Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond


March 29, 2017

John Adams

Composer birthday celebrations are an unavoidable trope of concert programming. Even when the composer is a living one, the urge to revisit works in an anniversary is an irresistible temptation for too many arts organizations. But when the composer is John Adams, celebrating his 70th year, and the ensemble is the Los Angeles Master Chorale, objections fade in the wake of some great music performed under optimal circumstances. LAMC Artistic Director Grant Gershon and his vocal artists are no strangers to Adams’ music and have a working relationship reaching back for decades. In fact, later this year Gershon will lead the world premiere of Adams’ latest opera, Girls of the Golden West for San Francisco Opera. So a program honoring Adams last Sunday may be expected but this evening had a decided twist.

The first half of the night was devoted to choruses from Adams’ operas and oratorios. The beauty and complexity of these choruses is perhaps the best kept open secret of Adams’ oeuvre. Not to LAMC listeners, though, who have heard the four profound and richly textured ensembles from The Death of Klinghoffer in prior concerts here. They were again beautifully rendered in new piano transcriptions that Gershon had prepared for Adams’ publisher, which he noted should be out later this year. Joining the Klinghoffer sections were choruses from The Gospel According to the Other Mary, A Flowering Tree, and Doctor Atomic. Perhaps most ecstatic of these performances, though, was the toast chorus from Nixon in China. Close on the heels of the masterful LA Philharmonic performances of this opera last month, this closer for the first part of the evening left no doubt about Adams’ enduring musical legacy regardless of what yet lays ahead.

In the second half of the evening, Gershon and the Chorale diverged from the standard tribute show blueprint by instead presenting a work not composed by Adams but one of his own favorite composers. Starvinsky’s Les Noces was a perfect counterpoint and suggested much about what Adams has built his entire artistic career on. Les Noces continues to sound as bold now as it likely ever has, and the Chorale with soloists Elissa Johnston, Todd Strange, Nicholas Brownlee, and Niké St. Clair emphasized the rhythmic folk music elements of the piece tapping in to the dramatic and narrative elements of the work. Like everything else that night, it was jubilant and fittingly so for the composer who has been a friend to so many here in his native California.

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Starry Night

January 30, 2017


Lauren Michelle as Irina in Lost in the Stars. Photo: Reed Hutchinson
For a second weekend, protests raged across America and for a second weekend the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s serendipitously timed “Left Every Voice” festival promoting peace and reconciliation carried on to its ambitious, poignant conclusion. LACO, in collaboration with UCLA’s CAP program, director Anne Bogart, and members of the SITI Company revived Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s Lost in the Stars for two performances at Royce Hall. The musical has been revived periodically since its 1949 debut on Broadway, but it has never been the most familiar of Weil’s works - which is a shame considering the richness of the score and material. The show is a stage adaptation of Alan Baton’s apartheid era novel Cry, The Beloved Country. It concerns a black Anglican priest who has gone to find his son in the city of Johannesburg only to find he has fallen into a variety of sins including the eventual murder of a white friend of another family from the priest’s village. It’s stirring stuff and the themes are ones dear to Weill’s heart. But the music harkens to other influences including what Weill identified as Zulu tribal music.

The cast of Lost in the Starts Photo: Reed Hutchinson
The story covers a lot of ground even if it does go to predictable places for a contemporary audience. But it was hard not to admire the sheer ambition and effort that all parties had put into the production. Jeffrey Kahane and the LACO players were forceful and gave a real edge to the score. It was a similar approach to their performances of Weill from last week and it provided a counterweight to Bogart’s sometimes slow and often ritualistic staging. The large cast operated in a sparsely decorated space that relied heavily on lighting to evoke its sense of place. Anchoring the cast were two excellent performances from Justin Hopkins as the priest, Steven Kumalo, and Lauren Michelle as Irina, his son’s now pregnant partner. Michelle appeared alone on stage for her big solo numbers but she easily carried those moments that were by far the most riveting of the entire evening.

The eventual reconciliation of the story may seem comparatively easy to an audience facing the current political climate that Sunday night’s was. But it was a message of hope that is sorely needed right now. And LACO should be commended for the ambition of the endeavor, perhaps one of the biggest undertakings the orchestra has made in years.


Hand to God

January 25, 2017

Storm Large. Photo: Laura Dormela
The topic of how the arts should respond to political upheaval has unsurprisingly been in the news again. And given the events of last weekend, how could it not be? But regardless of what the arts can or should do, Los Angeles audiences were reminded this weekend of some of what they already have done for centuries in very pointed and dramatic ways – build community and provide a space to dream of a better world. Take the Los Angeles Master Chorale for instance. The performances of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis this weekend had been scheduled for months and months. But here the large chorus, orchestra and Artistic Director Grant Gershon were playing grand music about the deepest questions mere feet from some of the largest protest crowds this city has ever seen streaming past their doors on Saturday afternoon. And if the challenges humanity presents weren’t enough food for thought, nature itself stepped in on Sunday night challenging everyone in attendance with one of the largest winter storms the region has seen in quite a while. The LAMC and the near capacity crowd responded superbly. Gershon addressed the audience from the stage noting the connection between recent events and Beethoven’s massive final meditation on the nature of the world to come and meeting suffering and tyranny with belief in something better. It was a gutsy and heartfelt performance that focused less on the very good soloists recruited for the evening (including a very welcomed local return of Rod Gilfry) and more on the chorus and ensemble as a whole. Gershon was looking for the universally human in this performance and while polish and finesse sometimes took a back seat, no one could argue with how heartfelt and sincere the evening was.

Meanwhile, across town, The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra found itself in the midst of a major programming initiative for this season concerning similar themes. “Lift Every Voice” is a series of programs designed to encourage understanding and promote peace inspired by the lives of Rabbi Joachim Prinz, Kurt Weill and Martin Luther King, Jr. The concerts and lectures in the series have featured contributions from a number of guest performers including violinist David Hope who was on hand to perform Bruce Adolphe’s Violin Concerto “I Will Not Remain Silent” and arrangements of several Weill songs by Paul Bateman for violin and orchestra. These were paired on Saturday with Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins which were headed by vocalist Storm Large. Weill’s song cycle, like all of his work, bursts with theatricality and Ms. Large has made it her specialty in recent years. She‘s undoubtedly charismatic and versatile enough to make these songs sing with a weariness and trepidation that echo these current times so closely — they have an extra punch right now. The LACO musicians were no less dramatic with their taut performance of the score.

But perhaps the highlight of the evening was Jeffrey Kahane’s own comments from the stage at the start of the evening. He too noted how unexpectedly poignant this programming series had become in the wake of the disastrous scenario our country now faces. By tying in themes from Mozart’s operas he built an argument for these works that remind us of the good we are capable of making together, speaking out, and standing up to tyranny. He touched many in the audience including myself. Better yet is the fact that there are more performances for LACO next weekend when they will bring a staged performance of Weill’s Lost in the Stars to UCLA on Saturday and Sunday in collaboration with SITI Company and director Anne Bogart. It’s a rare opportunity to hear Weill’s late Broadway gem and is a must see for local audiences.


Coming and Going

June 06, 2016

Artist-in-Residence Eric Whitacre conducts the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Photo: Marie Noorbergen & Tao Ruspoli
It was a busy Sunday evening. The Los Angeles Master Chorale performed their final show of the season this weekend, and, though it was an a cappella performance with the full chorale, it was packed with activity. Not to mention some incredibly beautiful music. The variety of selections on the program was no surprise – diversity has always been a staple of the LAMC’s repertory. The evening careened from Allegri’s 17th Century Miserere to an arrangement of Depeche Mode’s Enjoy the Silence. But the real news of the night was all the comings and goings for the ensemble. While Artistic Director Grant Gershon remains at the helm, Sunday marked the end of Associate Conductor Leslie Leighton’s six-year tenure with the ensemble. She choked back tears as she paid tribute to her musical family and then she led them in a thoughtful performance of the late Steven Stucky’s Three New Motets.

This lovely so-long was followed by a hotly anticipated hello in the form of the newly appointed inaugural LAMC Swan Family Artist-in-Residence, Eric Whitacre. Whitacre has cultivated a choir geek rock star persona that at times has cleverly masked his immense talent as a composer and conductor. He led two pieces after the intermission in the evening’s program that said much about what he may bring to the LAMC in coming seasons. First was that arrangement of Depeche Mode’s 1990 hit Enjoy the Silence. He explained the choice as a tribute to his love of pop music from his adolescence and certainly paid tribute to the geek in many of his audience. But the arrangement was much more than a gimmick. His arrangement was skillful and haunting in a way that sincerely added to the source material. Following this was Anders Hillborg’s Mouyayoum, a wordless percolating postmodern piece with dozens and dozens of parts melding in an elaborate aural tapestry. Whitacre has many tricks up his sleeve, and it’s as much an exciting time to be listening to the Chorale now as it ever has been. And if one needed further evidence of that, there wasn’t any need to look any further than the sparse glow of Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna. Gershon and his vocalists know how to fill a room with spirit and they did so over and over again at the end of the season.


Far and Away

May 16, 2016

Matthew Aucoin
The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra wrapped up its orchestral season this weekend with a notable concert that set the stage for a very big season to come. Next fall will mark the start of Music Director Jeffrey Kahane’s 20th and final season with the orchestra and by the sounds of things this weekend, he’s leaving the ensemble in very fine form with promising times ahead. One of those legacies is LACO’s Sound Investment program where patrons contribute directly for newly commissioned works from young composers selected by Kahane. The program’s recipients are a who’s who of young American composers, and the latest work in the series received its premiere this weekend. The composer is Matthew Aucoin whose name is associated with just about every major American classical music organization these days. He’s received commissions from the Lyric Opera of Chicago and The Metropolitan Opera, and he was recently appointed artist-in-residence with the Los Angeles Opera as well as one of the Dudamel conducting fellows with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (He'll conduct Glass' Akhnaten for LAO in the fall.) Somewhere in there, he found time to compose a fifteen-minute or so, single movement work for LACO, Evidence, that received its world premiere on Saturday under his own direction. The three-sectioned “journey” has interesting moments and promised much greater things. Aucoin clearly has a grasp of operatic scale and the language of the 20th Century musical landscape. This comparatively small chamber work busted at the seems with gestures better suited for a larger scale but any work that leaves you wanting more is a worthwhile one, and the crowd seemed excited with what they’d heard.

But Aucoin wasn’t the only notable guest this weekend, and the highlight of the night belonged to pianist Marc-André Hamelin who performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 with Kahane and the orchestra. This is an early staple of Mozart’s keyboard works, but Hamelin never does anything in the most conventional way, and this LACO performance was no exception. Hamelin’s cadenzas built subtly and what started out as a little jaunt soon became a roving, wandering beauty. He veered off and away in a grand manner that didn’t come off as jarring or inappropriate but made it clear that this was a beautiful and thoughtful adventure. After the meditative glories of the second movement subsided the third arrived almost as an alarm reminding the audience that we were, in fact, not entirely removed from where we started. It was daring, beautiful playing. Hamelin followed it up with jazz-influenced Gershwin that made sure the point wasn’t lost. It was a bold and surprising performance from one the piano greats of our times. The night ended with Kahane giving a polished rendition of Schumann’s Symphony No. 2. It was a lovely way to end an evening and a penultimate season.


Wade in the Water

March 08, 2016


Artistic Director Grant Gershon conducting the West Coast premeire of Julia Wolfe’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning Anthracite Fields at Walt Disney Concert Hall on March 6, 2016. Photo: Patrick Brown

The years just get bigger and bigger for New York’s Bang on a Can collective. Never wanting for recognition, both the composers who founded the group and the magnificent All-Stars, the musicians who make up the group’s performance ensemble have been grabbing larger headlines in recent months even by their prior standards. David Lang popped up behind Chris Rock on this year’s Oscar telecast following his nomination for Best Song from Paolo Sorrentino’s film, Youth. (Though he was denied the common courtesy of having his work performed during the telecast.) Meanwhile his fellow colleague Julia Wolfe has been on a tear of her own recently winning last year’s Pulitzer Prize for music. It was a big and well deserved win for a “downtown” artist (in the parlance of Kyle Gann) and a rare acknowledgment by the judges of compositions by women (she is only the 6th woman to win in the Pulitzer’s history). The prize winning work, Anthracite Fields, received its West Coast premiere Sunday night with the assistance of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, their Artistic Director, Grant Gershon, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars. It was a stunner and probably the best single performance the Walt Disney Concert Hall has hosted this season. And after a weekend full of Gustavo Dudamel’s bloated, ponderous Mahler with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Wolfe and her collaborators provided a much needed aesthetic antidote on just about every level.

Anthracite Fields is an hour long oratorio about coal mining in Eastern Pennsylvania, a region very near where Wolfe herself grew up. It functions on some levels as an oral history of laborers working in these mines and can swing between elegy and a call for social and economic justice. But before diving into Wolfe’s grand choral work on Sunday, the Chorale presented a number of American folk songs from the Sacred Harp collection. More often associated with a raw sound or edge when performed in a more typical community setting, these folk songs were beautifully performed with a restraint lent by the polish of a professional ensemble. It was a smart introduction for what followed, though, in that while Anthracite Fields concerns the lives of coal miners, Wolfe did not tied the piece musically to elements of traditional folk music of the Appalachian region. Instead Wolfe uses a more contemporary language and sound inspired more by late 20th-century minimalism and rock’n’roll. Anthracite Fields unfolds over five movements starting with Foundations, which opens with low rumbling invoking a journey into the depth of the earth. This is soon replaced by the repeated names of injured coal miners, all starting with John followed by monosyllabic surnames, which provides a back drop to imagery of the formation of coal in the earth and what the miners endured to pull it out of the ground. The focus of the work pulls back over subsequent movements, including passages that set the words of labor leader John Lewis, and later builds on a couplet from early 20th-century advertisements for coal-powered trains. The piece concludes with a masterful movement called Appliances. Here the names of injured miners have been replaced with daily living functions we all participate in from turning on lights to calling a friend. All of these activities consume the power these miners have suffered for through their labor. And the final image above this sonic backdrop is of the imagined New York socialite Phoebe Snow traveling by train in the ads of a locomotive company from over a century ago. She arrives with her white dress pristine and unblemished thanks to traveling under the power of coal. This deft and insightful imagery packs a punch and it highlights Wolfe’s ability to deliver a huge amount of material with relatively minimal words.

In just over an hour, the Master Chorale and Bang on a Can All-Stars had taken us out of the ground but we were no longer able to clean the metaphorical coal dust from our own hands. The performance was accompanied with video projections designed by Jeff Sugg consisting mainly of photographs and animation of coal miners and their work environment from the early to mid- 20th century. It worked well without overwhelming the content of the musical performance. The Chorale masterfully wound around the many turns in the score from the soft moaning and whispers that laid the ground work of each movement to the raucous and rhythmic passages when the power of motion of the energy produced in this particularly American history of labor was in full operation.

It was a great night for the Chorale overall and it continued their great work with the Bang on a Can artists. Next up in the collaboration will be the release next year of the Chorale's first recording for Cantaloupe Music featuring David Lang's the national anthems and his own Pulitzer winning the little match girl passion.


Critical Mass

February 02, 2016


Artistic Director Grant Gershon conducts the Los Angeles Master Chorale's performance of the Verdi Requiem featuring guest soloists soprano Amber Wagner; mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung; tenor Issachah Savage; and bass Morris Robinson on Saturday, January 30, 2016, at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Photo: Patrick Brown 2016
It was a weekend of big gestures and major staples this weekend at Walt Disney Concert Hall. While Esa-Pekka Salonen was reminding everyone of what the Los Angeles Philharmonic has been missing for a long time with some clear-headed adult-sounding Mahler, the Los Angeles Master Chorale was doing what they do best delivering a varied and powerful version of Verdi’s Requiem. The piece is a perennial favorite; omnipresent despite the large resources that go into its performance. Opera companies and symphonies trot out this choral masterwork for anniversaries, memorial services and sometimes for absolutely no notable occasion whatsoever. But who needs an excuse with music that so magnificently straddles the world of the sacred and the more profane theatrical realm of opera. It’s a flexible piece with tons of interpretive space within its sturdy frame for conductors to run within, taking off in any number of directions. LAMC Music Director Grant Gershon did just that, having it all with this past weekend’s performances. At times the piece sounded appealingly ecclesiastical. The opening Kyrie was so reverent that the performance seemed out of place outside of a church. But while Gershon milked the stately mass version of the piece, this wasn’t a one note performance. He and the chorale would later turn to the more theatrical and often cited operatic overtones of the piece giving a performance that was equal parts sacred and profane.

It was always thrilling, of course. But the show benefited from some superb soloists who represented a mix of veterans and some very inspiring newcomers. The much loved mezzo Michelle DeYoung joined bass Morris Robinson as the more experienced members of the team and neither disappointed. Soprano Amber Wagner, who has been making a name for herself in high profile Wagner and Strauss parts in Chicago in recent seasons, soared above the assembled forces with real grace and power. But the biggest discovery for me was tenor Issachac Savage. He was unnervingly good – warm, easy and unforced with plenty of power. Easily the most exciting American tenor I’ve heard in years. More of him please, right away. It’s always nice to start the year on a high point and the Los Angeles Master Chorale did just that.


The Kids Are All Right

October 13, 2015


Alexnder Treger and YASO Photo: David Johnston 2015

So how many youth orchestras does one city need? Whatever you consider the number to be, it seems reasonable to say that more is probably better when it comes to this category. Giving audiences a chance to hear live music while young musicians gain experience and training doesn’t really have a downside. So we were all in luck this weekend when the Young Artists Symphony Orchestra burst into existence at Royce Hall under the leadership of Artistic Director, Alexander Treger. Treger knows plenty about working with young musicians having led the American Youth Symphony as Music Director for 17 seasons in addition to his teaching activities through UCLA. After leaving AYS and retiring after more than 30 years with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Treger has launched into a new project with 100 young musicians in various stages of training from ages 15 through 26 culled from all over Los Angeles to make up the new YASO.

And, what better way for an orchestra to enter into its existence than with Mahler’s Symphony No. 2? There were no half measures for this first performance that featured the soloists, soprano Amanda Achen and mezzo-soprano Niké St. Clair. It was a big night for this ensemble coming together in public for the first time, and Treger’s certain hand cut through the clear nervous excitement among the players. Mahler is about big gestures and the players reveled in making the most demonstrative moments in the score. What lacked in precision was more than accommodated for by sheer excitement and force of will. Best of all here was a big glorious orchestra providing the real deal – live performance of one of the world’s greatest – all for free. What’s not to be excited about? Yes. More please. YASO has their second of four performances on Dec 6 at Royce Hall. It may just be one of the best deals in town.


Good Spirits

May 21, 2015


Eric Whitacre and Arvo Pärt
The Los Angeles Master Chorale wrapped up its season this past weekend with one of their many strong suits – contemporary music. In his opening remarks from the stage, Music Director Grant Gershon made reference to numerous differences between the two living composers whose works were featured in the program – Arvo Pärt and Eric Whitacre. He’s got a point. Outside of a mutual love of richly textured clean harmonies, the two have almost nothing in common. They’re from different parts of the world and separated by almost forty years. The inspiration and subject matter of their choral works are also substantially different. Much of Pärt’s work grows out of medieval and Renaissance influences and is often informed by his Russian Orthodox faith. Meanwhile, the American Whitacre draws on a more contemporary, non-denominational sense of spirituality and is rife with explorations in technology and genres such as fantasy.

But the two share something much more than just writing great choral music. They also are perhaps two of the most frequently programmed living composers of choral music around, particularly by the LAMC. Their music is more than just a regular visitor here but a constant friend. So differences aside, this program — accompanied by little more than organ and piano — featured the Chorale at full force and with beautiful warm textured sound throughout. It was not a night for individuals to shine, but a time to really appreciate the quality of the ensemble as a whole whether singing in English or Latin.

In many ways the evening’s cross programming provided a nice counterpoint. Pärt’s preference for reverent simplicity set nicely against Whitacre’s penchant for wit and invention. The evening ended with Whitacre’s setting of e.e. cummings’ poems in the cycle The City and the Sea that was firmly tongue in cheek. Perhaps the highlight of the Whitacre portion of the evening was a performance of Cloudburst under Associate Conductor Lesley Leighton. The choristers produced a shimmering sound that evolved into drops and splashes of their own making in perhaps one of Whitacre’s most compelling artistic statements. But as wonderful as the Chorale was in these moments, they excelled with Pärt’s clear-headed spiritual sobriety. His Beatitudes is one of those moments where even the non-religious can touch a deeply felt spirituality through the human voice and it certainly did this weekend. And when you get right down to it, that’s part of what makes great music and great choral music in particular. And last weekend we were again reminded of how lucky we are to have that right here in Los Angeles.


A River Runs Through It

April 14, 2015

The LAMC plays Tan Dun's Water Passion
The Los Angeles Master Chorale has always had a flair for the theatrical. Never outstripping their core musicianship, they aren’t afraid to stretch in terms of performance technique. It’s a quality that’s been central to some of their most memorable and talked-about performances, and this weekend the LAMC revisited one of those moments with a re-examination of Tan Dun’s Water Passion after St Matthew. It’s a work that caused quite a stir when they first performed it in 2005 and it’s arguably one of the pieces they’ve become most identified with over the last decade. It’s probably the most important of Tan Dun’s works as well. There is something magical and elemental about this piece, which fuses the passion with ritual, symbolism and a sound world springing from water and everyday percussion. Tan Dun has made much of the clicks and whirls of everyday sound often in the past, and the Water Passion takes a plunge into the splash and pop of water. The work was composed in response to Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and Tan Dun manages quite a feat maintaining a reverence and sense of ritual for the passage of time in a setting that evokes both baptism and rebirth, punctuating the libretto.

The chorus revels as much in Tan Dun’s towering vocal climaxes as they do in the many minute percussion chores they are asked to take on. The colorfully lit water basins around the stage form a sort-of cross of their own. The amplified splashing intertwines with the mix of voices and Chinese percussion instruments for an effect that is both profoundly solemn and organically spiritual not unlike the work of John Luther Adams at its best moments. There were two soloists. Baritone Stephen Bryant was both flexible and warm while soprano Delaram Kamareh made a visually arresting presence sometimes in contrast to the proceedings around her. But the performance, under the guidance of Music Director Grant Gershon was seamlessly integrated and just as mysterious and thrilling as it was when the group introduced the work to the region nearly a decade ago. It’s always great to see the LAMC succeed, and this weekend they again proved their aptitude and excellence in the sometimes thorny pathways of contemporary compositions.


Los Angeles Passion

February 04, 2015

Easter came a little early to the Walt Disney Concert Hall last weekend. Of course with music like Bach’s St Matthew Passion and an ensemble like the LA Master Chorale the calendar becomes a secondary issue. While the LAMC is widely celebrated for their work with contemporary composers, the depth and magnitude of the ensemble's interpretations of large masterworks of the choral repertory are world class as well. Saturday was no exception when Grant Gershon led his choristers through a performance that was at turns reverent, harrowing, and achingly beautiful. The LAMC is blessed with their ongoing relationship with the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra who again provided period performance support. And as it has been in several other cases, the LAMC shines most brightly when paired with an orchestral ensemble who lives up to their musical quality. Gershon managed to maintain a clarity and visceral excitement from the Musica Angelica players throughout in a relationship everyone here continues to reap the benefits from.

The St Matthew Passion is rife with chances for various choristers to take solo star turns over the course of the afternoon. This time around it was a superb Jon Lee Keenan who sang the role of the Evangelist. There was an earnestness to his approach and a youthful eagerness that gave the performance a sense of urgency that can easily go missing at times in lesser hands. Bass Chung Uk Lee sang the role of Jesus with a particular lightness the complimented the other major role in the work. But it was the grand chorus passages that made this a Passion to remember and one that made the listener eager to hear the group’s latest return to another Passion later this season, the Tan Dun, Water Passion which will take the stage on April 11 and 12. The performance also served to whet the appetite for some exciting events to come from the Chorale in coming seasons, which were announced at the time. Perhaps most enticing is a multi-year project revisiting some of Handel’s less well known oratorios, many of which will include starry soloists from various corners of the opera world. There’s much, much more ahead so be sure to stay tuned.


May the Circle Be Unbroken

October 27, 2014


Paula Murrihy as Dido with Kateryna Kasper and Summer Hassan Photo: Craig Matthew
You should see the double bill that LA Opera just opened on Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It’s not just that it is one of the best productions the company has mounted in the last four years. It’s also evidence that the company has without question transitioned into a new artistic era. The evening pairs two short works that couldn’t be much further apart historically in the opera repertory. The heroines of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Bartok’s 20th-century masterpiece Duke Bluebeard’s Castle may be centuries apart musically but love doesn’t fare much better for either of them in stories where life is the cost of love whether hearts are broken or not. What makes this production more than the sum of its parts, though, is the direction of Australian Barry Kosky. Kosky’s clever, edgy vision—that has been very successful throughout Europe in his role as intendant at Komische Oper Berlin—has been seen here before in the company’s wildly popular staging of Mozart’s The Magic Flute last Fall. He has again created a sharp, attractive, and thoughtful staging that presses buttons and is impossible to ignore. But more than that, this second big success for Kosky here in Los Angeles makes him something of a house provocateur. It was a role that Achim Freyer played for the company throughout the 2000s during the tenure of former company Artistic Director and Chief Operating Officer Edgar Baitzel. Freyer produced some of the most beautiful and thought provoking stagings over that decade—productions that are still discussed years later with great passion among the opera-going faithful.

But a lot has changed in the last five years since Baitzel’s untimely death in the national art scene, and LA Opera has been in transition on many fronts. Economic realities have made the company leaner and meaner but things under current President and CEO Christopher Koelsch are clearly no less ambitious and inventive than they were a decade ago under Baitzel. In some ways, Kosky might be considered Koelsch’s Freyer, bringing the edgiest of opera visions to LA Opera. Of course, that’s an unfair comparison, but Kosky’s work and relationship with the company does signal the fact that LA Opera continues to be a spirited, inventive and risk-taking organization. It’s survived recent "fires" and is roaring full steam ahead.

Photo: Craig Matthew
That steam is quite literal in Kosky’s double bill. Duke Bluebeard’s Castle makes good use of it as Judith opens the fifth door to reveal her new husband’s great estate. As the orchestra swells into Bartok’s giant C major chord, Bluebeard, sung here by Robert Hayward, and his three doppelgangers are engulfed in huge jets of steam onstage. There are no physical doors here for Judith to open or keys to wrangle. However, these mirror-Bluebeards in their contemporary dress suits spout gold dust, water and flowers from their hands to represent the treasures and horrors Judith finds. All of this takes place on a slanted circular starkly white turntable that leaves both vocalists completely exposed for the entire course of the piece. It’s a very physical performance—one that focuses on the emotional relationship between the two lovers. Claudia Mahnke’s Judith is no wilting flower. Kosky has envisioned her as a more forceful, self-possessed woman who will immerse herself totally in Bluebeard’s world no matter the cost and often despite her husband’s palpable physical discomfort as he contorts and falls in response to her repeated treaties. This is a Bluebeard that is sure to leave a bruise.

Love claims other victims in this staging. Dido doesn’t fare much better and, as he does with Judith, Kosky takes a very different approach to this Queen of Carthage. Here Dido is more rash and impulsive giving up on Aeneas and declaring his betrayal before he’s even had a chance to act on his divine orders. She is less the victim of Aeneas or fate, but actively hurtling to her doom nonetheless. Kosky places the action at the foot of the stage, the entire cast seated at times along the length of a huge bench. The chorus in their hodgepodge of period costumes (or in two specific instances just G-strings and hats) occasionally abandon the stage for the pit joining the smaller Baroque size orchestra. Kosky mines the work for some quirky laughs, particularly through the unusual sexually inappropriate boundaries of the three witches who anticipate the lovers’ downfall. The three countertenors in these roles—G. Thomas Allen, Darryl Taylor, and Brenton Ryan—almost run away with the evening with their drag shenanigans. But that isn’t about to happen under Kosky’s eye. Dido and Aeneas is given a slowly burning intro and denouement to parallel the orchestra writing of Bartok’s opera, creating another parallel between the two short works on the bill. In the end, Dido is left alone onstage gasping for air for nearly 10 minutes as choristers and orchestra exit one by one leaving her truly alone to finally expire in silence. It’s a haunting image; just one of many that populate the evening.

Musically there is much to recommend the evening. Many of the soloists are first rate including Mahnke and Paula Murrihy whose Dido sears when needs to. Kateryna Kasper is a spirited, forceful Belinda as well. Steven Sloane conducts the orchestra, who were surely suffering whiplash from the hundreds of years of musical history separating these works. The period techniques and instruments that were used to augment Dido and Aeneas were a tough fit overall and it wasn’t until the Bartok that the players got their full chance to shine. Overall, though, this evening of lovers lost was a reason to rejoice. It was a great performance from a company that has a lot on its mind and is heading in the right direction. They’ve weathered the storms of recent years beautifully, unbowed and looking to the future. Now is the time to see where they are heading. Dido and Aeneas and Duke Bluebeard’s Castle are onstage for five more performances through November 15.


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L.A. Phil Reviews '09/'10

L.A. Phil Reviews '08/'09

L.A. Theater Reviews


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