Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Big Bad Momma

February 06, 2011

Suzan Hanson in Medea
Photo: Jim Farber/LBO 2011

Long Beach Opera dove head-first into its 2011 season last week honoring its tradition of presenting some of the most unusual operas in the most unusual places. 2011’s first production was Luigi Cherubini’s late 18th-century treatment of Medea, which the company had mounted in a vacant furniture showroom space in the Bixby Knolls neighborhood of Long Beach, CA. Perhaps the most important composer to have worked in Paris throughout the time of the Revolution, Cherubini’s operas were hugely influential for a whole generation of later composers including Beethoven, Wagner, and Weber. Yet despite this heritage, his works are rarely seen in the contemporary repertoire. So to have Cherubini’s Medea show up in Long Beach is a special event indeed, and the company under the guidance of Andreas Mitisek definitely put together a memorable take on this neglected masterpiece.

Ani Maldjian in Medea
Photo: Jim Farber/LBO 2011

Medea, like so many other operas, has lived on in many formats and languages. LBO’s Mitisek and the soprano Suzan Hanson, who stars in the title role, continued this tradition by adapting Cherubini's score to their own artistic purposes. Shortened to a single act in 10 scenes and around 100 minutes, the performance trimmed a good bit of music associated with the work. Furthermore, the libretto was streamlined and translated into English with spoken dialog favored in between the arias as Cherubini initially intended as opposed to the recitatives that had been used for later revivals of the work. This did have the benefit of keeping the action focused in a manner similar to Salome or Elektra. Unfortunately, this particular translation of Medea was pointedly plain and unpoetic, and didn't pack the punch of either of Strauss' works. But while the libretto seemed uninspired, the rest of the performance's qualities were strong making this revival a worthwhile excursion.

Long Beach Opera has repeatedly proven their remarkable ability to do more with less, which I was immediately reminded of on entering the EXPO Warehouse. Here in the middle of a darkened warehouse was a dramatic, stark, and modern set. A large central cluster of steel risers dominated the room lit mostly from below and surrounded by candles. The stage was surrounded on all sides by the audience with Mitisek and his orchestra placed off to one side. In fact, both the set design and conducting, as well as the lighting design and direction, were all under the guidance of Mitisek, causing one to marvel at his range of abilities in bringing this performance to life. His conducting of the orchestra was comendable as well, highlighting the rich orchestral feeling that so clearly inspired Cherubini's peers and successors.

The cast entered and took their positions atop the stage where they remained throughout, lying down when not called for in the scene. The first scene contained an exciting coloratura aria sung by Dirce, Jason's new wife, who was performed by Ani Maldjian. She exhibited excellent control and milked this solitary moment for her character with real gusto, playing up the adolescent, inebriated characterization in the production. Shortly after this, Dirce is joined by Ryan MacPherson who sang Jason in his white tuxedo jacket, and the Creon of Roberto Gomez in a black leather duster coat. Medea is accompanied by three women who act both as friends and fates in this production and were sung by Peabody Southwell, Ariel Pisturino, and Diana Tash. All provided excellent support in the cast, and Southwell's featured aria came off splendidly.

But the heavy lifting in the show was done by Suzan Hanson in the title role. She spends virtually all of the production atop her perch in the center of the set and rightly maintains herself as the central focus. This is a challenging part favored by legendary sopranos from Callas to Gwyneth Jones. Hanson gave a strong and very committed performance that was great fun to watch. She projected her character's rage and heartbreak beautifully throughout. Sadly she was plagued by an unfortunate ill-fitting costume meant to contrast with the contemporary garb of the rest of the cast. Yes, it, along with the large tribal tattoo that covered her right side, did highlight her otherness in contrast to the other characters. But, the huge amount of draped fabric would have resulted in a first-round elimination on Project Runway. Hanson was forced to spend most of the show maneuvering knots or bolts of fabric and it was often distracting. She did her best to rise above the garment, though, and gave a memorable performance. Once again the ambition of Mitisek and LBO impressed their audience with an operatic rarity. And while Medea may not have been shocking or frightening, it was lovely to hear and see even in this most unusual of spaces.


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