Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

The Madness of Ms. Netrebko

December 30, 2006

Anna Netrebko as Elvira Walton
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera 2006
Anna Netrebko is the only reason to see the current revival of Bellini’s I Puritani currently at the Metropolitan Opera. But that is certainly reason enough. Of course, she’s been through this before. This was much the same situation in her first go at playing insanity while appearing in Lucia di Lammermoor in LA where she was fantastic in an otherwise woefully bad production. Audiences love her and it is easy to see why. She has a charming stage presence and strong acting instincts. She also sang more than well. Yes, she is no Joan Sutherland or Callas – but frankly this is as much a strength as a weakness. Her bel canto technique is not flawless, but the vocalists who do belong to that club these days are very, very few and Sutherland isn’t coming back any time soon. It’s time for people to move on with their lives. Netrebko has plenty of strengths across the board that make her performances thrilling to watch as it was tonight. I like Netrebko because she takes risks, which is a good thing because in this ridiculously outdated production she has to do something. Tonight, in the second performance of the run she does, in fact, sing a small portion of her aria in Act II laying on the stage with her head and hair draping into the orchestra pit. No doubt this is over the top, but she did it and she totally gets away with it.

Opera can be so educational. Apparently, not only did the Puritans have strict rules forbidding dancing and drinking, they also maintained the firmest prohibition against acting as evidenced by the immobile chorus on stage last night. The stage hands could have just as easily rolled these people on and off stage with dollies as have them ambulate. The supporting cast was not much better in this area, though Franco Vassallo (Riccardo) and John Relyea (Giorgio) were serviceable. Eric Cutler who was originally scheduled to sing the role of Arturo was still out sick as he was at the opening earlier this week, and the thankless task of covering fell to Gregory Kunde. The less said about this painful episode the better. Of course, worse than all of this is probably the single dullest staging I have seen of any opera this year. (And with some of what San Francisco trotted out this year that is saying a lot.) While Mr. Gelb appears to be doing his darndest to let some light into the coffin-like atmosphere that pervades the Met, there are clearly still plenty of areas to work on. One can only wish him the best in this apparently Herculean task.

Perhaps he could ask Paul Groves to hang around and have sex with whoever needs a little assistance. I hear it does wonders for what ails ya.

Sexual Healing

December 29, 2006

Elizabeth Futral as Princess Yueyang and Paul Groves as Gao Jianli
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera 2006
I’ve just come back from seeing the third performance of Tan Dun’s new opera The First Emperor and thought I’d add my two bits to the many other blogs and mainstream press outlets that have touched on this world premiere run at the Met. I feel on some level I have to defend it. It certainly isn’t great and no doubt it needs some significant retooling to really stand out, but it’s hardly as bad as the histrionics of some bloggers who have posted on the subject might suggest. (FYI – there were few walkouts and no booing to my ears tonight.) The libretto is weak in many spots. The opera is overly long and quite dull in the very places it should be the most interesting. The vocal lines are oddly stressed. All of this has been well established by now elsewhere - particularly in excellent and well balanced reviews from Mark Swed and Philip Kennicott.

I think a balance is important in this case, because there are several significant and wonderful things in this work. The music, particularly the widespread use of percussion and other traditional Chinese instrumentation, is quite good. The performances of the entire cast were strong and truly Domingo deserves accolades not just for advocating for this project but clearly giving it his all. Much of the choral writing was superb and the opening sequences of both acts worked quite well. But most importantly, I loved the sheer ambition of the piece. Compared to last year’s milquetoast An American Tragedy from Tobias Picker, this looked like Le Grand Macabre.

Placido Domingo as Emperor Qin
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera 2006
Tan Dun took the bull by the horns on this one. Some critics have accused him of pandering over the years – writing music with just enough Chinese influences to seem exotic to the mainly Western consumers of his work – whether they are part of a larger Chinese diaspora or not. But from where I sat tonight, I felt he had clearly favored these elements over those more familiar to a predominantly Western audience (e.g. non-traditional vocal lines). A bold choice that may not have always paid off in ways the audience here might appreciate. For instance, virtually everything I’ve read talks about the influence of Puccini in the work. Yes there certainly is some. But virtually no one talks about significant references to any specific composers or works of the Chinese Opera. Is it that simply no one here is familiar enough with this repertoire to comment or are the references not there? My point is that perhaps Tan Dun has intended things that aren’t easily perceived in this context, and while not everything here works, maybe the project is larger than making a work palatable for the Western ears of the Met’s audience.

I think we haven't heard the last from The First Emperor. Not just because it is a co-production with LA Opera, but because Tan Dun has shown a proclivity to effectively revise his works as he did earlier with his "Paper" Concerto.

But here is a bigger question. What other diseases or disabilities would having sex with Paul Groves cure?

In the Gardens

December 28, 2006

Christine Ebersole as "Little" Edie Beale
Photo: Grey Gardens 2006
Stop number two this week was at The Walter Kerr Theater to see a performance of the by now much lauded Grey Gardens starring Christine Ebersole and Mary Louis Wilson. The show is very good and like most very good shows it results in a break from all the doom-and-gloom talk about Broadway long enough to be supplanted by all the “rebirth of the American Musical” talk. I’m not sure either of these lines of argument are worthwhile but it sure looks nice on banners and billboards outside of the theater, doesn’t it?

The heart and soul of Gardens are the performance of Ms. Ebersole and Ms. Wilson. They are big stars in big roles and have been honored for these portrayals in the off-Broadway run already. I could laud more words of praise on Ms. Ebersole, but there are unlikely many superlatives left that haven't already been used to describe her great performance.

The big question in my mind is this. Could the show survive without her and/or Ms. Wilson? There are certainly some great songs and lyrics including the near show-stopping “The Revolutionary Costume for Today” at the start of Act II. But there are a number of weak numbers as well, particularly those not delivered by one of the two leads. Luckily there aren’t many of these, but it does raise the question of how much of the success of this piece rests soley on Ms. Ebersole's shoulders. I personally don’t believe there is much staying power in Grey Gardens overall and am not sure what the draw would be completely without its current stars. There is virtually no plot. Act I is essentially a long background story for the setting of Act II – and Act II, while stronger and much more entertaining – is more about a set of relationships than any real arc of events or character development and change.

Still, I would agree that there is some great stuff here. Some wonderful dark moments matched by equally hilarious ones. Now is the time to see it though. It may never be this good again.

The Sorrows of Young Melchior

December 26, 2006

Cast of Spring Awakening
Photo: Joan Marcus 2006

It’s December and German Romanticism is again a big draw in New York. In fact, this may be the headiest days for Goethe and his legacy since the golden age of Faust and Werther at the Met. As before the German language has been supplanted: this time instead of French, we have an English-language musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening which I saw today. The other major difference is that this is not an opera, but arises more from the popular music tradition of Broadway. This supremely engaging production from the Atlantic Theater Company with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik has just transferred to the Eugene O’Neill Theater. Make no mistake about it - this has the making of a big hit looking at the audience this Wednesday evening. It already has multiple enthusiastic repeat-visit teenage fans. Plus when just slightly older pretentious young men in the audience feel the need to loudly state their claim that the show is “overrated” – you know the zeitgeist is aligned for a likely profitable run with an ardent following.

The show itself is great. Maintaining the 19th century setting and events contrasts well with the modern pop/rock music. The piece recalls the ways in which even today sex can be both exciting and dangerous especially for teens. Despite how saturated our culture has become with images and references sex, virtually nothing engages the topic with as much fresh perspective as these two hours. Apparently, the only way to do this anymore is to use a text from over a century ago.

The real hero of the evening though is Duncan Sheik and his wonderful music. Sheik has always been a formidable talent, and with Spring Awakening he may finally have found an avenue to connect to a broader audience. After the marketing folks at VH1 chewed him up and spit him out following his single "Barley Breathing" in favor of C-list comedians tittering over stock video clips, Sheik recorded a number of fine pop records that went largely ignored such as White Limousine, Humming, Daylight, and Phantom Moon. Now he may finally get his due. The pop songs in the score pull on you right away and although some of the higher reaches are tough for the males in this cast, there isn’t a loser in the bunch. The cast itself is terrific including Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff, and John Gallagher, Jr., three young stars who are clearly excited by the reception their work is receiving as evidenced by their truly excited reaction to the crowds standing ovation at the end of the evening.

It’s always a bad sign when a trip to NY starts out this well – There may be nowhere else to go but down.

Let it snow

December 24, 2006


I just got back from the dull and lifeless production of Matthew Bourne’s Edward Scissorhands now playing at the Ahmanson Theater downtown in all of Center Theater Group’s hyped-up holiday glory. (Though whether the holiday is Christmas or Halloween is unclear.) I wasn’t sure it was possible to like something less that Bourne's prior Play Without Words, but I’m learning to accept that I can sometimes be wrong about things. I don’t want to dwell on something so unpleasant right before the holidays, so let me leave it at this: I did discover a benefit to bathing an audience in artificial snow – it makes it much easier to discover if the atrociously-dressed woman in front of you is wearing a ghastly jacket made of suede with patent leather epaulets or if it is some vinyl/pleather hybrid. Panic can certainly be instructive if not productive.

On a happier note, I’d like to wish everyone in blogville a happy holiday season. Even though my humble corner has only been in existence 4 months or so, I really appreciate all the positive feedback via mentions and links from others including the folks at Night After Night, The Rest is Noise, ionarts, oboeinsight, The Standing Room, On a Pacific Aisle, and mad musings of me. It’s nice to be noticed particularly by other bloggers whom I myself enjoy reading. (Links to all of these fine blogs can be found on the left.)

Well, I'm off to New York this week but will be posting away from home. Stay tuned for more including my entry into the chatter around The First Emperor. (P.S. If I’m leaving anyone out please drop me a line and let me know, I’d love to hear from you.)

Build it, and they will come... maybe.

December 20, 2006

Angelika Kirschlager
Photo: Hiroyuki Ito/NYT 2006
On Tuesday, Angelika Kirchschlager appeared at the Segerstrom Concert Hall in a stop on her current recital tour across the US and Europe. I had some trepidation about attending this program given my prior experiences in this still far from finished though pretty space. I don’t mind the two-hour drive if the pay off is worth it, but the drawbacks can be many in this venue. On the other hand, I’m quite fond of Kirchschlager. My most recent chance to hear her was in Berlin in April as part of one of my favorite events of 2006 – a concert performance of Pelléas et Mélisande with the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle. So, on balance, I figured for the week before Xmas it was worth a go.

I'm glad to report, it was well worth the trip. Kirchschlager's programs on this tour have varied widely. Here, there were still 5 Schubert lieder including a marvelous performance of Du bist die Ruh. However, the rest of the program consisted of somewhat less standard fare – 4 English songs by Haydn, Grieg’s Six Songs Op. 48, 4 songs from Brahms and a grab-bag of bits and pieces in both French and German from Liszt. Kirchschlager was in great form and was able to deliver the necessary dramatic content without overwhelming any of the works. Of course, some of the songs were stronger than others, but even the worst of the Liszt wasn’t horrible and there were easily as many from that set that were among the evenings big winners including Oh! Quand je dors and Über allen Gipfeln. The ever-present Malcom Martineau provided nearly flawless accompaniment.

Kirchschlager also showed a sense of humor and a winning personality in dealing with the seemingly inevitable problems imposed by the space and audiences. She kept her poise while admonishing the audience not only for endless noise and coughing, but also in quieting those elements who can’t seem to hear enough of their own incessant clapping. I am usually not much of a stickler about the "clapping at the wrong time" issue, but I can’t understand why some in this audience initially seemed intent on pushing a two-hour program to 3 and a half. Of course at 40% capacity, this was the largest crowd I’ve seen in the new hall to date. It’s a shame that so few in Orange County seems very interested in their curvy new hall. Apparently everyone was busy across the street Xmas shopping at South Coast Plaza. The Segerstrom Concert Hall now appears to be the OC’s best-kept secret after less than six months in operation.


I’m writing this while listening to the Sirius broadcast of Tan Dun’s The First Emperor live from the Met. The fist 40 minutes have been great. I'm surprised and glad Dun elected to feature so many Chinese opera and music elements so prominently. I can’t wait to see it next week, but hearing the prompter recite apparently all of Domingo’s lines right before he sings them is getting distracting on the radio.

More from Canada

December 17, 2006

It has been relatively cold these last few days in LA, which must have come as a surprise to many out-of-town visitors planning on a balmy, palm tree and sunshine holiday season like we typically have. In particular, I’m thinking of the large number of visiting Canadian performers in our theaters over the last week. Not only have Bernard Labadie and his La Chapelle de Québec troupe been sitting in with the LA Phil, but the Ottawa-based avant-garde theater collective known as STO Union have been selected to close out this year’s UCLA Live International Theater Festival. They have been performing two pieces in repertory this week – Revolutions in Therapy, which questions the use and effectiveness of traditional psychotherapy and Recent Developments, a more standard multi-generational family epic.

Nadia Ross and Jacob Wren of STO Union in Revolutions in Therapy

I saw both works this week and while there is much to admire, both left me rather cold. Nadia Ross and her writing/directing partner Jacob Wren apparently have a taste for breaking the fourth wall, tape recorded dialog, pop-music performance, and minimal bits of spontaneous dancing – elements that arose in both pieces. Revolutions involved a series of two-person conversations delivered with a therapy-inspired tone and pacing. The actors often switch who is taking the interrogation role and at times various actors provide commentary on the audience and their character's feelings towards it. At points, the actors come from the stage to sit with the audience and deliver their dialog from the seats. Surprisingly, this same detached style of delivery also pervaded Developments in which the audience is seated around what appears to be a very large conference table with the actors moving around the table and into the hollowed-out center for the performance. What seemed to make sense in a critique of traditional psychotherapy, failed miserably in a more standard family drama where it seemed needlessly esoteric and off-putting.

While I appreciate this “breaking down barriers” ethic, I never really felt like anything was all that risky. There were certainly moments of humor and the acting was strong overall. However, the emotional detachment of the performances kept everything at a distance often defeating the apparent intention to get the audience thinking. Personally, I thought the Mabou Mines’ adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House UCLA Live presented two weeks back produced far more discomfort and introspection in the audience by insisting on often grating vocal deliveries and acting techniques that were maintained throughout the piece. Sometimes it's possible to achieve the desired affect with nothing more than basic acting skills.

And on another note….

In case you were wondering, I am an unabashed lover of top 10 lists and am working diligently on my 2006 choices as we speak. However, I am particularly irritated in the push to produce all of this material by many press outlets prior to the actual end of the year. In short, 2006 isn’t over yet, and I’ve still got shows to see (including the much anticipated premiere of Tan Dun’s new opera The First Emporer at the Met on 12/29 for me). In the New Year you can look both for a music and local theater post with my picks. Until then…

Brimstone and...

Bernard Labadie
I’m not usually a big Christmas person. Oh sure I participate in the obligatory gift giving and the like but I’m not really one to get caught up in any holiday spirit business. This, of course, is a particular challenge this time of year when theaters around town tend to be inundated with family-pleasing holiday fare calculated to produce what passes for joy and wonder these days. LA is by no means immune to this phenomenon and outside of the umpteen Messiah’s and Nutcracker’s, we’ve got the previously mentioned Hansel und Gretel and are dealing with the nightly mess Slava and his clowns generate over at Royce Hall.

The LA Phil is doing their darndest to deliver a little something for everyone with sing-alongs, the Klezmatics, Chanticleer, the Escovedo Family Latino Holiday show, and the list goes on and on. I usually avoid much of this, but even I have an exception to this general rule – namely the music of J.S. Bach. This weekend Bernard Labadie and his vocal ensemble La Chapelle de Québec were back in town in an all Bach program playing some works not usually associated with Christmas, but nevertheless pieces he made a strong case for in this context. The program included a motet Jesu, mein Freud BWV 227 and a cantata Gloria in excelsis Deo BWV 191 as well as the Magnificat BWV 223a. The Magnificat, as Labadie pointed out from the stage, was in fact originally presented on Bach's first Christmas day as Cantor in Leipzig in 1723. This first version of the work included segments specifically concerning Christmas that were later removed in a revision where Bach transposed the work down a half-tone from E-flat to D. Labadie chose to perform a hybrid version, still in D, but with the Christmas segments left intact.

Now I must admit I have a very high opinion of Labadie in no small part for a wonderful Lucio Silla he led with Susan Graham at Santa Fe Opera in 2005. Labadie and his group were in LA just two years ago with a stripped down Messiah and this weekend's program again delivered a stirring performance that did the unthinkable for me - generate some sentiment that one might actually call Christmas spirit in some sense. I think this is in large part due to Labadie's approach which, as he noted, has a lot to do with the context in which Bach produced this music. Namely, that in the Lutheran faith of Bach’s time, Christmas was not solely about joy and birth but dealt in equal amount with death and sorrow. The Christmas holiday in this vision already represents a duality where both birth and death are contained and foretold in the events of the story. Suffering is already present and therefore sorrowful and almost funerary settings can stand side by side in the music with no sense of irony. Labadie pointed out other examples of this from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. But the strongest case was the music itself, which brought a kind of dark beauty to a season often overloaded with too much treacle.

Return of the new

December 12, 2006

Zavalloni brings the noise
Photo: Jamie Rector/LAT 2006
One of the more notable music stories in LA in the last two years has been the near-demise of the long-running Monday Evening Concerts program formerly held in the Bing Theater on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art campus. The program has been around in various incarnations for decades and had always been an important venue for new music including numerous local and national premieres of works by many of the mid-to-late 20th century’s greatest composers. Much has been written about the manner and timing of LACMA unceremoniously pulling the rug out from under this storied program and I won’t spend more time on it here other than to note that once again lack of public funding support for music and the arts in this country is creating a progressively more homogeneous and uninteresting atmosphere. When LA County (or more correctly the quasi-private trust) that runs LACMA imagined a chance to generate another buck or two, artistic concerns rapidly faded into the mist. (There are many recent disturbing examples of this at LACMA from 2005’s TUT II exhibit to the increasingly undifferentiated existence of the museum and Eli Broad’s money and interests.)

But I digress - this is not about the end of an era but about the perseverance by a community to keep something alive. Monday was an evening of rebirth. Following the loss of both a regular home and MEC’s long-time leader Dorrance Stalvey, a committee of interested parties, including Pierre Boulez among others, stepped in to keep this important cultural series going here in Los Angeles. With their work, Monday Evening Concerts came roaring back last night without giving an inch in spirit or ambition. This first concert in the revived series was a tribute to Stalvey and included a piece of his own, Streams (2002), as well as some of the music he himself had championed. The show took place at the REDCAT Theater in the basement of the Walt Disney Concert Hall although the other three remaining programs in this year’s series will occur at the Zipper Auditorium.

The show was amazing. One of the many reasons for this was the appearance of the remarkable Cristina Zavalloni. She is a force of nature. Think of a Diamanda Galas who actually sings with a new music pedigree and minus all the goth overtones. This is her second major LA appearance this year – the first being her stunning performance of Andriessen’s Racconto dall’Inferno as part of the LA Phil’s Minimalist Jukebox concert series. ( A recording of which is available on iTunes here. You should get it if you don't have it already.) This time around she tackled Berio’s Circles (1960) with the LA Phil’s harpist Lou Anne Niell and percussionists Ross Karre and Steven Schick. Zavalloni has been an advocate of Berio’s work and has a strong interest in the work of his wife, vocalist Cathy Berberian. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate setting of these e.e. cumming’s texts and Zavalloni delivered every last drop of the intentionally theatrical elements of the piece without breaking a sweat. As if that weren’t enough, Zavalloni then performed a piece written by Berberian herself entitled “Stripsody,” a six-minute romp through comic book gestures and onomatopoeia for solo voice. I can think of few soloists that could pull this off with such flair and it was highly entertaining.

The other big moment in the program was the LA premiere of Gèrard Grisey’s Vortex Temporum from 1995, a 45-minute play on a single arpeggio from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé that is sped-up, slowed-down and turned inside out in seemingly endless ways. The amazing centerpiece of the work is a wild piano cadenza here delivered in a jaw-dropping and appropriately maniacal fashion by Vicki Ray. Challenging, clever, and spooky, it was pure magic.

Did I mention the show was sold out? Did I mention that when I arrived at least an hour before the concert there was a line for returns? However, there were tickets left for the LA Master Chorale's Messiah sing-along program that was being performed that evening upstairs in the Disney concert Hall. But as readers on this blog have noted, the viability and support of new music is not unusual in Los Angeles. In case anyone still has questions on this topic, please check out Mark Swed's review of this show in today's Times.

Help save the youth of America

December 10, 2006

Graham Clark as the witch and Lucy Schaufer as Hansel
Photo: Robert Millard 2006

I finally got around to seeing LA Opera’s new production of Hansel und Gretel this weekend. As I mentioned before, given how good this season has been here in LA so far, it’s hard to be too disappointed about this muddle. It was clear that the opera had pulled out all of the “family-friendly” stops with an English-language translation, cookies for the kids and a meet-and-greet with the cast in costume afterwards. Apparently from looking around, a lot of parents and other adults bit at the half-priced ticket offer for kids under 16. Not that any of these are bad ideas. I certainly think trying to have productions once and awhile that encourage younger audiences is reasonable. The problem is when they turn out to be so lifeless and empty as this one was.

This production seemed filled with too many eager to please gimmicks that made everything seem desperate. Much of this must rest on the shoulders of director/designer Douglas Fitch who had less of an overall vision than a string of cute ideas. Fitch started his opera directing career in Santa Fe in 2005 with a new production of Turandot that was colorful but hollow. He appears not to have learned anything from experience yet and continues here with that proud tradition. The set’s pieces were cumbersome and often moved very slowly, turning moments of magic into moments of tedium. In the end, I find it hard to believe that any of the children in the audience found this entertaining. Alan Rich in his recent LA Weekly column noted that today’s children may be too savvy and sophisticated for this particular entertainment. He archly suggests that Salomé may be more their speed. I tend to disagree however. Having worked with children for many years, I think there is still quite a lot about this opera that could be wonderful and engaging to them. The problem is that kids are often much smarter than adults give them credit for – a fact which ultimately sinks this production which seems to think their interest can be bought rather cheaply.

I should mention some of the silver lining in this cloud. Alan Gilbert and the LA Opera orchestra were superb as was Lucy Schaufer as Hansel. Schaufer is one of those performers, who like Netrebko, can actually act as well as sing. She is a joy to watch and listen to at the same time - an excellent, but ironically rare talent in the opera world.

Here’s hoping this is just a small bump in the road in an otherwise great season. Up next for LA, Conlon returns for Tannhäuser and Mahagonny in the spring. Plus, in other exciting news, Marilyn Ziegler has just given 4 million dollars to LA Opera to support one of music director James Conlon’s favorite and most important projects, the advocacy of music suppressed or destroyed under the Third Reich. LA Opera will begin a multi-year project presenting operatic works by many of these composers including Zemlinsky, Ullmann, Korngold, and others beginning with two concerts in March of next year and hopefully expanding into fully staged works for later seasons. I saw Conlon and members of the LA Philharmonic perform a semi-staged version of Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis in 2005 and if that was any indication, we have a lot to look forward to.

It's not easy being fuchsia

Sarah Chang and the LA Phil
Unless you’re Sarah Chang. Of course the lovely fuchsia dress she wore was a harbinger of things to come from her on Saturday night with the LA Phil. She performed Bruch’s first violin concerto with great gusto. In fact, too much gusto at times as she resorted to stomping around during the course of the performance adding percussion where really none was needed. No doubt she’s got the chops to play this in a spectacular fashion without breaking a sweat. However, this falls into one of those “please just calm down” kinds of performances. How quickly we forget that less is more.

Of course this is a quibble considering how good this program was overall. The balance of the program was devoted to Dvorák's Symphony No. 6 and Janácek's Taras Bulba. The Phil had wisely contracted with the eminent Czech conductor Jirí Belohlávek to lead this program in his debut performance here in LA. His familiarity of these pieces was evident not only in that he conducted from memory, but also from the passion and weight he instilled in these works. His acumen lies in seeing them for more than their pretty melodies. The Dvorák was rough-hewn and beautiful. But the standout for me was the Janácek. This orchestral work was filled with drama and energy in a stirring performance from the Phil. Even with Salonen out of town, it’s shows like these that make it clear why the LA Phil is one of if not the best orchestra in the country.

What's News?

December 06, 2006

I love this time of year not so much for the holiday season thing, but more so because it’s around this time that most of the American opera houses start revealing their plans for the next Fall season. Of course, in the end this always turns out to be more promises, promises, but at least we can dream. Most interesting are two tidbits that have been confirmed outside of the rumor mill that is the blogosphere by the reportedly legitimate press.

First, in New York, while some seem to be finding out what we in LA (and Washington) have known for a long time – that conducting is not Mr. Domingo’s strong suit – the Met has gone and confirmed the rumor that has been floating around for weeks: they plan to stage a new production of Glass’ Satyagraha in conjunction with English National Opera to arrive in New York in the Spring of 2008. Good for them. While this apparently has caused some hand-wringing in certain circles (let's just leave it at that), it’s exactly what the doctor ordered to help move this institution into the 20th century (it’s still too early for the move into the 21st, I’m afraid, but we all have to start somewhere). The most interesting piece about this item is the one most overlooked – the production is being developed in conjunction with principals of the avant-garde Improbable theater company. Improbable was last seen here in LA in 2005 in a production of Bloody Mess, probably the most exciting and visceral stage experience I’ve seen in a long time. Let’s put it this way, anyone who can make "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" seem modern, cutting-edge, and full of meaning has figured something out.

Meanwhile, the more exciting item to come to light appears in an on-line exclusive interview with Kaija Saariaho in this month’s Opera News where she tells Arlo McKinnon that Santa Fe Opera has plans to stage the US premiere of Adriana Mater in Summer 2008. Aahhh. Now that is a quality moment. Despite the less than receptive French press this Spring, Adriana Mater was easily one of the best shows I saw this year and I for one can’t wait to get a second chance to hear this beautiful, haunting work about hope and redemption. Plus given that Santa Fe used the original stage design and direction from George Tsypin and Peter Sellars for L’amour de loin a few years back, we may again get to see something close to the original Adriana production. Yet more reasons to visit New Mexico in the summer.

Last night with Mr. Adès

December 03, 2006

Large and in charge
Photo: Lawrence K. Ho/LAT 2006
Saturday saw the final installment of Thomas Adès “on location” residency with the LA Philharmonic where he led a performance of his 25-minute orchestral piece Asyla. It was disturbing and haunting in a beautiful way, filled with throbbing rhythms and the tinkling chords of upright pianos; one intentionally tuned 1/4 note flat. The piece makes allusion to a world of mental illness and simultaneously to another of refuge and was clearly a favorite for the local LA audience. The Phil have played the piece before and their new music chops were in evidence yet again. The Adès sponsored shows over this and last season have been a huge highlight in seasons filled with highlights since the move to the new Walt Disney Concert Hall, including the Minimalist Jukebox programs and the Tristan Project to name only two others. Adès has graced us with his piano virtuosity in chamber pieces by Schubert and Fauré, and championed new music, both his own (his violin concerto and Asyla) as well as others, including Kurtàg, Castiglioni, and Gerald Barry. The most remarkable thing is how strong all of this has been across the board. I can’t think of a sour moment among any of the shows and I can only hope he’ll return in the relatively near future with more. Right now, after seeing the absolutely bewitching opera The Tempest over the summer, I mostly hope he’s working on another opera.

The other piece on the program was Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 which was led interestingly enough not by Adès but by the Phil’s current assistant conductor Joana Carneiro. As Mark Swed points out, the LA Phil has a good track record with associate and assistant conductors in recent years including Alexander Micklethwaite and Miguel Harth-Bedoya. The performance was solid if not the most profound take on the work I’ve ever heard.

Of course it may have been better than I appreciate since it set off some of my own audience pet peeves. A few in the audience couldn’t tolerate one moment of silence causing the end of the piece to be trampled all over by appreciative but frankly histrionic shouting and clapping. I may be wrong about this, but I’ve always taken this as an especially American vice. I’ve always felt this kind of behavior – the need to clap first or clap loudest- shows off the American preoccupation with individualism and “self-fulfillment”. In the end, the music or performance experience stops being a communal one and starts being an individual one. It’s all about making sure you’ve enjoyed the show and that by-golly you've gotten your money’s worth. Who cares about the music actually being played, the work of the artists, or the enjoyment of others, as long as you’ve gotten your “culture” in, thereby making you a better person and validating your own personal identity. The centerpiece of this behavior is letting everyone else know it as quickly and loudly as possible. In the end this is the biggest problem with the excessive programming of all the big-ticket crowd-pleasing 18th and 19th century works by major orchestras. I suspect that in this country people don’t actually like this music any more than they do new music – they just like the idea of themselves liking it better.

Coronation Day

December 02, 2006

From L to R, Frederica von Stade, Kurt Streit, Nicholas Phan,
David Daniels, Streit again, and Susan Graham
Photos: Robert Millard 2006

Still on an “opera high” from Tuesday’s magnificent concert performance of Barry’s The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit with the LA Phil, I headed across the street to the good-ol’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to see LA Opera’s current production of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea. LA Opera is on a roll so far this season and apparently the hits keep right on comin’. (Please note that I have yet to see the current English language “family-friendly” Hansel und Gretel, which I worry may in fact bring this running streak to an end.) Despite some minor quibbles, given the overall quality of the production and the stellar A-list cast, (and the relative rarity of Monteverdi stagings in this country) this may be the best Poppea I will ever see. Let’s start with a near dream largely American cast – Susan Graham, David Daniels, Frederica von Stade, Kurt Streit, and Reinhard Hagen performing under the direction of Baroque specialist Harry Bicket. The singing was nearly flawless from all parties with perhaps the exception of Streit who would lose all subtlety at times. However, as Nero, blustery is not necessarily a bad thing. Graham was making her LA Opera stage-debut and was glorious throughout. Bicket and his small period orchestra were superb, flexible and touching.

A flaming David Daniels in drag
Photo: Robert Millard 2006
The production was originated by De Nederlandse Opera in 1994 under the direction of Pierre Audi and was recently made available on a much-lauded DVD. I can see why. It is a fantastic minimalist production that like many of Robert Wilson's stagings has the effect of placing added emphasis on the performers and the music itself. Like last year's magnificent Wilson Parsifal here in LA, Audi's version of Poppea is stripped down with only a minimum of stage direction business that actually allows the performers to , get this, sing and act. Outside of some earth-tone walls, a few strategically placed boulders and pillars, the stage is empty. Of course what little stage business there is stands out. The stage itself covers the pit with only a wedge cut out for the small-size orchestra and another entrance to the stage for the cast. Bursts of flame are present in both the first and second acts which always creates that "what will they set on fire next" kind of feeling.

New Upholstery with Julian Sands
Photo: mine 2006
Since this is opera, not everything is perfect. Oscar-winner Emi Wada's costumes are effective but one can't help but feel sorry for the Persian rug store that has lost its inventory for this cause. But again, these are minor details in an evening with so many great elements. And if all that weren't enough - apparently some of this Eli Broad money is already trickling down in that most of the seats in the orchestra have been reupholstered. Part of me will miss the red masking tape that was holding some of them together, but I think I'll adjust. Oh, and did I mention that my friend Deborah and I got to see the still-to-this-day über-hot Julian Sands who had apparently gone stag to the opera that evening. LA, you gotta love it.

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