Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Be careful what you wish for...

September 30, 2007

Peter Seiffert and Petra Maria Schnitzer
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007
It seems almost unfair to criticize David Gockley's artistic leadership of the San Francisco Opera after such a short time on the job in the wake of the much-maligned new SF production of Tannhäuser - the first of his tenure. But on the other hand, he asked for it. Even though it was designed and directed by Graham Vick, Mr. Gockley has taken more of the heat in the newspapers. I can see why. Despite his oft repeated distaste for anachronism, Mr. Gockley apparently has no problems with heavy-handed symbolism. (Note to Mr Vick: in Wagner the heavy-handed symbolism is already built in. - Add extra at your own risk.) I won't go into specifics here since there is a far wittier summary than I could ever produce over at The Standing Room. Mr. Gockley did in fact get something akin to "period costumes," as he requested, though the result often makes Peter Seiffert look more like the Dude than any Medieval knight I'm familiar with. Thank god he protected the sensitive SF audience from fedoras for this.

Perhaps I'm being a tad unfair. It was a handsome production. It's just that it was an excessively dull one as well. Like helium, it could be lighter than air, but was often little more than inert gas. The musical values were in fact excellent. Seiffert and Schnizter are the leading practitioners of these roles and they dazzled here as in Los Angeles Opera's far superior production earlier this year. Donald Runnicles worked his magic and the orchestra was superior. I would disagree with the gentleman behind me who told his companion that the playing was too "light" and "Italianate" for "what is essentially a German opera." True, there is much on the surface of Tannhäuser that would make it seem Italian, but it is essentially a German opera. It's moments like this that I'm convinced that people who don't think they like opera think so less because of what anyone says or does on stage, and more because of the kind of people they have to sit in the audience with. (My neighbors had an extensive reflection on the prodigious acting talents of Angelina Jolie)

Of course, this compounds the possible direction problems under Gockley, given that Runnicles, who will be leaving San Francisco in the next few years, continues to be the company's biggest asset. But who knows? I could be wrong and perhaps the company is about to arise from the ashes like some pre-pubescent teen with the word peace scrawled across his chest.


Borodina at the bat

September 29, 2007

Packing up Act I of Samson et Dalila
Photo: mine
It’s another San Francisco weekend and I’m up to sample the opera wares on display this fall. First up – the umpteenth revival of Samson et Dalila, which opened the season and had its final performance on Friday. From my vantage point, I would have to say that these performances were a small miracle for the director Sandra Bernhard in that she salvaged what may be the most kitsch-prone staging of any single opera in America. (Apparently the laughs were all saved for Mr Vick’s Tannhäuser which I’ll see tonight.) Or another way to think of it is this – this definitely is your grandmother’s opera. In all of it’s hopelessly out-of-date, purple-haired, and Shalimar-scented glory. As much as general director Gockley has touted Graham Vick’s Tannhäuser as his calling card here in San Francisco, the choice to open the season with this antique may tell us more about his willingness to put any old thing on the stage than his first newly-commissioned production.

Olga Borodina sang Dalila, and the beauty of her singing accompanied with actual honest-to -God acting cut through the crap around her and actually gave the evening some legs. Surprisingly, Clifton Forbis’ Samson was also rather palatable. Forbis has disappointed me on more occasions than I care to remember but apparently keeping him away from the Wagner makes all of the difference. Patrick Summers and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra were quite good tonight and they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

All of these goings-on were broadcast live to some giant screen in what is now known as AT&T park for a purported group of “thousands.” Now that projecting simulcasts into various traffic intersections, sporting venues, and upper balconies is all the rage, San Francisco hasn’t missed an audio-visual beat. I’d be interested to know if this really ends up serving anything other than the company’s publicity agenda. Are there people who actually convert to ticket buyers from all this? During the curtain calls, Juha Uusitalo, who played the High Priest, came out on stage with a baseball he pretended to throw followed by Forbis mugging with a mitt. My partner impressed a somewhat clueless neighbor by predicting that Borodina would next appear with the bat. He was right, and apparently this is the shape of things for San Francisco Opera right here, right now.


What you should be seeing

September 27, 2007

Karita Mattila and Jorma Silvasti from the Met production of Jenufa
Photo: Beatriz Schiller/Met Opera 2007
Shame on you Los Angeles. Shame on you for leaving far too many empty seats at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Thursday night. An excellent production of a 20th century masterpiece opened there last night, the likes of which you may not see again anytime soon. I'm talking about Janácek’s Jenufa under the musical guidance of company music director James Conlon with an all-star international cast including Karita Mattila, Eva Urbanová, Kim Begley, and Jorma Silvasti. So why all the fuss? This is by no means a new production of the opera. Olivier Tambosi’s stage designs have traveled everywhere form London and Barcelona to the Metropolitan Opera and have even made it to DVD. A nearly identical cast to the one here in LA fronted this very production of Jenufa in New York this spring for what was easily one of the biggest highlights of the entire Met season. Perhaps the strongest thing I can say to recommend this production is how incredibly moving and beautiful it is despite how well-worn its particular grooves are. The basic mill-inspired set and period costumes are set off by a rather blunt concept involving a large rock that protrudes out of the floor in Act I and comes to dominate the entire stage in Act II. While some have argued against this as heavy-handed symbolism, I continue to maintain that it works beautifully throughout the piece and adds a modern edge to the proceedings.

Truth be told, however, the real selling point is the exemplary cast. Mattila has made the title role one of her signatures, and it would be a crime for anyone who cares about operatic singing to miss her here. Begley and Silvasti are both clear, forceful, and spot-on throughout. Probably the biggest change from the recent Met outing is the substitution of the legendary Anja Silja, with Eva Urbanová in the role of Kostelnicka. Urbanová is no Silja, particularly in the acting department, but she is no slouch either. Her beautiful ringing tone lacks Silja's steel, but is surprisingly warm and easily holds its own against Mattila’s standard-setting performance which is saying quite a lot. The fact that Urbanová is also a native speaker makes a big difference as well. LA seems to have fallen head over heels for James Conlon and who can blame us. The orchestra seems to come alive for him with every performance sounding monumental.

Oh, there are some rough edges to be sure, especially here on opening night. Much of the blocking seemed to be planned out by a meth addict, but I attribute this mostly to the need for a little more rehearsal and I think some of the unnecessary bouncing around of the cast will likely smooth out in the coming performances. So, here’s your chance LA. There is greatness in your midst – don’t miss out. There are five more performances left of Jenufa through October 13th and it would appear a criminally large number of tickets are still available.


The Lady Vanishes

September 26, 2007

L-R: Jin Suh, Ryan Cusino, and Nelson Mahita in Durango
Photo: Lori Shepler/LAT 2007

Los Angeles has become a bit of a hot spot in the last few years to see the smart and thoughtful plays of Julia Cho. We have been blessed with excellent productions of The Winchester House at the Theater at Boston Court and The Piano Teacher at South Coast Repertory and now East West Players has mounted Durango at the David Henry Hwang Theater. It’s a wonderful production that is well worth seeing. Cho clearly has an interest in the malleability and implications of memory in her work, and, while these issues are not quite as central to Durango as the former two plays, they are far from absent. Durango is no Rashomon-like dark fable but is instead a more domestic and purely psychological drama. The play concerns a father of Korean descent and his two American-born sons during a spontaneous family trip to the eponymous Colorado city after the father is laid off from his job of 20 plus years. Far from being a time for joy or connection, the journey pulls at all of the unraveling seams connecting the characters – the sons’ inability to live up to their father’s expectations and the father’s own disappointment in losing everything he has sacrificed for.

The backdrop and unspoken issue between these men is the loss of the mother years prior to the play’s action. Cho masterfully injects these issues by having the characters rarely speak about her outside of three brief soliloquies in which each man gives her a voice as they reenact their own private recollections of her. This material could easily run the risk of devolving into movie-of-the-week fodder, but Cho manages to rise above this by avoiding any hint of redemption – despite the gentle moments, Durango owes much more to Huis Clos than Steel Magnolias. There are three great performances to be seen including Jin Suh and Ryan Cusino as the sons and Nelson Mahita as their often-unapproachable father. Mahita is one of those fantastic actors working on this city’s stages who has never gotten the credit he deserves in Hollywood that has repeatedly placed him in character roles throughout film and TV. He is fantastic here without paltry sympathy or compromise. His performance is worth the price of admission alone.

Not everything works, however, and Cho could probably do without the younger son's heavy-handed comic book fantasy interludes, despite their eventual service to the play's homosexuality sub-plot. But there is more than enough other elements here to make the trip worthwhile, even if it doesn't involve a scenic train ride through the Rockies. Durango runs through the 14th of October.

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Don't Sweat the Technique

September 25, 2007

Matt Sax in Clay
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2007

Or in this case maybe you should. At least that’s my advice for Matt Sax the writer/solo performer of Clay, the opening production of the 07/08 season at Center Theater Group’s Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City. An import from Chicago, Clay is a sort of solo hip hop musical developed by Sax and his director Eric Rosen. It concerns the story of a young man by the name of Clifford who runs away from his terrible home life to be taken under the wing of a similarly damaged but less photogenic African-American sage/ bookstore-owner, Sir John, and trained in the ways of hip hoprosy. And before you can say “Ancient Chinese secret, huh?” the newly renamed Clay has become a star and learned a valuable lesson from the magical "other" about sleeping with your step-mother for revenge but not murdering your asshole father after he finds out about it. Thank goodness for all of Sir John’s admonishments for Clay to stay clear of rapping about drugs, prostitutes, and money.

Actually, the show itself has some redeeming elements. The set design by Walt Spangler is razor sharp and Sax is clearly quite talented as an actor and performer. The music is not unpleasant and Sax can be quite mesmerizing in his vocal imitations of turntable work and the like. What he is missing is what I believe the young people these days call “flow.” His rhymes lumber from his lips even when they’re not supposed to sound like it.

So, while Clay may not be a bad way to spend an afternoon, you’ve got to ask yourself this important question. Do we really need another 8 Mile? Just a thought. Clay runs through October 14th.



September 24, 2007

Rufus Wainwright at the Hollywood Bowl
Photo: Lori Shepler/LAT 2007
It’s hard to watch someone you admire take a fall. Especially when that fall is in the least likely of places. Such was the case this weekend when Rufus Wainwright arrived at the Hollywood Bowl with his much hyped and ballyhooed Judy Garland tribute show. Wainwright made a splash last year when he recapped Judy Garland’s legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall concert in the same venue to commemorate her life and work. He has reprized these shows around the world in other cities Garland visited on that tour, including London and Paris, and Sunday he was joined by his mother, sister Martha, and Lorna Luft to work some of that memory magic here.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite that magical. Sure it seemed great on paper – gay icon Wainwright performs the music of gay icon Garland in what is not only a tribute to her legend, but also a tribute of sorts to how much things have changed for gay men and lesbians in the West in the last 40 years or so. How could things go wrong? Well first off, there are the songs. Almost uniformly out of Wainwright’s range, what started out as an amusing parlor trick became nearly painful to listen to by show's end. Even with a little help from his friends, his voice was nothing but a ragged stump when all was said and done. Even when he could hold it together earlier on, he mustered so little power in the upper part of his range that even the sound mixers and amplification were powerless to stop his demolition by the Hollywood Bowl orchestra. While there was no doubt a great deal of fun reliving many of the songs that made her famous, as the evening wore on, it seemed more a reminder of how much was lost with her passing and what a huge talent she really was.

Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of laughs, particularly Wainwright's returning to the stage for an encore of “Get Happy” in full Garland drag right out of Summer Stock. And, as he himself noted, this was really an evening about fun and in many ways it was. If only it could have sounded a little more like that.

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From abroad

September 22, 2007

Emun Elliott and Ryan Fletcher in Black Watch
Photo: Stephen Osman/LAT 2007
An unusual cold snap and rain this weekend provided a reminder that here in LA we are, in fact, at the start of Fall. Of course the theater season schedule indicates this as well, and this week saw the opening of UCLA Live’s International Theater Festival with two significant touring productions opening concurrently across the way from each other on the Westwood campus - the National Theater of Scotland’s Black Watch at the Freud Playhouse and Dood Paard’s medEia in the McGowan Theater. The theater festival is proving much more popular this year than previously with significantly increased ticket sales largely buoyed by Ian McKellan’s scheduled performances in RSC’s productions of King Lear and The Seagull, which will arrive in LA after their current runs at BAM in New York.

First up for me was Black Watch, an ambitious and quite lovely work by Gregory Burke under the direction of John Tiffany, concerning the experience of a band of Scottish soldiers during the Iraq war. This elite squad, the eponymous Black Watch, have a long and storied history that the play attempts to fold into a meditation on Scottish identity and the lives of young men gone to war. The work contains numerous highly choreographed set pieces that take place in a hallway stage configuration with cast members entering and exiting from either side and the audience seated on either side of the resulting runway. While not an outright dance piece by any stretch, the movement segments are the highlight and provide an extra element of the homoerotic to subject matter that is already rife with it. In one segment, the protagonist, Rossco, played by Henry Pettigrew, travels the length of the stage as he delivers a history of the Black Watch while being passed back and forth by the other male cast members who dress, strip, and the redress him in various historical uniforms of the unit as they alternately carry, lift, and hold him.

The look of the production is sharp with several monitors reminding us of the ever-present video images that act as scenery for our daily lives in an appropriately minimal industrial set that is evocative of both a military installation and at other times what seems like Scotland’s largest gay bar. The biggest problem here, however, is that what little narrative there is mines the most cliché tropes of young-men-at-war stories – highly sexualized banter in the face of violence, the tragic loss of the well-loved bad boy, the avoidance of pain and boredom with banter of the mundane, and the anger at readjustment to civilian life. Not that any of this isn’t true or that it's done poorly. We’ve just seen it a million times before though admittedly not usually delivered with such sexy accents. The piece seems to shy away from more challenging cultural elements such as the fear of the dissolution of one’s unit or culture. While visually slick, Black Watch is far too dedicated to the tried and true. It will run through October 14th before leaving for New York.

Oscar van Woensel, Manja Topper and Kuno Bakker in medEia
Photo: Ken Hively/LAT 2007
Perhaps taking the higher road are the Dutch troupe Dood Paard, who, on this outing, consist of three performers, Oscar van Woensel, Manja Topper and Kuno Bakker who are also responsible for the text. medEia is a minimally staged re-telling of the Medea legend where there are no specific characters as much as there are multiple shifting chorus members who, like the audience, already know the whole story and are less concerned with the order or flow of events than their own reactions to them and the desire to relate it to each other. The large empty stage contains only a rigged wooden lattice from which hang four collapsed paper and masking tape backdrops that are raised in sequence throughout the show moving the performers progressively closer to the edge of the stage. These backdrops function less as scenery and more as a reminder of the fascination with a mechanical and inevitable process – we know from the beginning that all of them will be lifted in a particular and predetermined sequence just as we know the fate of Medea and her children.

The intentionally monotone delivery of this fractured monologue is deadpan and alternately comic and serious. No single performer is wedded to any particular role or part and more often than not represent community observers of the story than actual participants in it. The text is peppered with sly references to pop songs and and at least three breaks where the house lights are dimmed and the cast joins the audience in watching a high-speed slide show of exotic vacation pics projected onto the neutral backdrops before the performance resumes. All of this works especially well in that it seems so casual and effortless. The cast always seem to be about to laugh despite themselves giving Medea’s story a sense of silliness that, while reminiscent of gossip, is also both beautiful and poignant in a way. Not unlike the best works of Jacques Rivette, the performance draws the audience in by the at times trivial yet sheer truthfulness of it all. The meaning of the text lies not in its actual events, but in the manner in which they are relayed amongst the participants. The performances of medEia end this Sunday September the 23rd before traveling to PS122 in New York.


Up at the Villa

September 16, 2007

Cast of Tug of War
Photo: Craig Schwartz/©2007 J. Paul Getty Trust
With the Getty Villa Museum returning many of its prized antiquities from whence they came, it might be a good time for a little diversification. Luckily, given the, albeit limited, results of the last couple of years, it appears the lovely space overlooking the ocean might be the ideal site for a theatrical production company. This is the second year that the Getty has produced a limited-run adaptation of an ancient Greco-Roman classic to wrap up their summer season. The Villa’s recent restoration included the construction of a small amphitheater on the grounds particularly for this purpose. Perhaps what is most remarkable about this endeavor so far is how good both of these shows have been. On Friday, I caught this year’s offering entitled Tug of War, which is broadly based on the roman comedy Rudens by Plautus. Now I know virtually zero about classics, but apparently comedy has changed a lot over the last few thousand years, requiring that translator, UCLA professor Amy Richlin, and director, Meryl Friedman, to make numerous significant substitutions and alterations to create laughter for a contemporary audience. For instance, hemp apparently is funnier than the once prevalent and popular contraceptive silphium – go figure. Characters' names are changed from Ptolemocratia and Palaestra to Battleaxia and Liplocca. Meanwhile the temple of Venus doubles as a seaside BBQ stand all in the pursuit of humor in this tale of masters, slaves, and pirates.

While the adaptation process is certainly necessary, doing so sometimes runs the risk of the end result being too cloying and precious. Perhaps the most admirable thing about Tug of War is how deftly Richlin and Friedman avoid these pitfalls to come up with a piece that is both genuinely funny and not overly reliant on cynicism or pratfalls. The cast is uniformly excellent which says a lot considering how much singing and dancing is required of them in this admittedly intimate space. (It's refreshing to see an arena where this multi-dimensional talent is appreciated, unlike the world of opera where the foolish "supremacy of voice" continues to bog down and plague an entire art form.) The evening is kept to a tightly edited and quickly moving 90 minutes that float by without things ever feeling like they’re falling apart. Everyone is having a good time, which admittedly makes it difficult to adhere to the Getty's silly admonishment to "Please refrain from unnecessary loud or prolonged applause, shouting, whistling, or any other intrusive conduct during the performance" as apparent appeasement to the tony Getty neighbors who are put out by noise from next door between 8 and 10 pm on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. The show runs through September the 29th for those who want to help out in the potential decline of the local property values.


Libera me

September 10, 2007

Adrianne Pieczonka with Domingo
Photo: Rick Loomis/LAT 2007
LA Opera’s opening gala weekend concluded on Sunday with a one-night only performance of Verdi’s Requiem, which, despite its shortcomings, provided a moving counterpoint to the previous night’s opening performance of Fidelio. The performance was dedicated to Edgar Baitzel, LA Opera’s longtime Chief Operating Officer and a close friend of General Director, Placido Domingo. Baitzel died suddenly earlier this year and this performance was organized to recognize this loss to the whole company. Of course, Mr. Domingo lost another friend this week with the death of Luciano Pavarotti providing yet another reason for the performance of this peculiarly operatic form of memorial service. Domingo himself conducted the LA Opera orchestra and chorus emphasizing his personal place in these events.

It hardly seems fair to criticize such a performance under these circumstances. Much has been written about Domingo’s recent forays into conducting both here and in New York. And while it is true that his prowess as a conductor is nowhere near that of his vocal work, this hardly seems the time or place to grind an ax. Let it be said, however, that regardless of any issues with musical interpretation, the soloists enlisted for this afternoon could not have been any better. Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, mezzo Stephanie Blythe, and bass René Pape are at the top of their games and their singing was extraordinary and extraordinarily moving. I have strong positive feelings about all of these performers from prior viewings, especially Blythe whom I’ve heard in this piece before as recently as last year under James Conlon with the San Francisco Symphony. The originally scheduled tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, backed out at the last minute resulting in the appearance of a recent Operalia winner Arturo Chacón-Cruz. In such esteemed company, the pressure on a young singer must be tremendous and it should be said that despite some minor cracking along the way, he was more than sufficient and at times quite lyrical. The chorus sounded great and while it is still early, the performances this weekend bode well for Grant Gershon's tenure with the organization.

So even with all the rough edges, it was a Requiem to remember in that it was felt deeply by many for those that are missed.


Wait for it

September 09, 2007

The big house
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2007
James Conlon must give one hell of a halftime speech. Or at least that’s what one would think after Saturday’s gala opening of the 07/08 LA Opera season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It was your typical gala opening. Celebrities abounded, including the likes of Michael Eisner, with everyone dressed up even by LA standards. (Even Mark Swed had a tie on!) The audience was excessively easy-to-please while simultaneously chatty and generally disinterested. Here’s a fashion tip for all you ladies out there from the folks behind me – apparently this season everyone in the know will accessorize their leathery sun-damaged skin with noisy clacking mother-of-pearl handbags.

The opera itself was Fidelio conducted by Conlon in a rather banal imported production from Pier’Alli with a quite strong primarily German cast including Anja Kampe in the title role, Klaus Florian Vogt as Florestan, and Matti Salminen as Rocco. The performance itself was definitely a split decision. The weird thing is that the split occurred precisely around the intermission. The first half of the show was just short of miserable. Conlon and the orchestra seemed ragged and distracted. At times the cast wasn’t on the same page as the orchestra, which is odd considering the vocalists had little else to do since none of them seem burdened with stage direction. The singing wasn’t bad, Salminen is always admirable if getting on a little in years, and Kampe was quite good. This was her first appearance in LA and her remarkable tone bodes well for her casting in LA Opera's upcoming Ring cycle. Of course when left to their own devices, the cast sometimes got even more far a field. Take for instance Elke Wilm Schulte whose take on Don Pizzaro involved major contributions from Snidely Whiplash. Still, the real problem with any Fidelio, is trying to make it look like a prison yet visually interesting at the same time. Pier’Alli was not completely successful in the first Act with plain grey drab prison walls to set off the plain grey drab period costumes. Nicola Bowie only added to the problems with a troop of soldiers that were intended to move in a manner suggestive of toy soldiers, I presume, but just made everything and everyone look silly. It’s too bad that she couldn’t have used just a little bit of that attention on the prisoners, who could have used something to do other than stand there trying not to look too deformed.

So it was with some trepidation I returned after the break to discover that the team apparently decided to come out and play instead of go home. The entire second act was sung behind a scrim, which Per’Alli used to project a variety of additional scenic images throughout the entire rest of the work. The stage was then lit from behind the scrim and further video augmentation was used against the stage backdrop. Suddenly, you had a dungeon that was not only worth looking at, but added a huge amount of foreboding to the fantastic performance of Vogt with his Act II opening aria. The cast suddenly seemed to come alive, as did the orchestra and audience. Everyone seemed focused and the performance was on target, which Conlon punctuated with the addition of Beethoven’s Third Leonore Overture as bridge music between the two scenes in Act II. Conlon and the LA Opera orchestra received the biggest ovation of the whole evening following this with a scene left to go. However, if I have to pick one hero for the evening, the award goes hand-down to Chorus Master and newly appointed Associate Conductor, Grant Gershon. The LA Opera Chorus may not have had much to do, but they have never sounded better in my opinion and from the moment they appeared on stage they seemed to sing out with new life as if this was their first appearance on stage.

So, who knows, maybe this won’t be such a bad season after all. Fidelio runs through October 6 and is worth seeing if only for Kampe and Vogt, but make sure you stick around for the second half.

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Bowling with Salonen

September 07, 2007

Members of Diavolo and Salonen
Photo: Lawrence K. Ho/LAT 2007
It’s after Labor Day and the opera season starts this weekend, but here in LA, summer is far from over. In case anyone missed that point, the LA Philharmonic scheduled two big shows this week at the group's summer home, the Hollywood Bowl, featuring music director Esa-Pekka Salonen in high-profile programs. Both of these evenings centered around collaborations between Salonen, the LA Philharmonic and other performers with various levels of success, but enjoyable and worthwhile results nonetheless.

Tuesday’s main attraction was Salonen conducting his own composition Foreign Bodies accompanied by a new ballet choreographed specifically for the work by LA’s own Diavolo Dance Theater under director Jacques Heim. The Philharmonic sounded great and Diavolo overcame a space that has finished off bigger and more experienced theater and dance ensembles. Diavolo and Heim took advantage of their trademark interest in incorporating large set objects into their work by choreographing the movement around a large cube with multiple openings that individual dancers could pass into and out of throughout the performance. The cube further broke apart into three smaller Plexiglas pyramid sections that could be easily moved, rotated and reassembled throughout. The piece was very engaging and the crowd responded with remarkable enthusiasm for a Tuesday night at the Bowl. The second half of the program featured Mahler’s First Symphony and the Philharmonic delivered a strong and spirited run through even if it was hampered with that hallmark Hollywood Bowl sound - like your listening to the music being played on a boom box from a neighboring stall in a men’s room.

Mikhail Kit and Salonen in action
Photo: Ken Hively/LAT 2007
Thursday's offering from Salonen et al. was a concert performance of the original version of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov with an all-star Russian cast straight from the Mariinsky Theater including one of the worlds preeminent interpreters of the main role, Mikhail Kit. Ironically, much of the same cast, including Kit, appeared in the same fully-staged opera last year in Orange County under Valery Gergiev as part of the Mariinsky’s tour. Salonen’s approach is clearly more studied and methodical than Gergiev’s and while it undoubtedly had several great moments, it seemed somewhat more suited to Wagner than Mussorgsky given its pacing. The vocalists were quite strong on the whole, but few of them, with the notable exception of Kit, did much acting with their vocal performance making the whole thing seem unnecessarily stiff. However the weakest link on Thursday was clearly the Pacific Chorale that seemed distant and drowned-out in the massive space of the Bowl. While it was not an unenjoyable evening, it made me long for the wonderful feeling of the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Fall Philharmonic Season still a month away. But, as always, good things come to those who wait.

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The Weight

September 06, 2007

Wonder in San Diego
Photo: Trish Tokar/Getty Images 2007
When the opportunity came around to see Stevie Wonder play live here in LA, I wasn’t completely convinced it was something necessary for me to see. I, like most Americans, have a broad familiarity with much of his oeuvre; nevertheless, my view of his work and image is burdened by his years of movie projects, spurious duets, and “adult contemporary.” But, I went anyway. The show was at LA’s Greek Theater and I have a track record here of seeing living legends. When I first moved to LA in 1992, I saw Frank Sinatra with opening act Shirley MacLaine that cleared up a lot of my questions about those reputations, so why not?

And while the show was occasionally rambling and mired in self-indulgence, it was remarkable. This was not “Part-time Lover” Stevie Wonder, this was “Innervisions” Stevie Wonder with material drawn largely from his artistic heyday of the 1970s, and, while filled with one hit single after the next, the music and performance were awe-inspiring. This was no sentimental walk down memory lane. He played these songs with everything he’s got and he meant every word of it. There was a searing sense of timelessness to the whole evening, and at moments I felt I was watching the whole thing as if I were a child again – like I was seeing it for the first time in its original context.

As the intermissionless show passed the two hour mark, he proceeded with almost maniacal speed playing medleys of songs, each too great to be truncated to begin with, in an effort to get in all the points he wanted to make. The sense of joy was evident throughout as was the sense of rage at a world that, sadly, doesn’t look all that different now than it did at the time these songs were written. It's been a long time between live public appearances for Wonder, so it turns out this is not the show to miss.

As a side note – I returned home to the news of Pavarotti’s death, which saddened me. I won’t go on here since many others have and will write far more eloquently on the topic than I, but ironically I found this in the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on Stevie Wonder:
Opera star Luciano Pavarotti once referred to him in a concert as a "great, great musical genius."
As is always the case, it takes one to know one.

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More complaining

September 04, 2007

I keep wanting to give David Gockley a chance. I don’t know why—other than out of a sense of fairness. Ever since he took over the reins of San Francisco Opera, however, each savvy move he makes is accompanied by a dose of populist anti-intellectual drivel. At best this seems designed to pander to the basest elements of the audience there and at worst he may actually mean it. I’ve expressed these reservations before, but they seem to keep rearing their ugly head.

Take for instance the horrid Season Preview CD the company has mailed out again this year. After about ten minutes of this marketing garbage, I wonder why anyone with half an interest in opera would bother attending at all. He jumps right into the muck early this year by doing some compare/contrast work with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
San Francisco Opera is clearly back in second place to the Metropolitan Opera budget-wise and we are on track to reclaim second place in terms of production quality and creativity. Night for night, I would like it to be said that we compete evenly with the Met, especially in terms of musical and vocal values and theatricality. We, however, will never have their huge production budget, stage size, or technical capabilities. Like Avis, we will always have to "try harder."

So apparently the productions will have the benefit of being both sparse and expensive. If the artistic quality of the Metropolitan Opera of the last decade is the goal of the company, San Francisco Opera is in more trouble than I imagined.

Later on we have his discussion of the company’s new production of Tannhäuser starring Peter Seiffert and Petra Maria Schnitzer. To wit:
It will also be my first new production as General Director, so how it is conceived and performed will show how I think about opera and what aspects about it I think are most important. … When I spoke to the brilliant and sometimes controversial British stage director Graham Vick, I told him that I wanted a production that was psychologically probing, but looked elegant and would be set "in period" with gorgeous Medieval costumes. "No, fedoras?" he asked. And I shook my head.

Thus with the bogeyman of the avant-garde European stage director firmly banished, the good citizens of San Francisco can now rest easy. What is the point of hiring a "sometimes controversial" director only to turn around and ask him or her specifically not to do that very thing. As much as everyone complains about the influence of a Hollywood mentality in opera elsewhere, it appears to have taken a firm hold in San Francisco. We in LA immediately recognize this flim-flam: give me something "fresh", just make it look like everything I'm already familiar with.

So apparently not only will the productions be expensive without appearing so, they will have the added benefit of being both pedestrian and uninspired. Gockley’s vision of the future is apparently rooted somewhere around 50 years ago. And I don’t know about you, but I think it’s going to take a little more than “elegance” to fill those seats. How about some heat and dazzle? Gockley has lined up some big stars this year, though. Good thing. It looks like he’ll need them since if you believe all his talk, there’ll be little else to look at.


Alone at last

September 03, 2007

Troy Dunn and Sharon Gardner
Photo: Paul Robenstein 2007
Labor Day weekend is a bit of an oddity performance-wise, and one’s options can seem limited in the pause before the Fall season really gets into full swing. (More on that later this week.) However, there are still some very worthwhile shows going, and it is no surprise that one of them comes from the LA institution that is City Garage under the direction of Frederique Michel and her compatriot, designer Charles A. Duncombe. This time out, they have chosen to stage Heiner Müller’s Quartet in a translation by Marc von Henning. Müller’s project is an adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses with an eye to more 20th century concerns. Or, in Müller's own words, “a reflex on the problem of terrorism, using material which on the surface has nothing to do with it.” In other words, he is looking at the relationship between a passion performed over and over until devoid of meaning other than to inflict pain on others, particularly in the face of God.

The work is stripped down to two characters, Valmont and the Marquise who play not only their own parts, but those of all the other characters and at times each other’s roles. There are two accompanying “players,” added by Michel, who deliver lines on occasion and occupy physical space when it is called for. It’s not hard to see how this avant-garde stuff straight out of the GDR can unravel quickly but in the assured hands of Michel and her excellent cast everything hangs together. Troy Dunn’s Valmont easily washes away Malkovich (not to mention Colin Firth) in a shifting and nuanced performance while Sharon Gardner‘s Marquise is riveting throughout in either male or female format. Duncombe's striking set and deft use of color make the production as visually stimulating as it is intellectually. Leave it to City Garage to come up with a challenging winner even in the bitter end of Summer. Catch it now through September 23rd in Santa Monica.

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