Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Spirits in the Material World

March 31, 2009

 
Deborah Strang and Joel Swetow
Photo: Craig Schwartz/ANW 2009

Have I mentioned before how much I love Deborah Strang? She’s a remarkable actor and one of the key performers at A Noise Within, the repertory theater company currently located over in Glendale. You have an excellent chance to catch her now in a big starring role as Mrs. Alving, the widow who occupies Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. The play concerns family secrets played out in the context of unraveling illness. It’s not unlike a 19th-century August: Osage County without the rapid-fire insults. This very well done production is as clear-headed and direct as you could wish for in the hands of director Michael Murray. The story and its psychological underpinnings are certainly from another era - Mrs. Alving is contending with the horrible implications of her deceased husband’s drunkenness and promiscuity while her newly returned son buckles under the symptoms of a tertiary Syphilis infection. It’s hard to imagine how shocking this play must have seemed at its premiere in the late 19th century. The Freudian and Foucauldian implications are immense. But Murray carefully steers the play away from either the melodramatic or the academic keeping the personal relationships at the center of the performance.

He’s helped in no small part by the captivating Strang. She’s on stage virtually the whole show and portrays Mrs. Alving’s ambivalence without any of her own. It’s a vibrant and at times lusty portrayal complemented by a number of other excellent performances from Joel Swetow as Pastor Manders, J Todd Adams as Oswald, and Jaimi Page as Regina the maid. Like many of Ibsen's works Ghosts exposes the hypocricy of Victorian morals. To a 21st-century audience, this is an easy target and this play in particular runs the risk of seeming obvious. But the performances across the board remain remarkably restrained. These characters are easy targets handled with great care by an exemplary crew. The production will remain on stage through May 9.

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Down Mexico Way

March 30, 2009

 
Courtney Huffman as Teutile in Montezuma
Photo: Christine Cotter/LAT 2009


Long Beach Opera celebrated its 30th anniversary on Saturday. And in the company’s own plucky style, it did so with plenty of nerve if not the steadiest of hands. The occasion was the first of two performances of Vivaldi’s Montezuma, a Baroque chestnut lost for over two centuries until it was rediscovered in a nearly complete format in 2002. In fact, this was the work’s US premiere and while neither the circumstances nor the setting were ideal for a Baroque opera, there was something ultimately very appropriate about it all. Musical resources were marshaled from Los Angeles’ own Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra who performed under the company’s director Andreas Mitisek. Probably the biggest disappointment of the evening as that this very capable group was placed far at the back of the stage behind all of the action making the sound seem distant and creating real problems for the cast who were unable to see the conductor without the assistance of video monitors which still didn’t quite keep everyone in tempo all the time. Of course Mitisek was also handling all the harpsichord chores so his hands were undoubtedly very full.

Also, in the LBO fashion, just because it’s a special occasion all around and resources are scarce, there was no backing down for director David Schweizer, who went for a provocative concept production anyway. The story is typical Baroque territory – Montezuma, King of the Aztecs, has been defeated by the Spaniards under the leadership of the General Fernando. Montezuma demands his wife and daughter kill themselves in defiance, but they do not. His daughter has fallen in love with Fernando’s brother and soon, Montezuma’s wife is leading a rebellion of her own against the Spanish. Schweizer moves all of the opera's action to a museum exhibit of Aztec artifacts where the attendees at an opening reception are drawn into the roles and events of the story in a dream-like way. It’s not really meant to be a total frame shift, but it does provide for a variety of self-referential tongue and cheek moments. It wasn’t bad looking, and the concept didn’t overwhelm the piece, but the low budget approach did strain things at times. Above all this action was a large video screen used not only for subtitles, but also a video montage of footage from everyone from Sergei Eisenstein to cheesy Hollywood films referencing this same historical period. At times the video appeared to be part of the exhibit, at other times not. But it was well edited and always interesting to look at, sometimes risking outplaying the cast on stage. Of course since only the arias were sung in Italian with newly added recitatives and other dialogue in English, one’s attention was drawn back to the proceedings.

There were some enjoyable performances in the cast – particularly those of Peabody Southwell as the young lover Ramiro and Courtney Huffman as Teutile, his lover and Montezuma’s daughter. In fact, in perhaps the oddest bit of the staging, the pants role of Ramiro was tweaked to imply that the character may, in fact, be a woman and that this relationship is a lesbian one. Their wedding scene was even accompanied by a video image of Lindsay Lohan and reported paramour Samantha Ronson. Huffman vamped about the stage casting Teutile as an impetuous and defiant young woman looking for the spotlight. I was also fond of Caroline Worra’s Asprano, Montezuma’s general. She has a wonderful sequence where she sheds her business attire to don feathers and a quasi-Aztec war garb. It was hysterical in a good way.

Still, despite this, the rest of the cast was not as strong, and there was as much cringe inducing vocalism and not. Still this and the low budget production values did lend an ironic air of authenticity to the whole evening. Vivaldi’s operas were often presented in less than ideal circumstances with the available people and props on hand at the time. In a spirit probably not too dissimilar from LBO’s approach, it was often more about getting the work on stage than anything else. These were not the kind of garrish Baroque fantasies that directors like Copley and Ponelle deal in. LBO's Montezuma is lean if not always mean. This brash if sometimes clumsy evening owes more than might be apparent to its composer and this production is worth it, despite all the shortcomings. There is one more performance on Sudnay April 5th in Santa Monica.

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The youth vote

March 28, 2009

 
Johannes Moser, Herbert Blomstedt, and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

When the most contemporary piece on an evening’s program is Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 3, you can almost be assured that the foot-tappers and hummers will be out in force at the concert hall. And they were this weekend in Los Angeles where that ironically “Scottish” symphony is the big number in a show that also includes Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks and Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major. And while we’re talking about user-friendly, why not have Hebert Blomstedt on the podium? But the thing is, if you could actually get away from all the cacophony of tappers and hummers, it was a pretty solid show. This stuff is easy to overcook and for the most part, Blomstedt kept things at a simmer without really boiling over.

If there was a disappointment, it was likely the Handel. After David Daniels, Harry Bicket and the English Concert had provided such exemplary Handel performances earlier this week, this big band arrangement of Fireworks did seem rather bulky and intrusive. But nimbleness wasn’t far off by the time the Haydn came around. The soloist was the cute and talented Johannes Moser. Haydn can be a rather plain-Jane composer for today’s non-discriminating crowds, but the young Moser proved to be rather a Rumpelstiltskin turning Haydn’s straw into gold. With just enough lyricism and plenty of technique, he kept things honest but lively in a really engaging turn.

Then there was the Mendelssohn, which comes on the heels of a whole lot of Mendelssohn here in Los Angeles in the last few weeks. But Blomstedt’s direct and unfussy take was right on the money. He didn’t ruffle any feathers, but he really didn’t need to, which is exactly what makes the show worth seeing. It repeats again on Saturday and Sunday.

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Sexy Beast

March 25, 2009

 
David Daniels, Harry Bicket, and the English Concert
Photo: mine 2009
David Daniels, the well-regarded countertenor, receives enthusiastic ovations wherever he performs. He has an international career and is the artist of choice in his corner of the repertoire. Despite all this, though, he may still be one of the most underrated vocalists performing today. I can think of few other artists (Karita Mattila, maybe) who are as consistently satisfying in everything they perform. We in Los Angeles were lucky enough to catch one of his splendid visits on Tuesday on his current tour with the English Concert, now under the direction of Baroque specialist Harry Bicket. Bicket and Daniels are far from strangers, and their mutual admiration was evident in this program of works from Bach and Handel. Bicket conducted from the harpsichord for most of the night, not only supporting Daniels but offering a variety of small orchestral ensemble pieces from these two great composers. You really couldn't ask for a better pedigree in a musical evening these days.

Daniels looks like he has shed some pounds since his last stroll through this part of the world and he was particularly bearalicious on Tuesday. And he sang beautifully. The first half of the evening contained a number of Bach arias including "Schlummert ein" from Cantata No. 82 and "Qui Sedes" from the Mass in B Minor. Daniels is currently promoting a Bach recording, and his performances are solid if not as natural a fit as some of the Baroque operatic repertoire. He's an expert at vengeance, anger, or despair, and some of the holier sentiments of Bach's sacred works are a bit far afield despite his lovely tone. Bicket and the members of the English Concert gave very considerate takes on the Suite No. 1 in C major and a Sinfonia from Cantata No 42. It was the second part of the evening where things really began to heat up. This is Daniels' home territory and it showed in the four arias including "Ombra cara" from Radamisto. The highlight, though, was “Furibondo” from Partenope, which flew by with wonderful zest and control from Daniels. He leans into the music and does what the best singers always do, communicate their own love and excitement about what they're singing to the audience. The crowd was ecstatic giving him and the English Concert a resounding ovation.

The Royal Treatment

March 24, 2009

 
Kate Royal, Philip Smith, and James Wilt
Photo: mine 2009

It’s nice to be back home - especially after a not so barn-burning weekend of opera in New York. What’s even nicer is to be welcomed back by a talent as impressive as Kate Royal’s. Actually, she saw me off as well on Tuesday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall where she performed as part of the L.A. Philharmonic’s chamber music series. She sang three Handel arias, two with accompaniment from James Wilt on trumpet and Philip Smith on the large Frank Gehry-designed organ. Her clear and dark-hued tone shone wonderfully in this context giving Handel’s music a real warmth and beauty. You’d think the organ would be tough competition for a vocal soloist, but Royal demonstrated that it was no match for her human talent shining like a diamond in front of the great machine.

With such a precedent, it’s no surprise that she could arrive in the last few minutes of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony over the weekend and virtually steal the whole show. Pablo Heras-Casado, who was filling in for an ailing Yuri Temirkanov, conducted the program this weekend, which also featured Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony. The Mendelssohn was a bit of a mess often surging ahead more than one might wish in unexpected areas. Thing’s started off better with the Mahler in a performance that made the most of the child-like aspects of the work. Sometimes things got rather ragged around the edges with several flubbed brass entrances and some mishandled quiet passages. But Royal arrived with some minimal dramatic flair riveting attention to herself, and rightly so. The final movement suddenly seemed to right the entire symphony that preceded it with her sheer force of will. While it may have been a small bit in a rather mixed program, she definitely made it an evening worth seeing.

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Still Waters Run Deep

March 23, 2009

 
How'd Renée get up in that tree?
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2009

If Mary Zimmerman’s recent production of La Sonnambula for the Metropolitan Opera in New York was a slap in the audience's face, then their recent revival of Otto Schenk’s staging of Rusalka is not unlike being urinated on in public. And while some may not view this as entirely a bad thing, in this instance, it's not. Talk about kitsch. Dvorák’s dark and somber fairy-tale opera gets an overly whimsical treatment in this star vehicle for Renée Fleming. But star she does, in a work that started her career and has become her calling card. She’s toured this opera all over the world, and hearing it again with such a superb cast in this run under Jiri Belohlávek's baton is undoubtedly a wonder. Rusalka fits Fleming like a glove, creating the ideal environment for her warm, glowing voice. The supporting cast was no less worthy with Stephanie Blythe as Ježibaba and Aleksanders Antonenko as the Prince. Even Kristinn Sigmundsson is able to make quite a mark despite a ridiculous "Sigmund the Sea Monster" outfit.

Sadly, he is not alone in being burdened with a ridiculous costume in a sadly overreaching staging. The child-like aspects of the piece are thrust so front and center, it borders on the humorous. When the set becomes all about impressing the audience with architecture as it does here, you know you’re in trouble. Luckily, Fleming stays above much of the fray firmly keeping her performance in a mythical Melisande territory which is flattering to her. Otherwise Schenk has done little more than create his own Little Mermaid, complete with wicked witch and a handsome prince. Why he doesn’t believe in this piece as much as Fleming does, giving it’s darker elements full reign is a mystery. And seeing his revival, which is less than 20 years old, in the context of such great stagings as Robert Carsen’s for Paris National Opera is a crying shame. To have something so lovely as Fleming's performance wraped in something so miserable was exasperating.

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We're Desperate, Get Used To It

March 22, 2009

 
Natalie Dessay (r) and JDF (l)
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2009

So, on Saturday while in New York, I was in the audience for the much-reviled Mary Zimmerman production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula featured as part of the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcast series. I must say that I don’t get it. Not the production, I'm fine with that and found it clever and rather enjoyable. But I don't know why everybody got their panties in such a bunch over this one. As you may recall, the production team was met with vociferous boos on opening night, as widely reported across the Internets. Sure this production probably won’t make my top 10 list or anything, but it was hardly the slap in the face to the audience that some critics have made it out to be. And frankly as masochistic as the general Met audience is, I hardly think that would be much of a criticism anyway. (They'll happily sit through that dessicated Cav/Pag countless times for instance.) For those of you not up to speed, director Mary Zimmerman moved the action of the story from a quaint Swiss village, to a rehearsal studio where the cast is actually rehearsing a production of the opera itself with all of the primary relationships in the opera replicated among the "actors" in the production. Much of the standard critique is that the concept falls apart after awhile and it is unclear when the cast is "rehearsing" the opera and when they are not. Furthermore, many writers were taken aback by the close of Act I when the chorus, having found Amina in the count’s bed, begins tearing up their scripts and trashing the rehearsal studio. Later at the conclusion of the piece, when all is forgiven, the cast dons kitschy Swiss costumes and performs the conclusion of the work as a sort of self-referential parody.

This is what the fuss is about? So it isn’t reverent towards Bellini’s original. Who cares? Yes, it doesn’t always make sense. But when has that ever been a criterion for any opera much less an individual production. Traditional Met audiences have been weened on so many crappy ersatz "European" fantasies over the years that a mild tweak of a frankly flimsy opera comes along and you’d think somebody died. I actually enjoyed the whole thing a fair amount. Natalie Dessay is engaging as Amina, and I felt for her in a situation where she’s rejected by her lover and demonized by the townsfolk. (Perhaps, they were wrecking the studio over their anger at her and the fear that the break up between their two leading performers meant the end of the project and loss of their jobs.) There are more than a couple of wonderful moments. The first is when Dessay enters from the back of the auditorium performing Amina’s first sleepwalking aria from the aisles. For the Act II showpiece, she is thrust forward over the orchestra pit on a plank jutting from the stage. Maybe it wasn't logical or respectful, but it was pretty and engaging if you can let go and take the production on its own terms.

The singing was good all around, and Juan Diego Flórez continues to rock the house. If there was any major criticism of the evening in my mind, it rests with conductor Evelino Pidò whose glacialy slow pacing dragged everything down, making some of the action seem much more methodical than necessary. But I must commend Zimmerman, Dessay, and general director Peter Gelb for moving on despite the beating they’ve taken in the press and elsewhere over this. Mary Zimmerman’s La Sonnambula is exactly the kind of production the Metropolitan Opera needs. In fact it probably needs a dozen more like it. The idea may not be original and this production may ultimately not be ideal, but if America’s premiere house ever intends to get back on top of the artistic heap it long ago ceded to other shores, it’s going to have to keep taking some risks. Many of these are not going to work. But they’re playing catch up right now and thank goodness Mary Zimmerman’s got a pair to actually do something a little more interesting than say the "new" warmed-over David McVicar Il Trovatore or a dozen other ancient dinosaurs that roam those hollowed aisles. The world's best music and singing aren't going to do it all by themselves or they wouldn't be where they are to begin with. There are three more performances of La Sonnambula, and there are still a few tickets floating around for it.

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Burn, Baby, Burn

March 21, 2009

 
Sondra Radvanovsky and Macelo Álvarez
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2009

Unfortunately, the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Il Trovatore is no inferno, disco or otherwise. In fact, despite probably some of the best singing you’ll hear, David McVicar’s imported production never generates much heat. Which is odd considering he’s a director who usually knows exactly what he’s doing. But this is not his best work. Despite all of its minimal burnt-out Goya visual aesthetic, more often than not things still boil down to good old stand-and-deliver operatic conventions. In fact it looks distressingly similar to a myriad of other decades old productions the Met turns out with disturbing frequency. But the large rotating set does come to life periodically, and things do look dire even if none of the character’s ever look more than a little disheveled while emoting amongst the ruins. Even by McVicar's standards, things can be rather tame here. Yes, a shirt is ripped open every now and then, but this rarely looks like life during wartime.

But let’s go back to those vocal performances. Sondra Radvanovsky gave her signature Leonora performance to very enthusiastic response. She still isn’t getting the glossy bus ad treatment here in New York, but she certainly should be. She handles everything from piercing to pianissimo with ease and has just enough edge in her voice for this kind of Verdi role. Manrico was handled by Marcelo Álvarez, who returned to the production after calling in sick earlier this week. He didn’t sound any worse for the wear, though his acting tended toward the hand-wringing side of things. Dimitri Hvorostovsky was a debonair and impressive Count di Luna. (Which always raises the question of why does Leonora want Manrico over him?) Azucena was taken over in this week’s performances by the wonderful Luciana D’Intino who gave a very robust and highly felt performance. She was so good in fact, I suspect that there were more than a few people in the audience who didn’t realize that she wasn’t Dolora Zajick who exited the production last week to head off for a series of Santuzzas in Chicago. D'Intino is no second string talent to be sure. Of course, she does have to spend the last Act chained in a huge burnt-out pit, but these are the duties of the glamorous opera life.

Gianandrea Noseda aptly conducted this enjoyable but essentially underwhelming performance before the show goes on hiatus for a few weeks. Il Trovatore will return at the very end of the season here late next month with a new cast that will luckily include D'Intino.

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Penalty Box

March 19, 2009

 
Roberto Alagna and Nuccia Focile
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera 2009

At first, I was upset with the good folks at American Airlines and Newark Liberty Airport for screwing up my arrival and first night on this most recent trip to New York. A multi- hour delay resulted in my missing the opening curtain on a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana in its current revival at the Metropolitan Opera. Now as much as I appreciated getting to see Madagascar 2 and Four Christmases, I was a little bitter as I arrived about 10 minutes late only to be relegated to the penalty box of List Hall. Of course, after what I did see, the airline may have been acting in my best interest. I will withhold any full judgment about the Cavalleria considering that I neither saw nor heard it completely. But it did strike me that as much as I love Waltraud Meier, she lacked a certain warmth in her portrayal of Santuzza. Or it least it felt like that on the big screen.

However, it is clear that this horrific production is as worn and thread bare as carpet in a filthy nursing home. Even Roberto Alagna’s chest hair in the climactic scene of the evening failed to completely remove that odor of stale cat urine one senses in their Grandmother's home. Filling up a large empty stage with a multitude of choristers in period costumes does not make a worthwhile production. But the orchestra sounded great, as usual, under the leadership of Pietro
Rizzo, a new young face making his house debut. In fact there was another significant debut from Alberto Mastromarino who sang Tonio in Pagliacci and also filled in for an ailing Charles Taylor as Alfio before the intermission. He was strong and his performance was easily the vocal highlight of the evening in both a rueful and sly fashion. The big star though was Alagna, but chest hair aside, what he’s doing in this role is not clear to me. He sang Canio in Los Angeles a number of years ago and at the time I thought he was kind of light for this part, although he clearly can sing it. My opinion hasn’t really changed much on a second take years later. It’s hard to believe Nedda has lost affection for this seemingly pretty young man since it’s not clear how she would have ever cared for him in the first place. Speaking of Nedda, sung here by Nuccia Focile, she never seemed all that engaged. That on top of a minor wig mishap led to a less than stellar performance. When the whole opera revolves around people drmatically removing wigs at key points, it can be a bit of a drag when they tenaciously hold on to one's scalp. There are five more performances in the run with the last three featuring Jose Cura instead of Alagna.

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Walls of Sound

March 17, 2009

 
Dame Gillian Weir
Photo: mine 2009

I won’t pretend to be able to tell you a great deal about organ music. I will say that the physical surroundings of a specific instrument do seem to have an enormous impact on the way I feel about a performance. It is also especially unusual that I would see two organ recitals in as many days here in Los Angeles, but there you have it. And the two performances couldn’t have been farther removed from one another if they had planned it that way. On Sunday, Dame Gillian Weir appeared at the Walt Disney Concert Hall performing on their state-of-the-art instrument in its pleasing modern home. It was a widely varying program of Baroque works, selections from Messiaen, and some Russians thrown in for good measure. Weir has made a specialty out of Messiaen's organ works, and these selections from Les Corps Glorieux, and La nativité du Seigneur were a highlight of the evening. More remarkable though was her sheer sense of musicality throughout the whole program. Often I felt as if I weren't actually listening to organ music, but something orchestral in nature. Her playing had a precision and clarity that I've found missing sometimes in other organists. At times, the performance turned quite charming as in the final Sonata from Domenico Scarlatti which involved the sound of chimes throughout the piece. But Weir never sold the audience short, taking the show seriously and delivering something very impressive.

On Monday, I was catapulted to the other end of the organ spectrum with something more wild, challenging and decidedly different. The Monday Evening Concerts series welcomed icon of the 70s avant-garde music scene Charlemagne Palestine out to L.A. for a rare solo performance of Schlingen-Blängen, his wry marathon work for solo organ. The setting was the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles near Lafayette Park, which features what is billed as the largest church organ in the world. With 18 separate divisions and work proceeding on a nineteenth, it's a massive machine that completely surrounds the audience in the church, completed in 1932 and modeled after a more Gothic European style. The music itself is minimal, consisting of little more than a handful of tones that rarely change throughout the performance. However, despite the drone, there is plenty going on. Palestine started simple and slow, and, as the piece wore on, he would progressively pull out more and more stops in different combinations, recruiting new divisions to the cacophony with a more and more shattering intensity. You knew you were in for something unusual when they hand out earplugs at the door. They were put to good use in this maximal evening. Another harbinger of what was to come occurred with the evening's opening disclaimer - in rehearsals, Palestine had blown out a number of fuses on the organ requiring their replacement. We were warned the performance might be interrupted again for further repairs if need be.

This is music all about the overtones and fractional elements of sound. Audience members were encouraged to walk around during the show to appreciate the tone from different parts of the building. Palestine himself, in his wild day-glo outfit and Panama hat would leave the organ in full-blast to wander around the church and appreciate the sound himself at times. Soon the wall of vibration receded and the organist stood and did a little dance and waved, bringing the evening to an end and the crowd to its feet. I can't necessarily say I enjoyed the performance, but I did find it fascinating. It's easy to take the breathing quality of virtually all music for granted. Palestine's Schlingen-Blängen uses the organ precisely to call this into question. What is sound when you don't even have to take a breath to make it? It's not Messiaen, but Charlemagne Palestine has plenty to say about music too, and this was one unique evening of sound.

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Two Hearts (Beat as One)

March 15, 2009

 
Werner Tübke, detail from "Reminiscences of Schulze III, JD," 1965
Photo: Museum Associates/LACMA 2008

Not been to LACMA in awhile? Now would be a great time to go. (And sign up for a membership while you're at it since it's one of the best museums in the country, and, times being what they are, they could use your support and are one of the most inexpensive entertainments around.) On Saturday, though battling a bit of a head cold, I saw two excellent current exhibitions, including the recently opened “Art of two Germanys/Cold War Culture.” Perhaps the most surprising thing initially about the show was the exhibition space itself. Occupying the second floor of the Broad Contemporary Art wing of the museum (BCAM), “Art of two Germanys” feels immense. making the space seem much larger than it did in my previous visit to BCAM with Broad's own collection on display. Now the second floor is filled with hundreds of paintings, sculptures, photography and a significant amount of video and filmed material from both East and West Germany from 1945 through the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989.

The names and movements one might expect from this period are all represented – Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, Martin Kippenberger, Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Dieter Roth, AR Penck, Jörg Immendorff and even Achim Freyer. But this show is not primarily about any individuals or the techniques they exemplify. This is about art imitating life and the specific ways work produced in East and West Germany reflected post-WWII culture and political developments in two divergent, but closely related societies. The works are arranged chronologically and often explicitly refer to various historical events or persons. But this is no dry history lesson either. There are numerous examples as well of how German art integrated not only across the iron curtain, but also within the larger history of art in the latter 20th century. There's a real excitement and direction in the show and the narrative implicit in the timeline never overwhelms the broader picture. There are too many favorites of mine to mention, so go see it for yourself.

from Francis Alÿs, Fabiola
Photo: Museum Associates/LACMA 2008

Before you leave the museum, however, be sure not to miss a single room installation on the third floor of the Ahmanson building from Francis Alÿs entitled “Fabiola”. Alÿs has arranged perhaps the ultimate post-modern exhibit by displaying a collection of over three hundred amateur and semi-professional paintings and other objects copying the image of St. Fabiola. The images are arranged in one room and hung closely together emphasizing the deeply embedded variety in these seemingly endless copies on an original. Here’s the twist, the original, a 19th century paining by Jean-Jacques Henner, was lost prior to the advent of photography. Since no one knows exactly what the original looks like, the copies exist only as repetitions of other older copies. The many faces of the saint that also appear in needlepoint and wood, say much about the nature of iconography, identity and faith. It has a very big impact, so hurry to see it before the exhibit closes on March 29.

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Pump it Up

March 13, 2009

 
Martha Argerich, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the L.A. Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

It takes a lot to upstage the members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic on their home turf, but this weekend has one of the performers who can do it. The soloist is piano great Martha Argerich who is on a rare tour of the West Coast, which I saw on Friday. Her legend has been only enhanced by her acknowledged disdain for performing in public and her history of cancellations for health and other reasons. She got the requisite legion of rabid fans who were on hand for ovations she had to bring to an end by pulling the orchestra off stage. And to boot, this weekend's appearances are especially a treat considering that on this tour she’s playing Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, a work she has recorded twice and is closely associated with. And, yes, the performance was indeed that good. It was absolutely riveting. I can’t recall the last time I saw a performer make such intensity look so casual and off-hand. As my friend Howard noted, it was almost as if the whole thing was improvised.

But Argerich was not the only star on the program. The conductor for the evening was the young Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin who was clearly working as a collaborator in the fullest sense. The orchestra was crisp and forceful coming to Argerich at every turn. YNS even went so far as to perform alongside Argerich in the first of her two encores, a selection from Ravel's Mother Goose arranged for four hands on piano. Dressed in a thin tie and black suit with the tuxedoed orchestra, he looked like some latter-day Elvis Costello or perhaps a young Bob Odenkirk. YNS has scored some big assignments on the international stage this year after taking the helm of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and will make his Metropolitan Opera debut on New Year’s Eve conducting their new production of Carmen with Angela Gheorghiu. If his handling of the French works on this program were any indication, Ms. Gheorghiu may not be the big story of that evening. He’s clearly got a handle on both the control and dynamics. Nowhere did the orchestra sound tepid or hesitant. In the opening piece, Ravel’s La Valse and the closing 5th Symphony of Shostakovich, YNS delivered the "delicate" and the "sweeping" with equal concern and real attention to detail. There are two more shows on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, but Sunday is already sold out so act fast.

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(Not so) On the Cheap

March 11, 2009

 
Steve Weingartner and Allegra Fulton
Photo: Craig Schwartz/ANW 2009

Doing more with less is the specialty of the house at A Noise Within in Glendale. The repertory company dove into the spring leg of its season over the weekend with Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, in a new production directed by founder and co-director Geoff Elliott. In true house tradition, this is a show that may be short on elaborate stage technology, but it more than makes up for it in the quality of the performance. It’s an update to a Hollywood vision of 1950s Italy, which appears about as far as you might want to go with the centuries-old sexual politics of the original, which are hard to stomach, much less comprehend, by modern standards. Still the evening is energetic, well paced, and actually funny throughout. Many of the company’s usual excellent cast members have a hand in this including Steve Weingartner whose more determined than crafty Petruchio almost throws the work into romantic comedy territory. (Which I guess it kind of is.) Allegra Fulton’s Kate has enough rage to make this believable without dragging the whole thing into a loud screech. This is a play all about chemistry in the end, and luckily these two fine performers muster more than enough. The set design by Kurt Boetcher makes extremely good use of the space with surprisingly meager resources. This Shrew is brightly colored and vibrant and never looks cheap. All of this is wrapped up in 50s Italianate pop hits from Rosemary Clooney, Dean Martin, and Louis Prima. Why not? The play is onstage until May 17.

This less is more attitude is probably important for the company right now for other reasons as well. Having been unable to further fulfill their mission in their current space in Glendale, the company is in the midst of developing new, more sophisticated digs in Pasadena inside of the old Stuart Pharmaceuticals building. The development will perserve this historic landmark of mid-century modern architecture and provide more substantial facilities for the group to achieve it's substantial educational and artistic goals. They are currently in a capital campaign to upgrade a building that has been given to them for just this purpose. The timing of course is bad, but it was also not of their choosing. Given the many great years of theater this troupe has provided to the Los Angeles area for the last few decades, here’s hoping they more than meet their goal and live on where they have the resources and technology to match the quality of the work they demonstrate time and again.

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The Broken Record

March 10, 2009

 
The bad flashback of Marta Domingo's first L.A. Opera Traviata
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2009

I know that this is carrying on too much, but I can't help myself. That poor excuse for journalism the Los Angeles Times is at it again today. Like many online outlets of major papers, the L.A. Times has elected to dump all of what little arts journalism they have left into a “blog” consisting solely of posts representing all the articles that appear in that day’s print edition. They also cleverly put together a daily summary post consisting of links to all the other posts that have appeared in recent days for those who've yet to master the scroll bar. It is in today’s summary that we are provided a link worded as follows to a prior story about a technical malfunction in a performance on March 5th:

“More 'Ring' woes: Aside from audience disdain (see comments), Los Angeles Opera's multimillion-dollar "Das Rheingold" faces technical problems.”

Apparently if a mechanical lift doesn’t operate as planned in one scene in one paid performance, suddenly the accurately designated multi-million dollar production has “problems”. I suppose if your business is generating news, this might be true, but the two women I sat next to during the show in question were surprised to learn that anything had gone awry at all during the show after I mentioned to them in passing afterward about the technical glitch. There may be problems yet to come, but to imply that this financially massive undertaking has gone awry after one or two unnoticeable mishaps in one or two shows is ridiculous.

As for “audience disdain,” I suppose that less than 20 negative comments (as of today) in response to Mark Swed’s original positive review of the production posted on February 24 represents something. (It is the second time the Culture Monster blog has mentioned the supposed outpouring of negativity.) But I sincerely doubt this qualifies as a “woe”. In fact, sales have appeared to be quite strong with nearly full houses over the last several shows from what I've seen. It may be upsetting to people whose subscription longevity has outpaced their taste, but the company hardly seems to be suffering from a little controversy.

And as for all those complainers and their myriad threats to drop their subscriptions – please do. It will improve my seats, and, without your bitching and moaning, I might not have to sit through another dreadful Marta Domingo Traviata again.

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Solid Gold

March 09, 2009

 
Arnold Bezuyen as Loge with the frog puppet Alberich
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2009

I had a chance to get a further update on Los Angeles Opera’s new production of Das Rheingold last week. In fact I had two, first on Thursday, March 5, and then again on Sunday, March 8. In case it’s not obvious, I do think this production is rather excellent. (My original thoughts on the run can be found here for those that seem to have a hard time finding my review no matter how hard they look. You know who you are.) I did see the widely reported technical difficulties last Thursday when the large circular set piece failed to rise up revealing Nibelheim below, as well as other mechanical lift malfunctions. Frankly, though, none of this is all that interesting compared to the fact that over the last two weeks, the show has really come together in a cohesive whole, musically and vocally. I was really impressed by how much stronger the cast sounded having had some time to get comfortable with Achim Freyer’s highly raked and technically complicated set. With increased comfort has come improved concentration, and the show is musically top notch. A friend of mine put it best this way – when was the last time you heard a Wagner opera with no shouting, bellowing, screaming or other over-the-top vocal compensations? Oh, they happen, but not often. Best of all, the opera clearly settles around Gordon Hawkins' Alberich and Arnold Bezuyen's Loge, which is as it should be. Bezuyen's portrayal is still dark, but more mischievous than simply menacing. He works the four arms of his costume with glee. Vitalij Kowaljow's performance of Wotan seemed more assured and burnished to me as well.

Of course, the audience seems to be catching on. The staging continues to be off-putting to some, but is winning over others. It is not a comforting bear hug of a production, but it shouldn’t be. It weirds people out and, for a story of ruthless gods behaving badly, it seems completely appropriate. A little bird tells me that even James Conlon, conductor and music director, was a little apprehensive about the idea of being brought out for his curtain call by an exceedingly long-armed Michelle DeYoung in her endlessly plaintive Fricka costume. (In the end, he is not—although he does look anxious just as everyone else in fear of careening down the steep slope of the set during the final bows.) L.A. Opera staff tell me that sales have strengthened more than expected over the run with an unusual number of return visitors. In fact, last Thursday’s weekday show was a near sellout, unheard of here in Los Angeles where much of the audience is car-dependent and lives over an hour away. Tickets for the last two shows are also pretty limited at this point, so it might be worth calling now if you still want to catch this great show.

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Musique non stop

March 08, 2009

 
Julian Kuerti, M83, and the LA Philharmonic (with drum kit)
Photo: mine 2009

The programming folks over at the Los Angeles Philharmonic have displayed an unusual knack for coming up with one-off collaborations between the orchestra and a variety of younger non-classical acts in recent years. Performances from Joanna Newsom in 2007 and Grizzly Bear in 2008 with members of the orchestra were both exciting and provided an opportunity for these artists to dialog with their audiences and the world of classical music in different ways. Thus, this year’s collaboration with Anthony Gonzalez’ 80s-influenced French electronic pop outfit M83 was rightly anticipated, and it drew a very different audience from the usual Philharmonic crowd. Yet, while the show was enjoyable and often pretty, it was not a complete success. It was an ambitious undertaking that started off with a 30-minute solo set from Gonzalez and then two pieces from the Philharmonic. What goes with ersatz 80s synth pop you ask? Why Arvo Pärt and La Mer, bien sur. The conductor was Boston Symphony Orchestra assistant conductor Julian Kuerti, who drew good performances of both works from the ensemble. Pärt’s somber and minimal Fratres (for orchestra) provided an excellent complement to the ambient electronics that proceeded it and was a wise choice. The Debussy seemed less clearly related other than being a work that both Kuerti and Gonzalez apparently agreed on. It was a solid performance, though.

However, all of this was prelude to the final act of the show featuring a number of M83 songs with full orchestra accompaniment in addition to a small female chorus. The songs were very pretty and the orchestration did add to the electronic elements. But, sadly, having access to a world-class orchestra and knowing what to do with it are two very different things. Many of the orchestral arrangements were highly pedestrian and sometimes the work veered perilously into standard fare movie music with the horns and harp right where you’d expect to find them. But it wasn’t unpleasant and the response from the audience seemed warm if confused at times. This was more somber and ambient than beat driven overall, and the stop-start nature of the program never really allowed any of the individual segments to fully take hold. Just as one set was warming up, it was time to move on to the next segment. Still, with the track record the L.A. Philharmonic has with these collaborations, let’s hope they aren’t over yet.

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Bel Canto

March 06, 2009

 

I got this note from the ever-insightful anonymous this week in response to some recent comments I made about recitals from Cecilia Bartoli and Rod Gilfry. I thought it deserved a more upfront response.

“You seem to have an "affinity" for singers with no semblance of a true vocal technique: Bartoli, Gilfry...You should listen to more dead singers to hear what is missing from most of today's 'talent.' Very few can pull off a true bel canto technique today. Certainly not ghastly Bartoli with her thin, quivering sound and facial contortions, and definitely not Gilfry with his tight baritone pushed beyond the bounds of vocal beauty for the sake of (near) audibility.”

Well, I’ve actually listened to plenty of dead singers over the years having caught on early to this whole new phonograph technology. And if it has taught me anything about singing, it is this - I much prefer my singers living and performing to dead and/or retired. In my book, having a pulse and currently performing in public are actually two of the most important characteristics in evaluating my response to someone and their technique. The dead and the retired have their charms, no doubt, and having the wonderful recordings (and memories) we do of these voices is a joy. But at the same time, nearly a century of increasingly easily available recordings has created wildly unrealistic standards and perceptions among some folks of what things “should” sound like. Sure hearing somebody like Sutherland or Nilsson sing in her prime is an incomparable experience. But I for one am not going to spend my whole life being displeased with everyone and everything I hear that doesn't live up to this until an experience that may only happen once or twice in a generation or so comes around.

I do not want to live slavishly in some idealized musical past. I’m interested in what is happening now. Sure vocalists as a group today may or may not have the technical abilities we imagine that those in past did. So what? Life goes on. Singing today is not what it was two decades ago any more than what it was two centuries ago. In fact the whole idea that vocal performance standards used to be a certain way is all a fallacy made up in our own minds to serve a variety of shifting and conflicting modern interests and agendas. Looking at this record of great singers from the past, one must ask some important questions. Who got recorded in the first place and why? Who was popular and who wasn’t to begin with? How has the whole notion of technique changed over time? I’ll grant that when it comes to all things vocal, today's may not be the best of all possible worlds. What a large group of operaphiles don’t seem to realize is that incessant griping about the lack or decline in vocal standards only makes clear to others their own inability to enjoy anything living and vital. Why spend so much time and effort on something one so seldom enjoys?

I recall once hearing Roger Ebert say that one of the primary criteria for being a film critic was really loving everything about movies. Given that a critic would see so many movies and that so many of them wouldn’t be perfect, it would be important to be able to love even the most minute, obtuse, and technical aspects of the art form to be able to tolerate doing the job. In a similar way, loving opera and singing is about loving it even when it's bad, not only when it's good. So I will continue to go on loving artists and performers who may likely be strained or over-reaching or who have poor technique and little talent. And I will do this in places where they are singing live to other live people. And I will be thinking of how much I enjoy it instead of dreaming I was happier somewhere else, in some other past.

Oh, Vienna

March 04, 2009

 
Zubin Mehta, , and the Vienna Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

Zubin Mehta returned to Los Angeles this week, but not to conduct our local orchestra, with whom he’s had such a long-standing relationship. Instead, he’s on tour with the Vienna Philharmonic conducting a variety of pieces near and dear to his heart. It was a big turn-out at Walt Disney Concert Hall, which probably speaks mostly to the affection for Mehta in this town. The performance I caught on Tuesday included an all-Austrian program of Wolf’s Italian Serenade, four songs from Joseph Marx, and Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. Mehta was clearly excited about the evening and told us all from the stage at the end of a fourth “curtain call” that he’d been dreaming of performing for us in L.A. with “this orchestra" since 1962. And it was quite a worthwhile evening. The Bruckner was pretty magnificent and the immense skill of one of the world’s finest orchestras was on display. The power was amazing, but never completely over the top. The pizzicato alone was worth the price of admission but the gorgeous sound of the brass was equally remarkable. This orchestra clearly knew what it was doing, and Mehta delivered a superb performance with them.

The first half was lighter fare if not without its charms. The Wolf serenade was brief and light but played with the right touch. Meanwhile, the Marx songs were given very robust and serious treatment for works not always thought of as top rung. The soloist was soprano, Angela Maria Blasi, and, although she did get lost at times amidst the sound roaring behind her, it was a highly felt and very enjoyable performance of something you don’t hear every day. All and all not too shabby - and not a note of J. Strauss to boot. There's another program tonight with Lang Lang playing Chopin, if you're so inclined, but I believe it may be sold out, so call first.

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Ain't It a Pretty Night

March 02, 2009

 
Rod Gilfry

Rod Gilfry is one of those artists I feel a special affinity for. This is in no small part due to the fact that I associate him with some of the most pleasant opera going experiences I’ve had. His commitment to twentieth-century and contemporary operas have led our paths to cross many times. Busoni’s Faust, Adès’ Prospero, St. François – you name it, he’s been there for me despite any shortcomings that may have been going on around him. So I always look forward to his recitals around town and this Sunday’s appearance on the Broad Stage in Santa Monica was not a disappointment. It was a well thought-out program of entirely American works with the exception of the second act soliloquy from Britten’s Billy Budd. The evening concerned songs of war and redemption featuring some new and unusual bits. After songs from Barber, Gilfry performed selections from a new song cycle written especially for him by Tom Randle. Yes, that Tom Randle, the tenor whose appeared in everything from Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer to Jenufa. He appeared with Gilfry last summer in Amsterdam as Frère Massée opposite Gilfry’s St. Francois to great effect and apparently began working on this cycle, Epitaph, at the time. The songs represent a variety of sources both in English and in translation on war and its aftereffects. And while they may not be musically revolutionary, there is a lot of thematic meat to chew on. The selections here ended with "Night in Al-Hamra" a beautiful meditation on the uniformity of loss during conflict. Gilfry is obviously committed to the work and gave it his all.

He did seem a little stiff in the early part of the evening and had a little trouble in the run up to some of the high notes, but he settled in and by the second half of the program was solid and vibrant. The rest of the program included works from Bernstein, Ives, and ended with Billy Bigelow's soliloquy from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. The works were handled with a growing intensity and real outpouring of emotion. It was a very USC-centered affair with accompaniment from Alan Smith, Gilfry’s fellow faculty member. Best of all, the show ended with a surprise duet between Gilfry and his daughter, a voice student at the USC Thorton School of Music, singing a new arrangement of Morten Lauridsen’s “Sure on this Shining Night.” It was a beautiful end to this very enjoyable performance from one of Southern California’s own.

In the Wings - March

March 01, 2009

 
Martha Argerich

Here in Los Angeles, March is the calm before the artistic storm. April will be chock full of big events including the final L.A. Philharmonic performances under outgoing music director Esa-Pekka Salonen. So this month may be a little on the calm side, but there is still plenty to see and do around town. Here are my recommendations for March.

Although it opened in February, L.A. Opera will continue performances of its excellent new Das Rheingold through March 15 and should not be missed. Meanwhile, San Diego Opera will open Rigoletto in March for 5 performances with a reasonable cast. However, the big event may well come from Long Beach Opera, which will be presenting the U.S. premiere of Vivaldi's recently unearthed Montezuma on March 28. If this isn't reason enough to go, the orchestra for the performance will be L.A.'s own Baroque specialists Musica Angelica.

Off the opera beat, the musical heavy lifting will be done by the L.A. Philharmonic. And on top of their to-do list is a visit from Martha Argerich who is scheduled to appear with Yannick Nézet-Séguin in Ravel’s Piano Concerto the weekend of March 13. Soprano Kate Royal will grace the stage on the 17th and over the weekend of the 20th with Pablo Heras-Casado for Mahler’s 4th Symphony. The end of the month will see Herbert Blomstedt lead the orchestra in works by Haydn and Mendelssohn with cellist Johannes Moser. There are a number of big guest performances as well including Dame Gillian Weir, Mariza on the 18th, the return of the Andras Schiff Beethoven cycle, Baroque specialists the English Concert in a performance with David Daniels, and two nights with the Vienna Philharmonic on the 3rd and 4th under Zubin Mehta. Lang Lang will be at the second night if you must, though, I’m tending toward the Bruckner on Tuesday. Probably the most intriguing event, however, will be a performance with French electronic pop outfit M83 who will collaborate with the L.A. Philharmonic players on March 7.


There’s plenty outside the confines of Walt Disney Concert Hall as well. Monday Evening Concerts will present an organ recital from none other than Charlemagne Palestine on the 16th. And on the West side, UCLA Live will feature Flamenco legends Los Farruco on the 3rd and 4th as well. Royce Hall will also be host to favorites Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, and Jack DeJohnette on March 11. And while I myself will be out of town, it would be foolish to miss one of the typically excellent performances from the California EAR Unit over at the REDCAT focusing on the work of young American composers on March 21.

Theater wise, the Ahmanson will open a traveling production of Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon on March 11 with Stacey Keach if you haven’t had enough of that already. Meanwhile, the Center Theater Group will initiate their latest attempt at a works-in-development festival at the Kirk Douglas under the moniker “Douglas Plus” featuring a number of different semi-staged works and readings at different points of development from the likes of Mike Daisey, Michael Sargent and Matt Sax. On smaller stages, Glendale’s own A Noise Within will open two new productions in March, The Taming of the Shrew and Ibsen’s Ghosts. Down in Orange County, the south Coast Repertory will present the world premiere of John Kolvenbach’s Goldfish.


As I mentioned above, I’ll be off to New York for a quick extended weekend this month all centered around the Metropolitan Opera and will take in four of their ongoing and well-cast productions including the revival of the Cavelleria Rusticana/Pagliacci double bill, the new Mary Zimmerman-directed La Sonnambula with Natalie Dessay, the new David McVicar Il Trovatore and perhaps best of all Renée Fleming revisiting her starring role in a revival of Rusalka. So make the most of it, now that you know.

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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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