Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Because the Night

July 31, 2009

Photo: Carole Kim

The second weekend of REDCAT’s New Original Works Festival kicked-off on Thursday with a program that seemed light years ahead of last week’s first installment on a number of levels. The first of the two works on the program was an ambitious hour long piece entitled N1 directed by video and performance artist Carole Kim. However, it was far from a solo work, involving large contributions from the dancer Oguri, percussionist Alex Cline, and trumpeter Dan Clucas. Kim is accomplished and her experience shone through like a beacon in a festival where others can come off like art school students run amok. N1 uses projected live video streams of Oguri’s very reserved but fluid movements that were projected on a number of scrims hung at angles over the large space of the REDCAT in a sort of forest of screens. These images are further overlayed with other live, but distorted black and white video feeds of water ripples or any other number of difficult to identify surfaces for a transient effect. Meanwhile, a jazz-influenced soundtrack was added from Clucas and Cline who were located behind and to the side of the audience creating a sense of being encased by the show for the audience. The rather claustrophobic but beautiful hour references the myth of Narcissus but is more evocative than narrative despite its several titled sections and clear shifts in tone. I found it rather satisfying and the whole thing had a polished, professional feel that really highlighted the collaborative efforts of this group of artists.

After the break was a disappointingly brief set from the punk band-cum-art project, Jennifer the Leopard. The four young women that make up the band, Lauren Fisher, Stephanie Hutin, Lana Kim and Marissa Mayer, perform wry, but deadpan songs with video accompaniment that mine the depths of feminism and popular culture. The "band" surrounds itself with a "sub-audience" of supporters with various cheering functions and activities synchronized to comment on each song's content. On this program, the parents of the band's drummer were also included on stage following their introduction of the act, providing a kind of insider point of laughs and commentary about the player's alter egos. The band played five or six brief numbers that were less songs, than brief riffs on ideas and phrases often inspired in the accompanying video material. It works well and produces very funny results leaving a viewer with random tidbits like "quality", "raised French", and "move you legs/move your car" rattling around in their heads. It leads one to wonder about how bits of language get taken over and adapted for new cultural meaning. I felt like the whole thing ended too soon, though, just as it was heating up into something a little bigger than a snarky, but very witty prank. Still, it's a very entertaining show.


Music in Another Room

July 29, 2009

Marin Alsop, the LA Philharmonic and, PercaDu
Photo: mine 2009

The Hollywood Bowl can be brutal with big orchestral works that are highly reliant on dynamic range to produce their desired effects. Case in point, Tuesday’s performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Marin Alsop. Although the amplification at the outdoor venue has clearly improved over the last two years with a smoother more consistent quality, it’s still just like listening to someone play music in the next room. Or maybe play music on the TV in the next room. Of course, Alsop’s rather slow and plodding approach didn’t help. I tend to think this was just an off night given the less than ideal circumstances of their performance, though. I still thought the Adagietto was lovely, but a lot of the rest felt doubly deadened in these acoustics. It was also clearly a long haul for many in the audience who barreled in increasingly large numbers as the second half moved on.

Unfortunately, the program was not lopsided in that the first half was as weak as the first. Strike that. It was actually weaker considering that the Symphony at least benefited from being Mahler’s. The show opened with the West Coast premiere of Israeli composer Avneh Dorman’s Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!, a double percussion concerto. The soloists were Tomer Yariv and Adi Morag, collectively known as PercaDu, the young ensemble for which the piece was originally composed. (The overly enthusiastic spellings and capitalizations are theirs, not mine.) The three movements were intended to “reflect young Israeli culture” according to Dorman, and I suppose that may be true for all I know. More often than not though, it sounded overly eager-to-please and dangerously bordering on a sort of Middle Eastern kitsch. Take the three words and imagine what John Williams might come up with to represent them in a Spielberg film and you just about have it. There was plenty of activity between marimbas and other various and sundry percussion instruments, but it never really got anywhere. As an encore, PercaDu took two (staged) failed attempts at starting a Bach transcription for Marimba and abandoned it for “Flight of the Bumblebee.” I kid you not. And while this may have been nothing more than a crowd-pleasing gimmick, it encapsulated what had gone before quite appropriately. But, this is Summer and this is the Hollywood Bowl. It's part of the package.


The Devil in Ms. Jones

July 27, 2009

Grace Jones at The Hollywood Bowl
Photo: mine 2009

In case anyone still thought “World Music” couldn’t be highly theatrical, the ever-present KCRW put together a program on Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl to correct that misconception. Of course the KCRW-sponsored “World Music” programs at the Hollywood Bowl take that category very, very loosely with bands that are just as likely to be American or Canadian as they are from somewhere else. But this is Los Angeles, and borders do mean less and less over the years so maybe it isn’t that unfair after all. Sunday’s headliner was Grace Jones. Yes that is one name I never imagined would be associated with a Los Angeles Philharmonic associated event, but there she was performing in front of a huge and very enthusiastic crowd. And despite the ups and downs of the years and her career, there is still no one that does theatrical rock quite like Ms. Jones.

Grace Jones at The Hollywood Bowl
Photo: mine 2009

The evening was about half material from Ms. Jones latest release, Hurricane, which sadly has not yet been released in the US, although it was just about everywhere else in the world last year. (I guess that’s the “world music” part.) After a lengthy tour around the world in support of the new recording, Ms. Jones surprised me first and foremost with the fact that even in the midst of the many songs that made her famous two decades ago, the new material was by far the most intriguing in her set. “Hurricane”, “William’s Blood”, and “Corporate Cannibal” all delivered the grooves one might expect from Ms. Jones, but seemed more urgent and frankly deeper than some of her well know dance-floor anthems.

Grace Jones at The Hollywood Bowl
Photo: mine 2009

The crowd was on its feet for most of the set through “Pull Up to the Bumper”, “My Jamaican Guy”, “Demolition Man”, “La Vie en Rose”, and “Love is the Drug”. Of course all of this was augmented with multiple audacious costume changes. In fact, there was a different outfit for almost every number in the show. This did slow things down, and it left Ms. Jones to chat with the audience while behind screens at the back of the stage where all of the quick changes took place. It created a sort of clunky intimacy. But Grace Jones is about an entrance and this is half the fun of the show.

Grace Jones at The Hollywood Bowl
Photo: mine 2009

These are not kitschy Bob Mackie confections one might see on Cher, but Gaultier-inspired designs that were witty and amazingly revealing. Time has done nothing to Ms. Jones that would lead her to eschew donning a mountain of bright red pleats with no back. And I mean no back - top, bottom or otherwise. She opened the show covered from head to toe in a silver reflective sheet that was pulled away at the start of the second song to reveal a white lattice body suit with accompanying headdress. Ms. Jones was having as much fun as everybody else, and she ended the show running right up to the Hollywood Bowl Sunday curfew with house lights coming up even as she continued to speak from the stage inviting all her friends to give her cell phone a ring and join her backstage at the after party. It’s reassuring to see that even with time, some things do stay the same.

Kevin Barnes and pugs
Photo: mine 2009

I’d be remiss to end this post without mentioning the other great performance of the evening from Georgia art rockers Of Montreal. It was a tight and hilarious set with their own freewheeling street theater crew. Think of The Flaming Lips with a more narrative flair. With Of Montreal, we were treated to pug-walking lead singers, a Christmas tear gas attack, a Cardinal led exorcism, and a knife fight between two single-leg neon unitard clad drag queens. I know it may sound like just another day in Los Angeles, but you'd be wrong. Even in the giant space of the bowl, the band unleashed a lot of energy and was quite exciting. So even though it was world music mostly from northwestern hemisphere on Sunday, it didn't really matter. Everyone was having too much fun to worry about any geographical concerns.


No Time Like The Present

July 25, 2009

Ayana Hampton
Photo: Blackantphotography

The doldrums of July in Los Angeles can be a difficult time for fans of live performance. Luckily it’s REDCAT to the rescue with the latest installment of the New Original Works Festival which annually welcomes a variety of local performers to display their wares over a period of several weeks in the modern black box theater at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. This weekend featured the first of three programs and while neither the festival nor the individual programs are in any way a competition, hands down the “winner” of the evening was Ayana Hampton. A CalArts grad with a variety of web-based and small independent credits to her name, Hampton appears as the star and raison d’etre for The Ayana Hampton Show, a hilarious 40 minute blitzkrieg of commentary on race, sex, fame, and politics in the form of an ersatz variety show. It’s a big production with a back-up band, The Morning After, and a trio of dancer/singer/drag artists, The Lustrous Blackup Dancers. Hampton goes for the throat with abandon in a maniacal series of characters from a stoner mom, to a frustrated young actress, to Michelle Obama. There are several rock songs mixed in here, all with over-the-top funny, vulgar, and blisteringly smart commentary about being the odd one out in a culture that uses that oddity as a primary source for fetish. Much of the material in the performance has been developed in smaller formats and then restructured for the evening, which can be found recorded on Ms. Hampton’s website. Now arguably, these funny bits may not add up to the most polished or cohesive whole. However, the sheer amount of guts and energy clearly demonstrate a great big and very smart talent making The Ayana Hampton Show a calling card not to be ignored.

There were two other performances on this weekend’s bill. First was a multimedia work entitled [ab][ac][us] from a collective of performers and video artists who go by the name of Early Morning Opera. The piece featured a single character, Paul Abacus played by Sonny Valicenti, and a dancer/camerman, Garrett Wolf. Behind the performers were a series of five screens hung in a single sloped column approaching the floor. Abacus launches into a long modernist monologue about the dropping of borders in a new world order as if he’s some slightly out-of-whack motivational speaker. Writer and director Lars Jan derives the elements of Paul's diatribe from a variety of 20th-century figures ranging from the likes of Edward Tufte and Joel Osteen to Carl Sagan, Benedict Anderson, and Buckminster Fuller. Meanwhile images, maps, and video feed of Abacus’ own performance are projected on the screens above. It was an attractive experiment, but one that didn’t seem to be quite as edgy or maddening as one might expect from its content. Kind of like Network without the shouting. It seemed to function more like a review of a graduate degree screening exam reading list than a performance piece. But it was billed as a work-in-progress, so later versions may have more to say.

Sandwiched between these efforts was a short dance and performance excerpt from Sheetal Gandhi entitled Bahu-Beti-Biwi or Daughter-in-Law, Daughter, Wife. Gandhi borrows traditional folk music and dance elements to construct an exthibit of the trials and perspectives of several South Asian women who may or may not be related. They range from an elderly grandmother to a child begging her mother to access elements of a more Westernized culture she idolizes. While there is a lot of bird mimicking movement and the slow rain of white feathers from above, Gandhi mixed things up with some short character monologues fleshing out these characters. And while I like the character studies a lot, the excerpt was just that, as if a much bigger picture was only being peeked at in one brief moment. But the overall night was a good start for the festival that will continue over the next two weeks and will feature a number of interesting works including new material from comic and actor Lauren Weedman in the first weekend of August. So there may be a cure for the summertime blues after all.

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Music for Films

July 24, 2009

Philip Glass with members of the Philip Glass Ensemble, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the L.A. Master Chorale
Photo: mine 2009

Say what you will about his music, but Philip Glass has been enjoying a resurgence in notoriety over the last few years. Past are the days of jabs from the writers of South Park and now Glass enters the era of big revivals at the Metropolitan Opera and, this week, a solo show at the Hollywood Bowl with the Philip Glass Ensemble and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I’ve often suspected that it is much more fun playing music at the Bowl than listening to it there, and my curiosity was confirmed when Glass spoke from the stage at the opening of the show about his dream to play his music at the “Triple Crown” of concert venues: Carnegie Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, and now, the Hollywood Bowl. And though the comparison is flattering to our lovable landmark, I’m not sure I buy it.

But it was a good night to see thousands of people show up for a program with none of the usual standard comfort foods that make up classical concerts. It was an enthusiastic and loving crowd for this composer on a roll. The evening was mostly centered on a performance of his score for Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance in a new arrangement by the composer to include full orchestra, accompanied here with a screening of the film. It’s intriguing to see this admittedly dated film at this point, particularly in that it, more than anything else, established Glass in the American conscience. It's not his strongest work. The score pales in comparison to most of his operas, and it can be listless in the first ten minutes. The film itself can be heavy handed even for a 90 minute music video. But there are many wonderful passages and the performance at the Bowl was very, very good. As the score enters "The Grid" and "Microchips," things begin to come alive with the teeming energy that the composer is famous for. I'm not sure how necessary the new orchestration was. Despite the occasional tuba or strings, the new arrangement sounded much like the old one in the Bowl with the majority of sound coming from the Philip Glass Ensemble. I should also note a completely great performance from the L.A. Master Chorale that again proved why they are a first choice ensemble for new music.

But it wasn't solely about Koyaanisqatsi. The evening opened with three short pieces - the solo piano "Opening" from Glassworks as well as "Facades". There was also the final "Sapceship" sequence from Einstein on the Beach. Glass played in all of the segments and the short snipets were reminders of just how good his music can be. So maybe it wasn't my dream Philip Galss concert, but for this huge venue in this city on a Thursday no less, it was an event to remember.


Fleet Foxes

July 21, 2009

Juho Pohjonen, Lionel Bringuier, and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

My Hollywood Bowl season got under way Tuesday with one of those golden nugget of a shows buried among the Beethoven and easy listening favorites that typically make up summer in the Hollywood Hills. It almost feels like an evening intended for someplace or someone else, but there it was, another outing of the Esa-Pekka Salonen Piano Concerto. But this time it was without its composer at the podium or the soloist for which it was written, Yefim Bronfman, at the keyboard. Instead we had the L.A. Philharmonic’s Assistant Conductor, Lionel Bringuier, lead the orchestra with the devilishly speedy piano part left to the very talented young Finnish musician, Juho Pohjonen. The good news is that the piece lives on. In fact, to be completely honest, I liked it much better here than in either of the Salonen/Bronfman performances I’d seen previously. I’ve been somewhat ambivalent about this piece since its premiere, but tonight I felt it really burst into life for me.

Part of it was Pohjonen. Whereas Bronfman attacks the piece with zeal punching through rapid passages in bursts of activity, Pohjonen seemed to take things in stride. His hands were moving faster than anything, but he was calm, cool, and collected throughout the whole run. It was a more connected, flowing interpretation that emphasized the relationships with each of the orchestral soloists who get a chance to interact with the piano directly. Bringuier delivered the work cut from the whole cloth with shimmering fibers instead of patches of arch juxtapositions before. The work with paired with Paul Dukas The Sorcerer’s Apprentice which couldn’t have been a more fitting introduction. The Pairing pointed out the whimsy that can underlie Salonen's work as well with its almost comical references to robot-birds and Stanislaw Lem. That all of this happened in the crappy Bowl acoustics is even more remarkable.

It's worth noting that at least based on last night's performance, someone spent some time on the acoustics issue in the last year. This is the first concert I remember there in a long time that was not marred by the snap, crackle, and pop of amplification problems. The show ended with Ravel's arrangement of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, a work I always feel is about 10 minutes longer than it should be. Bringuier made the most out of Ravel's lush and rather French orchestration. It was a nice start to the season and here's hoping that everything at the Bowl this year comes off this well.


As I Lay Dying

July 19, 2009

Thomas Silcott and Deidrie Henry
Photo: Ed Krieger/Fountain Theater 2009

The Fountain Theater in Hollywood continues its fruitful relationship with Athol Fugard this summer with the West Coast premiere of his latest work Coming Home following a run on the East Coast earlier in the year. Local theater goers again are the winners in this relationship as the Fountain continues to prove that small and high quality can go hand in hand. That being said, Coming Home is pretty much what you would expect at every turn. It’s a sentimental and melodramatic affair set in a rural South African village where a young woman, Veronica, has just returned home from Capetown with her 5 year-old son following the death of her grandfather. Soon we discover that her plans to become a famous singer there did not turn out as planned. She is greeted upon her return to her childhood home by the play's other major voice, Alfred, a somewhat cognitively impaired man who was a close childhood friend and a co-worker of Veronica's grandfather. Of course, Veronica has secrets, and soon her AIDS-related illness becomes evident to Alfred. She is concerned about other villagers discovering her secret and the future of her young son in a time and place where lack of access to medication means that she will not likely see him through to adulthood. The play more or less writes itself from there on out, but I will say that I admired Fugard’s attempt at an ending that was not strictly from the playbook. It didn’t completely work, and the touches of magical realism in the play don’t seem quite enough to make it seem like something other than an ending that is grafted on as opposed to one that naturally grows out of the preceding material.

Still, given that the material could fit easily into a typical dull major Hollywood film with ease, it is surprisingly effective in this production. I was never irritated by the big virtual neon road signs pointing out the evening's direction largely due to two fantastic performances from Deidrie Henry as Veronica and Thomas Silcott as Alfred. First off, these two managed completely believable and consistent accents. I know it’s a minor point, but if you’re going to do them, you should bother to do them right and I was exceptionally pleased that adequate time was clearly spent on this issue. Veronica's part calls for competent singing and Henry manages this easily. It's a really wonderful and heartfelt performance. Neither actor ever seemed forced or out of place, and the naturalistic feel of the piece came to fruition. Director Stephen Sachs' pacing is right on target as things never really drag even when it's obvious what is going to happen next. So, while it's not Fugard's greatest work, Coming Home is worthwhile and rises above its somewhat meager sights with excellent performances and high production values. Not bad at all. It continues on stage in Hollywood through August 29.


Famous Amos

July 18, 2009

Tori Amos in Los Angeles
Photo: mine 2009

Tori Amos arrived in Los Angeles this week on tour for her recently released recording, Abnormally Attracted to Sin. The appearance at the Greek Theater was not sold out, and the crowd seemed more subdued than you might expect for a Friday in July. But the crowd may have presaged the show that was to follow, which featured a stripped down ensemble around Amos with only a drummer and another player for bass or guitar accompaniment. Not that Amos needs a big band to rock if she wants to, but in keeping with the times this was a simple affair focused on Amos and her prodigious talent.

And that talent, particularly for melodic hooks and songwriting, has gotten her quite far considering that her entire career has been built on the shoulders of Kate Bush more or less. Even after almost two decades and more than 10 releases, hearing Amos brings Bush to mind from her vocal approach, to her penchant for idiosyncratic imagery. There is one noticeable difference though, Amos has been prolific with her recorded output giving her more than a modest amount of superb material to choose from for a two-hour plus performance. But much like her lyrics, pronunciation, and imagery, her set list can also be unexpected. Never really interested in a greatest hits approach to anything, Tori plays what Tori wants even if its not entirely clear how it fits together. Friday did, of course, feature many tracks from Abnormally Attracted to Sin but omitted the first radio single “Welcome to England” as well as the radio friendly “Maybe California.” The material from older recordings may also have left some fans frustrated from the lack of their particular favorite track. But then again, maybe not, considering most Amos fans adore her specifically for her independent streaks.

For me, my love of Amos stems from another of her commonalities with Kate Bush – a love of the theatrical and dramatic. She knows how to make an entrance. On Friday, she appeared in a Japanese-inspired large, draped white dress with black cape hemmed high in the front above her knees, but dragging on the floor in the back. She arrived at the keyboard and struck a wide leg stance rock and roll pose with her hands in the air with her back to the audience before diving into the performance. She is meticulous and relentless, tearing through one number after another with care and attention. She spoke only once to the audience to tell a brief background story which accompanies “Mary Jane” for Sin, a song about a mother’s lack of savvy about the commonly used slang term for cannabis her son uses in a request to hold a party at home in her absence. It’s never about Amos reaching out to draw her fans in. Instead it’s about her allowing glimpses into a private world that is never made explicit to her audience, and many of her fans are those drawn to that particular chase.

As a live act, Amos is particularly interesting in her ability to present engaging versions of songs that are usually heavily produced on her recordings. Structuring her songs around her own keyboard performances, allows for easy transitions into more stripped down formats. It was a solid and very enjoyable show. There are few performers around mining the same territory these days, so an evening with Tori Amos will always tend to stand out somewhat.


You're Unbelievable

July 17, 2009

Dick Shawn as Lonrenzo St. DuBois in Mel Brooks' The Producers

Ah, California. The state you love to hate is at it again. From the people who brought you the Twinkie defense, Ronald Reagan, and wrongheaded voter initiatives too numerous to count, now comes a new installment of remarkable idiocy to marvel at. This time the primary source is one of our not-so-illustrious Los Angeles County supervisors, Mike Antonivich (A Republican, natch!) who has broken his long-standing disinterest in the arts with a new pet project. According to the Los Angeles Times, Supervisor Antonovich intends to introduce a motion for the County to send a letter to the board of the Los Angeles Opera about their upcoming presentation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and the concurrent "Ring Festival" that will accompany it. The Festival will sponsor a variety of events examining Wagner's life and music and will involve several other arts organizations around town. But this is Hollywood baby, and the Board of Supervisors has got notes for the opera company. You see he loves what LA Opera is doing with the whole Ring-thing and all. Really, it’s great and they’re doing some fabulous work. But you see, it’s just that, well, he was wondering if maybe we could keep the whole cycle and festival but maybe have, you know, a little less Wagner in it.

Apparently, some of the crack research staff in his office have discovered that over a century ago, the composer expressed some rather anti-semetic sentiments. And I know that may come as a surprise to many of my readers, but apparently of the millions of people who’ve admired Wagner’s work in the last century or so, one of them happened to be Hitler. As hard as it may be to believe, the fact remains that one of the worst despots of the 20h century admired Wagner's art. Antonovich suggests, according to the LA Times report, that a broader focus of the festival on other composers such as Puccini, Verdi, and Mozart may make Wagner more palatable to the reportedly legions of citizens in LA who will otherwise be offended out of their minds over any reflection on Wagner’s work. And while I’m impressed that Antonovich can actually name three other opera composers, it does seem a bit of an odd suggestion. But maybe he's right, Puccini and Mozart's racism and misogyny make Wagner much easier to stomach don't you think?

Of course, the Times article goes on to point out that Antonovich is apparently only responding to constituent concerns. But who those people are remains unclear outside of one apparently very media-hungry "journalist" by the name of Carie Delmar. We’re told she has a “blog” (which I won’t link to for obvious reasons) specifically devoted to protesting the LA Ring Festival and recently posted a long piece explaining her idiotic position. Apparently when she's not busy doing the hard core research into Wagner's moral shortcomings from over a century ago, she also dabbles in criticism. Elsewhere online, Ms. Delmar provides us not only with a lovely glamour shot, but also bestows the coveted Delmar award for Best Opera Production on the West Coast for 2008 to LA Opera’s production of La Rondine with Patricia Racette. So it’s comforting to know that Ms. Delmar’s lack of sense may only be matched by her lack of taste. But hey this is a free Country and the beauty of it is that you can express your opinions as you see fit, regardless of how misinformed they may be.

What Ms. Delmar and Supervisor Antonovich fail to understand (and I realize that is a big category in and of itself) is that it is not a Festival examining Wagner and his Ring cycle that will make L.A. look foolish, but the fact that this city would have this “debate” at all in this day and age that does so. Wagner, like all humans, was a complicated person with both good and bad qualities. Some of them, like his anti-semitism are sadly quite common in people. Others, like his artistic achievements, are among the most rare in our species. To suggest that we should not discuss and focus on the life and work of a single person who did great things because some of his opinions from over a century ago don’t jibe with our modern day morality or that he shared opinions with others who much later on did unspeakable things is so myopic it begs reason. We celebrate “great” individuals every day who were anti-semities, racists, and frankly worse for far less than Wagner achieved. (Lincoln and Washington were not the nicest of guys at times either, believe you me.) To sort out only those historical figures who said and believed all of the things we feel most comfortable with today would leave us very little to talk about.

But you know what. I can comprehend that some people may not want to hear about Wagner and are just too offended by the man to see any value in anything else he ever did. So be it. And if you feel that way, I would suggest that you don't spend your time attending the festival events or Wagner's operas. Save your money and stay home. Or better yet, start a festival of your own to talk and hear about things you find less objectionable. And if you wouldn't mind, could you please let those of us who do want to hear and talk about Wagner do so.


Closing Thoughts

July 14, 2009

Helen Mirren as Phèdre
Photo: Catherine Ashmore 2009

Los Angeles is one of those cities that no matter where you go, there you are. It seemed that everywhere I went on my recent trip to Europe that Los Angeles was not far away from me like some figure just out of the corner of my eye. Take Nicholas Hynter’s lovely production of Phèdre at the National Theater which I caught on a Saturday afternoon. Who would have thought setting the piece at the Getty Center would be so effective. With it’s pale Travertine walls and blue seaside vistas, all that’s missing from the staging for the total L.A. experience was the cappuccino cart. Helen Mirren was certainly regal and fun to watch, but I’ve always found Ted Hughes translation, used in this revival, a bit dry and severe. On the other hand I did get to see Margaret Tyzack who was superb as Oenone. Despite all the sold-out shows and big hype it was rather straight-forward.

Of course, my time away was somewhat marred with a case of stomach flu that resulted in my missing out on a performance of Massenet's Werther in Munich. Worse yet is that I was trapped in bed in the hotel room on the day of you-know-who’s memorial service. I won’t go on about that matter but it did make me glad I wasn’t at home dealing with gridlock and other craziness stemming from all the hubbub. Of course, the gloved one was everywhere, including the Arte channel, which had interrupted its usual fare of operas, art films and classical performance for 1988’s Moonwalker, which is decidedly not the high point of Joe Pesci’s career in case you’re wondering.

There was time for some shopping, though, and I picked up a number of recordings including the long awaited release of Thomas Adés' The Tempest on EMI and a great new release from Mark Padmore featuring songs from Benjamin Britten. I also commemorated my visit to Munich by picking up the first release from the Bavarian Opera Orchestra under the leadership of its recently appointed musical director, Kent Nagano. The orchestra gave a number of wonderful performances last week, and Nagano's Lohengrin was masterful. The new recording is a first rate performnace of Bruckner's earlier version of the Fourth Symphony. It's a hugely successful turn and hopefully the first of many we'll here from this ensemble and director.

But I was glad to get back home to be greeted by tickets for the Fall. My Los Angeles Opera and Metropolitan Opera orders had arrived. It's going to be a great Fall with Janacek and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Oh, and in case you're wondering, the most overrated and already overhyped non-event of the rest of the year will be the October 3 free appearance of Gustavo Dudamel with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollwood Bowl as part of his arrival as the new music director for our beloved orchestra. And what better way to say bienvenidos than stack parking, Taj Mahal, 5 hours of community youth orchestras, and yet another performance of Beethoven's 9th. My advice: skip it in favor of either the Thomas Hampson recital at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that night or a concert with Marianne Faithful at Royce Hall. Well, I think that clears the deck for now.

I've Got the Music in Me

July 12, 2009

Act II from Palestrina
Photo: Wifried Hösl/Bayerische Staatsoper 2009

I get e-mailed questions all the time about opera. Take for instance this popular gem, “Brian, How come there has never been an operatic version of The Council of Trent?” Of course, it provides me great satisfaction to let those readers know that in fact there is just such an opera, and, as you may have already guessed, it’s in German. It’s the second Act of Hans Pfitzner’s Palestrina, a rather problematic work from a problematic composer that has lived on to this day in revivals primarily in the German-speaking world such as the one that has been running in Munich this year under the musical direction of Simone Young. And while Pfitzner milks more yucks than you can shake a stick at from inter-Cardinal conflict, this hour long scene is strangely out of place in the middle of a theater work that otherwise has nothing to do with the topic. The first and brief third act of Palestrina are, in fact, about the 16th-century Italian composer of the same name. This nearly separate narrative concerns a crisis of artistic inspiration and faith in Palestrina’s composition of the Missa Papae Marcelli, perhaps his most famous work and one that his supporters hope will the make the case for the continued approval of polyphonic music in the rites of the Catholic Church. Of course, Palestrina comes through in the opera—composing the mass, saving polyphony in the church, and getting the approval of Pope Pius IV, all with the intervention of an angelic host and the spirit of his dead wife. It’s actually very operatic stuff for something with a happy ending.

Christopher Ventris
Photo: Wifried Hösl/Bayerische Staatsoper 2009

It’s a deliberately romantic throwback and is firmly rooted in the musical language of Wagner, and Pfitzner’s contemporary, Richard Strauss. Young, the musical director of the Hamburg opera, seems very at home with the piece, even compared to the opera’s most recent advocate, Christian Thielemann, who led the work in the 90s in both London and New York. And Palestrina can be very beautiful especially in its depiction of Palestrina’s overcoming a perceived obsolescence with a major artistic achievement. The current Munich production, directed by Christian Stückl is a bracing vision of black and white with grabbing splashes of neon pink and green. When electric green angels arrive to inspire Palestrina to write a mass he is not interested in, it feels like a major intervention. Stückl’s vision owes more than a little to Achim Freyer including an interest in masks and kabuki-inspired make up. Certain elements are intentionally amateurish in their design to draw attention to their artifice as well, including cardboard cutout stretch limousines that herald in the Pope and others. I found the production consistently interesting, though, and luckily it was the third opera I saw in Munich this week being filmed for a later DVD release.

The Palestrina in this revival is British tenor Christopher Ventris, who sounded like a million bucks here and made the necessary acting commitment to this role. There were many, many other strong supporting voices in this huge cast including Peter Rose, Michael Volle, and Falk Struckmann. But perhaps the voice that most grabbed my attention was that of Christiane Karg who sang the role of Palestrina’s son Ighino. She had the thankless task of singing a part that provides little more than cheerleading and exposition with regards to the other characters on stage. But somehow, Karg made Ighino seem like the moral center of the work. Her lengthy scenes at the bookends of the opera were some of the strongest, and her clear and piercing tone was lovely.

Should Palestrina have a broader acceptance than it does already? Well, maybe not. It certainly was interesting to see in light of the "Recovered Voices" series of operas being produced here in L.A. under the auspices of James Conlon and the Los Angeles Opera precisely because it lies outside of that rubric. Pfitzner was a musically reactionary nationalist, who actually benefited from his, at times, positive relationship with the Third Reich and would certainly not fit into a group of artists whose work may have suffered under the Nazis. He's not shared the best reputation musically or otherwise since that time. However, his opera is an excellent example of late romanticism and provides some insight into the development of German music in the first half of the 20th century. Certainly this is a future DVD worth seeing.

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It's not You, It's Me

July 10, 2009

Eva-Maria Westbroek and Pavel Cernoch
Photo: Wifried Hösl/Bayerische Staatsoper 2009

I hate to admit it, but if I’m being completely honest (not always my best quality) I was not jazzed by Thursday’s performance of Janacek’s Jenůfa here in Munich. It’s a new production from last April now revived as part of the summer opera festival. It got a super-enthusiastic reception from the crowd, the orchestra sounded great, and the soloists were more than adequate. So why am I so cold about the whole thing? It may be in part due to how attached I am to the Olivier Tambosi production most recently on view in the U.S. with Karita Mattila and Anja Silja. With something so superior, everything else may pale in comparison. But I really don’t want to be one of those people so attached to past performances that I can’t move on so it does upset me to think this.

Another factor, of course, may be Barbara Frey’s quite reasonable if unassuming production. It’s a modern dress update, but otherwise hews as closely to the original as you could ask. (Although the chorus members all had on weird metallic partial face make-up as if they were cyborgs or the undead for some reason I haven’t quite figured out yet.) Jenufa lives in a sad little hovel somewhere in Eastern Europe with a wind turbine in her front yard and a whole truckload of frustrated expectations. It’s very gray and very, very plain—which seems completely in line with the opera, but I couldn’t help wanting just a little flash of theater dazzle in there somewhere. It just all seemed so pedestrian. Again I hate being one of those people who go to the opera for “magic” or to be “transported” somewhere, but apparently for tonight I was one of them, because despite many strengths in this production, I wasn’t feeling it.

Of these many assets, I’d like to draw particular attention to perhaps the most convincing and beautifully sung Laca I’ve ever seen from Stefan Margita. Often it’s not really clear why Steva is the catch and Laca isn’t in Jenufa, but here Laca was perfect: costumed to be clearly the less attractive option but with a voice so beautiful that it was heartbreaking at times. Of course, the big stars were Eva-Maria Westbroek and Deborah Polaski. Both benefited from stage direction that emphasized the dowdy, loser sides of their characters' personae as opposed to the primal emotive ones like anger, rage, or fear. Westbroek was completely believable acting-wise and gave a bright, pretty vocal performance. I can't wait to see more of her in the U.S. and, given the frequency with which Strauss and Wagner have been entering her repertoire lately, there is a great deal to look forward to. Polaski’s voice is strong and often piercing, but this was a decidedly non-regal Kostelnička. Again I wanted a little more menace than this most domestic of takes on things, but it was vocally an enticing performance. The evening was conducted by Kirill Petrenko, a new face to me, but one who handled the many beautiful moments in Janacek’s score with clear aptitude. I look forward to seeing him again somewhere soon.

So don’t listen to me. What do I know? Munich's Jenůfa was great and it was my own hang-ups that prevented me from getting behind it 100%.

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Swan's Way

July 08, 2009

Anja Harteros, Wolfgang Koch, and Jonas Kaufmann
Photo: Wilfried Hösl/Bayerische Staatsoper 2009

It’s Wednesday, so it must be Wagner. Specifically, it’s Lohengrin in Munich with a whole crop of positives on paper - music director Kent Nagano conducting, directed by Richard Jones, and starring Anja Harteros as Elsa and Jonas Kaufmann in his first go at the title role. As with the premiere on Sunday, Wednesday’s second performance was met with numerous lusty boos clearly directed at the production. And while I’m aware that this is a de rigeur response to new opera productions in this part of the world, you’d think that at this point the disgust threshold would have been raised amongst the audience by now. But I must admit that by the end of the evening I had some sympathy for the booers given that Richard Jones has created a production that may be interesting and thought provoking, but is fairly difficult to actually like.

The primary tactic is to remove virtually all sense of spectacle and magic from the opera in favor of a domestic drama that revolves around faith. In fact, one might argue that Jones views the Lohengrin story as one about religious fanaticism at its core. When we meet Elsa, she is dressed in work clothes and rabidly going about her own business building a house. Despite the drama and accusations flying around her in Brabant, she barely gives anyone a look as she crosses back and forth through the crowd with bricks and other materials. It turns out, of course, this is all part of her dream about a knight-savior coming to defend and then marry her. She is building their house because that is her dream and the rest will take care of itself. She is upset about her vanished brother as we are reminded by the numerous vermisst posters plastered about the stage and handed out in the theater lobby.

Eventually her knight arrives in silver trainers, track pants, and a baby blue t-shirt. Carrying a stuffed swan from off stage. It’s a decidedly anti-climactic entrance, but soon he has shopping bags placed on the heads of the guards and he's won over enough of the crowd that everyone begins to jump in on building the life-size three-room house on stage. This is an activity that will reach its completion at the start of Act III and provides much of the background action throughout the opera. Meanwhile the pronouncements of the King's Herald, sung here by Evgeny Niktin, are made over a loud speaker with accompanying video on two small circular screens high above the stage enhancing the cultish feel of the staging. As Jones and Wagner enter the home stretch, everyone is won over and now sport similar baby blue tees despite Elsa's nagging questions now stoked by Ortrud and Friedrich von Telramund. Of course she finds out her husbands name and origin much to her chagrin. And as she catches on to what is about to transpire and that she, and to an extent the community, have failed this primary test of faith, she attempts to put her hand over Lohengrin’s mouth to prevent his speaking his name. She fails, and though she gets her brother back, the meeting hall curtain raises to reveal a stage full of cots with hand guns on them. All of the townspeople soon occupy these cots and prepare for a mass suicide as the lights go down, the leader of their cult having abandoned them for their lack of faith.

Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann
Photo: Wilfried Hösl/Bayerische Staatsoper 2009

Or at least that’s my version of things. I’m sure there are others. The good news is that regardless of how daunting the staging was, the musical values of the production were superb. Let’s talk about how great Anja Harteros is. Is there anything she can’t sing? I’ve not heard it yet and she was clean and bright and brilliant here. Jonas Kaufmann wasn’t bad either. His voice is probably a little bit lower than you might choose for your dream Lohengrin, but he handles the part often beautifully and with real feeling. Nagano and the orchestra were in top form. I always admired his Wagner conducting when he was in L.A. and he really delivers here. The rest of the cast was strong with perhaps the exception of Michaela Schuster as Ortrud, who often seemed distanced and lost in the thrall of the orchestra. Otherwise there was no bellowing and the opera had a light quality one doesn't always associate with Wagner's music, though it really should be there. There are five more performances in July before a return run in October so for those in Munich there are plenty of chances to catch this first-rate performance even if it comes with a heavy dose of bitter medicine.

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All The Mod Cons

July 07, 2009

Edita Gruberova and Pavol Breslik in Lucrezia Borgia
Photo: Wilfried Hösl/Bayerische Staatsoper 2009

I must admit that Munich is one of my favorite opera towns. Especially during their festival month in July when you get to revisit the past season’s biggest hits anew, often in the same week or so. Plus it’s a beautiful town and still oh so less expensive than London. And opera-wise it’s a dream come true. You never know what to expect on stage – these are the folks that brought you the Planet of the Apes Rigoletto and the Brokeback Mountain Eugene Onegin, so things are almost guaranteed to be interesting. There are stars galore from everywhere onstage, but best of all are the Munich stable of stars who appear here frequently, including Vesselina Kassarova. Anja Harteros, and, of course, Edita Gruberova.

Gruberova has become a genre all her own in recent years here with one new bel canto production after another at a point in her career where many others are slowing down. Like Mr. Domingo, she keeps going and going with Norma, Roberto Devereux and, this year, Lucrezia Borgia, which she appeared in on Monday. She’s quite fun to watch. An excellent actress who maintains a large part of her vocal skills. She handles the trills and flourishes with ease, though she did have some trouble reaching for the lowest notes in the part. I’ll admit she seemed a little shakier to me than in recent outings. Still, it’s a turn one could easily hold up to Renée Flemings’ portrayal in her prior outings in this material. Fleming may have the warmth, but Gruberova can still manage the coloratura passages.

Even though it was clearly Gruberova’s show, there was plenty else going on. Pavol Breslik was Gennaro and came off as very commanding. Vocally he was strong except for the very top and with all of the shirtless hijinks called for here he does an admirable job. My favorite, though, was Alice Coote as Maffio Orsini. She was probably the most vocally controlled and on target throughout the whole evening and is a master of the pants role. I should also give a big shout out to fellow blogger Christian Van Horn who sounded great as Astolfo. He’s running the gamut in Munich these days so you’re likely to catch him in any of a number of things. Bertrand de Billy was in the pit for what seemed a bit of a lazy run through. Maybe it was just Monday, but I could have used a little more oomph from the orchestra myself.

I should also note this was a new production from director, and Munich favorite, Christoph Loy. So while it didn’t have a movie theme, it was about as far from traditional as you could get. It was unusually minimal, even by Loy’s standards, with nothing more than a large black sloped riser, and a gray wall behind with giant light box letters spelling out Lucrezia Borgia. (The "B" gets ripped off the wall and smashed to the floor when Gennaro goes to deface the family crest in Act I.) The wall slowly moves off stage right little by little over the next three hours until it is gone. The cast is dressed in upscale school boy outfits for most of the show with Gruberova appearing in a number of vamped up outfits from something you might expect Borgia to wear, to a men's suit complete with Marilyn Monroe wig. In the final act, she appears in a gothic dress and long blond fright wig which she removes once she realizes that she has (again) poisoned her son. It’s a gesture similar to the one Loy employed with Gruberova in Roberto Devereux, although I think the effect is somewhat different here. And while there are a number of visually interesting images that come out of this evening, I’ll admit that it isn’t quite as engaging as some of Loy’s other work. It’s a little too reliant on boys behaving badly for the course of its action. But you’ll be able to judge for yourself considering the performance was one of several being filmed for an upcoming DVD release.

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A Masked Blah

July 06, 2009

Dalibor Jenis and Angela Marambio
Photo: Catherine Ashmore/ROH 2009

I hate thinking about opera as a sport. And by this I mean taking opera as a purely physical activity where the joy comes from watching performers complete certain acts with their body, in this case their vocal chords, in ways that border on the superhuman. There are those opera fans for whom the excitement of the physical singing process is the end-all-and-be-all of the experience – Did so-and-so hit the note exactly dead on? Did they accomplish it with the correct technique? Was their breathing appropriate? etc. I’m not expert about vocal technique, I’ll admit it. I have opinions, as uninformed as the next guy’s, and I do dislike some performer’s vocal mannerisms more than others. But as much as I may deplore the zealous attention to vocal performance in opera espoused by others, I must admit, sometimes, you just can’t get around it. Especially when it's completely missing or just plain bad.

Which leads me to the rest of my weekend in London and the Royal Opera House. After a thrilling against-all-odds performance from Joyce DiDonato as Rosina on Saturday, I was greeted with the ever familiar evidence of human failings on Sunday when I arrived for the matinee of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera to find that Ramon Vargas, who was cast as Riccardo, had called in sick with a cold. (I just knew I should have taken those Glyndebourne Rusalka return tickets when I had the chance, but no….) Vargas’ replacement was Roberto Aronica whom I recall hearing around here and there over the years, but not having fond memories of. Within minutes of appearance, however, I knew it was going to be a long afternoon. He nearly completely fell apart. I don’t just mean cracking or a few missed notes, I mean teeth clenching out-of-control. Now in all fairness, the audience was informed at the start of Act II that Aronica was suffering from allergies and begged our indulgence. What the allergy was is unclear. (I know I had some of the same issues myself since arriving in London.) But, there was undoubtedly plenty more indulgence to be begged over the next two hours.

Things did get a little better. Especially after the focus shifted to his cast mates Dalibor Jenis, who sang Renato, and Angela Marambio, the evening’s Emelia. Jenis was solid and often exciting, and when he wasn’t shouting, he was fairly watchable. But this is not what you would call fun. And after the disastrous Barbiere staging from the night before, to see this 2005 Mario Martone production was only mildly relieving – kind of like going out of the fire and into the frying pan. Scenery was minimal, drab, and uninspired. The whole show is essentially a build up to a singly visual trick in the ball scene that is put to so little use in an opera with so many possibilities, it was puzzling at best. A giant mirror, which is initially honed in on the auditorium, was lifted to provide viewers a complete view of the stage floor, back to front. While ball goers in their purported colonial American gowns wandered about the black empty downstage area, the reflection offered a view of a sunken pit immediately behind them upstage with a red floor, several doors in and out of the area and two staircases on either side leading to the upstage area. Then Martone and his team promptly ignore the set up. All of the activity between the characters takes place downstage with short moments of supernumeraries running up steps from below. The point of it all is beyond me. Nice trick, but the action everyone is focused on in the climactic scene is happening elsewhere.

It wasn’t a total loss, Maurizio Benini conducted the Royal Opera Orchestra with zing and real flair. But while they are quite worth hearing, I’d check about any cast cancellations if you’ve got tickets before heading to the theater in this run if I were you. All right, it's time for me to move on to Munich.

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A Close Shave

July 05, 2009

Joyce DiDonato before the leg break in Barbiere
Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH 2009

All right, Los Angeles. Consider this your fair warning. Fall is not that far away, and, if everything goes off as planned at Los Angeles Opera, there will be at least one show that is guaranteed to be a huge success. That particular production will be a revival of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia which the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion hasn’t seen in awhile and will feature a super all-star cast including Joyce DiDonato as Rosina, Juan Diego Florez as Count Almaviva and Nathan Gunn as Figaro. How am I so sure? Well here in London, I got the chance to see a dry run with almost the same cast (minus Gunn) and I can tell you it was musical dynamite. I know big stars aren’t everything, but these two in this opera which they’ve sung so many times in so many places are simply superb. DiDonato’s Rosina is lively and controlled with beautiful top notes and dazzling runs. She can even perform it under the most incredible circumstances. DiDonato, the original Yankee Diva, broke her fibula during Act I. (You can check out her first hand report and photos on her own blog.) At the end of the fist act it was announced that she had an "ankle sprain", but she persevered above and beyond the call of duty in Act II with a limp, a crutch, and plenty of moxie. Vocally, you’d never have noticed a thing. Talk about an artist with unbelievable commitment. I don't think I'd have the wherewithal to carry on with a broken leg in my job. Here's to you Ms. DiDonato, and here's wishing you a very speedy recovery.

Juan Diego Florez and the cast of Barbiere
Photo: mine 2009

With such a great performance in the face of physical adversity, it might be easy to overlook the rest of this incredible cast. But then again, we're talking about Juan Diego Florez. He’s athletic, charming, and wonderfully solid throughout his range. He’s got great comic timing and when he’s up against the likes of Alessandro Corbelli’s Dr. Bartolo and Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Don Basilio that is an immense task. Yes, you read that right, Furlanetto and Corbelli were both present in a significant piece of luxury casting. The only wild card in the mix was the rather last minute replacement for Simon Keenlyside who was originally scheduled as Figaro but withdrew form the run at the last minute due to health reasons. Pietro Spagnoli wasn’t bad, and in fact still made for a funny and forceful Figaro entering from the rear of the auditorium and joking with audience members on his way toward the stage. There were celebrities in the pit as well as Royal Opera Music Director Antonio Pappano led this revival with incredible care and distinction. It was light and breezy, but detailed throughout in a first rate performance from the orchestra.

Ironically, an evening of such high musical quality and theatrical bravery occurred amidst perhaps the worst opera staging I can remember seeing in a long time. Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's contributions to this Barbiere consist of little more than a lightly paneled box and a handful of commedia masks. It’s great for reflecting voices, but does almost nothing else. Panels occasionally move aside to reveal doors and windows when they are called for. Once in awhile a piece of furniture is wheeled in. Otherwise it’s nothing more than a concert performance with bright costumes. Except that is when things rev up at the end of Act I. The box in an effort to mirror the emotional frenzy of the cast on stage rises up and tilts back and forth on hydraulics to one side and another. Nothing says zany like a slow-motion 4.7 tumbler. The staging is neither attractive or insightful, and barely functions as a set at all. A huge disappointment even with the five or six heart-shaped balloons above the keystone cop chorus at the end. The good new in L.A. is that we won’t be burdened with this royally inept staging but get to keep some big portions of the great cast. Plan ahead now, you’ve been warned.

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We'll Be Together

July 04, 2009

Acrobats in L'Amour de Loin at ENO
Photo: Johan Persson/ENO 2009

Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin is an opera I hold near and dear to my heart. Especially so in the original Peter Sellars staging from the 2000 Salzburg Festival, which was later brought to Santa Fe and elsewhere and filmed for a wonderful DVD in Finland under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen. This being said, it may be hard for me to have a completely reasonable perspective on the UK premiere of the work at the English National Opera that opened on July 3. Despite these trepidations, though, I figured it was another chance to hear this darkly beautiful work live again, so no matter what, it couldn’t be that bad. Plus I'm a firm believer in not getting too stuck in one's ways or one's perceptions about what is and isn't "intended" or "appropriate" when it comes to opera. So, it wasn’t bad at all. In fact this production of L'Amour de Loin is quite good.

Photo: Johan Persson/ENO 2009

Now, let it be said that there is nothing in this production remotely as great as Dawn Upshaw supine and half submerged in a stage flooded with water, but it was filled with beautiful imagery from the mind of Daniele Finzi Pasca. Pasca is best known for his work with Cirque du Soleil, and, while I know that seems like anathema for more rigid opera fans, for an opera that is as ethereal as Tristan und Isolde to begin with, not being earthbound is a decided asset. The show is in fact populated by acrobats and aerialists. Each of the three primary characters, Jaufré Rudel, Clémence, and the Pilgrim have two doppelgangers or "spirits" who don’t necessarily always accompany them on stage, but do perform some highwire feats when the characters are around or referenced by others in their absence. The doubles are not acting out the action described by the vocalists, but are non-earthbound counterparts. The brightly colored stage is spare, often filled with more gossamer fabric than you can shake a stick at. Or should I saw more gossamer fabric than you can shake on a stick, or undulate, or send flying stageward from the upper balcony over the heads of the audience. It does give the whole thing a mystical feel and fits well with the North African and Middle Eastern references in the libretto. Light is another major motif, and in the final chorus, the performers are armed with mirrors to reflect intense beams from the stage out into the theater as Jaufré and his two "spirits" descend from above on cables. There are, of course, multiple references to the sea both in the fabric and in a series of video projections used in Act IV and elsewhere.

Some of that fabric in L'Amour de Loin
Photo: Johan Persson/ENO 2009

But all this airborne activity doesn’t always save the day. Some scenes seemed to bewilder the design team such as Rudel’s arrival in Tripoli near death. Here, his double is wheeled out on a table kept to the side of the stage and the principals encircle him in a way that breaks much of the dramatic tension over his impending death since its not really clear of the six or seven figures on stage, who is singing what to whom. Then there is the matter of the two carnival huskers who appear at the start of each act with a cart used to perform a shadow puppet show of their own, referencing events to follow. These two at times seem a throwback to a circus performance not directly related in tone to the rest of what’s going on. And despite all of the motion, the show more often than not is an essentially stand and deliver affair for the vocalists, which given the nature of the libretto is admittedly hard to avoid. But Pasca doesn't seem to know what to do with the singers unless they're being tossed about above the stage.

Joan Rodgers as Clémence with Rudel stand-in
Photo: Johan Persson/ENO 2009

Vocally things are more solid. Roderick Wiliams sings Rudel with strength and often a good amount of warmth. Faith Sherman's Pilgrim is clear and brightly toned and Joan Rodgers' Clémence is solid if not dark or haunting. Both of the women are burdened with odd costumes—the Pilgrim looking rather outer space-like and Clémence in a ridiculously matronly outfit when she first appears that can drive one to distraction. I like to think that most operas can stand translation into other languages, but I must admit, I felt L'Amour de Loin lost something in this transition from French to English, which made it seem less poetic and more pedestrian. All of this was under ENO’s very talented music director, Edward Gardner, who championed the four performances of this opera to be seen here over the next week as he has other 20th-century works including Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, which will open the next ENO season. He has a good command of Saariaho's score, and, while I felt the ENO orchestra was a little circumspect at times, it was still one beautiful opera. So is it worth seeing? If you're in London you'd be foolish to miss it. It's a rare opportunity to see something remarkably beautiful. And even if it isn't in the original wrapper, any opera worth its salt must live on through alternate visions of its core attributes. And so L'Amour de Loin lives on.

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Faithfully Marianne

July 03, 2009

Michelle Terry, Oliver Ford Davies, and George Rainsford
Photo: Simon Annand 2009

Thursday was devoted (albeit unintentionally) to the marvelous work of rising theater star Marianne Elliott. What's most unusual is that this rising star is one that does not appear on stage as an actor. Ms. Elliott, who is currently an Associate Director with the National Theater, is quickly becoming one of those names that gets other big talents excited working with her. Lately everything she touches turn to…. well, let’s just say something spectacular. She’s responsible for at least three great shows I’ve seen in London over the recent years including the lively National Theater revival of Shaw's Saint Joan in 2007. This year she has two other productions bearing her name on local stages, the National Theater’s current revival of All’s Well That Ends Well and the now West End-housed War Horse which made great bookends on a busy theater day. In all three of the above productions, Elliott takes large casts with rather unwieldy material and somehow magically transforms them into energetic, well-paced and often very moving experiences.

All’s Well That Ends Well has just recently started a summertime run at the National’s Olivier Theater. It’s big, glossy, and surprisingly clear-headed. Elliott does several things well here simultaneously. She treats the piece as a comedy failing to be seduced by its more “problematic” underpinnings. She uses a quasi-fairy-tale setting for the piece that allows for more stretching of plausibility than might be otherwise expected. However, she also manages not to stretch this too far forcing the play to seem childish. Take for instance all of the Countess’ distress, which comes off as authentic as the rest of the performances and never mawkish. By the same token, the comic bits never become so broad as to become silly. Best of all Elliott is blessed with a cast she is able to use for maximum effect while keeping things very balanced between them. There’s George Rainsford as Bertram, whose boyish attractiveness and sexuality make his character’s poor judgment and rapid turnaround believable. At the same time Michelle Terry’s Helena is more about pluck than being wounded, allowing for a plausible comic scenario in Act II. Of course, there’s also the magnificent Conleth Hill as Parroles winning over the audience with ease. He was last seen in New York in Conor McPherson's The Seafarer and any time before he’s back on an American stage is too long.

A Horse and his Boy
Photo: Simon Annand 2009

Meanwhile, Elliot’s prior major success for the National Theater is currently in an open-ended run in the West End. War Horse, which she co-directed with Tom Morris, is based on a book by Michael Morpurgo and adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford. The plot is obvious and cliché. Boy meets horse. They fall in love. Horse goes off to war. You can fill in all your own blanks from here. But despite a story that would be equally at home at Disney or in a Garrison Keillor routine, the show is surprisingly watchable even at three hours. Again there is a large cast in need of marshaling and quite an array of stage special effects that go a long way towards reproducing certain cinematic tricks. Most notable of these is a rotating center stage that can be used for Matrix-like action enhancement making the slow-motion war scenes seem a little more dramatic. Of course, there are the spectacular horse puppets, which do take over everything in the end. Even in their decidedly unreal proportions and physical appearance, their movements are so well reproduced they do indeed outshine everyone around them. This design of the horse puppets and much of the scenery is an intentional reference to the British Vorticism movement in the arts prior to WWI when the play’s action is set. (Of note, there is a major retrospective of Vorticism and the Futurist movement it sprang from over at the Tate Modern right now that is also very worth seeing.) Elliott and Morris realize who the star is and wisely don’t set up a battle between puppets and actors. Things are low key enough amongst the human cast that everything goes quite splendidly for everyone and even though you're obviously being manipulated, it's easy enough to go along with it.

So, here’s the next question. When can we get Marianne Elliott onto an opera stage? I wager she’s better than half the people doing it currently. So all you opera organizations out there, get on that. In the meantime, we’ll all continue to benefit from her work in other parts of the theater.


Arcadia Fire

July 02, 2009

Dan Stevens and Jessie Cave
Photo: Tristram Kenton 2009

It’s always good to start off with a bang. I’ve arrived in London, and started my trip here with a production that will be hard to beat as one of the year’s best. It’s the current revival of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia now showing at the Duke of York’s Theater in the West End. I’d not been exposed to the play live before and had been advised by friends that had that it was the best. play. ever. Their somewhat facetious hyperbole is not far off the mark. While, Arcadia may not tower over all other dramatic works of the English language, it’s certainly one of the great plays of the 20th century. What’s more, the current production directed by David Leveaux is immensely satisfying. It barrels head first into the rich complexity of Stoppard’s play without ever being ponderous and maintaining its very comic sensibility. There are many big laughs here for a comedy with such an intellectual scope.

I won’t lie. A knowledge of physics, Classics, and British literature will help somewhat in following all of the intellectual action in the play, though it is far from necessary. Arcadia deals with two story lines nearly 200 years apart playing out simultaneously in the same room of an English country manor. The contemporary thread concerns two academics who have come to the estate independently to work on pet projects, one concerning Lord Byron and a imagined duel between the poet and one of his contemporaries. Meanwhile, in 1809, the time of the imagined duel, we witness the daughter of the estate, Thomasina Coverly, and her tutor, Septimus Hodge, uncovering scientific principles that will resonate for centuries. Coverly and Hodge are also characters in the story leading up to the theorized duel and, on one level, the play is a literary mystery being unraveled from two directions at once not unlike A. S. Byatt’s Possession. But there’s so much more here as Stoppard takes on themes related to physics and math, the big bang, decay, the nature of truth, and, while he’s at it, the human condition. All in one room. All in a series of conversations between characters about books, ideas, and the politics of landscape design. Think Shaw without the preaching. The ending is one of the most beautiful conclusions on stage I've seen.

The performances are stupendous. At its center is Samantha Bond as Hannah Jarvis, the academic and defender of proof in the contemporary story. She’s the perfect foil to Neil Pearson’s Bernard Nightingale who longs to publish first and ask questions later. Ed Stoppard plays Valentine Coverly, the modern day family title holder and mathematician working on the equations that run the universe. Stoppard manages to avoid too much brooding while creating real angst in discussions about math and the universe. In the 19th century we have Dan Steven’s hilarious frustrated libertine, Septimus Hodge, and his pupil played with real convincing earnestness by Jessie Cave who makes her West End debut. It’s astonishing to see such a lively engaging ensemble cast in a play of ideas. I won't pretend to say that I caught every last thing in this blisteringly sophisticated, adult comedy. But I also don't want to leave the impression that the evening is overly complex. It's one of those rare theater experiences where you want to sit through the whole three hours again immediately when its over. And if I were in London longer, I certainly would.


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