Norman Scribner, a D.C. Musical Giant in His Right

April 19, 2012

  When Norman Scribner picks up the baton to conduct the Choral Arts Society of Washington and the National Symphony Orchestra to perform Johannes Brahms’s monumental “Ein Deutches Requiem” on April 22, at 4 p.m. in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, it will be a milestone for the maestro, the Washington Choral Arts Society and the city.

Conducting the “Requiem” marks the last time that Scribner, the founder of the Washington Choral Arts Society, will conduct the WCAS as its artistic director, his last concert in a distinguished 47-year career that has left its mark on Washington culture and what you can achieve with the art of music.

Scribner is going out with one of the greatest compositions in Western classical music. 

It’s best to let Scribner explain it: “’Ein Deutches Requiem is one of the most glorious and beloved examples of the combination of text and music in the history of Western civilization,” Scribner said. “Through his lifelong immersion in the Lutheran Bible, Brahms was able to extract texts that express every emotion connected with our passage from this life to the next.”

It seems a fitting ending kind of project for Scribner, who created the Choral Arts Society of Washington and turned it into an enduring cultural institution in Washington, where it became a part of the life of the city every bit as much as the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington National Opera or the Washington Ballet.

Scribner’s work and career stretches into the city’s universities and into the city’s cultural history. He attended the prestigious Peabody Conservatory and has taught at George Washington University, American University and the College of Church Musicians at Washington National Cathedral.

Over the years, he has taken inspiration from and collaborated with giant figures in contemporary musical history as Leonard Bernstein, Leonard Slatkin, Valery Gorgiev, Mstislav Rostropovich and Christopher Eschenbach, the current maestro of the NSO.

He has led the chorus in 18 recordings, and presented 25 world premiere commissions and has received an honorary doctorate from the Virginia Theological Seminary in 2002 and from the Peabody Distinguished Alumni Award in 2006.

Scribner has scores of musical inspirations—the giants of Western music like Mozart, Brahms, Bach and Beethoven—are in his blood.  But there’s a figure—not a composer of great works, but a mover of hearts and minds through the power of his words and oratory—who has also inspired Scribner’s life and career.

That would be the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “If you lived or witnessed anything that was going on in this city in the 1960s—the great speech at the Lincoln Memorial, the tragedy of the riots in the wake of his assassinations—then you cannot be help but to have been moved by his presence, by his life and death.”

Scribner was more than merely moved emotionally. He was moved to action through the world of his musical efforts.  Scribner created the annual “Living the Dream, Singing the Dream,” an annual choral tribute to King on his January birthday at the Kennedy Center choral celebration, and collaborated with the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Men, Women and Children of the Gospel Choir under artistic director Stanley J. Thurston.

The annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Tribute Concert has become a Washington institution.

“I wanted to pay tribute to Dr. King’s legacy through music, in other words, music used as an instrument for peace,”  Scribner said.

Scribner doesn’t believe that music, however beautiful and grand, exists in a vacuum. Rather, it is a part of the whole community. He has lived that belief with not only the creation of the tribute concerts but their expansion into a series of community musical and civil rights efforts.

“Music can be a balm, a celebration and a unifier,” he said. “That’s the hope.”

Scribner witnessed the chaos, the fiery violence that erupted here in Washington in the wake of King’s assassination.  Scribner’s response was to honor King with the balm of music and celebration. He orchestrated and integrated a community-based celebration called “Once-In Memoriam: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” the year after King died.

The Choral Arts Society has expanded the scope of the concert to include a concert for students, a student writing competition and the establishment of an annual humanitarian award. This past year, Scribner himself was named the recipient of the Humanitarian Award, joining a select group that includes Dorothy Height, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Marian Wright Edelman, Harris Wofford, Julian Bond, John Doar, Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Bernice Johnson Reagan.

Scribner’s last concert will be co-presented with the Washington Performing Arts Society. “WPAS is pleased to be co-presenting the last concert to be conducted by Washington’s legendary choral leader Norman Scribner,” said Neal Perl, WPAS president and CEO. “A pillar of Washington’s musical community for the past 47 years, Norman has devoted his life to the performance of glorious choral music. He will be greatly missed.”

Missed, but not forgotten.

Kahn Tackles O’Neill’s Daunting ‘Strange Interlude’

April 5, 2012

In theater, as in other endeavors, there are plays and roles that sit like slumbering challenges, just daring for artist to tackle them.

For actors, it’s Lear—but not yet—and the layer-upon-layer Hamlet, or Willie Lohman, or Maggie the cat or Blanche. And what opera director doesn’t some nights of the Ring Cycle, tossing and turning in a sweat.

For directors, especially American directors worth their salt, all they have to do is go to the collected works of Eugene O’Neill. O’Neill wrote all sorts of plays, one-acts, surrealist fare, auto-biographical epics and four-hour sojourns waiting for the iceman to cometh. The O’Neill canon is an ocean full of white whales.

And none may be more elusive than “Strange Interlude,” a major hit in its day when it finally opened in 1928 after years of labor by O’Neill, controversial for its content and its style. It was hugely ambitious in trying to tell a story spanning decades of American life — forward and backward, past, present and future.

For Michael Kahn, in the midst of a 25th anniversary season as the artistic director of the Washington Shakespeare Theatre, “Strange Interlude” is a play, he said, “I’ve always wanted to do, and for a time I thought I would never get the opportunity.”

He had come close once, but the project collapsed for various reasons. “But when this anniversary came up, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to tackle the play,” he said.

When you start thinking about this, you have to admire Kahn for thinking about it at all. His legacy in Washington and his whole career is secure; he would be forgiven for resting on his laurels.

“Strange Interlude” is something of a risk today, maybe even more than when it opened. It’s a legend of size and scope—various stories have the original production running as long as between six and four hours with an intermission break for dinner. Plus, O’Neill told wrote some of the dialogue in stream of consciousness style, in which the characters express their inner thoughts.

“Well, this production is more like three and a half or so.” Kahn said. “I don’t think today’s audiences will have trouble relating to it or the characters. It’s about something everybody has a stake in: the pursuit of happiness and the great difficulty and tragedy that surrounds that pursuit.”

While Kahn is also considered one of the consummate interpreters of the plays of Tennessee Williams, he’s no stranger to O’Neill. “He is the major figure in American theater,” Kahn said, “the father of American theater, with a huge and diverse body of work, a pioneer, a great writer whose work contained some of the finest work not only in theater but in American literature. I learned about him by reading. We had a lot of books in our house when I was young, and I ran across his first play, “Dynamo.”

“Ah, Wilderness!” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” both at Arena, and “Strange Interlude are part of a unique and ongoing O’Neill festival in Washington right now.

Kahn remembers seeing Frederic March playing the father in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” a production he calls remarkable. “Jason Robards (considered the O’Neill actor by many) was playing one of the sons, and he would later play the father.”

Kahn—in a stellar career that included a vivid production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” on Broadway—directed O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra” twice. He got permission to edit “Electra” (as well as “Interlude”).

Still, the idea of “Interlude” is daunting. In the 1920s, the play was shocking for its Freudian content, for a plot that included abortion, sex and an intelligent, strong woman dealing with the lasting wounds suffered after her fiancée is killed in World War I without the opportunity for consummation of their love.

“The pursuit of happiness,” Kahn said, “that’s the American dream, that’s what we’re about as a country. There’s no society that places such a stress on the theme of happiness.”

Francesca Faridany will perform the role of Nina in this production. “Strange Interlude” is rarely performed, but that may be part of its appeal to audiences and certainly for Kahn, who presented the rarely performed “Camino Royal,” by Tennessee Williams and the equally rarely staged “Timor of Athens.”

Kahn is excited about “Strange Interlude” and thinks audiences will be, too. “It is one of the great works by our greatest playwright. It has a compelling story that resonates for today’s audiences. It’s about America and us, and we can see ourselves in those creations. It’s a great achievement on the part of O’Neill—the play spans 30 years and was written in the 1920s. So, he had to imagine what this country would be like in the ’30s and ’40s, and I think he did a good job of it.”

Listening to Kahn talk about the play, you feel he relished the work, like opening up a lost, true book and bringing it to life.

(“Strange Interlude” will be at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall through April 29). [gallery ids="100718,120641" nav="thumbs"]

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus presents “Fully Charged” (photos)

March 22, 2012

The circus was in town. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus presents “Fully Charged” at the Verizon Center in Washington DC with shows on March 15-18. After the DC run, the show moves on to Baltimore, Md., and then Fairfax, Va., in April. View our photos of “The Greatest Show on Earth” by clicking on the icons below. (Photography by Jeff Malet)

View additional photos of this performance plus additional dances by the company by clicking here. [gallery ids="100538,100551,100552,100553,100554,100555,100556,100557,100558,100559,100560,100550,100549,100539,100540,100541,100542,100543,100544,100545,100546,100547,100548,100561" nav="thumbs"]

Flemenco Festival 2012 at Lisner Auditorium featuring Rafaela Carrasco (photos)

Flamenco is a unique art form that combines dancing, guitar playing, singing, and a stocatto handclapping. It is native to the Andalusian region of southern Spain and may have been influenced by the Gypsies, and in part from Spain’s early Morrish culture. Seville’s Rafaela Carrasco is a breathtaking dancer and one of the most important flamenco choreographers of the younger generation. She and her troupe performed at GWU’s Lisner Auditorium in Washinton DC on March 7 during Flemenco Festival 2012. View our photos of her classic performance by clicking on the photo icons below. (Photography by Jeff Malet) [gallery ids="100534,120037,120029,120021,120013,120006,119997,119989,120053,119980,120060,120067,119970,120073,120045" nav="thumbs"]

‘1776,’ the Musical, Still Tugs at America’s Heart

1776. How 236 years ago.

“1776,” the musical. How 42 years ago.

The latest production of “1776,” now at Ford’s Theatre, is playing right during the longest-running reality show in the nation, the Republican Party race for the presidential nomination. How 36 seconds ago.

It is a familiar musical — about how a group of divided, discordant and discomfited bunch of men representing the 13 colonies would eventually come up with the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia and thus declare themselves a nation of free peoples. It always resonates mightily when performed in the Washington area, even as a high school or dinner theatre production. (We were mindful that it is being staged in the theater where President Abraham Lincoln was shot and performed on the night we attended that the Prime Minister of Britain was being cheered at the White House.)

What’s amazing about “1776,” with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone, is that it works at all. The music and songs are to be sure witty, but they’re not in the exalted Broadway musical stratosphere that includes Rodgers and Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim. It does not strive for anything resembling contemporary pop music styles. The score, songs and lyrics are what they are: they fit perfectly to the needs of the book, a soaring ballad here, a sarcastic, rousing number there, a funny one around the corner, a little bit of this and a little bit of that. And maybe that’s what makes things work, because this has always been a show about the characters in it — by the people, for the people and about the people.

The main purpose of “1776” has always been to give audiences a human look at the men who ended up producing and signing the Declaration of Independence, the visionary heart and soul of American democracy as created then and living through the years and today. Here are the defiant, grimly determined John Adams (“They find me annoying, nobody likes me”), the stolid John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson missing his wife to the point of total distraction (“It’s been six months”), the icily charismatic John Dickinson, defender of property and loyal to the British Crown, the scathing and charming Edward Rutledge, cynical defender of slavery, elderly rock star of the American Revolution Benjamin Franklin and the rum-addled Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, to name a few.

In 1776, the Continental Army was short on almost everything — morale, men, organization, weapons and salt peter, awaiting a British assault in New York. The Continental Congress was meeting in Philadelphia where it was a choice between flies and oppressive heat and separation from or reconciliation with Great Britain. That something as historically astounding and resounding as the Declaration emerged from the band of hardly brothers seems in the very least remarkable and in the end inspiring.

Edwards and Stone won Tonys for “1776” but never again matched anything remotely in the way of success of this oddly old-fashioned but also revolutionary show. It’s not a debunking of the legendary names on the declaration, but it surely humanizes the process. We always knew that Adams was an indispensable man here, that Jefferson was young then, in love with his wife, and an all-around genius and that Benjamin Franklin was a genial lech, disliked his royalist son and embraced fame with fervor.

Songs range from show opener “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down!” to the rousing and funny “The Lees of Old Virginia,” sung with flood-like gusto by Stephen S. Schmidt as Richard Henry Lee, and “He Plays the Violin,” a hymn of praise and prowess in which Erin Kruse, as Martha Jefferson, suggests something more than musical gifts for her husband. “Cool, Cool Considerate Men,” John Dickinson’s praise of pragmatism (“always to the right, never to the left”) presages our battling political parties of 2012, and “Molasses to Rum,” in which Gregory Maheu as Edward Rutledge blasts out an angry, chilling defense of slavery by way of hypocrisy, bring us to the present in one way or another. Everyone gets a say, or a song as it were.

Top acting kudos: Brooks Ashmankis as John Adams, singing with confidence, a man who acts with no limitations but knows his own very well; D.C.’s Shakespearean comic great Floyd King as the semi-sober Stephen Hopkins; Kruse and Kates Fisher as Abigail Adams on the ladies’ side. In particular, one should single out Robert Cuccioli as Dickerson — dressed in dandified black, grey and white, an actor who commands the stages and the audience in every scene. With charisma to spare as well is Maheu, the even more dandified but also shark-like representative from South Carolina, whose embrace of slavery sound like the whispers of the snake in the garden. “They are property,” he sneers, as if that were that.

This great debate in Philadelphia echoes loudly among us, all across the land, by ways of communication these founding signers had never anticipated. When the group agonizes over its deadlock and inability to do anything (“Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve”), they sound like nothing less than today’s Republican and Democratic members of Congress. And with so many presidential candidates, Supreme Court justices and politicians of today claiming intimate personal knowledge of our Founding Fathers, they might be well off checking out this show.

“1776” runs a solid three hours with intermission, but the time and the show passes swiftly. It’s an engrossing production, hugely entertaining and engaging. It plays like a big echo from 236 years ago and from 36 seconds ago.

(“1776” plays through May 19 at Ford’s Theatre.)
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‘Sucker Punch’ Packs Quite a Wallop

March 15, 2012

Packs a wallop. Packs a punch. A one-round, one-act knockout. Like a punch in the mouth.

The temptation is to slide and jab and slip right into a whole bunch of boxing metaphors when describing “Sucker Punch,” the new play from Britain by Roy Williams at the Studio Theater. But while it squarely puts itself into the realm of cinematic — “Rocky,” “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” “Raging Bull” and even theatrical (Clifford Odet’s “Golden Boy” which was also a film) — ring sagas, “Sucker Punch” is a little more complicated than that.

It’s an odd mish-mash of a play. While it hews to some of the clichés and metaphors of boxing as a way out of poverty and rough upbringing, it’s also a kinetic production with imaginatively and powerfully potent staged fights, so vivid that you might expect to hear a bell starting the next round to wake you up in the morning.

It’s also English, set during the prime ministership of Meryl Streep — that is, Margaret Thatcher — a time in which the law-and-order prone leader and her police force frequently clashed with the poorer immigrant and working-class population of the country. This was a backdrop to “Billy Elliott,” the musical in which a working class youngster took up ballet instead of boxing as a way out in a setting of the rough nation-wide miner’s strike. Thatcher had a lot in common with her great admirer and co-leader of the Free World, President Ronald Reagan, and today’s union-busting American governors.

In the time of “Sucker Punch,” there were riots and demonstrations in the streets of South London with police clashing with younger denizens of the ghettos, many of them immigrants from the British Empire’s old colonies, such as Jamaica.

Leon and Troy, who have odd-job jobs at a local gymn where a tough, retired white boxer named Charlie is running the place into the ground, while trying to train boxers up to the national level of competition, including an embittered, racist punk named Tommy. One day, Charlie spies Leon in a clash with Tommy and notices his speed and power, and the rest is, if not history, the rest of the play.

Leon and his closest friend, the angry, suspicious, belligerent and charismatic Troy, clash over Leon’s budding friendship with Charlie, who has offered to train him, and over his budding romance with Becky, Charlie’s daughter. The friends part with Leon getting (and mostly winning) fights under the backing and tutelage of Charlie.

The 1980s were times when Britain had not seen its own black professional champions at almost any weight class Leon is the target of racist taunts during each of his fights. An agile, powerful Leon — who seems a bit like Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard — prevails. Everyone’s past catches up with them, as they rise to the top. The success story becomes a kind of Greek tragedy.

Regardless, the most immediate appeal of “Sucker Punch” is its astonishingly spectacular fight scenes, including a violent, virulent brawl with Tommy and a climactic super-battle with Troy who has become a title contender after going to the U.S.

These scenes — staged by fight coordinator Rick Sordelet with help from consultant Gary “Kid” Stark, Jr. — are thrilling and engrossing. They are so cinematically convincing and vivid that you are tricked to believe all those punches are landing.

That’s entertainment — but the acting of Sheldon Best as the sweet-hearted, constantly conflicted Leon and Emmanuel Brown as the electric, tortured and swift Troy, well, that’s high art, as far as I’m concerned. They give the play its real punch, its emotional punch, sporting-movie star charisma and energy.

Director Leah C. Gardner keeps the hour-and-a-half production moving at a speed that allows you to overlook the fact that this isn’t particularly cutting-edge stuff but high dudgeon drama and, given its 30-year-old historical setting, drama with immediacy.

Go see “Sucker Punch.” You’ll be — one more time — floored.

It’s at the Studio’s Theatre’s Mead Theatre through April 8.

Bowen McCauley Dance Aims High (photos)

March 8, 2012

Bowen McCauley Dance performed the ambitious “Le Sacre du Printemps” (“Rite of Spring”) to glowing reviews on Thursday, March 1, 2012 at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. The husband and wife team of Fabio and Gisele Witkowski provided the music with a lively four-hand piano arrangement of the famous Stravinsky score. Costumes were designed by Chelsey Schuller and Tony Cisek. (Photos by Jeff Malet.)
View our photos of the performance by clicking on the photo icons below.

View additional photos of this performance plus additional dances by the company by clicking here. [gallery ids="119135,119046,119038,119031,119022,119013,119005,118996,118986,119055,119063,119126,119117,119109,119101,119094,119086,119077,119070,118977,118968,118957,118858,118849,118841,119144,119150,119155,118830,119162,118868,118876,118948,118940,118930,118921,118911,118901,118893,118885,100516" nav="thumbs"]

The End of ‘Civilization’ as We Know Us

In Jason Grote’s new play “Civilization (All You Can Eat),” now getting a sharp and haunting staging at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, everybody’s hungry all of the time. Hungry, not so much for food, as for the top-heavy buffet of life and stuff that’s out there like a sparkling city-as-a-mall, but now beyond the reach of our burdensome absurdly high-interest credit cards

The characters—the humans in any case—in “Civilization” are leading lives built on dreams that have morphed into settle-for-it-reality. A respected college professor and intellectual now travels the inspirational talk circuit, promoting corporate solutions in a time of chaos. A middle-class mom struggles to keep her home, the love of her addled daughter and her sad sanity. A wanna-be-filmmaker becomes somewhat famous for making a Twix commercial that goes viral. Would-be actors strive to stay alive—one doing voice overs for Japanese sexual computer games, the other doing standup after getting fired from the commercial. A young girl tries to help her mom make the mortgage by doing a home-made porno video with her boyfriend.

And so on: all of these peoples are barely hanging on or seeing their lives alter inexorably in the time of our troubles, the beginning of the great recession and the squandered hopes of the Obama election.

Actually, there’s one character whose hunger and hopes are insatiable and undeniable—that would be Big Hog, a pig who escapes the food chain treadmill he is on by acquiring a greedy, fragmented human consciousness. What he wants is food and knowledge, and he wants to rise above himself to a state of man as striver. He gobbles up rabbits, pop culture tidbits, junk food and junk news and know-how. He’s the ominiverous beast in our midst.

Sarah Marshall, the gifted Washington actress who once played a dog in a play called “Sylvia” and played her with gusto and believability, channels Big Hog on his journey through mayhem, madness, murder and mud, until he scales the heights of becoming a mysterious business tycoon—could be a software genius, could be Trump, could be what he is which is big hog, sitting down to an expensive dinner with the film-maker and consuming the old-fashioned way.

Big Hog is frightening, but the plight of the characters as they stumble connected and disconnected, frayed and clueless is pretty scary, too. There’s nothing quite so uneasy as the dinner which features the film-maker, her husband and woman—an out-of-it drowning honorary member of the margilanized class.

Grote energizes his play like Robert Altman, the late film director of “Mash” and “Nashville” fame, a style in which the periphery noise and talk is both intrusive and instructive to what’s happening with the central characters. You can do that just by looking around when you’re experiencing Grote’s play: I saw people who had taken advantage of Woolly’s promotional materials (pig snouts you can wear) and so on, on their cellphones keep up with Big East basketball while snorting like Big Hog. That seems to be the point here—all of the characters are weighed down by their struggling, by their connections to each other, by their burdens, by the dilution of their dreams. Those dreams, like their bank accounts, have become thin and their voices tinny. They’re living under a sad, gloomy cloud of history which keeps right on raining and thundering, the wind blowing, the wolf at the door.

Woolly Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz has staged this fragmented play with style and energy, you never get bogged down although there are enough opportunities. A talented cast — especially Naomi Jacobson as the struggling mother, Jenna Sokolowski, looking for love and an acting part in all the wrong places, Daniel Escobar doing standup and especially the affecting Casie Platt as Jade, the young girl just trying to help — makes connections to us, which important to us.

But it is Big Hog who makes the biggest impression. It’s best perhaps not to think about him. He’s a feral “Babe,” who feels he has achieved a kind of communion with us. Maybe he has.

“Civilization” is at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre through March 11.

20 Years of Environmental Films

March 7, 2012

After 20 years, Flo Stone still sounds like a kid at a party, albeit a serious kid at a serious party.

Stone, a Georgetown resident, is president and founder of the Environmental Film Festival of Washington, which will be holding its 20th anniversary festival – March 13 through March 25 – with screenings of 180 documentary films at 65 venues throughout the Washington, D.C. area.

“It’s amazing to me, it really is,” Stone said. “We started out so small, and we had no idea we’d still be doing by this time. And look at all the other festivals out there, there’s been an explosion.”

Stone came to Washington and Georgetown from a job at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, working in programming. In New York, she had organized a Margaret Mead festival on the legendary anthropologist. And then, while working at the environmental group, Earthwatch, located in Georgetown, she had the idea for a film festival on the environment.

“We had 1,200 people who came,” she said. “We worked with the Smithsonian and the National Geographic Society. Now look at us.”

Since then, the festival has grown — and the whole environmental film festival movement — along with young and old people’s increased interest in all things ecological.

“The idea at the time was to have documentaries, shorts, even fiction films, that would focus on the environment, on nature, on our resources,” Stone said. “It wasn’t necessarily a political thing — nature and the natural world have always been the concern of our film-makers, not just issues and agendas.”

We live in a world where resources appear to be dwindling, where climate change and global warming are hot and cool topics and the subject of much debate. So, films about the environment inevitably have a “cause” glow about them. But the expansion of the festival, and the interests of the filmmakers indicate that it’s beyond politics, that people (some 30,000 last year) come to movies they care about and are invested in.

It places Stone, who talks with excitement and passion about this year’s festival, in the position of founder and pioneer of a kind of cinematic movement. The D.C. festival has been a model for a movement that has sprouted similar festivals all over the country. These films may not be box-office champs, but their contents and effects linger. They stay in people’s consciousness, they float about your dreams (and nightmares), they get talked about, they generate passions. And they’re pretty good movies to boot.

“I suppose that does make me a pioneer,” she said. “But what I’m proud of is the impact of the festival, the fact that it has lasted and will go on.”

You want to see how big the festival has become? Check out these numbers for this year’s festival: 180 documentary, narrative, animated, archival, experimental and children’s films from 42 countries. Ninety-three of the films are world premieres. This is a body-contact festival: 75 filmmakers and 115 special guests will attend for discussions, panels and workshops.

Chief among them is Ken Burns, the prolific and expansive director, who’s probably the most high-profile maker of documentaries in the world, with his hugely successful PBS television series on everything from baseball to the Civil War, our national parks, Mark Twain, jazz, World War II and Prohibition. He’ll be here to preview clips of his new film, “The Dust Bowl.” In addition, Academy-Award nominated filmmaker Lucy Walker will be here for a retrospective of her films, including her newest, “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom.”

Films are always selected to fulfill the festival mission of providing fresh perspectives on environmental issues facing our planet. This year, the key relationship between health and the environment will be a special festival theme.

A film bound to be a visual delight is the U.S. premiere of “La Cle des Champs” (“The Field of Enchantment”), by the directors of the award-winning “Microcosmos,” which will highlight the wonders of nature through close-up photography.

Another promising treat could be filmmaker Perry Miller Adato’s film, “Paris: The Luminous Years”—shades of “The Artist” and “Hugo”?

Lest this all sounds a little light, consider the topics being handled by festival entries and films: the meaning of the organic food label, the disastrous introduction of cane toads into Australia, the Himalayan mountain kingdom of Bhutan, the future of the electric car, the story of eco-pirate Paul Watson, the dangers of nuclear power, climate change and how rising sea levels have threatened the survival of low-lying Pacific Islands. Further topics include the health and economic effects of the BP oil spill, the environmental impact of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the fight over wind farming, and creating healthy habitats for humans.

Films will be shown at 65 venues in the D.C. area, including museums, cultural institutions, libraries and embassies, as well as the AFI Theater in Silver Spring and the National Zoo. Most screenings, as since the festival’s beginning, are free. You can probably thank Flo Stone for that, too.

For a complete list of events, screenings and times, visit [gallery ids="100520,119182" nav="thumbs"]

“Cosi fan tutte”

March 5, 2012

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” is a tricky bit of masterwork. Plot-wise, the 1790 opera plays like a comedy, a kind of 1700s rom-com by way of Shakespearean comedy,clueless, frivolous couples playing games that turn out to have soul-searing consequences. Music-wise, Mozart indicates otherwise, there’s a depth, lyricism and richness to the music that belies the seeming shallowness of the opera’s protagonists. But then, that’s Wolfgang, never letting an audience slide into mere buttery bliss.

The Washington National Opera production, now at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, directed by Jonathan Miller, is richly entertaining and rewarding, but also as unpredictable as romance itself.

Miller, who also designed the sets and costumes, tries to tackle this seeming contradiction in a most immediate way by contemporizing the setting, generally and universally in a more modern frame, and specifically, in what is supposed to be modern Washington, D.C. and beltway culture.

The result—in terms of Miller’s concept—is a mixed bag. The beautiful, contemporary sets contemporize in a general way, providing an immediacy of the here and now, a vaguely modern setting for the wildly beating human heard counting up its bruises. The D.C. connection lies in reading the super-titles where you can find references to locations—where are these guys from? Manassas, McLean, Adams Morgan—or latte. These serve up some easy laughs for the locals, but doesn’t make it a D.C. setting in time or space

“Cosi fan tutte” in this way becomes not so much a laugh riot, as a moving rueful, romantic comedy of errors, thanks to Mozart’s music , the conductor Auguin and the superb cast, especially soprano Elizabeth Futral and baritones Teddy Tahu Rhodes and William Shimmell.

Shimmell performs Don Alfonso, a insistently cynical friend of two young military types, Ferrando (tenor Joel Prieto) and Guglielmo (Rhodes) who are engaged to sisters Dorabella (Renato Pokupic) and Fiordiligi (Futral). While holding forth on his belligerently held belief in the faithlessness of women. Don Alfonso, a dark, charming, elegant man of experience straight out of Fellini, persuades the two self-assured young men to participate in an elaborate game of impersonation in which their fiancées will betray them to prove his point. No way, Alfonso, say the swains, so cocksure in their loyalty of their lovers, and so confident in how their bright future will proceed.
In the game, the two men are marched off to war (in camouflage uniform and with the press in tow), and then return, unrecognized, as rather ragged biker-hippie types who look Wayne’s World chic and who set about seducing each other’s fiancées.

Futral’s Fiordiligi—highlighted by an affecting , long aria in the second act—puts up the most resistance. Futral—used to holding a stage by herself for long periods by way of her frequent performances as Violetta in “La Traviata”—makes us see that something more than a trivial game is at stake here, there’s real passion, frustration and conflicted feeling here.

Often, in the course of things, the characters join forces in soaring singing that’s anything but frivolous—tenor, sopranos and baritones, opposing sounds, opposing motives, but all in tandem. Such occasions have real emotional power with a lingering effect on the audience.

Don Alfonso, you suspect, is a kind of Giovanni. He’s performed with bitter elegance by Shimmel. His is the powerful, seductive, insistent voice of experience and he remains alone on the stage when all is said and sung.