Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Seville Unions

November 30, 2008

Viktoria Vizin and Marcus Haddock
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2008

Perhaps the only thing sadder than having to sit through L.A. Opera’s current umpteenth revival of Carmen was the fact that this Sunday’s matinee appeared to be nearly sold out. Now, of course, given the state of the economy, one would think that would be a good thing. The bad news is such a reality only reinforces bad behavior. Namely, the company's continuing to revive a relatively small number of productions so frequently that over half of each season is occupied with performances that anyone with even a passing interest in opera could have no possible reason to see other than to maintain well-liked subscription seats. Ironically, the house appears to be filled with a high percentage of first-timers who are treated to some very worn productions often with B or C list casts that are unlikely to inspire many of them to come back. Admittedly I have no data to back this assertion up, but I can speak from experience in pawning off my own tickets to friends that this strategy may well be making money to keep the organization afloat, but it is not cultivating future audiences.

Of the short list of LAO's frequent repeats, Enilio Sagi’s Carmen production may be one of the most unattractive. In it’s muted beige and pastel color scheme, it's dull to look at and heavily reliant on ridiculous stage business from the chorus. Several casts have cavorted with varying degrees of success in these environs, and the current configuration handles it all with a bit more flair than the last group, but only just enough to keep the whole thing from descending into self-parody. This time out the lead role went to Hungarian Viktoria Vizin who seemed more menacing than sexy. She warbled a bit more than was necessary, but I've heard worse. Marcus Haddock was Don José, and, I’ll admit, of his several West Coast appearances this year in both L.A. and San Francisco, this was probably the best. He rarely seemed strained, and, though he lacked much passion in the role, you could hardly fault him since this fact did not differentiate him in any way from the rest of the cast. Genia Kühmeier’s Micaëla was sweetly sung and was easy to love. Raymond Aceto was a particularly humorless Escamillo.

Beneath it all was Emmanuel Villaume who led an at times forceful performance from the orchestra. There were some moments when the energy seemed to flag, but overall it was an alert, committed presentation. Still, the production at this point is about as sanitary and lifeless as you can imagine with Carmen's death seeming like a ho-hum afterthought. Think of it this way, Sunday's audience was filled with more children than a typical performance from what I could see. Now who in their right mind thinks the aggravated murder of a promiscuous gypsy woman by a soldier makes for appropriate family entertainment? But here in L.A. you can kill your gypsy and have acculturation for your offspring, too, thanks to a banal Disneyesque reimagining of Spain and the characters that populate Bizet's masterpiece. But I suppose I shouldn't complain. Given what arts organization's are faced with these days, I'm sure I'd be no help on the board of LAO. If this is the price of not meeting the fate of Opera Pacific, I guess I'll keep my mouth shut and be glad for the other 40-50% of the season that continues to exist. Carmen runs through December 15 and will have a B cast for the last few performances.


Adjustment Disorder

November 28, 2008

Dudamel, Brewer, and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2008

Gustavo Dudamel is back in Los Angeles this week, and, after some much publicized appearances with the Israel Philharmonic, he’s back on stage with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for two weeks of shows. Despite what the incessant puff pieces in the Los Angeles Times would have you think, many people here, myself included, have significant reservations about the artistic direction of the organization with this new leadership. I’ve not been overwhelmed by any of Dudamel's stops here either with the L.A. Philharmonic or the insanely overrated Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. So I attended tonight’s performance with some trepidation. I’m trying to keep an open mind because, like it or not, Dudamel's leadership is something I’m going to have to adjust to. Still, it's a very bitter pill to swallow knowing what we’ve had here in recent years under Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The program included Ligeti’s Atmosphères, Strauss' Four Last Songs sung by Christine Brewer, and Beethoven’s 6th Symphony. The show was enjoyable if not great and is a reminder of two very important points about our music director-elect. First, he can turn the whole “Dudamel approach” off at times. Up until now, Dudamel has taken a big, forceful approach with a hopped-up sound for virtually everything he's led, which while crowd pleasing, grates on the nerves after awhile. Tonight, however, during both the Ligeti and Strauss, the conductor exercised remarkable restraint. However, he had little to substitute for it. The Ligeti was fine - not entirely spooky, but certainly formeless enough to work. Dudamel had exquisite control of the audience holding everyone in dead silence after the completion of the piece for what felt like minutes. The Strauss however fared less well. The orchestra sounded wooden, at times hurriedly paced and robotic. Luckily, Christine Brewer is so amazingly talented that she couldn’t have cared less, rolling over the huge orchestra effortlessly. She was chewing up the back up band and spitting them out. Her beautiful soaring tone rang out, and, while the strings swirled behind her in a pleasing way, it wasn’t quite as sorrowful as it could have been.

The second lesson this evening was that the over-the-top Dudamel approach sometimes works fantastically well with an array of pieces. Take Beethoven for instance. The second half of tonight’s bill was occupied by the 6th symphony which is not typically anyone's idea of a barn burner. But here is was big, looming, and aggressive. It seemed to spring to life with this full robust take on it. These undercooked early romantics seem to fare well in Dudamel’s hands and Beethoven seems to bloom here. I must admit this perforamnce held my attention better than any No.6 in recent memory. So maybe there is light at the end of the tunnel after all.


Strings, Attached

November 24, 2008

The Takács Quartet with Muzsikás
Photo: mine 2008

Los Angeles was awash in chamber music this weekend with two notable programs hosted under the auspices of the UCLA performing arts series at Royce Hall. The first was a well traveled collaboration of a show performed by the Takács Quartet in conjunction with Hungarian folk ensemble Muzsikás and vocalist Márta Sebestyén. The idea is simple enough, to highlight the folk influences that are readily apparent in the chamber music of Béla Bartók by placing it immediately next to some of the traditional pieces which influenced him. Things are broken into very fine pieces with each of the movements of Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 followed immediately with the source of a particular melody or rhythm performed by Muzsikás. It’s a fairly haunting, if at time obvious, exercise. Sebestyén’s vocals were simultaneously sad and innocent – less world weary than acutely tragic. Still despite the very enjoyable evening, I felt the balance of things was shifted a little too heavily toward the folk music portion of the evening with the effervescence of the members of Muzsikás often overpowering the more staid music of Bartók played by Takács. Rather than spurring each other on, things often seemed like more of an unfair fight.

For the second show on Saturday, the hall was filled with two very different chamber ensembles: the legendary Guarneri Quartet in the midst of a national farewell tour were accompanied by the much younger Johannes Quartet for what was promised as a series of octets and new works. Originally the program was to include the premiere of a new piece from Esa-Pekka Salonen, Homunculus and a recent octet from William Bolcom. Sadly, the Johannes’ violist was called away following a family emergency leaving the group with Lesley Lawrence, from the St. Lawrence Quartet, who is eminently qualified but was not allowed enough practice to pull off the works which were both dropped from an appearance earlier in the week in Orange County. However, luckily, three days and a heck of a lot of practice later, Lawrence rose to the challenge, and the Salonen piece was restored to the program on Saturday.

This was especially good news in that in an evening of very fine playing, Homunculus was still the highlight. Salonen, who was present for the performance, explained that the work refers to an ancient theory that sperm consisted of miniature versions of otherwise anatomically complete and proportional men. These “homunculi” would then later develop into full size persons. Salonen notes that musically the piece runs in parallel attempting to be a miniature version of something much larger. And it is. Sweeping with an orchestral sensibility, these 13 minutes were filled with sweeping tones that wash one into the other with grand gestures. It was certainly captivating and worth the effort. The rest of the program was dominated with more familiar works, although the Guarneri Quartet did present Derek Bermel’s Passing Through. The substitute piece was Dvorak’s 12th string quartet and the evening finished with the Mendelssohn octet. Both works were delivered with expert skill and clarity even if they weren’t about to set the world on fire. But it was a very enjoyable night overall and hearing such beautiful music so well played is always a pleasure.

Big Piney

November 23, 2008

De Burgos with the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2008

Is it wrong to crow about Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos? Maybe it’s me, but he’s not the first name to leap to mind when you think of hot conductors. He certainly doesn’t have the profile of a media darling like Dudamel. (Don't worry his overrated ass will be back in town again the next two weeks.) But I’ll tell you what. De Burgos frequently visits Los Angeles, and he typically delivers a show as strong as those we had this weekend with the L.A. Philharmonic. At 75, he can still turn it out with the best of them. So while he may not be fresh or sexy, he's got it, and the Philharmonic members appear generally happy to be performing with him.

My expectations were low with a program that is as uninspiring as you can get: a Mozart Serenade, Beethoven’s 8th, and not only the Fountains but The Pines of Rome thrown in for good measure. But it was really very good. The Respighi was full-bodied and brassy without any fuss. The Beethoven was even better. And while this may not have been some sort of critical reassessment, it’s the kind of impeccable playing that is hard to resist.

Lively and well paced, this unapologetically user-friendly afternoon represents the kind of playing that got the Los Angeles Philharmonic on this week’s list of the top 10 orchestras in the world in Gramophone Magazine. I suppose this may have been news to some, but for those of us on the West Coast, it was already a well-known fact.


Calgon, Take Me Away

November 19, 2008


Geoff Nuttall and Dawn Upshaw
Photo: mine 2008

The contemporary music event of the Fall here in L.A. took place last night at the Walt Disney Concert Hall with the much anticipated arrival of Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente in a revival of a 2005 performance of the work with soprano Dawn Upshaw and violinist Geoff Nuttall. It was a remarkable evening filled with drama that was more than a little difficult to get your head around. Part of the reason why is the work's intensity. Kafka-Fragmente is a sprawling work ironically composed of 40 miniature pieces of music rarely going above a minute. The texts are short passages from the diaries and letters of Kafka that highlight a variety of emotional states from despair to ...not quite as sad as that. And while the musical settings may seem minimal, they are packed full of allusions and references both from Kafka as well as the composer. Unpacking all of this detail in a single performance is impossible, but the work does have a sensory draw that takes over the audience as it becomes acclimated to the piece's own internal logic.

Assisting in making the piece more accessible was director Peter Sellars in one of at least three different appearances he'll be making with the L.A. Philharmonic this season. Kurtág considered the piece a theatrical one and gives numerous directions in the score about the positioning and activities of the performers. Needless to say, this project was a natural fit for Sellars who revives his staging here on the West Coast and in New York this fall before heading off to Europe. The staging features both performers barefoot and in casual street clothes. Upshaw is engaged in a variety of domestic activities including scrubbing the floor, ironing laundry and washing dishes as she sings about topics from existential malaise to more humorous fare. She also burns her face with a clothes iron and later attempts to hang herself with an electrical cord in Part II: “The True Path”. In the pre-concert talk, Sellars discussed the way in which the staging reflects the everyday heroics of people's lives, each of Kurtág's brief movements being a memory or a memorial to something or someone else. He proceeded to tie this all in with ideas about an intellectual response to the Holocaust and the role of minimalism in art as a part of that response. And, while I'm not completely convinced of all this, I must say that the performance was at times harrowing but always fascinating as it uncovered the existential struggles in the everyday.

Upshaw handles the challenging vocal part, which involves as much guttural moaning and speech as it does actual singing. Her performance serves both as an internal dialog and a parallel process to the violin part. It’s truly an amazing performance that only confirms her status as the most important American vocal artist working today. This is one of two major performances she will make in L.A. this season and her appearances in Saariaho's La passion de Simone (also in a Peter Sellars staging) in January come very highly recommended based on my previous exposure to it in London. Nuttall has far less theatrical business to attend to, which is a blessing considering the demands of his own part which require three separate instruments tuned to different specifications. His performance may not involved as much housework, but it is equally cathartic, and the interaction between these two artists was formidable. There was also a video component to the staging, which consisted mostly of projected translations and a handful of photographs mostly of people. As envisioned in this revival, these artists clearly do see Kurtág's momentous cycle as a celebration of a normal life extraordinarily lived. Or at least I think so. It would probably take many more listenings to be sure, which if I had the chance to, I would certainly do.

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Dutch Treat

November 17, 2008

The California EAR Unit
Photo: mine 2008

It was one of those apocalyptic weekends in LA. The sun was out but you could barely see it through the smoke everywhere, ash raining from the sky. And while the mood was reflected in a wonderful L.A. Philharmonic program led by Thomas Adès, downstairs at REDCAT, the California EAR Unit picked up on the same vibe. Over three nights, the group hosted a Festival of Contemporary Dutch Music that explored some of the most interesting work coming out of Europe today that was often neither easy nor straight forward. Sadly, one of the three programs was canceled because of the fires on Saturday, but Sunday’s program was fantastic – witty, inventive, and often as theatrical as it was musical.

The evening started off with Grab It! by Jacob ter Veldhuis for solo saxophone with prerecorded vocal and video elements. The work explores some of the musical qualities of speech by editing voice samples of prisoners serving life sentences into a dynamic fast paced collage of sound accompanied by a wild saxophone riff. It was a bang-up high energy start to the evening, and although things got quieter, they never got less interesting. The evening ended with another piece dominated by a video component, Yannis Kyriakides mnemonist S for a small ensemble which involved the musicians repeating a sequence of tones laid out in a prerecorded sample not unlike a memory game. Accompanying this was a video projection of a text recounting a 1936 performance from Solomon Shereshevskii in which he recalled a large sequence of highly related syllables. Confusing? Yes, but fascinating to watch and hear.

In between the video there were other points of interest. Considering that Louis Andriessen’s Disco from 1981 for piano and violin was the most staid, the standard for pushing boundaries was quite high. Diderik Wagenaar offered Schigolch a short work of humming and raspy mouth organs directly referring to the character from Berg’s Lulu. The ensemble shuffled on and off stage in formation for the piece, which fit nicely with the next work, Mayke Nas’ Anyone Can Do It. Inspired by George Maciunas’ Fluxus Manifesto, the piece is nothing but truth in advertising. Two volunteers from the audience joined four musicians on stage. The performers have never seen the “score” before the performance and were not allowed to rehearse. All six sat facing the audience and followed a series of directions on video monitors in front of them, crossing and uncrossing their legs, shuffling their feet, pointing and rising up and down. Here, performance has completely supplanted the actual music of the piece in the interest of a universal ease of use and participation. Musical aptitude and skill are called into question in a humorous and not-so-subtle way.

It was hard to pick a favorite piece of the evening, which also included Richard Ayers No. 34b. All of these compositions from the last few years reference a vibrant musical community and the performance by members of the California EAR Unit were both witty and challenging. And while some may grouse about the balance between process and outcome, I found the whole evening very entertaining and certainly thought provoking. It turned out that the challenges posed by mother nature proved to be worth overcoming on this particular evening.


On the Road, Again

November 16, 2008

Michael Cerveris in Road Show
Photo: Joan Marcus 2008

While in New York last week, I did manage to catch one of the previews of the “new” Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical Road Show, which will open Tuesday at The Public Theater. As has been incredibly well documented, this work has been tossed around over a decade in several incarnations including runs under the title Bounce in Washington, DC and Chicago in 2003 where it did not fare particularly well. While I saw neither of those productions and cannot give you a fanatic's blow-by-blow account of the changes, I can tell you that the show based on the lives of the Mizner brothers is honed down to a tighter, sharper 100 minute or so single act in a staging by John Doyle. The cast is different, as well, now featuring several recent prominent Sondheim/Doyle collaborators including Michael Cerveris as Wilson Mizner and Alexander Gemignani as his brother Addison. Road Show now focuses exclusively on the brothers, their parents, and Addison’s lover Hollis Bessemer with all other bit parts being handled in quick dispatch by one of the ten immensely talented chorus members.

Whether or not all of these changes will result in a better reception or a hit for its authors will probably depend on the biggest change of all – the historical context in which the story now surfaces. Road Show is still picaresque, recounting the Mizners' numerous get-rich-quick adventures but focuses more sharply on two schemes, their Yukon gold mining expedition and, more presciently, the rise and dramatic fall of a huge real estate bubble in Boca Raton, Florida. Hard to tell if audiences are ready for a “light-hearted and fundamentally playful” (in the words of Oskar Eustis) musical about the economic anxieties they can read about every morning in the paper. This is a Sondheim musical, however, so do take all that light-hearted stuff with a grain of salt. Road Show is still a very biting critique of the American dream and psyche and can be quite dark in some of its cocaine-fueled manic moments. But despite a raft of quintessential Sondheim musical numbers and really great performances, I never felt the show grabbed me as a whole. Like Assassins, Road Show relies more on a narrative constructed out of fantasy and ideas than events. But where as the former could feel like a punch in the gut you could laugh about, the latter is more a slap on the wrist with a smile.

All that being said, the quality of this production is incredibly high. John Doyle’s set is a mountain of crates and file cabinets scaled by the cast and containing any number of wondrous props. The late 19th/early 20th century costumes are necessarily drab, but can set off a little bit of color with minimal effort. Much of that color is green and comes in the form of seemingly endless amounts of paper money being thrown into the air by somebody every few minutes. It’s a gesture that got a little tired, but admittedly this could be changed by this week’s opening. There are songs that are still among the composer’s best such as “You” the gay love song between Hollis and Addison and Mama Mizner’s “Isn’t He Something”. So, taking that into consideration, Road Show is definitely worth seeing and is never boring even if it isn’t entirely satisfying either. Whether or not that’s enough to sell this dream to a larger audience remains to be seen.

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Le Prophete

November 14, 2008

Thomas Adès and the LA Philharmonic Photo: mine 2008

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is back in town as of last week for a series of shows stretching until the holidays. This is the doldrums of the season until Salonen returns for a series of farewell concerts that will take place in January and April. (In fact, there is a lovely new micro-site celebrating his history with the L.A. Philharmonic in great detail that is worth taking a look at.) But until then there are a few gems here and there, and no, they are not the over-hyped Dudamel-led performances in early December. In fact this weekend features perhaps one of the most exciting L.A. Philharmonic shows of the year – a return appearance from the young British composer Thomas Adès. Given his many recent visits to Los Angeles, it is no surprise this program is so good. Adès is sort of a thinking man’s Nico Muhly, (or perhaps a more talented Mark Adamo) who currently has the mantle of great British musical hope placed about his shoulders by a press that likes to write about such things. However, as this evening’s program in L.A. suggested, Adés owes much more to Berlioz than to Britten.

The composer led an evening of short works from the French composer as well as the Los Angeles premieres of two of his own, America: A Prophecy and his symphonic commission for the Berlin Philharmonic, Tevot. In some ways the pieces couldn’t be more different. The former was commissioned by the N.Y. Philharmonic to commemorate the new millennium and Adès used the opportunity to set a prophetic Mayan text about the potential destruction of one’s culture by invading forces. While the reference is about the decline of the Mayan culture with the arrival of the Spanish in Latin America, the composer himself noted how the warning to “prepare” for a coming destroyer from without has taken on a very different sense in the intervening years since it’s premiere in 1999. It is quite a dark and anxiety-provoking work and it doesn’t allow much room for sunshine. However, it is also quite poignant and beautiful. The vocalist for the piece was the able mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger, but the real star was the superb Los Angeles Master Chorale.

Adès's other major work on the program, Tevot, concerns the concept of an ark and simultaneously references Noah's ark, the planet earth as an ark in space, and most interestingly the musical bar as an ark of notes. I know it sounds a bit precious, but the broad swelling rumblings that stretch throughout the 25 minute single movement work are gorgeous and create a real sense of movement reminiscent of ... well... Britten? To be fair, there is much more dream-like quality to Tevot than the staunch clarity of Britten, and the Adès' french connection holds much more of the salty sea water being sloshed about. It's a majestic and profound work, and we're fabulously lucky to have a composer of this stature back in Los Angeles with such a wonderful program. It repeats Saturday night and Sunday afternoon and you should definitely go.



November 13, 2008

Photo: Erick Labbe/LAT 2008

So you’ve just finished developing and directing a new technologically complex opera production for one of the world’s major companies to some acclaim in the international media. What’s next for you? How about performing in your own theatrical work in front of rows of rude and apathetic UCLA undergrads who are careful not to let this general education class requirement get in the way of their text messaging time. But such is the lot of a world-renown theater visionary such as Robert Lepage and his colleagues in Ex Machina who have arrived in Los Angeles just days after his new production of Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust has opened at The Metropolitan Opera in New York to appear in The Blue Dragon a play co-written with his co-star Marie Maichaud. Apparently technological innovation cuts both ways in that it is simultaneously the hallmark of his production and well the source of general rude misbehavior (at least tonight) from some of UCLAs not-quite-so finest.

Of course, on some level I can sympathize with the offenders since this is not the proverbial pearls that have been laid before them, but something else. Lepage and Maichaud have crafted a play that is somewhat of a sequel to The Dragon Trilogy, a landmark work from over 20 years ago. In The Blue Dragon, Pierre Lamontagne resurfaces in China many years after the end of the previous play. He is now in a faltering affair with a young local artist he is helping to promote in his gallery while simultaneously welcoming the arrival of an old friend, Claire, who has ostensibly come to China to adopt a child. Pierre’s lover, Xiao Ling, rounds out this three-person cast. Everyone steps around each other with much politeness and care until a brief burst of tidy emotion eventually leads to denouement.

The three actors, including Lepage himself and Pierre, are at play in a two story set rife with all of the visual tricks Lepage has become famous for, including retractable video screens and technology that produces video images which respond to stimuli provided directly by the cast themselves. There are bicycling scenes through the streets of Shanghai and electronic snow. Everywhere there is video and more subtle effects enhanced by a set and music that more often than not come to the characters as opposed to the other way around. It's like they're all living in one of those houses of the future fantasized about in the media in the 1980s where computers would do everything for you in the domestic sphere. It is amazing how Lepage manages to use so little space in such a flexible way.

Unfortunately, the very same technology that made Damnation such a success in New York withers here due largely to the relative lack of strength of the source material. The piece is bogged down with an overly timid and predicable story line. It's suburban melodrama at its core with half-hearted references to crossing cultural divides. It is neither sexy or dangerous. It is this placidity that is most difficult to get around not only in terms of the script, but also in the highly constricted and slow technique that all of the actors seem to engage in. Whether this is completely a matter of direction is unclear, but the extent to which everyone is so well-mannered seems unrealistic. Still, it's quite a floor show and if you are unfamiliar with Lepage's work, this is not a bad place to start. The Blue Dragon runs through November 22nd at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.


(Un)lucky in Love

November 11, 2008

Marlis Petersen as Lulu and Wolfgang Schöne as Dr. Schön
Photo: Dan Rest/LOC 2008

How does one evaluate an experience that one has nothing personally to compare to? That’s how I feel after seeing the Chicago Lyric Opera’s new production of Alban Berg’s Lulu. It was my first live experience with the opera and it was just as overwhelming for me as my first experiences with Wagner. I feel that even after four hours I’ve just barely scratched the surface of this masterpiece. If I were in Chicago, I’d make the effort to see every performance I could. However, all that being said, I’m not sure how it really rates on the gamut of Lulus overall. This is an opera that, in this country at least, still lives in the shadow of Pierre Boulez and Teresa Stratas. With so few American productions to reference, it seems nearly impossible to separate it from the sounds and images of one or maybe two legendary performances that have been preserved over the last 30 or so years since the opera arrived in its full three act form.

And yet, here it is in Chicago in all of its glory, you lucky bastards you. Obviously there were more than a few people who were intrigued by the presentation considering the house appeared nearly 70 percent full. For this opera on a Monday in the current economy, my friends, that is a big success. The orchestra was lovely under music director Sir Andrew Davis in the second time he has led this opera for the house. The performance was detailed and edgy if perhaps not as darkly beautiful as is possible. The cast includes two of the leading proponents of their respective roles – Marlis Petersen as Lulu and Wolfgang Schöne as Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper. They are both excellent and Petersen’s take on the title character is both intellectually admirable and thoroughly engrossing. She manages Berg's quite difficult score with apparent ease and manages a wide variety of vocal technique throughout the evening. Neither victim nor perpetrator, her Lulu is doing the only things she knows how in a world not of her choosing or design. Meanwhile, the cast is rounded out with top-quality American performers. Jill Grove is Countess Geschwitz and nothing short of fantastic. Every time I see her I love her more and more, and her closing passages in Act III were shattering. The ever-handsome William Burden sang Alwa which makes sense given the more romantic qualities of his voice, but I wasn’t completely convinced that this was a prime role for him.

The new production was directed by Paul Curran whom I have not always had the highest regard for. However, this production was well thought out, looked sharp, and carried a big emotional wallop with plenty of decadence and more than a little explicit sexual activity. Infused with a 1920s German film glamor and updated about 30 years from its original setting, the opera takes place in a series of bright white rooms appropriately appointed with what you’d expect. Lulu in Act I has her portrait painted in a Harlequin costume, which later returns in a more revealing format for her backstage scene. In between the set changes, Curran uses the curtain and scrim to project a variety of black and white images tinged with small amounts of red to imply the coming action. Also included was the film Berg called for in the score during the Act II Interlude. Here Curran dove headlong into the German Expressionist style with great results. It's a straight-forward take on the opera as Curran usually prefers, but the angularity of the set design and the superb cast keeps things from getting boring.

So now is your chance, Chicago. This is an event that only comes around so often and it is a formidable one. It would be a shame to miss it.

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Some Nerve(s)

November 10, 2008

Kristin Scott Thomas and Peter Sarsgaard
Photo: Joan Marcus 2008

It’s fascinating how good the Royal Court Theater production of Chekhov’s The Seagull now playing on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theater truly is. Chekhov is one of those unfairly maligned playwrights like Shaw who certainly comes with baggage but is much better than most productions of his work would have you think. Oddly enough, the English seem to have cornered the market in intelligent engaging productions of the Russian masters in recent years, so, thank heavens that this winning ensemble found its way to New York this year. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I love Chekhov and I love this play. So much so that I’ve even suffered a musical adaptation of the work Gulls (I kid you not) that I still have not successfully purged from my memory. This incredible Broadway staging has largely corrected that situation, though, and should not be missed.

Why it works so well is manifold. First, there is a new translation. Christopher Hampton's take on the text is more modern and emotionally direct if perhaps less poetic than previously. It's a smart move that increases the sense of urgency. Meanwhile, director Ian Rickson doesn’t skimp on the comic aspects of the piece leaving it intact without any ironic modern cynicism. It’s never over the top, and Kristin Scott Thomas, the productions ostensible star, in the role of Arkadina gives a pitch perfect performance - dramatic but never silly.

But even though this is marketed as a star vehicle, there are too many excellent performances to count. Peter Sarsgaard’s interpretation of Trigorin is unique in my experience in that he elects not to portray the author as a brooding intellectual too wrapped up in his own ego to recognized the destruction he wreaks, but instead as a more ambivalent animal. Here Trigorin is an opportunist, getting by on a reasonable if not overwhelming talent and willing to take advantage of the situations presented to him. It’s a much colder and less forgiving portrayal which makes Nina all the more tragic. Nina in this setting, as well as her unsuccessful young suitor Konstantin, more clearly become the victims of their own idealism. Carey Mulligan is achingly good as Nina and opposite her Mackenzie Crook is boiling with anger always just below the surface but never erupting until the very end. It's enough to make you forget his days in the British version of The Office. I must also mention Zoe Kazan's Masha and understudy Jarlath Conroy as Dorin who portrayed the respectively zany and rational counterbalances in this careening emotional vortex. It’s incredibly touching. So much so that when Konstantin kills himself offstage at the end there were audible gasps from the audience on Sunday. Now that is not a sound one typically associates with Chekhov.


You dropped a bomb on me

Photo: Ken Howard/Met 2008

An update on the Peter Gelb era at The Metropolitan Opera from a Starbucks in Times Square 11/9/08:

Blond, crunchy twentysomething guy with hairband: “Hey I saw this opera yesterday.”
2nd twentysomething guy: “How can you afford the opera?”
“I sat upstairs and it was cheap. It was this new opera about the guy who built the atomic bomb. It was totally cool and the music was great. And get this, Peter Sellars helped write it.”
2nd guy:
“You mean the Pink Panther guy?”
“Yeah. How totally cool is that.”

Cold Dark Matter

November 09, 2008

Gerald Finley and cast
Photo: Ken Howard/Met 2008

No matter whatever shortcomings exist with the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of John Adam’s Doctor Atomic, the fact that it made it to the stage here at all is undoubtedly a major achievement for this company. What effect recent financial woes will have on general director Peter Gelb’s intention to further move the company in this direction down the line remains to be seen, but I was still thrilled on Saturday to be in the New York audience for the performance that was simultaneously being broadcast to theaters around the world. All of this for an opera not even five year’s old and already with a second production, an achievement in this century shared by a very select set of composers. Adams was rightfully present for the curtain call and received probably the largest ovation of the afternoon.

However, despite this, I would say that I would generally agree with the position that while the opera is clearly a masterpiece, this staging does suffer greatly from the absence of Peter Sellars. Not electing to use the production of the librettist and original director was an error on several levels, and while Penny Woolcock’s approach is not without its merits, the new staging is more static and uninvolved than previously. She keens more toward the obvious and literal aspects of the work. And even though she latches on to the current spice-rack approach with the performers on stage, she is able to maintain more of an appropriate focus on the role that ordinary Americans working in Los Alamos played at the time on the development of the bomb. Woolcock shies away from the more hallucinatory elements of the second Act looking for narrative lines where they are clearly not the focus. Woolcock noted that she had originally based her ideas for the staging on Cornelia Parker’s piece Cold Dark Matter in the collection of the Tate Modern in London. She echoed the work throughout the piece by suspending fragments of rubble above the stage. But, while Parker’s work is chilling and provides numerous overtones about the action of destruction and war, the role of these pieces here seemed much more drowned out and insignificant.

Put the production aside, though, and there was much to love. The opera is an intensely moving and musically beautiful work fully realized by Alan Gilbert and the superb Met Opera Orchestra. That everything sounded so good and the amplification worked so well in this house was amazing given the difficulties that have cropped up with them elsewhere. The cast from the prior outings in San Francisco, Chicago, and Amsterdam is largely unchanged. Gerald Finley has grown in the role of J. Robert Oppenheimer to the point where it’s now hard to imagine anyone else singing it. The big Act I aria “Batter My Heart” continues to bring tears to my eyes. The part of Kitty Oppenheimer has been transposed down again after masterful turns in the role by soprano Jessica Rivera in Chicago and Amsterdam. Now back to it’s mezzo roots, Kitty is voiced by Sasha Cooke who admittedly won me over despite my initial reservations and continued preference for the Rivera performance, which has been preserved, thankfully, along with the Sellars production, on DVD from Amsterdam. Eric Owens as Gen. Leslie Groves, Thomas Glenn as Robert Wilson, Richard Paul Fink as Edward Teller, and Meredith Arwady as Pasquilita have all returned in wonderful reprisals of their roles.

While the reception of the opera here has generally been warm in the press, it's somewhat surprising how much bitching and moaning is still going on about the opera itself. But I suppose any composer with this much success and talent is bound to draw a significant number of detractors, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised by the continued grousing about the non-traditional libretto and Adams’ own disinterest with operatic convention. Get over it people. It is precisely these things that make the work so interesting, and change is good. Yes, the libretto is filled with the "trivial." That's pretty much the nature of poetry and exactly what people talk about when they are tense and nervous. Yes, there is amplification and pre-recorded sound. It all works well; the the opera is nothing if not a cohesive whole. Doctor Atomic is one of the first masterpieces of the 21st century, and the Metropolitan Opera has wisely decided not to ignore it for the usual 25 years while waiting for the chattering classes to begrudgingly come around to recognizing this. So, despite my misgivings about the production, I still thought the whole thing a huge success. There's only one performance left on Thursday the 13th of November and if I were in town I'd got see it again.

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Atomic Doctor Faust

November 08, 2008

John Relyea and Marcello Giordani
Photo: Ken Howard/Met 2008
How do you solve a problem like Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust? Actually, after seeing the really enjoyable new production of this opera/oratorio at the Metropolitan Opera tonight, I think a better question is why more houses don't bite the bullet and stage it more often. This is the second time I’ve seen Berlioz' with a full work-up and, like before, it seems to work quite well on the stage. That prior Los Angeles production was directed by Achim Freyer with all of his trademark masks and white face paint. And while the Robert Lepage production here in New York is about as far away from Freyer’s vision as you could imagine, it shares a common approach in avoiding the temptation to play up or develop a more consistent narrative line and instead concentrates on a flow of phantasmagorical images. As has been widely reported already, Lepage and his Ex Machina cohorts make substantial use of interactive audio-visual technology in this regard. Video images suffuse all of the scenes throughout, projected on screens that appear and disappear on either side of a four-story scaffolding that fills the stage. Much of the video is interactive, responding to the movements of performers on stage. I know some people will grouse that this is all distracting gimmickry, but trust me it is far less painful to look at than half of what the Met still regularly puts on stage (e.g. last night's Traviata). Plus, the images are deliciously post-modern, often using the sets scaffolding to allow for repetition of smaller images with only slight variations between them.

It’s a clever trick that produces some amazing images: trees that wither and die in Mephistopholes' wake, curtains that sway in response to passing characters, and most of all a fantastic sequence where Susan Graham performs “D'Amour ardente flamme” while her own image is projected in gargantuan scale behind her bursting into flames. Lepage’s approach is intensely cinematic. But not in the way that say Woody Allen’s recent Il Trittico in Los Angeles was where certain filmed images are referenced in the staging. Instead, Lepage takes a more literal tactic creating a mise-en-scène that fits into a blocked off 1.85:1 aspect ratio complete with black boxes both below and above the action. It’s a letterboxed opera. In some ways this makes the images all the more powerful, but admittedly there is a lot going on here throughout. The chorus often appears on the floor below the scaffold with only their torsos and heads exposed even in the prominent tavern scene. I love this idea, though. It cuts away potential for whimsical bullshit and keeps the focus on the principal characters. There are also several dancers, acrobats and chesty rock climbers who scale the scaffolding dressed in a variety of red leather get-ups representing demons at various moments. This production is grand if not anything.

With so much to look at, it might be easy to overlook the incredible performance from the Met Orchestra under James Levine. The clarity and energy were stupendous, and I can’t recall when I’ve heard the Met Opera chorus sound so good. The principals are first-rate Met regulars and all give exemplary turns. Susan Graham is captivating as usual. John Relyea is a creepy and sexy Mephistopholes in a puckish red leather outfit complete with feathered hat. Marcello Giordani handles some amazingly high passages quite well. These are spectacular performances not only for their vocal quality, but also for some of the physicality of the production. Graham scales a huge ladder at the end of the show that made me dizzy just watching her. In any event, the Met seems to have a big hit on it's hands. I can't recall the last time I saw a director so warmly received at an opening night curtain call as Lepage was tonight, and hopefully this portends to be a good omen for the upcoming new production of the Ring cycle he will be delivering for the company here in coming seasons. The show runs through December 4th with an HD broadcast on November 29th.

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All This Useless Beauty

November 07, 2008

Anja Harteros as Violetta
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met 2008

Regular readers may wonder why I even bothered attending one of this season’s performances of Verdi's La Traviata at The Metropolitan Opera while in New York. It is certainly not my kind of thing (though one of my favorite operas) and represents that odd combination of a significant number of pre-Gelb era productions in the house which simultaneously contain amazingly great and amazingly horrid elements at the same time.

The reason I went is simple. I love Anja Harteros—and have—since I first saw her in Handel’s Alcina in a brilliant Christof Loy production two years back. This big starring role in New York was too good for me to pass up while in town. She did not disappoint. In fact, I think that possibly outside of Gheorghiu she may be the best Violetta around today. She is a bit of an Act II Violetta as opposed to Gheorghiu’s supremacy in Act I. (I will admit that my favorite Act III performer is still Fleming despite her matronly manner in this role.) But Harteros succeeded on nearly all counts with strong acting that was neither matronly or histrionic to boot. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Alfredo, Massimo Giordano. I’ll admit that I was less irritated by him than others in the audience given the number of boos at his final curtain call, but he did spend most of his time gnashing around the stage in a manner that seemed particularly uninvolved with others in the cast.

Granted, Giordano, Harteros and the excellent Germont, Zeljko Lucic were weighted down with the immensely unpleasant and inert Zeffirelli production. Even the vocal glories of Harteros and Lucic failed to make this geriatric monstrosity take flight. I imagine the Sisyphean task of trying to inject passion into a Zeffirelli production is not unlike trying to imagine your grandmother’s current sex life – it may be possible, but you aren’t going to go there. Zeffirelli seemed even unable to please the real grandmas in the audience around me tonight, given that at least the naps of at least two of them commenced before the end of the overture. As irritating as their snoring was over the next three hours, it was blissful relief in comparison to the humming that followed each clapping-associated re-awakening. But this beloved staging lives on and nothing seems to stand in its way - not even the house curtain malfunction that ended up delaying the Act II ball scene by about 10 minutes after an aborted first attempt. But to each his own. And times are hard, sir, and the Met’s got tickets to sell even if on occasion they are the proverbial worse pies in London.

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Lucrezia Borgia: Deep Space Nine

November 06, 2008

Kate Aldrich, Vittorio Grigolo, and Renée Fleming
Photo: Karin Cooper/WNO 2008

Yes, I did get to see one of the four Renée Fleming Lucrezia Borgia performances at Washington National Opera on my current trip out of town. And guess what? The show wasn’t half bad. In fact, it’s thoroughly enjoyable despite the obvious problems. It is true that Borgia will not be a role for which Fleming will be fondly remembered. She does not have the bel canto chops to pull this off despite many other charms. But it was still a remarkable vocal turn and honestly I can think of a couple dozen performers regularly performing roles with far less success and much greater frequency than this. Fleming’s an opera mega-star at the top of her game. Even her missteps are more interesting than most people’s big successes.

If you want an aesthetic fall guy, take aim at conductor Placido Domingo. The orchestra was never consistently anything, speeding up and slowing down seemingly at random. Domingo on a couple of occasions backed everyone off at a musical climax for the benefit of the vocalists, which kind of killed the mood in a couple key moments. Despite this, it turns out there were at least three other performers besides Fleming who had no trouble generating their own amount of excitement regardless of what else was going on. Ruggero Raimondi took the role of Duke Alfonso with appropriate gravity. Kate Aldrich, who gave a seriously remarkable performance earlier this year as Queen Elisabeth in Maria Stuarda in San Diego, gave another one here in Washington as Orsini. Both she and Vittorio Grigolo, who played Borgia’s son Gennaro, quite gamely engaged director John Pascoe’s take on the homoerotic subtext of the story. Given that Aldrich had the trouser role, I think many in the audience were still somewhat lost on this point when the two started making out all over each other in the final act. Grigolo has a youthful and athletic voice with an Italianate quality, which is nicely complemented by the fact that he is what we used to call a buff nugg.

But bare chests and spiky blond anime hair does not a production make, and as has been widely reported, Pascoe augmented a rather traditional set with Battlestar Galactica outfits. Fleming gets some black leggings and metallic Gaultier-like corset with giant cape for the final act and a spiky blond wig of her own. Frankly, though, I thought this all worked fairly well. Yes, it’s crazy, but this is a crazy opera and the contrast ensured no one was taking all of this too seriously. It was regal and glam rock at the same time. And how’s this for a bonus, Fleming’s tendency to have a somewhat matronly bearing when performing actually works here when she’s playing a mother - a seriously messed-up one, but a mother nonetheless. Now my only wish was that I had a reason to stay around to see what the incredible Sondra Radvanovsky does with all this on Friday. But I’m moving on.

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Making Nice with Boris

November 05, 2008

Samuel Ramey as Boris Godunov
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2008

I have admittedly been slow to comment on San Francisco Opera’s production of Boris Godunov that I saw on Sunday, but haven’t got around to writing about it due to a number of admittedly frivolous distractions like voting and such. The other obstacle was that the production in and of itself was pleasant but not what it could have been. Like much of what the company has offered this season, it’s painfully unassuming, adding little to the opera experience. It's a production that doesn’t get in the way, but it’s not helpful either, which I suppose is what some people want, but I think opera can and should be much more.

This Stein Winge staging has a barren wooden slope that rises to form a back wall with a seemingly endless number of hidden doors. Minimal amounts of furniture are hauled around by the cast with just a few oh-so-gentle touches to suggest that there is something edgy about the whole proceeding like the giant map/blanket that covers the majority of the floor in Act II. The simpleton remains on stage throughout almost the entire opera to reinforce his significance. While this deconstructivist approach can lead to some surprisingly big moments, even the biggest set scene, Boris’ Act I coronation seemed less awe-inspiring than it should. In contrast the comic scenes are played almost like a television show. There were the Gokley trademark “gorgeous period costumes" except, of course, for the multitude of peasants who were the cleanest bunch of pastel and beige-clad ragamuffins I’ve ever seen.

The star, of course, is Samuel Ramey, a living legend in the autumn of his career. He can ride on technique for days, but his Boris is not what it was and I found him sloppy at times. Vitalij Kowaljow made an appearance as Pimen, his second with the company this Fall and was again very impressive. The orchestra under Vassily Sinaisky was solid if not earth-shattering. I often felt the orchestra was timid in some of the more grand moments of Mussorgsky’s score. But maybe it was just me. Or maybe it was the near sold-out crowd, which seemed odd after a weekend of undersold performances. Of course Sunday was the only matinée of the entire run, which may had some influence. There are three more performances.


Out of Sequence

l - r: William Salyers, Karri Krause, and Hugo Armstrong in The Sequence
Photo: Ed Krieger/LAT 2008

Paul Mullin’s new play, The Sequence, which is currently on stage at the Boston Court Theater in Pasadena, deals with a major science story of the last decade. Specifically, it’s about the “race” to complete the Human Genome Project by rival scientists Craig Venter and Francis Collins as told by an ambitious cub reporter covering the story. Sadly, it’s the kind of play where the drama is moved along by the reading of dueling press releases. It’s also the kind of science play where a character in need of blood work will bring their own already drawn and packaged in the correct test tube to the appointment to have it drawn. More odd, one is likely to receive those test results in the 21st century by answering a red, ringing rotary phone.

Mullin’s play is burdened with a dizzying array of cliché theatrical props all in the service of a confused and complicated web of plots, sub-plots and a need to explain an undesirable amount of factual scientific information on the stage. At the center of this swirl is a female reporter Kellie Silverstein who acts as mediator and interpreter of conflicts between the government’s main researcher, Collins, and his more brash and cavalier private industry colleague, Venter. She stands around imploring people to make things “sexier” to appeal to “the sidewalk.” She’s also supposed to provide some emotional context with a whole sideline about her own fear of being tested for a breast cancer gene she may carry. It’s hard to care much, though, when there is so much cornball dialogue and visual effects to get through before reaching that destination.

All of this is amazingly laid at the feet of just three actors. With a script this bad it’s hard to judge the acting. It often seemed to me that these folks were just trying to survive a rather daunting two hours with little hope of payoff. The play did look all right, and the Boston Court folks did manage to keep up the production design elements despite some of the laugh-inducing items mentioned above. But I think this is probably not the play you need to go see right now.

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More Ring Than You'll Ever Be

November 04, 2008

Scene form Die Walküre
Photo: LAO 2008

Never let it be said that Los Angeles is a city that doesn’t know how to roll out a media campaign. Even though the economic chips may be down across the country, Los Angeles Opera’s got tickets to sell for it’s upcoming Ring cycle in 2010. We subscribers got our ticket order solicitations this week and with prices ranging from around $350 to $2200 dollars a seat (including a 30-50% “contribution portion”, natch), it’s time for the company to bring it. And bring it they did on Monday with a pre-election news conference involving a wide variety of local political and arts leaders, including Placido Domingo, to tout the “Ring Festival” – a wide ranging collaboration between the company and numerous music, theater, cultural, academic, and other institutions in the city who will be presenting a variety of Wagner-related programming from May through June 2010 during the company’s run of three complete cycles. (Cycles that I might add that are stretched out over 8 or 9 days instead of 6, I assume, to maximize the number of weekendish evenings in each run for a town that does not like driving in from the hinterlands on a school night.)

Scene from Götterdämmerung
Photo: LAO 2008

Of course, despite all the wattage of Eli Broad and Zev Yaroslavsky, the devil remains in the details with the specifics of contributions from the city’s major arts organizations including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Center Theater Group, and several others still TBA. True, we're talking about nearly two years off in the future, but as Mr. Obama will tell you, you’ve got to plan ahead. At this stage, most of what we’ve got firm commitments on are several lecture series, a performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helicopter Quartet, and at least two (count ’em!) screenings of Tony Palmer’s 1983 biopic Wagner starring Richard Burton for those of you who’ve so ardently ignored the VHS tape crying out to you from the shelves of CineFile Video lo these many years. It’s L.A. baby, and it is always about the sacred and the profane.

Scene form Das Rheingold
Photo: LAO 2008

Despite the obvious question marks, I think the festival is actually not a bad idea, though making the city the center of the universe for all things Wagner for a few weeks may still be a bit of a stretch. But no matter how you slice it, as more and more images of the Achim Freyer staging creep up on-line, it seems certain that no matter what else happens, the operas themselves will not be boring. I've included the latest releases of pictures here and I encourage you to take a look at LAO's copious new web site for more on the topic.

Scene from Götterdämmerung
Photo: LAO 2008

Here Comes That Sinking Feeling

November 03, 2008

The event in question
Photo: Barbara Davidson/LAT 2008
You know those moments when you’re watching a performance and you just know you’re in trouble? You suddenly go from “What is this?” to “Oh, that's what it is” and you start looking for the exits to calculate how many people you’ve got to crawl over to get there. Last Wednesday, I attended the opening of a new multi-disciplinary performance piece from the minds of Meredith Monk and visual artist Ann Hamilton entitled Songs of Ascension at the REDCAT downtown. When the woman in the granny dress appeared working on what’s best described as amateur semaphore, I officially crossed from the land of bemused interest to entrapped certainty.

Monk developed the piece in conjunction with the unveiling of a newly built tower on Hamilton’s property in Northern California. The collaborators have been retrofitting the work to other spaces that weren't necessarily in mind with the original conception. And while there's certainly no harm in that, what's made it to the dungeon of the Walt Disney Concert Hall isn't particularly enchanting. Now, I have nothing against pretension. In fact, I'm rather fond of it. And admittedly I think one has to be in the right place mentally to best access Monk's work. Sadly, last week, I was not there. Not even in the neighborhood.

Monk’s music was front and center with 5 primary vocalists, a small supporting chorus, an ambulatory string quartet and two other additional musicians. Everyone wandered around and back periodically breaking out into what is more accurately described as "movement" as opposed to dance. The music was quintessential Monk in its basic structure with enough non-specific spiritual and quasi-ethnic overtones to make you wonder what the connections are. Unfortunately, nothing quite worked. The piece meanders with no real point or focus while managing to create as many moments of irritation as those of beauty. Vocalists gratingly mock the instruments at times in a way that is supposed to be funny, but isn't. But the music did get better as it went along, though I never felt the piece was substantial enough to create a logic of it's own.

Maybe the tower would have improved things, but down in the bowels of downtown L.A., things just seemed pretty vacant.


The Ice Cream Man Cometh

November 02, 2008

Ramón Vargas and Inva Mula
Photo: Terence McCarthy/SFO 2008

What’s not to love about L’Elisir d’Amore? Donizetti’s perennial favorite is so earnest, so warmhearted, and so user friendly it seems nearly impervious to virtually all insults. Despite the slings and arrows of outrageous productions, variable vocal talents, and any number of orchestral insults, it is more often than not successful even if it is rarely great. And so it is with the current San Francisco revival of the work. It’s a cute if not chic or groundbreaking production. It’s an updated setting, here a Napa valley harvest festival immediately prior to the outbreak of WWI, which probably is a notch too close to The Music Man for its own good. All the action takes place around a single giant gazebo set, and it’s not unpleasant to look at if rather monotonous after awhile. The effect is more colorful than charming or funny. There were some oddities, however, including the entire cast gathering around a newspaper in the closing tableaux to read news of WWI just breaking out. What this mordant undertone serves in the larger interest of the opera is beyond me and seems to cheapen the whole performance in a "dream sequence" sort of way. L'Elisir could stand some fresh insight as could any opera written this long ago, but this genteel whisper of an approach is pointless.

Perhaps the biggest drag on the evening is a ponderously slow and lifeless performance from the orchestra under Bruno Campanella. As the orchestra receded into a quiet, inert mode, there was little support for either the chorus or the principals. Luckily, there were a couple of world-class vocal performances to counteract this weakness. Foremost is Ramón Vargas, whose Nemorino, a ne'er-do-well ice cream vendor in this staging, is the centerpiece of the whole exercise. This role is an ideal fit for him, and Vargas makes good use of his comic timing and polished acting skills. Opposite him was the legendary Alessandro Corbelli whose Dulcamara seemed effortless and very funny. Inva Mula sang Adina with ease, clarity and a beautiful tone. She tended toward a youthful innocence over a more comic savvy that could have really sold the role, but it’s a minor quibble. Of course, since the company is also offering the opera in a bastardized "family" version, this may be the intent. But maybe that's OK. I suppose L'Elisir is as good an entry point for opera for kids as any, and the production does have a Disney like atmosphere.


Cretian Formula

November 01, 2008

Act I of Idomeneo
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2008

It’s Halloween and what better way to celebrate than the final performance of Mozart’s Idomeneo at the San Francisco Opera this season. Apparently I’m the only one who thought so considering the house was just a tick above half-full from the looks of it. I suppose everyone was out having fun elsewhere or too intimidated to marshal their way through everyone else’s fun to get to the opera house in the first place. Those who did make it were quiet, tired, and by their response clearly nonplussed by the performance.

And it’s hard not to blame them. San Francisco has chosen to mount yet another of those oddly kitschy yet dull John Copley-directed and John Conklin-designed monstrosities (as they did earlier this year with a grotesque Ariodante). Their Idomeneo has a little more uumph but is still laughable in many spots, including a large stained bed-sheet that is supposed to represent a sea monster or blood in the streets, or something like that. The production is the aesthetic equivalent of a Saturday afternoon Dynasty marathon on TV Land. Not a good thing in the Turkish bath-like heat of the War Memorial Opera House.

The singing was a mixed bag. Alice Coote, the production’s Idamante, called in sick the last night as she had in the prior few performances being replaced with first-year Adler fellow Daniela Mack who was game, but I think a might overwhelmed by the part. Kurt Streit’s Idomeneo was much more satisfying but the vocal standout was the beautiful light and clarity of Genia Kühmeier’s soprano. Her Ilia was gorgeous, as was she, causing everyone to understandably fall in love with her. The evening’s other bright spot was, not surprisingly, Donald Runnicles who gave a bang-up performance with the orchestra. Light and clear, the music held everything else together even through the weak spots. This did flag a bit in the third act slowing to near Parsifal like proportions, but aurally, it retained it’s beauty. I’m sure going to miss him when he leaves San Francisco.


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