Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

The Old Curiosity Shop

May 30, 2008

Partch at the REDCAT
Photo : Jeff 2008

In case the WDCH way-back machine trip to the 1960s didn’t float your boat last weekend, there was more time travel afoot this weekend in the same building downstairs at the REDCAT. This time around the decade was the 1950s with a program featuring Partch, an ensemble (formerly known as Just Strings) dedicated to performance of works from American composer Harry Partch under the leadership of guitarist and founding member John Schneider. The evening was momentous in a way in that it consisted of the first full performance of Plectra and Percussion Dances, an hour long work of music for dance and other potential collaborations, since it was originally premiered during a live radio broadcast in 1953. In fact, the performance included the recorded elements of the original broadcast such as Partch’s own introduction to the three segments of the work. The piece deals with a variety of themes based on mythology but has a much broader agenda and sense of humor about topics of life and death on the whole.

Partch was known not only for his microtonal compositions, but also for the wide array of self-made instruments he invented to have them played on. Partch, the ensemble, has reconstructed many of these instruments, which were brought to bear in Saturday’s fascinating and quite enjoyable performance. These instruments are largely percussive and string-based in nature and, while reminiscent of familiar marimbas, harps, and cimbalons, could just as easily have stepped out of a sci-fi adventure. The sound is augmented by the chromelodeon, a sort-of wheezing fractured organ that sounds like a distant memory - a sound that would play a huge role in the late 80s and 90s recordings of Tom Waits. Here it was unleashed in all of its 1950s glory wedded to versions of latin dance rhythms, which form the structure of “Even Wild Horses” the third and longest Act of the piece which also included settings of Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell.

The playing was great, and, while there is so much detail and craftsmanship to admire in the ensemble’s performance, the best thing about it was the way they captured Partch’s own sense of fun in the work. This was evident by the composer’s own description of the pieces for the radio broadcast, and the musicians clearly share his love for these instruments and the sounds and ideas they were meant to express. The sold-out crowd responded enthusiastically and often throughout the night. Partch’s visits have become regular events at REDCAT in recent years, and, with evenings that are this much fun, here’s hoping they continue.


Comedy, This Summer

May 29, 2008

Kasey Mahaffy, Rob Nagle, Louis Lotorto in Taking Steps
Photo : Henry DiRocco/SCR 2008

It always seems to me that the Southern California theater picks-up in the summer. Maybe it just seems that way to me since there is less competition from music events for space in my mind during this time, but it is ever thus. As if on cue, there are two really strong offerings right now I’d like to draw attention to. Nothing says summer like an Alan Ayckbourn comedy, and South Coast Repertory , like many other local companies in the past, is happy to oblige. Taking Steps, directed here by Art Manke, receives an attentive and generous staging from the Orange County company. Steps dates from the the late 70s and like Ayckbourn's How the Other Half Loves, it is also preoccupied with spacial games – here all three floors of a decaying Victorian mansion occupy the same stage simultaneously. Characters cross each other obliviously and engage in other sight-gags like jogging around a pole at times to represent a spiral staircase. Manke has decided to aggressively exploit the late 1970s setting complete with disco music at the intermission, which works well, if for no other reason in that it helps make sense of rather the out-of-date sexual mores and social cues that populate the plot. Rob Nagle, Kasey Mahaffy, Bill Brochtrup, Kirsten Potter, Louis Lotorto, and Emily Eiden make up a fine cast that handles the physical elements of the production with ease making everyone seem gangley and clumsy in a substantially physical production. Accents are sable and unforced throughout which is an achievement in my book - if you are going to do them, get them right, which they do. While the whole thing could have been a notch or two more maniacal, it’s well worth seeing and a fun afternoon.

Of course, if you like your comedy with a bit more serious bent, there is a quite good play receiving its West Coast Premiere now at the Boston Court Theater in Pasadena. Jason Grote’s 1001 is perhaps the most ambitious play to appear here in greater L.A. since Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson in its sheer scope, brazenness, broad agenda and purpose. A densely plotted tale of lovers telling stories and the way telling stories shapes our sense of self melds elements from 1001 Nights with a modern twist on the Scheherazade legend in a work that contains everything from a Middle Eastern parody of Vertigo to Osama bin Laden dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Add to this cameos from Jorge Luis Borges, Gustav Flaubert, and the voice of Alan Dershowitz and you may begin to get an idea of just how much is going on here. The intersecting and frequently self-referential storylines rise and disappear in a non-linear sequence in a work that is simultaneously thoughtful and laugh-out-loud funny. It may be a little broad at times and sometimes is too smart for its own good, but it’s gutsy and never treats the audience like idiots. There are many really excellent performances here including Monka Jolly’s Scheherazade and a very nice turn from Jason Chanos who was covering the lead role of Alan on Thursday. These are two faces I would love to see more of on stages around town. Of course, credit is due to the very capable hands of director Michael Michetti who continues to be behind the best work in town over and over again. 1001 runs through June 9 and is definitely worth a trip to Pasadena.

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Color and Light

May 27, 2008

Adès, Hodges, and members of the LA Philharmonic
Photo : mine 2008

The L.A. Philharmonic is sending the season out with a bang this week. The final shows this weekend will feature the local premiere of Salonen’s Piano Concerto with Yefim Bronfman. But before that auspicious event was another big show - Thomas Adès followed up last week’s François Couperin love-fest with an evening of his own works including the U.S. Premiere of a new work, In Seven Days, with a video component designed by Tal Rosner.

But first there was old-fashioned music without video. The show opened with Arcadiana, a string quartet from 1994 in seven movements brimming with various musical and artistic references. Many of these deal with themes of water or land, which made a nice prelude to the to the latter part of the program where God gets about making the distinction between these two in the first place. The piece was played quite capably and very seriously by the Calder Quartet who released a new CD featuring this as well as other works today. This was followed by another work from the same year, Living Toys, for a small ensemble with piano and percussion. The same work was included in Adès’ Zankel Hall appearances earlier this year with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. I must admit that I was even more taken with tonight’s version, which sounded both fantastic and exciting in the hands of the L.A. Philharmonic players. It was a big winner that got a substantial pre-intermission ovation from the substantial crowd.

Of course, all of this was prelude to In Seven Days a co-commission from the LA Philharmonic and London’s Southbank Centre where it received its world premiere on April 28 this year. The work is a sort-of piano concerto that concerns, you guessed it, the Biblical tale of the creation of the earth. The work is accompanied by a six-channel video designed by Adès' domestic partner, Tal Rosner. Whether or not this personal and professional collaboration is the harbinger of a pairing along the lines of Britten and Pears as opposed to Madonna and Penn has yet to be determined. But there was plenty to be excited about tonight and overall it appears the future is more likely to be promising than not. The work's movements blend together and closely follow the traditional Genesis story. The music is pretty, accessible, and frequently rhythmic lending itself well to the moniker of “video-ballet” used by its creators. Nicolas Hodges was the piano soloist and, while he was solid, this work is not about flashy virtuoso maneuvers and the piano seldom stands out apart from the rest of the action.

Adès, Hodges, and Rosner
Photo : mine 2008

Video-accompaniment can be a risky business and it’s much to Rosner’s credit that his contribution is both attractive and very professional looking. This is a town that knows video and while this isn’t Bill Viola, it’s not shabby either. Rosner owes much more to early 20th century artists who experimented with music and visual images and people such as Oskar Fischinger than he does to any of his contemporaries. His work takes photographs and digital video and processes them with a modicum of computer wizardry. Nothing is ever completely recognizable, and the remnants have a kinetic sense closely timed with the composition.

The work received a big standing ovation and while I was sad to see it end and could have easily tolerated another 30 minutes or more, if I have any criticism it’s that the whole thing seemed a bit prosaic. God creates the stars and the piano tinkles away in the high register while little white dots of various sizes flash on the screen. God creates the sun and there you have a giant yellow-kaleidoscope. Still In Seven Days continues to suggest Adès’ growth as a composer. He continues to display a sense of the theatric and an appreciation of the collaborative process that makes one eager to see what’s next from him. And that may be the most exciting thing of all.

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The Talented Mr. Riley

May 26, 2008

Terry Riley and the WDCH organ

The L.A. Philharmonic programming folks have been busy invigorating some of their more staid series with new life these final weeks of the season with some guest stars in unusual places. Last week we had Thomas Adés show up in a “Baroque Variations” bill and this week (though perhaps less surprisingly) we have Terry Riley in a recital on the mammoth Walt Disney Concert Hall Organ. The usual Baroque and 19th century fair of these organ programs was put aside for some music this rather beautiful machine has not seen before in the shape of two updated works and a new commission from Riley.

In his own notes, Riley mentions that he was offered an opportunity to compose for the organ following the L.A. Phil’s “Minimalist Jukebox” shows two years back and jumped at the chance. Of course, he is famous for electronic organ performances of his own throughout the 60s and 70s that were often all night psychedelic affairs. While Sunday didn’t quite approach those bounds, it was clearly filled with enough other-worldliness to stimulate more than a little nostalgia for those in the audience who were there at the time. And the Philharmonic obliged with shifting colorful lights in the otherwise pitch-black hall for effect. Riley chose to sit at the main fixed console of the organ as opposed to the remote console typically placed on the main stage for these performances. For two hours he played away, periodically vocalizing in a hypnotic stream of sound.

Of course, the Disney pipe organ, which Riley nicknamed Hurricane Mama, is also a substantially different instrument from the ones he composed for and performed on back then, and Riley visited L.A. on several occasions over the last few years learning about the organ and its capabilities, often experimenting and rehearsing into the wee hours of the morning. The result on Sunday was three pieces. The first two A Persian Surgery Dervish in the Nursery and Salome Dances for Peace were adaptations of prior works here blown up to a grand scale and played essentially without pause for the first hour of the program. The second half consisted of a new composition Universal Bridge specifically written for the occasion. Filled with all the hyper-determined meaning that the phrase implies, the work is about many things beyond the specific occasion of its performance and provided plenty to consider. All three works represented Riley at his wild and woolly best with meandering melodies and rhythms, interlocking repetitive figures and influences from a plethora of areas from Middle Eastern music to the Blues. It was fun-loving stuff and certainly the trippiest experience yet for this young but spectacular centerpiece of the L.A. Philharmonic’s home.

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Do You Like American Music?

May 25, 2008

Pamela Armstrong as Susannah
Photo : Opera Pacific 2008

Me, not so much. Actually that’s not at all true. It’s just that I’ve never been a fan of the sort of folk-influence American pastoral sound championed by Copland and taken up by subsequent generations of boosters. (He remains one of my least favorite composers – and yes, you can keep Leonard Bernstein while you’re at it as well.) Given this, it should come as no surprise that Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah has the potential to rub me the wrong way. Still, the opera isn’t really all that different from those of Janacek or Smetana whom I both love to pieces, so I headed down to Orange County last night keeping an open mind for Opera Pacific’s final performance of their current run of Susannah. Now, granted, it's Memorial Day weekend, but apparently I’m not the only one with prejudgments concerning the “American sound” looking around at the half-empty Segerstrom Hall. More than usual, the poor attendance only served to make me feel stranded in the cold silence of outer space - trapped in that vacant Battlestar Gallactica-hull of an arts venue.

But you know, it was actually a pretty darn good show. The WPA-inspired production by Robert Falls and imported by way of Chicago and Houston is attractive in an unobtrusive way, but not without its charms. The cast was quite strong including a lovely sounding Pamela Armstrong in the title role with Dean Peterson as Olin Blitch. The two communicated well on stage as did Arnold Rawls in the role of Sam Polk. All three fleshed out a work that veers dangerously toward cartoonishness at times with solid and thoughtful performances. Anderson's take on Susannah's second aria, "The Trees on the Mountain", was superb and downright scary in its foreboding, generating the biggest and most deserved ovation of the evening. My only real complaint was the overly emphasized Southern accents the cast was apparently coached into. While not completely inappropriate, they often got in the way of the overall feel of the piece given how strained everyone sounded brandishing them about willy-nilly.

The Opera Pacific orchestra was led, as usual, by John DeMain, and, after some rather rocky passages in Act I where stage and pit seemed uncoordinated and worlds away from one another, everyone somehow got on the same page and produced some really tense and beautiful moments in Act II. Foremost among these was the meeting house scene in Act II where the chorus was on point and powerful. All-in-all a more than serviceable production, which makes the poor attendance even more of a shame. Which just goes to show, you’ve got to keep your mind open if your ears are ever going to learn anything.


We built this city (on 20th c. art music)

May 24, 2008

Salonen, Anssi Karttunen, and the LA Phil
Photo : mine 2008

Well, not really. But one could hardly be faulted for thinking so based on Friday’s concert by the L.A. Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Esa-Pekka Salonen led the orchestra in one of a series of shows in the last two weeks of the season that focus on 20th century and more recent composers. The program tonight was all 2oth century, Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements and Henri Dutilleux’ "Tout un monde lointain..." Not necessarily a readily digestible program but one that nearly filled the hall to capacity on a holiday weekend-Friday—in the rain no less. (That, my friends, is cataclysmic weather by L.A. traffic standards.)

The near capacity crowd was in for a treat as Salonen and the orchestra were in top form. The program began with the Bartók piece - piano, celesta, and harp center stage with the orchestra divided into two separate ensembles on either side. Starting quietly, the music grew to a thrilling and forceful account with Bartók's trademark folk-touches. It was very exciting stuff. After the break was Dutilleux' "Tout un monde lointain...", a de facto cello concerto played in five movements which is almost entirely about small gestures from a very large ensemble. This was a replacement of sorts for a new commission from Oliver Knussen that apparently wasn’t quite ready to go on for this performance so Salonen and soloist Anssi Karttunen switched gears and presented the Dutilleux piece, which certainly featured virtuosic passages Karttunen handled with ease. The work in its own subtle way remains restrained never rising above a fascinating simmer as it weaves in and out flirting with tonality.This was never about flashy theatrics and provided a nice counterpoint to the other works on the bill. Karttunen's visits to L.A. are consistently highlights and that tradition continues.

The program ended with a preview of next season as Salonen led Stravinsky’s big bustling Symphony in Three Movements. Salonen was not messing around, returning from the intermission and blazing into the opening chords with no pause for the audience to even start quieting down. Salonen's admiration for Stravinsky is well established by now, and his performances of Le Sacre du Printemps with the L.A. Phil will always remain in my mind. This Symphony was easily of that quality flying and pouncing with amazing detail and accuracy. The seeming effortlessness of a performance so well controlled is remarkable. At this level, next season, Salonen's last as music director here in L.A., may end up being one of his best. The program repeats on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon if you are so inclined.

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Tastes like chicken

May 22, 2008

Juan Pons, Adrianne Pieczonka, and Neil Shicoff
Photo : Robert Millard/LAO 2008

It’s difficult to get excited about Los Angeles Opera’s current production of Tosca, which opened on the 15th of May and I saw on the 21st. Of course, in some ways it fits right in, considering that this has been a season full of productions just like it here in L.A. (with the notable exception of Karita Mattila in Jenůfa and Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg). In fact, there was apparently so little media interest in this revival of Ian Judge’s well-worn 1989 staging that, in a bid to generate a little ink beforehand, the company borrowed jewelry Maria Callas wore for her debut in the title role at the Metropolitan Opera. Adrianne Pieczonka, the first of two Toscas in this run, is an attractive woman and handles the gaudy out-of-date costume accessory with aplomb. Given the number of seats I saw at this Wednesday matinée performance, however, such early press may have been more necessary than I would have thought.

Judge’s rather claustrophobic approach to the piece still seems non-sensical in too many places. Why is Cavaradossi painting Mary Magdalene's portrait on the floor? Surely even the Italians had heard of easels by the time of the opera’s setting. Putting this silliness aside, there is always the hope that the performances will be engaging, and the current cast is certainly not shabby (if more so for 1995 than 2008). The “newest” member of the cast is Pieczonka and she is serviceable and delivers a well-sung Tosca. Her acting is not totally convincing, but there are plenty worse, and she handled the vocal chores with apparent ease. Juan Pons, the best of the three principals, performed Scarpia and seemed to relish his villainous role with glee but never overplayed his hand. Cold without being comical is not as easy as you might think on an opera stage.

Then there was Neil Shicoff who was last seen in L.A. in the same role in the same production when it first appeared in 1989. I was not in the house that night but can imagine that he has become quite a different performer since then. I personally was not taken with his performance at this stage. He seemed aloof and disinterested at times and, while his power and high notes were excellent, his middle range seemed pitchy to me, and I kept thinking he was going to crack – in the bad way. The music bubbled along at an appropriate pace under Sir Richard Armstrong and delivered its thrills without any big new revelations. So it was not a bad evening, just not one that's likely to stick to your ribs.


Hero worship

May 21, 2008

Thomas Adès, Ariana Ghez, and Bruce Hudson
Photo : mine 2008

Is it wrong to have a schoolboy crush on a composer? OK, well, how about a sustained artistic admiration? I’ll admit I’ve developed rather a high opinion of Thomas Adès over the last several years through his many visits to Los Angeles that seems to grow with each new encounter of his work. Wednesday continued that tradition with the first of two appearances he will make at WDCH with members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

So, how cool is this. In the midst of the Philharmonic’s “Baroque Variations” series, which typically features touring ensembles playing the usual Vivaldi, Handel, and the like, in pops Mr. Adès who throws all the usual trappings out the window to devote an entire evening to his own preoccupation with the work of French composer François Couperin. Adès accomplished this in two segments. In the first half of the program he played his own arrangements of Coperin’s works enlisting the help of the superb Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. These works clearly retained Couperin’s baroque melodies, but the structure and attack were radically altered with the orchestra divided into two halves passing the lines back and forth both in cooperative and at times oppositional fashion. The brief pieces suddenly felt amplified and alive in ways one might not typically expect from music of this period, but it was still clearly identifiable and very playful and amusing. The first half concluded with a work of Adès’ own, Sonata da caccia, completed when he was only 23 and intended as a cheeky homage to Couperin. Adès played the harpsichord himself with Ariana Ghez on oboe and Bruce Hudson on French horn. Again the quirky effect of a decidedly modern take on these Baroque forms was not only whimsical and amusing but rather insightful.

Thomas Adès and Tal Rosner
Photo : Clara Molden 2008

For the second half of the program, the games were put on hold as Adès shared Couperin’s music with the audience in its original format just as he himself enjoys it, by his report from the stage, everyday in his own home. Le Parnasse, ou L'apothéose de Corelli was followed by Troisième leçon de ténèbres which featured vocals by local talents Elissa Johnston and Christine Brandes. I think it is always exciting to see living composers talk about and perform the music that excites and inspires them. This is part of why Salonen is such a great conductor and Adès was clearly having fun as well. As with his recent appearances in New York, Adès prefaced these works with comments from the stage, about his own admiration for Couperin and what his own understanding of these compositions were. He was witty, unassuming and downright charming throughout. Adès will be back next week for a program of his own works including the U.S. premiere of a new commission, In Seven Days, a collaboration with video artist and Adès’ partner Tal Rosner, which recently debuted in London to generally positive reviews. Not to be missed.

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Are you ready for the Sunshine?

May 20, 2008


May comes to L.A. as warm, sunny skies give way to more warm, sunny skies and car dealers all over town busily remind us that in fact Memorial Day is here and we are crossing over into what we’ll call summer for the time being. Of course, performance-wise there’s plenty to look forward to, and, while there is plenty going on abroad, there’s a plethora of worthwhile events here at home on my schedule as well. Details for any of the mentioned events can be found in the calendar to the left

As always, summer is the time for the L.A. Philharmonic's annual pilgrimage from the beauty and exquisite sound of the WDCH to the ersatz dinner theater and flight-path obstacle we affectionately refer to as the Hollywood Bowl. It’s the usual grab bag of crowd pleasers and lightweight pop concerts this year and I have to admit that with a few exceptions it’s the weakest season there in a while. There is a concert performance of Carmen with Denyce Graves, a Philip Glass program led by Leonard Slatkin, and the typical appearance from Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Probably the "classical" highlight will be the Salonen-led performances of Mahler’s 8th symphony in the first week of September. On the pop side, the L.A. Phil will sponsor performances from Feist, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, and Diana Ross, which will undoubtedly be a double-edged sword of an evening. Radiohead will stop by as well for two sold-out evenings as will Stevie Wonder. Meanwhile, Los Angeles Opera, on the other hand, has almost completely abdicated it's summertime programming and will offer only revival performances of Tosca which opened last weekend and La Rondine with Patricia Racette.

The Ojai Festival will again take place the first weekend in June with a typically strong program featuring appearances by Steve Reich, Dawn Upshaw, So Percussion, Signal, and this year's festival director David Robertson. The programs will include the works of Reich, Elliott Carter, Messiaen, and Ligeti. Unfortunately, I’m only going to be able to attend the opening evening on June 5th before heading out of the country, but expect a full report. As always, Ojai remains one of the highlights of the summer season.

Of course, it wouldn’t be summer without doing my bit to drive up the price of gas even further by driving out of town around the U.S. Up in San Francisco, David Gockley continues to stab around in the dark for a new vision for SF Opera (last Fall it was a “singer’s house”, last month it was an “Italian house”, what'll he think of next?) with Das Rhinegold in the American-themed production from Francesca Zambello after its Washington NO run. Natalie Dessay will also be appearing in a non-Mary Zimmerman Lucia, and an exceptionally strong cast (though now without Ewa Podles) will make the most of what looks to be a rather dismal John Copley production of Handel’s Ariodante. Maybe it’s a “keep your eyes closed” house after all. In Santa Fe, Richard Gaddes has put together a very strong season to follow last year's mixed bag with dem geilen Teddy Tahu Rhodes starring in Billy Budd, a new Radamisto with David Daniels, Falstaff, Figaro, and the U.S. Premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s Adriana Mater with the Peter Sellars production imported from Paris now staring Monica Groop in the title role and Pia Freund. Between it’s penchant for inventive staging and beautiful scenery, Santa Fe may be the antidote for San Francisco.

Last but not least however, I’m going to make the trek to New York over the 4th of July weekend not just for theater, but also for the Lincoln Center Festival's performance of Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten. How can you miss out on a 20th century opera with mobile seating? And so another summer is about to begin. But first there is that matter of the Salonen Piano Concerto….


The Good (but not necessarily great) Earth

May 19, 2008

Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie
Photo : Greg Downer

The Los Angeles Master Chorale wrapped up their season on Sunday night at the WDCH with a highly anticipated program of operatic works. While the second half of the evening contained many of the old favorites from Verdi and others, the real draw was the premiere of a 75 minute or so selection of excerpts from Ricky Ian Gordon’s most recent opera The Grapes of Wrath featuring a libretto by Michael Korie. The work premiered last year at Minnesota Opera to strong reviews and is scheduled to make its fully-staged West Coast premiere with Opera Pacific next winter.

I had mixed feelings going into this in that my last brush with Gordon’s work in Long Beach earlier this year (with his Orpheus and Eurydice) wasn’t particularly impressive. I’m glad to say Wrath is more substantial and affecting despite the fact that this particular evening was saddled with significant problems. The first was Gordon himself who acted as narrator between movements reviewing some of the plot between each section. Gordon may be a talented composer, but there is an art to reading text in front of an audience, which is not his forte. The evening was also hampered by amplification problems. The sound was so grating for the first 20 minutes it bordered on the intolerable creating a ringing indistinguishable mass of noise. It still isn't clear to me why the amplification was necessary at all.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Steinbeck’s novel and I’ve forgotten how depressing it is. It’s ripe for an operatic adaptation, and this isn’t a bad one, if a bit obvious at times. The music is tuneful and would probably be as comfortable in a blockbuster Broadway musical or mid-size Hollywood star vehicle. To paraphrase Betty Freeman, this is precisely music that tells you how you’re supposed to feel at all times, no guessing required. But this is opera, which is prone to sentimentality and there is a rich tradition of this form of composition from about the early 19th to about the early 20th century, so Gordon's approach is not without very venerable precedents. But in 2008, it doesn’t seem very daring even if it is well done.

Still, there are some wonderful bits including a scene where Noah Joad commits suicide that was quite moving. There are other pluses as well. The primary one was a sterling rendition of Ma Joad performed here by Elizabeth Bishop. A former Met National Council Auditions winner, she’s made her way around many American stages over the last several years, and tonight she shone like a bright light amidst a world full of shadows. She was in command and brought to her role a sense of suffering just below the beautiful tone of her voice. The rest of the cast was strong, but this is an LAMC show and as is typically the case, they were real superstars. Or as Grant Gershon himself noted from the stage later on – there is an amazing number of very talented vocalists amongst this crowd. Whether sharecroppers, Hebrew slaves, Russian peasants, or gypsies, the chorale delivered a superb performance.

It's worth noting that the evening served an additional purpose besides showing off the LAMC's talent. It was also a harbinger of things to come from director Grant Gershon himself now that he has taken over as chorus master at L.A. Opera. If he can do this here, then there is no reason that he can't do it across the street. Additionally, he will serve as Associate Conductor with LAO and will lead performances of La Traviata next summer. Although he is no stranger to the operatic stage, Gershon was on display proving that, if there were any doubters, he’s got what it takes to bring some increased excitement to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in seasons to come.

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Watch the birdie

May 18, 2008

Peter Serkin, Christoph von Dohnányi and members of the LA Phil
Photo : mine 2008

Wedged amidst the Salonen-led programs that round out this year’s L.A. Philharmonic season is a bit of an oddity. Not in terms of programming or quality or anything, it’s just that suddenly this weekend we found Christoph von Dohnányi back at the podium for a show that included a good bit of Messiaen and the requisite Beethoven symphony. The show was also supposed to include the talents of Pierre-Laurent Aimard who apparently had to cancel due to back problems. I truly love to hear Aimard play, so I was a bit disappointed, but the Phil seems to have impeccable luck in finding replacements and they phoned in Peter Serkin to cover. Not only is Serkin an expert hand in this area, he also dropped the originally planned Janácek opener in favor of an additional bird themed Messiaen work, Petites esquisses d’oiseaux for solo piano. It asked a lot for the typical Sunday matinée audience who had to manage their active TB cases for this but they didn't do too badly. It was well received, and rightly so.

This was followed by the originally planned Oiseaux exotiques for piano and small ensemble. Together the two Messiaen works were quite wonderful. While I prefer Aimard’s perhaps less industrious approach in general, Serkin gave an account filled with curiosity and detail – without a doubt very thoughtful and studied. Dohnányi stayed out of the way for the most part and let Serkin and the Philharmonic players communicate with each other in this language of the birds. Unfortunately, this trend would not continue into the second half of the program where Beethoven’s 3rd was on offer. What can one say? It was Beethoven’s 3rd, absolutely nothing more. Plain as day and easily bowled over by the first half of the program. Having just heard Salonen conduct the work last season, it made one glad that this weekend was only a short detour before he’s back on track with two very ambitious programs between now and the end of the month.

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Passing it on

May 17, 2008

Jon Fosse

Georg Friedrich Haas

I was recently tagged by Peter Matthews on his most-excellent Feast of Music as part of a meme involving books, pages, sentences and the like. While I usually refrain from this sort of activity on constitutional grounds, I did happen to glance next to me and, finding the first book consisting of more than 100 pages, I noticed a bit of synchronicity. The indicated passage is this:
Do you know how old your girlfriend is? he says. Hm? Do You?
I look down at my suitcase.
Any takers? It’s from Melancholy by Jon Fosse. A novel that I’m reading in part due to my upcoming summer European excursion where the novel will serve as the inspiration for a new opera from Georg Friedrich Haas, Melancholia, with a libretto from the author that will premiere at the Palais Garnier on June 9. The synchronicity part is that many of the same things I will be taking in on this trip in June are apparently also on Peter’s agenda for his upcoming trip to Paris and Amsterdam just two weeks before mine. A coincidence to be sure though certainly not an ironic one. Great minds think alike.

I too am scheduled to see many of the operatic offerings in Paris and Amsterdam in early June including Warlikowski’s nursing-home themed Iphigénie en Tauride with the incomparable Mirelle Delunsch et Stephane Dégout, De Nederlandse Opera’s Saint Francois d’Assise with Rod Gilfrey, and the revival of I Capuleti e i Montecchi with Joyce DiDonato. (As fate would have it though, my later arrival results in my seeing one of the Netrebko-less performances of this last offering which is substantially offset by the presence of the lovely and sadly underrated Patrizia Ciofi.)

Peter and my roads diverge in the European operatic woods at this point and my agenda carries on with other items. In Amsterdam, this will include the world premiere of Louis Andriessen’s new opera La Commedia based on Dante’s Inferno starring the genre defying Cristina Zavalloni in a production directed by American independent film legend Hal Hartley. I will also see two Don Carlos, the first in Paris with James Morris and Dimitri Hvorostovsky and the second in Vienna with Thomas Hampson and René Pape. Yes, I know it’s probably unwise of me to be in Vienna in the midst of the European soccer championship series in June, but it’s Verdi time there as well, and I’m also scheduled to see I vespri Siciliani with Sondra Radvanovsky and Leo Nucci and David Pountney's new cowboy-fashion-runway take on La Forza del Destino with Nina Stemme, Salvatore Licitra, and Carlos Alvarez. Just in case you think I’m all work and no play, however, Vienna will also include Strauss’ Capriccio starring Renée Fleming, Bo Skovhus, Michael Schade, Angelika Kirchschlager, and Franz Hawlata. Of course, best of all, hopefully little of this will be weighted down with period costumes, "being transported", or the need to respect the integrity of the original work. Regietheater, here I come.

Tomorrow I’ll follow up with some of the summer’s big attractions state side. Further details for all events can be found on the left.

Come into my parlor

May 15, 2008

The EAR Unit and John Luther Adams
Photo : mine 2008

It’s been a week for chamber music at the Walt Disney Concert Hall with two very different programs in two very different spaces. Upstairs in the main hall, the L.A. Philharmonic hosted its final chamber music program of the season. The L.A. Phil’s chamber music programming has had somewhat of a rocky road since the opening of the new hall. Prior to WDCH, these 8 or so shows a season featuring chamber music played by various combinations of the Phil members were held in various, smaller venues around town. But with the new digs, everything is hosted downtown, and, while it is a beautiful space, it is a very big one – often too big for chamber music. Filling the hall even to half-capacity has been a struggle, and strategies to boost attendance have ranged from free wine for subscribers to the inclusion of visiting guests (e.g., Dudamel, Thibaudet, etc.). Sometimes it works splendidly, sometimes it doesn’t.

Tuesday didn't really work. Despite the presence of guest star Eric Owens, this last show of the season fell flat. It was a grab bag of pieces with no real unifying idea. Of course not everything needs a big concept to justify it’s existence, but the performances here were more rocky than not, including a run-through of Schubert’s “Rosamunde” string quartet and two pieces for two pianos from Reinecke and Schumann. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, was how workman-like Owen’s own performance was in JS Bach’s Catata BWV 82 “Ich habe genug.” While the playing was quite pretty, I didn’t feel much drama here in terms of either faith or peaceful letting-go. It just was.

But, in case you’re thinking it’s all bad news, the REDCAT hosted the California EAR Unit ensemble downstairs at WDCH on Wednesday for a program of “premieres” all from contemporary composers who were present for the performance. They met varying degrees of success, though it must be said the players of the ensemble including Vicki Ray, Amy Knoles, Erika Duke-Kirkparick, Eric km Clark, Phil O’Connor and guest flutist Sara Andon were excellent without exception. The EAR Unit's appearances at REDCAT are a regular affair and always a special treat. The two best items of the evening ironically were not the two world premieres on the program but the pieces that had actually started their lives elsewhere. First up was Eric Chasalow’s Trois Espace du Son for piano and percussion with more than a handful of electronic elements. A “slow” piece about the decay of tones where, in Chasalow’s own words, “different colors of attack are allowed to resonate.” A particularly interesting second movement included both pianist Ray and percussionist Knoles playing the piano - the former at the keyboard and the latter on both the strings and the structure itself. It worked wonderfully and created a nice companion piece to the other highlight of the show, John Luther AdamsThe Light Within from 2007. Here the glow of the tones is more sustained and solid. It’s tempting here to draw parallels to the themes of light and the environment of Adams’ own Alaskan landscape, but it seems too obvious. It’s beautiful music that should be heard – let’s leave it at that.

The rest of the program was silliness that I could attempt to make witty biting comments about, but this post is running long, so for everyone’s sake I'll leave well enough alone.

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You gotta have faith

May 12, 2008

Geoff Elliott and Deborah Strang
Photo : Craig Schwartz 2008

Luckily for those of us not getting married to the son of big tobacco in front of a limestone cross last weekend, there were plenty of other entertainment options. In my case, I went over to A Noise Within in Glendale for their current production of Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana, which in some ways seemed reminiscent of imagined events in the state of Texas. Both sets of characters reel under the influence of faith in the midst of a very hot day. Williams' disparate souls tend to have more complicated and interesting issues to resolve and ANW’s cast and crew have mounted another very fine production of this American classic.

I have a soft spot for this mid-Century psychoanalytic stuff and I’ve always felt that ANW is particularly skilled with this sort of material. The cast of course features many of the company’s regulars – Geoff Elliott as Rev. Shannon, Deborah Strang as Maxine Faulk, and Jill Hill as the “Nantucket spinster” Hannah Jelkes. Elliott, of course, can be overwrought at times, and the success or failure of the productions he stars in often rest on how well the piece tolerates this approach. Rev. Shannon and his desperation seem a good fit here, and Elliott is completely believable. Hill seems to be channeling Katherine Hepburn in a part that seems to be more or less written as a character Hepburn played in many other places. But the real glue that holds this together is Strang who is the biggest and best reason to see this revival of Iguana. She is all flesh and unbridled desire and veritably steals every seen she is in.

Director Michael Murray wisely keeps the focus on the underlying religious aspects of the play.
Williams is interested, more than anything, not simply in how his characters deal with their faith but, more broadly, human mercy and kindness. Murray finds not just tormented souls but one's that can still express their divine qualities. The production will run through May 25.

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You can't win them all

May 11, 2008

Salonen, Griffey, Paasikivi and the LA Philharmonic
Photo : mine 2008

Or at least not this weekend at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. What started out as a great program stumbled along the way to a not necessarily superb finish when Esa-Pekka Salonen led the L.A. Philhamonic in a 20th century program including Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler symphony paired with Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Certainly a program with very little fluff and the kind of show that Salonen and our excellent hometown crew can get down to serious business with. The soloists for the Mahler included tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikivi so my expectations naturally were somewhat high.

Things started off well with a very convincing performance of the Hindemith, which benefited greatly from Salonen’s clean-as-a whistle, detailed approach. The sound was amazing and did get one to wondering exactly why we haven’t heard Hindemith’s operas on these shores more regularly. Smaller amounts of less interesting music have been used to launch a thousand Puccini productions over the years, and this symphony proved extremely rewarding.

So with such a strong start, it was hard to wrap my head around why Mahler’s song-cycle of a symphony didn’t fare better. Part of it sadly was Griffey. I love Anthony Dean Griffey and after his triumphant turn as Peter Grimes at the Metropolitan Opera this spring, one wants to believe he can do anything. But Salonen and Mahler were merciless; easily overpowering him throughout and leaving him inaudible even in the great acoustics of the hall. He was clearly straining as if he were being tormented by Bugs Bunny at another famous Los Angeles landmark.

But this wasn’t the Hollywood Bowl, and with the more lively aspects of Erde under water, the slower drearier bits stood out making the work seem more lumbering and ponderous than it needed to. There were a number of really amazing moments, though, attributable in large part to Lilli Paasikivi – yet another Finnish wonder with an absolutely beautiful voice that she employed to maximal effect. She nailed the thanatos of the work. Her appearances in the U.S. have been limited, which is a situation I’d surely vote to change in the very near future. Still, there are plenty more programs featuring Salonen left on this season’s Philharmonic schedule so we’ll keep our fingers crossed that things pick up.


Money where your mouth is

May 10, 2008

I tend to hold petty grudges over non-existent and perceived slights. Thus it should be no surprise that listening to L.A.’s only classical music radio station, KUSC, this morning pissed me off again. It’s silly really, when you are the only game in town it’s impossible to be all things to all people. We all make decisions about how many negatives we can tolerate in our own minds about the people and things that we otherwise like or admire. But there are limits. KUSC is in the middle of a brief pledge drive and during this morning's opera broadcast time, on-air “talent” Jim Svejda and Duff Murphy were busy hawking the same crap public radio stations always do during pledge drives. (Exactly why anyone who is interested enough to listen to a classical music station to begin with would be tempted to pledge for a 6 CD set of “opera’s greatest arias” is beyond me.) I’m not much of a fan of either of these two to begin with. Svejda, besides having perhaps the most affected voice in all of radio, holds the dubious distinction of having uttered the infamous five words “My good friend Michael Medved” a few years back on-air, forever relegating himself to the realm of people who know many things despite a glaring lack of common sense.

In any event, the blather turned to the topic of the just completed Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast season and after praising last week's performance of Die Entführung aus dem Serail Murphy mentioned the prior week’s performance of Glass’ Satyagraha. With thinly disguised derision Murphy noted that one could tune-in “anytime” during the performance without really having to hear anything more and get everything they needed from a few minutes of the piece. Murphy and Svejda then snickered over this keen insight into the repetitive nature of Glass’ work for several moments until Svejda brought things to a halt noting that they might end up offending people out there who actually like Glass’ music. He went on to note that KUSC even plays Glass. Now isn’t that special.

While Murphy and Svejda are certainly entitled to their opinion, regardless of its lack of originality or insight, it does in fact bother me that neither of these supposed aficionados could quite pick up on the relevance of perhaps one of the biggest musical events so far this year outside of a tag line for some cheap jokes. More concerning, it also highlights the station's tokenism and patronizing attitude toward contemporary and late 20th century classical music. Long relegated to little more than a couple hours on Saturday night, KUSC has had little interest in advocating new(er) music outside of film music.

Which brings me back to the question, how much do you have to agree or disagree with an organization in order to support it? KUSC is an important enterprise here in L.A. and I usually pledge several hundred dollars a year to do my part to keep it going despite the fact that I rarely listen to it. But maybe the hosts are right. My interests in western art music and theirs are pretty divergent. Heaven knows they’ve got plenty of listeners who can’t get enough Beethoven and Mozart and can’t wait to get their hands on those generic compilation CDs they’re pushing so hard right now. Clearly my money would be better spent going to something I actually support. So this year my KUSC donation will go to REDCAT or perhaps to fund my trip to see Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten during this year’s Lincoln Center Festival in New York. Ah, that’s the ticket. I feel better already.


I could never take the place of your man

May 07, 2008

Christoph von Dohnányi and The Philharmonia Orchestra
Photo : mine 2008

Last night was the first of two performances from London’s Philharmonia Orchestra at Walt Disney Concert Hall here in Los Angeles. This was the group’s debut in the hall, and Christoph von Dohnányi, their current Principal Conductor, led the performance. Of course, this position will soon be vacated only to be occupied by the L.A. Phil's soon-to-exit music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, starting this Fall. So, in some ways, this show was kind of like meeting your ex’s new boyfriend shortly after he’s dumped you. Of course, this is completely unfair considering that Salonen has a long-standing relationship with the Philharmonia and it's certainly not the matter of his leaving Los Angeles in order simply to take on another conducting position in London. Still, seeing the new, younger, sexier occupant of your former position can rub against the grain. Salonen was there last night sitting next to Peter Sellars who is in town for who knows what. But, while the L.A. Philharmonic big wigs and press were all there, apparently the locals didn’t get the memo in that there were more than a few empty seats throughout the hall.

The show itself was rather meat and potatoes – Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 and Mahler’s First. Why you ask? Hell if I know, but there it was. Dohnányi gets a bad wrap in some circles, but his leadership here was completely reasonable if not always ideal. The Mendelssohn was no-nonsense. Brisk without airs, this very young-appearing orchestra played a spirited and totally sensible version of the work. Mahler, of course, is always the greater challenge in that his music is anything but sensible and sooner or later decisions are going to have to be made. Dohnányi came out swinging with a surprisingly aggressive account at times. Not that it was sloppy or insensitive, but a little overpowering and unnecessarily loud in spots. The players clearly had a lot of spirit though and in the end seemed to pass the most important test – they acted like they truly cared about what they were playing and looked like they were having a heck of a time doing it. On balance, not a half-bad evening. Tomorrow’s even less interesting program includes Beethoven’s 5th and Schumann’s 1st for those who may be interested.

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Sunday, Bloody Sunday

May 05, 2008

Kate Fleetwood and Patrick Stewart debate their stain removal options
Photo : Richard Termine 2008

I decided to stick around New York an extra day in part due to the recommendation of a friend that I see the Chichester Festival production of Macbeth that opened last month at BAM and has since transferred to Broadway to the Lyceum Theater on 45th Street. One of the reasons this production has received so much attention is that amongst its very good cast Patrick Stewart appears in the title role. I was advised by my friend that this may be the best Macbeth I’ll ever see and given Stewart’s performance that might well be the case. He’s excellent primarily because he’s one of those performers who seems to understand the similarities, and more importantly the differences, between Macbeth and Shakespeare’s other torn “hero” Hamlet. Stewart is neither endlessly conflicted, nor is he so menacing that there is no room for sympathy. He does the mad business well to boot.

The production is bloody, bold, and resolute if nothing else and may be one of the most disturbing and dark Macbeth’s I’ve seen. Set in what appears to be an abandoned institutional kitchen (or perhaps a New York subway station) in some totalitarian period of the 20th century, the feeling is definitely more Stalin than Hitler. The witches become off-kilter nurses, and guns are brandished as readily as knives. However, all of this is augmented with technologically savvy audio-visual elements in the form of synched video projected onto the set at key moments. This is particularly effective during a bit of stage business derived to place the intermission in the middle of the banquet scene. Act I concludes with the actual arrival of Banquo’s ghost who, covered in blood, appears at the rear of the stage arriving in the service elevator as we see a video projection of blood steadily increasing from a trickle to a pour on either side of the elevator entrance. Banquo approaches Macbeth directly on top of the table allowing his shocked response to conclude Act I. Act II opens again at the beginning of the banquet scene, but this time it is replayed from the point of view of the dinner guests, now with Macbeth suddenly responding to an unseen specter. It’s a clever ruse and just one of many that director Rupert Goold has masterfully woven into the production. Not only does this Macbeth have the expected body count, but the military campaigns that underpin this work seem more visceral and urgent than one usually expects.

Of course, there is much more to the evening than clever tricks and Patrick Stewart. The rest of the cast is very good and Kate Fleetwood’s take on Lady Macbeth is immensely gratifying. It’s a rather multi-dimensional take on the role that is much more than just unbridled fearful ambition. But she nor anyone else skimps on the ick factor here. There is little sunshine in this chamber of horrors but, while brutal, it’s a trip definitely worth taking.


(Not) All is Forgiven

May 04, 2008

Ramón Vargas and cast
Photo : Marty Sohl/Met 2008

It was a mostly Mozart kind of weekend with two productions that are wrapping up the Metropolitan Opera season here in New York, Die Entführung aus dem Serail and La Clemenza di Tito. I saw both today and while they are both less commonly performed works, together they support the argument that overall, the Met’s Mozart productions are in more dire needed of replacement than perhaps those of any other major composer. This evening’s season opening performance of La Clemeza di Tito was poorly attended, which is a shame considering its many fine qualities. Foremost among these was a return appearance of Baroque and 18th century music specialist Harry Bicket who led a wonderfully detailed and lively performance of this work in a house where no one else but James Levine has conducted it since he marshaled it back into the repertory in 1984. A tough act to follow and perhaps some of the reason for the small crowd, but Bicket was spectacular with the Met opera orchestra. He was joined by the typical A-list cast including the legendary Susan Graham. Every note from her throat was perfection and even though she was forced to dress as Barney Rubble throughout Act II she was reason enough to be there. Ramón Vargas made his umpteenth appearance on the Met stage this year as Tito. He is no slouch, but like Domingo’s performances of Bajazet in Washington this month, Vargas is not going to go down in the history books as an illustrious performer of Mozart and Baroque operas. He’s a little too zesty for this material in my opinion but he’s game and can act. The cast also featured an excellent Heidi Grant Murphy as Servilia and Tamar Iveri as Vitellia.

All of this takes place amongst perhaps the most massive and unnecessary set imaginable. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's design dates back to 1984 and gives everyone a very nice place to stand around while they sing and look for something else to do. Some, like Iveri, take the Norma Desmond approach to this problem, while others emote within a more predictable range. What's the point of all the massive columns and arches if the burning of Rome at the end of Act I is represented by litle more than a few red flashes of light. This is still part of that 80s trend to make it look like the 18th century version of ancient Rome, but today it just looks ridiculous. It’s musical qualities do compensate for many of it’s theatrical problems, though, and there are three more performances remaining over the last two weeks of the season. Unfortunately, only the final one will be broadcast over Sirius so you may want to check out to live internet stream of Tuesday’s performance coming up on May 6 or, better yet, with so many tickets available, why not actually go see it.

Matthew Polenzani and Diana Damrau
Photo : Ken Howard/Met 2008

The parallels between the successes and failures of Clemenza and the Met’s concurrently running Die Entführung aus dem Serail are numerous and I suppose unsurprising. A 1979 production from John Dexter is revived largely as an excuse to have the marvelous Diana Damrau return to the stage. It’s a rather cartoonish staging that is so dated it could border on the transcendent. What at the time was meant to be whimsical, now gives the whole production a rather minimal look. But it's still dull. If the current production of La Fille du Régiment is what comedy is today, this genteel production is a reminder of what comedy was. Serail also has a somewhat miscast tenor in the form of Matthew Polenzani who is fine but not particularly Mozartian in any way. Kristinn Sigmundsson plays Osmin for maximum effect and is quite good here throughout. Damrau is, of course, the star of the show and deservedly so. Though her costumes also do her little favors, the agility and litheness of her voice carries everyone along, regardless of their sins. David Robertson was in the pit with the orchestra and, while he does not necessarily have a big reputation in Mozart circles, his leadership was quite admirable. There is one more performance on Wednesday that will be broadcast on Sirius. Here's keeping our fingers crossed that while Peter Gelb is busily retiring all the out-of-date productions at the Met (a Herculean task I grant you) these two losers make it onto the pile as well.

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Who's Your Daddy?

May 03, 2008

Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez
Photo : Ken Howard/Met 2008

Perhaps the biggest hit of the spring season, the Metropolitan Opera’s current run of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment is quite a wonder. Although it is fashionable on some music blogs to peck and moan about the production, it should be noted that Laurent Pelly’s design, which features Juan Diego Flórez and Natalie Dessay, does in fact live up to all the sold-out, high C, media blitz hype that has been pursuing it across the globe and into New York. I could sit here and carry on about Flórez’ performance, but there’s really no need at this point. (BTW he did not do an encore on Friday's performance, which frankly was A-OK with me. If I wanted to spend all evening marveling at physical prowess, I'd watch sports.) Instead, I’d like to focus on two other major contributors to this huge success.

First and foremost is Laurent Pelly. Directors and designers who specialize in opera often get a bad rap these days, but Pelly is one of the most exceptional directors working in the field today. Infinitely witty, with a playful visual style, he has helmed several of the best productions throughout the world in the last decade, many for the Opéra National de Paris. Not that he doesn't have his detractors who find his irreverence calculating and distracting. But frankly, they're missing the joke, but no matter, almost everyone else in these sold-out audiences seem to get it. His set of mountainous maps is brilliant and his comic use of chorus and dancers always seems right on the money. The criticism that this production is “too small” for the Met stage is ridiculous but not surprising considering the stages full of unnecessary shit that Met audiences have grown used to in countless productions for decades. Pelly’s Fille is one example of what an excellent opera production can look like when the cast isn’t forced into submission but their dull surroundings and instead allowed to fill the theater with their singing and acting talents. (Gelb cannot get rid of all of those Zeffirelli monstrosities fast enough for my dollar.) Or in response to the couple next to us at dinner afterwards, yes this Fille does not "look like an opera" and may be "too Broadway." That is precisely the point. "Looking like an opera" is exactly what makes them so often suck when they do.

But Pelly’s genius must have the performers to carry it out, and not only is he blessed with Flórez, but additionally benefits from a kindred spirit in Natalie Dessay. With so much attention and marketing around encores and high notes, Dessay’s brilliant work is getting short shrift. She is hysterical. Her Marie has apparently developed the ADHD one would associate with a child raised by a group of soldiers. Her singing is wonderfully acrobatic but best of all she never succumbs to making her entire acting performance subservient to it. She performs throughout with a physicality that demands attention and a subtlety to marvel at. This is not your great-grandmother’s stand-and-deliver performance and it should put to shame anyone who would continue to support such an approach to that particular art form. Dessay’s achievement is made all the more sweet by the support of two other world class singing actors – Felicity Palmer and Alessandro Corbelli. Dessay mentioned in last week's half-time feature of the HD broadcast that she finds a true mark of success when the audience can watch and forget that everyone on stage is singing. This run of La Fille du Régiment stands as a great achievement towards this endeavor.

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I read the news today, oh boy

May 02, 2008

Act II of Satyagraha
Photo : Ken Howard/Met 2008

I feel I shouldn’t say anything negative about Philip Glass’ Satyagraha that wrapped up its run at the Metropolitan Opera in New York last night. Simply put, this is exactly the kind of opera repertoire I’d like to see more often, so if you want to reinforce good behavior the best thing to do is praise it. So let me start there. It’s really a beautiful opera. Everybody wants to call the music “hypnotic” or “mesmerizing” which frankly is garbage. It’s no more “hypnotic” than Wagner is. Saying that Glass’ music is “mesmerizing” is basically trying to apologize for the fact that it’s repetitive. It is repetitive – get over it. It’s also popular (still) to debate Glass’ overall importance or significance as a composer. But I can think of no composer of art music today whose work would be so immediately recognizable to a lay ear without foreknowledge of the particular piece in question. After several hundred years of music history, that is a decidedly rare accomplishment. Like his work or not – I wager it’s going to be remembered.

Thursday’s final performance of Satyagraha also benefited from the only appearance in the run from Alan Oke as Gandhi. Oke is the British tenor who preformed the role in this production’s original outing with the English National Opera last year. Although Richard Croft sounded great on the radio throughout the run, I was glad to see Oke who carried the evening with his magnificent performance. The whole cast was exemplary as would be expected here in New York, though I was particularly fond of Rachelle Durkin as Miss Schlesen. The production is filled with numerous memorable images including a sky full of hanging lanterns and monstrous puppets waging war with one another. The stage business throughout milks a rather smart and often effective newspaper motif with sheets acting at times as projection screens, scenery or the stuff that puppets are made of. All of this dreamed up by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch and their Improbable theater group. Glass himself showed up at the end, as he had in earlier performances, to a huge hero’s welcome from the audience. Good for him, he well deserves it.

But, to tell the truth, as much as I want to encourage good behavior, in a perfect world where performances of operas like Satyagraha would be much more common, I’d be less worried to ask why everyone’s sights were set so low here. I didn’t care for this production anywhere near as much as the Achim Freyer staging filmed for Stuttgart Opera in 1983 and currently available on DVD. Freyer seems unafraid of Glass’ concept and lack of narrative structure creating scenes that often have little to do with any action described and instead focusing on the philosophical concepts that underpin them. Phelim and Crouch take a very literal interpretation of the work right down to period costumes and the like. They do everything they can to emphasize the narrative elements of the piece. Even the lack of opera titles reinforces this effect. Since the Sanskrit text is essentially philosophical tracts from the Bhagavad Gita, without titles, it appears the cast members are actually communicating to one another with their own words, which is not exactly the case. Some of the ideological thrust of the work is lost among the late Victorian falderall. The set itself is an enclosed semi-circular wall of rusty corrugated steel. It’s been a big season for new productions featuring walls at the Met and again we are besieged by people popping in and out of various windows in the wall throughout the performance.
Musically there was a little left to be desired as well.

Dante Anzolini led the Met Orchestra through a performance that was all smooth rounded edges and soft landings. Transitions between segments are made with ease and contrasting elements are played down. While a completely legitimate approach, I found it rather timid in a work with as many jarring elements as lyrical ones. Still, these are all minor complaints in my mind. This staging of Satyagraha is a major accomplishment long overdue in this specific corner of the opera world. Let’s hope it’s just the beginning of things to come.

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Idle Thoughts

May 01, 2008

Is that a doughnut? Domingo in Tamerlano
Photo : Karin Cooper/WNO 2008

Great opera does not live by great vocal performances alone. If there is anyone who needs yet more evidence of this fact, check out Washington National Opera’s new production of Handel’s Tamerlano, which opened last night at the Kennedy Center. It’s got a great cast with David Daniels in the title role, Placido Domingo as the humiliated Bajazet, Sarah Coburn as his daughter Asteria and the very underrated Patricia Bardon as Andronico. Everyone is more than adequate – they’re actually excellent. Even Domingo, who is clearly not cut out for the Handelian brand of pyrotechnics, is stunning in that he produces the level of performance that he does in a new role for him at this stage of his career. He’s taken up this role recently in Madrid as well, and his stamina is awe-inspiring. I continue to be taken with how strong Bardon is and can only hope she continues to be cast in more prominent ways on this side of the Atlantic. The rather adorable Andrew Foster-Williams made the most of his small role of Leone, leaving only the periodically pitchy Irene, voiced here by Claudia Huckle, to raise any eyebrows during the performance.

So what’s my problem? Well, everything else. William Lacey conducts a frustratingly slow and plodding version of the score that swells to three-and-a-half hours even with significant cuts. The musical lifelessness is unfortunately matched by a new and surprisingly uninteresting production directed by Chas Rader-Shieber with design by David Zinn and lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. This is the same team responsible for New York City Opera’s popular Flavio production and their recent disastrous La donna del Lago. The production is thankfully modern dress, but little other drama has survived. The large empty gray room that serves as more or less a single set for the whole opera occasionally benefits from a chair or the moving of the back wall of the set, but that’s about it. The color scheme is black and white except for occasional red in the lighting and the costumes of Bajazet and his daughter Asteria. Otherwise everyone stands around looking for something to do – especially the rather large corps of black-clad storm troopers who appear to have oddly little policing to do in their imaginary totalitarian state. The whole thing might as well be set in a doughnut shop for all the listless and bored officers standing around. Apparently handling weapons was not a crucial part of their training either in that such items are wrested from them with virtually no effort and all the ho-hum brandishing of them gives the production a Hogan’s Heroes feel. In fact Rader-Shieber seems to have a knack for the ridiculously ineffective gesture. Tamerlano induces fear in those around him by such means as knocking over small piles of books or removing his tie as if to bind someone up before subsequently wussing out of it. As any Regietheater practitioner can tell you, the tie isn’t going to cut it in the tension production world where a little bondage, blindfolding and bloodying are standard practice.

So maybe it should be no surprise that the audience seemed fairly underwhelmed on this opening night with so much going for it on paper. Even with a very notable cast, Handel’s opera can definitely do better overall than this.

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