Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
A Weekend in the Country
September 30, 2011
When I was a child, I used to love watching the Carol Burnett Show on CBS. However, one thing I never understood was why the recurring skits where Carol played the chronically unhappy Eunice constantly at war with her mother and various family members were so popular. I never found the endless arguments and shouting funny, but obviously others did. And to this day I find that corner of the humor world difficult to relate to. Thus I went into the world premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s latest play Poor Behavior now on stage at the Mark Taper Forum with some trepidation. The title alone suggests the kind of thing that happens when people stop being polite and start getting…well, you know. And when the play opens in the middle of an all out verbal brawl between Ian, played by Reg Rogers, and his friend’s wife Ella, played by Johanna Day, I was wondering what I was in for. But to my surprise, Poor Behavior actually turned out to be a clever, well-written and surprisingly provocative adult play.
Certainly the word is the thing in Rebeck’s world, and her two couples unleash barrages of sharply witty dialog at one another. Ian is married to the somewhat mentally unstable Maureen, here a hysterical Sharon Lawrence. The two have come to the country home of Ella and her husband Peter, a likable Christopher Evan Welch, for the weekend, and soon Ian and Ella are in a row over morality and religion that seems to irritate their spouses with its palpable sexual energy. There are some misconstrued gestures and sidelong glances that soon drive Maureen to suspect Ian has cheated on her with Ella. Slowly all four of the characters are drawn into the speculative affair which Ian refuses to deny in a way that forces Ella closer to him. Rogers and Day are superb in generating tension between the two characters amidst some eloquent verbal bantering that pressures the audience to keep up with them. Rebeck masterfully keeps the story aloft with a series of unfolding complications that manage to avoid becoming just another thriller or succumbing to some easy, pat position on the moral issues in the work. That isn’t to say that she avoids painting herself into a bit of a corer in the end of the show. But I don’t want to spoil the fun. There is an honesty to Poor Behavior as well that is both charming and thoughtful. And in a play that is always in the midst of another argument, that is a good thing. The show runs downtown through October 16.
With the opening of the Los Angeles Philharmonic season and the two well-received productions going on at Los Angeles Opera, you might overlook a significant dance event taking place in Orange County this week. In a luxurious weeklong visit, the San Francisco Ballet has moved into the Segerstrom Center for the Arts with two different programs. This weekend will feature performances of the evening length Romeo and Juliet set to the music of Sergei Prokofiev with choreography by San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson. The week started on Tuesday with the first of two mixed programs that may not have shared the scope of Romeo and Juliet, but certainly provided an excellent primer about what this company is all about. It was an enjoyable combination that featured some remarkable soloists and best of all, was accompanied by live music. Don’t kid yourself. Ballet with a live orchestra like the Pacific Symphony whose members were conducted here by Martin West always makes a big qualitative difference.
The first of the evening three works, ironically enough, was TRIO another original piece from Tomasson that premiered in San Francisco earlier this year. It’s Tomasson’s take on Tchaikovsky’s string sextet Souvenir de Florence. The work itself was composed both in Italy and Tchaikovsky’s native Russia despite its title, and Tomasson played to the differences in tone between the sextet’s four movements by combining the more Slavic sounding later movements into one thus creating the three sections of he dance referred to in the title. All of the action took place in front of a backdrop suggesting architecture of Florence as seen through the impressionistic light of different times of day. The two outer movements both involved larger groups, the first several sets of couples rapidly flourishing about one another. The middle piece, a somewhat ominous tale of a love triangle was paired with the work’s adagio movement while the finale served up a much greater combination of groups and pairs. All three sections highlighted Tomasson’s flair for movement that is classical in many respects, but with enough modern touches thrown in to give it a recognizable fluidity. The vibrant colored costumes added to the beauty of the piece overall despite some ragged moments in the group sequences.
The second act was another work from one of San Francisco Ballet’s inside artists, Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov. RAkU (capitalization his) references the 1950 burning of Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion. Interestingly, though, Possokhov went out of his way to avoid just about anything in the piece either choreographically or in terms of the original score by Shinji Eshima that was specifically Japanese. There are no traditional Japanese instruments in the orchestration. There are no classically Japanese movements incorporated into the dance per its creator. The story of the fire itself is also largely made up in a piece that only suggests a narrative about two lovers who are separated by war, a lustful priest, and a band of soldiers in costumes that are clearly Japanese-influenced. What the piece does have is an elaborate theatrical sense with several movable set elements and video projected onto the set right down to the fire at the show’s conclusion. The other strength of the piece was the work of the two lovers. Yuan Yuan Tan plays the young woman who appears dressed in a vibrant white kimono with an intensely colorful lining that literally flies off her shoulders revealing a giant tail as it rises into the rafters. Her paramour is a very good Damian Smith and the two provided some of the most compelling couples dancing of the whole evening. Although the narrative in RAkU was more implied than explained, as the work continued with Tan’s young woman slowly coming to grips with her apparent loss, I was completely drawn into the whole project.
The show ended with the beloved and familiar Symphony in C taken from choreography by George Balanchine for New York City Opera with the music of Georges Bizet. It was the only choreography older than this year in the program and was first seen with the San Francisco Ballet in 1961. It still looks beautifully sharp with its black and white contrasting costumes (men in black, women in white) in front of a simple blue background. Again some of the movement here was ragged with a few fumbles at times, but the overall aesthetic was good and the principal dancers showed great finesse and balance. Symphony in C provided a nice coda for the evening looking back at San Francisco Ballet’s history and relationship to the national dance scene in an evening that primarily showcased where the company is going. Tickets are still available for this weekend’s shows, and given the quality of these opening performances, Romeo and Juliet looks very promising, starting on Thursday with matinees on both Saturday and Sunday.
Is it me or are the comedies of George S. Kaufman enjoying a spirited revival at the moment? I feel they are everywhere from Chicago’s Goodman Theater, which produced an excellent Animal Crackers in 2009, a feat that Oregon Shakespeare Festival will try to reproduce next season. Meanwhile, American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco will jump into the act today with the opening of Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Once in a Lifetime from 1930. I saw a preview of the show over the weekend in San Francisco and can tell you already that it’s deliriously funny with incredibly sharp wit. The plot is simple and familiar enough. Three down on their luck vaudevillians, May, Jerry, and George, leave behind their act in New York for the Hollywood gold-rush of the late 1920s when talking pictures made the movie industry seem like the motherlode for actors and wanna be stars. The three partners head out west with plans to start an elocution school to train silent film stars how to speak. It’s all very Singin’ in the Rain without the musical numbers.
But as familiar as this material may be with its jokes about how the less one knows, the faster they’ll rise in Hollywood, the production is surprisingly fresh. You can’t let your guard down in this show for an instant, which is filled with more great one liners than a dozen contemporary Broadway shows. When May meets her old friend and now famous Hollywood gossip columnist Helen on a train out west, she hatches a scheme to enlist her powerful friend in furthering her and her friends’ career goals. May chats her friend Helen up about her relationship with a powerful studio boss who passed on getting in on the ground floor with the talkies.
HELEN So he buys everything now! Why – he just signed that famous playwright – you know, May – that Armenian who writes all those wonderful plays and things. MAY Noel Coward. HELEN That’s Right!
Intermixed between the scenes in the show are film clips, both real and imagined, from the period to highlight the output of the Hollywood machine of the period. It’s all very spirited fun and works well due to an excellent ensemble cast. There is the simple George Lewis who may be more prepared to run a studio than anyone expects, here played by Patrick Lane opposite a street smart Julia Coffey as May. René Augesen is the nosy and wily Helen Hobart and the slow on the uptake executive secretary Miss Leighton played by Nick Gabriel in a deft piece of cross-gender casting. But it is Mark Rucker’s bubbling, fizzy direction that really keeps the show afloat. It’s a fleet two-and-a-half hours that flies by even when Kaufman and Hart’s original premise gets a little too repetitive for its own good. The period look of the show is fantastic as well, with Alex Jaeger’s flapper dresses and smart suits amidst the grand-looking art deco studio offices and trendy restaurants of an imaginary Los Angeles. It’s a gem of a show that makes comedy look easy. Forget your troubles and go see it through Oct 16.
September brought another Turandot to California. The state has been awash with this Puccini staple this year. San Diego Opera kicked off their 2011 season in January with an excellent Lise Lindstrom in the title role, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic offered a one-off concert performance of the work with Christine Brewer at the Hollywood Bowl this summer. Not to be outdone, San Francisco Opera also started their season with Turandot with their own home-grown David Hockney/Ian Falconer-designed production, the same one San Diego used earlier this year. On Sunday I saw the fifth performance in the current run with the first of two casts that will keep the show going for 10 performances through November. It was a solid, lively show, which has been justly well-received and was clearly popular among Sunday’s capacity audience.
Things did start off with some bumps, however. This performance was the company’s sixth annual live free simulcast to the giant screen at AT&T Park where thousands of visitors got to eavesdrop on proceedings inside the War Memorial Opera House. This has turned into a popular marketing event, and the company was tweeting like there was no tomorrow throughout the afternoon. As has become the tradition in the house, many of the cast members appeared brandishing Giants paraphernalia during the curtain call. But before the show started, David Gockley appeared and gave a shout out to a corporate sponsor, which he referred to as the best home builders in the Bay Area. A representative from said company then introduced the Giants’ World Series Championship trophy, which he said would be on loan to the opera house for the last few days before it goes elsewhere. He additionally made sure that the audience in the outfield knew that “Nessun Dorma” was the number that shot Brit TV tenor Paul Potts to fame and to be sure to stick around to Act III to hear it. (And some people are worried that Twitter and Spotify are going to kill off classical music.)
Gockley then told us we would sing the national anthem. That is until he was corrected and he then told us that it would only be sung at the ball park. Of course, San Francisco Opera audiences have gotten very used to this these days so all of this confusion sparked of a good bit of clucking in the auditorium. As it turned out, though, we had plenty of time to sing it anyway, considering that it took the next 15 minutes or so to repair the front curtain, which failed to go up after conductor Nicola Luisotti had already started the performance. He stopped, of course, leaving the audience in an awkward silence that was periodically filled out with all sorts of shouted commentary meant to entertain including a spontaneous round of the Star-Spangled Banner. As it turns out, one doesn’t need a giant multimillion dollar machine of a set in order to delay the start of an opera, a good old-fashioned malfunctioning stage curtain will do it just as well.
Of course, the performance that followed this was actually quite good. Hockney and Falconer’s design is colorfully lurid and this time around the company had packed the stage with a super-sized chorus and supernumeraries galore for the complete grand opera effect. The chorus was excellent and the soloists recruited for the first half of this run were uniformly first rate. Iréne Theorin is a Wagnerian soprano in much demand these days and she delivered one of the best Turandots I’ve heard on a major stage in recent years. Her tone was even and piercing and she handled the tessitura with ease. She can project a regal air and her voice never turned shrill. Marco Berti sang Calaf. He seemed to be saving himself in the first act, but considering that he delivered the goods later on, it only seemed fair. And Leah Crocetto’s Liu felt like a major arrival. Crocetto is a recent Merola Fellow and she shone brightly here with real vocal tenderness and strength. I have heard her onstage in Los Angeles as well, and this Liu definitely makes me eager to hear her sing more. Music Director Nicola Luisotti was in the pit for the only production he's helmed so far this year in San Francisco. He took an approach not unlike Gustavo Dudamel did in Los Angeles over the summer looking for all the pumped up energy to make the biggest big moments possible. It was certainly dramatic, though musically it did sacrifice some detail and musicality. But with a show that's pulling out all the stops elsewhere, it's what you'd expect and this Turandot certainly delivers with some big excitement.
I don’t get to hear the San Francisco Symphony as often as I’d like. This weekend I had a chance to see Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas lead the orchestra along with Women of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and the Girls Chorus in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. And after hearing that performance, I regret not hearing them more than ever. It was a stellar performance and one that fit in perfectly with the Symphony’s 100th anniversary season that kicked off earlier this month. We can only hope that the Los Angeles Philharmonic's upcoming Mahler cycle under Dudamel approaches being this good. The programming planned for this year in San Francisco should be the envy of every orchestra in America, and there are too many evenings to recommend than I’d be able to list here. (Though you can check out their website or look at John Marcher’s top pics for the season.) But any landmark season for the San Francisco Symphony would call for a major Mahler symphony if for no other reason than his symphonic works represent a big part of the organization’s output over the last decade. Tilson Thomas, who has been music director since 1995, led the symphony on its own independent recording project of all the Mahler Symphonies by creating the symphony's own recording label in 2001. The resulting recordings of Mahler's orchestral music have been much lauded with several Grammy Awards among the honors. (The Symphony has also produced a series of educational documentaries on classical music for PBS entitled Keeping Score that are now available on DVD.) The San Francisco Symphony has proven that doing it yourself can work on a large orchestral scale just as it can for a young solo independent artist.
So this Mahler’s Third serves as a reminder of many of these successes, and the performance I heard on Saturday night was more than just a nostalgic memory. The work starts, of course, with that lengthy march-filled movement that can sound halting and mechanistic. It was a little dry here at times, but it served as a nice contrast to the more emotive, romantic material that followed. The brass section was stupendous in this work, which is rich both in powerful ensemble passages for the brass players as it is in exposed solo parts. The Comodo (Scherzando) third movement was particularly lovely and seamlessly moved between the various themes and material that comprise it. But the best was yet to come. Soprano Katraina Karnéus was the soloist for the last three movements of the work and sounded bright and clear. The chorus was in excellent shape as well. But it was Tilson Thomas and the orchestra that brought it all home in a heartbreaking climax with beautiful tender strings in the slow final movement filled with the melancholy that comes with experience in this most expansive and world-knowing of symphonies.
I’m not in Los Angeles this weekend. However, if I were, I’d certainly be at the opening performance of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s 2011/2012 season. Music Director Jeffrey Kahane will be leading works by Golijov, Beethoven, and LACO’s composer-in-residence Derek Bermel who will be presenting the West Coast premiere of his concerto for electric guitar Ritomello. It’s a program that sets the tone for a banner season featuring new and recent music from a number of artists including Bermel, Thomas Adès, Gabriel Kahane, and Timothy Andres. Gabriel Kahane will present a new work in April 2012 which will be his second big commission for a local orchestra in Southern California in as many years. His Orinoco Sketches for the Los Angeles Philharmonic earlier this year was one of the highlights of last season. In the meantime, he’s been breaking down musical genre barriers elsewhere with the recent release of his new album of contemporary pop songs, Where Are the Arms which has too many should-be hits to go on about them all here.
Meanwhile, the recipient of LACO’s “Sound Investment” commission this year is the young Brooklyn-based composer, and friend of Kahane’s, Timothy Andres. “Sound Investment” which is now in its 11th year, is a commissioning program run by LACO where donors can make contributions to the ensemble specifically for the purpose of supporting new musical works for the orchestra. Andres should be no stranger to local classical music audiences having made a significant appearance on the L.A. Philharmonic “Green Umbrella” new music series at the invitation of John Adams in 2009. Last week he was back in L.A. to offer LACO staff and supporters a preview of his music and what he’s working on for the scheduled premiere in April. Andres is a tall, thin young man who is much more personable than his bookish appearance might suggest. He’s smart and engaging without being overly demonstrative or effusive. Only in his mid-twenties, he’s had some major successes including the previous L.A. Philharmonic gig. He released his first recording last year, Shy and Mighty, a one-hour song cycle for two pianos on the Nonesuch label. He garnered strong reviews for the recording and on Wednesday at the Colburn School in downtown Los Angeles he gave a small solo performance of “How Can I Live in Your World of Ideas?” a piece from the recording that was also included in his 2009 L.A. Phil performance.
His new piece for LACO is only just now taking shape, but it is a piano concerto that he will perform as the soloist. Andres’ work as a pianist has been highly influential on his compositions to date, and the spring LACO program will feature one of his other more notorious projects, a completion of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26. Mozart famously left much of the music for the left hand in the piece blank with the intention of improvising it later along with the cadenzas in the performance. Andres took up the challenge to complete the piece by rewriting all of the left-landed component of the score not with a mind to mimicking or complementing Mozart, but providing his own retrospective historical commentary on it. You can listen to his performance of the piece on his excellent website already, which I would recommend you do. But until April, there are plenty of other great shows LACO has planned. And you don’t have to wait until April to hear them play. In fact, I wouldn’t wait at all given that Sunday’s show at Royce Hall already has a lot going for it.
San Francisco Opera opened its third production of the 2011/2012 season on Friday. There was no giant animated flag this time and the orchestra didn’t kick off the show with the National Anthem. Apparently Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia doesn’t stir the same love of country that operas about 9/11 do. However, when the curtain rose, there was a giant sign suspended from above with the name and crest of the Borgia clan. But all things being equal, it might as well have said “Renée” considering this show is first and foremost a star vehicle for America’s most eminent soprano. Ms. Fleming stood below the sign bathed in golden light as her character glanced around at the slow-motion carnage around her. When David Gockley took over the directorship of this company several seasons back, he promised new emphasis and raised new dollars to support bringing the biggest stars back to San Francisco. Part of what that's meant so far is quasi-vanity projects like Placido Domingo’s return to the Bay Area for the first time in over a decade last fall for Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Lucrezia Borgia brings Ms. Fleming back to San Francisco for the first time in a decade in a role that she is not well known for and was the role she was notoriously booed for at La Scala in 1998.
After seeing her sing this again, it is true that anyone with even a passing interest in bel canto technique will not likely be taken with her star turn in this role. She herself suggested in a tweet earlier on Friday (above) that this run of Lucrezia Borgia will serve as a farewell to bel canto roles for her such as Rossini’s Armida, which she has sung at the Metropolitan Opera over the last two seasons. But it must be said that an artist like Renée Fleming does not get to where she is at by turning in unattractive performances, and she does deliver a performance here that is entertaining and masterful in what she is able to accomplish in a role that many observers might not feel she is best suited for. She does manage beautifully smooth lines even if they do lack some of the regular acrobatic embellishments. It’s not a harsh or lazy reading and she acts very well here as a mother with some very serious homicidal tendencies.
There are other lovely voices in the cast. A surprisingly chesty Michael Fabiano is cast as Lucrezia’s son Gennaro who is attracted to this most reviled of women who he does not suspect is his long lost mother. Fabiano is athletic sounding and involving here if not as Italianate as one might wish. His buddy/lover Maffio Orsini is sung by Elizabeth DeShong complete with fake stubble. She provides wonderful contrast in her duets and has great energy with Fabiano, although I found her a little underpowered for my taste in the first act. Perhaps the most completely satisfying performance came from bass Vitalij Kowaljow who wowed audiences in Los Angeles as Wotan last year and will be making several appearances there and here in San Francisco this season. His turn as the Duke was dark and vocally muscular communicating evil with his voice as much with his physical appearance.
The rest of the show’s elements are less promising. Conductor Riccardo Frizza, who led Fleming’s Armida performances in New York, led a rather turgid and lumbering orchestral performance. There was little zing in any of this show musically, and everything sounded leisurely paced. John Pascoe’s 2008 production for Washington National Opera was revived here. I didn’t like it then and I didn’t like it much better on a second viewing with its science fiction inspired costumes and bland castle-wall sets. The only real sacrilege in the current show is the use of "party" as a verb in the English supertitles, but I don't think the physical production itself won many fans. Fabiano manages to pull off Gennaro’s spiky blond wig as well as Vittorio Grigolo did in that previous run. But neither his nor Ms. Fleming’s ample cleavage manages to add much sex or depravity for a story chock full of it. Pascoe doesn't completely ignore the homosexual subtext of this story, but outside of what's in the libretto, you could be forgiven for not noticing it played out on stage otherwise. Come to think of it, for an opera about two serial killers this show can be awfully user friendly at times. Think of it as Dexter with worse costumes.
Which is to say that while San Francisco Opera's run of Lucrezia Borgia came off as underwhelming, it was not unenjoyable. If you come wanting to see and hear a big operatic star and other promising vocal performances you won't be disappointed. You've got until October 11 to see for yourself.
Thursday brought the concluding weekend of REDCAT’s 8th New Original Works Festival to downtown best theater venue. It was a triple-bill with some of the weekend's most ambitious and satisfying work. First up were two dance pieces both featuring the talents of Michel Kouakou. The African-born choreographer started off the evening with an intriguing if somewhat oblique solo dance entitled Sack. The title is used as a noun here and there is in fact a sack, bound in rope and suspended from above that swings back and forth as the lights come up. Kouakou lies below while another man stands, bare-chested, with his shirt front pulled up over his head as if he has a hood on. Over the course of the piece as Kouakou begins his rapid, slinging movements, several other darkly clad bystanders arrive and take the same position in their own lights with shirt fronts pulled over their head. Kouakou dodges in and around these people and the sack until he eventually unties the rope and begins weaving it between the other participants as well. The visual references here clearly suggest the last decade of the Iraq war and torture. The sack could be easily be a body or part of one, and the hooded figures invoke images of torture victims that most Americans grew sadly familiar with during the years of George W. Bush. But the political overtones are otherwise oblique and Kouakou’s choreography seems as likely to be struggling with some internal psychological demons as public political ones.
After a brief pause, the evening took off on a very different track with Victoria Marks’ Medium Big Inefficient Considerably Imbalanced Dance. Kouakou joined five other dancers, which was the highlight of this year’s entire NOW Festival. The work was remarkably polished and had a sense of being complete. The six dancers would often pair off into smaller, unequal groups and much of the motion had the feeling of being off-kilter or imbalanced. Dancers start off in one direction, but then appear to have second thoughts resulting in awkward almost comical poses. It reminded me of some of the best international dance projects I’ve seen at REDCAT in recent years, and it was difficult to avoid being completely mesmerized by the activity on stage. All of this was accompanied by a minced-up soundtrack of bits and pieces from d. Sabela grimes that served as a perfect complement to physical movement cleverly mimicking uncertainty in several directions.
The show and festival ended with the most ambitious work of the whole festival, a brief puppet opera called Zoophilic Follies. Like all opera, the artistic collaborators here make for a very long list in their own right. The musical composition is credited to Daniel Corral with a libretto by Sibyl O’Malley. The show was directed and designed by Caitlin Lanoff and Danrae Wilson. Together Corral and Lanoff comprise Tandem, a puppet theater company that has presented a number of well-received projects around the country. For the musical performance Tandem collaborated with the well known local tenor and new music aficionado Timur Bekbosunov and his band The Dime Museum. This small ensemble was joined by four vocalists, including Timur, who sang the principal roles. So with so many collaborators in the mix, not to mention costumes, lights, and the rest of the puppeteers, there was an awful lot of energetic and often funny business going on.
The story is that of Daedalus and his relationship to the royal family of Crete including King Minos, his bull-loving wife, his daughter Ariadne, and the unfortunate product of man-bull love, the Minotaur. Daedalus, sung by Timur, acts as a sort of narrator to the events that unfold familiarly starting from Poseidon’s dealing with King Minos and ending with the death of the Minotaur. The story unfolds not just through the vocal performance of the four principals who branding giant featureless masks to represent their characters, but also through some smaller scale puppetry with dialog, including the building of the labyrinth. The libretto is comical and wryly knowing with a variety of contemporary inside jokes directed specifically at the audience. This is not the Crete we might think of from the Greek debt crisis, Dorian Wood’s King Minos tells us. There are some lovely songs here and it is hard to ignore the musical energy of the piece. And while there were several balance and amplification issues, the rough-hewn feeling of the performance complemented the DIY sensibility of the work. Zoophilic Follies also doesn’t manage to overcome the primary narrative obstacle of the story – while Daedalus is the protagonist of the story, the events that drive the narrative action of the piece belong almost entirely to everyone else. Daedalus remains mostly a footnote retelling how he helped, or didn’t, get all these other people into their own relative hot waters. But visually and energy wise, Zoophilic Follies cries out for further development and performances. You can attend one of them on Friday or Saturday this weekend at the REDCAT downtown.
No, I'm not turning Out West Arts into a Prince and the Revolution tribute blog. (I've thought about it often, but today is not the day.) Instead it's just the birth of Out West Arts-version 6. That’s right, Southern California’s number one independent classical music, opera, and theater blog is five years old. (This actually happened towards the end of August, but makeovers take time my friends.) To mark the occasions I’ve got a new look. One of the things I’ve always prided myself on here is that I feel OWA doesn’t look like any other classical music blog, and certainly not look like a pre-fab one. I owe this primarily to my web designer and editor Jeffrey Langham who keeps this endeavor alive. Without him, I’m nothing.
And of course the same goes for all of you who continue to drop by and check out what I’ve got to say. This all started as a chance for me to share my thoughts and opinions on performing arts in Los Angeles and it's still my main mission, although OWA has grown into something much bigger given the vacuum left by the collapse of printed arts criticism in the U.S. It's still written entirely by me and is still ad free, though I'm not above talking about stuff I like and admire in the hopes you will too. I love hearing from everyone and still get excited over comments and emails, so feel free to drop me a line. I also continue to be indebted to the many bloggers and writers who have shown their support for this endeavor over the years. You know who you are and many of those names are in the Links section on the right.
As for what is new around here, you may notice a couple of changes. First, the Calendar section has been augmented with images in addition to the regular listing of upcoming performances in order to highlight those I particularly consider worth your time and notice. There is now also a new and improved Recommended section. This column contains recordings and performances that I am personally recommending based on having seen them myself and hoping that you'll enjoy them as well. So hopefully you’ll find OWA bigger and brighter than ever. And stay tuned because there is plenty more on its way.
One of the many reasons to love living in Southern California is that there is so much music everywhere you turn. I attend many more performances than most and I have to tell you that I often feel that I only begin to scratch the surface in getting to hear the superb musicians that play everywhere around town. Take Camerata Pacifica, one of the regions’ preeminent chamber music ensembles who kicked off their 22nd season over last weekend. The six member principal ensemble, including Artistic Director Adrian Spence, will play eight programs this season, each receiving five performances over a week-long period in four separate locations including Santa Barbara, Ventura, The Huntington Library in San Marino, and Zipper Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. This movable feast is repeatedly met with some of the most enthusiastic audiences you’ll find anywhere for classical music in these parts. What’s more, the ensemble, which is regularly joined by a wide array of guest musicians, has cultivated an adventurous audience that is interested in a wide variety of recent and contemporary chamber works that show up on Camerata Pacifica’s programs. This season alone will feature three works, including a world premiere, from Bright Sheng, as well as pieces from Elisabeth Lutyens, Peter Wiegold, John Harbison, Xenakis, Dohnányi, Richard Rodney Bennett, and Jake Heggie. There’s plenty of other music to enjoy as well, including Adam Neiman playing Liszt’s Transcendental Études in October.
But before this, Tuesday brought the ensemble to The Huntington Library for a program structured around George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae and Steve Reich’s Sextet. Spence, as is his habit, took time to orient the audience at the start of the evening to the program explaining what to expect and listen for. The fist half of the program included three separate works played without interruption. Things began with the wonderful Los Angeles Philharmonic’s own Joanne Pearce Martin playing a Rachmaninoff Prelude as a brief introduction to Crumb’s Vox Balaenae. This is not Camerata Pacifica’s first time with this Crumb piece and Spence’s excitement for it was palpable. As the title suggests, the work references the musical elements of whale song in a set of variations that consider the breadth of time. Cellist Ani Aznavoorian, joined flautist Spence and Vicki Ray in dark blue lights and Crumb’s dictated masks for these other worldly noises created with extended playing techniques on all of the instruments. Crumb uses the masks and calls for amplification to create a sense of the expansive, non-human, spaciousness of the universe. The references to Messiaen are thick here from Crumb’s allusions to the music of animals in the natural world right down to the final movement of the piece, “Sea-Nocturne (…for the end of time).” And while Vox Balaenae has little in common with Messiaen musically, it does take off from similar cosmic starting points and the players gave a haunting, dark performance of it.
The first half concluded with the first of two works largely for percussion, Thierry De May’s Musique de Table. Building on the theatricality of Crumb’s journey to the sea, Ji Hye Jung, Svet Stoyanov, and Michael Zell sat at a long table and beat, slapped and pounded out rhythms using nothing more than the available furniture. The piece is tongue-in-cheek, but at the same time its highly choreographed movements have an intricacy that drew the audience in. This sort of intricate choreography is second nature for Steve Reich, and the percussionists were joined by a fourth, Douglas Perkins, as well as by Ray and Martin for the sort of bubbly urbanism one has come to expect from his music. This was visceral and exciting playing from the ensemble and provided an earthy counterpoint to the far-flung sea and sky of the opening set. But don’t take my word for it. You can find out more yourself on Thursday when the show makes it to Zipper Concert Hall downtown.
Los Angeles Opera’s new production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, which opened on Sunday, shares a lot with the production of Eugene Onegin. Both feature strong ensemble casts led by LAO music director James Conlon. Both were presented in imported British productions, this Cosi having originated at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2006 from Nicholas Hytner. And both have water features as part of the set design. But whatever similarities or differences may predominate in the two shows, one thing is certain – this Cosi fan tutte is vocal dynamite. Most vocalists with an active operatic career undertake Mozart at one point, but few excel at it on a world stage. That LA Opera has assembled six performers as good as those in this cast is a feat in itself.
There are two international superstars in the cast who deliver all the promised goods. Soprano Aleksandra Kurzak is taking on the role of Fiordiligi for the first time in Los Angeles. She is known for her Mozart roles, and her turn here is a stunner. Her voice is bright and lovely, and her performance of “Per pietà, ben mio, perdona” is powerfully felt. She’s a superb actor as well, which makes her an excellent match for her betrothed Guglielmo, sung here by Ildebrando D’Arcangelo. The Italian baritone is known in part for his swarthy good looks. When his character goes into full seduction mode in Mozart’s comedy, you can feel the heat. That his voice barrels through the tricky acoustics of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is breathtaking at times. He’s ferociously fun to watch. The rest of the cast is equally good. Ruxandra Donose returns to L.A. as Dorabella with a rich, warm tone. Samir Pirgu, so memorable in Woody Allen’s version of Gianni Schicchi a few ears ago proves an agile and admirable Ferrando. Bass Lorenzo Regazzo is never blustery as Don Alfanso and could give either of the supposedly younger lovers a run in the looks department. Meanwhile, Roxana Constantinescu sang Despina, Don Alfanso’s partner in crime in his bet that the two young women won’t remain faithful to their soldier fiancées once they are out of sight. She was mischievous and ceded no ground against the remarkable vocalism on display in the show.
Conlon took relaxed paces throughout, but his biggest achievement was wrangling the multiple 4, 5, or 6 person ensembles Mozart wrote into the score. Cosi contains some of Mozart’s most intricate vocal writing and it can get away from the best of ensembles easily. But not here, everyone was together and on point the whole afternoon and the orchestra delivered a world class Mozart performance.
So with great singing, superb musicianship, and first-class comedic acting chops from the cast, what’s not to love? Well maybe Nicholas Hytner’s bland staging, which was directed here by Ashley Dean. Hytner is one of the world’s most respected directors, and his leadership of Britain’s National Theater is justly well-regarded. But his opera stagings, like the Metropolitan Opera’s recent Don Carlo, tend toward vacant architectural designs. Hytner’s vision places all of his theatrical eggs in the basket of his casts’ skills. Here that works just fine, but it isn’t always the case. The set, a single sparse 18th-century room that opens upstage into a patio area is almost devoid of color. A movable wall of shutters is pushed aside to reveal the patio area which has a small inexplicable pool and looks more like the travertine walls of the Getty Museum that anything associated with the casts’ period costumes. Cosi fan tutte is a comedy about mismatched lovers and productions can easily amp this war between the sexes in a number of spirited, broad ways. And while there are many laughs in the new L.A. Opera staging, Hytner’s vision is decidedly less than comic and looking for something deeper.
By the time one gets around to the large red tent stretched above the lovers as all is revealed in the finale, it wasn’t clear to me that those secret depths had been found. They are there to be sure, and this cast of artistic miners dig deep even if Hytner only lets them get so far. But it was really no matter. This Cosi fan tutte is at its best when it’s singing its heart out. It often does and that is reason enough to go. The show continues through October 8.
Oksana Dyka as Tatiana in LA Opera's Eugene Onegin. Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2011
Even though it's the 4th largest company in the U.S., Los Angeles Opera is far younger than other comparable organizations. In its 25 seasons, the company has yet to get around to mounting Eugene Onegin so the opening of the 2011/2012 season of Saturday seemed like the perfect night to correct that oversight. And they did with a big, colorful elaborate production under the baton of music director James Conlon. The bejeweled gala crowd crossed the white floor covering into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for this most Russian of operas in the midst of a bright Southern California sun. And this time around, the opera performance itself justified all the excitement before hand on this most glamorous of nights. For a company with very little experience with Russian-language operas, this Eugene Onegin is a successful, solid evening of entertainment.
Oksana Dyka and Dalibor Jenis in LA Opera's Eugene Onegin. Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2011
The first thing that went right for the show was the casting. With the exception of Slovakian baritone Dalibor Jenis, the principal roles were sung by native Russian or Ukranian speakers. And while these are names that many in the audience might not be familiar with, they may be very soon. L.A. Opera has a knack for casting known European singers just before they become international superstars. Remember that Manon and Romeo et Juliette with Netrebko and Villazon? Or Marina Poplavskaya's Violetta? The process is still unfolding for Nino Machaidze. The next name you may want to add to that list is Oksana Dyka. The Ukrainian soprano sings Tatiana in her first North American performance of any role. And she soars as the young woman whose impetuous disclosure of romantic feelings is roughly rebuked by the cold aristocratic Onegin. Her voice is agile and strong if not always quite as warm as I might have liked, but this is no doubt a major arrival for her in the U.S. Keeping Onegin relevant in this opera especially against such a performance takes a special baritone who can project a sort of aristocratic cruelty and still command attention. Dalibor Jenis, the Slovakian baritone who made his house debut in this role is almost there. He is dashing and brooding enough to explain why Tatiana would be attracted to him in the first place. Jenis projects well in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. But some of Onegin's aristocratic overtones seemed to take a backseat in his performance to the dark-brooding masculinity that serves Jenis so well in many of his Verdi roles. Ekaterina Semenchuk returned to L.A. to sing Olga which she did admirably well. Lensky was performed by tenor Vsevolod Grivnov who certainly had the technical skills to carry the part off with ease even if Lensky's big second act aria failed to connect emotionally as much as it could with the audience. Of course, having the luxury of hearing him and many others in the cast sing in their native tongues made a huge difference.
I should mention that the orchestra sounded particularly good this opening night with more polish and finesse than usual. Music director James Conlon was on the podium and he chose particularly quick tempi for much of the evening. It was also the orchestra's first official performance under its newly appointed concertmaster Roberto Cani, who takes over for the well-loved retiring Stuart Canin after nearly a decade in that position. I should also mention local favorite, bass James Creswell, who has sung many roles for the company over the years and almost steals this whole show with his powerful version of Prince Gremin's aria in Act III. And speaking of local favorites, how about the great Ronnita Nicole Miller who turns in another wonderful performance here as Filipievna.
Vsevolod Grivnov as Lensky in LA Opera's Eugene Onegin. Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2011
The production itself isn't always as successful as the evening was musically. It was originally designed by Steven Pimlott for the Royal Opera House in 2006 and had a rather mixed reception then. From the outset things are unquestionably situated in the early 19th century as the curtain rises to reveal a scrim covered in a reproduction of Hippolyte Flandrin's Nude Youth Sitting by the Sea acquired by Napoleon III and now residing in the Louvre. It evokes Onegin's beauty and isolation and each act is paired with such a related painted image. The sets themselves are no less colorful and border on the psychedelic at moments. The costumes are roughly in period but do contain their fair share of neon greens and hot pinks. The sky changes color over the course of the day from yellow, to green, to red, orange and black, but rarely ever is there a hint of blue.
The main feature of the set is a river that runs completely across the stage dividing upstage from downstage with a couple of footbridges connecting the two. This can be somewhat difficult to see from the orchestra and the whole show may be better appreciated from the Founder's Circle or above. Downstage is a wooden floor and proscenium with doors suggesting the floor of a house or other interiors. Upstage in the distance are steep green rolling hills that appeared difficult to scale by some in the chorus. All of this does provide for some lovely emotional and pastoral moments with Tatiana playing in the water or the women villagers relaxing by the riverside. The river “freezes” over in Acts II and III which provides an excuse for some inexplicable outdoor ice skating during the Act III ball scene.
But this is one water feature that may cause more trouble than its worth. As lovely as it is in Act I, it forces the indoor scene into contortions to fit the remaining downstage area at times. Tatiana’s room in Act I and the study in the finale, are wheeled out on their own platforms as if floating on the river just behind the downstage area. Perhaps the biggest drawback to the space, though, is the highly cramped quarters that are left for the cotillion scene in Act II where chorus members and dancers are packed together tightly enough to restrict movement. Given that the lighting in this scene is unnecessarily dark the feeling is more speakeasy than ballroom. But director Francesca Gilpin does a good job of doing everything possible to work around these limitations and the physical and emotional interactions between the characters are well thought out. The audience reacted heartily at the end of the show, particularly towards Dyka and for the orchestra. So L.A. Opera's first Eugene Onegin turns out to be a very successful one, and, if you go, you won't be disappointed. The show has five more performances through October 9.
REDCAT’s NOW Festival rolled into its second weekend on Thursday with what turned out to be a promising and often exciting program from two artists with ties to CalArts and their many collaborators. The evening started off with the always visually arresting work of Rosanna Gamson and her World Wide troupe of dancers and actors. The 25 minute dance piece, entitled Layla Means Night, bore many hallmarks of Gamson’s prior projects. It is undoubtedly a dance work, but there is spoken dialog, live music, and numerous props and set design elements that push the performance into something more. The work is a riff on Kitāb alf laylat wa-laylah or One Thousand and One Nights. The performance opens with a blond woman in a red dress angrily slicing oranges and juicing them as a man in a suit closely monitors her from behind. Soon we learn through a narrator that the name Layla is also the Arabic word for night. Gamson, as like other adapters of One Thousand and One Nights is more interested in the frame story of Scheherazade spinning her nightly tales to her new husband in order to prolong her life and avoid the fate of the numerous newlywed virgins the king has killed before her. And from the outset it is clear that this story will be about women in general and that an everywoman, Layla, is as relevant as Scheherazade whose name is never mentioned in the work.
But what feels new here is Gamson’s interest not just in Scheherazade, but the sexual politics of the frame story’s background. The show’s opening narration explains how the king came to be betrayed by his first wife and had her killed before traveling the world with his brother and eventually deciding that all women would be just as unfaithful to him. The male narrator is joined by multiple tall female dancers dressed in elegant evening wear as the story unfolds about the king’s serial murder of virgins the morning after their wedding him. The narration is taken over in part by a woman in a white dress who is standing in for Scheherazade and addresses her stories not to the king, but to her own younger sister, played by a young girl in the performance. As she begins to prolong her life through the repeated tales, the subsequent stories in Layla Means Night aren’t given plots but are replaced with choreographed segments for the dancers. Gamson doesn't take everything too seriously here, though, and the ongoing narration is as likely to undercut events with a smile as it is to make a larger meaningful point. There is a real power and beauty in the piece which seems to unfold in multiple directions simultaneously despite its brevity. There was a sense that this is a first step in a larger project, but it was a great way to start.
After a break, the audience returned for an hour-long, one-act, three-character play by Robert Cucuzza, Cattywampus. Cucuzza’s name has long been associated with some of the most terrible of enfants in the theater world including Richard Foreman and the Elevator Repair Service (ERS). So that Cattywampus is a campy poke in the ribs of theater history is to be expected. The target here is August Strindberg’s late 19th-century tale of sexual and class politics Miss Julie. But Cucuzza has broadly adapted the tale, moving it to a modern-day Pennsylvania car dealership. The middle class front office worker Julie, is seducing car detailer Donnie at the expense of his flirtation with Chrissie who appears to just have stepped off the set of Jersey Shore with feathered hair and all. There was musical accompaniment throughout the entire performance, reinforcing the proceedings with blues and folk inspired plucking. It’s a great and rather edgy idea that is going for laughs more than intellectual insight. However there is a delicate balance here. Lower class American stereotypes will only get you so far these days without seeming obvious. Cucuzza avoids this pitfall by preserving much of the commentary on sexual power dynamics, and the physical grappling and explicit language certainly go farther than Strindberg’s play did. The show is peppered with some unexpected dancing that will remind viewers of ERS shows. And all three actors, D. J. Mendel, Jillian Lauren (Julie), and Jenny Greer (Chrissie) were marvelous, never overplaying their hand with the material. But above all Cattywampus is sharp-witted with a keen perspective and, with a little more development, could be a major success in a much broader context. This weekend’s program will run again Saturday night.
A couple of weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times published a misguided rant from Mark Swed about how “technological fascism” is the latest destroyer of worlds for all things classical music in the form of such online services as iTunes, Twitter and Spotify. I wrote about the problems with this flimsy argument then, but there’s a whole other part to the story. Which is that the social media/online revolution is breaking open new avenues for younger artists to get their works heard in ways that never could have happened before. It turns out that the Internet, much like a deity, never fails to open a window after closing a door. And if you aren’t hanging around reminiscing about your college days listening to ever-increasingly copyright protected Beatles albums, you might just catch a whiff of the future.
Let me start with a story. A friend of mine, a former USC Thornton School of Music graduate student, relates the following: In the spring of 2011, the school hosted a visit from the young, high-profile composer Eric Whitacre. As the story goes, during the Q and A session that followed his appearance, a soon-to-be graduate posed the question to him of whether or not it was a good idea for a young composer to be willing to give up some control of her work when signing a first contract with a publisher in order to get her foot in the door. Whitacre’s answer was clear. Never give up anything. Why would you want to? Those days are gone. Do it yourself. He estimated that the cost in time and effort to photocopy parts for a customer should not hinder anyone from going it alone in distributing their music, considering that publishers may not be able to do much in terms of promoting a young unknown composer not to mention the large cut in overhead they take. It's a topic that Whitacre has written about on his elaborate web site's blog. What Whitacre may be one of the best examples of, is a composer who has managed to get his work heard in numerous venues and recorded in part due to his active engagement in social media outlets from Facebook and Twitter to You Tube. His 2010 Virtual Choir project using thousands of vocalists individually recorded on line, which were then mixed together for a single performance of one of his scores, generated lots of media attention. And while this in and of itself may not have made him a fortune, it has made his name even more memorable and helped drive increased interest in his work overall.
But the story isn’t just about YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Composers who are in and just out of music programs are doing for themselves in terms of financing performances and recording as well. Take Isaac Schankler, a 2010 graduate of the Thornton School who has found the benefit of Kickstarter for getting his music played by real people. Schankler’s chamber opera about the rivalry between Tesla and Edison, Light and Power, was produced in Boston earlier this year when the sponsoring organization, the Juventas New Music Ensemble, raised money for the performance through the site. For the uninitiated, Kickstarter provides microfunding for a wide variety of unrealized ideas from consumer goods to music and art. Visitors can pledge small amounts of funding towards projects creators have listed on the site and in aggregate get work funded that might never have seen the light of day. A goal is set by the proposer and if enough contributions are pledged, funds are collected and awarded to the creator with funders receiving goods or services from the collective project. Shankler and colleague Aron Kallay host a concert series of electroacoustic music under the moniker People Inside Electronics and recently received funding through Kickstarter for a concert this coming Saturday September 17 at MiMoDa of electroacoustic music featuring new compositions performed by California's Eclipse Quartet. This, like the chamber opera, is a show funded by dozens of people chipping in various small amounts on Kickstarter who are interested in seeing it come to life. (The video above gives more details.)
And if that isn't enough technological fascism for you, take Dale Trumbore, a composer and USC student who has already had works premiered by the Kronos Quartet during her time at the University of Maryland. Trumbore has also funded projects through Kickstarter, including her upcoming CD release Snow White Turns Sixty, a song cycle for soprano Gillian Hollis based on twelve texts from contemporary female poets. Trumbore will be rolling out the recording this month and has several dates set up around the country for concert performances of the new piece. Trumbore is an artist who, like many other young classical composers and musicians, is finding use for one of the many music e-commerce sites like Bandcamp. Bandcamp allows artists to sell their music directly to customers without having to set up their own individual sites to handle download and payment technical issues. It also allows them to avoid some of the pitfalls of selling music on iTunes although it does not prevent artists like Sufjan Stevens, Gabriel Kahane, Trumbore or anyone else from doing so simultaneously. Artists can set up their own subsidiary Bandcamp sites and set their own prices for their music outside of the iTunes 99 cent track dictum. Is anyone getting rich there? Probably not. Is it a way to financially support music and artists you care about without having to go through Big Apple? Definitely.
Ensembles have gotten into the act as well like Los Angeles' own wildUp who have an active on line presence and have used services like Bandcamp as well. This recently formed contemporary music collective under the artistic direction of Christopher Rountree has been making a splash over the last year participating in such performances as the Sofia Gubaidulina festival at REDCAT last spring. Their future plans contain some of the most promising programming around with a Clarence Barlow show in November and another slated for the spring examining young composers on both coasts including Timo Andres, Andrew Norman, and Missy Mazzoli among others. wildUp's roster is crammed with a who's who of young musicians, composers, and sound artists who are actively engaged in social media like Andrew Tholl and Chris Kallmyer.
But these examples are only the tip of the iceberg. There is a whole generation of musicians and composers who are collaborating, interacting and creating spurred on by their online connections. Careers are building built in new and different ways with the use technologies that can just as easily demonized. This does not mean that anyone named above or elsewhere hasn't relied heavily on other more traditional methods to fund and support their work. This does not mean that all music that comes out of online collaboration is great music. But it does suggest that music, like life, will go on even with the changing interface we have with technology.
Aleksandra Kurzak. Photo: Andrzej Swietlik/Decca 2011
There's another big star who knows her way around the Mozart repertory and who will be seen starting this week in Los Angeles. Her name is Aleksandra Kurzak, and if you don't already know her name, you soon won't forget it. She’s sung Donna Anna and Susanna just about everywhere and I was particularly taken by her turn in Don Giovanni in Salzburg in 2010. At Los Angeles Opera on Sunday she’ll make her role debut and company premiere as Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutte alongside Ildebrando D’Arcangelo and an all-around excellent cast under conductor James Conlon. (Spoiler Alert: She was nothing short of amazing at Wednesday night’s final dress rehearsal so don’t say nobody warned you well in advance.) Kurzak’s career has taken off on the major international opera stages in recent years and her schedule is packed with several high-profile assignments. After Los Angeles, she’ll move on to New York where she’ll be singing Gretel for the Metropolitan Opera over the holidays. But she’s taking on many of the cornerstone Italian soprano roles as well and to trumpet this development, her first recital recording for Decca, Gioia! was just released on Tuesday. The disc features arias from Puccini, Verdi, and Donizetti alongside her well-known Mozart roles. With all that’s going on for her, Out West Arts was extremely lucky to get some time with her for another back-to-back session of 10 Questions.
What role would you most like to perform, but haven’t yet?
There are a lot of roles I would love to sing, but unfortunately the ones I would most like to portray such as Tosca or Butterfly are not for my type of voice. Of course you never know how your voice will develop and how it will be in the future, but for now they remain just on the wish-list.
What role would you never perform, even if you could?
I've never thought about it actually. But most probably it would be contemporary music.
You’ll soon be making your Los Angeles Opera debut in a new role for you, Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. Given that you are particularly well known for your Mozart roles, what is the best thing about singing his music?
Mozart is very difficult to sing. It's a kind of test for a singer. You can hear everything. You can learn a lot. It is a pure technique. If you can sing Mozart, if you know how to do it, you will never get lost. You will have no problems with different styles, from the technical point of view. Not even one note can be missed. You can't hide yourself behind a orchestra, or by using some romantic portamenti. The music has to sound very simple and because of this, it's so beautiful.
These are arias I am performing right now. At the beginning there was an idea to concentrate on one composer, but we soon decided that maybe I should show a little bit more. Different styles, composers, different colours. A kind of calling card.
What do you like best about singing for audiences in the United States?
The audience is just wonderful. Very warm and enthusiastic. The people come to the theater to enjoy the show, to have a great time and it can be felt and it helps us as the artists so much, because we can really feel it on the stage.
Which music made you want to sing opera?
Opera itself :-) My mother is an opera singer and my teacher, my father used to play french horn in the orchestra in the Opera House in Wroclaw, my native city in Poland. So I basically grew up in the opera house and there was no other choice.
What qualities do you like in an opera stage director?
I like when they know something about music and understand singing. I like a fresh outlook. I like a modern style of acting. I want to see good theater but with respect for the music. I like the collaboration. I think that all of us, not only directors are responsible for the new production. It has to be a teamwork.
Aleksandra Kurzak (L) and Ruxandra Donose (R) in LA Opera's Cosi fan tutte. Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2011
You’ve worked with many of the major conductors and vocalists in the opera world over the length of your career. Is there someone you haven’t worked with yet you’d like to?
My biggest dream has always been to work with Maestro Domingo.
What's your current obsession?
Maybe it's not an obsession yet, but I do like bags and shoes :-)
With which of your operatic roles do you have the most in common?
I would say my dream role Tosca. She is a singer who lives for love and music. This is very beautiful, to live your life surrounded by persons you love and do what you love.
This weekend brings the opening of the Los Angeles Opera season and the other half of the company’s 1-2 punch to kick things off this year is Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. The show promises to be particularly exciting for the inclusion of a number of world-class Mozart specialists. Certainly the most devastatingly handsome of these is the international Italian star, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo who’ll make his company debut in the role of Guglielmo. His Mozart roles have been preserved in a number of recordings including my personal favorite, his appearance as Figaro in the 2006 Claus Guth production of Le Nozze di Figaro captured at the Salzburg Festival alongside Anna Netrebko, Dorothea Röschmann, Christine Schäfer, and Bo Skovhus. (Check out a sample of D'Arcangelo's performance below.) But if you’re looking for more evidence of the composer most near and dear to D’Arcangelo’s heart be sure to check out his latest Deutsche Grammophon recital recording of Mozart arias that appears in stores and online in the U.S. today. The major arias from all the DaPonte operas are here as well as a few concert arias. They are beautifully sung with D'Arcangelo's rich warm tone. It’s a testament to how he got where he is in the opera world and comes highly recommended. Needless to say, Out West Arts was smitten with the chance to pose 10 Questions to the charming bass-baritone who kindly agreed to take a break from his rehearsal schedule to do so.
What role would you most like to perform, but haven't yet?
Méphistophélès in Faust, which I'll sing in 2015. I've done Boito's Mefistofele. I'm really in love with this kind of music, even though I'm a good guy. The more I think about the afterlife, it's a mystery that attracts me more.
What role would you never perform, even if you could?
No Wagner now, but maybe in ten years. Wotan is a dream. I'm really slow in deciding what to sing.
You'll soon be making your Los Angeles Opera debut as the young lover Guglielmo in Mozart's Così fan tutte. As a bass-baritone, is it more fun being bad or being funny on the opera stage and why?
I really love both, and that's the beautiful thing about this job. You can really fly along with the music and really get into the clothes of the character you play. The satisfaction is not in the applause, it's in how you interpret the role.
You're best known as an interpreter of Mozart and have a new Deutsche Grammophon recording of his music that is just out in the U.S. What's the best thing about singing Mozart?
Oh, it's my life! It's so attuale [relevant]. Something like Così fan tutte could really happen. Mozart is so simple and perfect. I think that he came from another world.
What's the best thing about singing something other than Mozart?
Mozart is my first choice, but some music directors forget that you have the capacity to do other things. They'll see a singer as only a Wagnerian, or a Donizettiano or a Mozartean. I like to do everything: Verdi, Mozart, Rossini....
Which music made you want to sing opera?
My father was a musician. He wanted to name me Radames, but my mother said no. When I was a teenager, I was singing in a chorus and the director brought in the mezzo-soprano Monica Bacelli to help us with our singing. She told me that I had a beautiful voice and she started to teach me. My first opera was Don Giovanni, when I was 16. The finale was completely amazing.
A remarkable number of your performances over the years have been preserved on both audio and video. Is there a particular recording you are glad was saved for posterity?
Alexander Boyer and the cast of Idomeneo in San Jose Photo: B. Shomler/OSJ 2011
The weekend ended in the same tone and fashion as all that had preceded it – with Trojan women lamenting their lot and an opera about another heart of another soldier. Opera San Jose opened up their 2011/2012 season on Saturday with Mozart’s Idomeneo. The company relies on its own in-house resident vocal artists for all of its shows and usually presents performances more frequently over a shorter time period than other companies using two different alternating casts. This system provides some benefits in terms of more protracted rehearsal times and better integration among performers who work together repeatedly over a season in many different productions. When Opera San Jose opens a show, they are good and ready, which was apparent on Sunday when I saw the second performance in the run, which was the first with its particular cast. It was ironic in a way that on September 11, I felt as if Mozart had more to say to me about heroism and loss than Heart of a Soldier did. Within moments of the opening bars of Idomeneo all the insanity of the world seemed to organize itself in a manner humanity could comprehend.
But this is the magic of Mozart. Idomeneo, the King of Crete, has returned from war and a decade lost at sea to find that he is still at the whim of capricious gods. He has unwittingly promised Neptune to sacrifice his son (to end the king's wanderings at sea), a task from which he demurs until he finds it otherwise means that many more of his subjects will die. Idomeneo's heroism comes with a price and is not an unassailable given, making him more dramatically interesting and his story more profound. The opera is a huge undertaking for San Jose- and they have clearly spent a lot of time and effort in putting together a show that pulls out all the stops. Large sets, a huge chorus, and a corps de ballet are a few of the bells and whistles here. There was even use of the California Theater’s organ to accompany the voice from above in Act III. And just when you thought the show was over, the dancers returned for the final burst of ballet music with elaborate acrobatics like something out of Stomp as a show capping bonus.
But most importantly the company was able to offer up four well-matched and quite enjoyable vocalists on Sunday in the large principal roles. Sandra Bengochea sang Ilia (the above mentioned Trojan woman taken captive during the war) with Betany Coffland as Idamante, and Jasmina Halimic as Elettra. All gave detailed and well controlled performances with lovely flourishes. But I was most impressed with Alexander Boyer whose Idomeneo had boundless energy and stamina. His performance grew richer and progressively more touching as the show continued. The Act II quartet was particularly affecting and well sung. Meanwhile in the pit George Cleve took a leisurely pace through much of the afternoon, never crowding or rushing the vocalists. The orchestra was lovely and sounded very invested. Which was important considering that even though there were still cuts to Mozart's score, as is typically practiced everywhere, there were far fewer cuts in this performance than anyone reasonably familiar with Idomeneo might expect, and the show runs just under 4 hours with two intermission. With music like this, though, you won't regret a moment of it.
As for the production itself, Brad Dalton directed the show, which was designed around photographs of Minoan art and relics from Crete. It was a logical choice for the show and the sets used large reproductions of famous Minoan frescoes for backdrops. It wasn't unattractive, but the flowing robes and sandals kept things square in the European fantasia opera camp. And while things swerved recklessly towards kitsch at times, the hard work and commitment to the story kept things on track. Dalton cleverly casts a non-speaking actor as Neptune (one with a duly godlike hard body on display despite the white hair and beard) who haunts the stage when Idomeneo sings about his fateful choices, keeping the focus on the central conflict in the story. I was also taken with the large and elaborate three-story shrine used in the opening of Act III that gave the finale the kind of grandeur it needed. The show runs in the beautiful California Theater in downtown San Jose through September 25.