Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

And the winner is...

September 28, 2006

Photo: Al Seib/LA Times 2006

Achim Freyer.

Well, at least at LA Opera. As noted in today's LA Times, Freyer has been selected to direct the company's recently announced 2008-2010 production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Of course this is great news considering how fantastic his prior LA Opera productions have been inclduing Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust and Bach's Mass in B minor. Of course both, particularly the latter, were met with some controversy. Given Mr. Freyer as director, what Mr. Domingo meant a few weeks ago by "moderate" production remains to be seen. I think this can only be good news for LA Opera, but, of course, it does leave them at least two good years to completely screw this up, which should be ample time given the switcheroos in recent memory.

Conlon will conduct and the cast is scheduled to include Plácido Domingo as Siegmund; Linda Watson as Brünnhilde; John Treleaven as Siegfried; Anja Kampe as Sieglinde; Michelle DeYoung as Fricka; Eric Halfvarson triple-cast as Fafner, Hunding and Hagen; Gordon Hawkins as Alberich; Graham Clark as Mime; Jill Grove as Erda; Arnold Bezuyen as Loge; and Alan Held as Gunther.

Weekend Update II

September 26, 2006

Paterson with Villazon and Netrebko in rehersal. Photo: Jamie Rector/LA Times 2006

It happens a few times a year - a weekend (typically in the fall) where there are so many worthwhile performance events going on that it becomes impossible to do everything. This year, that weekend is immediately on the horizon. While I will get to see some highlights including the abridged but well-reviewed production of The Peony Pavillion now touring the West Coast and the opening concerts of the LA Phil season with Salonen conducting Mahler's Third, there are just as many events I will miss. (Michelle DeYoung will be filling in for the greatly missed Ms. Hunt Lieberson in these performances which will be dedicated to her memory.)

Sticking most in my craw is having to miss the Long Beach Opera's "No Mozart" show, honoring the composer's anniversary year by featuring none of his music but three works by Nyman, Andriessen, and Part about Mozart and his legacy. I do love modern music and am sorry to miss this, but decisions must be made.

Also this weekend is the opening of LA Opera's much-anticipated new production of Manon directed by choreographer Vincent Paterson with Plácido Domingo conducting and featuring the Jana of Ms. Netrebko to the Zan of Mr. Villazón. (You can check out podcasts from the director and stars here.) Lewis Segal has a teaser/promo in tomorrow's LA Times, and by his account this sounds like a doozy. Updated to 1950s Paris, Manon becomes a young wannabe starlette who alternatively makes herself up to look like Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Audrey Hepburn. Paterson is quoted as wanting to emphasize "physicality" and also notes he has cut 20 to 30 minutes from the piece to help "focus" on the primary interaction between Manon and Des Grieux. While there is no doubt that this runs the risk of a huge disaster, I live for this stuff and I can't wait to see it. Unfortunately, since I'm headed off to the OC's Ring cycle, it's going to have to wait until later in the run.

Job Performance Reviews -
LA Theater Edition

September 25, 2006

Cast of Nighthawks Photo by Craig Schwartz 2006

Maybe it's just the time of year but lately the local arts press has decided to issue a job performance review for Center Theater Group's artistic director Michael Ritchie, now at the start of his second full year on the job. Most notably the LA Times lead theater critic Charles McNulty published a relatively lengthy notice on Sunday. McNulty makes a fair and impassioned criticism: CTG under Ritchie is too reliant on big name actors and writers to fill seats for lackluster productions at the expense of a serious play development process favoring quality and emerging talent. He cites a pattern of seemingly impetuous decisions that have resulted in bomb's like Steinberg's Nighthawks, which recently arrived sans development at the Kirk Douglas theater. However, one man's wanton impulsiveness may be another's bold decision making. In the eyes of Steven Leigh Morris, over at LA Weekly, risk is a necessary element for moving theater forward and he gives Ritchie some credit for this despite his concurrence with McNulty on Nighthawks otherwise.

Ritchie certainly has taken a lot of flack in the press for his approach, but has it so far really produced much worse outcomes than the last few years of Gordon Davidson's tenure? Didn't anyone else sit through Jones' Stones in his Pockets, Hampton's The Talking Cure, and Wilson's Radio Golf ? Yes, Davidson is a legend and certainly had a more political slant. He also had a strong committment to the development process and help create the careers of many well-respected theater talents. Still, he was by no means above picking up real dogs for the sake of long-trusted colleagues.

Of course the irony is that this is also about the 1-year anniversary of McNulty's arrival on the scene at the LA Times after an extended period without a lead theater critic. Several people in the local community noted that a vacancy in this position at the West Coast's major newspaper caused significant damage to the local theater scene due to the lack of a consistent external voice to cajole and congratulate. It isn't at all clear that McNulty has stepped into this role fully either, though his piece on Ritchie's choices is a big step in the right direction. He certainly seems to review a nice blend of major productions and more community-oriented ones. But I think there is still a tendency to write as an observer from without as opposed to an informed participant from within the community. This carpetbagger image is somewhat unavoidable for someone who hasn't spent most of his time in LA prior to coming to the Times. Still, many of his more recent reviews have been less academic and do a much better job of communicating the excitement of theater and why it is worth fighting for. Slowly but surely, I think McNulty is becoming the stong voice this community has needed for a long time.

Weekend Update

In this last weekend before the fall music season is completely underway here in Los Angeles, I'm making the rounds of many of the recent theater openings.

Over at the Geffen Playhouse, Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole opened up the new season. While generally well written, I don’t see what all the bother is. The play moves along at a decent pace, but it still suffers from TV-movie-of-the-week plotting and sentimentality. In short, the whole thing seems to suffer from an overabundance of moderness. It is so "current" and "relevant" and "fair-minded" that it sinks under the weight of its own conventionality. I could hear people crying in the audience at the end, but I just kept feeling like "Why bother?"

Harmony Jiroudek, left, Marja-Liisa Kay, Marc Lowenstein and Sarah Chalfy.
Photo: Lawrence K. Ho / LA Times 2006

On the other hand, downtown, REDCAT opened one of its major fall productions, a new "post-rock" opera entitled What to Wear? with music from Michael Gordon and libretto and direction by Richard Foreman. The incredibly inventive production has a great deal to recommend it: a wild set that impinges on the space around the audience, a great score, lots of humor, and a lot to think about. In many ways, it was the exact opposite of Rabbit Hole - incesently pressing the boundaries of music theater in all directions at once. Despite Foreman's professed intentions to avoid doing so, there were a number of stunning images and moments in this work that placed issues related to the construction of identity front and center. [Here is a brief interview with Foreman about his preperation of this work from KCET.] Still, the whole thing seemed to work more as an academic exercise than anything else. Not that that's a bad thing, I just wouldn't rush to see it again. The CalArts students and faculty in the cast were very good, though many of the props often looked overly amateurish compared to the sophistication of the costumes and sets. All that being said, I'll take the thoughtful evening over the more conventional one any day.

Speaking of return visits, Sunday, it was back to Los Angles Opera for another viewing of their new Don Carlo. It is always a good sign when a production is even more enjoyable the second time around, which this certainly was. Zajick is an inspiration.

Of course I went out and signed up for Sirius satellite radio service this weekend to take advantage of the Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts. After a couple of trips and some alterations to my car's stereo set-up, everything seems to be working well. Now if I can just find some way to get the streaming internet radio feed to work on my Mac, I'll be set.

A Tale of Two Cities

September 20, 2006

Looking back on last weekend in San Francisco, it was sometimes hard to believe that I was in the same city from one moment to the next, at least judging by the local arts events and their audiences. Of course it’s unfair to think of San Francisco or any place as a unified community, but events there certainly invited the vision of San Francisco as two different cities when it comes to the world of the arts.

On the one hand there was the marvelous SFMOMA exhibit Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint. This very unusual, experimental and challenging show was well reviewed, drew significant crowds (at least on the day we were there), and generally seemed to excite a lot of the people who saw it. This was an arts community interested in the future of art and having new experiences.

On the other hand there was the very lackluster Un Ballo in Maschera at San Francisco Opera. Oddly enough, the forward-thinking San Francisco crowds were nowhere to be found in this part of town. The contrast was especially heightened during a post-matinee public comment session the new general director, David Gockley, invited all audience members to attend. I went, but wish I hadn’t. The time he didn't spend fielding complaints about restrooms, supertitles, fragrance, and the catering was spent reassuring older patrons that nothing new or exciting will be happening at San Francisco Opera any time soon.

Of course the writing has been on the wall for a while – Gockley sniping about Runnicles in Opera News last month and now the announcement that Runnicles is on the way out are just the latest harbingers. Many in the Q&A audience expressed concern that they would be exposed to more “Eurotrash” productions and longed for “Handel done right.” The most depressing thing about this is not that some people seem content to see the same old thing over and over endlessly, but that Gockley seems intent on pandering to them. He pointed out that he also shares their concerns and leans towards more traditional period productions which set off a small round of applause.

(Of course who knows what “traditional” or "period" means anyway. A 21st century representation of Handel’s Roman characters would look very different from, say, a 18th century version: neither of which comes close to resembling an actual Roman. It seems that some people are only happy if everything looks as they would imagine it from watching television.)

Gockley then spoke about the cliché notion that opera’s audience is dying out. He reminded us that if opera is going to be around in 20 to 25 years, it will have to attract new audience members. However, it is ironic to think that catering to the provincial tastes of audience members who (as they themselves point out) have attended the San Francisco Opera since the 1960s and 70s will accomplish this.

As a person in the my mid-30s who is likely to be one of those desperately-sought future audience members, I can state that some of the most rewarding productions I have seen in the last five years came out of Pamela Rosenberg’s supposidly avant-garde tenure at San Francisco, including Janácek’s The Cunning Little Vixen in 2004, Adams’ Doctor Atomic in 2005, Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre in 2004 and Handel’s Rodelinda in 2005. Even when the productions failed, like Busoni's Doktor Faust in 2004, they were fascinating missteps. I, for one, don’t believe that drawing new opera goers will be done by producing the same old tired worn out period productions of the same old tired worn-out operas for the next 50 years. I have seen good and bad “traditional” opera productions and good and bad Regietheater productions. I think that both of these are completely legitimate approaches and the idea of needing to sacrifice one for the sake of the other makes the opera world much poorer on the whole.

Of course, Gockley may be responding to one of the golden rules of capitalism – it’s not about selling people what they want or need, it’s about making people want or need whatever it is you have to sell.

I guess the image I'll be left with are of the middle school students at the Matthew Barney exhibit who seemed excited, amazed, perplexed, and sometimes revolted by what they saw; children who were strangely absent in any form from the Ballo performance.


September 19, 2006

Deborah Voigt as Amelia. Photo: Terrence McCarthy 2006

The other major purpose for this recent San Francisco trip was to complete September's California Verdi trifecta by attending the San Francisco Opera's season opening produciton of Un Ballo in Maschera starring Deborah Voigt. Unfortunately it was not a case of saving the best for last. San Francisco's current Ballo is the operatic equivalent of Disneyland's Pirates of the Carribean ride. (The old one. Not the new Johnny Depp one) As an adult, there is little amusmant to be found in the experience outside of a twinge of nostalgia.

The boring and unimaginative period staging was not helped by Gina Lapinski's direction or the uninspired conducting of Marco Armiliato. However there was the consulation prize of getting to hear Deborah Voigt, who did her best to keep this ship afloat. I'm not sure I was completely sold on her Amelia, but she did have one advantage over her fellow cast members - she was willing to do some actual acting.

With bad acting, there is always some debate as to whether they or the director are to blame. In this case, I suspect it was more the later considering that non-performances were given by not only Marcus Haddock and Ambrogio Maestri but also virtually eveyone in the cast. On the plus side, standing still and staring at the audience throughout the performance did give the audience the chance to concentrate on their signing ,which was enjoyable throughout.

This, of course, was the first production of the first full season under David Gockley's tenure as general director of the company. But, as I've said before, this wasn't all due to his planning, and you can hardly hold one stinker against anyone.....At least, not yet.


SFMOMA bits and pieces

While visiting the Matthew Barney exhibit at SFMOMA, I came across some other tidbits that were too good not to mention. The current display of contemporary painting and sculpture on the 5th floor contains one of the marvelous paintings of Marilyn Minter, Strut (2004-5). Minter has received increasing attention lately for her photorealistic paintings about the nature of glamour both in a solo show at SFMOMA in 2005 and this year’s Whitney Biennial. Also in the galleries at present is a lovely Gerhard Richter portrait, Lesende (1994) and a wonderful piece from Rachel Whiteread that reminded me of the very stirring installation EMBANKMENT (2005) at the Tate Modern I saw in London earlier this year.

Phil Collins, dünya dinlemiyor, 2005
© Phil Collins 2005
However, I found the most interesting piece to be a new work from British artist Phil Collins. Entitled dünya dinlemiyor (2005) Collins traveled to Istanbul where he filmed volunteers who had responded to a local ad to perform karaoke versions of their favorite tracks from the Smiths 1987 recording the world won't listen. All ther performances were filmed with single head-on shots in front of banal department store photo backdrops of alpine or tropical island scenes. He has done this before in a similar work filmed with participants from Bogotá, Columbia. The work implies much about the tensions between East and West in the developing and developed world. It also has much to say about the role Western pop culture plays in these developments. Most surprising is how intese some of these renditions are. While at times played for laughs, these performances are simultaneously serious in a very dark way.

Matthew Barney in San Francisco

September 18, 2006

My recent weekend in San Francisco kicked off with a visit to the exhibit Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint at SFMOMA. This was the closing weekend of this retrospective of all 13 projects in the series Barney has completed to date including objects from his most recent film release Drawing Restraint 9 and a new work completed specifically for SFMOMA, Drawing Restraint 14.

Flensing the Occidental Guest, 2005 Matthew Barney. Photo: Keizo Kioku

Of course Barney has made a career so far out of these large-scale multi-media installations and projects. Much like the The Cremaster Cycle exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2003, the Drawing Restraint series, though much smaller in scope, can be overwhelming. Barney trades in a complicated series of symbols, images, and themes repeated over and over whose meaning often seems elusive. As usual, much attention is paid to how these works are produced. Barney, a former athlete, is particularly interested in the physical aspects of creating his work and the parallels between athleticism and artistic production. These issues are again on display here amidst the large gelatinous white structures and luminous video screens.

But what few comment on, and what interests me more, is the emotional content of and response to the work. I have found many of the Drawing Restraint 9 objects quite moving. There is a certain sense of inevitability about it all as the process of development and eventual dissolution is played out over and over. Seeing the great sprawl of the giant collapsed gel-like field symbol makes me think about the trade-offs we make in entering into communities, relationships, and other organized states. There is always something lost from a more “primitive” state in achieving a more organized and functional one. Or thinking of it another way, Barney’s work is the artistic high-art equivalent of the satisfaction that comes from popping bubble wrap. Seeing the unpopped wrap gets under your skin and the release from the anxiety by actually popping it is both enjoyable and destructive in a way.

Barney’s best work may be yet to come. With his interests in the development/decay process and the role of athleticism and physicality in artistic production, what lies ahead as he himself age? What happens when the body can no longer respond in the intended way in the production process? Questions that will be very interesting if Barney chooses to address them over the course of his own career.

It was a dark and stormy night...

September 14, 2006

Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip II.
Photo: Robert Millard 2006

The first great production of the 2006-2007 LA Opera season arrived this week in the form of a new production of Don Carlo directed by Ian Judge and conducted by James Conlon. In fact it was so good it almost made me forget about the half-baked Traviata a few days previously.

Don Carlo was not quite as star-studded as La Traviata, but definitely made up for this in the "action-packed" department. Judge seems to be going through a phase of what euphemistically might be called "period minimal" stagings. They are neither exactly traditional nor avant-garde. They often seem simple and designed to be inexpensive, but are often very effective and dramatic at the same time. Typically, the sets involve several small repeating units that can be moved and shuffled into various arrangements like building blocks. Judges' 2005 Romeo and Juliet consisted of an erector-set style Barbie Dream House that at various times opened, closed and/or rotated in different positions. This time around it was all about arches. The arches were set in separate tall wall segments placed at angles to one another that could move forward or retreat as needed. Add the occasional column, table or 10 ft crucifix and voila instant church, bedroom, or courtyard. The wall space above each arch contained segments of original Caravaggio-inspired paintings of suffering and frequently bloody martyrs and religious figures. These ever-present images were effective in maintaining an appropriate dark and foreboding mood throughout all the proceedings. What made these sets most interesting to me, however, was the movement. While this 3 and 1/2 hour opera was staged almost entirely on a single set, it never became boring due to the set movement, which would create different configurations in the honeycomb of arches while emphasizing different aspects of the paintings on the upper part of the set. At the same time, none of this was glaring enough to distract focus from the performers and the music.

Salvatore Licitra as Don Carlo with Annalisa Raspagliosi as Elisabetta.
Photo: Robert Millard 2006

Needless to say, this was a rather stark and somber affair. Of course this was abetted by the fact that the strongest vocal performances were in the hands of the “bad guys.” Dolora Zajick’s Eboli was great as was Ferruccio Furlanetto whose peformance made the opera seem a little more Philip II than Don Carlo. The real star of the show though was James Conlon and the LA Opera orchestra. This is the third performance of a major Verdi work I have seen him guide this year and I can’t help but be impressed. As with the San Francisco Symphony's performances of the Requiem this summer, the score was propelled with a life all its own and really seemed to be working hand-in-glove with the onstage drama. No small feat given how rarely these concurrent activities are associated in most modern American opera stagings.

Which brings us to Don Carlo himself, Salvatore Licitra. This is the fourth time I’ve heard Mr. Licitra perform and I continue to be at a loss as to how he has maintained a headlining career entirely off of that last-minute-cover-for-Pavarotti story. Granted, this was the best performance I’ve heard him give yet. However, this may also be due to the fact that I had splurged and sat close enough to actually be within range of his voice. This isn’t all bad news though – he was good enough to officially fall to number two on my list of least favorite tenors right after Franco Farina.

Still, I enjoyed the production enough to justify a second visit later this month. If this is where LA Opera is headed under Conlon’s musical guidance, it will be a great ride.

Well sports fans, I’m off to San Francisco this week for Matthew Barney, Deborah Voigt, Thomas Mann, and les huitres, the real San Francisco Treat. See you soon.


Lunch, or Traviata II: Breath Deeper

September 13, 2006

At lunch today my good friends Kate and Deborah came up with an excellent idea for a competition this opera season.

(While we were waiting for our food to arrive our waitress removed a small container of jelly and butter from our table and then gave it to other diners without any comment to us.
D: How does she know that I don’t want to use any of that jelly?
K: I don’t think you’re ready for that Jelly.
Hilarity ensues.)

Several years ago, we attended a great production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. During a very tense and angry exchange between Walter Younger and his mother, an elderly patron behind us turned to her companion and delivered this keen commentary: “You know what his problems is. He just can’t adjust.” Best of all, we didn’t have to wait for the next day’s paper or even intermission for this analysis - it was provided free of charge during the performance.

Luckily for us all this was not a one-time event. Everywhere we go there seem to be audience members full of witty bon mots and piercing insight that must be shared while the artists are performing on stage. Many of these individuals are aware that this might bother their fellow audience members and therefore make concerted efforts to save their commentary for particularly slow or uninteresting parts in the productions like, say, the arias and duets in an opera for instance. After my relating an experience from over the week-end, Kate and Deborah suggested that we should have a competition for the most outlandish thing overheard from a fellow audience member over the course of the next season. This was quickly agreed to, and I was thrilled to have the first entry for our annual “He just can’t adjust” award for concurrent theater criticism.

I had related to my friends that on Saturday’s performance of La Traviata at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, I had the distinct privilege of overhearing some sage commentary from my neighbors in the theater that was both keen and inspiring. The woman next to me, lets call her Mrs. Chatterson, seemed to have some sort of bad asthmatic condition that caused her to gasp for air every time the curtain rose on one of the incredibly banal Marta Domingo sets. By Act III, she decided talking to her husband might alleviate this condition and asked him to speculate on whether or not Alfredo being so close to Violetta might result in him developing a positive PPD in the future. While other clearly unsympathetic and uninspired audience members around us quickly shushed them, I couldn’t help but be intrigued. This is Hollywood and I believe Mrs. Chatterson had just handed me pure sequel gold. La Traviata is so popular, that I’m sure Traviata II: Breath Deeper is money in the bank. Alfredo, enraged by his lovers death and now infected with TB returns home on a stealth revenge campaign to infect his sister and all of her ungrateful offspring in revenge for the sorrows that have befallen him. Mmm, delicious.

If you have a story you’d like to share, feel free. There’s no real prize other than undying admiration but that hasn’t ever stopped you before.

Talking Trash with Alan Rich

September 11, 2006

One of the things I love about Alan Rich is that he has gotten to that age where people feel they have earned the right to say whatever they want regardless of whether or not it makes them sound like an old codger. This is especially apparent in his regular column in LA Weekly where in addition to music criticism, he regularly launches into attacks on the music criticism of others in the local press. Check out his most recent article where he takes a well-deserved swipe at Adam Baer and Chris Pasles of the LA Times as “preening dilettantes”.

I might buy a copy of his new book for this fact alone.

Piangi, it's good for you

September 10, 2006

Renée Fleming as Violetta Valery.
Photo: Robert Millard 2006
The 2006/07 LA Opera Season kicked off last night with the first of three performances of an all-star La Traviata. It’s tempting to read meaning into this performance given many of the coincidences associated with it, but that may not be wise or fair to do since, in reality, this is only one performance of one opera. It is subject to the same artistic factors good and bad that many productions are subject to and any greater meaning for the future of the company or opera in Los Angeles may only be clear in retrospect.

Yet, this doesn’t change the fact that there are a number of unusual aspects to this particular production that both the press and community will reflect upon. For instance, this La Traviata is the fist LA Opera appearance for James Conlon, the company's new Music Director. Does his performance or the orchestra’s say much about their future relationship? Tonight, while the playing was at times ragged, overall Conlon made himself known right away, taking a much more cautious and thoughtful pace than is currently popular with many other conductors. The Act I party became less of a manic free-for-all and more of a bright and breezy affair. Additionally, Conlon had firm control of everyone and kept things clear in some of the more rhythmically challenging spots. He seems to have figured out a lesson others miss: La Traviata is not a race. The audience greeted Conlon with a healthy roar at the start of each act and during his own curtain call at the end. Perhaps more telling, though, was the appearance of the entire orchestra on stage with Conlon for their own curtain call at the end. Whether this is an opening night gesture, a sign of unity and camaraderie, or both remains to be seen.

The money shot. Rolando Villazón as Alfredo Germont.
Video Image: LA Opera 2006
Another important feature of tonight’s performance was the company debut for Renée Fleming. (She has given a recital for the company in the past.) While major stars have appeared in LA in the past, principals have often been relatively young performers just starting out or singers who are well known but generally past their prime. It is only recently that they have drawn bigger, current international starts like Ms. Fleming, Anna Netrebko, Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna, Susan Graham, Bryn Terfel and others. Does Ms. Fleming’s appearance suggest a new era of increasingly A-list casting in LA? Reading last night’s tea leaves would largely depend on what one thinks of Ms. Fleming and where she is in her career. Much was made prior to her appearance over which of two Marta Domingo directed Traviata stagings that LA Opera owns would be used for these performances - a more traditional one or a 1920s “flapper”-themed one. Also, part of the contractual arrangements for this production included a DVD quality film to be produced featuring Ms. Fleming's performance for which extra money needed to be raised. My thoughts – Fleming is very good, but she’s no Violetta. Coloratura was nowhere to be found in Act I and I think she often missed the more fiery aspects of Violetta’s character. Things picked up though and she demonstrated just why she’s a superstar in the more lyric passages in Act II and Act III.

Finally, this La Traviata is the first show of the company's 21st season. Will this give us any indication of where the company is headed artistically? Whether it does or not, it certainly tells us something about where it has been. As previously mentioned this was an old production from the 01-02 season that was revived at some expense in order to have a “traditional” production for the videotaping. Ironically, Ms. Domingo directed a new staging that the company presented last June. Both were boring. Ms. Domingo doesn’t seem to appreciate how large the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion stage actually is and gives us one large empty featureless room after the next. She will tend to pick a color (say orange, gray, or red) and run with it – not in a good Robert Wilson kind of way but in a bad Garanimals kind of way.

Rolando Villazón as Alfredo Germont and Renato Bruson as Giorgio Germont.
Photo: Robert Millard 2006
However, boring and staid may well be what people want, or at least the kind of people opera companies seem desperate to attract these days. The crowd on opening night was near hysterical in their adulation for virtually everyone and everything. The frequent pauses for clapping mid-act (and in one case mid-aria) certainly played a role in stretching this evening out to near Wagnerian length at 3 and 1/2 plus hours. Some of it was deserved. This is the second time I’ve seen Villazón sing Alfredo and he is magnificent. The same can be said for Mr. Bruson who was the first completely believable elder Germont I have seen. When Mr. Bruson started to sing, it was easy to forget that Mr. Hvorostovsky (who I've seen in this role as well) backed out in rather short order. All this, and hometown favorite Suzanna Guzmán as Flora to boot.

In short, this was an Act II La Traviata. When the emotions turn darker and fill with regret, Ms. Fleming really started to shine and stellar performances from the men brought it all together. Despite its faults, it was hard not to get swept up in the enthusiasm the crowd showed for this La Traviata. Where to from here? Only time will tell.


A new season begins

September 07, 2006

Well out on the West Coast the opera season has finally arrived with both LA and SF kicking off this week-end with big names, expensive cocktails and plenty of talk about money. Eli and Edythe Broad continue their single-handed revitalization of arts and culture in LA by donating 6 million to LA Opera for a Ring cycle sometime this decade apparently. They get their name on the General Director's position and we get a “moderate” production, in Domingo’s words, as reported by the NYT. Of course this is sure to fuel the controversy amongst local commentators like Christopher Knight of the LA Times about Broad’s generosity and his tendency to keep his hands and/or name on everything no matter how public or publicly funded it may be. But who am I to complain? As long as opera and the arts have such little public sector support here in the US, as compared to their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere, we will have to continue to take it where we can get it. And we will have to continue with unimaginative, conservative, and largely unoriginal work. However, Broad’s pockets are deep and if he wants to spend it on stuff I like, so be it. Plus, I’ve always wondered what Wagner in moderation would sound like.

Speaking of shelling out money for the arts, I, too, am growing excited about the coming season and have more or less mapped out a very busy schedule of things worth seeing. Here is what I've decided on for Fall 06:


Verdi - La Traviata
at LA Opera with Conlon/Fleming/Villazón/Bruson

Verdi - Don Carlo
at LA Opera with Conlon/Licitra/Zajick/Raspagliosi

Verdi - Un Ballo in maschera
at SF Opera with Armillato/Voigt/Haddock


Wagner - Ring Cycle
at OCPAC with Gergiev and the Marinsky Ensemble

Massenet - Manon
at LA Opera with Domingo/Netrebko/Villazón

Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov
at OCPAC with Gergiev and the Marinsky Ensemble

Wagner - Tristan und Isolde
at SF Opera with Runnicles/Brewer/Moser

Verdi - Rigoletto
at SF Opera with Lord/Dunleavy/Gavanelli


Puccini - Manon Lescaut
at SF Opera with Runnicles/Mattila/Didyc

Rossini - Il Barbiere di Siviglia
at SF Opera with Barbacini/Gunn/McHardy


Montiverdi - L'incoronazione di Poppea
at LA Opera with Bicket/Graham/Daniels/Von Stade

Humperdinck - Hansel and Gretel
at LA Opera with Gilbert/Schaufer/Kanyova

Tan Dun - The First Emporer
at Met NYC with Dun/Futral/Domingo/Groves

Bellini - I puritani
at Met NYC with Summers/Ntrebko/Cutler

Old Crown Medicine Show
Henry Fonda Theater 9/5/06

September 06, 2006

Yesterday, my partner asked me, “Where have all the alt-country flowers gone?” But he already knew the answer – record company marketing divisions have moved on. When will they ever learn?
The rest of Los Angeles’s No Depression subscribers showed up with us at The Fonda Theater last night for a rather spirited show from Old Crow Medicine Show. This was the fist show on a national tour to support their second album for Nettwerk America, Big Iron World. My exposure to OCMS first occurred through one of their many appearances on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion on NPR. In fact, they preformed live at the Hollywood Bowl with Prairie Home in 2005. This was especially notable, given that they opened with a song about the evils of cocaine, “Tell It To Me”, the first track on their previous eponymous release. (Cocaine is not typical subject matter for Prairie Home even though OCMS has touched on it twice in their recordings strangely enough.)

The Fonda show was raw, energetic, and fun, even if the lousy concrete-box acoustics made for an uneven pair of sets. Of course there was something charming in how low-tech the whole affair was. No silly back up band, no opening act, and a group of young men who generally seemed enthused about playing to such a “large” crowd in a roughly 70% occupied tiny hall in LA. Most of all, however, it was refreshing to hear a group of young men playing music informed by an American folk tradition without feeling the need to be ironic or arch. That is perhaps what I like about the band most - even more than their somewhat populist ethic.

However, this is LA, and audiences are used to competing with performers for who can be more ironic. Given OCMS’ refusal to deliver on this front, many in the crowd seemed confused about how to go about enjoying this music. But somehow they managed. Of course this is a city that sells more country music than anywhere in the nation yet can no longer support a radio station to play it on the airwaves. (In fact, it would appear that allowing Rick Dees, of all people, to return to radio would be more profitable.) I, of course, found this news comforting in a way given that we fans of classical music have been consuming on the “long tail” for decades now and it appears that these forces may be catching up with other sectors as well.

Anyway, catch the Old Crow Medicine Show, if you haven’t already, on Prairie Home Companion on September 23rd on NPR, if you get a chance.

OSF 2006 - Wrap-Up

William Langan as Leontes and Miriam A. Laube as Hermione with Mark Murphey and members of the Ensemble. Photo: David Cooper 2006
My final day at OSF this year was a bit of a mixed bag. The day started out with a Libby Appel directed staging of The Winter's Tale. Like The Tempest, it deals with themes of self-reflection, magic, and the power of love to overcome sins of the father. However, unlike The Tempest, the comic elements in The Winter's Tale are concentrated almost exclusively in Act IV. This can create a rather inconsistent tone overall which was not helped with this particular staging. While the first three and final acts were quite moving, Appel's propensity to over emphasize musical elements in the text gave Act IV a Seven Brides for Seven Brothers quality that was very annoying. It was hard to feel too bad about the whole affair, though, given the absolutely stellar performance of Greta Oglesby as Paulina.

Robin Goodrin Nordli as Roxane with Rex Young as Christian. Photo: T. Charles Erickson 2006
Later that evening, I attended what turned out to be the closest thing to a summer blockbuster OSF is likely to turn out. Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, in all of its 17th century frills and wigs, roared onto the stage at over 3 hours with nearly all of the regular repertory actors in the cast in an all-swashing/all-buckling extravaganza. While it was nearly impossible to feel emotionally connected to this seemingly endless concoction, it was hard not to admire all of the craft that went into putting it together. Robin Goodrin Nordli’s Roxane went a long way in holding all the pyrotechnics together. She is one of my favorite OSF actors in recent seasons and this performance continued to demonstrate she can deliver the goods. Deserving special notice, Richard Howard covered for the ailing lead without missing a beat.

So the final score card for OSF this year was definitely a winning one overall: two outright successes in Bus Stop and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 3 high-quality enjoyable shows despite their flaws - King John, The Winter's Tale, and Cyrano de Bergerac, and only one real loss in Merry Wives. As has been true in the past, this is a much better record compared to any set of six plays I might see elsewhere over the year and that is the main reason I keep heading back up to Southern Oregon. If you haven’t gone, you should.

OSF 2006 - Stop and go

September 03, 2006

Danforth Comins as Bo Decker and Tyler Layton as Cherie.
Photo: Jenny Graham 2006
My first visit to OSF was in 2003. I came up with my partner and some friends from LA who had regularly attended the festival in the past. My friends extolled the virtues of the festival but I found it hard to believe that traveling all the way to Southern Oregon to a largely rural community for theater could be worth my time. Of course, I was quickly won over by the charms of Ashland, and the quality of the theater experience here. Prior to this time, I was a big music fan, but would go to the theater only if there was something I “had” to see. However, after my first year here I began to think, “if theater if this interesting and this much fun here why am I depriving myself the rest of the year in a city with a vibrant theater community like LA?”

Each time I return to Ashland it serves as a reminder of why I love going to the theater. Sure there are a lot of dogs along the way, but there are also many wonderful and unexpected surprises. This year my second day of the festival was no exception. In the afternoon I saw a production of William Inge’s Bus Stop directed by the festivals current artistic director Libby Appel. I am familiar with Inge’s plays but wasn’t necessarily expecting much given that I have typically viewed them as rather dated. Additionally, there is the matter of that film version with Marilyn Monroe to force from one’s memory. Granted that would be a good thing to have happen but, like many traumatic experiences, not an easy thing to do.

However, happen it did in Ashland. I was completely drawn into this rather forced conceit of strangers stranded in a bus stop overnight in a snow storms and was actually moved. Tyler Layton made me forget about Monroe’s image over the course of her performance as Cherie that was both funny and knowing. Danforth Comins took perhaps the most trite part in the whole piece, the young and restless Bo Decker, and made it believable and enjoyable. Although the production was not particularly fresh or bold and the play itself not overly ambitious in any way, it did what all good theater should: rise to become more than the sum of its parts.

Judith-Marie Bergan as Mistress Quickly Photo: Jenny Graham 2006
Of course into every week here in Ashland a little rain must fall be it literally or figuratively. Unfortunately it was not the weather kind but the dramatic kind in The Merry Wives of Windsor on Saturday. Wrapped in inexplicable garish neon colors and costumes that suggested a cross between Mad Max: Beyond Thurnderdome and Calamity Jane, this production failed to ignite much fire of laughter. There were some bright spots in the performances including Tyler Layton’s Alice Ford, Shona Tucker’s Mistress Page, and Jonathan Haugen’s Master Ford but this was hardly enough to rescue this mess. Andrew Tsao’s direction favored the shrill and didactic over any real sense of interaction between these characters and it often felt like these normally excellent actors were looking for some escape. However, simply putting more energy into it often made characters like Falstaff and Quickly seem more maniacal than thought out. Part of what makes Wives so funny is the warmth and humanity which were sadly missing. Better luck next time. Until then, I’ll stick to Verdi.

OSF 2006- Two Gentlemen and the future of OSF

September 02, 2006

Ensemble Photo: T. Charles Erickson. 2006

My first evening at OSF this year closed with the new production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Attention to this production from audiences here has grown in the last weeks with the announcement that Bill Rauch, the show’s director, will assume the artistic director’s position at the end of next year following the departure of his predecessor of the last decade, Libby Appel.

This is not the first time Rauch has directed a production here. In fact he has been a constant fixture over the last four seasons leading some of the more memorable stagings including Hedda Gabbler in 2003 and a Vegas-themed The Comedy of Errors in 2004. Of course Rauch has a long history in Southern California with the Cornerstone Theater Company as well as leading a long list of productions with South Coast Repertory, CTG’s Taper, Pasadena Playhouse, and La Jolla Playhouse. He has established a reputation as someone who is willing to take risks on the inventive and new and acknowledges the great import of community-based projects and initiatives.

I was thrilled to see an LA and Southern California theater figure appointed here at OSF and if this Two Gentlemen is any indication, there are some exciting evenings ahead here is Ashland. Rauch has moved the setting of the play in an effort to emphasize that Valentine and Proteus are leaving their insular and protected world in Verona to become more worldly gentlemen in Milan at the Duke’s court. To achieve this, he exploits the concept of rumspringa from Amish culture where youth leave home to experience the outside world’s temptations before making a decision about whether or not they will join their communities as adult members in full standing. In the production, Verona becomes an Amish enclave with characters leaving for a WASPy world of tennis courts and privilege in Milan.

Ensemble Photo: T. Charles Erickson. 2006

This transplant works beautifully for the most part and makes the whole affair pop visually. It also imbues many of the comic elements with a stronger sense of “town and country.” On the down side, the show still suffers from a small amount of mugging and pandering by some of the actors in what seems like an effort to augment or heighten the comic effect at times. Here we have David Kelly as Launce cursing “What the hell ?!” under his breath at moments of surprise and squirting the audience with a water bottle to emphasize his sister’s crying when he left Verona. Granted this often occurs while he is onstage with a dog which as always presents an extra challenge to overcome. While I recognize this type of engagement has its precedence in Shakespeare’s time and certainly keeps with the comic spirit of the whole piece, I can’t help also feel that it suggests the audience can’t “get” the humor otherwise. This is not an uncommon strategy here at OSF and many of the strongest regular players here get called on regularly for this kind of work including not only Kelly but also Ray Porter (absent this year although he recently popped up at A Noise Within in Glendale) and Christopher DuVal. I certainly don't mind anachronism in theater or opera, but I do believe there is a fine line between telling us something new about the familiar and using a crutch to fill in gaps in either trust for an audience or weak material.

Still, this is a quibble in such a strong and enjoyable production with so many other virtues. Next season Rauch will direct Romeo and Juliet and I for one look forward to see what is in store under his coming leadership.

OSF 2006 - King John: What's Not to Like?

September 01, 2006

Michael Elich as King John (center) with Jeanne Paulsen as Eleanor of Aquitaine and René Millán as Philip. Photo: Jenny Graham. 2006

I really enjoy the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. This is my fourth year attending the festival and even though this visit has been more truncated than in years past, things are already off to a great start. The first production I’ve seen this year is Shakespeare’s King John and it represents much of what I like about the festival and why I keep coming back.

King John is hardly the strongest play Shakespeare left us. It’s no Richard III – in fact, it’s no Richard II. But after seeing this excellent production directed by John Sipes and starring Michael Elich as King John, it’s hard for me to understand why this play is so maligned. Yes, the plot wanders and the focus seems to shift rapidly and without reason as if Shakespeare himself wasn’t sure of what the point was. However, this play is still stronger than half of what I’ve seen in contemporary theaters in NY, London, or LA.

Of course this King John benefits in no small part from the traditionally high OSF production values and acting. The women in the cast especially stand out with Jeanne Paulsen as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Robynn Rodriguez as Constance giving firm but never shrill performances. Also of note is René Millán whose Philip, was executed with a youthful assurance and energy that grabs attention but is restrained enough not to seem cloying.

Emma Harding as Arthur, Duke of Brittany. Photo: Jenny Graham. 2006

OSF does do Shakespeare well most of the time and this can especially benefit lesser-performed works like King John or last years Henry VI Parts I, II, and III. In this production the costumes were updated to the early 20th century and full use was made of AV effects by projecting images related to the action onto the otherwise static set during scene changes. While these are certainly not original ideas, they are an excellent example of the care and attention OSF provides to a rarely performed work. Perhaps the wisest choice however, was Sipes' decision to emphasize the aspects of the story concerning the child Arthur's claim to the throne. This focus makes the most of the often described undertones in the play ascribed to Shakespeare’s loss of his own child during the completion of this work. In the end this production comes off as more than the cliché indictment of the horrors of war or a historical play being used as an allegory of our own times. The focus is on the moral lassitude and shifting allegiances and how we pay the price for these common failings in achieving our goals. In King John these aren't the traits of the evil or weak, but are part of the darker components of the human character. It emphasizes the very things about Shakespeare’s writing that has allowed it to survive – what Harold Bloom calls the invention of the human.

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