Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

In the Wings - September 09

August 31, 2009

Angelica Torn, Estelle Parsons, and Libby George in August: Osage County
Photo: Robert J Saferstein/CTG 2009

At last the Fall is here in Los Angeles with its high temperatures and wildfires. But there is good news with the opening of the music and performing arts seasons around town with suddenly oodles to choose from. On top of the pile, of course, is the opening of the opera season and, like most houses around the country, L.A. Opera is playing it safe with their season opener, Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore on the 12th with Giuseppe Filianoti, Nino Machaidze, and Nathan Gunn. The bigger story though will come at the end of the month on the 26th with the third installment of Achim Freyer’s staging of Wagner’s Ring cycle with Siegfried starring Linda Watson and John Treleaven. Watson is turning out to be much more watchable than I initially thought, and Freyer’s phantasmagorical vision is sure to make this another unforgettable night at the opera. L.A. Opera has also launched the dedicated site for the Ring Festival LA,which highlights all of the associated arts events around town taking place in conjunction with the performances of complete cycle next Spring.

Opera out of town offers some standard if well-cast fare. Both the Metropolitan Opera in New York and Lyric Opera Chicago will kick things off in September with productions of Puccini’s Tosca. New York’s staging is new from Luc Bondy and will star Karita Mattila while Chicago will be calling upon Deborah Voigt. Up in San Francisco, new music director Nicola Luisotti will arrive with an opening production of David McVicar’s Il Trovatore from the Metropolitan Opera earlier this year with much the same cast, plus Stephanie Blythe as Azucena. It’s solid and definitely has some vocalists worth hearing. San Francisco will follow closely on these heels with Puccini’s Il Trittico with Patricia Racette in all of the soprano roles and Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

Director Achim Freyer
Photo: Monika Rittershaus 2009

Los Angeles theater looks to be pretty lively in September as well with a number of promising shows with good pedigrees. At the Ahmanson, the touring production of Tracy Lett’s stupendous August: Osage County arrives with Estelle Parsons in her very well-regarded turn as Violet Weston. Just across the plaza, the Taper will kick off with one of the jewels of their year, a revival of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade with former Grey's Anatomy star, TR Knight. Across town, the Getty Villa will present their annual all-too-brief-run of a classic that will hopefully not fall prey to the antics of mentally unstable neighbors as in years past. This time out, it's a staging of Aristophanes’ comedy Peace in an adaptation from local theater legends Culture Clash. Meanwhile, Orange County’s South Coast Repertory will present a revival of the Sondheim review musical Putting It Together opposite the latest effort from Julie Marie Myatt, The Happy Ones. What else? The Geffen will present a world premier comedy from Blair Singer Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas which pretty much says it all, and East West Players downtown will present Yasmina Reza’s Art. But not to be outdone by any of the above, UCLA Live will open their International Theater Festival on the 23rd with a first for them - a new production of their own commission. The play is Euripides’ Medea with the bloody honors going to none other than Annette Bening.

To be honest, though, the theater event I'm secretly most looking forward to is out of town. It's the world premiere musical from Green Day and Michael Mayer American Idiot opening up on the 4th in Berkeley at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. With the co-collaborator of Spring Awakening and the energy of Green Day, it's bound to be interesting even if it's a failure. I'll also be returning to Ashland, OR for the first time in a couple of years on the 10th for three days of catching up with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival now that it's firmly under the direction of long-time South Coast Repertory collaborator Bill Rausch.

Christine Brewer

Back in town meanwhile, REDCAT will also start off the fall with a number of shows of note. September 16th will bring an interactive theater and musical event called A Counterpoint of Tolerance: Ah! An Interactive Opera No-Opera. It's brought to you from a consortium of CalArts folks and you can read more about it here. On September 23, this season's dance programming will start off with a collaboration entitled Maybe Forever from European choreographers Meg Stuart and Philipp Gehmacher in a rare West Coast appearance. And, of course, when we're talking about REDCAT, it's important not to overlook their fantastic film program, which this Fall will start with a "projection performance" from Bruce McClure.

Sadly, September will continue to be a slow month musically as the Hollywood Bowl season peters to a close with a grab bag including Berlioz’ Requiem on the 10th and some of the predictable fare you'd expect. If you want L.A. Philharmonic excitement, the best you’re going to do is the release of another iTunes/DG recording on September 22 when one of the highlights of last season, the premiere performances of Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No 4 under the direction of our beloved and much missed Esa-Pekka Salonen, first becomes available. There is a small glimmer at the end of the month, though, when Christine Brewer will arrive in the local area on September 30 down in Cerritos on her current recital tour. Don’t miss your chance to hear one of the country’s leading sopranos.


La Cage aux Folles

August 30, 2009

Liza Minnelli at the Hollywood Bowl
Photo: mine 2009

What can you say about Liza Minnelli in this day and age? At 63, she’s embarking on a tour following a successful run in Liza’s at the Palace… in New York, and this weekend she was at the Hollywood Bowl. I saw Saturday’s performance, and no matter what else it was, it was certainly remarkable. Minnelli is a performer who has an effective shtick and easily-lampooned style, but she doesn’t back down from any of it. She is beyond camp. She revels in those very things that would seem to detract from her image. She approaches the show with a gee-whiz-what-a-surprise stance and clings to gestures from decades ago. Her penchant for name dropping, including that of Michael Jackson, persists unabated. But what would seem to derail much lesser performers, not only work here but make Minnelli all the more endearing to the audience. She's funny and her jokes about ex-husbands and her age really go beyond just being able to laugh at herself in a way. By the time she got around to Every Time We Say Goodbye, her admonition that “we” all did “it” together made perfect sense.

The voice is what you’d expect. Often fractured and with canyons of vibrato at times. But she plays to her strengths with material that is unequivocally hers – “New York, New York”, “Cabaret”, “Maybe this Time.” She is a star from a world of stars that no longer exist and she knows it, making the proceedings all the more enjoyable despite the ravages of time. She careens over the barrier between fearless and foolhardy with abandon offering up Al Jolson’s “Mammy” with an apology that she can't go down on her knees for it as she may have in the past. She also performed "Comme ils disent", a classic Charles Aznavour song, well received by her many gay fans. In the end, though, like most great live performers, Minnelli rises above the rest by maintaining an incredible energy level and communicating with an audience in a way they want and understand. Even with introductions between each number, she keeps the evening up and energized, and most, including myself, walked away more than satisfied. A really enjoyable show from a real living legend.


The Office

August 24, 2009

Megan Mullally as Beverly Wilkins, The Receptionist
Photo: Odyssey Theater/Evidence Room Theater 2009

While Adam Bock’s recent play The Receptionist doesn’t necessarily add something new to the banality-of-evil genre of plays, it does accomplish a number of things that make it worth seeing. Currently, Bock’s play, which ran in New York in 2007, is being staged in a tight and worthwhile production at L.A.’s one-and-only Odyssey Theater in conjunction with another of L.A.’s great local independent collective, the Evidence Room Theater. The collaboration has put together a first rate cast starring among others Megan Mullally in the title role of Beverly Wilkins, a Midwestern office receptionist in an unnamed business that could be about anywhere in today’s office working world. It’s a big part, and the play relies heavily on Mullally to milk laughs from the everyday conversations, activities, and cultural norms of the 9-to-5 world many of us inhabit including water cooler gossip, personal phone calls, birthday parties and all the other things we do when we should be doing something else. And she does an expert job in this. It’s a real testament to her acting skills and Bart DeLorenzo’s direction that Mullally avoids any of the leery cynicism that won her major fame on television. Beverly Wilkins, the receptionist, is about the small gesture and too much sly self-awareness could easily crumble the whole show. Instead things bubble along in a world that is very familiar, but at the same time very funny. In fact the play’s main shock is when that normalcy of ignored work actually does rear its very ugly head in an oblique and off-handed manner. But some things, once said, can never be taken back.

Still for 70 minutes worth of play, Bock’s little tale still runs the risk of stretching thin. If there is a particular weakness of The Receptionist, it’s that when all is said and done, it’s a one trick pony. Granted a good trick and a well done one. But like the child’s magic trick—one you’ve seen how it works—it’s unlikely to be quite so interesting the next time around. It’s far from a dull evening, however. The rest of the cast includes Jennifer Finnigan as the relationship-challenged Lorraine, Jeff Perry as their boss Mr. Raymond, and Chris L. McKenna as an unexpected visitor from the central office. All are solid and believable foils in a play that is increasingly unbelievable. But that, too, is a world we live in and as The Receptionist reminds us, that may be the scariest thing of all. The show runs through the 20th of September.


A Horse of a Different Color

August 19, 2009


It’s time to catch up on a little business here at Out West Arts. I’m steadily updating the Calendar with all of the scheduled events for the Fall which you’ll be hearing more about as I go along. And if you’re so inclined, you can also follow Out West Arts on Twitter now, as well, which will feature more as-it-happens commentary. Probably the most anticipated events this Fall here in Los Angeles concern the arrival of new Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel. His mug is on billboards all over town touting his “pasión” and “eléctrico”. After his opening program featuring Mahler’s First Symphony and a later one with the Verdi Requiem, the Philharmonic will embark on a more substantial programming initiative in November entitled West Coast, Left Coast examining California’s own contributions to the world of classical music. L.A. Philharmonic tickets for the general public go on sale tomorrow, August 23.

Probably more exciting for me though will be L.A. Opera’s new production of Siegfried, which will open in September. It’s the third installment in the new Achim Freyer-directed Ring cycle here and, given how strong the first two parts have been, there’s a lot of excitement around this opening. As I was up exchanging some of my LA Philharmonic subscription tickets last week, I passed by the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion long enough to catch some of the scenery and props from Siegfried that were being unbundled from protective plastic wrapping. There were more metallic horses for the Walküren including what appeared to be Grane and numerous colorful, but rough-hewn scenic elements. (See my photos in the post for further details.)

One other brief bit of L.A. arts news worth mentioning this week. The Center Theater Group announced its schedule for the 2010 season at the Mark Taper Forum. And, while the list contains a number of productions that feel rather familiar, there are a number of things to look forward to. (Does L.A. really need another Speed-the-plow production right now?) CTG will finally get around to producing Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore after postponing it this summer due to financial reasons. More interesting, though, is a run of Rajiv Joseph’s spectacular Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo which had its world premiere at CTG’s Kirk Douglas Theater in May of this year. It was fantastic there and hopefully the Taper run will give the play a chance for much bigger audiences. It’s definitely worth seeing again so keep it in mind for next year.

To Be Young, Gifted, and On Broadway

The cast of Passing Strange

Late August is one of those brief pauses where the music and theater performance calendar can get mighty thin just before the new season comes to life with activity. But if you are in need of something to hold you over until then, I’d highly recommend you check with your cable provider about a special on-demand event coming you way next week. It’s the first broadly available screenings of Passing Strange: The Movie which will be available through the newly launched Sundance Selects service starting August 26 and will have a theatrical run in New York starting this weekend following positive receptions in a variety of film festivals earlier in the year. It’s the latest film from director Spike Lee and is essentially a filmed performance of the recently closed Broadway production of the Tony-winning musical from the minds of Stew and Heidi Rodewald.

Set in Stew’s native Los Angeles as well as Amsterdam and Berlin, the musical is a semi-autobiographical portrait of the artist as a young man. Stew recounts his falling in love with music in Los Angeles in the 70s and his subsequent travels around the globe in pursuit of his art and eventual maturity. Think Purple Rain without the high-heels and Apollonia. It’s not new territory, but Passing Strange is a remarkably well written and energetic show largely uninterested with Broadway musical conventions. Actually, despite the rags to rock riches, the story has less in common with other rock films than it does with Spike Lee’s own Crooklyn. At its heart, Stew’s tale is one that concerns a nostalgic view of the past wrapped in the primal tragedy of a mother’s death through the eyes of her wandering child. Given his familiarity with the material, Spike Lee has done a remarkable job in translating a three dimensional experience into the requisite two of the flat screen world. Although Passing Strange incorporates a great deal of neon lighting and large background elements for its otherwise stripped down numbers, Lee avoids static shots of the whole stage almost entirely, favoring a far more intimate approach often getting in close not only with the actors, but also looking out at the audience as a whole from the casts’ vantage point.

Daniel Breaker (front) and Stew in Passing Strange

But despite the ending you can see from a mile away and some pro forma romance, this filmed version of Passing Strange is incredibly satisfying. It’s full of life and excitement and musical surprises. And it's very, very smart on a variety of topics from race to art. It has both a witty tongue and a philosophical mind. It also features the incredible performances of Daniel Breaker, de’Adre Aziza, Eisa Davis, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge, and Rebecca Naomi Jones all of whom were at the top of their game by the time this more lasting document was made at the end of the show's run. So much to see, how could you miss it?

Dead Letter Office

August 16, 2009

Patricia Racette
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2009

I suppose the good news about The Letter, the world premiere opera from Paul Moravec and Terry Teachout now finishing its run in Santa Fe, is that it is not a total disaster. It’s close, mind you, but not quite there. Or comparing it to other recent world premieres, it’s not as bad as Howard Shore’s The Fly, but it made me pine for the musical and theatrical values of Tan Dun’s The Last Emperor. The opera is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s play of the same name but is frankly far more indebted to the William Wyler film version from 1940 starring Bette Davis. It’s a simple melodramatic story about a wife who kills her lover and then tries to cover it up by claiming self-defense in the face of an attempted rape. The murderer, Leslie Crosbie, thinks she’ll get off until the victim’s mistress finds an incriminating letter from Crosbie and uses it to blackmail her. Crosbie is set free, but everyone is dragged into the big shame spiral.

The opera was intended to mimic the feel of a movie and runs just around 100 minutes in a single act. Sadly, it’s this very effort to maintain a cinematic scope that is the work’s major downfall. It’s well paced, but it felt like a retread. Teachout’s libretto is little more than a moderately altered version of the screenplay, which wasn’t Shakespeare to begin with. Teachout joins a long line of music critics and authors who’ve crossed the divide between creator and commentator. Sadly, he ends up not with the likes of Shaw and Virgil Thomson, but instead with the likes of Roger Ebert. Think of The Letter as the operatic equivalent of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Only much funnier.

There also seems to be a complete lack of awareness of camp by the creators. Due to the passage of time, The Letter has gone from tense melodrama to comic walk down memory lane. The show elicits more than a few unintentional laughs from the audience with its histrionics and outdated cultural mores. In fact the piece probably would have worked better as a comedy than it does in its current form. Moravec’s music, of course, can be taken independently of the text. It’s not bad, and at times there are some moments of intrigue. However, there are just as many moments that sound like they could have been taken wholesale from any film noir soundtrack of the period. The vocal writing never really ignites into something memorable or affecting. Patrick Summers was at the podium and seemed to have things under control with no wavering or confusion on anyone's part that I could tell at this point in the run.

The cast itself does admirably with the meager material foisted upon them. Anthony Michaels-Moore is Robert Crosbie, Leslie’s husband, and comes off with an almost sexy frustration in his part. James Maddalena plays Leslie’s lawyer Howard Joyce in the most consistent and believable acting in the show. The big part, though, is reserved for the underrated American soprano Patricia Racette. She is commanding and dispatches this mess with ease. All I could think about was when is someone going to get around to writing a new role for her that actually lives up to her prodigious talent. It hasn’t happened yet. One piece of good news for her, though. She gets to wear a number of excellent period costumes designed by Tom Ford for the production. I hope she gets to keep them so that they see the light of day again.

So it appears that The Letter is likely to sink quickly into memory. Teachout and Moravec claimed at one point that their opera was written specifically targeted at people who don’t like opera. It appears that they have succeeded. As one might suspect, though, this is not a recipe for success given that The Letter also appears to be unable to convert anyone into liking opera either.


Dean Team

August 15, 2009

Brett Dean
Photo: mine 2009

Summer in Santa Fe is not all about opera. For 37 years now, its been about excellent chamber music as well, under the auspices of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival that takes advantage of the many great musicians and composers who have links to this town or may be working with the Santa Fe Opera or are just lucky enough to be invited to participate. This year is no exception, and I had the pleasure of catching a number of shows at the St Francis Auditorium downtown. The best of these shows highlighted the Festival’s commitment to contemporary music, which on Friday featured a visit from Australian violist and composer Brett Dean. In the decade following his 14 years as a violist with the Berlin Philharmonic, Dean has developed quite a growing audience for his music. He’s been in Los Angeles before for performances of his Viola Concerto as well as a number of smaller pieces for chamber-sized ensembles. Although I wasn’t completely won over then, I was still excited to see him here because he did strike me as a thoughtful and very articulate composer before.

And even though the works on Friday’s program were much smaller in scope, I felt much more convinced of Dean’s ability to write music that is both modern, educated, and at the same time readily enjoyable. He seems to be joining an ever growing group of contemporary composers like Thomas Adés who can take the lessons of the last 80 years of Western art music and create something new that has more than just academic appeal. Two of the pieces on the program were solo works. The first Intimate Decisions is for viola, and Dean played the work himself. Dean describes the work as a sort of personal conversation that ebbs and flows, but I was most taken with his masterful technique and his ability to maintain huge amounts of drama with just this single instrument as a repeating arc of notes fades at the end of the 10 minutes or so the work runs. The other solo piece Demons for solo flute was also a virtuoso test for the performer Tara Helen O’Connor. Here the many facets of the instrument were drawn out through the music like some Pandora's Box of emotion.

Brett Dean with the Orion Quartet, Tara Helen O'Connor, Felix Fan, and Andrew Russo
Photo: mine 2009

The second half of the show featured bigger works starting off with Huntington Eulogy which Dean described from the stage as a mini-Requiem for a young man associated with the Huntington Estate Winery, which hosts a music festival Dean has a long-standing association with. The sonata-like work is scored for piano and cello and evokes desert vistas and the nighttime sky in a way that was quite appropriate for Santa Fe. The performers were Felix Fan and Andrew Russo (two-thirds of the ensemble Real Quiet) and took me by surprise in how much had been packed into such a small musical space. The final piece for string quartet, entitled Eclipse was no less ambitious. Dean does not shy away from topical material in his work, and despite his stated desire that the pieces be taken simply in musical terms, he makes no bones about certain influences. The probing and at times rageful work references a refugee crisis that took place in Australia in 2001 when a number of Middle Eastern refugees fleeing in boats in an attempt to get to Australia capsized in the sea between that country and Indonesia. They were subsequently rescued by a Norwegian ship whose captain then entered a standoff with the Australian government over whether or not to let the refugees come ashore. The Orion String Quartet played beautifully here (as they had earlier in the week during a bang-up Haydn quartet). Again Dean had fashioned a piece that sounded almost orchestral with the most meager of resources.

Hearing Dean’s music again in this setting made me want to hear more of it. Luckily that appears to be in the offing soon. In fact, he’s got a major commission for his first opera from Opera Australia in 2010 for an adaptation of Peter Carey’s Bliss. Given Santa Fe’s long track record of world and American premieres, it may not be unexpected to see Brett Dean out this way again with other projects in the not-too-distant future. He’ll be playing with other ensembles in music not his own over the next two weeks at the Chamber Music Festival and I encourage everyone to check him and the other great music here out as well.

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(Please) Drag Me to Hell

August 14, 2009

Lucas Meachem and Susanna Phillips
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2009

I’m sad to report that Santa Fe Opera’s current revival of Don Giovanni may be the worst production of a Mozart opera I’ve ever seen. It is certainly the worst Don Giovanni I’ve ever seen. In fact, its probably the greatest disservice to Don Juan since Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando made Don Juan de Marco in 1994. Of course, that film did have a Bryan Adams song to recommend it. I should make it clear that I don’t necessarily see this production's failure as having anything to do with the cast or with conductor Lawrence Renes. This was the kind of young cast Santa Fe likes to put in its longer-running popular summer fare and I rather liked Lucas Meachem in the title role. He can’t quite pull of the Tim McGraw look that he and Matthew Rose, who plays Leporello, are asked to contend with, but I really don’t think anybody could. Meachem is attractive and can muster the arrogance of a lothario on stage. Of course, the rest of the cast, including Kate Lindsey (Zerlina), Susanna Phillips (Donna Elvira), Elza van den Heever (Donna Anna), were all attired in late Victorian garb for one of those non-specific hodgepodge looks that I typically like but here just seemed lazy. Again the singing was uniformly solid and enjoyable though the acting seemed unfocused with zero direction or guidance. Everybody had found some shtick of their own and they were sticking with it from Zerlina's homage to Nellie Oleson to Leporello's repeated regret over not electing to have the V8 when he was able to.

Director Chas Rader-Shieber and his design team have created perhaps the most unsexy, unmenacing Don Giovanni imaginable. They take Don Giovanni as nothing more than a comedy, a point not lost on the audience that openly laughed as Giovanni is dragged to hell in the final scene. Yes, there is ample comedy in this opera, but there’s much more too it than that. For all intents and purposes this Giovanni might as well have been Cosi Fan Tutte. The set consists of a wall of many doors and windows suggestive of an urban street, again including several coexisting, but unspecified time periods. The walls move back and forth in two halves and there are a couple of trees that get pushed around. In the final scene the stage is filled with cabinets that eventually act as light sources when opened, and one serves as the entry point for the protagonist into hell. Otherwise, there is nothing going on and nothing for anyone to do but stand around and gesticulate a little bit. Oh, and everything is painted red. Even the trees. I suppose this is a production that might appeal to someone…who…really likes red. Otherwise it’s stone cold dead and seriously misjudges the non-comic content of this particular opera.


Boys Don't Cry

August 13, 2009

Dimitri Pittas and Jennifer Black with cast
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2009

I’ve begun to wonder. Is it possible to do a bad staging of L’Elisir d’Amore? Donizetti and Felice Romani fashioned such a taught comic gem that it seems to induce laughter in the hands of nearly any director and design team that comes into contact with it. Sure it’s not the musical monument any of the Mozart/DaPonte operas are, but L’Elisir is a crowd-pleaser with its share of memorable music. Here in Santa Fe the director duties belong to Stephen Lawless who has updated the action (you guessed it) to a post WWII-era Italy with American occupying forces. Nemorino is a mechanic and Adina is now a sort-of local school teacher. The action takes place in front of a roadside billboard that carries several different banners throughout including both ads and scenery. There’s a red sports car Nemorino is working on that he wheels out and later drives on stage and there is also Belcore’s jeep. (How a motor vehicle on stage always elicits applause like it’s Top Gear or something is beyond me.) Wedged in between this are a number of outright funny gags. Take for instance the chorus' preparation at the sound of Belcore’s approach. They immediately grab small Italian flags to wave until realizing that these are Americans on the way up the hill. The entire chorus runs around to dump the Italian flags only to return with American flags seconds later as the sergeant arrives. There’s also a rather funny segue from the intermission into act two where one of the local women writes Adina’s wedding menu on a blackboard as she carefully mulls over each course before writing it down. It’s when she gets to the third course that the audience begins to note that everything includes chicken, even the dessert.

So, with such appropriate frivolity why was the evening such a drag? Sadly, it comes down to the musical part of this evening of musical theater. Even with a completely competent young American cast, the musical values of Wednesday’s performance were not so great. The chorus was AWOL for most of the evening. They were almost completely inaudible at the end of Act I and with only moderate revival after the break. Unfortunately, the disorganization spilled over into the pit where conductor Corrado Rovaris managed a rather flat and lifeless interpretation of a score that is all about zing.

Thank god for Dimitri Pittas. Santa Fe Opera has been billing him as the big star for this production, and he is. With tenor disappointment an international pastime these days, hearing someone sing this role fluidly with so much ease and command is a wonder. He’s a decent actor as well and a rising star at the Metropolitan Opera in New York where he’s gotten into some higher profile assignments lately. Which is very good for him if he can maintain the quality demonstrated here this evening. The Belcore, Patrick Carfizzi, and Adina, Jennifer Black, are both alumni of the vocal apprenticeship program in Santa Fe and both were strong, assured performers. There were no obvious weak links and everyone looked fresh and excited, which goes a long way. So while not everyone in the show came to the dance in quite the same shape, Santa Fe’s current L’Elisir is by no means a total disaster. It competently sung and has a cute and funny staging. It just needs a little more musical inspiration.


Graveyard Shift

August 12, 2009

Natalie Dessay as Violetta
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2009

What’s the best strategy for an opera company to weather tough times? I can’t tell you. But I do know that Santa Fe Opera has lucked into a confluence of factors that’s hopefully helping to keep this vital American company afloat in the rising economic waters. It is typical for the company to schedule lots of performances of at least one old warhorse every summer. This company is also no stranger to the occasional big A-list star. But this year they have two of these factors rolled into one with what is clearly the hottest ticket here this season with Natalie Dessay returning to Santa Fe for her first performances in Verdi’s La Traviata. I saw it on Tuesday and will say that despite criticism from some quarters that she’s too lightweight for the role, there is no question that she is a viable and intriguing Violetta. That’s not to say she’s one of the best ever, or even one of the best currently signing the part based on this viewing. But she clearly brings something to the table, so to speak.

Specifically, the thing I found most interesting was that she actually seemed like a somewhat naive, high-spirited party girl. When love comes along she is totally blindsided by it and unable to contend with the implications. Her approach stands out in a world filled with rich creamy interpretations from the likes of Gheorghiu and Fleming who sing the role exquisitely, but create the sensation that Violetta is both matronly and worldly wise. Violetta should always be a little more Sophie than the Marschallin in my view, and this is one Traviata where I didn't sit around wondering why Alfredo would be so in love with someone obviously his mother's age. Dessay appears to be the youthful red-hot center of light in this world as she bounds from the back of the stage in her opening scene with a squeal in a flouncy pink gown and fire-red hair. Her singing is beautiful and her coloratura is on full display in an Act I that seems to fit her better than the demands of the later acts. She is paired with Saimir Pirgu as Alfredo and Dessay's real life husband, Laurent Naouri, as Germont. Neither is quite up to her game, but Naouri is fairly close giving a competent if not completely heartbreaking turn in the role. Pirgu is likable, attractive, and athletic, but overwhelmed in the vocal clutch with some gravel-tinged high notes. Frederic Chaslin conducted the orchestra in a lively turn and seemed to have things well coordinated with the stage.

Natalie Dessay as Violetta
Photo: mine 2009

Of course, this is not only Dessay’s return to Santa Fe, but also that of one of her favorite collaborators, Laurent Pelly. Pelly has created marvelous comic productions too numerous to mention including the recent worldwide smash staging of Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment (which starred Dessay) and Platée for Opera de Paris. And while Pelly is undoubtedly a comic master, here in a drama things aren’t quite smooth sailing. The opera opens with Alfredo watching a funeral procession complete with coffin crossing the stage. The implication is that the opera to follow is all told in flashback and I would argue also that Violetta is always, already dead. The stage is filled with a mountain of various-sized gray boxes with narrow walkways in between. And while it’s not explicit, the stage itself may be one giant memento mori - the boxes being tombs in some older European cemetery. The boxes are dressed up with turf and later mirrors in Act II and covered in sheets for Act III, but Violetta is always aware of exactly where she is headed. She just can’t keep dancing on her own grave forever. It’s a production that is short on spectacle, but big on ideas, which, needless to say, would make it a production that is a hard sell if it weren’t for Dessay. In the end, despite all the thought, though, it was a little hard to connect with and wore on one's nerves after awhile. But it was Dessay's night, and things rolled right along with a strong public response to the show. Given that this is her first turn in the role, the next question would be where does she go with it from here and how does her performance continue to evolve in the part. She's starting from a very interesting place.


(Don't) Drag Me to Hell

August 11, 2009

Paul Groves and Christine Brewer
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2009

I love visiting Santa Fe. About half-way through the first show of my current opera festival excursion, Gluck’s Alceste, that sense of relief and excitement hit me. It’s all so beautiful. Of course, this really enjoyable production contributed greatly to the feeling. In fact, despite some obvious flaws, it pretty much made for an ideal evening. Alceste is admittedly an odd opera. The king of Thessaly, Admete, is dying and in a desperate attempt to save his life, Alceste, Admete’s wife, offers her life in exchange for his to the god Apollo who has mandated the need for such a transaction to save Admete's life. Everyone moans about these circumstances for two hours until Hercules suddenly shows up out of nowhere, on break from his many labors, to rescue them both from the gates of hell.

You’re going to have to spice this up a little bit, and Santa Fe Opera, as usual, delivers the goods. First up, they’ve recruited a great cast headed up by the unparalleled Christine Brewer. She was freaking fantastic. All I could think about was how tragic it was that she canceled those met Opera Brünnhildes this year. A lot has been made of her recent health limitations, and it is true that plenty of opportunities are made available for her to be seated over the course of this evening. I've never seen such a ingratiating chorus before, chairs always at the ready constantly offered to leaders. But make no mistake, Brewer is in this to win it. She's up and down, lying on the floor, and kneeling on at least two occasions while singing during the performance. If there are knee problems, you wouldn't know it to look at her. Brewer’s performance alone is worth seeing this show. Meanwhile, Paul Groves sings Admete, a role he’s done in may other venues. He’s a solid and quite convincing actor and vocally agile. There was a little trouble at the high end of his range, but not devastatingly so. He was also pretty game in a sort of goth tunic with red laces at the back and slits in front high enough to get some above the knee bare leg action in a handful of moments. I totally bought Groves and Brewer as a married couple.

Then there is the conceptual production from Francisco Negrin. You’ve got to admire someone who finds room for Spock, Edward Scissorhands, and five dancers dressed like the Jigsaw killer from Saw all in the same opera. The gray stage is surrounded by gently curving walls that later fold together to reveal a stairway to the underworld. There’s also a giant cracked egg that serves as altar, hearth, and other central points. There is some struggle to create the sense of scene changes. Act I has a ridiculous detached wall with a doorway in it that is moved back and forth in front of the egg. The wall is also made of a scrim and sometimes we can just see through it. As with many other things in the staging, you begin to get too wrapped up in what exactly everyone is doing with that stupid wall rather than following the rest of the action. There are dancers that act both as the keepers of the gates of hell and at other times ultra-expressive mourners. It could get a little Rhythm Nation at times if you know what I mean, but the good news is it never looked dull. Apollo and his denizens came off as Trent Reznor's idea of the Greek gods, which only made Herucles' appearance in a baby blue tunic with Dr. Spock wig all the more peculiar. There were saplings in various stages of growth, and bolts of sheer fabric with "la Mort" embroidered on them. It was a lot to handle and in Act III, some of the staging business came off as confused and clunky as everyone tried to manage a seemingly endless amount of activity. In the end Negri tweaks the conclusion of the opera by implying that while Alceste and Admete are given a reprieve from death, it's only for now. Rather than flip the tone of the opera, he wants to drive home the notion of the temporality of human life in the face of the gods as Alceste and Admete are wrapped in the "la Mort" sheet and dragged off the stage again after the celebration. But I'd take this any day over a stand and deliver production. It's fun and interesting and has a point of view.

Alceste is really a very good show and an excellent chance to see Brewer in action. There are two more performances and I imagine from the many available seats at Monday's show, tickets are still available for those who want to go.


The Lone Gunman

August 09, 2009

Lauren Weedman
Photo: Jeff Swenson

This was the final weekend for REDCATs New Original Works festival downtown and while it was probably the softest show of the bunch overall, it did contain one big highlight. That was Lauren Weedman, who returned to the black box theater with the latest of her very, very funny monologues. She was last seen here with Bust, a work about her experiences volunteering in the county jail system. This weekend, Ms. Weedman appeared alone with nothing more than a chair for Off. Like her prior solo works, the piece appears to be autobiographical with Weedman recreating scenes that could be from her own life involving both her and the unusual people around her. The focus this time out was procreation, and specifically the pros and cons of various means to achieving it. And while I usually don't go in for this biological clock stuff, Weedman has immense powers of winning one over. During her hour, she hysterically visits an adoption center, discusses contraception with a boyfriend, and visits her lesbian sister to learn about the process of being a parent. This isn't stand up comedy, but more a collection of brief scenes with Weedman herself playing all the characters. It’s great material and her hour long set provided the biggest ovation of the whole festival I’d seen so far.

The rest of the evening was taken up by a solo dance piece choreographed and performed by Meg Wolf and a very short muti-media work from a collaborative including Zackary Drucker, Mariana Marroquin, and Wu Ingrid Tsang. This latter work entitled P.I.G. (short for Politically Involved Girls) was a tongue-in-cheek exploration of transgender heritage and issues. Including both live and filmed material, three performers interact with various characters on screen as part of a mock group therapy meeting that is both comic farce, nostalgic homage, and intellectual soapbox. While I liked the look and feel of it, I thought all of the ideas were so tightly packed into one very small and brief space that much of it flew past me. Nor was there time to connect with a flow or atmosphere of the work. Meg Wolfe was another of the festivals many solo auteur and her dance piece was competent and well-thought out. It was a decidedly minimal exercise with a bare stage, evocative soundtrack and a little lighting. It was perhaps a little to subtle for the final piece in the festival, but it was professionally done.

Of course the other big REDCAT news this week was the announcement of their upcoming Fall season. there's a lot of great things to choose from including return appearances from filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger and the California EAR Unit. However the big ticket item is the West Coast Premiere of Arias with a Twist the collaborative theater piece from Joey Arias and puppeteer Basil Twist. It was great in New York, and will likely be a highlight of the Fall here so plan ahead.


Strength in Numbers

August 08, 2009

The National Youth Choir of Great Britain with composer Eric Whitacre
Photo: mine 2009

In this home stretch of the summer I really start to pine for the incredible acoustics of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Sadly the two world class resident companies of our amazing local stage, the L.A. Philharmonic and the L.A. Master Chorale, are turned out of doors and stuck in much lesser venues. Meanwhile, the WDCH is handed over to a variety of lease and other events from a number of organizations that more often than not specialize in easy access and user-friendly musical fare. But this Friday provided an opportunity for an event that actually piqued my interest enough to check out what happens in our winter home during the summer months. The show was the final performance of a multi-week American tour from the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. The decades old organization has developed a reputation for excellence in training generations of singers under the guidance of musical director, Mike Brewer. It’s an ensemble with a number of well regarded recordings to its name that honors the great British tradition of choral music performance.

And the group as it appeared this week was excellent. Powerful, controlled and at times subtle, it’s a wonder that they’ve found so many great singers at such a young age. I can think of more than a few adult choirs of more pedigree that would be put to shame by the likes of these young people. The fantastic excerpts from the Vaughn Williams Mass in G minor were very stirring and certainly left me wanting more. Plus you got to appreciate all the rewards of a youth music program without having to swallow a bunch of PR about western music washing all of the youth clean of their challenging socioeconomic backgrounds as tends to be the preference in these matters in Los Angeles these days. Friday was about very young talented people singing and developing as artists without the burden of a whole lot of baggage. What a change of pace.

Accompanying the choir on its journey Friday was a very special guest, the composer and conductor Eric Whitacre. The handsome Californian led the ensemble in a number of his own compositions during the majority of the evening’s show. This comes following an ongoing collaboration between the composer and the group over the last two years that has led to a number of new commissions and ample opportunity for Whitacre to interact with this great ensemble. Whitacre is making a name for himself in choral music and has received significant praise recordings of his recent works including Cloudburst from Hyperion. He’s got an ear for drama and knows his way around a chorus. His music features friendly and often beautiful harmonics though it can seem a little too straight-forward at times. He’s got good taste in dead poets and sets works from authors such as Yeats, Ogden Nash, and Octavio Paz all of which featured prominently in the evening between rather chatty and superfluous introductions from the stage of each number in the program. (A little self-deprecation goes a long way, a lot doesn't.) And while pieces like The Stolen Child and Cloudburst can expertly pull at heart strings, there are still some moments burdened by a fascination with adolescent superhero fantasies similar to those in the most recent outing of Whitacre’s musical Paradise Lost seen at the Boston Court Theater in 2007. On Friday, we had a rather fussy piece about Leonardo da Vinci and his dreams of flying that was a bit much in the context of the other material on the program. But while he may not be Arvo Pärt, Whitacre is no slouch and the excitement these very talented young people showed in working with a living breathing composer who is clearly just as excited as they were was an evening well worth seeing.

Love My Way

August 06, 2009


As you may have noticed, I’ve got a new look here at Out West Arts. It’s in celebration of my 3rd Anniversary of opening up my big mouth about stuff I really am in no position to write about meaningfully. (The actual anniversary is on August 16th, but due to some scheduling issues, I thought I’d start ringing in the new year now.) But things just keep going and going around here, so go figure. I want to thank everybody who has written to say hello, or commented, or linked to this space over the last year. It’s always great to hear from people who’ve looked at my humble little corner of the world. I’d also like to give a big “thank you” to Jeffrey who in many ways is the mysterious other half of Out West Arts in that he does most of the design, and keeps my large, unwieldy sentences from destroying other people's property as best he can. So keep reading. You never know when things might get interesting.

All That Scratching...

August 05, 2009

The cast of The Pain and the Itch
Photo: Ed Krieger/Theater at Boston Court 2009

Bruce Norris’ recent dark family comedy The Pain and the Itch is finally receiving a West Coast outing this month thanks to the combined forces of Pasadena’s Boston Court Theater in collaboration with the Furious Theater Company. Considering the rather mixed reviews the piece had in Chicago, New York, and London, the play’s longevity is beginning to suggest that it might actually have legs. In fact, given the rather prestigious spaces that have hosted Norris’ grizzly morality tale so far, that two relatively smaller community theater organizations in Los Angeles have banded together to produce it is notable. They’ve done a very solid job overall and make as convincing an argument as anyone else has on the value of the piece.

And get this - The Pain and the Itch has a plot. I mean a real one with an arc and loose ends to be tied up and everything. It's not a psychological portrait or a character study. It concerns the events of two family meetings in a suburban upper middle class home, one on Thanksgiving, and another much later when the family members recount the events of the prior evening to another character whose life has been mysteriously and tragically upended by them. The characters include a young professional couple with stay-at-home dad Clay, who cares for his toddler daughter and newborn son while his wife, Kelly, works. They’ve invited over his PBS-obsessed mother as well as his plastic surgeon brother Cash. Cash has brought his own recently immigrated Eastern European girlfriend of rapidly advancing English skills to round out the intrigue. The holiday meal goes as they usually do in such dysfunctional clans, with the added twist of several mysteries including what creature is taking bites out of the avocados, and where did little Kayla get that horrible genital rash. Both of the plays two scenes transpire simultaneously in the same space and even though the resolution of the action rests on a bit of trickery - a crucial middle segment of the narrative is omitted between acts and only played out in the end – these machinations are enjoyable to watch.

The problem with Norris’ play, though, is that it is also a morality play of sorts. It’s a biting comic satire on the hypocrisy and moral turpitude of the liberal upper middle classes. All of the central characters’ good will is so thinly wrapped in their own racism, fear, and self-loathing that sharp comic barbs lay around every turn. Norris also cleverly wraps all of this with some rather nausea inducing hints at child sexual abuse and other unpleasantries. The insults fly, and laughs are in abundance. But it’s rather an easy target and one that’s handled with the least complexity possible. The points are so hammered home that in the end the laughter is less joyful and more bitter on everybody’s part including the audience. I also thought the pacing was rather stiff in the first act as if director Dámaso Rodriguez was worried that the audience would be quickly lost without a little extra time to digest. Maybe so, but the rapid dialog exchanges sounded very stiff until after the intermission and a little warm up. The performances of the ensemble cast were good, but Katie Marie Davies gets bonus points as the ESL girlfriend who both aspires to and calls into question the American culture she now finds herself in. Fractured accents can be milked for big laughs when done consistently and she repeatedly steals every scene that she's in. There's plenty to recommend The Pain and the Itch. It's just not incredibly sharp in its excavations of the cultural landscape.

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The Paved Paradise

August 03, 2009

From Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister harmóniák

One of the more disappointing bits of Los Angeles arts news last week was that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is ending its film program, which has screened work of most stripes at the Bing Theater on LACMA’s campus for nearly 40 years. Frankly, it’s an embarrassment to the organization and the county that in the geographical heart of the film industry our most prominent museum can’t find a way to keep a film department and program alive. Michael Galvan, LACMA’s director, notes that the program has been losing audience and money for years and is reportedly shutting the department down while the museum comes up with some kind of new film strategy. And, while I understand that times are tough for arts organizations everywhere, I can’t help but agree with Kenneth Turan – why does the program have to be shut down while things are being “rethought.” I find it hard to believe that the decline of the program is something so recent that it’s just occurred to everyone that the program needs to move in some sort of unspecified but yet to be imagined new direction.

From Jacques Rivette’s Celine et Julie vont en Bateau

Of course, I guess I’m as much to blame as anyone. I know I haven’t attended a movie screening at LACMA in years. Honestly, I stopped mostly because the whole scene had gotten so annoying. The audiences were particularly unruly with lots of talking and unnecessary noise that only enraged other patrons who would then accost the talkers making the whole show even worse. I recall there was a particular group of rather elderly folk that would come every weekend and sit in the back row and make noise like the Bing Theater was their private living room. It just got to be too arduous to take. Even in a half-empty theater, there was nowhere to sit to get away from all of the noise sometimes.

From Jacques Tati’s Playtime

Of course, the quality had gone down as well in recent years. As recently as the late 90s, LACMA would frequently fund and host newly restored and rare prints of foreign films, forgotten classics and other fare not readily available even in a DVD saturated world. Even following the death of its long-time director Ron Haver in 1993, the program was robust and exciting well into the late 90s and early 2000s. It compared favorably to the programming at outfits like the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and the American Cinematheque. But the Bing Theater and the movies I saw there in the mid-90s will always be near and dear to my heart. Over half of my all time favorite movies came to me through LACMA. Jacques Rivette’s Celine et Julie vont en Bateau, Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister harmóniák and Jacques Tati’s Playtime were only a few of the evenings that changed the way I thought about film if not about art and perhaps life as well. (Not to mention Merchant of the Four Seasons and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) But I suppose we all lose places like that as we get older, so apparently it’s my turn now. Still, something has been lost and it’s very, very sad that our biggest public art institution will apparently have nothing to say about film after November.


I Hate This Part Right Here

August 02, 2009


The Gustavo Dudamel hype machine took another notch up this weekend here in Los Angeles. The occasion was the first public availability for tickets to the most inexplicably anticipated non-event since the Michael Jackson funeral – a single show at the Hollywood Bowl welcoming Dudamel as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The program which is entitled “Bienvenido Gustavo!” scheduled for October 3rd will conclude with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony preceded by several hours of community youth orchestras playing god-knows-what with a smattering of local music celebrities like Flea, Herbie Hancock, and David Hidalgo. If the thought of Dudamel’s wildly hit-or-miss conducting abilities don’t make you wince, the very notion of the sheer amount of pandering and filler to be suffered through under that hot afternoon sun definitely should.

But still there were apparently thousands of people both in person, on the phone, and on line looking for the free tickets Saturday morning and afternoon. And we’re told by the Los Angeles Times that very many of these people walked away empty handed and frustrated. Of course, the L.A. Times has played one of the larger roles in generating all of this hype to begin with. With its near total lack of any critical ear or thought about Dudamel’s actual performance track record to date, the paper has glorified a very young and talented man whose actual achievements have been variable and lackluster at best. (Things can change quickly with a little age, and if you don't believe me, just ask Daniel Harding.) Of Dudamel's several performances in Los Angeles with both the L.A. Philharmonic as well as other ensembles, his approach is more often promising than it is fulfilling.

Still, what’s left of our local news outlet is milking every last smile and tear it can from all this much ado about nothing. While the L.A. Times hasn’t missed a beat in covering the changing banner that hangs on the outside of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, it has failed to point out that in fact, the Philharmonic made tickets available to supporters of the organization weeks and weeks ago for a minimum generous donation of around $1500 each as I recall. (I threw the mailer away long ago, but that should be the right figure if my memory serves me.) Apparently the people’s maestro can still be had first and foremost by the folks with the deepest pockets. There’s already a second market for the tickets on line, for those of you who just can’t get enough of whatever it is you’re supposed to want this week. But if you’re feeling disappointed about missing out on tickets, take my advice. There’s about a million things you could do in October for free or otherwise that will be more rewarding than this media stunt. Read a book, take a nap, or better yet join me at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the Thomas Hampson recital being sponsored by the Los Angeles Opera that day. As for Dudamel, he may one day be worth getting this excited about, but today is not that day.


In the Wings - August 09

August 01, 2009

Natalie Dessay and Saimir Pirgu
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2009

The biggest excitement in August is often the arrival of tickets for the new performance season, which kicks off in September. But that doesn’t mean the month is devoid of performances worth seeing even here in the perpetual summer of California. To be honest, though, the highlight of my month will be heading out of town for the Santa Fe Opera Festival starting on the 10th. This year’s highlights include the new Laurent Pelly-directed production of La Traviata starring Natalie Dessay in her first performances as Violetta. Also on the schedule is Gluck’s Alceste with Christine Brewer and Paul Groves, which should be good if for no other reason that it is always a treat to hear Brewer. There are also productions of Don Giovanni and L’Elisir d’Amore with the festival’s typical strong young American casts. And of course there is the world premiere of Paul Moravec’s The Letter with Patricia Racette to consider. Santa Fe isn’t all about opera, however, and I’ll be checking out some of the offerings of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival as well, including a program of works from Australian composer (and violist) Brett Dean.

Composer Eric Whitacre

Back in Los Angeles it will be hot, and we’ll continued to be forced to play outside at the Hollywood Bowl. We won’t be alone however, in that there’s a string of worthwhile visitors scheduled including Depeche Mode, Diana Krall, and of course Liza Minelli. There will be a summertime visit to Walt Disney Concert Hall on the 7th to help hold me over till next L.A. Philharmonic season, however. That evening features a performance of the choral music of Eric Whitacre under his own direction with the National Youth Choir of Great Britain.

Theater-wise I’m hoping to catch some of the more notable late summer openings around town including Bruce Norris’ The Pain and the Itch at Boston Court in Pasadena, Ionesco’s The Chairs at Santa Monica’s City Garage, and perhaps most interestingly Adam Bock’s The Receptionist at the Odyssey Theater, which will star the very lovable Meghan Mullaley. So see, even with the heat, it’s not all bad.


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