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For the Birds

April 12, 2009

The cast of LAO's Die Vögel
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2009

With all of the exceptional music in L.A. over the last few weeks, I was a little unprepared for what turned out to be the markedly disappointing opening of Walter Braunfel’s Die Vögel at L.A. Opera on Saturday. This operatic rarity is part of James Conlon’s “Recovered Voices” project revisiting composers whose lives were adversely affected by the Nazi regime in the early 20th century changing the course of an esteemed German musical tradition. It’s a fantasy piece based on Aristophanes' play in which the world’s birds are talked into making a power play against Zeus and the gods by a couple of humans named Good Hope and Loyal Friend. Unlike the Greek play, the Birds lose their standoff against Zeus in this one, and Good Hope is separated from his bird love, Nightingale, as the newly erected avian empire in the clouds crumbles. Of course, the work is heavily informed by Braunfels’ own experiences during WWI, and the folly of war and revolt are central themes here.

And in the good news department, it is a very pretty opera. It’s not Strauss, though at times it may aspire to be, but it can have a very romantic sweep. Sadly, though, all of this and an excellent cast of very, very talented young singers were poorly served by perhaps a thoughtless opera production that descends into kitsch after the first ten minutes and never returns. The design team, under director Darko Tresnjak has fallen into virtually every trap in staging this opera. They have gone for a child-like fantasia ignoring the much darker and serious implications of the work creating something that is equal parts Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy and The Electric Company. The unit set is laid atop Achim Freyer’s highly raked Die Walküre stage, but unfortunately none of that excellent production's magic is able to seep through to the empty cloud field that fills the stage. All this might not have looked so bad if it wasn't for costumes that were apparently supposed to look both Greek and birdlike simultaneously in all the colors of the neon rainbow. Think Susannah Hoffs in “Walk Like an Egyptian.” There, now you’ve got it. It’s one of those things that, as it goes along, minor elements that one would normally just ignore become increasingly hysterical. Toward the end of the second act when Prometheus arrives in a filthy gray robe and long Jesus hair to warn the birds of the consequences of their defiance, one begins to wonder how Jochannan ended up in this opera, as my friend Jim noted. Sadly, neither he nor I were going to find Salome here but only more of the same kitsch.

Still there are some consolations. Conlon and the orchestra played the score with real skill and conviction. Plus it was blessed with a cast of young singers who read like a who’s who of legendary singers 20 years from now. There was not a weak link in the bunch. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich stars as Good Hope, and his steady and athletic tone was riveting even if things around him weren’t. It also helps that he’s one of those vocalists the New York times' Anthony Tommasini likes to refer to as “strapping.” The female lead, the Nightingale, was sung by Désirée Rancatore who has one of those super-high soprano voices that seems like it might not be real. She’s worked mostly in Europe, frequently with Ricardo Muti, and here in Los Angeles, she made quite a good impression. Brian Mulligan’s Prometheus was another one of those moments where suddenly a voice seemed to pull everything together. Reviving Die Vögel for a U.S. audience seems like a good idea and I too think this is a worthwhile project on many levels. Sadly, Braunfel's opera didn't get the fair shake it deserves through this staging. The show has three more performances through the 26th.


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