Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

That's All Folks

May 30, 2009

 
The L.A. Philharmonic with Christoph Eschenbach
Photo: mine 2009

Remember how I was going on about Christoph Eschenbach the other day? Well, Friday we in Los Angeles had a visit from the other Eschenbach, the thoughtful, enthralling maestro who delivered a stellar performance of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. It was the final Los Angeles Philharmonic concert of the 08/09 season, and, even though it’s been a lame duck operation since Salonen left in April, the Philharmonic delivered, and we did go out with a bang. Though Eschenbach took his sweet time about it. The Symphony was stretched to an amazing 75 minutes, well beyond the average running time of around 65, in a strategy similar to that taken by the conductor when he appeared as piano soloist on Tuesday in a chamber music program at Walt Disney Concert Hall playing Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat major Op. 960. This veritable slow motion allowed Eschenbach's conducting to build in a marvelous swirl and intensity that makes these works great. While this slow pacing can run the risk of seeming ponderous, in his hands it was never dull. The orchestra demonstrated an amazing ability to sustain tension over the course of beautiful lengthy lines pulled taut over the influx of extra seconds and minutes.

Now I’ll admit my bias – I love Bruckner. Admittedly a sentiment not universally shared by concertgoers whose opinions I admire. But if you need an argument for why Bruckner amounts to more than rehashed Wagner, this weekend's shows are it. Yes, the influence and indebtedness to Brukner’s idol is undoubtedly there, but this is a magnificent piece when played as thoughtfully and wonderfully as this. And if you can't go along with me on this one, think of it this way, Wagner's so good that even a facsimile in the hands of another is a force to be reckoned with.

There was also a short Mozart Symphony, No. 34, that opened the program and was played well. Eschenbach makes great music. He doesn't always fit well in every situation with every group of musicians, but who does? I mean look at Ricardo Muti. Anyway, there are two more performances of this very good program, on Saturday and Sunday. Now is your chance to hear our great orchestra up close and personal before they rereat into the distance of the Hollywood Hills for the summer.

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Razzle Dazzle

May 28, 2009

 
Marina Poplavskaya and Massimo Giordano
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2009

There’s plenty of good news about Los Angeles Opera’s current revival of La Traviata that opened last week. In fact, it is probably just about the most successful revival in a season laden with well worn retreads to buttress a few much higher profile new items including the first two installments of Achim Freyer’s fabulous new Ring Cycle. Don’t get me wrong. On paper this Traviata looks pretty dismal, but it turns out to be worthwhile despite its noticeable shortcomings. There is still that rather dreadful Marta Domingo production. No, not the flapper one that L.A. has foisted on San Francisco this summer, but the earlier one whose mise en scène is best described as Beverley Hills Adjacent. It's the same one Renée Fleming got roped into for the DVD production released by L.A. Opera last year, which is good news for the legions of opera goers unable to get their fill of applauding for sets.

But I digress. The dreariness is overcome by a rather good cast featuring Marina Poplavskaya in her local debut as Violleta. It’s really refreshing to hear a soprano that can actually sing the coloratura passages in Act I. It’s a bright and shiny sound, though not always a particularly warm one. It can be a bit tight and sharp at the top, but it never feels like she's cheating or trying to turn the part into something else that more readily fits her particular voice. And, while I found her enthralling in Act I, I was rather frustrated by a perceptible coldness as the show went on that may have been more of an acting issue than a singing one. Still, Poplavskaya produces some technically admirable singing. I wouldn’t necessarily rank her among the best Violetta's in the world right now, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see her arrive at that point sometime soon. The rest of the cast is less steady, but no one is bad either. In the first three shows Massimo Giordano sings Alfredo before moving on, and Andrzej Dobber plays his father Giorgio. Dobber wasn't particularly commanding and seemed overshadowed too easily by the young lovers. I've seen Giordano in this before, and this time around I felt him to be bigger and bolder, straining less in the performance, though I could have used a little more urgency from him overall. He fares better in this smaller house vocally and his acting seemed less forced.

The other notable thing in this Traviata is that the orchestra is led by Assistant Conductor, Chorus Master, and L.A. Master Chorale director Grant Gershon. He seemed to have a good grip on the opera overall, though the audience didn't really seem to know what to do with him at the curtain call. Has no one in the opera audience sampled his work with the LAMC before? (If so, that's a shame, and there's a good chance to fix that this Sunday.) There were some minor issues of agreement in pacing between him and some of the principals, but nothing to worry about. Gershon gave a solid debut at the L.A. Opera podium and with the good work he's doing with the chorus, it's reassuring to know that he'll continue to be around across the street from Disney Concert Hall. The production continues through June 21, but do be aware the last three performances will have a completely different cast featuring the very familiar Violetta of Elizabeth Futral.

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In the Wings - June 09

May 27, 2009

 
The Wooster Group in Cavalli's La Didone
Photo: Wooster Group 2009

Like all Angelenos, I’ve come to recognize that June here is not so much the start of summer, but an ideal excuse to get out of town when everything is overcast and gray. It’s always summer, but it is rarely so gloomy as the first few weeks after Memorial Day. So where might one head out to this year? Well, for starters, to the Ojai Festival in all its downbeat modern glory. This year’s program which runs June 11-14 features many of the composers and artists we’ve come to know and love there over the years. Eighth Blackbird is curating and performing the wooden bench weekend this year with music from Steve Reich, Steven Mackey, Louis Andriessen, and Schoenberg (Pierrot Lunaire) to name just a few. Jeremy Denk will also make a couple of appearances, including a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on Saturday Morning. There are far more shows at various hours of the day than in recent years spread out among some other local Ojai venues. Sunday’s programming will wrap up with a three-part mega marathon concert with 14 works in about 5 hours including Reich’s Double Sextet. Bring extra padding, you’ve been warned.


Opera-wise my attention will be focused on two locales. First and foremost, Opera Theater of Saint Louis is kicking off a strong season with Mozart’s Il re pastore and a new scaled down version of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles (above) in addition to La Boheme and Salome. Corigliano’s opera isn’t going to make it to the Metropolitan Opera for a revival next season, so this may be your only chance for a while to check out Corigliano’s now leaner, meaner stage work. Meanwhile, San Francisco Opera is taking no chances in its summer season with a Lofti Mansouri Tosca, Porgy and Bess with Eric Owens, and La Traviata, which will import Marta Domingo’s “flapper” production from L.A. and insert Anna Netrebko in a handful of the performances. I guess this will prove whether the strategy to raise money on the promise of bringing the biggest stars to town to perform in the oldest of war horses is a viable strategy after all.

Goran Bregovic

Of course, when I’m not sitting in an airport terminal, there will be things to catch up on here in Los Angeles as well as a few new entries before the summer outdoor stages really get to be warm enough to tolerate. Perhaps the biggest and best event in LA in June will be at the REDCAT which welcomes The Wooster Group following the announcement of the multi-year collaboration between CalArts downtown black box theater and the theater trailblazers. They will be presenting their wild science fiction staging of Cavalli's opera La Didone starting June 11 through the 21st. I saw it in New York last month and can tell you it should not be missed. Meanwhile in a far less experimental vein, the Mark Taper Forum will be presenting Mamet’s Oleanna with Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles while Dame Edna returns to the Ahmanson on the 9th. A little later, Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin will do a few performances together starting on the 24th in the same room after all of the purple glow has been cleared away.

Otherwise it’s here there and everywhere. Aretha Franklin will perform at the Hollywood Bowl on the 26th. Grizzly Bear (19th) PJ Harvey (20th) and Wilco (22nd, 23rd, and 25th) will all make stops at the Wiltern. UCLA Live will present Goran Bregovic’s Wedding and Funeral Orchestra on the 19th and 20th. REDCAT welcomes Yvonne Rainer in a pair of dance pieces over the weekend of the 25th. And lest we forget, Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion will be taped in LA on June 5th at the Greek Theater for broadcast. So, while the weather may be in a holding pattern, performance in town will definitely move on.

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True Stories

May 26, 2009

 
Melanie Lora and Kandis Chappell in Collected Stories
Photo: Henry DiRocco/SCR 2009

South Coast Repertory has had a bit of an “old home” season this spring with return engagements from a couple of its long time friends. The theater recently staged the latest comedy from Richard Greenberg, Our Mother’s Brief Affair, and they are now in the midst of a revival of Donald Margulies' Collected Stories, a work that received its world premiere in Orange County. SCR has marked this return with a solid and highly professional production featuring a performance from Kandis Chappell who originated the role of Ruth and returns to tear up the stage. Ruth’s protégée, Lisa, is played by an equally polished Melanie Lora who is believable in her ingénue to literary legend trajectory. Their relationship is supposed to eventually produce some intellectual sparks in Margulies' world, and it does so, which is largely to the credit of these two fine actors.

What’s sad is that this corner of Margulies’ stage world is a little dull. Collected Stories mines many of the playwright’s favorite themes. Middle class adults struggle with the ethical problems inherent in their work and their development as artists. Hearts are broken. But the play is slow to boil and despite the very interesting character study, it often seems hesitant to move in any of the very predictable avenues it could follow. It’s more or less a very watered down All About Eve. Ruth, the crotchety, but esteemed New York professor with requisite literary career takes graduate student Lisa under her wing. Slowly, but surely they become friends and Ruth begins helping out with Lisa’s burgeoning career. Just as things begin taking off for the younger woman, the older one begins facing health problems and other issues that come with age. Finally, Lisa at a artistic crossroads, pilfers her mentor’s own personal history for material, justifying her actions with the very advice drummed into her head by Ruth in the first place. It’s very tidy, but sadly uninteresting. You know the catfight is coming from 20 minutes in. The depressing part is that it takes so long to come around in the two-hour piece that you begin to stop caring about whether or not you should be offended by the idea that any play with two female characters must feature one in the first place. Collected Stories runs through June 14th, if you’re into that kind of thing.

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Add It Up

May 25, 2009

 
Steve Cell and John Heard in A Number
Photo: Odyssey Theater 2009

On the surface, Caryl Churchill’s A Number may seem less politically oriented than some of her more recent efforts. It shares the short running time and cropped dialogue of such pieces as Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? but deals with subject matter much closer to science fiction than current political global conflicts. A Number, which is now running in a very good production at L.A.’s Odyssey Theater on the west side, is a two-hander between an older man in a series of conversations with a younger man who plays both his son and at least two clones of his son. It’s a not too distant future where cloning is a reality and fathers and their genetic sons must deal with a myriad of issues inherent in such a world. It's not science fiction, though it has the kind of futurist edge that inspires a sound designer to use 20th-century minimalist music to background the scene transitions.

The truth of the matter, however, is that despite its scientific and psychological overtones, A Number is as much a political venture as anything else Churchill has produced in recent years. While there is a pretense of psychological underpinnings and has elements of both thrillers and melodrama, the play is really about much larger issues. And while the piece raises virtually every moral question you could imagine about the implications of cloning human beings, Churchill seems intent on dismissing them all as outlandish. There are wild turns in the plot with an “original” son threatening and eventually acting out violence against his later replicants. The father explains, and then later amends, a history of how all the clones came to be in the first place. All of this is amidst the father's concerns that he get his due by suing the "mad scientist" who created multiple unauthorized additional clones without consent. The humanity of clones is debated at length between father and son. But this is all much ado about nothing. In her brilliant final scene, Chruchill thrusts the irrelevance of these debates into the light of day, pointing out how the sensational moral debates eclipse all logic and reason in considering such a future. A clone arrives to see his genetic father, only to disappoint him with a total lack of emotional turmoil over any of the earlier issues laid out in the play. He has no stance or information to share about his relatedness, or lack of it, to his genetic precursors. His life is good. Don't worry, be happy. It's a turn of events with a point of view that needs to be heard.

The two parts here are played by a very good John Heard as the father and Steve Cell as the many possible sons. Chruchill’s dialogue, with its endless fragments and interruptions, can be difficult to choreograph in an authentic way, but these two actors were masterful in getting around the inherent problems in this tactic. A Number is an admirable work with a distinct and interesting point of view. And while it may be more intellectually satisfying than psychologically insightful or emotional, it's quite a good play. The production runs through June 21 just north of Sepulveda and Olympic.

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Zoo is Hell

May 23, 2009

 
Arian Moayed and Kevin Tighe
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2009

With all the dropped productions this year between the three theaters that make up L.A.’s Center Theater Group, it’s reassuring to know that Artistic Director Michael Ritchie is making cuts with an eye to maintaining quality. Or at least that’s my conclusion after seeing the fantastic world premiere production of Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo now on stage at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City. It’s easily the best new play CTG has produced in a good, long while and it is certainly the best to have premiered in the Douglas venue. (Though admittedly 2008’s, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson does deserve an honorable mention.) Joseph’s play takes on big, contemporary topics with huge ambition, humor, and insight. The play concerns a group of characters, both living and ghosts, caught up in the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Among these disparate souls haunting Baghdad are some you’d expect like two American soldiers and a former Iraqi gardener turned translator. Less expected are a tiger, a leper, and Uday Hussein. The play is not primarily about the rights and wrongs of the U.S. involvement in Iraq, nor is it some kind of simple investigation of American identity. Joseph has much bigger fish to fry than that.

The play grew from Joseph's interest in a story in the early days of the war in which a Bengal tiger from the Baghdad zoo was shot to death by an American soldier. Joseph transforms the tiger into a speaking part for an actor and re-imagines the incident in the play's opening. The tiger in indeed shot and killed after attacking another soldier in a moment of poor judgment for both. But the tiger's ghost lives on providing commentary and philosophical inquiry throughout the whole play, haunting his killer not as an act of vengence, but one of understanding. Soon the lines between the living and the dead progressively blur in a world of spontaneous violence. And while all the players must learn to deal (or not deal) with the past, there is much, much more to consider.

I know that Bengal Tiger sounds rather intense and downbeat from this description. And it can be, but it’s also philosophical and very funny at times. The lion’s share of the play features two great performances. The first is from Kevin Tighe as the eponymous tiger. He's got many of the biggest laughs in a part that is neither cynical nor overly sentimental. The human whom he has the least contact with but perhaps gives the most insight into is Musa, played wonderfully by Arian Moayed. Musa provides translation services to the American GIs, but his own sins and those committed around him slowly escalate into his own moral crisis. Like the tiger, extreme events have caused him to question his nature in a complex way that goes beyond simple good and evil. Director and fellow playwright, Moises Kaufman is smart enough to let all of the ideas that Joseph has crammed into this play to unfurl in their own way. There are huge questions being asked here, but not in a way that is never heavy-handed. The large swath of magical realism that guides the play keeps things from getting too obvious.

Of course it’s not perfect. Some of the scenes, particularly those between the two GIs do run a bit longer than they should. Nor do all of the characters benefit from the same depth of development as Musa. Still, despite that “ripped from today’s headlines” feel, Bengal Tiger works so well and so consistently, that it flies by. It’s a real winner and frankly a feather in the cap of CTG in this troubled financial time. It runs through June 7 in Culver City and comes very highly recommended.

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Rough Landing

May 22, 2009

 
Christoph Eschenbach with the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

The LA Philharmonic enters the home stretch of its 08/09 season over the next two weekends. And with Salonen long gone from the scene, these last few concerts are being placed in the hands of Christoph Eschenbach. At least you can say the organization is willing to take some risks. Whether or not those are good or bad ones I suppose depends on your point of view, but I’ve always felt that Eschenbach is a bit of a split decision – sometimes everything works out very well, and sometimes it doesn’t. Friday’s show was rough. The first disappointment was that scheduled soloist Julia Fischer who was to make her L.A. Philharmonic debut with the first Shostakovich Violin Concerto canceled for “personal reasons.” So with apparently no one to fill in, out went the Shostakovich and in its place, like the proverbial lump of coal in the Christmas stocking, was Tchaikovsky’s Francseca da Rimini. Whether the issue was too little rehearsal or a conducting problem or whatever, I’m not sure. But I can tell you it was a mess. Disjointed and out of sync, the various sections of the orchestra seemed to be playing different pieces of music at the same time. No one on stage looked particularly pleased with the situation, but maybe that’s me reading into things.

The second half of the program remained intact with Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. Here Eschenbach and the orchestra seemed on more solid ground. This is not the most user-friendly piece of music, but Eschenbach kept things together and there seemed to be more attentiveness and interaction amongst the players this time around. Not everything worked, with the first two movements seeming more solidly performed. It wasn’t quite as urgent or manic as the piece can sound in the best of circumstances, but it was serviceable. The crowd seemed pleased, though I couldn't help but wonder what everyone was really thinking both on stage and off. The audience was filled with a number of young people who stood out mostly due to their being over dressed for such an occasion in rented tuxedos and what must pass for prom dresses. I wasn't clear if they were heading somewhere later or if this was an event in and of itself, but I couldn't help but wonder what they made of this militaristic, folk-tune imbued twentieth-century work.

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Why Can't You Behave

May 21, 2009

 
Debra Walton and Eugene Barry-Hill
Photo: Craig Schwarts/CTG 2009

Summer is coming in here in Los Angeles and the city’s stages are currently awash in musical revues. Stranger yet is how well some of them work. The Ahmanson has pulled off somewhat of a surprise with Ain’t Misbehavin’, the oft-revived Fats Waller musical from the late 70s. Admittedly, it was the production which held the least interest for me when the current season was announced, and oddly enough it’s the best thing they’ve put on in the last 12 months with the exception of Spring Awakening. The reason for its quality should be obvious. Many of the artists involved in the original production have returned including director Richard Maltby Jr., choreographer Arthur Faria, Armelia McQueen, and Roz Ryan who replaced Nell Carter after she departed the initial New York run. Traveling such familiar territory with these expert guides is wonderful and the show’s energy never flags. The superior cast is rounded out by Debra Walton, Eugene Barry-Hill, and Doug Eskew. All of them integrate seamlessly with the other players in one of those longed-for productions where there are no weak links. Then, of course, there is the music of Fats Waller. The most interesting thing to me as I sat there soaking up the sheer thrill of the evening was how successful this piece has been over the last 30 years – not simply in its own economic capacity, but in its efforts to preserve Waller’s music. As a man born in the 60s, I’m familiar with many of the song standards in the revue. What’s unusual is that although I was only a child at the time of the original show, it is primarily through Ain’t Misbehavin’ that I know these songs to begin with. A fact that I’d not really appreciated until seeing the production at this point in my life and realizing all my own internal references to the numbers date back to earlier snippets from prior productions. The cultural influence of the show in the last three decades is massive and keeps the work of this great American composer alive in ways that aren’t so easy to achieve anymore. There are shows through May 31 and I can highly recommend you see it.

Vanessa Claire Smith as Keely Smith and Jake Broder as Louis Prima
Photo: Geffen Playhouse 2009

On the other side of town is a very different kind of revue in Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara now in an extended run at the Skirball Kenis stage of the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. Written by its two stars, Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder, the show captures the rise and eventual fall of one of the great musical pairs of the 1950s by focusing on their Las Vegas shows of the period. The show mimics one of those legendary performances with Smith and Prima performing most of the evening in front of their band while Prima recounts some of the major events in their history in an extended flashback sequence. It’s great fun as the audience gets involved as the stand-in for the fictional Vegas audience of the story itself. This show has become increasingly popular here in L.A. over the last year since it has come to rest at the Geffen following its prior existence in a smaller venue. Louis and Keely thrives on the mesmerizing performances of Smith and Broder who veritably channel their characters onstage. The chemistry between the two sparks again and again as they too, fly through hits too numerous to mention. If there’s any drawback to the performance it’s that too little time is spent on the centerpiece performances and too much time is devoted to grafting the music to the play's A Star is Born melodramatic framework under the direction of Taylor Hackford. Hackford joined onto the project when the show transfered to the Geffen helping to add many of the more narrative and didactic elements. And while we don't get James Mason walking into the sea, we do get extended subplots about the relationship between Smith and Frank Sinatra. It's not necessarily uninteresting material, it's just that it's often very tired and somewhat distracting from the show's most exciting elements. Louis and Keely is now running through the end of June often to full houses but it is also definitely worth seeing.

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Shake Your Money Maker

May 20, 2009

 
Ms. Netrebko demonstrates how to get the job done
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2006

The Chicago Lyric Opera announced this week the good news that they ended their 08/09 season in the black by around $100,000. Wisely, though, the company is keeping an eye to the future by adopting many of the same cost-cutting measures other U.S. companies have adopted in recent months. It also appears they’re keeping an eye to filling those seats at the same high percentage as last season with an announcement today that auditions will be held on June 20th for 18 solo dancers to appear in next season’s production of Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust to be directed by Stephen Langridge. Among the successful applicants will be “one highly trained female dancer with experience pole dancing.” Please note however that a pole will not be available during the auditions so dancers are requested to bring video evidence of such talents for full consideration.

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Symphony of a Thousand

May 19, 2009

 
Nick Robinson and Matthew Boston
Photo: Intiman Theater 2009

While in Seattle last weekend, I also swung by the Tony-award winning Intiman theater. Under the artistic direction of Bartlett Sher, who recently announced his final season with the organization through 2010, the Intiman has established an excellent track record of highly regarded stagings of American classics. The house will continue with more of this successful formula well into next year and continues in this vein throughout May and June of this year with a new production of Herb Gardner’s 1963 comedy A Thousand Clowns. Directed by Sari Ketter, the Intiman production looks fabulous. It’s detailed and smart with excellent pacing throughout. There are some genuine laughs in its rather genteel writing and the nearly three hour play is significantly engaging. The cast was excellent with Matthew Boston creating a believable and consistent Murray Burns, the eccentric uncle on the verge of losing his nephew to the state's child welfare agency. Even better, though, was Nick Robinson as his ward, Nick, who is both desperate to stay with his uncle but equally afraid of the sacrifices that may be necessary to do so. It can be tough for a young actor to manage a part this large in the company of very talented adults, but I found Robinson to be remarkably consistent and authentic throughout.

So here is the only question – why employ a brilliant cast just to revive such an underwhelming and minor play to begin with. Despite the strengths of this particular outing, A Thousand Clowns trades in mid-Century stereotypes and anxieties over such issues as the burgeoning child welfare system of the time and the changing roles of women in the workforce. It’s excessively mild and the watered down Harold and Maude-free-spirit advocacy seems quaint by this point. This is a minor play by virtually any standard and the primary conflicts between central characters in the plot often seem underdeveloped and imbued with dime store psychology. Take for example Murray’s preoccupation with eagle figurines. Even in 1962 I can’t imagine anyone not secretly smirking at such heavy-handed symbolism. I guess one could abstract certain implications about the American spirit from the play, but Gardner’s construct seems little more than a historical footnote. In fact, the whole thing seems to be fishing for a TV or movie adaptation which it would get just years later in a Oscar-nominated film version with Jason Robards. But while the play itself comes off as the dramatic equivalent of a Snuggle bear commercial, the production is highly professional and the performances alone would recommend a visit.

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You Are the Forest

May 18, 2009

 
John Adams with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale
Photo: mine 2009

John Adams’ A Flowering Tree finally arrived in Los Angeles this weekend after performances around the globe. As is typically the case, all this traveling has honed the work to the point where now it is finally getting the performance it deserves at Disney Concert Hall. I'd wager this weekend's performances are the best the work has seen. Adams led the Los Angeles Philharmonic himself in a semi-staged production directed by Peter Sellars with the original cast of Eric Owens, Jessica Rivera, and Russell Thomas in addition to three dancers. In fact, little has changed with the work since I saw it over two years ago in San Francisco, including my general feelings about it. However, the things that were different here in Los Angeles were substantial. First and foremost was the massive amount of space the cast had in Disney Concert Hall compared to some of its other stops. Occupying a stage-spanning riser behind the orchestra, the six principal cast members had the room to actually move. Seated behind them were the members of the L.A. Master Chorale dressed in bright neon colored South Asian garb and the Frank Gehry designed pipe organ lit with the colors of the rainbow. The sound was quite a bit richer as well, likely due to a combination of the impeccable playing of the L.A. Philharmonic with this kind of material and the superlative acoustics of Disney Hall. This meditative and hypnotic score seems more certain now, and the cast have come to inhabit the roles, singing them with an abundance of warmth and assurance.

The work is based on a South Asian myth concerning a young woman, Kumudha, who is able to transform herself at will via a ritual into a flowering tree. She initially does so in an effort to support her poor family by making beautiful flowers. However, when the local prince discovers her rare ability, he falls in love and marries her. Sadly, Kumuhda is severely maimed by her envious sister-in-law who persuades her to perform her "trick" in order to leaving her trapped between human and tree form. Kumuhda wanders the streets for years in her newly deformed body until she is again reunified with her husband. Like many other myths, the plot here can be slow, with little getting under way until Act II. But I'm not sure that this is really all that different from other operatic works based on myths. Think Parsifal. In fact, that might be the best thing to do, given that Wagner appears to hover more and more over Adams work as the years go by.

The strongest parts of A Flowering Tree are those divorced entirely from the narrative, where the music alone is left to create the images of Kumudha's transformation to tree and back. Or as my friend Howard but it, it's akin to the second act of Siegfried. There are a couple of wonderful vocal bits as well, though, including Khumuda's aria "You are the forest" in Act I and the closing duet between Kumudha and the prince. I was generally more taken with the piece this time around than on my first exposure. There seemed to be more of an intensity here, and, while all of the multicultural elements that make up the experience were still there, I felt less beaten about the head with them. The work still comes off as a big, bright, colorful hug - it's pretty, but with minimal edge and conflict. The dancers who mimic and act out the libretto, now seem an integral part of the production. They seamlessly meshed with the the three impeccable vocal artists in the cast. Maybe it's just familiarity from repeated exposure, but it seemed to gel more for me this time around. As to whether or not A Flowering Tree will have the same legs as El Nino or any of Adams' operas remains to be seen, but it is surely an attractive diversion even in the short term.

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Bride Wars

May 17, 2009

 
Christine Brandes, Ted Schmitz, Mariusz Kwiecien, and Daniela Sindram
Photo: Rozarii Lynch/Seattle Opera 2009

I was in Seattle on business over the weekend, and couldn’t resist the opportunity to catch Seattle Opera’s last performance of this season on Saturday. This was especially the case considering it was a revival of Le Nozze di Figaro. All right, I confess. While I find it utterly inexplicable how anyone would be willing to shell out to see yet another half-crappy La Boheme, I can watch the Mozart operas again and again with nearly complete disregard to the quality of the performance. The first two acts of Nozze are virtually perfect musical theater in every sense - endlessly riveting from beginning to end. Of course when you have a performance as good as those that marked Seattle’s recent run, it makes everything even better.

Seattle keeps things as it always has under the esteemed leadership of Speight Jenkins—with a (virtually) all-American cast more focused on ensemble work than the appearance of superstars in a production that is straightforward and not unpleasant to look at. There are no gimmicks here, just an effort to put together something of good quality. Of course there were perks. Most notably, rapidly-rising star Mariusz Kwiecien sang the role of Count Almaviva as he had in most of the performances this month. He sounded great in one of his signature roles and as always rocked the opera a little bit by raising the question of how any Susannah could ignore his advances over a typically more nebbishy Figaro. Susannah's paramour on Saturday was the very talented Oren Gradus, who has done his fare share of smaller parts both in L.A. and New York, and here deservedly got to step forward into the title part. Like the best Figaros, he appeared to be having a good time. Of the women in the cast, Daniela Sindram’s Cherubino was a highlight. I also rather liked Christine Brandes’ Susannah more and more as things went along, although there seemed to be times when she wasn’t quite in sync with the orchestra, but this late in the run a little sloppiness can be expected.

The orchestra was under the leadership of Dean Williamson, and they gave a worthwhile performance. It wasn’t necessarily scrappy or fervent as these Mozart works can be at their best, but the pacing was adequate. Silly stage business was kept to a minimum by director Peter Kazaras in a minimal period set and a production really not interested in mining anything new or interesting out of the piece. However, it also wasn't a lazy staging, focusing instead primarily on the characters' relationships while not trying too hard to soup up the proceedings for bigger laughs. So, while it wasn't Mozart for the record books, it was still Mozart, so even without the digging, there was plenty to love.

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All the Young Dudes

May 13, 2009

 
John Adams and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

What’s left to do for your contemporary music program when your two biggest assets are no longer part of the picture? That was the question facing the L.A. Philharmonic’s “Green Umbrella” series on Tuesday with a show that closed out the season without either Esa-Pekka Salonen or Steven Stucky, the two figures that have shaped this corner of the repertory for nearly two decades. The answer was to bring in John Adams who is also leading weekend performances of his own A Flowering Tree later this weekend. On Tuesday night, he offered up the L.A. premiere of his own Son of Chamber Symphony while making room for new works from much younger composers as well. It’s a virtually identical format to the last young composers revue that Salonen anchored with a work of his own last month but with Adams picking the fresh meat this time around. And, while Adams is no slouch, this was a noticeably less satisfying evening on the whole.

The young composers were 24 year-old Timothy Andres and a decade or so older Payton MacDonald. And while both presented pieces that were noteworthy in many ways, overall their music went mostly to prove how much influence Adams’ own work is having on a whole generation of younger American composers. In fact, you might not have even noticed that all the work on Tuesday wasn’t attributable to the more elder statesmen if it wasn’t for Adams' own piece, which provided that missing element of authenticity. Andres offered two works, How can I live in your world of ideas? for solo piano and Nightjar for chamber-sized orchestra. Ideas was originally written for two pianos with a plaintive lyrical line being repeatedly interrupted by a more obstinate and aggressive one. Andres later condensed the two parts into one. I think it may have worked better in the original context in that the intrusions by the second bit of material seemed to more clearly lie in wait than come out of nowhere in this single player format, which the composer preformed himself. Nightjar is inspired by birdsong, not the soaring celestial kind, but a more earth-bound variety populated by specimens from the New England wilderness. It was pleasant, in an Adams-channeling-Messiaen way.

MacDonald’s Cowboy Tabla/Cowboy Raga was the more intriguing of the young composers’ pieces on the program. A percussionist by training, MacDonald has fashioned a thirty minute or so single movement work that functioned as a not-quite concerto for a series of percussion instruments, found and otherwise, fashioned to reproduce the effect of an Indian tabla. Some electronic loops and augmentation are added when MacDonald switches from the ersatz tabla to a marimba in the second part of the work. The effect is to maintain some of the more hypnotic elements of South Asian musical traditions in a Western context and, again, there was this feeling of a post-Minimalist lyricism that strongly brought Adams’ own music to mind. The crowd reponded quite warmly to something that clearly grew on the listener over time.

In the end, though, it was Adams' own show, and he led the L.A. Philharmonic new music group through the frenzy and frolic of his second chamber symphony. He nearly danced along as he conducted the group, yet, while I enjoyed the piece very much, I can’t say I had strong feelings about it either way. It was undoubtedly the more intimate and playful Adams at work here as opposed to the one associated with the grand and dramatic gestures of his works for orchestra or the stage. Lucky for us, there is a fine example of that latter composer waiting just around the Tuesday. Adams is certainly making a case for how he’s casting his own long shadow in the musical world.

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Ou, l'amour puni

May 11, 2009

 
[L-R] Robertson Dean (The Count), Susan Angelo (The Countess), Lenne Klingaman (Lucile)
Photo: Craig Schwartz/ANW 2009

A particularly strong spring season comes to a close in the next few weeks at A Noise Within in Glendale. Having opened quite good productions of The Taming of the Shrew and Ibsen’s Ghosts, the company closes the season with the veritable icing on the cake, Jean Anouilh’s The Rehearsal. Probably more telling, though, is the play's second title, Love Punished. While Anouilh’s works are no stranger to these shores, they’re not the most commonly produced plays and when one comes along of this quality, it’s really a must see. (In fact none of his works have seen a Broadway stage in nearly a decade.) A mid-century French master, Anouilh was interested in characters burdened with a purity of idealism in a world that is more oriented toward the functional and practical. The idealists don’t tend to do well in these collisions. however, the plays are often populated with more than a little humor.

The Rehearsal is set in a country manor in post-WWII France where an aristocratic couple is rehearsing an 18th-century play to be performed as an entertainment at their upcoming ball. Amongst the other members of the cast for this play within a play are the lovers of both the count and countess, an old childhood friend of the count’s, the countess’ lawyer and his young ward. The count finds himself in peril of violating the ground rules of his very open relationship with his wife by falling in love with this much younger daughter of an employee. When they do, all hell breaks loose. But this is the 1950s and this is before the kind of cynicism that might populate such a story on a modern screen. Instead, there’s a lot of psychoanalytic babble and plenty of sharp wit. There is also an unusual sense of disorientation in that the characters remain in period costumes for the whole play despite the mid-20th century setting of the larger work. They are always getting ready or just finishing rehearsing. Further complicating things is that the events of the “inner” play closely mirror the events of the “outer” one. And while this may seem like a worn conceit to a more modern audience, I found it worked rather well in this context in that it is not a point discussed ad nauseum by the characters themselves.

At the center of a very good cast is ANW regular Roberson Dean as the Count who appears every inch the refined married man about to plunge off the cliff of his own desire. His young paramour is played by Lenne Klingaman with a bracing and direct honesty that again belies all the work that went into this performance from the whole company. Even company director Geoff Elliott turns in a rather restrained turn as Hero, the count's friend who goes from comic relief to center stage over a handful of hours. And while it doesn't end in a big hug, The Rehearsal is just the kind of play to make you wonder why you don't go to the theater more often. It's onstage through May 24.

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La Chinoiserie

May 09, 2009

 
Xian Zhang, Yefim Bronfman, and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

This weekend’s performances from the Los Angeles Philharmonic seemed a bit unusual. On one level, it had the markings of a big event with appearances by a living composer and the local debut of a rising-star conductor. But on the other hand, it was an odd program even by the usual standards of our contemporary music loving local audience. First off, it was conducted by recent NY Philharmonic Associate Conductor Xian Chang. Sadly, an appearance by a woman conductor is still unusual enough even here that it warranted comment by staff and patrons in the lobby after the show. Chang has developed a good reputation in New York advocating for 20th century music, so it would seem appropriate for her to appear with the world’s leading orchestral ensemble in this repertory. As if to emphasize that point, it was an all 20th century program, the centerpiece of which was Prokofiev's 3rd Piano Concerto played here by Yefim Bronfman. It’s an odd piece filled with orchestral passages out of any big-screen romance that is suddenly overrun with wild flights of much less romantic stuff from the keyboard. Bronfman was his commanding self, but seemed a little perturbed to me when the crowd erupted into applause at the end of the first movement. He stood looking surprised with this “I guess I’m done” look and then shrugged towards Zhang and the concertmaster. He took what appeared to be some quick mock bows and then immediately sat down as he and the orchestra launched into the second movement without waiting for the crowd to stop. He must not have been too irritated, though, given that he did give a brief encore and did not deliver a political manifesto from the stage, a well known local tradition in the City of Angels.

Prokofiev was the odd man out on an evening, though, that was otherwise marked by works of either direct or more obtuse references to Chinese culture. Zhang herself is from China and the evening began with the only work from a Chinese composer, Chen Yi’s Momentum. At ten minutes, this snippet directly infuses Chinese folk melody with modern Western musical instrumentation. With large waves of thundering percussion roles and surging strings, it seemed to be announcing something. What followed though seemed a little less directly tied to a Chinese theme. After the Prokofiev was John Adams’ The Chairman Dances, a suite cut from the same cloth as, but not taken directly from, his opera Nixon in China. It seemed world’s away from everything else on the menu, but Adams was present in the crowd and did make an appearance on stage. (He’s likely in town for a series of programs next week he’s conducting including his own A Flowering Tree and Son of Chamber Symphony). Then, sticking with the ersatz-Chinese theme, the orchestra lunged into Bartok’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin. It was a showy and direct performance, but certainly a worthwhile one. I wasn’t always sure this hung together the way one might like it to, but it does seem admirable on the other hand to perform so many pieces all from the relatively recent musical past that present such radically different approaches in incorporating Chinese cultural influences into Western musical tradition. Here's the proof that Chinese culture has influcenced Western music in a myriad of ways over time in a far from unitary or predictable way. The program repeats Sunday afternoon.

Oh, and for those of you in need of a little etiquette clarification, as the woman seated next to me requested, having an infant at home does not provide justification for sending text messages repeatedly throughout the course of the performance. While your commonplace ability to procreate may be impressive to you, we’re still trying to have a civilization here. (And while we’re at it, you can drop the very American stance of taking offense at being politely asked by another person in the world to stop doing something that is annoying to everyone around you.)

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Tu parles à Dieu en musique: Il va te répondre en musique

May 07, 2009

 

I’ve decided that instead of writing another snarky post about the less than exciting play I saw this evening, I’d focus on something positive instead. I got home from said play to discover something very exciting in the mail. It’s the new Opus Arte DVD release of Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise filmed live at De Nederlandse Opera in 2008. I was in Amsterdam during one of the three live performances that make up this superb three disc set and in watching it again, I’m even more impressed. Right now I’m watching the incredible fifth tableau where the angel plays the viol for St. Francis to demonstrate what awaits for him in heaven in response to which he collapses in ecstasy. Wow. I had some reservations about Rod Gilfry in the title role on my first pass, but seeing it again, I’m rather fond of his acting and his performance overall. The Pierre Audi staging has a distinct and engaging look that is both modern but in touch with the spiritual underpinning of the work. Besides, given that this is the only commercially available video of this late 20th-century masterpiece, you’d be foolish to pass it by. Even on video it’s rather overwhelming and intensely beautiful. Buy it now.

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Lucky, Lucky Me

May 06, 2009

 
Janet McTeer as Mary Stuart
Photo: Neil Libbert 2009

I don’t necessarily have a lot to say about this week’s Tony nominations other than they seem strangely unexciting given what seemed an unusually good season given the economy and whatnot. But there were a couple shows I caught last week in New York included in this year’s list that I think are worth seeing, so I’ll mention them here. First off was the Donmar Warehouse production of Schiller’s Mary Stuart. Outside of the obvious anglophile history draw, given the romantic German origins of this piece, you might wonder, why bother? Of course, the first answer is the absolutely magnificent performances from Janet McTeer as the title character and Harriet Walter as her rival and fellow queen, Elizabeth I. These are big performances that immediately suck you in, believing they actually are the people they pretend to be. Even the well-worn fiction of the meeting between the two queens comes off as something out of a documentary here. It’s a stark but very attractive production, with only the leads in period costumes and the rest of the cast in modern dress. Against the black brick wall, the bits of color in the rival queens’ garments explode. Best of all, director Phyllida Lloyd mines Schiller’s play for every ounce of depth she can reach. Schiller becomes veritably Shakespearean in his ambitions if not necessarily as poetic in the language of this adaptation. Sadly, there were a significant number of empty seats for the Saturday matinee I attended. Mary Stuart may not have the marquee names of some of the other shows around town, but a fair sight more entertaining and thoughtful. Of course if you'd used this same staging for a production of Donizetti's operatic version of the same play you'd have endless bitching on how disrespectful it is to the author's intentions. Funny what a few blocks to the south will do for artistic license.

Lauren Ambrose, Geoffrey Rush, and Susan Sarandon
Photo: Joan Marcus 2009

Speaking of those names in lights, I also took in the revival of Ionesco’s Exit the King with Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon. And while this production, directed by Neil Armfield, has to work a little harder to get where it’s going, it is still surprisingly successful. The dark and sardonic tone of the play is expertly preserved and Geoffrey Rush has a field day with a performance that is markedly physical in its comedy. But with all the deserved recognition he’s received, it might be easy to overlook what I found to be incredibly attentive and complementary performances from Lauren Ambrose and Susan Sarandon as the King’s two wives. Ambrose is the emptier-headed optimist, looking for denial around every corner. What makes her work so interesting is how expertly it plays off Sarandon’s direct and knowing bringer-of-bad-news queen. Sarandon could be almost magical at times in her ability to milk laughter from the driest of lines. Even the somewhat sentimental final sequence of the play seems tolerable in her hands. The set and costumes are garish enough to evoke a certain depravity without it devolving into something from a television program. Exit the King is undoubtedly an unusual play to have return to New York at this time even with the big stars, but it’s there to be savored and enjoyed.

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Mass

May 04, 2009

 
Grant Gershon with members of the L.A. Master Chorale
Photo: mine 2009

With all of the historic L.A. Philharmonic concerts of last month, it might be easy to overlook some of the offerings of the other resident company at Walt Disney Concert Hall. However, Sunday proved to be one of the best concerts of the soon to be concluded Los Angeles Master Chorale season which comes right on the heels of the chorale’s masterful turn in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms two weeks ago. And, although I was struggling with a bit of jet lag, I was very glad to be there. The program consisted of two major sacred works – Haydn’s Missa St. Bernardi von Offida, commonly known as the Heilig Mass, and Messiaen’s Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine. Although it might be hard to think of two more dissimilar pieces of sacred music, under the leadership of Grant Gershon, these works were mighty impressive and a natural fit for each other. The Haydn performance wrapped up a survey of the composer’s six late masses and, from my perspective, that was the strongest performance of any of them the LAMC has done. Not that the prior 5 were in anyway bad, but the Heilig Mass took on a particular clarity and urgency. Perhaps still feeling the afterglow of the Symphony of Psalms, I found the performance seemed somehow bigger and more magical than Haydn can sometimes be and I felt myself getting rather excited about it all.

Of course, having a large work from Messiaen in the second half of the program may have contributed somewhat to this feeling. The three liturgies in his mid-century work for a female chorus sounded nearly otherworldly. It’s set to the composer's original text with an almost hallucinatory quality. This is further enhanced by the presence of an ondes Martenot, one of the earliest of electrical instruments that was played here by Mary Chun. It’s sort of a cross between a pedal steel and a theremin, and it augments the other major instruments in the work including piano, vibraphone, and celesta. It’s wailing and electrical moaning enhanced the special quality of the piece, which was every bit as moving as the Haydn, despite some rocky playing at times from the strings. I know I harp on this all the time, but once again the chorale has the unfortunate circumstances of performing with an ad hoc orchestra that, despite adequate playing, doesn’t quite live up to the vocal ensemble's caliber. The chorale sounded great, though, and it was quite sad that the audience seemed a bit smaller than usual for reasons that aren’t completely clear to me. It was Sunday, though, and I can't think of a better way to have concluded it.

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You Gott It

May 03, 2009

 
Christian Franz and Katarina Dalayman
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera 2009


I escaped from New York on Sunday following the final night of the Metropolitan Opera’s second complete Ring cycle for the season. And while my escape was nothing akin to, say, the Von Trapp family, I nonetheless feel I’ve emerged feeling slightly less transformed than oppressed. But there it was—Götterdämmerung in all its slow, methodical six hour glory. Now I’m not one to complain about slow and deliberate on most occasions, but I have to admit the James Levine approach had begun to wear on me a little by the end. At times I wanted to scream, “please can we just get on with it.” It’s a legitimate, well-reasoned and—at times—beautiful approach to Wagner, but honestly not one that’s to my taste. Most of the cast continued to prove that they could handle this material though stamina continued to be an issue at times. Christian Franz, the Siegfried, came off better here than Thursday with a little bit less on his plate and sounded believable throughout. Katarina Dalayman was back after the night off from Siegfried for more trouble in strife. I thought she sounded pretty damn good in Act II when it was all about the rage. However, she petered out by Act III creating a very lackluster immolation scene. I felt she was inaudible through some of this and was clearly in the position of being led by the orchestra than having it the other way around. She received at least one string of loud boos from somebody upstairs with something to prove. The most heroic figure was John Tomlinson as Hagen. He was menacing and somehow avoided looking too cartoonish amidst this large carnival attraction of a staging. Everyone else was just fine and dandy.

I think Act II may have been the single most successful act of the whole cycle. It seemed to be the one time where everyone was in quite reasonable voice, there was very little silliness for them to have to chew their way through on stage, and for one brief shining moment, there was enough light cast on the stage to see what was happening. Darkness was probably preferable in Act III as the Gibichung’s hall collapsed in the final moments of the opera in that rickety controlled way that things on stage do. Still, it was a Ring cycle and, all in all, Wagner’s masterpiece can’t be ignored in all of this. It is still a rather unique experience and even under these non-ideal circumstances, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy it. Even if the world did end with a bit more whimper than bang.

Simon Rattle, Thomas Quasthoff, Magdalena Kozena and the Philadelphia Orchestra
Photo: mine 2009

Transfiguration could be had in New York over the weekend, however, and at decidedly lower rates than Wagner’s Ring cycle. It had to be brought up from Philadelphia, of all places, to Carnegie Hall where the Philadelphia Orchestra made one of their frequent guest appearances with a performance of Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust. The real kicker here was a cast of guest performers to be envied by anyone – guest conductor Simon Rattle led Thomas Quasthoff, Eric Owens, Gregory Kunde, and Magdalena Kozena. Who needed La Cenerentola over at the Met on Friday night with that line-up? It was an excellent performance especially coming on the heels of the Met’s own excellently staged production of this work just last Fall. The Philadelphians have taken a lot of bruising in the press over the last few years, but you wouldn’t have known it on Friday. How much of this was Rattle’s guidance was unclear, but it was a bright, festive, and often urgent performance. Quasthoff proved as interesting a performer as ever giving a marauding and sly Mephistopheles. With a much smoother line overall, Kunde was a marked improvement over Marcello Giordani, who was the Met’s Faust. He did struggle with some of the high notes, but seemed less strained to my memory. Kozena has been sick this week and performed with a “please excuse me” announcement. Even though her illness was apparent on both the high and low ends, she still sounds better than half the mezzos I can think of in this part. The sheer intensity she mustered even in this state was evident to everyone in the room. It was a great evening of music and quite a nice bit of energy amidst a week of Wagnerian histrionics.

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Stop Your Sobbing

May 02, 2009

 
Model for the Lepage Ring set
Photo: Met Opera 2009

I’ve done a lot of bitching here this week about the Otto Schenk production of Wagner’s Ring in it’s hopefully final revival here at the Metropolitan Opera. So it was a no-brainer for me to catch a Patron preview event on Friday afternoon hosted by Peter Gelb of the new Ring production that is in development apparently as we speak. The preview consisted of a short speech from the general director followed by some recently edited film footage looking at the new Ring cycle that will be rolled out starting in the Fall of 2010 with plans for full cycles as early as spring 2012. The director will be Robert Lepage who had a robust recent success here with a staging of Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust and has a long history of technologically innovative theater work with his group ex machina. Based on the preview material, the production appears to be both intriguing and a huge step forward for the most dowdy of opera organizations. From what I can tell so far and based on Gelb’s own comments, the production will use a deceptively minimal unit set consisting of 24 giant planks that can be raised, lowered, and individually rotated from a set central axis. Singers, or more likely acrobats and others, can perform atop these planks that can be positioned at stage level or elevated, in order to form undulating waves, steep inclines, see saws or turning windmills. Of course, the full range of interactive video projection technology will also play a role for something that at this stage looks both colorful and full of movement.

Model for the Lepage Ring set
Photo: Met Opera 2009
Of course, the audience for this little dog and pony show was far from the forward thinking variety. Needless to say, it remains true that frequently money and taste do not go hand in hand. (We can't all be Betty Freeman now can we?) The knives were out in the crowd and it was during the extended question and answer part of the show that things really got going. The program was an apology of sorts, intended as a reassurance to the most reactionary elements of the audience. It's the the kind of thing San Francisco audiences have become accustomed to in recent years with the arrival there of David Gockley. But, ironically, while that house is sinking in an artistic quagmire of star-studded left-overs, Gelb is valiantly trying to pull this august New York institution into the something approximating the present. He spent much of the time reassuring the gray-haired moneybags in the room that the music and story of Wagner’s work would be respected and that nothing is going to change even though, in fact, it will look different. Taking no reassurance, the audience responded like a room full of fear-mongering CNN anchors by trotting out all of the usual opera bogeymen it could think of – regietheater, Cirque de Soleil, Los Angeles, etc. All of this wrapped in the kind of pseudo-intellectual garbage you'd expect. (Q: What experience does Lepage have in directing Wagner prior to this? A: None. Neither did Chereau or Schenk prior to their legendary Ring cycles.) And as usual, the organization tried to walk the fine line of saying, I feel just like you do, but trust me, this is for the best. There was an inordinate amount of attention spent on the issue of what will happen to the sets from the current Schenk production and whether they would be lovingly kept is a sock drawer somewhere or burnt in hellfire. Gelb reassured them that the supposedly universally loved production would not be destroyed, but I suspect that fact may have more to do with the likelihood that these constructions are so old they are comprised of significant amounts of hazardous carcinogenic materials that will end up requiring unusually expensive means of disposal. It’s obviously cheaper to keep her.

However, it appears that the die is wisely cast on this one. And, even though the Met is actively soliciting funds to support this and other endeavors, Gelb himself announced the good news is that the new Lepage-directed Ring is already paid for based on other prior major gifts. So, though I may be in a minority, at least among this group of supporters, I say more power to you Mr. Gelb. Keep fighting the good fight.

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The Further Adventures of Baby Huey

May 01, 2009

 
Robert Brubaker and Christian Franz
Photo: Beatriz Schiller/Met Opera 2009

So here we are at the problematic third opera of Wagner’s Ring cycle, Siegfried. It is the most comedic of the series, or at least Wagner’s version of comedic, and there was a smattering of laughter on Thursday, though probably not often at the points Wagner intended. Of course, the guy in the bear suit and the dirty laundry pile Siegfried kills in Act II to obtain the Ring didn’t help matters. But besides feeling like I was riding on a Disneyland attraction badly in need of repair, it wasn’t an entirely unpleasant evening. There was more great conducting from Levine and a very reasonable cast on the whole that made the difference. There was some hectoring about the brass section among the audience where I was sitting, but I felt things were improved over Tuesday. Musically, the Metropolitan Opera continues to set the standard for quality musical performances of opera in this country. Now if we could just do something about that pesky theater bit.

Vocally, the cast was filled with folks getting their hands on this material with the Met for the first time. Christian Franz was Siegfried and a participant in virtually every title fight of the evening. He won (or at least took the decision) in all but that thorny last scene. He was heroic, bright-toned, and eminently watchable. The only issue was stamina. By the time our boy Elroy recognizes he could have had a V8 on the mountain top, it was all over but the shouting. Linda Watson, the second replacement for Brünnhilde in this performance, arrived fresh from a run of Walküre in L.A. to wake up in a very different, and much less interesting ring of fire. As I’ve noted before, I’m much more fond of her Brünnhilde than her Isolde, and she was enjoyable to listen to. Her acting tended toward the hammy, but amongst these ruins, it was hard to blame her. Robert Brubaker’s Mime had much the same issue, but vocally there was little to complain about. Albert Dohmen completed the Wotan series in this cycle with real flair, and after all these hours of music, I was rather won over by his portrayal as well.

The best news is that after three operas, I'm actually starting to look forward to how this ends. Of course, I already know. But the things that's been most lacking for me in this cycle thus far is that urge to see the next segment despite its familiarity. I felt that kick in to an extent on Thursday, which is good news. This may be the last hurrah for a very lackluster production from Otto Schenk, but even at this point, this cycle can be a potent reminder of what James Levine was able to achieve in this house over the last several decades when it comes to Wagner. And that is something to admire indeed.

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