Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Up All Night

July 18, 2011

Christine Brewer, Frank Porretta, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale Photo: mine 2011

Well, it’s that time of year again: opera night at the Hollywood Bowl. In recent years, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has put on a one-night only concert performance of an opera as part of their summer season. In the last two years, this has caught the interest of music director Gustavo Dudamel who is taking advantage of the chance to conduct staple operas that have yet to come under his baton elsewhere. Last year it was Bizet’s Carmen and this year, when given the opportunity to work with soprano Christine Brewer again, Dudamel suggested Tosca according to a recent interview with her in the Los Angeles Times. Wisely, Brewer passed on this and counter-proposed Turandot instead. The role would seem like a natural choice for Brewer with her strong, powerful dramatic soprano voice. But, alas, things did not work out as perfectly as planned.

The Bowl is not the ideal venue for any classical music, much less opera by a long-shot. The sound, including all vocalists, is amplified, losing any subtly or nuance in the performance. The audience is all but encouraged to make extraneous noises with food, drink, and constant coming and going from the seating area. The L.A. Philharmonic technical folks can't seem to wrap their head around how to do readable supertitles on the four giant monitors on either side of the amphitheater. The show starts before the sun sets making the screens unreadable. Later when the sun goes down, the white lettering vanishes against the white in the coats and dresses of the performers in the video feed it shares space with despite the supertitles' semi-transparent background. Yet, despite these hurdles, Dudamel and the orchestra persevered with a big, brash sound that almost compensated for the many acoustic hurdles. The Los Angeles Master Chorale and Children's Chorus also gave wonderful performances in an opera that relies heavily on their contributions. Dudamel's tendency toward emphatic overstatement is almost perfectly suited for operatic works and large outdoor venues and for once his presence wasn't obtrusive to the musical performance at hand.

However, Dudamel and the orchestra were not blessed with vocalists who met the quality of their performance on this particular night. The originally announced Calaf, Francesco Hong, called in sick and was replaced by Frank Porretta. Porretta is capable in the part and delivered "Nessun Dorma" with enough warmth to satisfy a Hollywood Bowl audience. He was noticeably breathy through most of the evening and his tone could fairly thin. The big name on the marquee, though, was Cristine Brewer, and many in the half-full Bowl had come to hear her role debut as Turandot. Now I'm a very big Brewer fan, which means going out of my way to catch her relatively infrequent appearances in fully-staged complete operas. She is increasingly a creature of the concert stage despite having one of the most powerful and beautiful dramatic soprano voices around. I'm sad to say, Turandot did not go especially well for her on this evening. She struggled with the highest passages in Act II often scooping into the climaxes and shouting at times. The middle and lower parts of her range were lovely, but this was not a beautiful sounding performance overall.

Which left the laurels for the best vocal turn of the evening to the chronically under-appreciated Hei-Kyung Hong as Liu. Hong amazed with bright warm tone and easy heartbreaking beauty. And for a moment everything worked and was one with the operatic gods. Too bad there weren't a few more moments like it, but maybe next year.



Of all the unfortunate elements of the evening you mention, "the half-full Bowl" leads the list. I would have loved to see this had it been local- and I'm not even a fan of Turandot, though I am a fan of Puccini and Brewer.
I was just there for the (ever divine) Sarah McLachlan and the (not ready for prime time) Bowl Orchestra. Pop is definitely the Bowl's forte. I would never see an opera there for all of the reasons you list. It would be like going to an opera at the Staples Center. Theatergoers everywhere are badly behaved, but last year at a LA Phil performance I had to shush two teens who were having a full blown conversation throughout a piece.
I was so close to getting tickets for this, but I voted against it at the last minute, for all of the frustrations that you mentioned. I mean, I was at a full-on pop concert at the Bowl recently and it was pretty awful... mediocre sound and they couldn't get the camera work quite right. It's such an imperfect venue for music that one actually cares about.
I was there last year for Carmen and thought it was a smashing success (several friends agree as well, and we were all opera lovers). But then on my other trip to the Bowl for Tchaikovsky's violin concerto, i realized the sound was absolutely awful if you're so unfortunately close to one of those blasting speakers. As you said the amplified sound doesn't do justice, and somehow i always have feeling the sopranos suffer the most with such a system.
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