Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tempest Tossed

Last night the Julliard School, along with actors Richard Clifford and Monica Raymund, performed selected readings from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, accompanied by 17th century songs and instrumental pieces.  WQXR, an oasis in a culturally retrenching New York, provided live streaming of the event.  (If you missed it last night, it will be repeated on the WQXR Web site, wqxr.org, Sunday, June 26th, at 4:00 p.m.)

The great reason to have tuned in (or to tune in on Sunday) was that Sir Derek Jacobi joined the company to read Prospero.  This is obviously the summer of Jacobi for lucky New Yorkers; in addition to his magnificent Lear at BAM, lucky Gothamites had the opportunity to meet him at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine last week, or watch him perform in last night’s staged reading.

Sadly, last night’s reading of The Tempest was surely the least of these events.  Jacobi, as usual, was brilliant as the exiled magician of Shakespeare’s greatest play.  It’s just that the surrounding mediocrity did little to support the great man.

I knew we were in trouble when Richard Clifford, who directed and adapted the production, opened the evening by coming onstage and explaining how he adapted Shakespeare.  Clifford came across as so horrifically unctuous, so vulgarly “artistic,” that the evening had trouble recovering from its own introduction.  (Clifford did not quite open with, “greetings culture lovers and doily sniffers,” but it sure was close.)  It is this unintentional camp that often prevents people from embracing the fine arts.  Clifford is a fairly wretched actor, to boot.  His Caliban was a more reminiscent of Snidely Whiplash than that tormented creation; he could give cartoons a bad name.

He was abetted by Monica Raymund, playing the major female parts of Ariel and Miranda.  She failed at both.  Countertenor David Daniels, baritone Bob McDonald and Juilliard415, the school’s student historical performance group, were also in the cast.   They left no impression on me whatsoever.

The Juilliard benefit reading employed Shakespeare’s text from a 1674 staging of The Tempest as well as other period works; the composers included Matthew Locke, John Banister, Pelham Humfrey, Georg Frideric Handel and Antonino Reggio.  Amazingly, they managed to fit all of this into a brief 90 minutes.

Enough with the bad (and heaven knows there was enough of it) and on with the good.  No, make that great.  Though only a staged reading, Jacobi’s Prospero was a marvel.  Because Prospero includes some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful language, it has become the custom for actors to sing the part.  Sir John Gielgud was the most egregious offender is this respect, but his beautiful voice made it a forgivable sin.  Frank Langella, one of our finest North American classical actors, mostly sang the part during his New York run (with a fabulous B. D. Wong as Caliban); Patrick Stewart, playing Prospero in New York’s Central Park and later Broadway managed to avoid this trap.

But Jacobi absented the over-sweetness so common in the part during last night’s reading.  Jacobi delineated the full man: wizard, dreamer, victim, avenger, and redeemer.  He is certainly among the small handful of brilliant classical actors working today, and for the brief snippets we were afforded his Prospero, everything else was forgivable.

A few words now about WQXR.  It’s amazing that New York, one of the great cultural centers of the free world, has only one radio station dedicated to classical music.  It was previously owned by the New York Times, but the newspaper unloaded the station last year as a cost-saving measure.  It has been a public station ever since, and relies on the generosity of its listeners.  I urge my readers to listen – and to give – to WQXR.  It’s 105.9 on the dial, but can be heard online at www.wqxr.org.  The playlist is often magnificent, and most of the on-air personalities easy-to-take.  Anyone involved in the arts should make time to get aquatinted with this wonderful resource.

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