Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

You've gotta have heart

June 30, 2008

Michael Hayden as Giovanni and René Augesen as Annabella.
Photo : Kevin Berne/ACT San Francisco 2008

Before reading this please be aware I couldn't care less about spoilers so if you do, perhaps you should go elsewhere.

One of the events I didn’t get around to writing about during my recent visit to San Francisco was ACT’s current production of John Ford’s 16th-century morality play ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, which is on stage through this coming weekend. My main attraction to this performance was novelty – Ford’s work is not revived every day, and it’s a play that I’ve heard about, but have never seen.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this staging, directed by ACT director Carey Perloff, is how timid it is despite all the marketing department’s protestations to the contrary. Yes, it’s a play about revenge and incest that has the word “whore” in the title, but it seems watered down compared to what I imagine it looked like 400 years ago. Although we may envision ourselves as somehow more worldly wise than those long ago audiences, this staging would suggest we’re far more delicate in our sensibilities. Take for example, the lack of a heart. Most oddly, the climax of the play centers on Giovanni's display of his sister's heart after having just removed it from her possession in a sort-of-romantic mercy killing. He presents the heart to the assembled cast before the ensuing blood bath you know is coming, and draws everyone's attention to it. Strangely enough, there is no such prop to be seen in Perloff’s staging, which makes the whole thing seem a bit odd. Now centuries ago, surely they used an animal heart or some other such organ and, granted, that probably isn’t a good idea in this day and age. But you can’t tell me there isn’t something they could have come up with to resemble viscera. There’s plenty of blood, just not enough flesh.

The performances are quite good overall, though the dramatic elements of the plot work better than the comic ones, which often seem stiff and not quite as bawdy as they may have been intended. The brother and sister pairing of Michael Hayden and René Augesen was believable and earnest. The candle and steel girder set was basic enough not to get in the way and dreary enough to set the mood, although this seems to me a standard issue ACT set for several other productions I’ve witnessed here in recent years. Then there’s the solo cello accompaniment featuring original incidental music composed and performed by "avant-pop, chamber-punk trailblazer" Bonfire Madigan Shive in an angel costume on a riser above the stage surrounded by what could best be described as organ pipes. In a bit of a Spring Awakening maneuver, Shive has been enlisted to add some modern, edgy Gothic overtones to the proceedings that avoid being as over-the-top as I may make it sound. It’s not at all a bad production and it deserves fuller houses than the one I sat in on a Saturday matinée. It closes this weekend so you still have a chance.

One other San Francisco post-script. While in town I got the opportunity to interview bass-baritone Eric Owens. He is a charming and very talented young singer with a big career ahead of him. However, my opportunity to interview him appears to not have been a unique one for local bloggers, and I have elected not to publish the interview for the sake of avoiding redundancy. Let me just say, though, that you have to love someone who was inspired to sing opera by listening to the 1973 Carlos Kleiber recording of Der Freischütz. Chalk one up to Carl Maria von Weber.


Funny HA HA

June 29, 2008

David Sedaris was in town this weekend at UCLA in the midst of his current book tour supporting his newly released essay collection When You Are Engulfed in Flames. These visits to UCLA’s Royce Hall have become annual events for the performing arts program, UCLA Live, and despite their unvarying nature, they continue to be highly popular and often sell out. Saturday’s show did not disappoint his legion of NPR-listening fans and was often laugh-out-loud funny. As usual Sedaris showed great care in the preparation of his program, mostly reading selections that neither appear in his current book nor were performed in prior L.A. appearances.

But what excited me most about the show was that there was more purely fictional material in the evening’s program. Lately, some pundits have tried to drag Sedaris into a James Frey-inspired witch-hunt over his hyperbolic memoirs and tall tales. In a manner ignorant of psychoanalytic theory as well as the entire history of American humorists dating back to Twain and beyond, certain critics have tried to use Sedaris as a punching bag for their own anxiety over being unable to distinguish a reality that isn’t clearly laid out for them by others. While I think they’re right to criticize his memoir-based essays, they are wrong in finding fault with the fact that they may not be completely true. The real problem is that often the biting wit of these memoirs are mixed with too much sentiment. The punch lines are softened in a Garrison Keillor manner that, while not unpleasing, isn't completely satisfying.

Of course, I am no stranger to overwrought sentiment being a fan of opera. But I have long believed that Sedaris is at his best when he pulls no punches, which seems to be the case more frequently in those works and monologues that are entirely fictional. Take his send up of Mike Tyson in Barrel Fever for instance. On Saturday, he read at least two extended fictional pieces, one from the point of view of a depressed fox looking to carry out his own suicide as road kill, and another as an amnestic defender of the blind. Here Sedaris really pushes the envelope, at times even making the audience uncomfortable with the implications of his humor and its targets. He’s a much bolder and funnier writer than one would perceive in his books, and Saturday’s reading was one that reminded us that he’s still got plenty of bite.

How I Met Your Mother

June 26, 2008

David Pittsinger and Patricia Racette
Photo : Robert Millard/LAO 2008

Not long ago, Lisa Hirsch posed the question of how many Ring cycles the West Coast needs. I've got a better one. How many Rondines are necessary? The correct answer of course is none, but on the West Coast we have been inundated with, count them, two different outings in less than a year. If you want to know what is wrong about opera in America, friends, here lies exhibit A. Los Angeles Opera is wrapping up it’s season with a revival of this Puccini clunker starring Patricia Racette as Magda and Marcus Haddock as her young lover Ruggero. It is markedly different and much less successful than the San Francisco Opera production of the work from last fall that had, if nothing else, the prodigious talents of Angela Gheorghiu at its center in a roaring 20s update.

The LAO incarnation of La Rondine surfaced over a decade ago from the mind of Marta Domingo and was an aggressive effort to rehabilitate the opera’s deservedly lackluster reputation. Domingo borrowed from Puccini’s three different versions of this work, reconstructing arias here, newly orchestrating abandoned duets there. The intended effect was to make the piece meatier and Domingo did choose to go with the darker ending where Magda drowns herself in the sea. Unfortunately, all this labor is only half successful in that the opera still seems thin and only takes longer to get to the end. (The fact that LAO inserted two intermissions did not help this along at all.)

The star of the cast was Patricia Racette, whom I love dearly, but feel she was somewhat miscast here. Her voice has a strong, dark, and weighty quality that constantly strains against the bright and light qualities of Magda. Worse yet, the overly dowdy and matronly outfit she’s stuck in throughout Act II, when coupled with Rambaldo slapping her to the ground, creates the sense that you’re watching a Franz Léhar adaptation of Peter Grimes. Haddock seemed rather strained at times, but the rest of the cast was fine in their relatively smaller roles with Greg Fedderly singing admirably as Prunier. The chorus was excellent and it sounds like Grant Gershon’s hard work at LAO is finally coming into full effect. Keri-Lynn Wilson led the orchestra to optimal effect.

In some ways this stodgy, if somewhat enjoyable, La Rondine seems a fitting end to a rather stodgy, if somewhat enjoyable, season for LAO. There were few excellent moments. The Karita Mattila-starring Jenufa and Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg were the only two. The other major positive development is the ascendancy of music director James Conlon who is taking over the mantle of musical leadership for the city that Esa-Pekka Salonen is about to vacate. He’s got energy and ideas and is clearly committed to a community spirit. However, while there were other memorable performances throughout the year, many of the productions seemed to sputter along at half-speed as if the company is saving itself for something bigger down the pike. I hope so. And I hope that includes the upcoming Ring cycle, which will kick off next year.


The Mortgage Crisis -
Wagner style

June 23, 2008

Jennifer Larmore as Fricka and Mark Delavan as Wotan
Photo : Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2008

It just goes to show that even gods can get involved with mortgages they can't afford. Who would have thought that with all the big name talent on tap at this “Italian singer’s” house, that the best production this summer at San Francisco Opera would be a Francesca Zambello-directed Das Rheingold? But so it was when I caught the penultimate performance on Sunday of this first installment of the new “American” Ring cycle developed in conjunction with Washington National Opera and now arriving in San Francisco. It’s a conceit that works surprisingly well tapping into both class distinctions and the Industrial Revolution in America. The turn-of-the-century country club gods find that Wotan must deal with Alberich and his working-class Nibelungen to pay off the now exceedingly high-cost mortgage on their new home. These provide excellent metaphors for elements of Wagner’s masterpiece where the world undergoes the death of one order and the birth of another. It looks very good and involves a minimal amount of clutter on stage. Zambello makes liberal use of video elements here as well, that is both beautiful and subtle. I've been somewhat ambivalent about her productions in the past, but found this quite effective.

Das Rheingold is not devoid of talent either and contains a number of excellent performances. My favorite has to be Stefan Margita’s Loge who is the perfect combination of world-weary and icky. He commands the stage and provides a nice balance to Mark Delavan’s driven and troubled Wotan. Richard Paul Fink is also excellent as Alberich not overplaying the character’s pathetic qualities. On the women’s side Jennifer Larmore was the able Fricka and Jill Grove captivates in her brief but pivotal appearance as Erda. Really strong vocals across the board were helped along by Donald Runnicles doing what he does best. The orchestra received the biggest ovation most deservingly. This is quite a good start for San Francisco’s new Ring and if they can keep this up, it will be one not to miss when the complete cycles come to town in a few years. There is one more performance of Das Rheingold this week and if I were in town I'd see it again.

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The City of Big Shoulders

June 22, 2008

Susan Graham as Ariodante
Photo : Terrence McCarthy 2008

When David Gockley took over the reins of the San Francisco Opera two years back he made quick efforts to shore up audience support that had been fractured during the tenure of his predecessor Pamela Rosenberg. One of the steps he took was to promise some of the lower-brow elements of the audience that they would not have to suffer any more “Eurotrash” (his word not mine) productions. Whether or not these people found solace in his pledge to protect them from anachronism is unknown to me. However, after seeing the horrid production of Ariodante currently on stage at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, designed and directed by the very British John Copley, it appears that Gockley may have wanted to be a little more specific about which Europeans he wanted to keep out and which ones he didn’t. Even without anachronism, there are plenty of bad opera productions regardless of the designer's nationality. Or in the words of a famous world leader, "mission accomplished." Trashy or not, Copley’s staging of Handel’s work is likely the worst single production of any opera I’ve seen in years. It is lifeless, ugly, and devoid of insight. Puffy shoulder costumes abound in this homage to what an 18th century version of this opera may have looked like. Think of it as the operatic equivalent of a Nagel print – stylized in a way that may have seemed artistic twenty years ago, but now seems sad.

In a striking parallel to the company’s current production of Lucia di Lammermoor, despite this awful staging, no expense has been spared in obtaining a first rate cast with big names including, Susan Graham, Ruth Ann Swenson, Richard Croft, and Eric Owens. The singing is glorious and if one shuts their eyes, this might be construed as a superior evening. Graham is her usual magnificent self and no evening spent hearing her sing is ever wasted. Ruth Ann Swenson shines despite overly-mannered acting, and Richard Croft and Eric Owens were admirable in their smaller roles. Sonia Prina, who played Polinesso, and Veronica Cangemi as Dalinda blended well with a top flight cast and sang with great precision and clarity.

Unfortunately, though, despite the wishes of some, opera is still, in fact, theater, and music is not always enough to make it work. Patrick Summers was on hand to lead the orchestra and elected tempi that ranged from a little slow to glacial, dragging out an opera with significant cuts to 3 and a half hours anyway. The performance was all heartbreak and no vengeance. So, much like Lucia, I’d say that Ariodante has several imperative vocal artists worth seeing, but don’t expect miracles and don’t expect this evening to be on anyone’s list of memorable evenings at the opera.

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Out on the moors

June 21, 2008

Natalie Dessay as Lucia
Photo : Terrence McCarthy 2008

So I’m back in the U.S. and as I finish up recovering from jet lag, I thought I’d make the most of this weekend by heading up to San Francisco for their summer opera season that is filled with some very promising casts. First up - Lucia di Lammermoor with the local debut of soprano Natalie Dessay. I suppose that this is what passes for “a hit” these days, especially here on the downward artistic spiral that San Francisco Opera is becoming. They are laying out the bucks for big name singers, though. Dessay is the one very strong reason to see this production. She is calm, cool, and spectacular throughout. But without her, you’re on your own.

In fact the saddest part is how alone she seems on stage. She is often acting and reacting in a vacuum between two male leads, Giuseppe Filianoti as Edgardo and Gabriele Viviani as Enrico, that seem to have stepped out of some television pot-boiler. I say it’s time for Lee Strasberg gift certificates all around. I will say that Viviani sounded good although Filianoti infused his performance with a rather verismo sounding bark that was distracting. While one might interpret this contrast between Dessay and her male protagonists as somehow heightening the dramatic effects of Lucia’s isolation in the piece, I just found it dull. Which made for a nice complement to another underwhelming, uninspired production from Graham Vick who once again drums up some gray walls to contain the action and wishes everyone the best of luck. This minimal set, imported from Florence, does no one any favors. Dessay luckily has the mad acting skills to take this and run with it for a great outcome. For most of the rest of the cast, it was time to find a place to park to do their singing.

The orchestra sounded fine under the leadership of Jean-Yves Ossonce who, like Viviani, was making his U.S. debut. Things never slacked off and Ossonce seemed to have everything on stage well coordinated with the pit. Of course, since everyone on stage could pretty much just stare at him the whole time, maybe that’s not a surprise. Tonight was also one of those opera-in-the-ball-park events where the performance was simulcast to the local ball park where legions of newly discovered opera fans could watch free of charge and have a picnic or some such thing. Which may have been the way to see the performance considering that video editing may have injected some much needed visual excitement. Still, this is a chance to see Natalie Dessay do her thing so if that is new to you, I’d heartily agree, don’t miss it.

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No Laughing Matter

June 18, 2008

Cristina Zavalloni as Dante in La Commedia
Photo : Hans van den Bogaard 2008

The last stop on OutWestArts tour abroad this year was a second world premiere – this time with more confusing, yet definitely more enthralling results. The occasion was the new opera from Louis Andriessen, La Commedia, which is in its last few performances under the auspices of De Nederlandse Opera at the Carré Theater in Amesterdam. The opera is a very, very loose adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and also contains material from the Old Testament and other sources as well. The work comes billed as a “filmopera” and is a collaboration with American independent film director Hal Hartley who is making his debut as an operatic stage director. Andriessen has worked with film directors before including both Hartley and most notably Peter Grrenaway who provided libretti for two prior operas. Hartley provides filmed material for La Commedia featuring the cast that is projected on five different screens all hung at different heights and angles throughout the evening. But it is important to note that this is much more than Hartley simply interpreting musical material given to him by Andriessen. He is contributing as much narrative and thematic material as the composer and this is clearly much more of a collaboration than the single-author fantasy of operatic history will typically allow.

Andriessen and Hartley have taken the three basic characters on stage, Dante, Beatrice and Lucifer, and developed at least two different sets of competing narratives that are simultaneously played out by the live cast and the filmed elements. More confusingly, neither of these necessarily have much to do with Dante’s work. These include a television reporter who is hit by a car and dies, a chamber orchestra that appears to be alternately on the run or madly in love with one another, and some sort of political protest activity. On stage meanwhile, in addition to Dante’s activity, here voiced by the incredible Cristina Zavalloni, there is some sort of cat and mouse game going on between herself and the Lucifer character that is played out on a huge construction site set complete with mechanical lifts, a mobile elevated catwalk, several guys in hardhats, and foreman's offices at either side of the stage. The orchestra stalls have been removed to house the Schönberg Ensemble, the Asko Ensemble, and Synergy vocals who are further surrounded by another catwalk lit from underneath. Between the pit and the stage, which is filled with the largest of the film screens, is another pit filled with clear inflatable beach balls that could be the river Lethe, but might not be as well. There's a children's chorus at one point that performs a "satirical" song. I’d might be able to tell you more if my Dutch was better, but there is a part of me that doubts it.

In addition to Zavalloni, an excellent Claron McFadden plays Beatrice and Dutch film star Jeroen Willems plays the largely non-singing role of Lucifer. All of them clearly had as much invested in their acting as their vocals and were exciting to watch on both stage and screen often at the same time. Andriessen’s music is generally more accessible than it may have been in the past and seemed far less regal and demonstrative than in the preview of this material earlier this year by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. He writes both for traditional orchestra instruments as well as electric guitars and drums, and there were references to many popular music genres throughout the work. With so much going on around it simultaneously, the music seemed more like another factor trying to compete for your attention, but I don't see that as a bad thing. The playing was excellent by the groups involved under the direction of Reinbert de Leeuw. Although I'm not completely convinced about all of this, I will say it was fun to watch and certainly had a number of striking images and themes to think about. Plus sometimes it's nice just to see something that isn't completely clear or digestible. Andriessen and Hartley's La Commedia is just that - something to think about.

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In the sweet by and by

June 17, 2008

Rod Gilfrey as St. Francis
Photo : Ruth Walz/DNO 2008

I’ve got mixed feelings about the new production of Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise which I saw on Monday night at The Netherlands Opera during the 5th of nine schedule performances. Would I pay to see it again if I was going to be in town a few more days? In a heartbeat. Was I glued to my seat, riveted and moved to tears? Not exactly. The work is a masterpiece without a doubt. Performances are relatively rare and when they do occur they are often overshadowed by the few artists who have performed in it, be that conductors, vocalists, or directors casting long shadows for those who follow. A lot of this comes with the territory in contemporary operas. So, not living up to expectations seems unavoidable for a performance like the one in Amsterdam where everything is completely new — a new production from Pierre Audi is conducted by Ingo Metzmacher with Rod Gilfry singing the title role for the first time in his first appearances with the company.

Comparisons to what have gone before are unavoidable. Gilfry has taken a lot of heat for this performance somewhat unfairly. He is definitely lighter in tone than his two best-known predecessors, José van Dam and Willard White. Add to this, apparent illness in the first two performances of the run, and you have a recipe for overly negative reviews. Gilfry was better than what I feared, given the press I’d read. That he attempts the role at all and pulls off the performance he does is laudable. He creates a more vulnerable and human Saint François. It is true, however, that as of this point in the run, he continues to struggle somewhat vocally by the end of Act II and into Act III, be it an issue of health or stamina or something else. It’s still a performance worth seeing. And many people may get to, considering that tonight and this coming Thursday’s performance are being filmed for what I can only suspect is a future DVD release.

The production from Audi takes an almost opposite tact from the famous light-bulb and TV monitor Salzburg production several years ago. He elects to have everything on stage look as low-tech and simply constructed as possible. Sets consist of scaffolding and unadorned planks of wood. Costumes are bulky, rough-hewn space-age affairs. All of this takes place with the orchestra on stage immediately behind the action under a canopy of blue sky that is replaced by light-bulb stars in the end. Having the orchestra front and center is not a bad idea given that DNO music director Ingo Metzmacher and the orchestra give a great performance that is the lynch pin of the evening. Camilla Tilling’s performance as the angel and Tom Randle’s Frère Massée are both quite good.

But it does seem that for each great idea there's a missteps. Chief among these is the use of a non-singing group of children in the last scene of Act II. Apparently Audi thought working with children would be preferable to working with animals so Saint François delivers his sermon instead to this rag-tag lot like some intergalactic Romper Room. And what kid doesn’t love a lecture about birds? A few of these kids desperately need some notes like not talking during the performance and that drawing on the stage with chalk as instructed is different from banging on the stage with chalk during the music. They’re a trite distraction in the piece and need to be elsewhere.

In many ways Saint François is reminiscent of Tristan und Isolde. Not in terms of content or musical history, but because both are such complex and monumental works of art in their own right, a perfectly satisfying performance is almost unimaginable. Part of the joy in Messiaen’s piece, like Wagner’s, may be the joy in pursuit of the difficult-to-attain. Not that there haven't been great performances, but pulling them off is no easy task. The Netherlands Opera has mounted a difficult and massive work with great care. It doesn't always work, but it is significant and worthwhile nevertheless.

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How many Don Carlos does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

June 16, 2008

Act II from Don Carlo
Photo : Wiener Staatsoper 2008

It’s June in Vienna and we all know what that means - Don Carlo fever continues! Not to be left out with new productions in London and a revival in Paris, the Vienna State Opera put its two cents worth in with a star-studded revival of its own. Included here were the Philip II of René Pape and Thomas Hampson as Rodrigo. The cast also included Luciana D’Intino as Eboli, Norma Fantini as Elisabeta and Franco Farina as Don Carlo. So how did things turn out? Not bad, but they could have been better. At the heart of the problem here is the need for a major suspension of disbelief. Yes, this is not unusual at all for opera, but there are limits. What person in their right mind is going to be tempted to even think about going behind the back of René Pape for a tenor. Especially Franco Farina. Especially when you’re René’s freaking queen and you could have the tenor axed by the Spanish Inquisition with little more than a thought. Let’s get real people. You could at least get the man a gray wig to tone down his hotness and provided some half-hearted attempt at consistency.

This isn’t the only problem, however. The Pier Luigi Pizzi production, which is older than I care to investigate, has seen much better days. It’s small, dreary, and poorly lit. Everyone on stage could have used a cell phone considering how much time they all had to sing in the dark far from anyone else including the audience. The cast should be given credit for not just standing around and singing, which the set nearly forces them to do. Unfortunately, there was a particularly weak link in the cast and that is Franco Farina. He was not originally in the announced cast of this revival and appears to be a last minute replacement. We’ve had some not so pleasant performances from him in L.A. and little has changed.

Still the evening was far from a total loss. Pape, Hampson, and D’Intino were all quite good. Marco Armiliato was at the podium and again led a winner of a performance from the orchestra. If there is anything that has been consistently great during these last few days of opera in Vienna it’s been the quality of the opera orchestra, and, honestly, that is almost reason enough in and of itself to see any of these productions including this musty old Don Carlo. Now if I could just meld some of the elements from the Paris production with some of the elements from Vienna, we might have a really good show in there somewhere. There are three more performances as well as an additional three performances of the French version conducted by Bertrand de Billy with a completely different production and cast including Ramon Vargas. That’s it for now. See you in Amsterdam.

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Words and Music

June 15, 2008

Bo Skovhus and Renée Fleming
Photo : Axel Zeininger/Wiever Staatsoper 2008

I’ve just had one of those nights. They don’t happen often, but everyone who gets this crazy opera habit does have them every so often and it’s why we keep going. I’m referring to a performance where everything comes together perfectly - fantastic singing, a great production, impeccable musical direction and performance. And how’s this for self-referential irony: the theme of the opera in question is this very issue of the perfect melding of elements into a work of art greater than the sum of their parts. Tonight was the third performance of the Vienna State Opera’s new production of Strauss’ Capriccio starring Renée Fleming. It’s fabulous. It looks great, it sounds great and it is unlikely that you’ll ever see another Capriccio as good as this one.

The production was designed and directed by Marco Arturo Marelli and is traditional in many ways but is imbued with a fair amount of modern technology including some video. Most of the set consists of stage-tall triangular pieces that rotate to reveal red theater curtains, words and music, or the etched-glass walls that make up the Countess’ salon. These pieces can be arranged into a semi-circular backdrop but are nearly constantly in motion given that they are also placed on a circular rotating stage that pauses only intermittently over the course of the evening. This carousel perfectly mirrors the ongoing aesthetic debates, declarations of love, and crises of manners that make up the events surrounding the Countess’ birthday celebration. It’s beautiful and often laugh-out-loud funny.

The cast is impeccable and a perfect example of luxury casting with Bo Skovhus, Michael Schade, Adrian Eröd, Franz Hawlata, and Angelika Kirchschlager. Acting and vocal standards are equally high and there are no weak links. Then there is the show's international superstar, Renée Fleming. This is one of the roles that made her famous and she is in top form here. Forget all the Violettas and Manons you may have seen her do, this is how I will remember her in years to come – glowing, breathing wonderful life into Strauss’ work. Of course, there may be more of this in the very near future, as Ms. Fleming appears to be on a “greatest hits” tour of sorts, revisiting several roles that originally brought her to prominence including Thaïs and Rusalka. She’ll even take another go at Lucrezia Borgia this fall in Washington, DC. Of course, all this is supported by a detailed and achingly beautiful performance of Strauss’s music by the State Opera orchestra under Philippe Jordan. He’s young but already an old hand in the opera pit. If tonight is any indication, there are exciting times ahead in Paris when he takes over the music directorship of the national opera there in 2009.

Last night my partner pointed out that there were several video cameras taping the performance of La Forza including one that followed Nina Stemme out for her curtain call. Let’s hope that someone has the sense to tape this one as well. It’s brilliant and deserves to be seen by a much wider audience.

P.S. I’m sitting here in the hotel room watching the cast including Renée Fleming getting interviewed on the local TV station about the performance. It’s painful to think about the lack of arts coverage in the media in the US.

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Guns, Germs, and Steel

June 14, 2008

Nadia Krasteva as Preziosilla and Carlos Alvarez as Don Carlo
Photo : Wiener Staatsoper/Axel Zeininger 2008

La Forza del destino is one of those operas that I seem to enjoy the concept of much more than the actual experience of it. Or at least I always get excited about the opportunity to see it, but then when it happens I think, “what’s the big deal?” Act II is ridiculously long and boring. There often seems little continuity between the multiple scenes and characters. I guess I continue to hold out that it’s not the opera itself, but the productions I’ve seen so far – I just haven’t met the right one yet. And so I attended a performance of the Vienna State Opera’s new production of Verdi’s work tonight with the usual anticipation. And while I was still disappointed, this was probably the best argument for the opera I’ve yet to hear.

I give the primary credit for this outcome to director David Pountney’s controversial but highly effective staging that involves a fair amount of video elements. It also involves a lot of women dressed as Vegas-style cowgirls with short-shorts, boots, guns and bright red hats. They represent Preziosilla and her followers urging young men on to war in Italy. Yes, it’s far-fetched but visually striking and effective in making Pountney’s (and perhaps Verdi’s) point about the bitter harvest of rousing calls to take up arms. The video elements, which are presented initially on a scrim during the overture and repeated during various choruses and arias, recount the seminal event of the opera, the accidental shooting death of the Marchese di Calatrava. Like Verdi, Pountney is trying to keep the character’s underlying motivations in the audience’s mind in a convoluted work where it can be quite easy to forget. A pistol falls, spinning and then hits the ground. As it discharges we follow the computer-animated bullet on its ricochet course until it strikes the chest of a man with the requisite splater of blood. Gruesome it my be, but this is kind of a gruesome opera.

The problems unfortunately have noting to do with the colorful, vibrant sets and intelligent staging. This Forza is an embarrassment of riches in the casting department with Carlos Álvarez as Don Carlo, Nina Stemme as Leonora, and Salvatore Licitra as Alvaro. Who’d have guessed that the strongest player on the team would be Álvarez? Stemme seems miscast here with too much steel and not enough grit. Licitra is Licitra – close, but never quite delivering what’s promised. Nadia Krasteva wisely elects to have fun with Preziosilla and though some of her second aria ends up more shouted than sung, it works to good effect in this context. The dancers and chorus looked like they were out of practice with moves that were probably more solid when the production premiered earlier this year. One other nice change from those performances in my mind is the substitution of the musical leadership of Marco Armiliato for that of Zubin Mehta. Armiliato brought out an accomplished and thrilling account of Verdi’s score and will lead all the performances of this summertime spate of Forzas as well as the Don Carlo revival that will start on Sunday with René Pape and Thomas Hampson.

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Stairway to Palermo

June 13, 2008

The big stairs from I vespri
Photo : Wiener Staatsoper

So hear I am in Vienna where there are an amazing number of people with pumped-up calves and fantastic buns. No they are not fußball players, but choristers from the Vienna State Opera who are again spending hours traipsing up and down the giant staircase that is the hallmark of Herbert Wernicke’s production of Verdi’s I vespri siciliani. Now ten years old, this staging consists solely of a giant black staircase that rises into the rafters and, at times, allows the chorus to climb out of a pit below stage level. This seems to require an amazing amount of fleet footedness from everyone involved, which does create some tension in what is otherwise a pretty much stand and deliver affair. If I have been reminded of anything this week, it is the necessity of having lots of stage business or some amazing actors who can hold everyone’s attention in these minimalist stagings.

Luckily there is at least one such artist here. Sondra Radvanovsky is freaking amazing. I continue to be blown-away every time I see her. Instead of slaving away in warmed-over Ernani at the Met, she is one who should be touting major new productions in glossy city bus photos. If you have a chance to hear her sing Leonore in next season’s Trovatore, do not miss it. She’s the main reason I saw the Vespri revival here in Vienna and I cannot say that I left disappointed. Though it is true that not everything in this amazing thigh workout lives up to her standard. On the good side, there is Leo Nucci. Well loved in this part of the world, Nucci still garners a warm welcome despite any diminution of his abilities. He can still deliver “In braccio alle dovizie” in spades no matter what else may have changed. The rest of the cast was not as strong including a rather stiff Keith Ikaia-Purdy as Arrigo and Paata Burchuladze as Procida. The imbalance between the principals was rather difficult to get around but conductor Miguel Gomez-Martinez did a reasonable job of keeping everyone in sync with the very fine Vienna State Opera Orchestra. Certainly this staging has seen more lustrous and storied casts over the years, and while the evening was quite slow to warm up, its charms, including Ms. Radvanovsky, more than made up the difference for me.

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Le Rouge et le Noir

June 12, 2008

Joyce Di Donato as Romeo
Photo : C. Leiber/Paris National Opera 2008

Ever have one of those experiences where your regular “whatever” is unavailable so you make do with a substitute only to find the substitute does a better job? Well, although, it is a completely unfair comparison on many levels, I’m sure there were more than a few people in the audience for tonight’s penultimate performance of Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi at the Bastille Opera in Paris disappointed over the absence of Anna Netrebko. This turned out to be one of the three performances that the now very pregnant performer begged out of. And while I’m a huge Netrebko fan, I’ve seen her 10 times in 7 different roles where I have only seen the most excellent and highly underrated Patrizia Ciofi once before as Gilda in London last year. In case you’re wondering, while she may or may not be a super-vixen, she was spectacular. Someone needs to buy her a plane ticket to the U.S. and put her center stage in a big role right now.

It was also a treat in that Ciofi was performing with a close colleague, Joyce DiDonato, with whom she has previously recorded a CD of opera duets. DiDonato again donned the pants in the family for her turn at Romeo. That she was outstanding was not a surprise. What did surprise me was how these two performances can take a minor bel canto work to begin with and elevate it to something enjoyable. In fact it was the best thing I’ve seen in Paris this week hands down. I should also give credit to Evelino Pidò, the conductor, who is an old-hand at this game and, in fact, led the original performances of this same production in Paris during its only appearance here in the last 20 years (with Laura Claycomb and Vesselina Kassarova). The supporting cast was adequate with Matthew Polenzani rounding out the cast as Tebaldo and, while he has not always been my favorite, he was better here than I’ve thought recently.

The other refreshing thing tonight, besides the large group of pre-teens who, sitting behind me, exhibited flawless manners (of which I somehow don’t feel I’ve yet to see from American equivalents) was the revival of Robert Carsen’s minimal production for this outing. Although it’s over ten years old and very sparse, Carsen seems to have overcome many of the problems that other directors have succumbed to with this kind of approach this week. Graham Vick, take a lesson – you’ve got to give your cast things to do while they are singing. Good acting can carry almost anything and an empty stage can make it a lot more powerful. The red and the black contrast looks somewhat dreadful in photos of this production, but on stage it was eye-catchng without being overwhelming. So that’s it for Paris and now it’s off to Vienna.

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All dressed up and nowhere to go

June 11, 2008

Yvonne Naef as Princess Eboli and Tamar Iveri and Elisabetta
Photo : A. Poupeney/Opéra national de Paris 2008
It seems Verdi’s Don Carlo is sweeping Europe this summer with a major new production in London and revivals in both Paris and Vienna. All of them have more than a few big name cast members to recommend them and Ferruccio Furlanetto will actually appear in two. On paper, the Paris revival may have the least to recommend it. This became more pronounced when arguably the biggest star in the cast Dimitri Hvorostovsky called in sick for the second performance on Tuesday. Funny thing was, at least vocally, his absence didn’t detract that much from the overall vocal quality of the evening. This was in part because his replacement, Dimitris Tiliakos, was superb. He may not have Mr. Hvorostovsky’s fame, but he is very talented and a young face to keep an eye on. To date, this Greek baritone has worked mostly in Nuremberg and Greece and appears to be casting a wider net. Apparently no matter where he goes he is hunky. The other factor that elevated this evening was the rest of the cast, which had no slouches amongst them. James Morris sang Philip II with real pathos and weariness. Tamar Iveri, making her Paris debut on the heals of her Met debut this spring in La Clemenza di Tito recently seems to be everywhere. She made Elisabeth’s less-outwardly flamboyant role stand out over Eboli, not always an easy task. Yvonne Naef had that job and, though she didn’t quite have the control needed for the homestretch of “Nel giardin del bello," she was otherwise solid and came off much better in Act III. Another new element for me was tenor Stefano Secco as Don Carlo. He has worked extensively throughout Italy and more recently Germany and now appears to be Paris’ it-tenor for all kinds of things. He’s excellent, and, although his U.S. appearances have been limited, here’s hoping he makes it onto some bigger stages stateside soon.

Sounds like a great evening. Well, yes, but unfortunately opera must always contend with those pesky non-vocal elements. The conductor was up and coming Greek talent Teodor Currentzis who has been working steadily throughout Russia over the last few years. He wasn’t lazy, but I felt he didn’t quite get all that could he could have gotten out of the Paris National Opera Orchestra. A somewhat ironic state considering how the British press have tried to work him up as some kind of genius enfant terrible. Everything seemed kind of half-spirited though technically on-target. But more annoying than this, was the revived Graham Vick staging that is so minimal it begins to beg the question of whether or not it is a staging at all. Think of putting an opera on in a Rothko painting or an empty, abandoned Pottery Barn to get the idea. There is so little to do and Vick has everyone so spread out on the huge Bastille stage that it becomes one cold and lonely Verdi opera. In the end it was frustrating that such a strong cast had so little to work with, but there are worse options. And there is one striking image at the very end as Carlo dives into his father's crypt, represented here by a cross-shaped pit in the center of the stage. Carlo's dead body rises out of the crypt atop a giant glowing cross as the curtain falls. It's just too bad the audience had to wait nearly four hours to get something really interesting to look at.

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La Belle Hélène

June 10, 2008

Annette Elster as Kellnerin and Otto Katzameier as Lars
Photo : B.Uhlig/Opera National de Paris 2008

With so much football excitement sweeping Austria at this moment, is it any surprise that a major artistic event from that region would have to leave town to get the space it needed? So it was at last night’s world premiere of Georg Friederich Haas’ new opera Melancholia at the Palais Garnier in Paris. It’s a good opera, with few surprises. In other words, it’s almost exactly what you’d expect from the sources behind its creation. Whether or not this is a good or bad thing mostly depends on how you feel about those sources to begin with. The libretto is from Norwegian author John Fosse and is based on the first part of his novel of the same name. The events concern 19th Century Norwegian landscape painter Lars Hertervig. He has left his homeland with the support of a local benefactor to study art in Düsseldorf. There, Lars has taken a room in the home of Frau Winckelmann whose daughter, Helene, he has fallen in love with. This is not a completely mutual feeling, but in any event, Helene’s mother and uncle have gotten wind of the relationship and have asked Lars to leave. Complicating matters, Lars clearly has a major mental illness, likely Schizophrenia, and has begun to come unglued, often hearing Helene’s voice and progressively crippled by his own delusions.

Haas at the premiere of his new opera
Photo : mine 2008

Lars leaves his room with his suitcases and has nowhere else to go other than the local pub, Malkasten, which he has never visited despite it being a regular hang-out for many of his art student peers. He arrives, only to be mocked by two peers, Alfred and Bodom, who insist that Helene is hiding in the bar waiting to meet him. He is fooled by this taunt of his peers and the bar’s waitress, but eventually leaves believing that Helene has called out to him to return to the Wincklemann’s. There he sees Helene, who is now clearly disturbed by his behavior, and her mother and uncle call the police to have his thrown out.

This is not cheery stuff and it's presented in a rather unadorned and highly repetitive stream-of-consciousness format in Fosse’s novel. Fosse wants to make points about the relationship between art, madness, and self-doubt but he keeps the narrative simple, entirely bound up in the ravings of a madman. Setting this libretto is Austrian Georg Friederich Haas. Haas is best known for a pair of chamber operas Nacht and Die schöne Wunde as well as a number of orchestral works over the last 20 or so years. Although his work is not well known in the U.S., he has enjoyed a much wider profile in the German speaking world especially his native Austria. He has done his time at IRCAM and racked up several regional composition prizes.

So with all of this, what do you think Melancholia might sound and look like? You’re exactly right. Director Stanislas Nordey, hews very closely to the text with an ultra-minimal black box set with virtually no props other than a giant white sheet, cum canvas, that acts as divider and implies elements of sets. It is manipulated from above moving achingly slowly throughout. It is the only source of white outside of the period costumes for Lars and Helene. Everyone else is in total black. Movement is slow and minimal throughout. The music owes a huge debt to Berg, Wozzeck in particular, and many of Haas' recent European predecessors including Boulez who was also present at the premiere. There is little melodic about it, but Haas does one thing that is very 19th century – he actually relies on the music to tell a large part of the story on its own. Capturing Lars' mental illness without setting his incessant ramblings is difficult. To deal with this, Haas does two things. First, he installs a chorus to represent some of Lars internal world that interacts with him throughout. Secondly he writes lines for virtually all of the orchestra’s instruments to mimic this process. Often, everyone is playing at the same time with seemingly rapid and uncoordinated flights of notes while Lars is singing. This creates the effect of Lars internal world being one where he is always trying to sort out all of the noise inside his head simply to hear his own voice. It’s a clever and I think rather sophisticated effect.

An extremely bad photo of Pierre Boulez at the premiere
Photo : mine 2008

Gerard Mortier, who was present for the premiere, and the Paris National Opera have wisely chosen to decrease the pressure around the premiere by involving a cast devoid of big names or huge international superstars. The music was performed by Klangforum Wien under the direction of Emilio Pomarico in his Paris debut. Lars is sung by a quite good Otto Katzameier, the only cast member not making his Paris debut. Melanie Walz’ Helene was clear and appropriately innocent. With these seemingly less than starry forces, the production is lean, mean and very effective. The production does fill you with a sense of the creeps and hopelessness. Given that this is precisely what you would expect from the source materials, that may be an unqualified success.

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O Brother, Where Art Thou?

June 08, 2008

Mireille Delunsch as Iphigénie and Stéphane Degout as Oreste
Photo : F. Ferville/Opéra national de Paris 2008

One of the highlights of my last visit to the Palais Garnier and the Paris National Opera in 2006 was a spectacular revival of Rameau’s Platée starring among others Mireille Delunsch and Yann Beuron in an inspired Laurent Pelly production. So my hopes were high at the beginning of this trip in that both Delunsch and Beuron would again grace the Garnier stage this time in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. Alas, magic was not to strike twice, even if this final performance of the run had its charms.

Probably the biggest obstacles were director Krzystof Warlikowski’s staging and Ivor Bolton’s conducting. This is the infamous “nursing-home” Iphigénie that Susan Graham, who stared in the original run of this production in 2006, openly dissed by name several month’s back in Opera News. Iphigénie appears as an elderly woman in a nursing home who is recalling events of dreams she is having which may or may not be her own memories. While Mireille Delunsch does all the singing and acting, there is always a doppelganger on stage , in this case Renate Jett, who takes whichever role is non-singing for that part of the staging. Things are generally modern dress with the elderly Iphigénie wearing a gold, sequined skirt and jacket in contrast to her more dowdy fellow home residents. It’s a good look, and being from L.A. I can tell you that sometimes that’s all you need.

But I can see why Graham took issue with this staging, in that despite a strong and pleasing aesthetic, the show is burdened with so many competing ideas at once, that they often seem to be battling it out on stage. There is the whole old-lady-nursing home stuff, but it often takes a back seat to things like a naked Oreste killing his mother after she exposes her naked breast to him, a small group of dancers clad only in white boxer shorts, and a tattooed wheel-chair-bound Thoas who suddenly can walk and throws flowers at the stage from a side box while in uniform in Act II. There’s a good idea in there somewhere, but all at once makes it not just difficult to follow, but ponderous.

Musically, I thought Bolton was the weakest link. The score sounded slower and heavier than it should to my ear. Vocally, however, things were quite good. This is despite the fact that the performance started with one of those she’s-sick-but-she’s-going-on-anyway announcements about Delunsch who performed the lead role. You’d hardly notice, though, as good as she sounded, only getting froggy momentarily in a couple spots. Beuron’s Pylade and Stéphane Degout’s Oreste both got the job done, even when they often had little to do.

So, overall it was good, though not great. I will say, however, that I appreciate this approach even if it didn’t completely work for me. I’d rather see a hundred of these overreaching productions than to sit through one more ersatz American fantasy of a bygone and non-existent Europe that populates so many American stages today.

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Je suis arrivé

June 07, 2008


This interesting sign is found outside Le Centre de Danse du Marais a rather lovely and diverse studio right around the corner from my hotel. All I want to know is – if this is the upstairs team, who’s downstairs?

Tonight is dedicated to jet lag recovery. Tomorrow, the real fun begins with Gluck and Mireille Delunsch at the Palais Garnier.

An Evening of No Importance

June 05, 2008

Thursday was the opening show in this year’s Ojai Festival and even though I’m headed out of town tomorrow, I drove up to catch the show. It was an all Steve Reich program including Eight Lines, Nagoya Marimbas, Four Organs, and his recently released Daniel Variations. The composer was in attendance, and it was not a bad start for this year’s festival. Sure, this may not seem like the most daring program by Ojai standards, but it’s a reasonable look back at one of the world’s most important living composers. Hey, and let’s face it – you really know you’ve arrived when you make the cover of Gramophone Magazine and they don’t make you hold the silly giant plastic musical note.

The ensemble Signal was joined by members of So Percussion under director Brad Lubman for an evening of solid and enjoyable performances that definitely played up the warm and friendly qualities of these pieces. There were some problems with bad microphone placement, but it was no matter in the end. I was no where near as taken with Daniel Varations as I had been during the performance by the Los Angeles Master chorale last year, so I would definitely check the new recording out. This year’s festival promises to be another strong one under guest director David Robertson, and includes a major appearance from Dawn Upshaw.

Like a good neighbor...Alan Rich
Photo : mine 2008
In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I attended on complementary tickets provided by the festival. I usually don’t do this and frankly this was my first experience acccepting press passes for something I saw for OutWestArts. I did it in part because the evening included a “blogger’s night” reception meant to welcome local bloggers to the festival and to help launch a major new addition to our ranks, the new blog from long-time music critic and recently dismissed LA Weekly contributor Alan Rich. Mr. Rich was present at the reception and made some brief comments about how he is learning about blogging, a new experience for him, and hopes this outlet will act as a space for community and conversation around local music events. He noted the importance of this given that to his understanding there are no “important” music blogs on the West Coast at this time. It’s nice to see that Mr. Rich’s transition from the “old” to the “new” media hasn’t burdened him with the unnecessary baggage of tact.

In the meantime, for those of you not headed up to Ojai for Mr. Rich (or Alex Ross, there to promote his book and participate in a symposium) there are plenty of unimportant West Coast blogs to check out in your spare time. I will be in Europe next week reporting on all things operatic, so come back soon.

Makes Me Wonder

June 04, 2008

from Wonders are Many
Photo : US Dept of Defense/John Else

Q: So when is an opera documentary not an opera documentary?

A: When that documentary is Wonders Are Many, John Else’s latest film that opened last weekend in LA and NY.

Ostensibly the film follows composer John Adams and director Peter Sellars in the months leading up to the world premiere of their most recent opera collaboration Doctor Atomic about J Robert Oppenheimer and the first atomic bomb test in the New Mexico desert in 1945. It would seem a perfect project for Else considering he has an interest in and previously directed documentaries on both Oppenheimer and opera. But while the film does make a successful case about why this is an appropriate topic for an opera to begin with, its own conflicted goals eventually sink the project overall.

Simply put, Wonders Are Many is not two great tastes that go great together. The film seems torn between being about Oppenheimer himself and about the development of an opera. In fact the material about Doctor Atomic often seems to be getting in the way of a broader project about Oppenheimer’s character. While there is plenty of material about the opera, it has little dramatic content in its own right and often seems to be a set up for the film's other goals. There is no discussion on a wide variety of topics that would seem to be primary to such a project such as how did Adams get interested in the project? What was San Francisco Opera’s general director Pamela Rosenberg's role? What were some of the largest hurdles in bringing this work to the stage to begin with? Just some thoughts.

Instead, we get multiple lengthy scenes of the props shop building a giant Styrofoam bomb replica and lots of archival footage. Not that this is painful or unpleasant. In fact, there are many interesting things to be seen here. Seeing Sellars in action with the chorus and principals is priceless. His overflowing enthusiasm for the work is palpable as he assembles the libretto from known texts and poetry. Gerald Finley, who plays Oppenheimer in the opera, comes off as both a wonderful singer and a thoughtful artist. In some ways it's a real missed opportunity. Doctor Atomic is a great opera. It continues to ruffle feathers in some circles for those who like their opera to fit comfortably in a box they store all of their opera thoughts and memories in. But its lack of traditional narrative structure is one of the things that makes it so great to start with. A documentary about this important work could have made that case in an interesting and thought-provoking way. Wonders Are Many, though, is not that film.


The Big Finn(ish)

June 01, 2008

Big hug with Salonen, Bronfman and the LA Philharmonic
Photo : mine 2008

The final program of the L.A. Philharmonic’s 07/08 season this weekend was a little bit of a disappointment, but only in the way the last ones always are. The desire is to have a big spectacular bang to go out on, but the reality is that the chances that the last show will surpass everything else over the last eight months is rather unlikely. Not impossible, just not statistically probable. A lot of expectations were riding on this Salonen-led weekend, which featured the local premiere of his own piano concerto, written for and again performed by Yefim Bronfman as it has been previously in New York, London, and Chicago.

It is an interesting composition that any composer in hopes of a lasting reputation could be proud of. Still I’m not completely sold on it like, say, Salonen's Wing on Wing. The concerto contains nearly miraculous flights of notes for Bronfman that he dispatches with a little sweat and plenty of dexterity. It is especially remarkable considering that Salonen never lets the orchestra stop playing during the piece, and Bronfman must overcome lots and lots of competition to be heard. Often he plays duets with individual members of the Philharmonic including one spectacular passage accompanied by the group's new principal violist, Carrie Dennis, recently arrived from a position with the Berlin Philharmonic. She killed – you’d be wise to keep an eye on her. Despite all of this, however, I felt rather detached from the whole thing. The concerto seemed like a rush of music filled with references to just about everyone you could think of, but I never got a sense of it as a distinct entity of its own. Of course, this was only a first listen. Maybe I’ll change my mind later after the DG recording made from this weekend’s performances is released.

The rest of the program consisted of a new arrangement of Debussy’s Preludes by Colin Matthews and a world premiere arrangement of Stravinsky’s Les noces by Steven Stucky. Salonen was on the mark here and in his element with another harbinger of music to come next year. The rhythmic elements were front and center and played well in this tale of an arranged marriage. Now, if it were only possible to have heard any of the four clearly talented soloists the orchestra had recruited to sing the lead roles, it would have been perfect. I know they were singing because I could see them moving their mouths; I just couldn’t hear them over all of Stravinsky’s beautiful music. It’s sad but true, even in 2008, size matters.

So that’s it. Another season draws to a close and those of us who love the L.A. Philharmonic and music in general try hard not to think about the reality of the Hollywood Bowl until we are back again in the most beautiful public room in America next October. Of course, that season will bring a world of "final performances" as well. Which reminds me, I guess I shouldn’t complain about anything in this program after all. I doubt I’m going to get too many opportunities in future years to hear a music director of the L.A. Philharmonic conduct a new composition of his own. Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you got 'til it's gone.

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