think, is that I beat the eggs to death).
After eating, we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening chatting, listening to music—and preparing dinner.
We had a special dinner, certainly the most worthwhile dinner of my parents’ visit.
My mother had announced before the visit that she intended to prepare roast pork baked in pastry, so Josh and I had assembled all necessary ingredients in the days before my parents’ arrival. My mother prepared two different versions of the pork in pastry: one version featuring onions and leeks baked within the pastry; and the other version featuring apricots and plums baked within the pastry.
While my mother worked on the pork in pastry, I prepared escalloped potatoes, succotash, glazed carrots, red cabbage cooked in cream and butter, and apples cooked in cinnamon and spices.
We did not sit down to eat until 9:00 p.m., but it was a dinner worth waiting for.
On Saturday, we remained at home until early afternoon. We had tickets to Lyric Stage Company Of Boston’s presentation of the two-part Dickens adaptation, “Nicholas Nickleby”, Part I in the afternoon and Part II in the evening. Since the performance was scheduled to begin at 3:00 p.m. and scheduled to conclude at 11:00 p.m.—a marathon of sorts—my parents did not want to arrange any other outings that day.
Josh and I and my father slept in until 8:00 a.m., and my mother slept in until 9:00 a.m.
When we rose, we puttered around the apartment for hours, eating a breakfast that lasted most of the morning, until it was time for us to clean up and head out.
We ate grapefruit, followed by cereal, followed by strawberries and cream. We ate ham-and-cheese omelets with potatoes fried with onion and green pepper. I made a very simple cinnamon streusel coffee cake. We each drank 62 cups of coffee.
We were fortifying ourselves for the lengthy Dickens play.
The version of “The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby” presented by Lyric Stage Company was a trimmed-down version of the David Edgar adaptation unveiled in 1980, which had proven a sensation first in London and later in New York. The 1980 version had a performing length of eight-and-one-half hours, but the more recent, streamlined version, from 2007, requires only six hours to perform, in two equal installments. Saturday being one of the few days during the Boston run on which theatergoers might catch Parts I and II on the same day, Josh and I had convinced my parents that it would be foolish for us to miss a rare opportunity to see the complete “Nicholas Nickleby” in one sitting.
I thought the play was riveting. Despite the cramped stage at Lyric Stage Company, the production was a marvel of theatrical efficiency and narrative effectiveness. I was captivated from start to finish both by the play and by the production, and so was my mother.
Josh and my father, on the other hand, believed that both play and production had longueurs that made “Nicholas Nickleby” somewhat of a trial to endure. They said that they were glad that they had experienced what certainly had to be deemed a special event, but that they would never attempt to repeat the exercise.
I was amazed how fine was the “Nicholas Nickleby” ensemble. The 24 cast members, in general, looked their many parts and genuinely seemed familiar with 19th-Century English manners and mores (Dickens’s novel first appeared in 1838). This was by far the finest presentation Josh and I had ever witnessed at Lyric Stage Company, a venue at which we previously had suffered through some very gruesome performances and some very poor productions—and, on two occasions (at least), vowing never to return.
Oddly, the male actors had been much more carefully cast and had clearly been given much more detailed direction than the female actors, whose portrayals were more generalized, less vivid and less convincing than their male counterparts.
Portraying the title character was Jack Cutmore-Scott, a recent Harvard graduate. This young actor may be a phenomenal talent. He will, I predict, go on to enjoy a significant career in theater and film. Onstage constantly for almost six hours, Cutmore-Scott was capable of carrying the show by himself.
During the two-hour dinner intermission between Parts I and II, we ate dinner at a Parisian brasserie not far from the theater.
Because of time constraints, we limited ourselves to one course and dessert—which was a pity, as it turned out, because the food was exceptional, perhaps even spectacular. The restaurant was unexplored territory for us, and we were entirely delighted with our new discovery. We shall have to return.
My mother ordered spice-crusted yellowfin tuna with charred eggplant, chickpea hummus and flatbread. My father ordered seared sea scallops with celery root puree, bacon lardons, roasted mushrooms and truffle vinaigrette. Josh ordered pan-roasted cod with mussels, oysters and Spanish chorizo. I ordered duck confit with orange gastrique, citrus chard salad and roasted garlic potatoes. The food was amazing.
Our desserts were just as fine. My mother ordered chilled lemon soufflé with berries and citrus coulis. My father ordered apple-caramel cake with cider maple sauce. Josh ordered chocolate cake with Crème Chantilly. I ordered chocolate mousse with orange and almond tuiles. We thought the desserts were divine.
After Part II of “Nicholas Nickleby”, we returned home and turned in not long afterward.
We had only one activity scheduled for Sunday—an afternoon performance of “Tosca”—and, as things transpired, we attended the “Tosca” performance but otherwise remained at home.
Josh and I had asked my parents whether they wanted to do something on Sunday morning, and my parents had told us “No”. My parents had stated that they possessed no overriding interest in returning to the Boston Museum Of Fine Arts or the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum—and, the Harvard art museums being closed for renovations, that there was nothing of particular interest to them in Boston that demanded a return visit.
We very briefly considered attending the small Jean-Francois Millet exhibition at the Museum Of Fine Arts, but we decided that it made little sense for us to pay $78.00 in order to spend 45 minutes examining a small cache of Millet artworks (the MFA owns the largest collection of Millet paintings and drawings in the U.S.).
As a result, we stayed in all morning. We ate cereal, and bananas, and melons, and scrambled eggs and bacon and hash-brown potatoes, and orange-cranberry muffins fresh from the oven.
When we were done with our eating and lounging, we got cleaned up for the opera performance.
The performance of “Tosca” was our first visit to a presentation of Boston Lyric Opera.
Josh and I had previously attended three presentations of Opera Boston, Boston’s other opera enterprise (and my parents had accompanied us to an Opera Boston “Freischutz” two years ago), but the current “Tosca” was the first offering of Boston Lyric Opera that had interested us enough to warrant a visit.
Sunday’s performance was very much a regional-level “Tosca”.
The principals were purely singers of local caliber. The Tosca gave the most finished performance and the most convincing portrayal of the afternoon, yet the voice itself would never get her in the door of a major opera company. The Cavaradossi had by far the finest voice—large and unwieldy, but with a few good notes—but he had no stage deportment whatsoever. The Scarpia was a stock villain with a stock voice.
The orchestra and chorus were unimpressive, the conducting at a level one might expect at a student performance at Western Illinois University in Macomb.
The physical production, “adapted” from Scottish Opera’s 1980 production (which I assume Boston Lyric Opera must have purchased), was not offensive but surely had seen better days.
The proceedings were set in the time of Fascist Italy—if not a “Tosca” cliché in 1980, surely a “Tosca” cliché now—and added nothing to the drama. Is it not long past time to cease setting “Tosca” in Mussolini’s Italy of the 1930s, just as it is long past time to cease setting “Carmen” in Franco’s Spain of the 1930s?
We enjoyed the performance more than, by rights, we should have. As a stage vehicle, “Tosca” is practically indestructible, and Boston Lyric Opera’s weak musical presentation did not kill the effectiveness of the work.
After the opera, we returned home and set about preparing our dinner. We made pot roast cooked with tomatoes and green peppers. We ate the pot roast with mashed potatoes with cheese, white corn, peas and butternut squash. It was not a very imaginative dinner, but it was filling. We ate ice cream and raspberries for dessert.
My parents returned to Minneapolis late Monday morning. They did not want to have to take an early flight, so they had booked the 11:30 a.m. nonstop from Boston to MSP. I had to go to work early Monday morning, and Josh had to go to class early Monday morning, so my parents stayed at the apartment until it was time for them to call a cab to transport them to the airport. They did not mind proceeding to the airport on their own, as it saved them from having to rise early in order to catch the 6:00 a.m. flight or the 8:15 a.m. flight.
Last weekend’s visit was, no doubt, my parents’ final trip to Boston to see us—not counting next Spring, when they will come for Josh’s graduation—and they had a very good time. Even though we engaged in only one activity per day, the “Bayadere”, the “Tosca”, the Boston Symphony concert and—most of all—the “Nicholas Nickleby” made the visit worthwhile.