For those unfamiliar with the geographic locations of Sacramento and Davis, California, the distance between the two cities may seem daunting. In fact, the drive from downtown Sacramento to the U.C. Davis campus, where the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts is located, can be confidently timed at less than 30 minutes. I live a little farther removed (in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael), so the drive for my wife and me can sometimes be closer to 35 minutes.
We made the drive on each evening of this past weekend to attend a diverse offering of artistic performances that were all well worth the drive and the time. The weekend began with Shakespeare, as the Davis Shakespeare Festival (DSF) opened its production of “As You Like It.” It was followed on Saturday with the Jazz from Lincoln Center Orchestra opening Mondavi’s 17th season. And we were back at Mondavi’s Jackson Hall on Sunday for a most unusual recital by the long-deceased opera diva, Maria Callas. Here are my thoughts on each of these unique productions.
“As You Like It” is Shakespeare’s most musical comedy. It includes a role for a minstrel, and for the DSF production, director Rob Salas has Timothy Nutter aboard to play the role. Mr. Nutter’s melodies work well in backing the lyrics that in several instances develop the story, such as it is. Other musical segments are provided in the production by Andrea J. Love, who, as the lead character, Rosalind, gets to play piano and sing several songs.
Shakespeare’s comedies are usually built around the many complications that can surround budding love, and in “Like It,” the complications provide much of the frothy humor, as no fewer than four couples find and embrace romance while Rosalind and her cousin Celia enjoy banishment in the Forest of Arden. It’s a slim plot, to be sure, and the play (performed with one intermission after the third of the five acts) is hardly one to get metaphysical about.
Instead, Mr. Salas and his 12-member ensemble take on the task of spinning the webs and tying up the loose ends with something akin to Gilbert-and-Sullivan abandon as the various characters meet and almost instantly feel the emotional tug of heartstrings that leads to amoré. The directorial decisions are appropriate for this particular play, it being so devoid of any real substance, and the cast members all succeed to varying degrees in making it all work.
Ms. Love is excellent as Rosalind, who, after being banished from her uncle’s kingdom, takes to the forest with her cousin and Touchstone, the family’s clown. The three of them are all destined to find romantic mates, as are a shepherd and a farm girl who provide a number of humorous interludes. Gabby Battista provides strong support as the cousin. Charlie Lavaroni steals several scenes as Touchstone, and Ernesto Bustos and Philomena Block provide the humor as the shepherd and his less than overwhelmed love-quest. Others in the cast include Kyle Stoner in a strong performance as the wise lord Jacques. Steven Ho, as Orlando (Rosalind’s romantic interest) was impressive in the early wrestling match that results in his banishment, but he was less convincing as a love-sick soul. Gina Harrower, Thomas Dean, Tim Gaffaney, Sarah Williams, and Mr. Nutter rounded out the cast.
The production has much to admire, especially in the first half, when the aforementioned wrestling match (skillfully staged by Mr. Salas) and the duet singing of Mr. Nutter and Ms. Williams are highlights. The second half is a bit disjointed, and on opening night it was bedeviled by some acoustic difficulties that resulted in off-stage guitar playing that nearly overwhelmed some of the dialogue. But for those who long for classic Shakespeare, this company is ably carrying on the Bard’s legacy.
Creating a legacy of his own, Wynton Marsalis brought his ten-movement opus, “Spaces,” to the Mondavi Center for the season-opening concert in Jackson Hall. With the magnificent assemblage of jazz greats who make up the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and three superb dancers, Mr. Marsalis served as narrator in introducing each of the ten movements of his composition.
The movements are all built around different animals, and the dancers mimic the particular animals in the terrific choreography (by Damian Woetzel, retired principal dancer with the New York City Ballet). Two of the dancers, Charles “Lil Buck” Riley and Myles Yachts, specialize in street dancing (jookin’), while the third, Jared Grimes, is a classic tap dancer. Together they danced as chickens, monkeys, elephants, frogs, penguins, snakes, and lions, before acting human in seeking relief from an attack of bees. The combination of the dance styles worked well. Each of the three had solos throughout the concert, but they also joined at times to create the sense of the menageries of those species they were aping. To see them dancing like chickens in one movement and as penguins in another was memorable in and of itself. To hear the mix of jazz and classical in Mr. Marsalis’s music made the experience all the more rewarding.
The Lincoln Center Jazz ensemble has remained largely intact over the years. (It has appeared regularly, if not annually, at Mondavi.) The main change in this year’s assemblage is the loss of Joe Temperley’s baritone sax. Temperley died in 2016 at the age of 86. He has been replaced by Paul Nedzela. Gregory Tardy (sax) is also new. The others along with Marsalis are Ryan Kisor, Kenny Rampton, and Marcus Printup on trumpet; Vincent Gardner, Chris Crenshaw, and Elliot Mason on trombone; Sherman Irby, Ted Nash, Victor Goines, and Walter Blanding on sax; and Dan Nimmer (piano), Carlos Henriquez (bass) and Charles Goold (drums). All of these musicians are stars on their own, with their own trios or quartets with whom they regularly perform. To hear them perform together never gets old, and for this concert, the addition of the dancing to Mr. Marsalis’s complex composition made for an evening that will undoubtedly be a highlight of the entire Mondavi season.
The Sunday night offering at Mondavi was also amazing, if less successful as a full-bodied performance. The featured performer was the great opera diva, Maria Callas, who, of course, has been dead for over 40 years. She appeared as a hologram that had been programmed to sing the same recordings that Callas had made when she was alive. And she was accompanied by the Sacramento Philharmonic orchestra, which was conducted by Eímear Noone, a California based Irish composer and conductor. The orchestra’s playing was fine, and Ms. Noone was adept at keeping the musicians in synch with the recorded singing by the hologram.
The highlight of the concert was the first appearance of Ms. Callas. Her hologram walked onto the stage following a Rossini overture (from his “La Gazza ladra”), which was delivered without much passion by the orchestra. (One problem with the orchestra was the way it was seated on the Mondavi stage. Apparently to accommodate the hologram, the orchestra was divided so that half of the musicians were on the left side of the stage and half were on the right, with a gap of perhaps 20 feet between the two. It was a weird setup that appeared all the more weird when the Callas hologram appeared well in front of the musicians, slightly to left of center.)
The first sight of the hologram was exciting, and the audience (a modest size for this highly publicized concert) burst into immediate applause on seeing her/it. More applause was provided as the hologram bowed gracefully to all sides of the room. And then it got less enthusiastic and died out, leaving the hologram to finish her bows in silence. The effect wore even thinner as the concert continued. At some point, most of those in attendance seemed to realize that they were applauding a ghost/hologram. It was an odd sensation.
As for her singing, it was great when it wasn’t technically flawed. Those less desirable moments seemed to occur when she was singing in her lower register. At times she sounded like a man, which contrasted unappealingly with her soaring descant soprano on several of the arias. But for the most part, the beauty of her singing was undeniable. The highlight aria for me was Ophelia’s mad scene, “À vos juex, mes amis,” (from Ambroise Thomas’s “Hamlet”) which featured Callas at her very best. It was breathtaking. Other intended highlights (“Casta Diva” from Bellini’s “Norma”; “Suicidio! … Ecco il velen di Laura” from Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda”; and the sleepwalking scene from Verdi’s “Macbeth”) were less than perfect technically and thus did not achieve the same level of audience appreciation.
The overall experience was both more and less than expected. Seeing Callas in such a life-like appearance was stunning, and that aspect of the concert was a technological triumph. The wonder of this legend’s singing, while it was apparent, was less thrilling, which suggests that, at least in the field of opera, we still need the real deal.