Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

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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