Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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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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