Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

A Rant, or Pretty Things

August 30, 2007

 
Balloon Flower by Jeff Koons
Photo: mine 2006

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of this stuff bemoaning the sad condition of opera. In particular, I keep seeing these missives about how arts administrators determined to improve the bottom line are eschewing musical values in favor of whatever appears to be hot, young, sexy, or visually palatable at the expense of musical performance or the art of opera as a whole. Typically, these rants arise when someone’s favorite plus-size soprano or mezzo isn’t on the cast list for the umpteenth performance of the same-old-same-old somewhere around the world. They can also crop when people are busy writing headlines about someone young or relatively inexperienced who dares to do something orchestrated to shock or grab those headlines to begin with.

Oh, please. Now I’m not here to condone discrimination against any performer based on weight or other issues. And certainly, there are people with poor judgment and little minds who have done bad things to colleagues and other performers. But all this hand wringing over the “glamorization” of opera and its negative effects is mostly hogwash. When has opera ever been about anything other than glamour? For centuries, major casting decisions have been made on far more base issues than a pretty face. Roles have been cast and performances have been staged just as frequently based on who’s cheap, who’s sober, who has the “right” political beliefs and who the primary patron was sleeping with at the time. These concerns don’t seem much more noble to me than who’s pretty, who’s skinny, or who’s sleek and sexy. Once all of this big “art” business entered the opera picture things really started to go to pot.

The music? Sure it’s important, but it’s far from the whole picture. The opponents of “glamorization” always hold up the bogeyman of what listeners will be left with under these forces if they simply close their eyes. But frankly if you’ve paid good money for a ticket, why would you want to? I see plenty of audience members with their eyes-closed virtually every time I'm at the opera but the cacophonous snoring suggests it’s not because they’re lost in rapture over the musical qualities of anything. If it weren’t for the staging, there would be little point in seeing an opera at all. Let’s be honest. No one ever really looks forward to a straight concert performance of an opera as anything other than a mere evocation of a greater or more perfectly satisfying evening in the past or one imagined in the future. Opera is in large part theater and if the art form has suffered anything it is a century of well-intentioned purveyors trying to pass off a rapidly decomposing corpse to an audience that will hopefully be impressed by an aura of authority and art like some nightmare version of Weekend at Bernie’s.

Yes it’s fashionable for insiders to drone on about the loss of musical artistic values, but I for one think things are happening just as they probably always have, despite all our heavily revised versions of the past. Or, to put it another way, there is immense beauty in the temporary and disposable just as there is in the permanent and enduring. A big shot of pretty and easy-to-swallow may be just what the doctor ordered for all those looking to be “transported” by a world of high art.

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Maybe the sun will shine today

August 28, 2007

 
Or, maybe not. Santa Barbara is a beautiful, if sleepy, town – a couple hours up the California coast from Los Angeles, which I admittedly do not frequent but found myself visiting on Sunday for the first local appearance of Wilco on their tour to support their new album Sky Blue Sky. Although the group has an LA performance scheduled for Wednesday at the Greek Amphitheater in Griffith Park, I purchased tickets for the Santa Barbara show because I had planned to be out of town this weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a trip I have unfortunately had to cancel due to a variety of personal and work conflicts.

So it was up north to the Santa Barbara Bowl in the hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean for a performance from arguably the most important rock band since REM that was a little disappointing on a number of levels. Jeff Tweedy and company delivered a strong set overall. The material consisted of an unsurprising mix of songs from the new record and drew heavily from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born. This is a good thing considering how much more challenging these recordings are overall, but somehow, the whole didn’t quite gel as well in a live set as their outings in 2004 and 2006. Many of the songs remain the same, but the looser more relaxed style of Sky Blue Sky seems to have carried over into the live set. The band often seemed to be just hanging out and playing, which, while not unpleasant, isn’t as provoking and experimental as some of their prior local appearances. Of course, maybe it was just this particular evening which fell one night after front man Tweedy’s birthday, but I suspect not.

The other culprit in this lackluster affair may have been the venue itself. The supporters of the Santa Barbara Bowl have just finished constructing a brand new stage pavilion on the site including major refurbishment of the grounds. The pale yellow stones of the new edifice are attractive if somewhat sterile in a Getty museum kind of way, but the real problem here was the acoustics. The show was so over-amplified that much of the electronic subtleties were lost throughout in a cacophony of grating distortion. The sound was harsh and flat like listening to music blasted at you while standing against a brick wall. Certainly, it may take months for the acoustics of a space like this to settle and be sorted out in terms of amplification, so, down the road when the space has its “grand opening” next year, things may be much improved. However, on Sunday it was rough going. Still, they're likely worth checking out on Wednesday in that even now they're one of the better things going.

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Bon soir

August 24, 2007

 
Stéphane Deneve
Photo: Lawrence K. Ho/LAT 2007
It’s August in LA and even though it’s only a week before Labor Day, our hottest months are just now getting underway. Which is why the light clouds provided relief in the form of a surprisingly cool evening for the crowd at the Hollywood Bowl last Thursday. The LA Philharmonic played under the leadership of Stéphane “Leopold” Deneve in his first Bowl appearance with a program of French masters including Berlioz, Debussy, Saint-Säens, and Ravel. And while there was little groundbreaking or new about the show, and it suffered from the awful acoustics that are part and parcel of the venue, everything was played so splendidly and with such skill and care that all the negatives melted away into wonder.

This success was in no small part due to the contribution of Jean-Yves Thibaudet who was the featured soloist in Saint-Säens’s fifth Piano Concerto. Thibaudet seems to love the West Coast and the region loves him right back - he appears as a regular fixture in both LA and SF in a variety of indoor and outdoor venues throughout the year. This piece can often be about the fireworks of the last movement, but Thibaudet had other things in mind leaving the crowd with a second movement that was nothing short of brilliant. He was a man on a mission.

But the show was far from over with Deneve leading our hometown orchestra through an especially Wagnerian version of La Mer and a rousing suite from Daphnis et Chloë. It may be the doldrums of late summer elsewhere, but the LA Philharmonic again proved that any night they are playing is likely one to remember.

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Two Tickets to Paradise

August 21, 2007

 
l-r Hila Plitmann, Marie M. Wallace and Juli Robbins
Photo: Ed Krieger/Theatre at Boston Court 2007

Ever sit in a dark theater and think, "What the hell am I watching?" Well I had one of those days on Sunday at Pasadena’s Theater at Boston Court where the world premiere musical Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings is currently running. This is the first musical theater work from composer Eric Whitacre who has developed quite a reputation for his choral compositions in recent years and received a Grammy nomination earlier this year for his excellent recording, Cloudburst. After years in development with co-lyricist David Norona including several concert and semi-staged performances of earlier incarnations, Paradise drops down now fully formed here in LA. Whitacre, who takes credit for both the music and book and shares credit for the lyrics, has put together a hugely ambitious production with two hours of largely electronic dance music with accompanying solo vocals and chorus. The score is catchy and Whitacre is quite adept in setting the rather introspective lyrics throughout even if his high-NRG brand of dance music feels about five to ten years out of date. The music is presented in the best possible light, however, due largely to the vocal talents of its star and Whitacre’s wife, soprano Hila Plitmann. Ms. Plitmann has proven herself a talented and adventurous performer in her many appearances with the LA Philharmonic and she is in excellent form exhibiting clarity and control that make everything else melt away when she is center stage. One must admire her for an overwhelming commitment to this role, especially considering the trade in overblown adolescent comic book fantasies going on around her.

Despite the wonderful music and excellent performance from Plitmann, Shadows is burdened with a wince-inducing scenario and book that obliterate everything in their paths. This “epic” concerns a group of young angels who are de-winged by their parents and indefinitely entombed in a self-contained community for their protection following their parents' impending defeat at the hands of evil-doers. In the intervening 17 years, waiting for their parents to return, the children have develop a Lord of the Flies-style society that involves tattoos, colorful hair extensions, and martial art battles for trinkets. Or, in short, it’s a gay disco version of Mad Max. Or maybe the anti-Spring Awakening. Things get progressively sillier and needlessly complicated in as plotless a manner as possible from there. Finally, the train crashes into the inevitable conclusion with seemingly pointless secrets revealed and hearts changed. It's all much ado about nothing even if it at times quite stylish ado. Oh, did I mention the anime? No stone was left unturned in the audio-visual department which had the strange effect of making me long for the meat and potatoes realism of Wicked.

Still, Whitacre and all do deserve an A for ambition. The choral and vocal writing here are quite good and there is no doubt that Whitacre continues to be a composer to watch. On this first outing, drama may not yet be his thing, but I suppose bigger successes have grown out of larger failures than this. Plus it's good to see where all those Elfquest fans ended up.

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Some Enchanted Evening

August 19, 2007

 
Diana Krall looking not unlike Daphne
Photo: Bruce Weber
If there were ever an argument about the benefits of staying through the intermission of a program that seems miserable at intermission, it was this weekend’s performances with the LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. To some extent, this is unfair to say since the show was really two programs in one. Most of the tickets were sold for the evening’s headliner, Diana Krall, who appeared with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. However, the powers that be must have decided that the Krall set would not be lengthy enough to occupy a full evening with an intermission, so the LA Philharmonic was recruited to perform an unnecessary and needlessly pandering 30 minute intro including orchestral excerpts from On the Town and Porgy and Bess. The talents of this group and the Phil’s associate conductor, Joana Carneiro, are wasted on this schlock filler - music that is both pleasantly familiar to a crowd largely uninterested in classical music and yet not given the requisite space or context to make it worthwhile.

Luckily, Krall was on the bill and did she ever deliver. Krall’s recordings are excellent, but none compare to the joy of seeing her live, and she is one of the rare performers who can take the mammoth space of the Bowl and shrink it to virtually nothing in an instant. Her dusky voice and intonation were magnificent in a program that focused heavily on Nat Cole and Cole Porter, as well as numbers from her current record From This Moment On. Although she can tend to fall off in the bottom part of her already low range, there is a no-nonsense quality to her playing and singing that make these standards seem both heart-felt and nonchalant simultaneously. Her support from CHJO was first rate, but for two extended stretches she was accompanied only by John Clayton on bass, Jeff Hamilton on drums, and guitarist Anthony Wilson. And just think, all that talent and virtually no pandering about the events in her personal life that have occupied so much of the press coverage about her in the last year. It’s always nice to see artists doing what they do best without the need to filter it through whatever the “story” is about them at the moment.

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Not, Again

August 17, 2007

 
Sellars, Saariaho, and Salonen
Photo: E. Mahoudeau
The LA Philharmonic announced today that the American Premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone has been delayed, again. The work which premiered in Vienna in 2006 as part of Peter Sellars’ New Crowned Hope Festival was originally scheduled to premiere here in LA in January 2007, but was postponed when the soloist for whom the work was written, Dawn Upshaw, was forced to withdraw for health reasons. The performance was rescheduled for the opening weekend of this year’s LA Philharmonic Season, October 5-7.

Now, according to media reports, the performance has again been canceled and rescheduled in part due to the decision of music director Esa-Pekka Salonen and Peter Sellars that the work needs to be presented “in its fully staged form.” Since not all of the participants can be available for the staging on the previously scheduled dates of what was apparently intended as a concert performance, Simone has again been postponed until 08/09 and in its stead Salonen will conduct a program including Berio, Richard Strauss, and Beethoven’s 7th.

Bummed doesn’t begin to describe my reaction to this news. While I can appreciate the argument, seeing the piece without the staging was actually going to be one of the highlights of the performance. Not that the solo dance accompaniment from Michael Schumacher wasn’t worthwhile, but having seen one of the London performances of the piece this summer, I think there are actually benefits to a concert performance in a work of such intensity and relatively small scale. Not to mention that if Simone has suffered from anything thus far in its history, it has to be that the work hasn’t yet met the right conductor. Salonen has proven to have a special affinity for Saariaho’s work and to have to wait yet again for this performance is undoubtedly a disappointment. However, if me must wait for the stars to align to see Salonen conduct Saariaho's work in LA, I guess we shall.

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New Edition

August 16, 2007

 

Today is the one year anniversary of Out West Arts and I’m celebrating with a new look. Working on the blog over the last year has been has been fun and I’ve been surprised with my willingness to stick with it. I've posted more days than not this year with 206 posts and thousands of visitors. I’ve been looking back over what I said initially about why I was starting this blog and what I was going to do with it and while I haven't always met my goals, I'm rather pleased with the outcome overall. I mainly started this blog as an opportunity to write about things I enjoy seeing in the hopes to share these thoughts and experiences with others. I think Los Angeles is one of the world’s richest performing arts communities and wanted to do my part to advocate for this great city.

I also wanted to counter things I don’t like about other classical music and opera blogs out there. I did not and still do not intend this to be a space for arrogant crackpot ranting, gossip, or journalism be it ersatz or authentic. Not that those aren't worthwhile activities, just not ones I find particularly interesting here. This blog is also not about my personal or professional life though of course the boundaries can be permeable at times. I also find that visually, most music blogs range from corporate-boring at best to 90s-Dreamweaver-template at worst and I wanted to do something that didn’t look cheap or like I was just using a prefab template from blogger. Of course, there are still things I would like to change such as talking more about recordings and writing more commentary on other topics beside “reviews” of performances.

So what’s new?
First and foremost I've tried to set up better indexing of my previous posts. Above the calendar to the left is a more detailed index of recent reviews including drop down menus of links to my music and opera reviews from last season. I’ve also updated my links and am continuing to include selective links to blogs and other sites I think are worth reading. I know this is far from an exhaustive list, but that is the idea.

Thanks
I also want to thank all the other sites and bloggers who have been supportive of my modest endeavor through their links and mentions including Alex Ross, Steve Smith, Robert Gable, Nicholas Scholl at Trill, Gert at mad musings of me, Charles Downey and the folks at ionarts, Christian M. Chensvold at FineArtsLA, George M Wallace, Jason Heath, Blake Oliver, and the many great folks up in the Bay area such as the newly blog-outed Mr. C, Patty Mitchell, Lisa Hirsch, Joshua Kossman, and SFMike at Civic Center. As for me, I shall continue to remain partially in the shadows for professional reasons, but some of my eager correspondents may wish to know that my last name is in fact not Langham. Everything should be up and running except some IE tweaking is still going on, but if you're still using IE it's time to come into the 21st century anyway. I always love hearing from readers so feel free to drop me a line or comment if you see something you like or don't. Here's to another busy year.

Swamp Thing

August 13, 2007

 
Cast of Platée
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2007


This has been an interesting year for Santa Fe Opera. Perhaps not the best program ever offered, but the company's emphasis on Mozart, Strauss and premieres of new and recent works continues to produce some of the most exciting opera in America. Of course, the productions this year are sharing room with news about many transitions - the news of music director Alan Gilbert's departure and the appointment of his most excellent and esteemed replacement Edo de Waart, and now the news that general director Richard Gaddes, the companies 2nd general director in 50 years will retire as soon as his replacement is appointed. Here's hoping the board makes another excellent decision in this selection.

As has been the case for me in recent years, my trip to the Santa Fe Opera festival ended with a bang - this year in the form of Platée. This production of Rameau’s Baroque comic gem comes from Laurent Pelly, and while it is well worn, having premiered in Paris in 1999 with subsequent revivals and a DVD release, it is still a thrill to see it live. It is undoubtedly the strongest show in this year's festival. My fondness for this production is no secret and seeing it in Paris under Mark Minkowski’s direction was my favorite performance event from last year. It’s hard not to sit there with a smile on your face throughout. Plus when was the last time you heard an audience applaud for special effects at an opera?

Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as Platée and Wilbur Pauley as Jupiter
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2007
Pelly is a master at wit and whimsy on stage, and Platée seems custom-made for his talents. Light on the pathos and heavy on the satire, the production also greatly benefits from the genius comic choreography of Laura Scozzi. In bringing the production to Santa Fe, it was certainly necessary to scale down some of the elements from the original due to size constraints of this New Mexico stage. In fact, it is surprising to see how many of the original ideas are still intact – even the pyrotechnics and Mercury and Jupiter descending from the ceiling in chandeliers are still here. The set, smaller in scale, is a progressively decaying wonder that is intact as is La Follie's megalomaniacal attention-grabbing theatrics.

Of course, in the end it is a facsimile of the original and the copies do have some flaws. Most notably here are the significant changes in the quality of casting. Jean-Paul Fouchécourt is still in the starring role which is a good thing considering that it's as if it was written just for him. His timing is excellent and he is comic without having to mug. However, few of the singers can live up to the vocal quality of the previous Paris casts. With the exception of Heidi Stober’s La Follie, much of the cast’s lack of mastery of Baroque vocal styles was painfully apparent. Even the dancers, while quite good, seemed a little less sharp than they should have been. Still, the joys here far outnumber any quibbling over specifics of individual performances, and this is one show not to miss if you have the chance to get tickets for the last two performances on the 16th and 22nd.

The Mirror has Two Faces

August 11, 2007

 
Kelly Kaduce as Princess Lan and Haijing Fu as Seikyo
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2007

Probably the most beleaguered production at this year’s Santa Fe Opera festival is the American Premiere of Tan Dun’s Tea: A Mirror of Soul. Santa Fe has a rich and varied history of bringing both American and world premieres to the stage and it probably seemed a sure thing to schedule this opera to follow the opening of the composer’s The First Emperor, which saw it’s debut at The Metropolitan Opera last December. Perhaps what no one counted on would be how widely and often vehemently panned the newer work would be - thus leaving Tea as somewhat of an albatross around the company's proverbial neck. It certainly appears that Tea has not enjoyed the same publicity and media attention as other recent American premieres in Santa Fe. The widespread negativity about Emperor (which was often marked in both the popular press and the blogosphere with more than a hint of racism) has clearly poisoned the well.

Which is frankly a shame considering that Tea is a completely enjoyable evening at the opera. Is it a great opera? Probably not. Is it better than Emperor? Indeed. But interestingly, what Tea isn’t is radically different from The First Emperor. The two operas share far more than they differ in terms of vocal writing, pacing, and Tan Dun’s interest in the musical sounds of water, paper, ceramic percussion instruments and other objects. What Tea has that actually is different is a much more focused libretto and a staging that is both beautiful and makes far more effective use of the available space. Director Amon Miyamoto and Scenic Designer Rumi Matsui fill the stage with elements that make sense and are consistently eye-catching throughout. The smaller stage in Santa Fe allows the creative team to focus on symmetry and single large set elements in each scene without needing to fill up vast amounts of empty space just for the sake of having it filled.

The vocal performances were uniformly good especially from Kelly Kaduce as Princess Lan and Haijing Fu as Seikyo, the Japanese monk who loves her and is willing to challenge her brother's authority to be with her. Both actors were also able to convey a sense of passion and motivation throughout a work whose plot can still be somewhat episodic and convoluted.

Certainly, all of this will not please some people. For some critics, this kind of cross-cultural hybrid doesn't conform to rigidly held fantasies about European "high art." For others, including one couple behind me at the performance, Tea represents "modern music" which isn't melodic enough for anyone to "connect" with. Despite these banal criticisms though, I think Tea is a step in the right direction even if it isn't always successful. Everything needs to evolve sooner or later to survive, and Opera is no different. Involving cultural traditions and perspectives that aren't typically present is actually invigorating to the form as a whole and makes sense given the history of Opera itself. We tend to myopically forget that things have not always been as they are now. Opera has gone through several shifts, revisions, and adaptations over time in response to political and cultural forces of the time, and this time is no different. The world is certainly more connected and in some ways smaller now and the idea that opera as an art form should somehow stand apart from this process is at best naive.

Or maybe it's like the long-time Santa Fe resident next to me the following night said. Tea may be the best thing Santa Fe has ever put on the stage. While I'm not sure about that, it certainly turned out to be a very wise decision after all.

Into the Woods

August 09, 2007

 
Erin Wall as Daphne and Garrett Sorenson as Leukippos
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2007

Santa Fe Opera has a long tradition with the works of Richard Strauss, and most seasons include at least one his operas. This season is no exception, electing to present Daphne that had its American premiere with this very company in 1964. This is late Strauss, a work that premiered in 1938 in Dresden in all of its unapologetic romantic splendor in the face of Hitler’s Third Reich. It does seem odd that this adaptation of classical Greek mythology should come from someone once considered a bit of a radical in the historical context in which it was written. But rather than pore over the piece and its author in some fashionable Shostakovich-like manner to determine whether Strauss “meant it” or not, it is a piece that can, at times, be taken on its own terms and contains some wonderfully beautiful music.

Director Mark Lamos and scenic designer Allen Moyer have not opted for a challenging staging here, instead going the path of least resistance with something that could best be described as “Elizabethan Greek.” It creates the unusual effect of seeming classical in tone without having everyone dressed in togas, looking instead like they just stepped out of As You Like It. It’s not a bad idea, but given that the set consists only of a few trees placed dead center on the raked stage, there is not much to look at over the 105 minutes or so of the evening. Since the opera itself doesn’t contain a lot of dramatic elements, this is a somewhat risky strategy that doesn’t pay off.

Of course you don’t need much if your cast is stratospherically good, and while this grouping was strong, the minimalism was too much even for them. Erin Wall is cast as Daphne and once she warmed up, her tone was bright and ringing and the last 40 minutes or so she was quite remarkable. The men provided adequate support including Scott MacAllister’s Apollo and Garrett Sorenson’s Leukippos. A little more stage direction would have been helpful as well to avoid all the standing and delivering going on, but again, it could have been worse. Kenneth Montgomery led the orchestra in a richly textured turn through the score. Like Salome, there is a scene that more or less requires some dancing. And often as is the case with Salome the dancing is hard to pull off without it looking ridiculous. In Daphne the occasion is a festival in honor of Dionysus and as is typically the case, the chorus and dancers cavort around in Looney Tunes-inspired fashion for several minutes.

Still, it you haven’t seen this you probably should. Daphne is quite beautiful at times and is not performed all that frequently. Plus the team does get the big payoff of the opera night – watching as Daphne sings with joy over her transformation from human into tree, entering a natural world she feels more apart of then her own, is truly moving here. There is a single performance left on August 17.

Been there, done that

August 08, 2007

 
Wilbur Pauley as Alcindoro and Nicole Cabell as Musetta
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2007
My visit to Santa Fe this year started out on a rocky note when I was forced to miss Monday’s Cosi Fan Tutte performance due to some unexpected personal obligations in LA. This disappointment was further accentuated when my neighbor at tonight’s opera performance informed me that the Cosi was “magnificent” one of the best he'd ever seen. Then, as if to rub salt in the wound, I was trapped in one of those “I can’t believe I’m sitting here watching yet another mediocre La Bohème” moments. Of course what did I expect? There is always at least one dog of a production amongst the lot here in Santa Fe and this year's Bohème turns out to be the likely contender for the title.

Director Paul Curran and designer Kevin Knight have put together a particularly uninspired and unconvincing staging that is neither romantic, sexy, or evocative of anything in particular. It was as reminiscent of Baghdad as it was of Paris. In fact if you took out the French flags it could just as easily been a dozen other operas. I appreciate simplicity as much as the next person, but here – less is less.

The performances of the cast and orchestra were satisfactory, if not inspired. This was a second string cast for the production, now that the festival is in its August phase, and no one was very memorable. Oddly enough the one ray of light here was the Rodolpho, Dimtri Pittas, who sounded quite strong even if he could have used a little more forceful stage direction. Also in the cast was recent Cardiff Singer of the World winner and Decca recording artist Nicole Cabell premiering here as Musetta. And she wasn’t bad – a bit under powered, but not bad. Of course it seems particularly cruel that Knight and the costume department felt the need to dress her as someone’s personal tribute to the more pulse-challenged member of the comedy duo Waylon Flowers and Madame.

The saddest thing of all, though, is that I’m certain that there were probably several people in attendance who were “transported” or something akin to that by all this schlock. Unfortunately, they weren’t transported far enough away and virtually all of the La Bohème performances here are sold out, guaranteeing that avoiding this kind of stuff will have to remain a priority for me in my opera-going future. Well, hopefully now that I have this performance out of the way, the rest of the week will pick up to be what Santa Fe Opera usually is - inventive and inspired.

Laws of Desire

August 05, 2007

 
I’ve been remiss about posting lately largely due to work and getting ready for this year’s trip out to the Santa Fe Opera Festival which I will be posting from for the rest of the week. Plus, I’m about to launch a new look and format for Out West Arts on the upcoming first anniversary of my blog, which has taken a little planning and work. In fact, so much has been happening I ended up having to miss the LA Philharmonic concert with MTT at the Bowl on Thursday, which I'd rather not talk anymore about.

Tracie Lockwood, Ron Bottitta and cast of How the Other Half Loves
Photo: Odyssey Theater 2007
But the last week has not been without its events as I was able to get over to the Odyssey Theater in West LA to sample some of the summer fare. The folks over at Odyssey must feel they have stumbled onto a good programming combination since most of this summer's line-up mirrors last year's. The Odyssey has become a bit of a local specialist in the works of Alan Ayckbourn and another of his early comedies, How the Other Half Loves, is currently playing through September 2. Loves is a bit of a comedy of manners about two lovers desperately trying to conceal their affair from their respective spouses by using a third newly arrived couple as cover for their indiscretions. The central conceit is that all four (to six) actors occupy the stage simultaneously within a single room playing out two concurrent scenes simultaneously. Fleeting phone calls sporadically link the two worlds which battle back and forth for comedic effect in a scenario that hangs onto its mooring despite the inherent schizophrenia of the action. This is fragile stuff requiring a great deal of skill on both the part of the director and cast to completely pull it off, and Barry Philips and his company aren't half-bad. There are many laughs here, and Tracie Lockwood's jilted working class housewife nearly steals the whole show. Accents are solid and the timing overall is very good. The whole thing could be a little speedier and more frenetic, leaving one a bit more with a sense of "How did they pull that off?" than it did, but it is still very much worth seeing.

Charlie Robinson and Nadege August in Desire Under the Elms
Photo: Enci/Odyssey Theater 2007
Meanwhile right next door, the Odyssey has also invited Jeffrey Hayden back to revive Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms. Hayden had a big success last summer at the Odyssey with August Wilson’s Fences which stole a good bit of critical thunder from the bigger, more starry, and far less successful staging of the same work later that season at the Pasadena Playhouse with Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett. Hayden brings back some of the excellent cast from last year for Elms including Charles Robinson who stars here as Ephram Cabot, the elderly new England farmer with a pretty young bride looking to take what’s hers. This is early 20th century drama at O'Neill's Freudian best and Hayden makes a point of reminding the audience about the plays controversial history in New York and LA at the time of its premiere. It is a solid production that benefits from a cast taking the whole thing very seriously, but it ultimately falls short of the excitement of Fences. Despite all the good intentions, Hayden’s insistence on everyone maintaining period New England accents proves unwieldy. Not that they were all bad or inconsistent, it just seemed that everyone had a very different idea of what New England sounded like a century ago. A little dialectic consensus might have made this woefully warm theater a little more tolerable on a sunny Sunday afternoon. For the uninitiated though, it will surely suffice.

Well, that's it for now. See you in Santa Fe.

Bowled Over

August 01, 2007

 
Michael Tilson Thomas
Photo: Lori Shepler/LAT 2007
So at long last my Hollywood Bowl season got underway last night, with (what else) Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Or at least that is what it sounded like through the amplification. I'll be completely honest up front. I can't stand listening to anything other than pop/rock sorts of music at the Bowl. Despite the Bowl's heritage and charm, the acoustics are awful, the amplification seems to make things worse, and there is perhaps no single venue in the country more dedicated to Americans' need to eat everywhere at all times. Unlike cowbell, crinkling wrappers and clinking glasses do not add to the musical experience in every situation. And did I mention the parking...

So why do I subject myself to this? Well because I love our hometown world-class orchestra and there's always a small number of programs that are actually worth seeing. Tuesday was one of those as Michael Tilson Thomas was down from San Francisco to lead the show and when he conducts the LA Philharmonic in any venue, it is a good time to go. It was a very good program - not the most inspired ever, but quite enjoyable for an all Beethoven program. He started the program off with musical excerpts from King Stephen and the Bundeslied, or the Beethoven equivalent of show tunes, which were surprisingly effective and for one brief moment actually made me look forward to seeing Fidelio when it opens the LA Opera season this fall. The 9th itself was decidedly non-fussy and MTT pulled an unsurprisingly brilliant performance from the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Not bad for a night's work.

The four soloists, most of whom were borrowed directly from the Golijov and John Adams opera factories, included soprano Jessica Rivera, mezzo Kelly O'Connor and bass, Eric Owens. Owens, in particular, was fantastic. He is rapidly developing into one of the most important vocalists in America, if not the world, and if you haven't had the extreme pleasure in seeing or hearing him in one of the new opera roles written for him in the last several years, you should. He'll be on stage in Chicago this December in Adams' Doctor Atomic (and hopefully in New York after that) and will continue to tour with Adams' latest opera The Flowering Tree. (Rivera who has the other starring role in Tree has been drafted into the role of Kitty Oppenheimer for Doctor Atomic in Chicago.)

MTT and the Phil will be back on Thursday with soloist Thomas Hampson for a program featuring many of his specialties: American legends Copland, Bernstein, and Gershwin. So even if being at the Bowl in many ways feels and sounds like watching the concert on TV, I'll be back again.

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Calendar

1/18/13
Kodály Háry János Suite
Eötvös DoReMi
Bartók Concerto for Orchestra
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Heras-Casado, dond
w/ Midori
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Los Angeles, CA

1/19/13
Reneé Fleming and Susan Graham
recital
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Los Angeles, CA

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