Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
Kids these days
September 30, 2008
Blake Bashoff and Kyle Riabko Photo: Katy Raddatz/SF Chronicle 2008
My recent trip to San Francisco was bookended by two performances with a unique relationship to one another. Arguably the two most important musical theater productions were on display there - on Saturday I saw one of the movie theater broadcasts for the final Broadway performances of Jonathan Larson’s Rent and on Sunday evening caught a performance of that work's more recent counterpart Spring Awakening. The latter is in a first national tour which is currently in the Bay area after opening last month in San Diego. What struck me most about seeing both of these works again side by side was not the rock and roll scores or their influence on musical theater in the early 21st century, but how both are immersed in youth culture while simultaneously relying on cultural artifacts of the 19th century to accomplish their tasks.
Now departed from its Broadway home of over a decade, Rent will live on in a new national tour. It’s been over a decade since I’ve seen a staged performance of the show, and I was surprised at how affecting it still is even at the remove of a movie theater rebroadcast. It hardly seems dated, which is surprising given that it opened before the internet completely consumed so much of recent popular culture. I was still pleasantly taken with how good the score is. Needless to say the show was wrought with extra layers of nostalgia given the close of the Broadway run and the return of many original cast members for an encore of "Seasons of Love" at the end of the evening.
Spring Awakening, of course, is a much more recent experience having seen it in New York in late 2006. While the touring production is a facsimile still trying to find its feet, it is also quite remarkable in many ways. Duncan Sheik's score is easily as good as, and perhaps better than, Larson's. The show still generates huge amounts of energy even in some of this production's most unsure moments. The band seemed lackadaisical and slow at times and the over-amplification in the Curran Theater blurred out much of what everyone was singing. The touring cast does include a number of veterans from the New York run including Blake Bashoff’s Moritz and Kyle Riabko’s Melchior. And although the cast is more likely to milk comic lines and mug than is completely necessary, they are still more than able to deliver the emotional goods of the evening.
Of course, the youthful angst of Spring Awakening is more literally 19th century in origin than that of Rent, and the audience is invited to marvel at the seeming parallels between now and then. But the fact that both works use the same time period as a starting point is significant. It is not at all surprising that the youthful troubles of the characters in the source material and today are so similar. In fact, it is the late 19th century that is the source of the notion of adolescence to begin with, including the various and sundry "problems" that plague this disaffected class. Hence, there is nothing new to say about young adults since the 19th century precisely because that this very concept is wedded to that time period itself. And while neither piece is bold enough to question the category in and of itself, both immerse themselves in exploiting adolescence for maximum melodramatic effect. To a modern eye these fantasies continue to be provoking and emotional and are sustained by this sort of cultural repetition. In any event, both shows will be on display around the country in the coming year with Spring Awakeningarriving in Los Angeles before year's end. If it's new to you, it is well worth seeing.
l-r: Zheng Cao as Ruth Young Kamen, Ning Liang as LuLing Liu Young, and Qian Yi as Precious Auntie Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2008
There is something to be said for lowered expectations. I was actually fairly entertained by Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan’s opera The Bonesetter’s Daughter now receiving it’s world premiere performances in San Francisco. However, given that my most recent new opera experience was Howard Shore’s The Fly in Los Angeles, anything would have been a significant improvement. And so it was. Amy Tan’s melodramatic popular novel has received a full-fledged stage and musical treatment. Despite the Oprah-esque qualities of the piece, it’s not a bad little story with three generations of women uncovering their histories through a ghost story of sorts. Everybody learns meaningful lessons about their ancestry and how they got to be who they are.
But, despite this, it’s unclear that Bonesetter has much staying power. Although it is proving to be quite popular in its run in San Francisco, the opera reminds me more of another recent premiere in Los Angeles, Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel. Like its predecessor, Bonesetter is overly reliant on a highly attractive and imaginative staging, in this instance from Chen Shi-Zheng. Floating ghosts and gowns, gorgeous bright colors, and animated video imagery drive the show despite a sometimes predictable score. Strings swell ominously in conjunction with a variety of non-Western percussion instruments. but for all the pretty angst, there's little variety to mark shifts in mood in the piece. Of course, there aren't many of those to begin with so that may be part of the problem.
Wallace has crafted an opera with a wide variety of Chinese influences after years of study and preparation. But, despite this, the music never really seems to evoke something deeper than what’s apparent on the surface. His vocal lines are reasonable, though, and they are performed quite admirably by a very good cast which includes Zheng Cao as Ruth, Ning Liang as her mother LuLing, and Qian Yi as the grandmother Precious Auntie. The vocal writing relies both on Western and Chinese operatic conditions and these disparate elements are well-integrated throughout. There are clearly rocky spots. About half way through the first Act, the rather interesting action grinds to a halt. Things pick up again later for what was an enjoyable afternoon; although honestly not one that I necessarily feel the need to repeat.
Hvorostovsky et al Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2008
I just woke up from San Francisco Opera’s final performance of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra and while I know I’m very late to this party, I thought I’d make a few comments. I would generally agree with what seems to have been the consensus about this run – it was very well sung, but burdened with a banal, poorly directed staging. The cast mostly stands around, occasionally gesturing and looking at one another in what might pass for a knock off Getty Villa. And that’s entertainment. I suppose keeping things very simple is necessary for an opera with such an overly convoluted and often confusing plot. But nobody here does much to sort that out. Sure all these characters say they love or hate each other but you wouldn’t know it from their body language.
But focusing on the voices and the performance from Donald Runnicles and the SF Opera orchestra helped. Dimitri Hvorostovsky sang a regal but downtrodden Boccanegra. I’ve decided at long last that I do prefer him across the board to Thomas Hampson. Hvorostovsky can come off as aloof at times, but I prefer his coolness to Hampson’s periodic tendency to glower and bellow. Hvorotovsky is also one heck of a handsome man, though you wouldn’t know it here from the endless series of voluminous black caftans he wore creating a sort of funeral-going Helen Roper effect.
Barbara Frittoli sang Amelia and, despite a little cracking here and there, was consistently enjoyable and managed at least one rather lovely pianissimo. Marcus Haddock did the Gabriele chores aptly and with less shouting than I’ve heard from him recently. The big news, though, was bass Vitalij Kowaljow whose Fiesco was not only audible but beautifully annunciated and consistent throughout. Kowaljow is no stranger to U.S. opera houses and has appeared on the West Coast many times. However, his appearance here invited a closer listening this time around since the announcement that he will make his role debut as Wotan in L.A. Opera’s upcoming Ring cycle performances. His performance here is definitely a good omen and it was easy to see him stepping into those godly Wagnerian shoes.
l-r: Stephanie J Block, Marc Kudisch, Allison Janney, and Megan Hilty Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2008
What a way to make a musical. On the one hand, Dolly Parton and Patricia Resnick’s adaptation of Parton's best known film, 9 to 5, is not completely dreadful. On the other, it isn’t exactly pleasant or entertaining. The world premiere is now on stage at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles with a substantial cast, which includes Meghan Hilty in the Parton role, Allison Janney in the Lily Tomlin role, and Stephanie J Block in the Jane Fonda role. All stage veterans, they are joined by Marc Kudisch, as their lecherous boss Franklin Hart. However, despite this talent, which does result in a few high-wattage solo numbers, the work as a whole is a rather limp and needlessly faithful re-enactment of the film. Now I will admit that I am a fan of the original having been exposed to it more times than I care to admit as a teenager given its popularity amongst my younger sisters. (You do remember VHS tapes don't you?) However, although all the gag lines are meticulously preserved, the comedy has not always survived. Arguably, the feminism hasn’t quite made it either – who knew Violet Newstead would seem so much more sympathetic to an audience when given a younger love interest?
Of course, at the center of this soon-to-be flop is Dolly Parton. I am a fan of Parton and her status as a songwriter and performer are already legendary. Her success with show tunes, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Many of the songs are dull and never really build to something larger. Take note - just because you look like a production number doesn’t mean you know how to write one. There are many attempts at homespun charm but Parton herself has much more aplomb at pulling this off. Still, I imagine there is some sense of nostalgia that will appeal to a certain audience, but I’m not sure there are enough of those people to keep this afloat after 9 to 5 moves to Broadway in the spring. Of course, that’s what New York really needs right now, another Young Frankenstein.
l-r: Emily Magee as Marietta, Torsten Kerl as Paul, and Lucas Meachem as Fritz Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2008
I’ve finally made it back to San Francisco this weekend to catch up with the opening opera productions of this season. I’ve had some trepidation about this given the decidedlylackluster impression that SFO’s summer productions had on me. But I’ve decided that I may have been a tad unfair about some things back in June given that I was still severely jet-lagged after my trip to Europe. But now I’m back in town, well rested, and ready for some opera.
So why not start off with the just-opened production of Erich Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt. It’s the only German language opera the company is offering in its 08/09 season so you’d think the company would make the most of it. And they do. Under the guidance of the unfortunately outgoing music director Donald Runnicles, the orchestra sounded superb, giving Korngold’s rich, late romantic score the big warm hug it deserves. The company has imported a well-traveled production from Willy Decker that debuted in Vienna and also appeared at the Salzburg Festival. It looks great and has a decidedly psychological bent which works well in this opera which is equal parts Vertigo and Mulholland Drive. Decker’s vision of Paul’s internal world is predominated by ghostly floating images of the dead and floors, walls and ceilings that are warped out of perspective. Marietta and Paul play cat and mouse throughout Act II in a surreal counterpoint to Tristan und Isolde as houses float by and entire sets appear suddenly from the rear of the stage. If there is any real problem with the staging, it’s that it is still quite literal; the dream sequences in the opera are clearly demarcated as such. The real power of Korngold’s work comes when neither Paul, nor the audience, are completely sure about what is real or what is imagined until the very end. Decker makes sure there are always psychological guideposts nearby for all parties. Of course, with the way in which the company slams the multiple large mobile set pieces around throughout the evening it’s hard to avoid snapping back to reality.
The casting here is only partially successful. Paul is performed by Torsten Kerl who's had a decidedly rising profile in the United States over the last few years. After initially seeming underpowered, he unraveled a little into Act III. This provided an ironic complement to Emily Magee’s Marie who was incredibly pitchy throughout Act I and stabilized for about 20 minutes before Kerl lost it—like two vocal trains passing in the night. With the exception of the handsome Lucas Meachem who sang the roles of Frank and Fritz, the rest of the cast was easily overwhelmed by the orchestra throughout, making for a rather unbalanced affair musically. Still, Die Tote Stadt is not a work you get to hear every day, which is a shame given how beautiful it is. As there are so many charming things about this production overall, take this excellent opportunity to see it in its current run through October 12.
l - r: Kate Burton, John Pankow, and Jane Kaczmarek Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2008
So after a year long closure for renovation, the Mark Taper Forum has finally reopened this month amidst a flurry of press and activity not only for the buffed-up theater itself but for a revival of John Guare's classic The House of Blue Leaves. The changes at the Taper were much needed and from all accounts most of the work went into the backstage area and the technical aspects of the house. These were no small issues, these, given the highly constrained circular space of the building, which required moving up to the roof and down into the parking garage to find space for new amenities like an actual wardrobe department. On the audience side there are new developments as well, including wonderful 1970s inspired green and brown fabric everywhere, an elevator, and a new downstairs lounge below the entrance lobby. With radically expanded bathroom space, the old codger subscriber base will have to find something new to bitch about. (But trust me the weekend matinée crowd I saw the new show with had no problem moving on to new topics.)
So, with most of the focus on updates for the actual production of theater, it was time for the Center Theater Group to get to work and they wasted no time on putting together a very well-cast and entertaining revival of Guare’s benchmark comedy about mental illness and family upheaval in the mid 1960s. The House of Blue Leaves is a play from another time. It grows out of a collection of 60s and 70s plays about mental illness and its broader philosophical implications in works such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Equus, and Marat/Sade. Unlike most of his brethren, however, Guare elected a far broader comic tone for Blue Leaves with a second act that rapidly devolves into farce of near Marx Brothers proportions. And in some ways this is what makes the play great - the mix of humor and tragedy.
Perhaps the biggest strength of the Taper revival is that it hits these comic elements right on the nose with laugh-out-loud funny performances from the entire cast, which includes John Pankow as Artie Shaughnessy, Kate Burton as his mentally unstable wife Bananas, and a undergarment enhanced Jane Kaczmarek as Artie’s new lover Bunny Fingus. In fact, if anything negative can be said about the performance, it is that the comedy is done so well, it almost sacrifices the darker elements of the play. Artie and Bunny become a little too likable for characters who are often quite cruel at heart. So much so that when the not so happy ending comes to fruition, it is not only shocking, but somewhat out of tone. Nonetheless, the play is still a classic and the Taper’s production is an excellent offering for the start of, hopefully, many great new seasons to come.
So last night I made it over to The Blank Theater in Hollywood for the West Coast Premiere of Stephen Karam’s Speech and Debate. It’s very funny and much worth seeing. This should really be no surprise in that it comes out of Daniel Henning’s little-shop-that-could which has littered the L.A. theater scene with some of the most memorable local theater productions in recent years including LaChiusa’s The Wild Party, the hilarious revival of Amy and David Sedaris’ The Book of Liz, and the recent adaptation of the Leopold and Loeb story, Dickie and Babe. The Blank continues to do more with less than just about any other theater organization in town.
Karam’s play, which ran off-Broadway in 2007, concerns rather worn terrain - three teenagers in a moderately sized American community come together despite their awkwardness to overcome a conglomeration of individual traumas. The two gay male characters, Solomon a closeted Catholic cub reporter and Howie an out just-turned-18 transplant, provide contrasts to one another as well as most of the play’s tension. But frankly, as interesting as they are played by the wonderful Aaron Himelstein and Michel Welch respectively, they are ultimately window dressing for the comedic centerpiece, the secretly pregnant under-talented and overly ambitious Diwata. Frustrated in being passed over for parts in her school’s production of Once Upon a Mattress, she turns to her own video blog to promote her own musical “Crucible!” an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s classic play. Diwata fancies herself as Mary Warren and lionizes her for sticking to her lie and living another day. Of course, Diwata has no other forum for her work until the opportunity to start up the school's new speech and debate team presents itself. Now all she has to do is blackmail the guys into participating as well, which is where the whole pedophile subplot comes in.
Needless to say it’s a rather unusual take on highly cliché themes. It never sinks into preachiness or much sentimentality but keeps the laughs coming. A huge credit goes to Mae Whitman whose gives a brilliant kinetic, wound and edgy performance. That she manages all of this without ever becoming cloying is a big achievement. The above video can give you a taste but be warned the live performance was far superior. Now don’t get me wrong, there are problems. The motivation and plot never really congeal into a logical whole. The motivation of both young men seems confused and contradictory and I often was wondering what exactly was supposed to be going on. But, in a tale of adolescence, this may be the most appropriate. Plus a lot can be overlooked with Speech and Debate, which is essentially a very rare commodity - a comedy that is actually funny.
l - r: Warren Jones, Catherine Leonard, Richard Yongjae O'Neill, Ani Aznavoorian, and Adrian Spence Photo: Marta Elena Vassilakis/Camerata Pacifica 2008
The Huntington Library in San Marino would seem the ideal location for chamber music. And in practice, it is certainly a beautiful, if not entirely successful one. Or at least that’s my take on things after seeing the opening performance of this year’s season from Camerata Pacifica, Adrian Spence’s well-regarded chamber ensemble. Based out of Santa Barbara, the group's various members and guests perform nine months out of the year in several combinations in Santa Barbara, Ventura, the Huntington, and Zipper Hall in downtown Los Angeles. They’re a remarkably talented and well-appointed group that programs a fair variety of new and standard works, so when a friend invited me along to see them in the lovely San Marino setting, I happily agreed. Chamber music from a consistent group of musicians who spend their professional lives doing just that is always a big treat and with the notable profiles of Camerata Pacifica's members, their shows should always be highly recommended.
If there was any big draw back to the evening, it was the Bayreuth-like technical limitations of the meeting room-come-concert hall facilities at the Huntington Library, which were sweltering without the noisy air conditioning turned on. Open windows also appeared to be too noisy so it was time to sweat it out. Luckily the musical attractions were significant. After an overly-long and indulgent introduction, flautist Spence joined in on a quasi-period practices approach performance of J.S. Bach’s second orchestral suite that Spence noted was intentionally performed without vibrato. Sadly, being in tune was also absent from the first couple of movements, but things improved as it went along. Piano accompanist Warren Jones featured prominently in the remaining bits of the program including Haydn’s final piano sonata and Dvorak’s piano quintet Op. 81. Jones made a case for Beethoven's influence on Haydn in the sonata which came off rather well. The Dvorak quintet was very impressive and, though at times a little plodding and heavy-handed, it was a moving and enthralling account that I’m sure won over many new fans in the sizable audience as it did me. Camerata has a number of great programs scheduled throughout the year in their usual haunts any of which would be worth seeing. Details can be found in the link above.
Delroy Lindo and Tyne Daly Photo: Craig Schwartz/LAT 2008
September has come to mark an annual special treat for local theatergoers in Los Angeles. It's the month that the Getty Villa has actually been allowed to make use of its outdoor amphitheater for a whopping 12 performances of a selected Greek or Roman classic for a lucky few in the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In this third year as a theatrical organization, the Getty is presenting Aeschylus’ Agamemnon this month in a translation by Robert Fagles and directed by Stephen Wadsworth which I saw on Saturday night.
I was additionally lucky in that none of the Villa’s more mentally unstable neighbors chose to ruin the performance as they had on opening night by passive-aggressively blasting stereos as was widely reported in the media. Instead this 100-minute piece came off with nary a hitch outside of perhaps a few botched lines from members of the chorus. It’s a worthwhile production that is both minimal and earthy. And while I found the direction and design elements somewhat pedestrian, there are enough high-wattage performances to make the whole thing very worthwhile. Notably Delroy Lindo appears as the doomed King and Broadway and TV legend Tyne Daly is cast as his murderous wife Clytaemnestra. Both were quite good and were further complemented by another stand-out performance from Francesca Faridany as Cassandra who almost steals the show. But isn’t that Cassandra’s job, really?
There are some other rather odd adaptations to the play. Both Elecrtra and Iphigenia who are "not featured in the script" have been inserted by Wadsworth into the chorus to provide an excuse for the cast to reenact prior events in the story that are only later described by other characters in the play. While not a bad idea to help illustrate the background story, it does make a number of later scenes confusing when the dead Iphigenia is sitting around the courtyard hanging out as a periodically ignored chorus member.
Still, it’s a production well worth seeing and a fine addition to the stagings the Villa has put on since this program was approved. Of course, this may be the final year if the Getty is not able to secure a renewal of its current permit to hold this handful of weekend night performances in a neighborhood where good fences don’t apparently make quite good enough neighbors. Let’s hope the Getty gets to fulfill its plans to return next year with Aristophanes’ Peace.
I have been neglectful in not mentioning last Friday’s appearance of Tricky at the Music Box in Hollywood. This was his only appearance in the city and his first time here in many years. He’s just wrapped up a U.S. tour in support of his most recent release Knowle West Boy which is a more consistent recording than we’ve seen from this legend of 90s popular music in awhile, and his show, though basic and straight-forward, seemed to reflect the new-found energy behind these tracks.
Still, this was Tricky, which means that you get it all, good and bad, often unfiltered. Not everything works, but what has always been true about his work remains so, even the mistakes are fascinating. He continues to coarsely mumble away in the background of more prominent vocals, here provided by Veronika Coassolo. The beats are there, but this is not a dance show any more than it is a hip hop one or a punk one. Things pulse forward but the songs are more about the journey than the arrival and release is elusive. Nothing ever completely ignites into bombast or rage. And if it gets close to it, everything soon falls apart. The set list covered much recent material as well as several selections from older works including both “Overcome” and “Black Steel” from Maxinquaye. The more recent works "Joseph", "Veronika", "Council Estate", and "Past Mistake" stood up well in relation to prior efforts.
In attendance was an interesting, downbeat crowd that, while not at capacity, seemed appreciative of this relatively rare appearance. The opening act was a not unpleasant artist named Sonny with a rather large black-clad long hair ensemble who powered through tuneful and not entirely unpleasant numbers reminiscent of a Japanese power pop version of Bon Jovi. Stylistically not a bad match, though visually from very different traditions. But as frustrating as Tricky can be when it comes to consistency, it's nice to have him back. Especially in a year when the 90s seem to be coming back all around with the likes of Portishead and other giving it a go.
Mark Delavan, Anja Kampe, and Salvatore Licitra in Il Tabarro Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2008
It was a busy weekend and a friend rightly commented to me that in the interest of complete disclosure I should mention that I have now seen Los Angeles Opera’s production of Il Trittico three times. While this was not intentional, considering how much I dislike Puccini as a rule, it is remarkable. Needless to say, this production is the best thing LAO has offered up since last Fall’s Jenufa and, with perhaps the exception of Der Zwerg, it will likely be the single strongest offering from our local company this calendar year. I strongly encourage you to go if you haven’t yet.
I don’t have much new to say about last Thursday or Sunday’s performance over my original comments other than to note that this most recent performance was slightly marred by the illness of Laura Tatulescu, who stars as Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi. She did marshal through the evening with apologies, however, and thankfully it's such a strong staging under the guidance of director Woody Allen and set designer Santo Loquasto that not too much weight is placed on her single performance. Probably the bigger highlights on Sunday came following the show when my partner Jeff was almost run down by an inattentive Salvatore Licitra in a silver Mustang as he charged out of the music center parking lot. How wrong is that? I mean if you’re going to get run down following this production, I would much prefer Radvanovsky in a Lexus or perhaps Delavan in a Prius. Just a thought.
Salonen at the Bowl Photo: Craig Matthew/Mathew Imaging 2008
Tuesday, of course, was the long-awaited Hollywood Bowl event of the summer. Programming at the Bowl is notoriously light weight but every year at least one or two shows creep onto the schedule where all of us who love our hometown orchestra feel compelled to try and ignore the many drawbacks of this landmark venue in order to catch the “must-see” event. This year, as in many years past, that event was a concert under the leadership of Esa-Pekka Salonen. But, unlike recent years, this show was unique first in that it was Salonen’s final appearance as L.A. Philharmonic music director at the Bowl and secondly because the concert consisted of the legendary and massive Mahler’s 8th Symphony.
So, off we all went and it was a quite large crowd for an average Tuesday Philharmonic show. And while not quite a “Symphony of a Thousand” it certainly involved more than a few hundred choristers and musicians who gave it their all. But alas, as my friend Lou stated, while the show was good, it would have been great at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. But it wasn’t. So between the crackling of the amplification system, the planes overhead, the crying babies and the tumbling of bottles down the stairwells, there was a Mahler Symphony to be heard. It was very well played and Salonen approached it with his trademark clarity even if it did sound like it was being played from a stereo system in the next room.
The soloists in the production was a veritable All-Star cast with the likes of Christine Brewer, John Relyea, Alan Held, Anthony Dean Griffey, Elza van den Heever, Nancy Maultsby, and Elena Manistina. And while these are bit parts compared to some of the big league roles regularly handled by these names, it was a heavenly combination. Of course, the specter of The Philharmonic’s more illustrious winter home loomed large in other ways than simply acoustic ones. The WDCH's architecture also casts a theatrical shadow as well. After years now of clever and inventive placement of performers in the hall, the temptation was too great not to make maximum use of the bowl space. Thus soprano Stacey Tappan, who sang the role of Mater Gloriosa, appeared high above the stage on the catwalk of the giant circular light and audio unit. A relatively small gesture in such a giant space, but a gesture nonetheless.
So, even though the evening was an ending of sorts, I choose to think of it more as a teaser for much more substantial shows to come in Salonen’s final season with the Philharmonic, opening on October 2, providing ample opportunities to celebrate Salonen’s incredible tenure with this organization. Until then, Mahler’s 8th will be on display again on Thursday and there are still seats available.
So the results are in on my recent 21st-century opera audio quiz, which turned out to be a tad more difficult overall than I imagined. But, nonetheless, from the many entries received the one with the most correct answers belonged to none other than the ever-knowledgeable and ever-present Henry Holland. Congratulations! Below is a link to the clues and the complete answers.
1. Appomattox by Philip Glass – Music from the opening of Act II
2. The Tempest by Thomas Adès – with Simon Keenlyside as Prospero and Cynthia Sieden as Ariel
3. Tea: A Mirror of Soul by Tan Dun – with Haijing Fu as Seikyo
4. Ainadamar by Osvaldo Golijov – with Dawn Upsahw as Margarita Xirgu and Jessica Rivera as Nuria
5. Doctor Atomic by John Adams – with Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer
6. L'amour de Loin by Kaija Saariaho - with Dawn Upshaw as Clémence
7. Alice in Wonderland by Unsuk Chin – with Sally Matthews as Alice, Dietrich Henschel as The Mad Hatter, and Andrew Watts as The March Hare
So there you go, and a DVD of Chin’s Alice in Wonderland is on its way! And speaking of Alice in Wonderland, which was directed by the acclaimed Achim Freyer, one other note of interest came out of this weekend’s veryuneven Los Angeles Opera season-opening performances. The programs and LAO’s website include some choice photos of Freyer and his team in rehearsal with local actors working out details of the new Das Rheingold and Die Walküre which will open here next spring. Although the captionless photos may not be exactly what we get in the end, it certainly makes some interesting suggestions towards a Ring that will certainly have a unique look if nothing else.
David Okulitch as Seth Brundle (before) Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2008
Or at least that’s the advice of the mutant-fly-impregnated Veronica Quaife in Howard Shore’s The Fly, an operatic adaptation of the famous David Cronenberg film from 1986 now receiving its U.S. premiere at Los Angeles Opera. The show opened on Sunday as the second production of the new season after a startlingly good Il Trittico the night before. (Which you should go see.) And while The Fly is not a total disaster, it’s about as close to one as you can get without actually arriving there.
Not that the subject matter is completely inappropriate for an opera. There’s plenty here thematically from humanity’s relationship to technology to the fatal flaw of emotional insecurity. Seth Brundle, a brilliant scientist, creates a teleportation device he shares with a newfound love, science reporter Veronica Quaife. When he begins to doubt her affection, he rashly tests the yet to be perfected machine on himself inadvertently fusing his DNA with that of a fly which, unbeknownst to him, gets into the device with him. Soon Brundle becomes more fly and less man and it all ends in grotesque tears. But while this might be a reasonable opera idea, I’m not sure who the target audience for this new opera is supposed to be. While I’m sure there are some hardcore Fangoria subscribers who’ve been waiting for the classical music version of this 80s classic, it doesn't seem that a staging of a cult-classic creepy horror film would have a broad appeal. But, hey, this is art, right?
The Fly does have big names behind it, with director David Cronenberg, conductor Placido Domingo, librettist David Henry Hwang, and Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore. But little here works the way it should. The music is predictable, dull, and virtually devoid of any dynamics. Shore’s vocal lines are rarely interesting and they are weighed down by the wordy and repetitive libretto. There are several scenes that run far too long and others that simply serve no purpose other than to replicate some version of the movie. In fact at just under three hours, it’s about twice the length of Cronenberg’s film.
(after) Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2008
The cast does an admirable job with what little they have to work with. Ruxandra Donose plays Quaife with commitment and passion against Daniel Okulitch’s Seth Brundle. Okulitch, who gamely appears in various states of undress including the all-together at the end of Act II, is a talented vocalist and sounds very good in less than optimal circumstances. It's worth noting that heis also both hotter and a better vocalist than Jeff Goldblum ever was or will be. Gary Lehman, of this year’s Metropolitan Opera Tristan und Isolde disaster fame, was Stathis Borans, Quaife’s boss and ex. He–like everyone–seemed to be crying out for bigger and better things than this muck.
Most worrisome were the increasing number of unintentionally funny moments that seemed to increase as the show went on. The animal and Brundle monster puppets produced more than a few chuckles. A stand-in gymnast who did multiple back flips to represent Brundle’s increased mutant strength at the start of Act II received a big round of applause as well. And in perhaps the biggest irony, Quaife’s frequent repetition of the catch phrase “Be afraid. Be very afraid” seemed to produce more and more tittering over the course of Act II. Given that Cronenberg’s film is the original source of this now overused cliché, it may have been appropriately used here, but this has been lost on the audience who seemed to mostly see it as a puzzling weakness in the libretto.
I guess L.A. Opera does deserve credit for trying something new. And, although they have not typically had great or even consistent success in this area, that's no reason to give up trying. And, considering all this occurred in a season with so much else at stake what with the new Ring cycle and all, it could seem rather bold. So give them an "A" for effort and go see Il Trittico instead.
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.
Sarah Stiles, Lauren Kennedy, and Anneliese van der Pol Photo: Craig Schwartz 2008
Los Angeles is awash in pre-Broadway tryouts this Fall with a total of two, count ‘em two, shows prepping for openings to unsuspecting audiences on the other side of the country. Most notable is the likely highly quaffed Dolly Parton musical version of 9 to 5 that is about to open at the Ahmanson Theater downtown. But before we get to that potential train wreck, there are smaller fish to fry over at the Pasadena Playhouse where I caught the new musical adaptation of Jack Heifner’s late-70s hit, Vanities, which has also secured a space for a new York run early next year.
Heifner’s tale of three Texas high school cheerleaders and the changes in their young lives during the sixties and seventies was quite popular on Broadway for a number of years following its premiere in 1976. It served as a sort of Vagina Monologues for female performers of a different generation where “vagina” is substituted with “man” or “husband” in this work clearly from another era. (Actually, all things considered I wager there’s a fair amount of overlap between those two groups of performers than one might suspect.) Now Heifner has enlisted the help of David Kirshenbaum to adorn these goings-on with a number of solid musical numbers and a new scene at the end of the work creating more activity for the characters all the way up until 1990.
Despite this new scene however, Vanities can still seem very dated. (Sorry, a character admitting to having an abortion is just not that shocking anymore.) Yet the transfer to a musical existence is not all together unsuccessful and provides more than a few wistful and lightly entertaining moments. The songs are quite good including the solo numbers for the three cast members, “Fly Into the Future” (Mary), “Cute Boys with Short Haircuts” (Kathy), and “The Same Old Music” (Joanne). Vanities also looks quite good, often appearing much bigger and more glamorous than it actually is. Director Judith Ivey has not skimped here in any way and gives every moment serious attention. The cast has the requisite commitment and excitement to compensate for a paper-thin and highly episodic plot and includes Lauren Kennedy as Mary and Anneliese van der Pol as Kathy. While Sarah Stiles typically plays Joanne, on the night I attended, the understudy Elizabeth Brackenbury took over and seems to fit seamlessly into the production with a performance that easily matched her on-stage cohort.
So, even though nostalgia may cast too long a shadow over Vanities, there are certainly plenty of weaker musicals around based on far thinner concepts. Best of all it's a musical with memorable music which in this day and age is an achievement in its own right.
For those of you looking for my 21st century opera contest click here. My friend Howard recommended I check out the West Coast Ensemble’s current production of Sondheim’s Assassins now playing at the El Centro Theater in Hollywood, which I did recently. He was quite right, it’s an excellent production and somewhat of a minor miracle given that the El Centro is a small venue with comparatively little in terms of resources. Director Richard Israel cannily uses the sparseness of the space to maximum benefit. Instead of going for big eye-catching effects, he works off the claustrophobia of the tiny room. The set consists of little more than an empty wooden stage whose back panel opens out in several swinging doors while a few strings of carnival lights adorn the barn-like space. It has a feeling that is quintessentially American in a carnivalesque way. And, although the performance I saw was marred by some malfunctioning lights that no one could quite figure out how to fix, leaving everyone down stage in the dark, the show is the witty slap in the face it should be.
The cast is quite good and manages to navigate the difficult cross between comedy and the grotesque Sondheim and collaborator John Weidman laid out in this thorny score. Shannon Stoeke stars as the Proprietor and Lee Harvey Oswald and manages to provide a sly core among a number of very clever performances from John O’Brien as Samuel Byck, Beth Lane as Sara Jane Moore, Darrin Revitz as Squeaky Fromme, and David Nadeau as John Hinkley. Vocals are solid and the intimate setting helps eliminate vocal projection problems. When gunshots go off, as they are prone to do here, the audience feels them. So for a visceral evening at the theater, you won’t do much better than this. The production has been extended through September 28, which is good news.