Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Recordings of the week

July 30, 2007

I know it sometimes seems that we are all living (or at least listening) in Wagner's shadow so it's always a nice reminder that there are those willing to take the master on at his own game, whether they are successful at it or not. For example, Frank Martin's adaptation of the Tristan and Iseut legend in oratorio form Le Vin Herbé. The work is well served in an excellent new recording from Harmonia Mundi under Daniel Reuss with the significant talents of Sandrine Piau and Steven Davislim. In adapting the French text, Marin dared to think small and the chamber ensemble and chorus here indeed make much more of much less.

He may be clean and sober, but Ryan Adams can still fuel messed-up rock'n'roll bad boy fantasies better than anyone else. Even cleaned up it's hard not to just want to fix him, with all that heartbreak and self-destructive tendencies. Just to prove the point, there's the smartly titled Easy Tiger. This is a disc that both benefits and suffers from not being as sprawling and unfocused as many of his earlier recordings. His songwriting is impeccable and he is a master of distilling the country and western brand of melancholia in what is essentially a straightforward pop and rock context. Love may indeed still be hell, but here it goes down easy in sepia tones. Not a bad addition to his oeuvre.

Different Light

July 29, 2007


LA has long had a love affair with minimalism in various forms and contemporary art in general and so it’s no surprise that Dan Flavin: A Retrospective is currently on view not at the Museum for Contemporary Art downtown but in the Mid-Wilshire district at the theoretically more august LACMA. In fact I can think of a number of excellent contemporary shows that have come out of LACMA over the last decade including retrospectives of work from Lari Pittman, Tim Hawkinson, and David Hockney to name just three. Not only is this good for LACMA, but it helps keep the pressure up on other institutions like MOCA and the Getty to keep up with the quality and thoughtfulness of their own programming.

The Flavin exhibit is quite large and covers a wide swath of his career from familiar single element installations to reconstructions of larger site-specific works from elsewhere. The galleries here have probably never looked emptier and that is a very good thing. The curators, who include LACMA’s recently appointed director Michael Govan have wisely chosen to give these works the space they need with most being exhibited in rooms alone with no competition whatsoever. A brilliant move because fifty percent of seeing the works is looking away from them. Flavin’s installations are equally about the light and color projected from them as they are about the actual architectural elements of the pieces themselves. Rooms fill with light and glow in magenta, green, and endless shades of white with subtle changes in variations as one moves from source to the margins of the enclosing space. In some ways, at times, it’s like being inside a Rothko.

Plus, when is the last time you had a work of art physically alter you if only temporarily? (Of course I would argue that this is always the case with every work of art but that is an argument for another time.) The exhibit concludes with one of Flavin’s “barrier” works, untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection) from 1973 (pictured above). A massive wall of green light that divides the final gallery in half leaving much of the room inaccessible. But as one stands in the room it slowly becomes apparent that the color is fading away, the light turning clear white in quality. This change becomes most startling when one realizes that the foyer and sky, visible through the exit archway have turned a brilliant bright pink. Leaving the exhibit, the magenta tinted world remains if only briefly until the familiar returns and the bright green glow of the gallery behind calls out.

It’s a great show. Beautiful, thoughtful, and ultimately very engaging. You should go see it before it closes August 12th.

La Boheme

July 26, 2007

Yvette Tucker and David Engel
Photo: Lori Shepler/LAT 2007
Can-Can is one of those perennial “problem” works. Despite a wonderful score from Cole Porter with a number of classic songs including “I Love Paris” and “It’s All Right With Me," the show is hampered by a rather silly Boheme knock-off of a book by Abe Burrows. Director David Lee and his collaborator Joel Fields were well aware of this issue going into development of their new revival for Pasadena Playhouse now running through August 8. Thus, they (with the blessing of the various involved families and foundations) embarked upon a significant reworking of the book while keeping the original music intact. So did all the new narrative and dialog pay off? Well I guess that depends on how you look at it. The bad news is that Lee and Fields have managed to update 1950s corniness to 2000 corniness, which is still, well, corny. Still family friendly to a T, this Can-Can goes down easy and at times makes one wish for a little Tuberculosis or something to liven things up a bit.

But the good news is that no corners were cut in the singing, dancing, and music department. There are several stretches where it’s easy to forget all the overly eager audience-pleasing comedy shenanigans and simply enjoy the enthusiastic if not quite sexy choreography of Patti Colombo and the whole-hearted performances given by the entire cast. I should also mention the superior job that fight coordinator Tim Weske has done here especially with the climactic duel between Kevin Early (Aristide) and David Engel (Hilare) who pulled off the most athletic and believable stage altercation I've seen in awhile. No doubt this production makes no effort to hide its crowd-pleasing intents. But for the middle of July, that is not always such a bad thing.

Sleeping Ugly

July 24, 2007

Photo: ABT 2007
I don’t attend a lot of dance events, and when a friend of mine offered me free tickets to see the American Ballet Theater in Orange County I said why not. Of course, I wasn’t banking on the program including the company’s new and unbelievably saccharine production of The Sleeping Beauty. Needless to say, the audience, largely composed of 8 and 9 year-old girls in their princess/fairy/ballerina costumes, did create an unusual circumstance where virtually every member of the audience could have immediately substituted for everyone on stage. Actually this isn't true in that none of these children could dance so well as the cast members and most of them weighed twice as much.

Yet, as the psychological underpinnings of tomorrow's eating disorders were being firmly implanted, I couldn't help but wonder. I mean, you’d never see so many children at a classical concert or an opera in a million years. (At least not one that wasn't specifically marketed to them.) I get the whole young-girl ballerina fantasy thing, but I feel like it must be more than that. How has ballet continued to manage this sort of cultural relevance to a group of young people? Are there no 8-year old girls who want to grow up to be Renee Fleming?

Of course the saddest part was how little there was for all these young-girls to look at. I was originally going to describe the program's unbearable sweetness as akin to a Disney film, but then realized how unfair that would be. Even the worst Disney films usually include some dark material or undercurrent to balance the material. ABTs Sleeping Beauty makes Finding Nemo look like Dancer in the Dark. The individual performances were certainly technically proficient and athletic. And while there is certainly beauty in this, I would hardly describe the overall choreography as graceful. This was a group project between Kevin McKenzie, Gelsey Kirkland, and Michael Chernov based on the work of Marius Petipa, and it appears something was lost with all of these cooks in the kitchen. The moral of this story: I should probably get a chance to see more dance events than I do.

Hey Joni, put it all behind you

July 22, 2007

Kerze (1983) by Gerhard Richter
Life goes on back in LA and Friday saw Sonic Youth roll into the Greek Amphitheater for a sold-out show on their Daydream Nation tour. As previously mentioned here Sonic Youth are performing the entire 1988 album throughout the US this year. It was a beautiful night that, for me, was filled with some surprises. I’ve always loved Daydream Nation. When I was in college, I thought it was a post-modern masterpiece. Manic, driven, and discordant, the music seemed to be coming together and falling apart simultaneously. It is a recording that is both frayed around the edges and urgently going everywhere at once. Having seen live performances of the band at the time (and several times before and since), I was greatly looking forward to this show and while it wasn't what I expected, it was still a marvelous thing.

Sonic Youth have never rested on their laurels and while they have inspired the launch of a hundred anemic facsimiles, they have moved on and the show reflected the reality – they are not the band or the people they were nearly 20 years ago and their performance should not simply be an attempt to recapture the past. Instead of wallowing in a post-punk nostalgia for what never was, the band delivered a show that brought out many melancholic aspects of the music that, while certainly always there, were not as prominent before. The songs seemed as much about memory and regret as anything else and, while there were still the driven and forceful moments throughout, the work floated in the air with a sense of looking back critically. Not unlike the Gerhard Richter painting Kerze (1983) that graces the cover of the album, the multiple layers in these expertly crafted songs revealed themselves and the searing call to arms became a remembrance of things past.

The show ended with several songs of new material from the most recent disc Rather Ripped which, while formidable in their own right, seemed rather like Dick Dale surf-guitar numbers in the wake of the prior 70 minutes. But the die had already been cast. While the crowd was still filled with numerous young men screaming out Thurston Moore’s name like some infatuated pre-teen girl, it was an older crowd overall and I couldn’t help but think like many other most likely did, what exactly have we put behind us and what haven’t we?

Recordings of the week

July 20, 2007

Osvaldo Golijov's great luck with recordings of his work continues with this new disc from DG, Oceana. In addition to Golijov's revision of the original 1996 version of this title work that sets Pablo Neruda's poetry to music, the album features three songs the composer wrote specifically for Dawn Upshaw, recorded here for the first time in an amazingly moving version. She performed these songs live in LA earlier this year to much fanfare and here is backed by Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Of course, the big news story this week was Alan Gilbert's appointment to head up the New York Philharmonic after Lorin Maazel's departure. I think it's great news and quite remarkable that the organization eschewed the storied European music directors it has favored over the last decades in favor of an American, with a strong interest in new music no less. Of course it's clear who's responsible for all this - Deborah Borda, Ernest Fleischman and the Los Angeles Philharmonic board. I should dare say that it was the bold appointment of Gustavo Dudamel as the LA Phil heir apparent that opened the door and upped the pressure on the NY Phil to do the right thing by shaking things up a bit in their selection of Maazel's successor. While we are all waiting to see how all this promise comes to fruition, there is the DG Concerts recording of Dudamel conducting the LA Philharmonic in Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra earlier this year that is now available on iTunes. And as for Gilbert, whom I absolutely love - don't worry New York, you can thank us later.

I'll drink to that, (and one for Mahler)

July 18, 2007

Toby Stephens as Jerry and Dervla Kirwan as Emma
Photo: Donmar Warehouse 2007
Summertime in London can mean only one thing - all the Harold Pinter you can handle! Well, not actually, but this summer has included two major revivals of the Nobel laureate's works that I had the pleasure of seeing towards the end of my recent London trip. The Donmar Warehouse is currently wrapping up their run of Betrayal from 1978. The Donmar has made its name with smart, literate, and superbly-acted productions, and this is no exception. It has an A-list cast of British stage and screen veterans including Toby Stephens as Jerry, Samuel West as Tom and Dervla Kirwan as Emma. All three actors deliver biting performances that show how much the characters betray themselves as much as each other. Betrayal is remarkable in that it is one of those works that is far more sophisticated than it seems on the surface. While it mines standard themes of marital infidelity, Pinter adds layers of more subtle meaning by telling the tale in reverse order. Director Roger Michell has created a focused but somewhat floating production that wafts in between a number of sheer white curtains used for backdrops and to denote scene changes. The play is not just about spouses betraying each other but, in these capable hands, transforms into something much more.

Meanwhile, the National Theater is about to open a new production of one of Pinter's earliest plays The Hothouse from 1958 directed by Ian Rickson. The Hothouse is one of Pinter's "comedies of menace" and this staging succeeds on both fronts tremendously. Both hysterically funny and highly unsettling, the play concerns staff who appear to be working in a mental institution who may not be readily distinguishable from the often discussed but never seen patients. Hildegard Bechtler has set the action in a more operatic than claustrophobic set, which lends the proceedings an extra sense of irony. As is usually the case in Pinter's world, much of little consequence is discussed and barely disguised emotions flower in the heat of the mundane. There were some problems with minor technical issues, but considering that this was a preview, I think it highly likely many of these issues will be resolved by the time the play opens this week. The cast is filled with actors who know their way around Pinter's work including the Roote of Stephen Moore and Lia Williams's Miss Cutts. Paul Ritter turns in a near maniacal performance as Lush that nearly steals the entire evening. It's a very good show and a nice contrast to the Donmar production. See them both.

Everybody ought to have a maid

July 16, 2007

Anne-Marie Duff as Joan
Photo: Kevin Cummins/NT 2007
The National Theater seems to be pulling out all the stops this summer when it comes to producing spot-on, clever and engaging versions of typically long-winded and philosophical material. Following a veritably breezy staging of Maxim Gorky’s Philistines (that I talked about here), Marianne Elliott has mounted a funny, moving and surprisingly brisk version of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Of course this is a work full of currently relevant overtones about religious fundamentalism and nationalism. It is also a play about how heroes are made and destroyed. Elliott allows Shaw to say what he wants without pedantic interventions or avoiding the intellectually challenging elements in the script. She wisely allows the comic elements of the piece to have their full weight balancing some of the more philosophical elements as Shaw surely intended. The staging is centered around a single large black raked platform that rotates not only to help designate changes in setting but periodically during scenes as well, adding a rather cinematic element to some exchanges. The costumes have been updated to a WWI appearance which provides a more contemporary edge overall. The pacing is quick and despite some STOMP-inspired activity meant to take the place of battle scenes the choreography is excellent. There is live musical accompaniment throughout and even though it strays into New Age territory a little too often, it adds a very nice touch.

But really all of this is secondary to a radiant, compelling performance from Anne-Marie Duff as the eponymous saint. She maintains the sense of Joan being a “simple” country girl avoiding those Song of Bernadette overtones that can destroy lesser actors. Her rage and desperation are acutely felt by the audience throughout the performance and she helps maintain a sense of dramatic tension and urgency even in the play’s most didactic passages. She also has the luxury of a wonderful cast surrounding her, including especially strong contributions from Patterson Joseph as the Bishop of Beauvais and Paul Ready as the Dauphin Charles. In short, it may be a long time before this strong of a production of one of Shaw’s major plays comes around again.

Recordings of the week

July 15, 2007

Or, what I did on my summer vacation. I just got back to LA and am running a little behind on my posts, but here are a couple of recordings I picked up on the trip I thought I'd mention. I know what you're thinking- another Handel aria CD? Yes they do seem omnipresent but Marijana Mijanovic's voice is too interesting to ignore. Unusually deep and rich, her voice and performances have been making a splash in Europe. Although I believe she has had relatively few US appearances so far, she was in LA in 2006 with Bernard Labadie and Les Violons du Roy and was absolutely great. If you don't know her yet, you may want to check her out here.

On the opera front, I'm gearing up for LA Opera's new "Recovered Voices" initiative under James Conlon and the upcoming season's American Premiere of Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg which he has conveniently recorded for all of us with a cast that includes Soile Isokoski and David Kuebler. Well, I'll have more to say in the next few days about the last few London events so stay tuned.

Almost Perfect

July 14, 2007

Franz Grundheber as Rigoletto and Darren Jeffery as Count Monterone with cast
Photo: Clive Barda/ROH 2007

I return to the US this weekend but before I go, how about The Royal Opera’s revival of Rigoletto? Well, since you asked, it was actually quite good, though not quite as good as it could have been or may have been in the past. I think this revival has been a disappointment for some here given the quality of the prior outings. However, I myself have not seen David McVicar’s most excellent production before and have to say I can see what all the fuss is about. Modern looking without betraying the setting of the opera in any substantial way, it’s dark, eerie and intense. It relies heavily on atmospheric lighting to deepen the effect of the large slanted rotating wall that takes up virtually all of the stage. As regular readers know, Rigoletto is not my favorite opera, and when the curtain came up I thought, hey, this may be the one to change my mind.

Alas this was not to be. Despite really good performances from everyone involved, I never felt one-hundred percent committed to what was going on. Franz Grundheber’s Rigoletto was adequate but his voice seemed to thin out in some of the more vocally taxing moments. Wookyung Kim, here as the Duke of Mantua making his ROH debut, sounded great but often threw his arms about as if the bigger his arm gestures, the more threatening he would seem. I don’t think he’s developed the acting chops yet to pull off the lothario stuff. Conductor Renato Palumbo kept things moving along, but I felt he was having to back off too much to make space for some in the cast to be heard at times.

Of course, there is an exception in Patrizia Ciofi who is returning to the role of Gilda here and sounded wonderful. She sailed above the orchestra with beautiful control and almost made her character’s decision to sacrifice herself to protect the man who has betrayed her seem quasi-believable. That’s saying a lot in that I don’t think this is a humanly possible task. Still, all things being equal, this is one worthwhile production that, while it may have faded some from its initial glory, still carries a number of thrills that make it worth seeing.

Now here’s the real question. Do I abandon my tickets this evening for a preview of the National Theater’s new production of Pinter's The Hothouse in favor of seeing the Colin Davis led Cosi Fan Tutte revival at ROH with Dorothea Röschmann and Elina Garanca? Stay tuned for details.

Talk about La Passion

July 13, 2007

Dawn Upshaw
Photo: Barbican/The Times 2007

Tonight was the second performance of Kaija Saariaho’s recently completed new solo oratorio La Passion de Simone at the Barbican Center in London. This piece was originally composed as part of “New Crowned Hope,” the Peter Sellars-directed arts festival which originally took place last Fall in Vienna to celebrate Mozart’s 250th birthday anniversary. The festival is now in London for the summer and many of the works from Vienna are also being performed here including John Adams’ new opera A Flowering Tree. The big difference with these London performances of Saariaho’s Passion are that the soprano whom the work was composed for, Dawn Upshaw, is making her first appearances in the piece. Upshaw had been sidelined for much of the last several months while undergoing cancer treatment and the debut in Vienna was performed by Pia Freund with the Klangforum Wien Orchestra under Susanna Mälkki. Subsequent performances of the work in Los Angeles were postponed until the opening of the 07/08 LA Philharmonic season in October.

But Upshaw, thankfully, is in good health and back on stage and her performances here are riveting and attest to her status as one of the greatest vocalists performing today. Her voice was bright and beautiful and communicated volumes above and beyond the actual libretto written by Amin Maalouf. Of course that is no easy task considering the depth and complexity of this work. Saariaho and her collaborators have delivered another dark beauty in this 70-minute oratorio reflecting on the life and work of Simone Weil. The oratorio is arranged in 15 distinct sections meant to parallel the structure of a passion play. Each section examines a different aspect of Weil's life and while there are recorded spoken passages of her actual words, most of the text performed by both Upshaw and the accompanying choir are not dialog or actual quotes from Weil but responses, commentary, or imagined reactions from family members or others. The piece is minimally staged here by Sellars and was performed on a riser behind the orchestra consisting of a table and free-standing door, as well as a dancer, Michael Schumacher, who periodically augments or responds to Upshaw’s own actions.

When Sellars commissioned these works for New Crowned Hope, he had the idea that different composers would respond to specific works that Mozart wrote in the last year or so of his life. Just as Adams’s composed A Flowering Tree as a response to Die Zauberflöte, Saariaho’s work builds on ideas and themes from La Clamenza di Tito. The piece is also remarkable for the way it builds on Saariaho’s most recent opera Adriana Mater. Like this 2006 work, La Passion de Simone concerns our response to the suffering of others as well as ourselves and how and whether that response can be shaped without violence. While Adriana takes the idea of forgiveness head on, La Passion is more concerned with the idea of agency. How can one respond appropriately to violence and tragedy without more of the same? La Passion de Simone is a non-narrative and more metaphorical piece but raises huge questions and provides the listener with a lot to think about musically and otherwise.

The music which is gorgeous and relates closely to Saariaho’s operatic works, was performed here by the City of Birmingham Orchestra under the direction of Robert Spano. Their playing was strong and engaging, but I often felt that there was a layer missing. The bass parts sounded weak and I felt the piece could have used a little more attention to detail. However, this is still a relatively new work with only a few performances to date and is still growing. I'm also not convinced how much the rather minimal staging and choreography added to the piece overall. I look forward to the LA performances under Esa-Pekka Salonen and the LA Phil who have proven extremely successful with Saariaho’s scores in the past. Single tickets there will go on sale in the next few months, so don't miss out.

Enough Already

July 12, 2007

Faith Prince as Lalume and Michael Ball as a Poet
Photo: Tristram Kenton/ENO 2007

Against my better judgment, I went through with seeing English National Opera’s productions of Kismet last night and am here to report that yes, it really is that awful. I’m not going to go on about the problems, which have been exhaustively laid out in the press (and for which Gert at mad musings of me has left an extensive list of links).

However, after reading a number of these reviews it brings up some thoughts. One of the recurrent themes in some of the published reviews for Kismet questions how the management of ENO could have thought to put on this revival at all. Some writers have gone further to draw conclusions about the overall course and management of the organization. But I don’t think that’s fair. I mean, far be it for me to criticize anyone who wants to write a negative review and heaven knows I have made my own unfair gross generalizations on more than a few occasions. But really does one (or really even several) bad productions necessarily mean that an arts organization as a whole is somehow inherently flawed in its management? Yes, Kismet is rather dated and offensive, but that hardly seems an unusual quality in opera or in works of musical theater considering how little new work is actually performed anywhere else. I mean let’s talk about ENO's Madame Butterfly that then traveled to New York. Certainly not a bad production but easily just as offensive as anything in Kismet.

ENO's management has received an especially hard time in the press over the last year and a half over making poor choices, and while I recognize I am an outsider who has seen little of the work in question first hand, I don’t see what all the grousing is about. This season alone contained a new commission on Gaddafi with a non-classical music approach and Glass’ Satyagraha. No matter what else one can say, it certainly seems ENO is taking risks. Maybe they aren’t always paying off but at least their trying. Nor do I see what the big deal is in opera houses or other stages reviving major works of musical theater.

Frankly, I’d rather see a whole year of misfires from a company taking risks than 90% of what most American companies put on. It might be argued that good management however comes down to taking the “right risks” yet, while that is true, I think anyone who starts to question what are “right” and “wrong” risks when it comes to art has pretty much eliminated the possibility of art from the equation to begin with. Others will complain about the public funding that goes to support ENO and whether it is good to use tax dollars to support what seem like in retrospect certain failures. That’s what government is supposed to do, isn’t it? Fund the risky stuff that no one else will in order to help promote the advancement of art and culture? If you want truly bad and boring opera, fund it with primarily private money like it is in the US and you’ll be Figaroed and Traviataed until you lose your mind.


July 11, 2007

Cast of Kovanschchina
Photo: Wilfried Hosl/Bavarian State Opera 2007

My visit to the Munich Opera Festival wrapped up with the Bayerische Staatsoper’s new production of Khovanshchina, which received one of its two festival performances on Tuesday. Why stay in Munich for this? Well, firstly it was under the baton of fellow (former) Angeleno and LA Opera music director Kent Nagano. Secondly, the chances of seeing a Russian opera in the US outside of Tchaikovsky or Boris Godunov lie somewhere between zero and none given the so-called state of the art. Munich's production of Khovanshchina wasn’t bad, but, burdened with a rather cumbersome and plodding production, it wasn’t what it could have been either.

It was certainly a rather Germanic affair lacking much of a Russian feel, but I suppose that it’s only fair considering the number Mr. Gergiev and his band of homegrown Kirov opera troopers have been doing on Wagner’s Ring throughout the world over the last few years (and which has finally arrived at long last at the Lincoln Center this week). Certainly Mussorgsky is no “Russian Wagner”, but there are beautiful moments in Khovanshchina, many of them involving extended choral passages admirably performed by the Bavarian State Opera chorus with excellent support from Nagano and the house orchestra. Among the principles, of particular note was Doris Soffel as Marfa who was by far the most convincing player. I’ve seen Soffel before in Los Angeles and didn’t think much of her at the time, but here she was on her own turf, apparently, and took off like a rocket. Among the men, Valery Alexejev as Shaklovity was the most engaging as evidenced by the caliber of his performance in otherwise distracting moments such as delivering his major aria in nothing more than a pair of boxers.
Klaus Florian Vogt as Andrei, Camilla Nylund as Emma, and Paata Burchuladze as Ivan Kovansky
Photo: Wilfried Hosl/Bavarian State Opera 2007

However, all of these strong performances had an insurmountable weight to lift in Dimitri Tcherniakov’s staging. Apparently designed as an homage to the FOX TV series 24, the large set consisted of numerous small rooms stacked one above the other where different vignettes played out including some with characters including Tsar Peter and Tsarina Sofia who actually have no lines in the libretto itself. The large gray spaces between these rooms served as convenient places to project the names of characters and the time of the action, which, yes, implied that all the action took place in a single day. All of this didn’t bother me half as much, though, as the almost total lack of color throughout the whole piece. Gray rooms, gray walls, gray costumes. Apparently Russia of the 18th century was more in need of a Benetton Shop than a strong leader. Unfortunately, all they got in the end was a Banana Republic as evidenced by the finale where the schismatics, in preparation for their self-immolation, stripped their kitsch gray Russian garb in favor of lightly colored earth tone separates – perfect this year for everyone headed off to the pyre. I won’t even get into the Knovansky cruelty stuff where he shoots two women after making them crawl on their knees at the start of Act IV before he himself is killed in a political assassination by an elderly woman in a babydoll nightie. But, hey, I’m going to miss their revival of Doris Dörrie’s Planet of the Apes-themed Rigoletto later this month, so having a little anachronism to take with me here is welcome. Anyway, it’s off to London for Dawn Upshaw and Saariaho this week before heading home, so stay posted.

Deutschland hat Talent

July 10, 2007

Thomas Quasthoff
Photo: Wolfgang Reese 2007

Hey, remember that gut with the bad teeth who won that TV competition for singing a crappy off-key Nessun Dorma which accidentally exacerbated everyone’s corneal abrasions thereby making them cry involuntarily as if moved by emotion? Me neither.

Meanwhile, Munich takes a breather from opera on Monday for someone who actually can sing quite well, thank you very much – Thomas Quasthoff. His solo recital at the Nationaltheater included an all-Schumann program starting out with Dichterliebe, and followed after the intermission with Der arme Peter, Belsazar, and Liederkreis op. 24. His tone is wonderful and the show was very well received. I thought he and accompanist, Justus Zeyen, weren’t entirely on the same page in the beginning, but it may just be me. However, any small issues quickly righted themselves and the rest of the program was superb. Part of the issue may also be that I have become spoiled by the Disney Hall’s acoustics, which makes it feel like everyone is performing right next to you, and even in this beautiful venue, the room sounds a little cave-like at times. Granted I was also disoriented at the moment from having just come from the incredible classical music store in Ludwig Beck that nearly put me into shock after Tower’s demise last year. Ludwig Beck puts Tower’s classical stores to shame even at their best.

Of course, Quasthoff demonstrated his typical wit and charm. What makes him the true heir to performer's like Fischer-Dieskau is his ability to connect with an audience both within and without the context of the songs themselves. Quasthoff also noted at the beginning of the performance that he is involved in starting a new annual Lieder performance competition here in Munich that will start in 2009 to help preserve what he believes is an endangered art.

Philistines, good and bad

July 09, 2007

Philip O'Brien as Gerald and Allison Bell as Lakmé
Photo: Opera Holland Park 2007

With all the big activity this week I’ve neglected to comment on a number of events including my visit to the Royal Academy of Art’s Summer Exhibit (which seemed loaded with interesting sculpture this year) and Opera Holland Park’s new production of Lakmé, which opened Tuesday amidst some pretty heavy rain. Luckily things let up enough so that everyone could sit there in the freezing cold while being subjected to the first real Gunga Din-tribute production I’ve experienced. Oh, musically and vocally it wasn’t bad, and I’m sure Theda Bara would be happy to know that her acting legacy is influencing a whole new generation of stage performers such as Allison Bell whose Lakmé against Philip O'Brien's Gerard gave The Peril's of Pauline a run for its money. Bell frequently hits the high notes and often maintained pitch with them when she did. Plus, who knew a Brahmin princess would have such great bangs? To be fair this isn’t a major big-bucks production, and Delibes' work is a bit frothy to begin with, but I think Opera Holland Park could have done better. The real question is where is all the outcry over this mess in the local press? I guess everyone’s too busy being woefully misguided in their negative take on Glyndebourne’s new production of J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion, which is great and a must-see despite what you read in the papers.

Phil Davis as Vassily (standing), Rory Kinnear as Pyotr and Ruth Wilson as Tanya
Photo: Catherine Ashmore/NT 2007

Maybe I should focus on something more positive. OK, how about the really good Andrew Upton adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Philistines at the Lyttleton Theater. It seems that in the wake of The Coast of Utopia in New York, wordy, intellectual Russian drama is all the rage. But when it is done this well, it is easy to see why. These two and a half hours of philosophical debate and intergenerational strife fly by in an adaptation and staging that is funny, sharp, and good looking. Who’s responsible? Well the director, Howard Davies, who keeps the pacing tight and keeps everyone from lapsing into pontification mode throughout. The other major asset is a fine cast of both veterans and newcomers including Ruth Wilson as Tanya and Rory Kinnear as Pyotr, the brother and sister trying to reconcile their family traditions with knowledge and a new world they are coming into. The father Vassily, played by Phil Davis, and the family’s lodger Teterev (Conleth Hill) provide a bittersweet counterbalance in representing the old guard. A lovely time and highly recommended.

Recordings of the week

July 08, 2007

I'd like to feature a couple of recordings that come to mind after some of this week's more notable events. Not a lot of Unsuk Chin's music is readily available in the US but a good place to start to learn a little about her is this DG recording Akrostichon - Wortspiel which features four shorter works. I don't think the recored completely captures some of her playfulness, but it should whet appetites until Alice in Wonderland comes around on DVD.

Of course, speaking of DVDs that have come out of Munich in the last few years, seeing the excellent Alcina last night reminded me of what a good experience Munich has had with Handel operas lately. Exhibit A is this fantastic film noir inspired version of Rodelinda which is both visually stunning and beautifully sung. It makes the Metropolitan Opera's production from just a matter of a year or so later look like a sad-sack mess. I once heard a dinosaur audience member complain to David Gockley about this very production, which San Francisco imported under Pamela Rosenberg's tenure, begging him to bring to the stage "Handel done the right way." Heaven only knows what that is (togas? 18th century garb?), but with Ariodante creeping back into the SF season for summer 2008, let's hope it's more like this Rodelinda and less like, say, the Met's atrocious John Copley Gulio Ceasare from last season.

It's gonna be a beautiful night

Anja Harteros as Alcina and Vesselina Kasarova as Ruggiero
Photo: Wilfried Hosl/Bavarian State Opera 2007

How often do you get to spend a Saturday evening basking in the beauty created by Mr. Handel? Whatever the answer is, I bet it’s not enough. I’ve just had one of those evenings here in Munich with the Bayerische Staatsoper's revival of Alcina and couldn’t be happier. Oh, it wasn’t perfect, and Mr. Handel was never too concerned with having much more than a makeshift plot. But, who cares. This is what it’s all about.

A special thanks to all who made the evening so wonderful including Anja Harteros (Alcina), Vesselina Kasarova (Ruggiero), Christopher Moulder (Conductor) , Christoph Loy (Director), Veronica Cangemi (Morgana), Sonia Prina (Bradamante), Benjamin Hulett (Oronte), Sergio foresti (Melisso), and Deborah York (Oberto). Sorry I could only stay for the first seven curtain calls.

Feed the Birds

July 07, 2007

All right, I’ll admit it. I just don’t like Salome. I love Strauss, but no matter how I approach it, I just can’t seem to get to this one. I keep thinking I just haven’t seen the right production, but without fail those 90 minutes seem to stretch on for hours. Maybe I just can’t get behind the whole teenage seduction thing. And the setting – urgh – Biblical stuff is almost always a bad idea for most stage directors.

Gabriele Schnaut and Todd Ford in Das Gehege
Photo: Wilfried Hosl/Bavarian State Opera 2007

Needless to say, tonight’s performance of Salome at the Bavarian Opera Festival did little to change my views. It was paired here with a new work by Wolfgang Rihm, Das Gehege, commissioned in part by incoming music director Kent Nagano specifically to be paired with Strauss’ opera. At just over thirty minutes this one-act, one-performer wonder is, if nothing else, interesting. It is very poetic from what my more German proficient friends tell me and it concerns a woman who develops an attachment for a caged eagle that she frees and is simultaneously aroused by and hopeful that the bird will destroy her. She comes to realize the eagle is indifferent to her emotions and she attempts to provoke it into attacking her. Eventually she is successful after much struggle, but now realizing the bird is old and weak, kills it. Yeah, that’s what I though too.

It’s not a bad piece musically. Rihm’s music is enjoyable and textured on first listen, but like this week’s premiere of Chin’s Alice in Wonderland, this is far more of an intellectual exercise than an actual opera. Essentially Das Gehege is Salome streamlined down to it’s most basic psychological elements. All the characters have been eliminated except the central one and Rihm highlights the way that the woman, played here by Gabriele Schnaut, is really acting out her own internal drama on an ambivalent beast. The woman, like Salome wishes for a desire that will engulf her and when confronted with the true nature of that fantasy, she ends up destroying herself. Clever, no? Enjoyable? I’m not so sure.

Angela Denoke and the Cast of Salome
Photo: Wilfried Hosl/Bavarian State Opera 2007

Oh yeah about that Salome. Many of the stomach-turning elements are still intact from the premiere earlier this season including the notorious breast-licking by Wolfgang Schmidt’s Herodes. Angela Denoke, the evening’s Salome, spends virtually the whole time slinking and writhing around the stage like she fell out of an Akon video. It gets old fast. By the time the actual dance scene comes around, about all that is left to do is expose herself. Then there is Jochanaan, played by Alan Titus, whom director William Friedkin develops as his own little personal tribute to John Travolta in Battlefield Earth. The good news here is that he elected not to go with the even more pathetic John Travolta as Edna Turnblad homage. Oh, and the eagle from Das Gehege shows up again for the final third of Salome as some sort of a life-coach, I suppose. Of course that doesn't work out to well.

Really I shouldn’t be so negative. Kent Nagano and the orchestra sounded lovely, and much of the signing was good. It was just so boring for no really good reason. Well, look for more on these topics and others from Munich in the local LA and NY press in the coming weeks – I’ve seen Mark Swed, Alan Rich, and Alex Ross in the last three days alone here in Munich. So keep your eyes posted, maybe they’ll have more positive thoughts about it.

The Queen, while not in the spring of youth, is far from dead

July 05, 2007

Edita Gruberova as Queen Elizabeth I
Photo: Wilfried Hosl/Bavarian State Opera 2006
The Bavarian Opera Festival continued tonight with one of two scheduled performances from Edita Gruberova. She is starring in both of her two recent triumphs here in Munich, Norma next week and Christoph Loy’s production of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux that I got to see tonight. Both of these productions, mounted to showcase Gruberova’s talents in particular, are available on DVD already, starring largely the same casts that will appear during the festival. Gruberova is better loved here than perhaps anywhere else in the opera world, which may explain in part her continued appearances in the most demanding roles well into the later part of her career. It is true that she has an amazing voice, though clearly not to everyone’s taste. She still handles the higher part of her range with ease, strength and great control. While she lacks a certain lightness, she gives a very athletic and powerful performance. And as any sports fan can tell you, there is sometimes a lot of beauty and grace in things that are athletic and strong. The bottom and middle part of her range have not fared as well and she often sounds as if she were gulping down words in an admittedly less than Italianate manner. What she does have, though, besides an upper range, is years of stage experience and actual acting talent. She sold the end of both the second and third acts with her acting alone. All that with her still beautiful voice makes it easy to see why she is so loved. Plus as the Staatsoper’s own PR says, where else in the world are you going to hear anyone really sing this part with so much skill by anyone else. (Natalie Dessay, you say? I love her, too. But I think not. Or at least not yet.)

The rest of the cast was quite good with the exception perhaps of Paolo Gavanelli as the Duke of Nottingham who often sounded overwhelmed by his vibrato. Jeanne Piland’s Sara, Duchess of Nottingham was harrowing and very affecting. Friedrich Haider led the opera orchestra in an appropriately spirited and well-paced evening.

The other really notable contribution to the evening’s success is Christoph Loy’s marvelous modern, razor-sharp production. The overtones to a current day government (and maybe even Angela Merkel) perhaps were not intended, but the relationship between all of these images is hard to ignore. I know I’ve gone on about this before but I would trade one of these maligned so-called “eurotrash” productions any day for the kind of ersatz Euro-fantasies American houses wheel out every week as if every big-buck donor can’t tolerate anything on stage that doesn’t “transport” them to some Disney version of a land far, far away. Heaven forbid anyone should think or feel anything other than cheap sentiment if even for a moment. All right, I’ll stop ranting. Check out the DVD, it’s worth seeing.

Eat Me

July 04, 2007

Cast of Alice in Wonderland
Photo: Wilfried Hosl/Bavarian State Opera 2007

What Garden is this?
A garden with no flowers, no life?
My dreams have led me all to dirt?
What garden is this?

--Alice, Finale, Dream II of Alice in Wonderland

The first order of business Wednesday on my visit to Munich and the Bayerische Staatsoper Summer Festival was the second performance of the world premiere of Unsuk Chin’s new opera Alice in Wonderland. Anytime I see something new like this that has many new elements, I feel unsure about being too critical. However, the libretto is in English, which helps, and it is a familiar story so it is more accessible to me than other things. Yet after my first brush with the piece I will say that despite some wonderful performances, many clever musical and theater moments, and just sheer ambition, I left the performance feeling somewhat underwhelmed.

Chin and librettist David Henry Hwang, have set Lewis Carroll’s story rather faithfully. It’s all here – the Cheshire cat, the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, etc. In fact one of the greatest strengths of the work is its return to some of Carroll’s original emphasis on themes related to identity and the struggle for an individual, like Alice, to figure out not only which way she is going, but also, who she is in a very confusing world. This makes for a somewhat darker and more surreal tale than the Disneyfied version many of us grew up with, but it does give the opera far more heft. Unfortunately, outside of this, the libretto is somewhat hard to hold onto. It is absurdist at best with no real meaningful plot or character development outside of whether or not you interpret Alice’s own experiences as transformative for her. After two hours of this, while you may be intellectually engaged, it’s somewhat hard to feel impassioned about it. Having seen at least two of the operas Hwang has had a hand in writing, I can say that I am not yet convinced he is anywhere near as strong a librettist as a playwright. But practice makes perfect, right?

Sally Matthews as Alice
Photo: Wilfried Hosl/Bavarian State Opera 2007
The opera consists of a single act (that was presented with one “pause”) spread into seven scenes, two interludes, and a brief “dream” introduction and finale. The music is influenced by European modernism and is not especially tuneful. There are no real arias, per se, however there are numerous extended riffs on a variety of themes (a la Schnittke) that are very entertaining. At one point, Alice, played by the soprano Sally Matthews, sings an extended riff on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” with the Mad Hatter. Alice’s meeting with the caterpillar is represented entirely by an extended bass clarinet solo with the unsung lyrics projected onto the stage. But despite all these amusements, I never really felt drawn into the piece musically, though I by no means object to the tradition the work comes from. Chin is no doubt very good. Unfortunately, she maybe a little too good.

The staging, from Achim Freyer, returns to many of his favorite strategies – lots of big masks, puppets, focused lighting and mime. All of the action takes place on a steep 45 degree raked stage with nine openings for the performers to enter and exit. Alice appears in the middle lower opening and stays there throughout the whole show. In fact probably the most interesting thing about the whole performance is Freyer’s almost complete disembodiment of the voices. All of the vocalists except for Matthews and Gwyneth Jones, who appears as the Queen of Hearts, stand in a trough at the foot of the stage as disembodied heads singing their parts while a large troupe of Freyer’s regular mime and puppeteer associates move around the stage in masks or otherwise represent the characters in action. Even Ms. Matthews herself sings the entire performance until the last two minutes or so in an entire “Alice” head mask. While this is interesting to look at, it does create a sense of disembodiment and distance from the work as a whole.

The performances were all admirable from Jones and Matthews to Dietrich Henschel who sang the part of the Mad Hatter. Kent Nagano has quickly become a favorite with the audiences here if the reaction of tonight’s crowd was any indication. Certainly there was a divided opinion, but no one booed and the majority of the audience that hung around was quite enthusiastic for him as well as for Ms. Chin. There is a final performance left on Saturday, and I hope the piece gets more outings. It is definitely worth hearing and seeing.

The Lion in Winter

July 02, 2007

Janice Watson, Felicity Palmer, and Linda Tuvas
Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH 2007

So what becomes a legend most? Certainly a bigger crowd than the not-nearly-capacity audience that assembled for Monday’s performance of Katya Kabonova at the Royal Opera House under the baton of Sir Charles Mackerras. Which is an utter shame. Hearing Mackerras lead the Royal Opera House Orchestra was a joy. He made the score come alive in ways that perhaps no one else could, given his years of experience and intimate knowledge of the score. It comes as no surprise considering that Mackerras almost single-handedly introduced everyone outside of Czechoslovakia to this great 20th-century composer starting in the 1950s and made legendary recordings of all Janácek’s major music theater works.

The staging is a revival of a 1994 Trevor Nunn production that is attractive and engaging if not especially radical or groundbreaking. It has some interesting elements including live horses on stage, a fallen cross the heroine jumps to her death from, and a giant lace trimmed white sheer curtain used at points for sewing material. It works well for the most part, although it can be a bit rusty. An onstage scaffolding collapses during a thunderstorm in Act III, and is usually the case with scripted collapses on-stage it look a little too unnatural to completely ignore. But why be picky?

Janice Watson played the lead and was solid. This is saying a lot from me given that I’m still trying to wash her lackluster Salome from Santa Fe last year out of my mind. Her tone could be harsh, but was rarely so and she was able to keep Kata’s slow mental unraveling intact. The supporting cast was more than adequate, including Felicity Palmer, Toby Spence, and Liora Grodnikaite, who substituted as Varvara for Linda Tuvas who was out sick. Musically, it was a superior performance and I would strongly encourage anyone not familiar with Janácek or Mackerras to take advantage of the final performance of Kabanova on Thursday July 5 at the Royal Opera House. Even though I hope he continues to prosper and perform for many years to come, as Mackerras enters his 80s there may be only so many opportunities to hear him conduct some of the composers he is most associated with.

Summer Passion

Henry Waddington and Ingela Bohlin
Photo: Mike Hoban/Glyndeborne 2007
While apparently thousands of people packed in to the Princess Diana memorial tribute concert to hear the likes of Elton John, Rod Stewart, and Lily Allen yesterday, I opted to take Sunday in the country instead. Specifically, I attended the premiere of the Glyndebourne Festival’s new staged production of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion. A perennial tactic, staging Bach’s large sacred choral work is the only recompense for a world of opera lovers who just can’t let go of the fact that one of Western Civilizations greatest composers never, in fact, got around to actually writing an opera. This oratorio comes close, however, and, when staged in as wildly outlandish a fashion as it was by Katie Mitchell in her debut at Glyndebourne yesterday, it suddenly seems very natural, appropriate, and highly relevant.

More directly, I loved this show. It’s great and, while certainly not to everyone’s taste, it has many, many joys. Most notably, the performances of the central cast are nothing short of stunning. Sarah Connolly and Ingela Bohlin were the alto and soprano soloists respectively and were equally captivating. Henry Waddington sang the Christ part and was quite good as well. Perhaps the most amazing performance though belonged to Mark Padmore who took the rather functional and didactic part of the Evangelist and filled it with so much beauty and spirit that it became the centerpiece of the whole afternoon. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Richard Egarr provided sublime accompaniment, filling the festival hall with the profound welling of emotion and spirit Bach surely intended.

Mark Padmore as the Evangelist
Photo: Mike Hoban/Glyndeborne 2007
However, the most interesting thing about all of this was the context in which it took place. The production is described like this from the program notes, “A community gathers in a school. The community is mourning for its children; they should be here, in this school. But they are dead. This is happening now; somewhere in Europe. …outsiders come to visit the school. They are traveling players who come to perform the story of Jesus’s death to the community, as told in the Gospel of St. Matthew. …The spectators watch, listen and take part, experiencing the story through their own grief.” The outsiders include the four primary soloists mentioned above while community members, who are recruited over the course of the performance from the “audience,” play the smaller roles. This is a broad and ambitious conceit to be sure but one that strangely works and is quite affecting.

The “performance” conducted by the “visiting players” is highly symbolic and filled with so much metaphorical and religious imagery that it becomes a torrent at times. Sand is poured, heads are submerged in water, soloists dress as brides and pregnant women, bowls are set aflame, a table is laid with a large swath of grass, and a child appears as an angel. And yet, all of it works. This play within a play structure allows for a second level of commentary on the Passion story’s relevance to our own world. It also avoids what now seem like dated Godspell-inspired theatrics of something like Jonathan Miller’s well-traveled staged version of this work. But again this is the power of Bach's work - a seemingly endless ability to remain relevant over centuries. In any event, Glyndebourne has a great production on their hands with a stellar cast the likes of which you may not see again soon. Now's a good time for a trip to the country.

A Letter to Three Giovannis -
Part 2, London

July 01, 2007

An Alice Cooper moment
Erwin Schrott as Don Giovanni and Reinhard Hagen as the Commendatore
Photo: Catherine Ashmore/ROH 2007

Tonight was the first show of this year’s European excursion, the Royal Opera’s revival of Don Giovanni which is now in its last few performances. Having just seen the revival of David McVicar’s Don Giovanni production for San Francisco Opera two weeks ago, it’s hard not to recognize the similarities. Francesca Zambello’s staging for ROH, which has a similar vintage to McVicar's, would seem to have all the mod cons: foreboding gloom? Check. Bare-chested muscular hotness? Check. Giant metallic flaming pointing finger of doom? Uh…check? Actually outside of this rather Monty Pythonesque touch at the finale, Zambello’s production suffers mostly from simply seeming too flat, with too little to look at, and too little for her cast to actually do besides stand there and sing. Even dramatic lighting can’t add much to this set which rests almost entirely on what seems like a tiny rotating curved wall unit that the cast occasionally lean against in moments of angst.

Of course it’s hard to keep a good man down, and this is one good man who has his role down pat and then some. Erwin Schrott has made Giovanni his specialty and his charisma and easy way with the audience show why he is one of the leading interpreters of the role. His tone is good and he physically inhabits the role even in its silliest moments. (I guess it is wise to dine bare-chested if one anticipates poring wine all over said chest. Also note that in this situation, burgundy is probably your color of choice.) At the same time he is funny and can maintain focus on his character despite some excellent performances going on right next to him from the rest of the cast – namely Ana María Martínez’ strong Donna Elvira and Anna Netrebko’s Donna Anna. Netrebko finally made it in to the middle of this run after earlier health problems kept her out of the opening earlier this month and she is well worth the wait. Mozart may not necessarily be her strongest suit, but let’s not split hairs shall we? I found Michael Schade’s Don Ottavio a bit thin for the proceedings over all, but Kyle Ketelsen’s Leporello was quite well received.

I certainly enjoyed the evening as a whole, but must admit that I never felt the whole thing gelled in a meaningful way. Ivor Bolton led the Royal Opera House Orchestra through an initially quite rough and unwieldy performance that really didn’t hit its stride until well into the evening. But maybe that’s understandable given everyone’s nerves in London this weekend. Hopefully this too will pick up as things go along.

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