Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Noises Off

October 31, 2006

All is calm. All is quiet.
Like any space specifically designed for the performance of music, the Walt Disney Concert Hall here in LA has it quirks. Much has been made of the hall's superlative acoustics, but as has been pointed out many times this comes with a price. Everything in the hall is amplified equally - not only performers, but candy wrappers, coughers, and rattling programs as well. Every now and then the building picks a fight with a performer or an audience on its own terms. While the battle is often over amplification, this is not always the case. Sunday was one of those nights, and the hall nearly won.

The occasion was a solo piano recital by András Schiff. He played an all Mozart program of piano sonatas and other smaller pieces, and generally played them beautifully with great intensity. However, he was not alone. Approximately 30 minutes or so into the performance the cacophony of the usual rustling was added to when an elderly gentleman accidentally knocked over his cane sending it careening down a flight of wooden stairs. Minutes later, a woman in the front row in a side section, directly in Mr. Schiff's line of vision clacked her way up a flight of stairs in heels in an effort to escape due to a coughing fit she had developed. At this point, Schiff suddenly stopped playing in the middle of the Adagio in B Minor K 450 and walked off the stage shaking his head. Minutes later the president of the LA Philharmonic, Deborah Borda, came out and after a rather upbeat admonishment to the audience to help keep it down, Mr. Schiff returned. After striking the first note, a cell phone went off. The audience groaned, but Mr. Schiff continued with the program.

I have mixed feelings about this behavior overall. There were audience members who booed when he returned and several people left while he was away. I certainly sympathize with the frustrations over cell phones and poor audience behavior that seems rampant these days. Concentrating in this environment is nearly impossible. However, at the same time, outside of the cell phone, none of the noise making that occurred on Sunday was really avoidable and isn't performing under stress and distractions without flinching part of the job of performing to begin with?

Of course no place is free of these issues regardless of the quality of the acoustics. I've seen this happen before in 2004 in a solo recital of Bach's solo violin sonatas and partitas given by Christian Tetzlaff. I also witnessed a similar event this year in Berlin when Simon Rattle chastised the audience for coughing too much at the Philharmonie during a concert performance of Pelléas et Mélisande.

In the LA Times, Mark Swed writes that he felt the disruption broke an overly studied and mannered air and actually improved Schiff's playing. I'm not so sure. I myself didn't make it through the program because after all the dramatics, I found I couldn't concentrate either. All I could hear and think about was the crackling of programs.

Where is Tipper Gore when you need her?

October 29, 2006

It’s not easy being a child in today’s world where dangers lurk around every corner. The negative effects of music on children’s behavior have been well documented in the popular press and this Saturday’s LA Philharmonic concert was a stark reminder of the costs of exposing impressionable young infants to music. Apparently listening even to classical music predisposes infants to developing disruptive and oppositional behavior.

Many parents have sunk good time and money into classical compilation CDs of the works of Mozart or Beethoven in the hopes of creating smarter or more cultured children. However, these experiments have had a chilling effect on today’s concert halls. Everywhere, classical music concerts are overrun with Mozart-loving babies and their ilk creating their own special brand of havoc. After months or weeks of exposure to classical music, these infants become unruly and irritable. Often, they demand that their parents take them out in public to see the music performed live.

However once there, they block aisles with their strollers and diaper bags creating obstacles for people with canes or walkers. Needless to say, the Mozart-loving baby has overly rigid standards that make him a harsh critic. At the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday, one of these infants showed-up and, as is typical, made his displeasure with the performance of Emanuel Ax in Mozart’s 9th Piano Concerto well known to everyone. Before Mr. Ax had even finished playing the adagio, the infant cried out in protest, a brutally harsh judge of what he considered sloppy technique. The parents of course, wisely decided not to move him knowing that this would only enrage him more.

It’s come to the point where the government should really step in to curtail some of the negative influence that classical music has on infants by limiting their access to these recordings. In the meantime, there are steps that one can take to avoid these altercations. One is to avoid programs featuring the favorite composers of many babies such as Brahms, Beethoven, or Mozart. There are few babies at new music concerts and most programs of 20th century music are still relatively safe considering the multinational music conglomerates have yet to sink money into “Baby Loves Feldman” or “Baby Loves Saariaho.” However, further action is needed. Only by preventing babies access to classical music will we prevent their rowdy and disruptive behavior in public.

Dear Christine,

October 24, 2006

Christine Brewer as Isolde and Thomas Moser as Tristan
Photo Terrence McCarthy 2006

(An open letter to Christine Brewer, soprano)

I usually refrain from so personal a salutation with someone I don't actually know (in fact I usually find it quite irritating), but I'm making an exception in this case because I think your singing is great and in some ways I feel like I owe you one. You see, I have been following your career for a little while now and have had the opportunity to hear you sing live on six occasions in the last two years and have always been really impressed. (I missed a seventh opportunity when I had to leave Santa Fe early in 2005 due to illness and missed Peter Grimes.)

Most of these events were concert performances of acts from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde that you did with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the LA Philharmonic in 2004 as part of their Tristan Project. The performances were important to me in that, not only did you sing splendidly, but you changed my attitude toward Wagner. I had my fair share of exposure to Wagner before this, but hearing you in this context – along with the contributions of Peter Sellars, Bill Viola, Salonen, and your fellow cast members – was the first time that I "got" it. Love transcending death and life at the same time - how German, how romantic, and what a great idea for an opera. I've looked at Tristan and all of Wagner's other operas with much more admiration since then. In fact, Tristan is easily one of my favorite operas at this point – as is Parsifal – and I do associate some of this change in my perception with you and your performances.

That being said, it's hard for me to be completely objective about the recent San Francisco Opera production of Tristan und Isolde you appeared in last weekend. Despite some problems, overall I had a great time. I thought you were great – not too steely or overbearing but with excellent power and beautiful tone. Of course, having the support of Mr. Runnicles and the fine SF Opera orchestra in the pit is no small matter. It's a shame that they're letting him go on his way at the end of his current contract.

All hands on deck - Act I
Photo Terrence McCarthy 2006

It appears you have a good colleague in him, and heaven knows you both have had to put up with your share of not so great things from San Francisco Opera lately. First, there was that Newsies-inspired '30s paperboy get-up from Fidelio last season. This time your obstacles appear to be even greater. Again you've had to deal with Mr. Moser, who, while not bad, isn't really keeping up with you. It was much more pleasant to hear you accompanied by Jane Irwin's Brangäne. Then there is the direction problem. Instead of constructive guidance in the acting department, it appears that the team favored mime training as indicated by the moon-like pantomimes you and Mr. Moser repeatedly had to engage in. Certainly we all have our Shields and Yarnell moments, but sticking you with this onstage is cruel. All this and then you snag (another) unappreciative review from Mr. Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle.

You're Isolde has faired much better here in LA (as did the wonderful Brünnhilde teaser you delivered at the Bowl in 2005), and I imagine it will again in the Spring when you return for further perfromances. So do yourself a favor, come on down and enjoy the sun, we're happy to have you.

Sincerely yours,
brian at outwestarts.com

P.S. I picked up your new recording of the opera under Runnicles with John Treleaven and thought you were much better matched in this context.

P.P.S. When do we get to hear a fully-staged Brünnhilde?

Kiss Me, Rigoletto

October 23, 2006

Chirico The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, 1914
On Saturday night, I finally saw San Francisco Opera's current production of Rigoletto. Of course the bad news about seeing the show so late in the run was that it featured the "B-team" Rigoletto of Valery Alexejev instead of Paolo Gavanelli who had received generally good notices for his performance. Further complicating this situation was the announcement (made by the general director David Gockley who received thunderous applause for no apparent reason other than moving the supertitles) that Mr. Alexejev had been suffering from bronchitis but was going to perform against doctor's advice and asked our indulgence.

I'm never sure how we are supposed to take this news. I feel it's a bit of a set up in that it seems designed to lower expectations and/or elicit sympathy. Generally I don't tend to think of people who ignore their doctor's instructions as brave but as foolish or, worse yet, stupid. Alexejev was rocky, underpowered, and totally absent in the lower end of his range. Maybe it was the cold, maybe it wasn't. Who cares anyway? - the real star of the show was Mary Dunleavy's Gilda, which was great. She also outclassed Giuseppi Gipali's Duke by a longshot.

All of this transpired in a somewhat surreal Court of Mantua designed by Michael Yeargan who was reportedly influenced by the paintings of Italian surrealist Giorgio di Chirico (1888-1978). They did create an eerie quality, but this was undercut by Mantua's strong resemblence to Padua as designed by Richard Pefferle for the 1953 film adaptation of Kiss Me, Kate. Though Yeargan's design was more poorly lit and somewhat less colorful on the War memorial Opera House stage, I was ready for Ann Miller and Bob Fosse to pop out and break into "Tom, Dick, or Harry" at any moment. You make the call:
Mantua Photo: Terrence McCarthy 2006

My only other qualm about a generally good production was that the movement problems afflicting the Swedish from the season opening Ballo have apparently spread to Italy (and Cornwall and Brittany, too, as Sunday would reveal) suggesting that Europe may have much bigger concerns than an impending bird flu. The performers seemed glued to the stage, unable to budge. Since this problem has been attached to three different directors in only two months, my theory is that the SF Opera follow-spot operator has developed carpal tunnel syndrome and everyone is trying to facilitate a speedy recovery. With all these thoughts of disease, maybe it's harder to notice how sadistic an opera Rigoletto really is. But maybe that is not such a bad thing.

Take Courage

Mr. Thibaudet - fighting the good fight
Late October, and once again it’s off to San Francisco for a weekend of adventure and opera. Before the main course, however, there have been plenty of chances for some appetizers. On Friday, I decided to stop into Davies Hall to hear what was up these days with the San Francisco Symphony. Unfortunately, the answer was Semyon Bychkov and an evening of wildly overwrought performances. After listening to him and the Symphony barrel unceremoniously through Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony as well as Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2 and Golijov’s Last Round, I was ready for a drink. I've never understood why some people don't like Shostakovich or think his music is bobmbastic until Mr. Bychkov began to give me an inkling just how that might come about. The soloist for the Saint-Saens, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, did put up a good fight by trying to inject some finesse and thoughtfulness into the proceedings. However, dynamics outside of loud and shrill were not to be the order to the day. Oh well, better luck next time.
Katie Barrett as Yvette and Ivonne Coll as Mother Courage
Photo: SF Chronicle/Kurt Rogers 2006

On Saturday, my luck improved as I traveled across the bay to see the Berkeley Repertory Theater’s recent staging of Brecht’s Mother Courage. Ivonne Coll starred in this production directed by Lisa Peterson which featured new music composed by Gina Leishman. The show was a huge winner with a clear vision and a fair amount of appropriate humor. This was a conventional production in the way that Brecht (and Weill's) work often is these days - stark, dark, and just a little menacing - but despite being unoriginal, it worked well. The stage was essentially empty except for a few props and costumes and strategically drawn curtains at times. During the course of the show, the back wall became a surface for the cast to write dates, names of songs, lyrics, and other material on. These tactics have been used elsewhere to much less effect including the abysmal Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera last year. Much of the success was likely attributable to the strong performances of the cast including three great women: Coll, Katie Huard as Kattrin, and Katie Barrett as Yvette. The play was topical and currently relevant without having to spell everything out in painful and unescessary detail. Leishman's music couldn't avoid the Weill overtones that the piece invites, but again these worked well in virtually all spots.

There's a lot to be learned here. Too many current directors worry too much about Brecht seeming out-of-date, but he can do just fine if you let him speak for himself. Next, off to the opera.

Audra McDonald at the Cinegrill

October 20, 2006

Audra McDonald’s current cabaret tour pulled into the Cinegrill in the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel this week for four shows in two nights. Much as she has done elsewhere in the country, she dazzled everyone in attendance including me. The material was mainly from her most recent album Build a Bridge, which features songs that have strong narrative or dramatic elements even though none of them are actual showtunes.

This show was a variant on the one she did earlier this year at The Walt Disney Concert Hall and the performance benefited greatly from a move to this far more intimate setting. McDonald has a great deal of stage presence but it had a lot of space to cover at Disney. Here her wit and charm were more accessible here and her warmth filled the room. McDonald is one of those Divas who works an “I’m just like you” angle by regaling the audience with stories of her own common reactions to the not always so common world she travels, including her 5 year-olds negative reaction to hearing her sing and her devoted idolization of Barbara Streisand whose concert she had recently attended in New York. The most charming thing of all (and the real mark of a Diva I suppose) is she pulls this off effortlessly.

There is no doubt McDonald has a great voice although when I saw her at the end of two back-to-back shows Thursday she was starting to fray a little. However, her dramatic readings of these songs show off her greatest talent - her ability to connect with their narrative and emotional content. I have wondered how all of this will play out in her upcoming excursion onto the operatic stage in LA whre she will co-star with Patti LuPone in the upcoming production of Weill’s Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, to be sung in English under the direction of James Conlon. Granted this is not Tosca or even Peter Grimes, but even with the amplification that I’m sure will be employed, the Chandler is not the most acoustically friendly of venues even for singers accustomed to singing without it. Of course, McDonald has made this kind of a foray before when she appeared in Houston’s production of Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine last year to mixed reviews.

Whatever the results, I think it is a risk worth taking and I can’t wait to get a chance to see her again. In fact, the New Year’s Eve Gala at Lincoln Center she is giving this year might be worth seeing after all…

Dean (and more Dean)

October 19, 2006

Mr. Dean

The Los Angeles Philharmonic continued its long-standing support of new music this week with two very strong shows devoted primarily to the work of Australian composer and violist Brett Dean. Dean played for many years in the Berlin Philharmonic, but as his profile as a composer grew, he left in 2000 to return to Australia. Over the weekend, the Philhamonic included his Viola Concerto in a program with the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Haydn's Symphony No. 82. On Tuesday, the Philharmonic turned over an entire evening of its "Green Umbrella" series (don't ask me, I don't have any idea on this one either) to programming chosen by Dean. This evening included not only his own works - 1996's Voices of Angels for violin, viola, cello, bass, and piano and 2000's Pastoral Symphony for small orchestra - but also compositions by fellow Australians Liza Lim and 27 year-old Anthony Pateras. There are two excellent write ups of these shows by Jerry Zinser at Sequenza 21 as well as another one by Mark Swed in today's LA Times if you are interested in further details about the works themselves.

Both shows were well attended and quite strong on the whole. The music was both evocative and at times moving and thoughtful. But still I had some reservations about many of these pieces. The viola concerto was marked by virtuoso playing and contained both a playfulness and darkness that were easy to get drawn into. However, it was hard to ignore what seemed like an internalized stereotype about the viola's role within the larger context of the orchestra. Violas often get a bad rap as being "second string" players in the larger group, and the concerto did little to refute this idea. In fact it seemed to reinformce it in a strange way. Much of Dean's own playing in the first half of the concerto seemed intentionally drowned out by either piano or too-clever percussion effects. Maybe this was some sort of statement about the viola's emerging voice from a larger cacophony but the somber ending of the piece would seem to belie this.

Tuesday's pieces seemed more hampered by Dean's explanations of them than anything else. He made comparatively lengthy comments of the pieces and their genesis before each performance. Certainly while there was much to be admired in them both, the explanations made the works sound overly naive. Angels was reportedly about the notion that angels may actually be considered as ambivalent or even at times negative or bad agents. Given how long this notion has been around and that he claimed it was inspired in part by a coffee table book, I couldn't help but think "So what else is new?" The Patoral Symphony was a reflection on the natural beauty Dean found in his Australian homeland and the tension that rises over seeing this beauty threatened through processes of development. Frankly, Joni Mitchell covered this ground in Big Yellow Taxi over 30 years ago and the sentiment seems a little stale now without a little more to it. Maybe it would have been better to leave well enough alone and let the otherwise wonderful music speak for itself.

I think the real stars of the Green Umbrella show were to be found in other pockets. The first was the hall itself for contending exceedingly well with multiple pieces from both Pateras and Dean that called for amplification. Disney Hall is notorious for resisting any kind of amplification and on Tuesday it sounded perfect. The other star was Pateras himself. A composer whose youth made his utter lack of stage-presence still seem charming, Pateras had two compisitions in the program - an 8 piece chamber work for 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, and 2 bass entitled Chromatophore and a solo work called Continuums & Chasms, Movement vii for prepared amplified piano which Pateras performed himself. Both of these pieces played on formal structural elements in an environment of repeated and alternating sets of sounds. Tension was created, as it is in many minimalist works, by creating a sense of inevitablity and release in the work when the forseen and logical conclusions of a process is reached. This work was alive and refreshing, though I suppose it may wreak of the cleverness present in a grad-school assignment at times.

No matter how you slice it though, these were evenings to be treasured. As Salonen pointed out on Thursday, how often do you get to see a classical composer perform his own music these days?

Maintenant, Manon

October 16, 2006

The minute you walked in the joint
Anna Netrebko as Manon and Rolando Villazón as Des Grieux
Photo: Robert Millard/LA Opera 2006

So, let me get right to the point...I finally got around to seeing Manon at LA Opera this weekend with Mr. Villazón and Ms. Netrebko. While I did enjoy the evening on the whole, I have to admit it was mixed with some disappointment. Maybe my expectations were too high after so much exposure to hype and press before hand (a perennial problem for me), but the whole thing seemed somewhat stressed out.
Hey, big spender
Photo: Robert Millard/LA Opera 2006
Both of the leads felt strained in their upper ranges to my ear and the crowd seemed so intent on having the best possible time at any cost that everyone was ready to explode with excitement. The air wasn't so much electric as thermonuclear. The staging was certainly clever in its '50s update and costumes that referenced movie stars of the period including Taylor and Monroe. However, in all this attention to stimulating visual detail, the performance lost something in not relaxing enough to stop and smell Massenet's many flowers.

Not that things were rushed, it's just that the conductor, Mr. Domingo, may not have been the best gardener. He did work with director Vincent Paterson to prune nearly an hour from the score. While I didn't mind the cuts, perhaps he could have done more with what was left. The playing from the usually stronger LA Opera orchestra was anemic at best and Mr. Villazón and Ms. Netrebko often dragged things along by sheer will and star power.
We'll always have Los Angeles
Photo: Robert Millard/LA Opera 2006

Or maybe, as Alan Rich put it in the LA Weekly, the problem was that this was "French opera for those afraid of French opera."

I feel I'm being too critical. The producation is a lot of fun and you do feel that everyone on stage is having fun with it. On the upside, Mr. Villazón and Ms. Netrebko not only know how to sing but can, in fact, act and demonstrated a frequent willingness to do so yesterday. The "physicality" inserted into the piece worked and, in spite of myself, I was actually surprised how willing they were to do some of these maneuvers. Particularly, kudos go to Ms. Netrebko who had the cajones to pole-dance dressed as Marilyn Monroe, display the most cleavage I have yet seen on an operatic stage, and allow Des Grieux to playfully read from a letter strategically positioned on her crotch – all in one show. And here in LA that can mean only one thing, A Star is Born.

Godunov, Boris

October 15, 2006

After all that Wagner, the Russians visiting the OC last week finally got around to something...well...Russian in the opera department with 4 performances of Boris Godunov. As with the Ring, this production was presented in a similar marathon style with 4 performances in 48 hours with two rotating casts. Another George Tsypin inspired set design was put to great effect despite the far from sell-out crowd.
The masses call out for more Russian opera
Photo: Ringo H.W. Chiu/LA Times 2006

Which is really a shame considering how much better the Mussorgsky sounded in the very capable hands of Mr. Gergiev when compared to the Wagner. Russian's singing in Russian - who'd a thunk it? Even the narrative problems in the libretto of 1869 seemed to fade with a company that knows this material like the back of their hand. Vladimir Ognovenko, the Boris on Friday and Saturday night, was amazing and the supporting cast had narry a slouch in it. Of course, the production also benefited from an actual credited stage director this time around, as evidenced about the more consistent and logical acting choices of the cast.

This great performance got me thinking about one of my favorite topics - why are we Americans (and to a much lesser extent the major houses in Western Europe) so afraid of presenting work from Eastern Europe? Is is simply all the cold war history? Or is it a lack of access to singers and conductors familiar with the repetoire? Or is it true that Americans just aren't interested in these works so therefore they are financially too risky? Outside of Tchaikovsky and Godunov, what does it take to get a significant production of The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya? I know of several Butterflys I'd be willing to trade.

All right - Enough with the rhetorical questions. Even though this was "only" Godunov it was marvelous. I guess it will have to do until I can travel to Russia myself. Of course there are always the wonderful recordings Gergiev did for Philips of the major operas of Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, Borodin, Glinka, and some Tchaikovsky as well. Maybe this would be a good place to start at the big Tower Records blow-out sale. If not, maybe your should go here:

Borodin: Prince Igor
Glinka: Ruslan and Lyudmila
Moussorgsky: Boris Godounov
Moussorgsky: Khovanshchina
Prokofiev: Betrothal In A Monastery
Prokofiev: Love For Three Oranges
Prokofiev: Semyon Kotko
Prokofiev: War And Peace
Rimsky-Korsakov: The Legend Of The Invisible City Of Kitezh
Rimsky-Korsakov: The Maid Of Pskov
Rimsky-Korsakov: Sadko
Rimsky-Korsakov: The Tsar's Bride
Tchaikovsky: Iolanta
Tchaikovsky: Mazeppa
Tchaikovsky: Pique Dame

Under Construction: Rolando Villazón, in recital

October 14, 2006

Last night, Rolando Villazón made his West Coast recital debut at the newly minted Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Orange County. A great time was apparently had by all. For me, however, it was a bit like seeing last year's King Tut exhibit at LACMA - the artifacts actually on display were awe-inspiring, but surviving the hype and crass marketing to get to them left you feeling very unclean.

Photo:© MSM LtdJ Bell 2005
Mr. Villazón's voice is magnificent. He can whip up passion in seconds flat and has personality and stage presence to spare. It's hard not to enjoy an evening built around his performance - but the production staff and new concert hall certainly tried to achieve this very thing. The hall is in a clear state of unfinished construction. The front piece of the stage was unattached, and all of the lovely off-white carpeting is still covered in plastic. (No red wine at the bar, thank you very much, but the OC has always been rather a Chablis quarter to begin with, hasn't it.) The highlight for me was when Mr. Villazón stomped down during a dramatic moment in the encores producing a near waist-high cloud of fine sawdust.

The whole evening had a last minute thrown-together quality to it that did not come off as casually nonchalant but more poorly planned and conceived. The performance was wedged between Mr. Villazón's performances in the current LA Opera production of Manon. He was in fine voice but not totally prepared. The first half of the program consisted of Schumann's Dichterliebe, a piece he has apparently not quite yet commited to memory as evidenced by his reliance on the score. The half of the piece not sung into the music stand was quite nice. One can quibble about the strength of Mr. Villazón's German, but in response to the couple seated behind me in the second row - No, he is not "becoming quite a heldentenor." Nor is Lieder his strong suit.

However, the second part of the program featuring French, Italian, and Spanish songs and arias were. The highlight for me, besides Massenet's Ouvre tes yeux bleus, were the Spanish songs of Orbradors. Five encores consisted of similar material including a new song from a Mexican composer, whose name I didn't catch, present in the audience and a Rossini aria dedicated to Mr. Villazón's young son who, Villazon pointed out, was hearing his father sing in pubic for the first time. All and all not a bad Friday evening amid Dynasty-inspired evening wear and hard hats.

Ring Tones

October 12, 2006

The burning ring of fire from Siegfried. Photo:
Lawrence K. Ho/LAT 2006

Los Angeles, like all urban centers, is a sort of laboratory for the collision of very different people, ideas, and cultures. Those of us wondering what Wagner would sound like with a Russian accent had all our questions answered last week. This occurred in the form of the Kirov Opera’s current touring production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, which wrapped up on Wednesday. Much had been made of this event due to a host of factors- it is the first major staging of the Ring in Southern California and it took place during a two week residency of the Kirov Opera and Ballet in Orange County as part of the celebrations for the opening of the new Renée and Henry Sergerstrom Concert Hall. Although the operas were staged in the "old" Segerstrom Hall right across the street, much attention has been payed to the new building which I'll talk about in a later post.

Needless to say, with all the hype, it was no surprise that audiences were highly enthusiastic throughout the series. Gergiev and his cast were met with wild standing ovations night after night. But what hath Gergiev and Wagner actually wrought?

As I have previously noted, the best part about the whole week was that it was far from boring. Between the primitive staging and enthusiastic conducting, things were always lively. While Gergiev's approach kept the performance moving and active, there was a definite trade off. In more action-packed parts like the opening of Act III of Die Walküre or Act II of Siegfried, the excitement was palapable. However, some of the more lyrical and reflective moments suffered. The darkly beautiful quality of Wagner's score was often sacrificed at the expense of gusto.

Plácido domingo as Siegmund and Mlada Khudoley as Sieglinde. Photo: Christine Cotter/LAT 2006

Die Walküre was the overall standout of the four evening, helped greatly by the strongest overall cast including Domingo's Siegmund and a trio of wonderful women: Mlada Khudoley, Larisa Diadkova, and Olga Sereyeva as Sieglinde, Fricka, and Brunnhilde respectively. Sergeyeva would continue the role throughout the final two operas and was definitely Kirov's star player outside of Gergiev, even though she gave out in the final act of Götterdämmerung. This is particularly notable within a production that downplayed individual contributions in favor of the overall group effort. The Kirov appeared to operate much like the old Hollywood studio system where the players are Kirov members first, and performers second. Little definitive information about the casting was available until the day of each performance, and a program insert contained the final details – in each case with significant changes over the original printed program. There were many changes in roles from night to night. Most notable among these were the two Siegfrieds, each with their own talents- Lionid Zakhozhaev, the actor, in Siegfried and Viktor Lutsyuk, the singer, in Götterdämmerung. If only it would have been possible to fuse them in some laboratory experiment to get a little of both in one person at the same time.

Probably the biggest drawback to this studio system approach appeared to be the lack of clear stage direction. Too many of the cast were left to their own devices in the acting department. Apparently, the "I coulda had a V8" commercial serves as an impetus for an entire generation of Russian actors. Who knew?

Despite all of this – the significant drive times to the OC, the German accents straight out of Vladivostok, 20 hours in the architectural equivalent of a Nagel painting, and supernumiaries plucking a chicken in the midst of Act II of Götterdämmerung – I would do it again in a minute. It was exciting, it was Wagner, and it only happens every so often, especially in these parts.

Who Wears These Shoes?

October 10, 2006


Now that we are heading into fall, the selection of new classical recordings have improved greatly. We here in Southern California may have nowhere to buy them, with Tower Records gone, but there are still a number of them worth having via download or otherwise that I have highlighted in my new "On Top" segment.

At number 1 is the much anticipated DG release of the Los Angeles Philharmonic performing Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen. this is the first CD release of material recorded at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and represents a return to recording for the orchestra after several years. (If you don't count the direct-to-download live concerts made available last year on iTunes, also sponsored by DG). I attended to of the performances that went into this recording and while I haven't heard it yet, if it is half-as-good as the live performances it is definitely worth owning.

DG of course has bought ad space in the recent LA Phil programs to promote this release that focus heavily on Salonen who is without question near and dear to the hearts of local listeners. However, his normally Nordic too-cool-for-school image may be suffering. Whether or not shoes with velcro ties will ruin what Anthony Tomasini called "the risk-taking, brassy, urban personality the philharmonic has developed under its dynamic conductor" remains to be seen.

In the meantime, it's off to Götterdämmerung and the big finish to the Kirov's Ring cycle tomorrow in the OC. You can read Bernard Holland's review of Monday's Siegfried performance if you can stomach his old tropes about tanned and monied Southern Californians. I'll hold off on further commentary on this Ring until after tomorrow.

Salonen, Stravinsky, (and Mozart)

October 08, 2006

Miah Persson
As a Wagner break this weekend, I stopped by Disney Hall for Salonen and the LA Philharmonic's show on Sunday, which included Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and Mozart's C-minor Mass. These choral works were a nice complement to one another and a palette-cleanser from the Ring at the mid-way point. As Mark Swed pointed out in his review of the Thursday performance, the LA Phil under Salonen have made Stravinsky a real specialty and this was certainly reflected in this bracing performance. Salonen's commitment to modern music and 20th century repetoir pays off again and again.

In this year of ubiquitous Mozart, it is very easy to succumb to overexposure. However, the C-minor Mass here had one very big bonus in the soprano Miah Persson. I agree with Swed on this point as well - she is quite a find for the uninitiated. She has a growing career in Europe, mostly in Mozart roles, but we in California will have another excellent opportunity to hear her in San Francisco next summer as Sophie to Joyce DiDonato's Octavian and Solie Isokoski's Marschallin in their Der Rosenkavalier revival under Runnicle's guidance.

It's always nice to have something to look forward to.


Ring Night no. 2

Die Walküre set from Kirov Opera's 2003 Marinsky production.
Photo: Natasha Razina/Marinsky Theater 2003

Last night was the Die Walküre installment of the Kirov's Ring in the OC and things continue to heat up. The singing and playing were markedly better and the cast overall held together and were uniformly strong. Gergiev seemed to have things much more under control overall. Domingo sang Siegmund and, given the quality of his performance at his age, he should stand as an example for others in managing their careers and voices.

You be the judge

The crowd has been super enthusiastic throughout and, despite grumbling about the primitivist sets, seem to be very supportive. I rather like the staging myself, though the low-rent sci-fi stuff continues to be an issue with Hunding dressed as an ewok. Part of this may be the (now old) Segerstrom Hall which my companion Jeff ponted out does in fact create the feeling of being on Battlestar Galactica circa 1979.

Gone but not forgotten. Yet.

For classical music fans in LA the newly announced demise of Tower Records is big news because that means the only free standing solely classical music store in the city is now closing for good. Of course there are some other options for people who want more than the Andrea Bocelli recording of Il Trovatore – though these outlets too have seen better days. Amoeba Records on Sunset and Ivar continues to have a fair selection with many used items and I suppose the Virgin Megastore on Sunset and Crescent Heights still make slightly more effort than your average Border’s or Barnes & Noble. Virgin used to have a separate classical room but dumped that with most of the classical inventory over a year ago leaving a sloppy arrangement of remnants for those few people still wandering through this progressively vacant retail space. The store at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Dorothy Chandler do carry many items that are relevant to current productions but aren’t really providing a larger service. And then of course there is the Internet.

I shopped at Tower Classical a lot and I will certainly miss it. I stopped by yesterday with the rest of the vultures to begin picking over the bones and I did pick up a number of items to fill out my collection. I guess my age begins to show when I say that I still enjoy the visceral experience of buying recorded music in the flesh. But perhaps I shouldn’t enjoy it so much.

While I respect the importance of recognizing and preserving the past, I don’t think one should live in it either. Let’s face it – It was just a record store. Sunset Blvd looks nothing like it did 50 years ago and will look completely different 50 years from now. Is that in and of itself a bad thing? I guess what I’m saying is that the only thing worse than losing a store you liked a lot is to be rigid and inflexible and unable to accept the good and the bad that comes with inevitable change.

So, so long Tower. We’ll miss you, but maybe not forever.

And they're off...

October 06, 2006

Das Rhieingold set from Kirov Opera's 2003 Marinsky production. Photo: Marinsky Theater 2003

Tonight was the opening of the Marinsky Festival in Orange County, featuring over two weeks of performances from the combined orchestra, opera, and ballet companies of the Kirov under the guidance of their fearless leader Valery Gergiev. To kick things off, the company presented a revival of the Kirov's 2003 Ring Cycle which they have toured with some success. This was the American premiere of the production, which will headline next year's Lincoln Center Festival in NY.

I usually like to hold my judgment until the end, but this Das Rheingold brings some early thoughts to mind. The good news is that whether or not the whole production is a complete success, it is definitely not a bore. Gergiev, his players, and his stable of Kirov singers are often ragged but what they lack in finesse or sheer lyrical beauty they more than make up for with gusto. This may not be to everyone's taste but it doesn't get dull.

Of course, this production set comes curtesy of long-time Gergiev collaborator, George Tsypin, who brings his scuptural touch to the sets. I like Tsypin's work very much and this is the third major set design of his I have seen this year. (The others were the LA Opera production of Goldenthal's Grendel and Paris National Opera's set for Saariaho's Adriana Mater. ) However his "organic" globular figurines in the context of Tatiana Noginova's bright cartoon-colored costumes did generate a few Wrath of Khan moments that might have better been avoided.

The crowd (which seemed largely imported from LA) was very enthusiastic, and I too will admit not completely dreading the lengthy drive behind the Orange Curtain for the rest of the series. Stay tuned...

An Autumn's Tale

October 05, 2006

Photo credit: Nick Amato 2006

It's early October and I seem to be lost in a world of very long multi-evening works that make my frequent nights at the theater all seem to blend into one long but very beautiful night. Sandwiched between last weeks Peony Pavilion and this weekend's start of the Kirov Opera's Ring cycle in Orange County, I had the distinct pleasure of spending two evening in the company of Heather Woodbury and her collaborators as part of the 6 hour staging of A Tale of 2Cities (An American Joyride on Multiple Tracks). This is a new work following the success and recognition of her last "living novel" What Ever: An American Odyssey. Like that work, this one consists of several small units joined together with a large cast of characters in multiple interlocking narratives focusing on themes of the American experience. Tale was also developed through a series of smaller performances and workshops conducted in various spaces throughout the US over the last 6 to 7 years. Unlike What Ever, Tale deals with the personal fallout of the Dodgers' move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1957 and includes a cast of seven, as opposed to Woodbury's prior solo performance.

The UCLA Live staging was the world premiere of the "final" version of the show that will next travel to performance space 122 in New York. There is already a printed version of the text avaliable from semiotext(e). Despite the seeming pretension, the descriptor "living novel" is accurate given that the piece owes as much to the performance art tradition as it does to a more traditionally theatrical one. There is an almost complete absence of sets and costumes and the work relies nearly exclusively on the acting and vocal talents of its cast. While there are clear narratives throughout, there are equal parts unintegrated scenes, characters, and ideas that comment on or stand in contrast to the main actions.

I saw the performance over two nights on October 3rd and 4th and was very impressed. This is the kind of work that gets referred to as "sprawling" because of its size and somewhat convoluted narrative. It is also tempting to use the phrase "swept away" to describe one's reaction to it for the same reason. It has been well reviewed in both the LA Times and the LA Weekly and I will leave further praise heaping to them. However, the work is not without problems. I'm not sure how "American" any of it really is considering it deals exclusively with NY and LA, probably the least American of all US cities. It also deals in numerous clichés about the immigrant experience and the philosophical and social metaphors in baseball. (Can't we put this to bed after Greenberg's Take Me Out?) Much of the acting is good and it is true that Woodbury has a presence that is hard to be indifferent about. I should particularly note a local favorite of mine, Leo Marks, whom I have now seen on at least four local stages always to great effect.

Probably the most distressing thing about these evening, though, were how poorly attended they were. Despite good reviews and what I am told were large crowds on the opening weekend, the 586-seat Freud Playhouse catered to an audience of approximately 30 on both nights. This may be due in part to the plague of a presidential visit on LA traffic on the first night. The only thing that scares LA drivers more than rain may be the president.

(Nothing but) flowers

October 02, 2006

Yu Jiulin as Liu Mengmei and Tang Hong as Judge Hu Photo: The Suzhou Kun Opera Theater 2006
While New Yorkers were busy last week debating whether or not Peter Gelb would spoil the decaying stench inside the Met by daring to let in the smallest amount of light and air from the outside (a puppet?!, how could they?), we out West were feasting on some real wonders.

Most notable was the 9-hour adaptation of Tang Xianzu’s The Peony Pavilion presented by The Suzhou Kun Opera Theater of Jiangsu Province who have been on a West Coast tour for the last month or so. This production has been featured in association with many of the UC Campuses and, following stops in Berkeley and Irvine, arrived in LA before moving on to Santa Barbara next week.

The performance was long, marred by amplification problems, and was a radical cut of nearly half of the original production. It was a minimalist staging with sparse sets and was very uneven in parts. That said, it was also amazing and perhaps the most moving and beautiful thing I've seen in a long time. It was like hearing Verdi or Puccini for the first time and discovering a whole unknown world of beauty. For three nights, I felt I had discovered opera for myself all over again. Special mention should be made of the two leads Yu Jiulin and Shen Fengying who not only had to sing and act but learn a great deal of choreography as well.
Yu Jiulin as Liu Mengmei and Shen Fengying as Du Liniang Photo: The Suzhou Kun Opera Theater 2006
Admittedly some of the excitement may come from the comperative rarity of a Kun Opera production. Two different and more complete productions of this work were staged in the late 90s - one by Chen Shi-Zheng at the 1999 Lincoln Center Festival and another by Peter Sellars with a new score from Tan Dun around the same time. However, as the Chinese couple behind me noted during these performances, even in China they had never seen more than 15 to 20 minutes of the piece performed at any one time. It makes me wonder how such an amazing work can be so ignored, even here in the West. Is it really any more esoteric or difficult to access than Montiverdi or Mozart? Is Mandarin that much more of a foreign language to most American opera goers than German or Russian?

I suspect that the issue in large part is that American culture has developed with a largely European influence, which is reflected in its tastes for opera. However, considering how different opera is in Europe these days from its appearance in the US, the issue may actually be that Americans crave a fantasy of Europe and European culture that no longer exists. American opera houses are filled with stale productions meant to recapture this idea of a long-gone Europe that even the Europeans are no longer interested in maintaining. Oh sure, we can blame the changes there on "revisionist directors" but that's a lot like blaming American society's ills on "activist judges." Maybe we should stop looking for scapegoats for opera's decline in the last half-century and start concentrating on opening up the boundaries of the repetoire to musical theater from the rest of the world.

Mahler and more

October 01, 2006

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the L.A. Philharmonic. Photo: Lawrence K. Ho/LAT 2006

What a weekend. Cherry Jones in Doubt, nine hours of The Peony Pavilion (which I'll write more on later), and Mahler's 3rd with the LA Philharmonic at Disney Concert Hall. It doesn't get too much better than this in terms of great shows in a really short time frame.

Esa-Pekka Salonen opened up the 4th season at the WDCH with Mahler featuring Michelle DeYoung as soloist. This is familiar territory for Salonen and the LA Phil who recorded the piece in 1997 and performed it as recently as 2003 in their closing performances in their old home at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

It was my first trip to WDCH this season and as usual I was filled with excitement to again get to hear this great orchestra in this still startling building. The LA Phil played beautifully. It wasn't their greatest moment ever and it wasn't the best thing I've ever heard but it was very, very good. Although I like DeYoung a great deal, it was hard not to think of Ms. Hunt Lieberson, who was originally scheduled for this performance. It filled everything with a bit of melancholy. Despite this, though, the thrill was still there: Salonen and one of the world's great orchestras back at home, and for about two hours everyone there got to think that maybe the world isn't such a bad place after all.


Without a Doubt

I had hesitated to see the LA visit of Mr. Shanley's 2005 play that opened at the Ahmanson this week. I had seen a local production of Doubt last year at the Pasadena Playhouse with Linda Hunt in the starring role and thought it was a remarkable play. I wan't sure I needed to see it again so soon, but thought it might be worth seeing Cherry Jones in the role. LA often receives Broadway hand-me-downs and cast and, direction-wise, many of them arrive largely intact, not unlike this production of Doubt. However, it is not unusual to end up sitting in the dark worndering "What were these people on the East Coast thinking about?"

Cherry Jones as Sister Aloysius Photo:Gary Friedman/LAT 2006

This time however, it all made immediate sense. Jones takes this very good play and makes it into a great one. Her performance was multi-faceted and completely mesmerizing. I found the final two climactic scenes almost devistating to the point of tears. The play itself seemed more nuanced and relevant and I felt much more affinity for its ability to ask questions without having to answer them all.

The other highlight of this afternoon fell into the category of "too-much-information" moments. I seem to have a propensity of overhearing or witnessing strange interactions in men's restrooms and today was no exception. Of course, weekend matinees are always a bit like visiting a nursing home with unusualy incompetent staff. While in the restroom, I overheard two senior gentlemen enter the restroom in mid-conversation. They used the urinals and one finished before the other and walked over to the sink. At this point his companion yelled out to him, "I see you don't have any prostate problems. I may be slow, but at least I don't have to go that often." Heart-warming optimism like this is hard to ignore.

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