Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Mother of Pearl

October 28, 2008

Nathan Gunn and cast
Photo: Robert Kusel/LOC 2008

It’s a uniquely uninteresting opera production where even the bare chest of opera’s bare-chest-standard-bearer Nathan Gunn fails to hold your attention. But such is the case with Chicago Lyric Opera’s current run of Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles now wrapping up its run and which I saw last Saturday. To be fair, this opera may be more plagued with uninspired stagings than any I can think of right off the top of my head. However, Nicholas Joël’s production was bland enough to make me actually long for the day-glo garishness of Zandra Rhodes’ take on the piece, which has been all over the country. By comparison, Joël’s Ceylon seems almost reserved and matronly like something from the set of a Laurel and Hardy picture. His "other" is still exotic, just not quite as sexualized.

Still there was a requisite amount of flesh to be seen, but it didn’t really matter considering how well sung the whole thing was. An all-American cast was on offer including Gunn, Eric Cutler as Nadir, and Nicole Cabell as the priestess/virgin/whatever Leïla. Also sounding quite excellent, and deserving a big shout out, was Christian Van Horn as Nourabad. (You can check out his nifty blog at the right which includes a candid after hours boys night out photo of the cast - unfortunately, it's completely SFW.) Cutler and Gunn were both solid as a rock vocally and complemented each other well. My biggest pleasant surprise though was Cabell whom, despite all the hype, I’ve had some doubts about after a rather lackluster Musetta in Santa Fe a couple of summers back. She was on target here—clear, bright and lustrous throughout. Apparently all that was needed was a little indoor reverberation to pull it all together for me. I could have used a little more allure and a little less nurture in the acting department, but it’s really squabbling.

In the pit was John Mauceri, of all people. It was a respectable performance, and it was nice to know that there is life after the Hollywood Bowl for a conductor who may be trapped exactly midway between John Williams and John Adams. So, it was enjoyable and that’s not so bad. Not the greatest thing I’ve seen, but definitely worlds better than the intestinal flu, as I was reminded in the days subsequent to the performance. There are still a couple of shows left next week to see this fine American cast if you’re in the Chicago area.

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You always hurt the one you love

October 25, 2008

Natalie Dessay and Jonas Kaufmann
Photo: Dan Rest/LOC 2008

No, I’m not dead. I’m just in Chicago. Which I love, especially when I see people just dressed as themselves and not in some bizarre “look” so common in my own hometown. You can take the boy out of the Midwest…. But I’m here (at least in part) for opera so let’s start with the Lyric Opera’s opening production this season of Massenet’s Manon. It’s a big ticket affair with the likes of Natalie Dessay and Jonas Kaufmann. But despite really solid performances from both, I wasn’t completely sold. I think much of it was the David McVicar production, a large open area surrounded by a slanting semi-circular gallery where period costumed revelers alternately watch and participate in the action in a sort of meta-performance way. McVicar does depravity with a twist of S&M better than anyone else these days. And, while this is ideal for Rigoletto and Don Giovanni, it makes his Manon seem strained and off-kilter. Strip-poker, bondage, cutting, and candle-wax-eroticism do have their place in the operatic world, but it kind of takes the wind out of your sails when we're talking about Massenet. Then you have the trademark muted colors and harsh lighting which drive the effect home. It just never seemed that fun or over-the-top to me.

Emmanuel Villaume conducted the orchestra in a performance that was only periodically infused with dynamics and was more often than not dragging and ponderous. The stop and start pacing killed the first two acts for me. It was like every cast member on stage had a parent in the audience and Villaume wanted to ensure that even the most minor players got every ounce of attention they could for the folks back home. Which brings me to the principals. Now I am a Dessay fan overall and vocally I thought she was adequate. But honestly, there was a little too much of the pixie-shtick here for me. I never really got the sense that her Manon was desperate or had her heart broken, though she did pout at times. I found myself longing for the richer, warmer tones of Fleming in this role, which is saying a lot considering how matronly she typically is in it. Give me Netrebko as Manon any day. Jonas Kaufmann in a very handsome and able tenor. His top notes seemed a little thin, but he gets around the stage well in a convincing manner. I never felt a lot of chemistry between him and Dessay, but maybe I’m asking too much. I will say this, though. I thought Manon's death in des Grieux' arms was perhaps one of the more convincing renditions of that scene I've witnessed. Maybe all the depravity finally paid off. In the end it's a worthwhile production with some great singing. It just left me wanting more.

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Soft and Wet

October 20, 2008

Piotr Anderszewski
Photo: mine 2008
Boy Howdy, but do I love the shaggy-haired Piotr Anderszewski. He’s been a regular visitor to the Walt Disney Concert Hall over the last few seasons both with the L.A. Philharmonic and on his own. This year we were lucky enough to welcome him for a rich and wonderful solo recital consisting entirely of Bach keyboard works. Typically, I associate Anderszewski with his masterful performances of Szymanowski. But his performance of these Baroque masterpieces may overwhelm my prior perceptions.

Anderszewski’s take on Partitas Nos. 1 and 2 and English Suite No. 6 hit just the right balance. Neither slavishly period nor overly simplified, he flew at the pieces in a whirlwind taking necessary liberties for these works on a modern instrument that Bach himself had not imagined. Anderszewski played with tempos and dynamics in a way that made sense but was not overly indebted to those that have gone before. It was no overly romantic affair, but avoided an overly intellectual and dry approach that has marred some of the recent appearances by Andras Schiff here during his Beethoven piano sonata cycle. Anderszewski’s precision was remarkable and he dove into the program without pause for audience noises or applause to settle. Yet at the same time he seemed relaxed and warm. He wrapped up with Beethoven in the encore and was greeted with a huge ovation from an unusually large crowd for this sort of program. A great performance from one of the best pianists before the public today.

What if I were Romeo in black jeans?

October 19, 2008

Dancers in Myth
Photo: Gina Ferazzi/LAT 2008
The UCLA Live International Theater Festival finally got under way last week with two different set of visitors. The first was a rather drab staging of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World from Ireland’s Druid Theater Company that I may write more about later if I get around to it. But far more intriguing and stimulating was the concurrent second offering Myth, a dance piece from choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Belgian collective Toneelhuis. The two performances of this two-hour work on Friday and Saturday represented the U.S. premiere of this unapologetically international polyglot of a work. And while I enjoyed it overall, I couldn’t help but wonder if Pina Bausch got the royalty check she clearly deserved.

However, if you’re going to wear your influences on your sleeve, you might as well copy from the best. Myth, in the best of the Baush style, is a big tent with dance, acting, dialog, and music here provided by Micrologus a sort of ethnic early-music group. The work is decidedly non-narrative but employs numerous themes as it careens from angst to whimsy. Multiple languages blurt out in all directions with the occasional supertitle thrown in, but clearly this is poetry and the characters are no more talking to one another than they are to the audience. A cast of several characters including a young intellectual woman, a tall African-American drag queen, and two young Down’s Syndrome lovers, among others, wander about what appears to be the Syrian branch of the L.A. public library. The dancers slither in and become shadows for each of the other actors, but soon take on lives of their own. From here, the episodic proceedings imply a variety of different myth narratives that are never spelled out with one hundred percent clarity but evoke everything from Mahogany to Der Freischütz. There’s a birth and young lovers (no relation) and guess who shows up from behind the big swinging doors at the end looking all buff in his tight blue jeans.

And while Jesus may corral virtually everyone else between the covers of this never ending story, there's never really a dull moment. It was witty and had a clear visual sense and style that held one’s attention throughout. While it may not have always made complete sense, Myth always avoided taking itself too seriously. The movement was evocative and often very pretty. Throw in more than a couple hottie dancers and you’ve got yourself a worthwhile evening even if it isn’t all spelled out in big block letters.


Play it as it lays

October 11, 2008

Members of Elevator Repair Service in The Sound and The Fury

It’s been a rough start to the Los Angeles theater season this fall. The Center Theater Group has been plagued with the Dolly Parton musical 9 to 5 and the rather tedious This Beautiful City at the Kirk Douglas Theater. UCLA Live had to eighty-six the opening production of its International Theater Festival, Barrie Kosky’s The Tell Tale Heart due to reported travel visa problems and the Geffen has been bogged down in another one of those Hershey Felder piano-bio-dramas. So it may be somewhat surprising that REDCAT has stepped in to save the day with what is easily the best thing on stage here so far this fall with an imported production from New York's Elevator Repair Service entitled The Sound and The Fury (April Seventh, 1928).

Now in reality, this is not a surprise at all to anyone whose been following the trajectory of this CalArts run venue downtown in the basement of he Walt Disney Concert Hall since it opened five years ago. REDCAT has repeatedly offered some of the most inventive and thoughtful theater and music events in town by both locals and out-of-towners, often at bargain basement prices. So inviting Elevator Repair Service to reprise their lauded production of Faulkner’s novel here on the West coast is a proverbial no-brainer.

It’s a fantastic production. The company has made a bit of a name for itself recently in producing theatrical events that are as much staged readings as they are plays. The Sound and The Fury is exactly that – the first 100 or so pages of Faulkner’s classic novel performed by a cast of 12 literally word-for-word. While fist person descriptive passages are read by various cast members from a dog-eared copy of the novel, the rest of the group enacts the dialog with all of the “he said”s still intact. Given the stream of consciousness of Faulkner’s work, this is a bold and brazen task for these quite talented actors who play out multiple non-sequential scenes in the same space simultaneously. Most of the actors swap and share different roles throughout passing them around between one another in a way that enhances the sense of the free flow of the narrator Benjamin Compson's memory. That Benjy is severely cognitively impaired and mute only adds to the challenge. There’s an abundance of audio samples added to the performance which all takes place within a single giant room that alternately serves and living room, kitchen, and the great outdoors.

While this may sound incredibly confusing, it works amazingly well. It is both hypnotic and expertly catches both the campy, gothic feel of the book and the sentimental dream of lost innocence. Reaching the end of the intermissionless two plus hours feels both profound and cathartic. The cast is excellent and while different members clearly ascribe to different performance styles, director John Collins somehow allows everyone enough room to play with the material while keeping all of Faulkner’s words intact. Sadly, there are only a handful of performances this weekend, but I hear REDCAT has been busy with sizable audiences for the performances, which is great news. There is one more show on Sunday afternoon which I highly recommend if you have the time.


Back in Business

October 10, 2008

Salonen and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2008

Now that’s more like it. After a rather pro forma opening weekend, the Los Angeles Philharmonic got down to business this weekend with a slate of shows under Esa-Pekka Salonen that really delivered musically. It was the first of a series of shows focusing on the music of Stravinsky, a favorite of Salonen’s, that will mark his final season as music director for the L.A. Philharmonic. The show featured two Stravinsky works – the brief Fireworks, and the complete ballet music to The Firebird. Both of these early works were set off by a Romantic precursor, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which was performed by another Salonen and L.A. favorite, Yefim Bronfman. He was on fire tonight, and gave a loose and highly spirited performance that didn’t take itself too seriously. This was a nice compliment to the orchestra’s typically sharp and concise playing. It was simply a lot of fun, and the crowd was highly appreciative.

But honestly, this was only an appetizer for The Firebird, which roared to life with a rhythmic delicacy. Salonen made no bones about how he sees this work fitting into Stravinsky’s catalog letting it clearly point the way to later dance pieces like Le Sacre du Printemps. Wonderfully clean, the sound was gorgeous and propulsive and all of the musicians seemed to feed off of one another creating a great energy in the hall. It's too bad that they're leaving town for a tour starting next week just as things were getting interesting. Hopefully, such a good program one week in is a harbinger of the rest of the season.


The song remains the same

October 08, 2008

Liping Zhang, Erica Brookhyser, and Catherine Keen
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2008
Los Angeles Opera is currently in the midst of yet another revival of the Robert Wilson production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. In fact, it’s the third outing this decade which raises somewhat of a paradox. In speaking to oodles of subscribers and other local opera goers, I’ve noticed that there seems to be a huge number of people who absolutely hate this production. (This is not at all my own opinion. I think it’s a great production of a horrible opera.) Its eastern-influenced choreography, hyper-minimal sets, and forced sense of dislocation are a perennial topic of conversation around these parts. If someone in L.A. is raging about how much they hate non-traditional opera productions or in fact anything they hate about opera, this particular production is often exhibit A. In fact, having to listen to these conversations is in fact the most irritating thing about these revivals.

But yet they keep happening which suggests that the company has been selling tickets to the performances in the past and hopes to do so again (and again, and again). So, assuming that the wishes of the most regular subscribers and previously-exposed audience members are not the primary concern here, it appears that there must be a large pool of people in L.A. who are interested in seeing Madama Butterfly regardless of what it may or may not look like. Whether or not this is good for the company in the long run or drums up lots of newly interested audience members, I’ll leave to others to debate. However, I find it wonderfully ironic that the company seems to keep its coffers flush by constantly reviving a production that is so widely reviled. It seems subversive to me in some odd and amusing way.

This particular outing is actually not too shabby musically this time. James Conlon gave a serviceable take on the score and the Butterfly Liping Zhang, who has an international reputation for singing this role had the high notes if not necessarily all of the needed power behind them. On the whole, I found her more satisfying than many of the others currently singing this role including Patricia Racette. We were burdened yet again with Franco Farina shouting his was through Pinkerton to no end. Luckily it is rather a small role and he has little to do in Act II. Wilson’s vision comes off well with this cast who are more physically able to handle the challenges of the severe gesturing and posturing he calls for than previous teams here, so that is good. Overall it still is a very beautiful staging, and while it may not be the best place for someone seeing an opera for the first time to start, I do love the fact that Los Angeles stands behind the production time and again. I hope it is making money: especially if it supports some of the company's more ambitious projects this year.


Wall of Sound

October 07, 2008

Bilinda Butcher of My Bloody Valentine
Photo: Lori Shepler/LAT 2008
As summer finally winds down in L.A., there’s that annual odd mix with the L.A. Philharmonic and L.A. Opera seasons starting up at the same time as the last rock shows of the summertime open-air-venue circuit roll into town. Three notable tours have been in town these last weeks with mixed results and may serve as lessons about the hazards of too much of a good thing. September closed out with two performances from the Jack White/Brendan Benson driven Raconteurs at the Greek Theater on the tail end of their tour in support of the most recent recording Consolers of the Lonely. Filled with come-as-you-are rock chords and a dash of twang, the show was much less arch than I might have suspected. Not unpleasant but the performance betrayed the group’s apparent fascination with 70s Southern Rock bands. Tight as they may be, I couldn’t get over the Allman Brothers overtones in the energetic, but still workman-like, performance. Or maybe it just isn’t my cup of tea.

Last week, the highly anticipated My Bloody Valentine reunion tour wrapped up at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium of all places. The large concrete slab of a venue in some ways provided a rather bleak industrial atmosphere that was appropriate for this throwback to the early 90s. I have very, very fond feelings for MBV and especially Loveless, which I continue to think was one of the greatest rock recordings of the last quarter century. But, sadly, the enthusiasm of the evening slowly dragged it down. Much has already been written about how loud these shows were, and it was true. Wisely, ear plugs were handed out at the door, but sadly they did little to improve the sound. The treble was gone amidst the thumping wail of everything else eroding 50% of what made the songs so beautiful to begin with. Too much excitement did prove to be a bad thing.

So, who would've guessed that the most satisfying rock show of the whole summer may well have been the last. Sigur Rós arrived at the Greek Theater on Thursday. And, while I sadly missed the L.A. Philharmonic opening gala for this one-night-only event, it was worth it in many ways. Concentrating mostly on older material, the Icelandic quartet did what they did best with a lack of pretension and a sufficient amount of quasi-European bonhomie. The light show was kept to a minimum but the band continues to inspire simply because of their love of what they do and the real care in developing these highly structured and often varying songs. So, the moral of the story may be to stay cool and stick with what you know.

Recovered Voices

October 06, 2008

Isabel Baykardarian and the Manitoba Chamber Ensemble with Anne Magson
Photo: mine 2008

Talk about the right material for the right singer at the right time. I’ve always had warm feelings for soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian. Like most opera goers, I know her primarily for bright and shiny Mozart roles such as Susannah and Zerlina. But I wasn’t quite prepared to see her take the whole thing up a notch in Orange County on Sunday as part of the Philharmonic Society series at the Segerstrom Concert Hall. The stars aligned for her that evening and she gave a spectacular heart-felt performance that produced one of the more enthusiastic crowd reactions I’ve seen in Orange County in awhile.

Her program, which was played with the assistance of the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra under Anne Manson, focused almost exclusively on the songs of late 19th century Armenian composer Gomidas Vartabed with Ravel’s Deux mélodies hébraïques thrown in for good measure. Gomidas, of whom I knew virtually nothing before tonight, was a priest in the Armenian church and worked to preserve both liturgical and folk melodies of his people before he, like millions of others, were dislocated as part of the Armenian genocide. While Gomidas escaped with his life, things were irrevocably changed for him afterwards as millions of his people were killed under the auspices of the Ottoman Empire. If there's anyone who could make an argument for these songs it is undoubtedly Bayrakdarian and she does so in spades.

While many of these Gomidas’ songs about love, yearning, and nature were simple and straightforward in a folk tradition, Bayrakdarian gave them such loving attention that they developed a fierce life of their own. Often sounding more like a mezzo than a soprano, Bayrakdarian operated with ease in the lower part of her range and delivered a committed and ravishing performance I won’t soon forget. Her husband and accompanist Serouj Kradjian joined her on many numbers and performed a few of Gomidas’ folk dances in an interlude as well.

This performance was the second on Bayrakdarian’s “Remembrance Tour” dedicated to the victims of all genocides that will cross the country this fall with appearances at Carnegie Hall among other places. She has also recorded a new release featuring many of these works on the Nonesuch label, which is being touted in her PR materials as the first widely available recording of these songs in the West. While I’ve not heard it yet, I can say that if it is a quarter as good as Sunday’s performance, it’s a must.


Baby, Come Home

October 05, 2008

Back in the saddle. Salonen and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2008
My very busy weekend (which I’ll be writing more on later) was capped by an annual ritual that is both thrilling and disappointing – my return to the Walt Disney Concert Hall on the opening weekend of the LA Philharmonic fall season. After months in the hinterlands of the Hollywood Bowl, our local world-renowned orchestra is back where they belong. It’s not unlike a birthday in some way. I get very excited about this show; so much so that it always ends up being somewhat less than I imagine due to my over reaching expectations. It was additionally a bittersweet experience in that this is music director Esa-Pekka Salonen’s last with the organization. Large format journals were displayed on kiosks around the hall for people to leave comments to Salonen as he departs. I elected not to write anything since I’ve already done so here many times before. I will miss Mr. Salonen’s contribution to the LA Philharmonic and the City of Los Angeles more than I can say. He has put this city on the musical map and, with the help of a group of excellent musicians, has made the LA Philharmonic one of the best orchestras in the world. I know things will go on, but they won’t be the same. I for one am crestfallen by the loss though I sincerely wish Mr. Salonen all the best. And hey, it this move results in the first Salonen opera, I’m all for it.

In the meantime though, we have a season of highly interesting programs featuring Salonen’s own beloved Stravinsky, and many other twentieth century composers. Before those though, this weekend was the most meat-and-potatoes program imaginable- Debussy’s La Mer followed by Ravel’s ballet music for Mother Goose and Bolero. As I just mentioned, it was not the most mind-blowing program delivered from the WDCH stage, but it was very good. The Mother Goose music contained many of the elements I love in Salonen’s conducting – a crisp, clean approach and amazing control. I did find the Bolero a bit clunky, but honestly I’m kind of over that whole piece anyway. The Debussy is a favorite of Salonen’s and I admire it, but it always makes me think of how much more I appreciate Britten’s take on the sea. Still, I was back in Disney Hall and that is a reward all in itself.

I should also note that there are some personnel changes worth mentioning. Much to my chagrin, Associate Concertmaster Bing Wang is on sabbatical this year. One of my favorite firsts, it will be sad that she won't be around for some of these shows, but I hope it's a great year for her. Also, there are some exciting new regular additions to the band including Assistant French Horn Ethan Bearman, bass trombonist John Lofton and Principal Timpanist Joseph Perira. You can check out the LA Philharmonic website for more info about them and all the other musicians. Welcome aboard guys, we’re glad you’re here.


Mein Lieber Herr

October 02, 2008

Martin Kippenberger's Ohne Titel from Lieber Maler, male mir (Dear Painter Paint for Me)

I keep meaning to say something about the great new Martin Kippenberger exhibit that opened up a little over two weeks ago downtown at MOCA in Los Angeles. MOCA has been on a roll the last few years with wonderful shows focusing on California minimalism, Rauschenberg, and many others. Now comes an exhibition entitled “The Problem Perspective,” which will travel to New York next year, representing the first major American retrospective of Kippenberg’s large and varied output prior to his death at age 44. This follows closely on the heels of a similar retrospective in London at the Tate, which I caught in 2006. The U.S. exhibit seems more pared down but does provide an excellent overview of a jack of all trades who was often more about process than content.

As noted by Kippenberger biographer and friend Diedrich Diederichsen in a rather dry lecture on the opening weekend, the artist often accompanied his projects and exhibits with a variety of commemorative posters and programs, which in turn would spurn new projects and then more commemorative artifacts and so on. It was this process of self-sustaining production, what Diederichsen alludes to as an endless joke with no punch line, that is at the core of the myriad sculptures, paintings, drawings and other works that fill half of the galleries at MOCA. Included are paintings of industrial spaces, self-portraits of the artist as Picasso, and an abandoned Ford Capri. Even Kippenberger’s paintings incorporate a variety of production strategies including a series of works from the early 80s entitled "Lieber Maler, male mire (Dear Painter, Paint for Me)" in which the artist commissioned a surrogate commercial sign painter who reproduced images at Kippenberger’s direction based on various scenes and photographs of his choosing. The artist is at the center of most of his work but far from seeming a megalomaniac, he appears as the patron saint of the late 20th century's fractured self. Or at least a subject heavily involved in the cultural logic of production and repetition.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the exhibition is that it is spread out over two sites, both the Grand Avenue galleries and the Geffen Contemporary space on the east side of downtown. At the Geffen is perhaps Kippenberger’s masterpiece, the giant installation “The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika’.” This giant sculpture consists of numerous pairs of chairs across a diverse range of tables, large and small, that fill a football field. The work references Kafka’s unfinished novel in which the protagonist arrives at a huge football stadium in Oklahoma where people are being interviewed simultaneously at one of hundreds of stations in preparation for being matched with a dream job they will later be transported to. The scene is brooding and references both utopian and totalitarian images of the 20th century across this large field of space.

In the MOCA display, there are numerous significant intrusions in that the Geffen ceiling is supported by steel beams and cross supports that fill the playing field. Despite being painted white to blend into the color scheme of the work, they stand out like a sore thumb, obstructing the view of several of the work's elements, which is doubly a problem in that the piece is designed in such a way that the viewer is not permitted to walk onto the field amongst the tables themselves. Traveling over to the Geffen to see what is arguably the key work in the exhibit that is then displayed in such a compromised fashion is disappointing. Still, there are too many great things in the exhibit overall to pass this by. The show runs through January 5.

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