Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Best in Show 07 - music edition

December 31, 2007

The Tristan Project- Act II
Photo: Bill Viola 2007
Before moving on with 2008, it’s annual list time again. First: the numerator. I saw 225 performances last year (not counting the things I walked out of). There were 56 live opera performances, 83 “classical” musical concerts, and 15 other musical performances. There were another 63 theatrical performances of which 12 could be considered “musicals.” The remaining 8 shows were comedy, dance or something else. So which of the mostly musical performances will likely stick with me?

1. "The Tristan Project” Esa-Pekka Salonen and the LA Philharmonic 4/07. A magnificent return engagement of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde with the accompaniment of Bill Viola’s video installations, Peter Sellars’ direction, and the incomparable Christine Brewer as Isolde. A landmark for the LA Phil. If there is any single moment I will remember of Salonen’s time with this ensemble it will be this – Salonen with his back to the orchestra conducting the horns positioned across the hall in the upper balcony as King Marke arrives on Tristan’s boat at the end of Act I, the hall filled with light.

Karita Mattila and Jorma Silvasti
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2007
2. Janácek's Jenufa with Karita Mattila in Los Angeles, 10/07 and New York, 2/07. Mattila's role-defining performance on both coasts was matched by not one but two separate exemplary Kostelnickas – Anja Silja at the Metropolitan and Eva Urbanova in Los Angeles. Olivier Tambosi’s simple but effective staging completed the most affecting fully staged opera performance anywhere this year.

Susan Graham
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007
3. Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride with Susan Graham in San Francisco 6/07. Graham continues to demonstrate why she is one of the most important voices on the world stage. She took this show on the road everywhere this year including New York leaving amazed audiences in her wake. A searing performance of both vocal accomplishment and superior acting skills. Robert Carsen’s minimal black-box set in San Francisco upped the intensity of this marvelous opera.

4. John Adams' Naïve and Sentimental Music with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the LA Philharmonic. 1/07. I’ve said it before and will so again. If anyone is uncertain what will be lost in the much over-hyped transition between Salonen and incoming LA Phil music Director Gustavo Dudamel, the answer is likely this. Dudamel’s chops in new and contemporary music appear largely untested. When Salonen is gone, it may be a long time before we see something composed this recently played this well.

Sally Matthews as Alice
Photo: Wilfried Hösl 2007
5. Unsuk Chin's Alice in Wonderland, Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich 7/07. Wild and wonderful, Chin’s opera rose above a sometimes stand-offish production from Achim Freyer largely through excellent performances from Sally Matthews as Alice, Dietrich Henschel as the Mad Hatter, and Gwyneth Jones as the Queen of Hearts. Now it’s time for an American premiere – Santa Fe are you listening?

6. Saariaho's La Passion de Simone, Barbican, London 7/07. Another wonder from the mind of Saariaho. Although the piece was canceled and rescheduled by the LA Philharmonic twice this year, the piece did get its scheduled debut with the vocalist for which it was written, Dawn Upshaw, under the baton of Robert Spano in July. Dark and beautiful, Saariaho continues on a radical course, advocating for genuine peace and forgiveness in the face of war.

Kasarova and Harteros
Photo: Wilfried Hösl 2005
7. Handel's Alcina, Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich 6/07. Not a new production, but a magnificent revival with two names that deserve bigger careers on this side of the Atlantic – Vasselina Kasarova and Anja Harteros. Beautifully played and sung. Visually arresting without being silly. Handel at its best.

8. Stevie Wonder, The Greek Theater, LA 9/07. How do you turn things around after a year of personal loss and tragedy? Head out on the road and remind yourself about what’s good in life and have a great time. Wonder’s performance was unrelenting in its good spirit and funky grooves. It’s always a joy to see a real master at work.

Chicago's Doctor Atomic Act II
Photo: Robert Kusel/LOC 2007
9. Adams’ Doctor Atomic. Lyric Opera of Chicago 12/07 and A Flowering Tree. San Francisco Symphony 3/07. Adams continues to demonstrate why he is the most important living composer of vocal music for the stage. He and his collaborator, Peter Sellars, should also be lauded for doing their part to make major stars out of Eric Owens and Jessica Rivera.

10. Joanna Newsom, WDCH, LA 11/07. The final performance in the tour to support Ys was exactly that - a performance of the complete recording straight through with orchestra. It’s so easy to use irritating words like “enchanting” to describe Newsom’s work, but at the same time, it’s kind of appropriate. A wonderful talent and a riveting evening.

Honorable mentions: Deborah Voigt, Diana Damrau et al. in Die Ägyptische Helena, Dimtri Hvorostovsky and Renée Fleming in Eugene Onegin, and War and Peace all at the Metropolitan Opera. Michael Rouse’s Requiem at WDCH with Grant Gershon. Katya Kabanova at ROH with Sir Charles Mackerras. Julius Eastman’s Crazy Nigger and Sandeep Bhagwati’s Vineland Stellae with the California EAR Unit at REDCAT. LA Opera's Tannhauser.

Most overrated: Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. While Dudamel is certainly very talented, the incredible hype surrounding him and his orchestra aren't justified in anything I’ve seen. The SBYO performances were overwrought and pandering regardless of one’s views on the political overtones of these events. Dudamel may likely prove to do great things here in LA, but I for one feel we will have to wait and see about that.

Most underrated: Katie Mitchell's production of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion at Glyndebourne 7/07. Bach’s Passion is not an opera so staging it seems to invite easy criticism all around. Many critics hated the modern community tragedy overlay on the work, but I still contend that many of the images were visually arresting and the vocal performances of Mark Padmore, Sarah Connolly, and the rest of the cast did more than necessary to make this a highlight of the year.

We’ll that’s it for now. I’ll follow up with theater commentary in a few days when I get caught up.


Dark and lovely

December 30, 2007

Act II, Let's eat!
Photo: Ken Howard/Met 2007

My final opera for the year was the second performance of the Metropolitan’s holiday family feature – a “new” production of Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel in English from the mind of Richard Jones. It is a beautiful and visually grabbing effort to put a good bit of the menace back into the original story by focusing on the aspects of hunger, fear, and isolation that run throughout the piece despite its often lyrical music. Christine Schäfer’s Gretel and Alice Coote’s Hansel are thrust from a drab gray abusive home into a German expressionist barren dining room-cum-forest with tree-men and dreams of giant masked chef/angels. In Act III, Philip Langridge further torments the children in a stark industrial kitchen with plenty of treats but nary a cotton-candy awning or gingerbread wall in sight. All turns out quite well, however, musically and otherwise. The production is top notch featuring a detailed and nuanced account of the score under Vladimir Jurowski. Schäfer and Coote are excellent as are the supporting cast.

If you want a primer of everything that Peter Gelb is doing right or possibly wrong at the Metropolitan Opera, this production says it all. Sure there are all of the technical and PR “innovations” designed to increase public access – HD broadcasts to theaters, Sirius radio broadcasts, cheap rush tickets the day of performance, etc. But what isn’t written about as much and seems to me to be as crucial to his mission to move this company forward is its increasing reliance on artistic development strategies that are stock-in-trade for most smaller American companies for decades. A prime example is the Metropolitan’s increasing participation in the global economy of opera. Instead of relying on unique and proprietary productions, the house is incorporating more and more that are “new” to it but have been seen far and wide and often received good reviews elsewhere. Presumably, this is cheaper and in some ways carries less risk. I’m not just talking about “co-productions” here, but about looking for content that already exists and “adapting” it instead of spending money on something brand new. Take this Richard Jones staging of Hansel and Gretel which may be new to the house, but has already traveled to many other parts of the world in reasonably similar forms. In fact much of the touted increase in the number of “new” productions at the Metropolitan rely on either adapted imports or co-productions.

Certainly these trends are not new or unique to this house or any other and while this more easy access may be a good thing, the increasing prevalence on traveling material does raise some questions. As this globalization trend continues and big fish like the Metropolitan participate more and more, what, if anything will there be left to see? Soon everyone has seen the Tambosi Jenufa with Karita Mattila or Richard Jones' Hansel and Gretel or Laurent Pelly's Fille du Regiment with Dessay and Florez. Like the rest of global capitalism, as financial risk is reduced by having only the biggest stars appearing in only the best-received staging over and over again we may be paying for increasing artistic “quality” with increasing artistic homogeneity. With opera houses all eager to distribute their DVDs and broadcasts and everyone increasingly relying on more of literally the same thing, opera may start looking like the rest of America with a Gap or a Starbucks on every corner. Of course none of this is really new. Touring productions of big hits have been around forever and people will always want to see big stars. But, I think we need to recognize the increasing trends of more pervasive distribution in the presence of increased homogeneity of product.

In any event, this is an excellent production with several performances left including one that will be simulcast to theaters on New Year's Day. It's well worth seeing, even if you have seen it before elsewhere.


An Everlasting Peace

December 29, 2007

On the hillside
Photo: Ken Howard/Met 2007
Friday brought my chance to see the Metropolitan Opera’s current revival of Prokofiev’s War and Peace. Given that I have not seen this opera, much less this production, before, I must admit that the whole experience was rather overwhelming. Championed by Valery Gergiev, this production was a first for the Met in 2002 having been seen only twice prior to that here in touring productions. In many ways this show represents what the Met does best and, up until recently, has been best known for – massive productions done on the grandest scale. It’s hard to imagine anything consuming more theatrical resources. Despite its rather minimal sets by George Tsypin, the staging involves a huge array of elements from it giant cast to live horses, cannons, and a goat. All of this sits atop a steep hill with a rotating top that fills the entire stage spilling out over the top of the orchestra. At over 4 hours it makes one long for those quaint Wagnerian intermissions. (There is a single one in Prokofiev’s work).

But this is one instance where size did not need to serve as a substitute for quality. The often beautiful and highly dramatic score was given great attention by the orchestra led here by Gianandrea Noseda who is subbing for Gergiev in the last two performances of this run. Noseda is no stranger to this material and it shows throughout. The rest of the cast was almost entirely Russian with current stars of the Marinsky Opera who were uniformly exceptional. Perhaps the biggest treat was the presence of some extra Marinsky stars who were filling in for their absent non-Russian counterparts in some apparent cosmic exchange program given Gergiev’s absence. Mikhail Kit, the renowned Russian bass, has greatly impressed me over the last two years as both Wotan and Boris Godunov, and here, he sang the roles of Count Rostov and Field Marshal Kutuzov. These parts have been largely handled in this run by Samuel Ramey and with my deep respect for him aside, Mr. Kit is a significant addition to the proceedings as was Alexei Steblianko who took over for Kim Begley as Count Bezukhov. Irina Mataeva is also exemplary in her performance of Natasha as is Vasili Ladyuk’s Prince Andrei.

This simple but highly affecting staging from Andrei Konchalovsky works well in that it prevents the opera’s biggest pitfall - with such a large cast, it's easy to have everyone just stand around while they’re singing. Instead, the hilltop presses the motion issue throughout, forcing the cast to move over or around it when it is not rotating of its own accord. Stillness here is intentional and often profound. Much has been made of the precariousness of this set up in the press, but I’ve seen steeper – take Alice in Wonderland this year for instance where everyone was fitted with rappelling gear. In any event, this is a great production you may not get a chance to see again soon. There is one more performance on January 3, although it appears to be sold out.


I want to live

December 28, 2007

Ms Netrebko, pretty in pink
Photo: Guy Joosten/Met 2007
It’s holiday time in New York and the city is flooded with tourists, not unlike myself. Everywhere you turn, Russian is spoken which makes the city seem more and more like London or my own beloved West Hollywood. In any event, there was definitely a Russian crowd out on Thursday at the next to last performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Roméo et Juliette starring Anna Netrebko. This is the second outing for a staging by Guy Joosten – originally developed for Natalie Dessay – that is most notable for how static and unmoving it is. He does have a strong visual concept – astronomy. Which is not lost on the audience as evidenced by my neighbor’s comment to her husband “You see they are star-crossed lovers.” Oh, now I get it. What is most surprising about this whole affair is how dated it looks on only its second outing. Joosten seems to go out of his way to avoid any of the ripe dramatic staging possibilities Gounod littered his score with. The chorus stands around like some clothed Renaissance version of Vegas showgirls, too pretty to move. Meanwhile, outside of a floating bed trick, there is so little for the principals to do they are forced into the whole rolling around on the floor business to hold the audience’s attention.

But honestly, no one came to see this production for reasons other than Ms. Netrebko who turned in yet another stellar performance. Although there had been some grousing last week about her singing during the HD broadcast two weeks ago, she was in fine voice tonight and wowed the audience. Her Act IV aria is still astounding as it was the times I heard her in LA three years back and her acting is still top drawer. Everyone in the room only had eyes for her. The only exception to this, however, was Matthew Polenzani. Which is particularly unfortunate considering that her was cast as her umpteenth Romeo this season. Polenzani sounded fine but often looked like his mind was elsewhere. He looked and sounded less like a young lover than somebody’s nebbishy nephew holding down the job due to family connections. Having listened to several Roméo broadcasts and seeing this one, there is no question that Mr. Villazon’s absence from this run is acutely felt. What could have been a tour de force is now a star-vehicle. But when your star is Anna Netrebko, maybe that is not such a bad thing.


Opera mit Schatten

December 21, 2007

Chicago's Die Frau ohne SchattenPhoto: Robert Kusel/LOC 2007

Tonight was the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s final performance of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten — a new production that has received much attention for its luxury casting. Not only does it include Franz Hawlata as Barak, but Jill Grove as the Nurse, Deborah Voigt as the Empress, and Christine Brewer as Barak’s wife. Although this was the last performance, I was rather glad I had waited to the end in that the run has been plagued with illness by various cast members including Grove, but tonight, everyone seemed back in action. Needless to say, the musical qualities of the evening were impeccable. Voigt continues to amaze, repeatedly blowing away the audience with ease. Hawlata did crumble a bit at the start of Act III, but for the lion’s share of his role he was wonderful.

Then there is the matter of Christine Brewer. Brewer received the biggest ovation and deservedly so. She was so good, you almost didn’t notice Voigt at times, and that is no small feat. I am counting the days until I get to hear her sing a complete Brünnhilde. All this and her acting is becoming steadily more engaging as well. Her voice is captivating, cruising in and out of the upper ranges effortlessly without an ounce of weakening throughout the entire 4 hours. With all due respect to Ms. Voigt whom I love, Ms. Brewer is undoubtedly the best soprano in this neck of the reperitory these days. Sir Andrew Davis led the house orchestra in a strong if not the most nuanced performance ever.

If I have any criticism, it is over the direction and design elements strung together by Paul Curran. Curran is exhibit A in the argument for why giving inexperienced theater or film artists a try directing an opera is a good idea. Curran is plenty experienced and plenty awful. His Boheme in Santa Fe this year was atrocious, and this Frau is only slightly better. Full of a hodgepodege of elements intended to instill the requisite sense of “magic” such as umbrella boats, flying horses, and neon lights – the minimal sets often carried much less punch than they should. Curran is a sort of poor man’s David McVicar. That is when he’s not trying to be a poor man’s Mark Morris. Curran is apparently responsible for all of the so-called needless choreography in the evening as well as everything else going on. Still, there was too much good about this performance to dismiss it.


A brilliant luminescence

December 20, 2007

Gerald Finley as Robert Oppenheimer
Photo: Dan Best/LOC 2007
It’s December and as a thin-blooded Los Angeleno I’m asking myself what am I doing in cold and snowy Chicago. Really, the answer is easy – I’m here for opera – two to be exact. Tonight was my second viewing of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic which I last had the pleasure to see in San Francisco during its world premiere on October 1, 2005. It is still brilliant, beautiful and undoubtedly one of the first masterpieces of the 21st century. It is true that Adams and his librettist, director, and collaborator Peter Sellars have made a number of changes to the piece for this Chicago run as well as for performances in Amsterdam earlier this year. They are substantial particularly in the second act, including the addition of some non-singing roles and some general beefing up of the Kitty Oppenheimer part. Still these changes do nothing to distract from the core accomplishment: a musically beautiful, complex work that is both challenging and daring in scope.

Perhaps the biggest addition to the cast is that of Jessica Rivera as Kitty Oppenheimer. This part was originally composed with the late great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in mind though unfortunately that was not to be, leaving an able Kristine Jepson to step in for the premiere. However, things never quite gelled for her. Rivera came onto Adams' and Sellars' radar after her magnificent performances in Golijov’s Ainadamar in Santa Fe and Ojai steering her to the lead role in Adams’ A Flowering Tree in ’06 and eventually to Kitty. Suddenly the opera has another pole. What seemed solely about Oppenheimer and the people around him before now is richer and more complex. Doctor Atomic becomes a metaphorical and ideological tug of war between Oppenheimer and his wife. They are two souls struggling with the same issues at the same time but in markedly different ways. Rivera’s singing is wondrous evoking Dawn Upshaw in her clear tone and superlative acting. She commands the stage providing a counterpoint to a remarkable turn from her co-star Gerald Finley.

Finley, and the rest of the cast, have grown into their roles giving the work a flow and a real sense of the relationships between the characters. Finley’s performance of “Batter my heart” at the end of Act I continues to stun and is easily one of the highlights of the entire year on an opera stage. Robert Spano led the orchestra through a score that is complex and increasingly beautiful in the most unexpected places with each repeated listening. The amplification and use of pre-recorded ambient noise seemed to work much better here than in San Francisco. This necessary and fascinating element seems to continue to provide a challenge to opera houses not designed for this kind of innovation, and I am interested to see how the Metropolitan Opera deals with this component of the work when Doctor Atomic arrives on their stage in the coming years.

Of course, there is still a lot of bitching and moaning going on in the press about the libretto. Fashioned by Sellars from a variety of already existing prose and poetry texts, it is more assembled than written. But I find that to be one of the opera’s charms. Like some modern day Casablanca everyone has had their hands on this work, but it is beautiful and the libretto is nothing if not poetic. The language is metaphorical and not particularly interested with a formal storyline, which is the perfect choice where the outcome is so familiar to the audience that increased explanation could only serve as overkill. Doctor Atomic will be taking a brief break here in Chicago over the holidays but will return for the rest of its run in January. It should not be missed.


A Letter to Three Giovannis -
Part 3, Los Angeles

December 10, 2007

Big Man on Campus
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2007
LA Opera’s current revival of Don Giovanni comes in a season of revivals, borrowed productions, and half-baked ideas that makes it seem like the company is lying in wait for something bigger and better. But it turns out that this is one moment in the company's recent history that might be worth revisiting. This is not only a show, but a star, Erwin Schrott, we’ve seen before. In fact Schrott’s last appearance here in 2003, following his Operalia win, predates much of his international acclaim as the Don of choice throughout the world. Now of course the story has been repeated enough times in enough places that he has become one of the uber-hot faces of the new-sexy-opera-star-myth. Not that he isn’t hot, it’s just that the glamorous opera star is not at all a “new” invention. In fact, Schrott’s performance in LA is actually sexier than it has been in other places like London earlier this year specifically because Mariusz Trelinski’s visually sharp staging leaves a little more to the imagination than a half-naked Schrott pouring wine all over his chest at dinner. (Thank you Ms. Zambello.) Schrott is a master and he is great here throughout and worth the experience in his own right.

But there is plenty else here that is worthwhile. The minimal staging is both colorful and witty without being corny. It is all neon lights, wild hair, and fog and it is a lot of fun. Of course, Mark Swed and the editors of the LA Times remind us that these are “pomo” clichés. (Quaint of them to revive that term which went out about the same time as A Different World. Note to LA Times – if Jasmine Guy can move on, so can you.) But frankly, I’ll take “pomo” clichés over the far more prevalent 19th century ones that form the cornerstone of 90% of American opera productions. I can also attest that after seeing most of the dark-and-stormy-night stagings that appear to be the standard these days, LA should be glad to have something at least a little different. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent and also contains many leading performers of their respective roles, including a magnificent Charles Castronovo as Don Ottavio, Kyle Ketelsen as Leporello, Alexandra Deshorties as Donna Anna, and Maria Kanyova as Donna Elvira. Ironically, the cast was almost a dream team combination of the casts from London and San Francisco earlier this year with the notable exceptions of Ms. Netrebko and Ms. Martinez. But perhaps the best evidence for the strength of the cast overall is this – despite a staging with relatively little in the way of props or stage business, not once did this production feel like a stand-and-deliver opera. Behold, a group that actually has mastered some acting as well as singing. Harmut Haenchen led a not-at-all-shabby performance from the orchestra if not the most historically detailed one ever.

So after this year and all these Giovannis, what have we learned? Erwin Schrott is fantastic and knows how to be sexy with a shirt on. David McVicar rocks. Opera tickets in London are really, really expensive for Americans right now. And above all this - Mozart kicks Puccini's ass - any time, anywhere. If you're here in LA, you've got two more chances to see Schrott and company on stage December 12 and 15. Do the right thing.


Video killed the opera star

December 09, 2007

With American opera companies all jumping onto the Peter Gelb-led Oper für Alle bandwagon these days, the question arises – can one have too much of a good thing? Slowly but surely a wave is sweeping the nation if not the world. Suddenly every company worth its weight now has radio broadcasts, movie theater simulcasts, and DVDs flooding wherever DVDs flood these days when there are a lot of them. Certainly there are some positives in that more performances are more readily available to those who are or may become interested in this most curious of all art forms. But I suspect there is a dark underbelly here in that all this access, while initially fun in a gee whiz sort of way, can be perilously empty without appropriate content. The quality of a disturbingly large number of performances and productions that are now easy for everyone to see may in fact not be worth seeing at all.

Take some recent examples. LA Opera has jumped head first into DVD production with two offerings from its 06/07 including a notable Traviata that was part of a package deal to lure Reneé Fleming out this way for three performances as Violetta. The disc arrived last month and included Rolando Villazon’s Alfredo and Renato Bruson as Germont. I was at one of these performances and remember rather liking it at the time. Fleming can actually make hay from this role (even if it takes her until Act III to do so) and she spent this Fall reminding everyone in New York of this. But sadly, video is not always directly related to real life and after my eyes stopped burning from viewing this heirloom of the LA performance, my reaction was quite different. Why would such a handsome young man spend so much time and energy pursuing this matronly older woman? Why is his grandfather so upset about it? And most of all why would anybody film such an insipid and dull looking production anyway? Even by opera DVD standards this disc is wanting. Absent are the loving architectural shots of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that seem de rigueur for any European house. While we do get to see the golden starburst curtain and what looks like white bed sheets lining the orchestra pit walls to increase the available light, it just isn’t the same. Fleming got her close up. I hope she was ready for it.

Alagna amongst the ruins
Photo: Marco Brescia / Teatro alla Scala 2006
But it isn’t just LA that’s subject to the follies of video. Take La Scala who recently barreled into theaters around the globe screenings of its productions. December marked the first of these exhibitions of pre-recorded material with the notorious Aida that opened last season with the sole complete platform-sandal-clad performance of Roberto Alagna as Radames opposite Violetta Urmana's rendition of the title role. I caught an evening screening of this almost unwatchable mess at the Mann’s Chinese 6 Theaters at Hollywood and Highland. If you’re looking for a primer on all that is wrong in the world of opera today, you’d be hard pressed to find a more concise argument than this video. The editors have apparently cut their teeth on training videos for multinational corporations in the 90s given the soft-core porn close ups of bits of fabric and gilded set details used to transition between scenes. The Zeffirelli staging is atrocious with not a single thought in evidence with regards to anyone on stage doing anything other than standing motionless with an intense orange Magic Tan and sci-fi fright wig. The singing and musical performances, while not embarrassing, weren't really great either. If LA’s opening DVD choice was a poor one, La Scala’s first theater screening was a disaster. As an LA side note, the Mann’s Chinese 6 screening was marred by continuous thumping bass from whatever was playing next door, which the profoundly ambivalent staff seemed powerless to address. If you’re taking a risk on one of these future screenings I would suggest traipsing over to Santa Monica, the other LA option for these shows.

So what have we learned? The valuable lesson known to actors throughout the last century - despite its many benefits, something can easily be lost in video. And just because you can make something easily available for everyone to see, doesn't mean that it's worth seeing.

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