Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

The Armenian Problem

March 03, 2008

(l-r) Céline Ricci, Florian Boesch, Isabel Monar, Martin Haselböck, Marina Rodriguez-Cusi, and Jordi Domènech. Photo: mine 2008

You know those fleeting moments we all have where suddenly we question everything we believe in? Well I have one every time I see a Handel opera. I think to myself – after Handel, why did anyone even bother to attempt writing an opera. He did it all and frankly outside of Massenet, I don’t think anyone ever had anything more to say on the subject after that. Of course, later I come to my senses, but memories of the high still linger long after the drug is gone. As performers enter and exit over the hours for their various turns at the aria mill in an endlessly convoluted plot, time ceases to exist for me in some way.

Needless to say, it is an extra treat when the performance is as good as the one the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra held on Sunday at Schoenberg Hall on the UCLA campus. The work was Handel’s Radamisto (or is that Radamsito as the typo on the cover of the free libretto everyone got that afternoon proclaimed?) and Musica Angelica gave a performance under Martin Haselböck far superior to what one might expect given the comparable scarcity of resources available for this concert performance. The playing was crisp and dynamic – a sheer joy to listen to. The cast was quite good overall. Sure there were no A-list celebrities here, but no horrid slouches either. My favorites were Céline Ricci’s Fraarte, Isabel Monar’s Polissena, and Florian Boesch’s Tiridate. Boesch did pull this brief air guitar stunt toward the end, which I wasn’t 100% sure what to think about, but he exuded the kind of fun-loving menace one might expect from an Armenian King in love with his brother-in-law’s betrothed. The countertenor who sang the part of Radamisto, Spaniard Jordi Domènech, was a bit of a sidler when it came to hitting the notes but he was cute in a cro-magnon way and delivered on more than a couple of his arias despite his shortcomings. But what do you expect from a guy who won’t kill his girlfriend when she begs him to, thereby forcing her instead to throw herself into the river. (Although you know she won’t drown because it’s only Act II, and this is the 18th century).

But, of course, love conquers all and all that good stuff, and it was a great afternoon. So, for all you wimps who gave up in the home stretch around the end of hour two just to return to your "lives" and your "families," eat your heart out - you missed it, at least until Santa Fe Opera mounts a fully staged version of this work this summer with David Daniels in the title role. In the meantime, remember, Baroque opera may leave a body count in the average audience and is not for the faint of heart, but there is nothing else quite like it.

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If I'm ever captured by terrorists, they won't have to waterboard me to get me to cough up info, they'd just have to tie me to a chair, ala Alex in A Clockwork Orange and put a Handel opera on a stereo system. I'd be *begging* them to let me tell them whatever they want after the 12th florid aria by the 2nd soprano lead.

The two most excruiating evenings I've ever spent in an opera house, worse than a shitty performance of La Boheme or some other warhorse, were Handel's Xerxes and Montiverdi's Coronation of Poppea. I went home and immediately put Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces on to restore my sanity both times.
Hi Brian,

I wanted to thank you for your review. Not only was it positive, which is what everyone likes to hear, it was actually intelligent and lucid, unlike the ravings of Swed and Rich. I also applaud you for actually noticing the unbelievable typo on the cover page of the libretto.

The previous commenter needs to take a hint from you and learn to correctly spell the proper names he criticizes, whether positively or not (i.e., Monteverdi). If he had gone to Musica Angelica's Radamisto, perhaps he'd hate baroque music a little less. But maybe he's just butt buddies with baroque-hating Mark Swed.

Lastly, if you hadn't noticed (but I'm sure you must have, as you seem very careful and discerning), we have a concert in May with actor John Malkovich. I'm not exactly sure what he'll be doing, but whatever it is, it'll be with us. So I hope you'll pencil it in your book and maybe attend. I'd be very interested in reading what you have to say about it -- good or bad.

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