Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Three times an opera

September 07, 2008

Sondra Radvanovsky as Suor Angelica
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2008

Los Angeles Opera kicked off its 08/09 season on Saturday with a great new production of Puccini’s Il Trittico. And while I know that sounds like an oxymoron, it’s true – the company deserves to have a big hit on its hands with this production which is often larger than life. The company has spared no expense on this opener and it has three rather elaborate sets by L.A. standards, a huge cast and design team. And while it is certainly not perfect, it is consistently well sung, well played, and amazingly and surprisingly entertaining throughout. There are a lot of names worth mentioning here, but let’s start with James Conlon. He continues to be on top of his game and he led the orchestra in a bang-up, spot-on performance. He continues to be one of the company’s biggest assets and seems to excel at just about everything he touches no matter what corner of the repertory you’re talking about. He gets MVP on a night with a lot of competition for that spot.

But now let’s get down to business on the components that make up this sometimes unwieldy trilogy. The evening opens, of course, with Il Tabarro, perhaps the most thankless of these one act operas. It was impeccably well cast with a radiant Anja Kampe as Giogetta, and Mark Delavan as Michele. Kampe managed to be earthy enough to be believable but beautiful enough to lend credence to why these two men are in love with her to begin with. Even Salvatore Licitra’s Luigi sounded great, which I was as surprised as anybody. Conlon and director William Friedkin kept the tension high and I actually found myself completely caught up in the whole thing by the time we got to the rather realistic looking knife fight. While it wasn’t necessarily a radical staging, it looked good and was quite well lit. And a moving barge always seems to get the audience's attention.

After a surprisingly satisfying first act, it was time for the best opera Puccini ever wrote, Suor Angelica. Again under Friedkin’s direction, the convent looks much like you might expect. There were some unnecessary comic touches early on when a few sisters are called out by the Abbess. I could also gripe that Larissa Diadkova elects to play the Princess in perhaps the most conventionally villainous manner. But frankly these are minor complaints. I was still in tears by the end all due to the single most important reason to see this production – Sondra Radvanovsky. Her performance in the title role is nothing short of amazing. This is no surprise to my ears and I continue to think she deserves all the adulation otherwise enjoyed by a number of vocalists with much higher profiles these days. It seemed that the immediate, rousing standing ovation she received indicated that plenty of others agree.

Thomas Allen as Gianni Schicchi and Laura Tatlescu as Lauretta
Photo: Robert Millard 2008

Needless to say, with everything going so well two-thirds of the way into it, I was particularly apprehensive about the much publicized final piece in the triptych, Gianni Schicci, which was directed by Woody Allen. The company has been using his mug for weeks to sell tickets to this, his first foray into the world of opera. A job that he himself has indicated he had some apprehension about in the press in recent weeks. While it should be said that his take on this comic nugget will not be to everyone’s taste, I’ll give him this – he’s got balls. Far from treating the comic leg of this opera as the genteel, romantic, smile-inducting love letter to Florence that so many before him have done, he digs into Gianni Schicchi assertively with a strong look and a real point of view. He sees the piece as a no holds barred comedy and he rightly jettisons wistful elements to get to the comic heart of the matter. He is assisted by another strong cast including Thomas Allen as Schicci, Laura Tatulescu as Lauretta, Jill Grove as Zita, and Saimir Pirgu as Rinuccio.

The whole episode is recast as some sort of 1950s Italian neo-realist comedy complete with fake opening movie credits projected on a screen in front of the curtain which is pulled away to reveal a massive and intricate once luxurious and now dilapidated family estate. Much is made of the class difference between the Donatis and Schicchi and his daughter Lauretta. When the two enter, Schicchi is dressed as a rather greasy mobster and Lauretta is more sexy and trashy than innocent and beautiful. Rinuccio and Lauretta are more intensely infatuated teens than idealized young lovers. There are numerous comic bits of stage business added and while I’m sure some will argue that this is distracting, the whole thing works remarkably well and actually produces several real laughs from the audience. Not ironic, self-referential ones, but actually appropriate-to-the-context laughs. Mr. Allen had noted his apprehension at receiving negative feedback from a live audience in the press in recent weeks so it may be no surprise that he did not take a curtain call, unlike Mr Friedkin who had two prior turns during the evening. Which is really a shame considering he produced something more interesting and amusing to look at than half of the directors working in opera today.

This It Trittico is well worth seeing and, in a season with very ambitious plans for L.A. Opera, it is hopefully a harbinger of things to come.



I think you have to tell your readers that you've now seen it 3 times ;-)
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