Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

In The Wings - April '10

March 31, 2010

from LA Opera's new production of Götterdämmerung
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2010

It’s April and things are starting to heat up in Los Angeles with some highly anticipated performing arts events. If you’ve been saving up for something to do, now is the time to do it because the selections this month may be some of the best bets this year. Personally, I’m most excited about the two productions from L.A. Opera that will open this month – the final installment in Wagner’s Ring cycle, Götterdämmerung on the 3rd and the first Franz Schreker opera ever staged in the U.S., Die Gezeichneten on the 10th. You can read more about them and the upcoming Achim Freyer directed Ring cycle presentation in my preview. What more opera could you want? Well you’ll have to go out of town for it, but Dallas Opera will present the world premiere of Jake Heggie’s latest work Moby-Dick starring Ben Heppner on the 30th in this adaptation of Melville’s classic novel. But Texas is a big place, and I’ll also be heading over to Houston to see Vladimir Galouzine in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades and an all-star production of Handel’s Xerxes with Susan Graham and David Daniels. In New York, the Metropolitan Opera will also open up a new production of Rossini’s Armida which will serve as yet another star vehicle for soprano Renée Fleming.

Jeroen Willems in Louis Andriessen's La Commedia in 2008
Photo: Hans van den Bogaard 2008

Outside of the opera house, the most exciting music event this month will undoubtedly be the local premiere of Louis Andriessen's most recent opera La Commedia at the Walt Disney Concert Hall as part of the “Green Umbrella” music series on the 13th. The evening will feature the same cast and musical ensembles from the Amsterdam premiere of the work in 2008 under conductor Reinbert de Leeuw. This was spectacular last time and should not be missed by anyone with even a passing interest in new music. And speaking of contemporary music, the Monday Evening Concert series will also present a notable show with the local premiere of Georg Friedrich Haas’ third string quartet, In iij. Noct., performed in complete darkness. There will be two performances on the 19th and 20th in Pasadena. If you want a bigger ensemble, of course, there is the L.A. Philharmonic whose most interesting April program will feature the music and conducting of composer Thomas Adès,who returns to L.A. starting on the 8th with his Violin Concerto. The ensemble will also appear with Music Director Gustavo Dudamel who will kick off the “Americans and Americas” festival with a program featuring Bernstein and Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs on the 22nd as well as a show with Copland and Estévez’ Cantata Criolla on the weekend of the 29th. However, the most important show of the series on paper will be the one Dudamel is not leading on the 24th and 25th of the month when the festival will feature performances of Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos.

There are other important music events to consider. Semyon Bychkov will lead Mahler's 5th Symphony this weekend starting on the 1st with the L.A. Philharmonic. We will have important out-of-town guests when the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra arrives on the 14th playing Mozart and Stravinsky with Gil Shaham. And the always adventurous L.A. Master Chorale will perform an evening of the works of Arvo Pärt and Meredith Monk on the 11th. Looking for something more intimate? There are solo recitals galore from Emanuel Ax at WDCH on the 20th, tenor Alek Shrader on the 11th at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, and a rare performance at REDCAT by Michiko Hirayama performing Scelsi's Canti del Capricorno on the 2nd.

Brad Fleischer and Arian Moayed in the 2009 production of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2009

Admittedly, this is a weak month for me in terms of non-music theater events, but there are a couple of local offerings worth mentioning in terms of new plays around town. Most important is the Mark Taper Forum's revival of the superb Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph. It was one of the highlights of all my theater experiences in 2009 and deserves to be seen by a much, much bigger audience. The Kirk Douglas Theater is currently in the middle of a run of the latest work from Lisa Kron entitled The Wake. Meanwhile South Coast Repertory will present the newest play from one of my favorite contemporary authors, Julia Cho when The Language Archive opens this week. And speaking of Kron, her recent play Well is one I'll see on a quick trip to Ashland, OR this month along with Lynn Nottage's Ruined. And before I forget John Jasperse Company and ICE will be at REDCAT with a West Coast Premiere dance piece the week of the 14th. That should about cover it. Have a great April.


Never The Twain Shall Meet

March 30, 2010

James Valenti and Angela Gheorghiu
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera 2010

So what was I doing at the Metropolitan Opera’s opening performance of Verdi’s La Traviata this season? Well to be honest, I’d gone to hear soprano Angela Gheorghiu sing Violetta. I’m, of course, familiar with her career-making recording in the role from the Royal Opera House in the 90s, but this was the first time our paths had crossed in the real thing. And twenty years or so later, she’s still probably the best Violetta around. Say what you will about her diva status and behavior, this is one part she can sing with guts and real fire. She's nobody's mother in this part and what she lacks in warmth she makes up for in drama. Of course, this is opera, though, and the success of the evening rarely is as simple as one performer. The other big success in this revival is James Valenti. This was the house debut for the former National Council Auditions winner in 2002. And I feel at least judging by the audience’s response, this may be the first night of a very long and famous career on this and lots of other international opera stages. In Act I, Valenti appeared a little tentative. The voice was strong and athletic, but there was a little stiffness. But in Act II the nerves had burnt off, and he came out with all guns blazing for "De miei bollenti spiriti" and continued to generate one big ovation after the next. His is a dark toned tenor voice, but he scaled the high notes with comfort and ease. It also doesn't hurt that Valenti is a tall and very handsome man.

James Valenti
Photo: Dario Acosta

So with all this vocal wonderment, why wasn’t the evening a huge success? Sadly, the answer first and foremost was conductor Leonard Slatkin. Rumors abounded last week that there were conflicts between Slatkin and stars Gheorghiu and Thomas Hampson who sang Germont. On Monday, it sure sounded like it. There were huge pacing problems throughout and all the leads were often left in the dust as Slatkin seemed indifferent not only to their preferences, but even to letting them know what was going on. Several times I noted looks of fear in the vocalists' faces as they glanced over at Slatkin wailing away at a pace faster than necessary in several key moments. At the final curtain call he came out for a solo bow and stayed put until the cast came to join him, Slatkin taking his position not between Gheorghiu and her cast mates, but at the end of the row next to Valenti. They got through it, though, and perhaps they’ll all come to some agreement about tempos by the end of the run. In the meantime, the struggle was mighty distracting.

If there is anything else to celebrate about this revival of La Traviata, it’s that we may be lucky enough to be seeing the end of the horrific Zeffirelli production that continues to return from the dead like some brain-hungry zombie. Or at least it feels like the production is trying to eat everyone alive. Even the hair and costumes have gotten to the point where Gheorghiu is doing her best Sandra Bernhard in Act I with her big dopey ringlets. Vanlenti and Gheorghiu deserve a much better production than this. Help is on the way with Willy Decker’s production the Met intends to import from Salzburg this coming New Year’s Eve. In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for one of the voices of tomorrow and one of the best in the world until the rest of what’s on stage catches up.


Baby, I'm A Star

March 29, 2010

François Loup, Julie Boulianne, and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt
Photo: Carol Rosegg/NYCO 2010

To follow-up the very satisfying production of Thomas’ Hamlet currently playing at the Metropolitan Opera, I decided to check out the other major French opera offering in New York this weekend. Right across the Lincoln Center Plaza, the back-from-the-brink New York City Opera is presenting a revival of Chabrier’s L’Etoile. This comic operetta looks good in Mark Lamos’ sparse but modern production. The late 19th-century Belle Epoque-styled costumes contrasted with the elaborate lighting and the mirrored archways of the set. This is the kind of thing that gets called "charming" and that may be fair considering that it's likely to be enjoyed as much by an adult as a well-behaved 12 year-old. There are giant-sized inflatable chairs and plenty of sight gags. But the music and vocal performances are taken quite seriously making it a very worthwhile afternoon.

But the real treat besides Emmanuel Plasson’s conducting of the orchestra was a chance to hear Jean-Paul Fouchécourt. The comic tenors’ appearances in this country may not have been as frequent as one would hope given the type of opera repertory he excels in. But in both Baroque and French character roles he is unsurpassed. His King Ouf with his bald white head and cracked crown is the centerpiece of L'Etoile. Better yet, he is surrounded by an excellent cast including Julie Bouliannne as Lazuli, the peddler whose fate is bound to the king by the stars, creating all sorts of complications. It's a high-energy part that Boulianne is wise not to overplay in something so delicate. The other major female roles sung by Jennifer Zetlan and Liza Forrester were equally well done. Much like Hamlet, I most enjoyed L'Etoile because it re-exposes a whole world of beautiful music not always given its due in these parts. It's worth seeing, particularly if this is new material for you as well. There are two more performances - on April 1 and a family matinee on April 3.


Scarcity by Design

March 28, 2010

Simon Keenlyside and David Pittsinger in Hamlet
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera 2010

Saturday proved an interesting contrast in new productions at The Metropolitan Opera in New York. In the afternoon was Thomas’ Hamlet in an imported production from Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser that was broadcast as part of the Met’s “Live in HD” series. Later that evening was the Met’s final performance this season of a new original production of Verdi’s Attila. Both shows featured big name vocal talent, esteemed conductors, and contemporary productions from well-regarded opera directors with a taste for the minimal. And yet one was surprisingly watchable and the other was, …well, not. Hamlet was the winning entry. Thomas’ decidedly French take on the Shakespeare play has plenty in it to ruffle feathers. It’s pacing can be slow and the original plot is taken more as a suggestion than anything else. To compound these problems, Caurier and Leiser have come up with an almost non-existent production. Not unlike their bland Covent Garden Il Barbiere di Siviglia I saw last summer, you get a couple of scenery pieces, and you are on your own. Two curved wall segments are juggled back and forth by stagehands for three hours in Hamlet while the cast emotes all around them like nobody’s business. There are a few striking images, especially when the cast who are often clad in very light colors and presented in relief to the black background for contrast. But mostly, the stage is empty except for the performers.

So it all comes down to how good those performers are as actors and singers. Hamlet is blessed with some of the best. If the direction team got one thing right, it was to leave them alone. Simon Keenlyside leads a cast including Marlis Petersen, Jennifer Larmore, Toby Spence, David Pittsinger and James Morris who are more believable in their roles than any ensemble I can recall in the recent past. Keenlyside is especially fine and pulls off some big coups including a pretty freaking inspiring moment in the end of Act II when he douses himself with wine, wrapped in a table cloth in the middle of the banquet where he confirms his step-father’s guilt. Granted it was not the bare-chested wine soaking he (and later on, yummy Erwin Schrott) got in Francesca Zambello’s Covent Garden Don Giovanni, but he’s got the market cornered on sexy brooding here. Petersen underwent a rapid transition to fill in for the ailing Natalie Dessay as Ophelia, and at this point much of the uncertainty in her opening night performance has calmed down. Her vocal performance was commanding if not as creepy in the mad scene as you might like. Of course, it is a mad scene, however, so she does have to manage the requisite bloody dress and strewing of flowers about the stage. Still, I was really taken in by all of this, and by the time the finale arrived I actually found that I cared what was happening. Who knew?

Violeta Urmana and Ildar Abdrazakov
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2010

Sadly, the Pierre Audi-directed Attila has an almost opposite fate. It too sports an overly simple set design which in this case is highly restricted to the foot of the stage. But whereas the acting in Hamlet overcomes a banal staging, Attila had another burden to contend with, Riccardo Muti. If you believe what you read on-line, conductor Riccardo Muti, who made his Met debut leading the early performances in this run, played a major role in the staging reportedly interfering and insisting that performers remain virtually stationary and always in direct line of sight. The director was Pierre Audi who knows how to direct an opera as attested by my own first hand experiences with both his Poppea and Messiaen's St. Francois. But in Attila another very fine cast was so tied down, as was the chorus, that there was little too little to do. Dressed in all the leather, LED lights and cowboy fringe you could want, Violeta Urmana, Ramon Vargas, Franco Vassallo and Ildar Abdrazakov gave some spectacular vocal performances. But otherwise it was just looking at people in buildings. As with Hamlet the images could be stunning, but with little change in those images over time and a heavily restrained cast the evening quickly unraveled. Muti received much credit for the quality of the musical performance in the run of Attila to date, but things still sounded great under Marco Armiliato in the final show. But sadly the damage Muti left behind him was still apparent on stage. Apparently much like the US Government, opera too benefits from a strict separation of powers.


Everything is Everything

March 27, 2010

A scene from Kent's The Fairy Queen from its Paris run
Photo: Pierre Grosbois

William Christie is back at BAM in New York this week. After 20 years of presenting Baroque theater and concert works there, he’s returned with Purcell’s The Fairy Queen in a 2009 Glyndebourne production. With an intervening three hundred years of opera history, it may be easy to forget that Baroque composers like Purcell were responsible for some of the original mash-ups. And so it is with The Fairy Queen which is neither fish nor fowl in the world of music theater. There is a play. In fact a reasonable adaptation of a very good one – Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as seen by late 17th-century eyes. Mixed in between the scenes are a number of beautiful songs sung by both chorus and soloists. The musical numbers often occur as masques – brief entertainments on allegorical themes often presented for the amusement of characters within the larger play itself. The masques never move the plot forward or contain any material directly relevant to the characters or plot of The Fairy Queen. And yet this over four hour evening seems to fly by despite the disjointed nature of the work.

This is mostly due to the exquisite playing from Les Arts Florissants and Christie who gave their typically spectacular period performance. The vocalists were also solid across the board including a heavenly Lucy Crowe as Juno. But as important as the music was, Jonathan Kent’s staging brought some “period practice” to the evening as well. The time period of the proceedings on stage were mixed. While there were many 17th-century costumes and wigs to be seen, Peter Quince and his players were all in modern day street clothes. Oberon and all the fairies were in tailored black suits with matching wings. The action took place in a single exploded room lined with cabinets of curiosities. However, Kent’s focus on the importance of spectacle during the musical segments clearly honored the spirit of the masques. Gods drop from above on golden horses while men in drag erupt from haystacks in comic amorous pursuits. In another segment the chorus appears dressed in giant bunny costumes and fornicates during a song about chastity. So, while it may be contemporary in its content, Kent’s production couldn’t have more Baroque spirit.

It's all great fun to look at. I would be remiss not to mention that the actors were well cast and kept the non-musical segments up to snuff with the music. The cast includes a wonderful Desmond Barrit as Nick Bottom, and a mysterious Finbar Lynch as Oberon. Everyone could be heard clearly and the comic moments went off without a hitch. The Fairy Queen is one of those pieces that today seems to work better in segments or just as a concert piece without the play. That Jonathan Kent and William Christie have put together such a coherent argument to the contrary is in evidence now at BAM. Luckily, there is one more performance on Saturday if you’re so inclined.


Cherchez le nez

March 26, 2010

Paulo Szot in The Nose
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2010

I arrived in New York on Thursday just in time to catch the final performance of Shostakovich’s The Nose at The Metropolitan Opera. Did it live up to all the hype? Pretty much. By now you’ve probably read about the incredible production designed and directed by William Kentridge. It’s a work of art in and of itself independent of the opera going on inside it. The Soviet era agitprop look with ample amounts of high-end video projection technology was the perfect complement to this most Russian of works from the early 20th century. Cyrillic text flew here and there alongside English translations on the largely newsprint inspired backdrops. Surreal and funny, the runaway nose haunts nearly every scene in either video or in its newspaper flesh, giving the show a visual uniformity that you can't look away from for a second.

But rather than dwell on the beautifully absurdist production, I’d like to emphasize the superb comic and anxiety-ridden performance of Paulo Szot. Szot, who plays Kovyalov, is in nearly every scene of the opera and manages a difficult role in a production that calls for a fair amount of physical activity. He’s taken a few lumps in the press for being underpowered here, but he sounded fine from where I sat. Maybe some of the complainers should sit closer next time. Of course, architecturally, the Met is a house that undervalues vocalists without the largest of voices so criticism that he may not carry there seems somewhat inconsequential in the bigger picture. There were also some commentators who questioned the choice to cast him in this particular role for his Met debut - a demanding role in a work that has never been seen on the Met stage before. I think it was an excellent decision on his and his management's part. He stars in six sold out performances and doesn’t have to listen to the chattering classes compare him to an endless string of well-loved, mostly dead artists who’ve appeared in the same roles (and likely the same productions) in any number of war horses over the years. Szot stands out in The Nose as he should and plays against his good looks with a wonderfully neurotic and comically pathetic character.

Seeing the last of these sold-out shows got me thinking about what a shame it was that the other Shostakovich opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk got dropped from the Met schedule this season following the near implosion of the US economy under Bush. If the house can sell out performances of The Nose, maybe losing Lady Macbeth wasn't such a good economic idea after all. Shostakovich's wonderful, agitated score was beautifully played by the Met orchestra. The final performance was led by Pavel Smelkov, a composer and member of the Mariinsky Theater filling in for Valery Gergiev who is appearing with Mariinsky orchestra in Southern California this week. The Nose may have been an oddball hit for the Met, but it was certainly an artistically deserved one. It's too bad it didn't make it to the HD broadcast series this year, it would have been great to have a video record of this wonderful evening at the opera.


How You Like Me Now?

March 24, 2010

Emanuel Ax and Dawn Upshaw
Photo: mine 2010

I wish I could tell you that I was more excited about Tuesday’s recital from Emanuel Ax and Dawn Upshaw at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. But the truth is, despite glowing reviews of their Chopin and Schumann program at its other stops in both New York and San Francisco, I was somehow expecting more than what we got. The show was focused almost exclusively on Lieder of the familiar variety from Schumann, and the not so familiar variety from Chopin. In between were Chopin Mazurkas and Nocturnes played by Ax and a newly commissioned song cycle from Stephen Prutsman entitled Piano Lessons. Originally, the pair had planned to perform a new song cycle from Osvaldo Golijov in these performances, but the work was unfinished so the substitution was made. Prutsman’s five short songs are a setting of poetry by Billy Collins about a young student’s joys and frustrations as a piano student. It’s whimsical poetry paired with whimsical music and it could be saccharine at times. Not that it wasn’t well played, it just struck me as kind of slight.

Of course, that criticism could be leveled about all the music on the program at one time or another. The Chopin songs, which Upshaw preformed in Polish, are certainly rarities. I never felt they quite came together, though. I certainly love Upshaw, and her vocal performance was warm and involved. However, I couldn’t get the nagging sensation out of my mind that I'd rather be hearing someone else sing this particular material. Upshaw has given near-legendary performances here in L.A. of contemporary works from Kurtag, Adams, and Saariaho. And while both the Chopin and Schumann songs were beautifully sung, I wouldn’t say that this performance of them ranked among the most memorable I’ve heard. However, I was rather taken with her version of Schumann's Er ist's which she paired with Hugo Wolf's setting of the same text for an encore. What I was impressed most with was the communication between Upshaw and Ax throughout the performance. The balance of power between vocalist and accompanist in a recital is often tilted more in the singer’s favor. But Ax seemed more a full partner in this evening even when he was not playing the solo works. Ax will be around for the rest of the weekend and into next week for performances of the L.A. Philharmonic including more Chopin for those of you so inclined.

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Flaunt the Imperfection

March 23, 2010

From Act III of Siegfried
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2010

I’m headed to New York later this week for a whole slew of operas including the Metropolitan Opera’s new productions of The Nose, Attila, and Hamlet as well as BAM’s new import of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen from Glyndebourne. But, honestly, even with all that awaits me next weekend, I’m nowhere near as excited about any of it as I am about what is going on at L.A. Opera over the next few months. On April 3 the company will premiere it’s new production of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung for a run of five performances. Make no mistake, this is a huge accomplishment for the company on many levels. Götterdämmerung will be the final leg of the new Ring cycle directed by German artist Achim Freyer and, with the production’s premiere, LA Opera will have helped create a major new production that is artistically unique and incredibly satisfying. It will have done this in a region of the country where opera doesn’t enjoy the kind of support it does in other cities with much older sponsoring organizations and with a local audience that is still learning about the joys of German opera in general. That the Ring will be completed here is a minor miracle.

I had a chance to see a bit of a working rehearsal last week and speak to some of the many artists and technicians working on this homestretch of a multi-year journey. I was taken with the sheer excitement they expressed over the project and its completion. It has not always been easy going. The look of Götterdämmerung is what you might expect if you’ve seen any of the previous operas in the cycle with masks and costumes that are as much sculpture as they are clothing. Everything is unique so very little of what you see on stage is the kind of thing one might rent from a prop or costume warehouse. Technicians have designed dozens of lighting tubes and props out of multi-color LED strips, foam and plastic tubing. Video art has been created and sequenced for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of new projection equipment. And all of this has occurred in what sounds like an intensely dynamic production environment. Freyer’s vision is one that involves a primitive, rough-hewn appearance and incorporates a big dose of Brechtian imperfection in the mix. The haphazard look of things is intentional and as one senior technician put it to me, Freyer often makes multiple changes to things after they’ve been set – not as a mark of indecision, but one that is driven to prevent things from looking too polished or perfected. And while this sounds like an intensive process, it’s also one that has produced some great results judging from the first three operas in the cycle that arrived in 2009. The full cycles of the four operas will begin on May 29, and to help entice more local audience members who may have issues with weekday performances, I’m told the company will soon be offering “design your own” cycles allowing people to chose operas from different cycles to complete their sequence of the four.

Of course, not to be forgotten in all of this is the U.S. premiere of Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten, or “The Stigmatized”, on April 10th. Shreker’s opera is the latest in James Conlon’s “Recovered Voices” project featuring the works of composers effected adversely by the rise of the Third Reich in early 20th-century Germany. This is the first any of Schreker's operas will be performed in the U.S., and the cast will feature a number of L.A. favorites, including Anja Kampe who delivered a superb Sieglinde here in 2009. Since the opera will run concurrently with Freyer’s Götterdämmerung, the new production will be mounted onto of the steeply raked Ring set and will be directed by Ian Judge. There will only be four performances, but this is musically a very beautiful opera based on what I’ve heard and seen from available recordings. So while this is a bit premature of my April event preview that will appear next week, these are events worth mentioning more than once.


Tragedy Tomorrow

March 22, 2010

Deborah Strang as Bessie in Awake and Sing!
Photo: Craig Schwartz/A Noise Within 2010

It’s unusual for me to have a weekend where I see more than one local theater production here in L.A. and have them both turn out to be really good. But it does happen, and I’d be remiss not to mention these two particular offerings since both are definitely worth seeing. First was a comedy that, believe it or not, actually produced some genuine laughter. I’ve always thought Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was sort of a passé sex comedy with great songs. Like a Benny Hill episode scored by Benjamin Britten perhaps. But I must admit that the current revival being offered by Reprise on the UCLA campus is bright and bawdy even if it is the kind of thing that you could envision yourself enjoying as much at age 12 as you do now. It’s a modest production and director David Lee has cast the show with an eye to performers who don’t so much play the parts as play the actors who originally made the parts famous. Foremost among these are an excellent Lee Wilkof as Pseudolous and Michael Kostroff as Marcus Lycus. But as odd as this may sound, it works quite well. Perhaps a lot of this is due to the strength of Sondheim’s music and lyrics. Still, not even this score is indestructible and there are a few numbers that could use some more punch such as “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid.” But for the most part, the musical performances were well done and a comedy that actually delivers on the promise of laughter is sadly rarer than it should be. Funny Thing will continue through the end of next weekend.

Erich Bergen as Hero and Lee Wilkof as Pseudolus
Photo: John Ganun/Reprise 2010

However, if you’re not in the market for comedy tonight, you might want to consider the surprisingly fresh and tight production of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing! that just opened up at A Noise Within in Glendale. Odets 1935 melodrama trades in the political and social concerns of the period with a Bronx family struggling to get by in tough times. It might seem like Odets’ story of class struggle would be woefully dull and out of date, but the cast at ANW under the direction of Andrew Traister manage to keep the interpersonal intensity so high that the play flies by. Of course, at the center of this great production is Deborah Strang, one of ANW’s most valuable players. It is not unusual for entire productions to hang off her shoulders. What is unusual is that Awake and Sing! is one show in which even the players new to the company have no trouble keeping up with her. Adam Silver ‘s frustrated son Ralph was as real and heartbreaking as Molly Leland’s performance as his sister Hennie. And, although he's not new to ANW, Len Lesser's Jacob was notable for creating real attachment with the audience in a part with the lion's share of the political content. The show has no difficulty finding the human and dramatic elements among the sociopolitical sparring, making the play feel urgent and very contemporary. It’s a super show that runs through May 23 in Glendale. Oh, and congratulations to the company in reaching their $10-million fundraising goal to break ground on their new much swanker space in Pasadena. They deserve a bigger, brighter, and more functional home.

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Adams in Long Beach

March 21, 2010

Act II of Nixon in China at Long Beach Opera
Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff/LBO 2010

Loving opera is often about learning to accept the imperfections in things. Take John Adams’ Nixon in China, which received its second production in this area this weekend after nearly two decades. This time it was from the never-say-die Long Beach Opera company, which has managed to bring music to life almost by sheer force of will at times even in these rockiest of economic waters. And yet, even in this admittedly small-scale production, the brilliance of the piece shines through. It is both a spectacle, and a deeply satisfying work of art that takes on very big topics with perspective and insight. Nixon in China starts out with the processional arrival of Nixon’s aircraft in 1972 and his introduction to China’s premiere Chou En Lai. This is followed by scenes of philosophical and political debate as well as a number of speeches about good will and history. By the start of Act II, though, things become more and more surreal and metaphorical with the same polemical debates now reenacted in another set of events during Pat Nixon’s choreographed visit to sites in the Chinese countryside. Eventually, Act III develops as an extended reflection on how these primary characters became who they are. Alice Goodman’s beautiful libretto may be one of the best English language librettos outside of the collaborators’ of Benjamin Britten. This is not an opera of plot as much as one of ideas specifically tackling how we all can get along when sometimes we don't even share the same language or ideological frame of reference.

By now Nixon in China has received numerous productions all over the world including several locations in North America. And, still to this date, the original Peter Sellars and Mark Morris production continues to cast a very long shadow on everyone that has followed in their footsteps. Even in Long Beach, the three-hour work comes complete with a plane fuselage and gangway in Act I. However, designer Wilhelm Holzbauer and director Peter Pawlik do manage some of their own surprises such as Mao’s three secretaries appearing as floor lamps. The sets are minimal, but striking in their color scheme and layout. What’s more, LBO clearly pulled out all the stops by their standards recruiting a sizable chorus and full orchestra for these performances. Company General Director Andreas Mitisek, led the ensemble in a spirited and caring performance. Everyone is miked throughout the show, but anyone with a passing appreciation of Adams’ music knows this is not unusual. Vocally, most of the cast was solid. I particularly liked Suzan Hanson’s Pat Nixon who held her own against Ani Maldjian’s commanding Chiang Ch’ing in Act II.

Granted, this is not a dream performance of Nixon in China by any means. Much could be improved upon with more resources and time. But for an important work not often seen in this area, this production is one that is well worth seeing. There is one other performance on March 28 in Long Beach.


Clap Your Hands. Clap Your Hands.

March 20, 2010

Dancers in Rosanna Gamson/World Wide's Tov
Photo: RG/WW/REDCAT 2010

You can’t go home again. This is true both emotionally and, as it turns out, genetically. At least that’s one of the many points made in a hugely ambitious new work from Rosanna Gamson and her varied troupe of collaborators who operate under the moniker of World Wide. The roughly 90-minute dance work is called Tov which means good and is a reduction of the expression “Gamzu l’tovah” meaning, “This too, is for the good.” The piece concerns 1930s experiments to recreate an extinct breed of horse, the tarpan, through selectively breeding for their traits among a group of latter day animals. It didn’t pan out, and we know now that though specific genes may live on in other races after an extinction event, once you’re gone, you’re gone. The tarpan story is used as a springboard to reflect on the fate of Gamson’s specific Polish horse-trader ancestors, and more broadly that of Polish Jewry in the 20th century, though Tov does so in an admittedly oblique fashion.

There is a lot going on here. In addition to the dance, there are vocal performances, spoken dialogue, and theatrical activities of all stripes in between with requisite pre-recorded music. The audience was arranged in a hallway pattern on either side of the performance area where an unusually large amount of stuff was falling from above. There was a “snow” station in one corner and a “salt” station in another. In fact, salt plays prominently in the work. And trust me when it rains, it pours. Virtually everyone in the cast gets their shot to poor salt out of any number of black boxes all over the floor at one time or another in the evening, outlining bodies or the borders around the audience. In a climactic sequence, all these pretty patterns are disrupted in a solo dance by one of the troupe’s members. In addition to the narration, there are mini-scenes in both Polish and English and even a large riser on wheels that supports a candle-laden table and four chairs that is periodically lugged around the performance space.

Tov has a lot on its mind, and while these are all great ideas, the sheer amount of stuff going on here can be a bit much to sort out. The actual dancing in the piece is great. The diverse troupe gets all the performers involved regardless of body type. Even tenor Timur Bekbosunov gets into the act, crawling around on hands and knees when it’s called for. But with the amount of narration, singing, and other activity going on, it was hard to avoid a sort of stop-and-start feeling to the work. At time the points being made seemed too oblique, and at others I wished the performers would just stop talking. There is plenty of beauty, but there’s a lot of salt to be poured as well to get to it. Still, I’d rather have the ambition than not, and, while Tov didn’t work for me as a cohesive whole, it wasn’t dull and isn’t just more of the same. The performance runs at REDCAT through next Saturday, March 27th.


The Viola in My Life

March 19, 2010

Robin Ticciati hugs Lars Vogt with the L.A. Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2010

The Los Angeles Philharmonic continued a series of concerts this month that have been uniformly strong and well thought out. It wasn’t anything flashy and didn’t involve some overarching programmatic concept, but the quality of playing and conducting lately almost begins to make up for a particularly weak fall stint of shows under the orchestra’s still-in-development new musical leadership. This week’s guest conductor Robin Ticciati was making his local debut and reinforced the perception created by our local orchestra that young dynamic conductors apparently grow on trees. With his bushy curly hair, I couldn’t help but wonder if many of the less aware in the audience mistook him for Gustavo Dudamel. Personally, I would prefer to think that the very warm and enthusiastic reception he got was attributable to the fact that he led a great and often exciting show.

There was a Northern European focus with Sibelius’ suite from King Christian II, the Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor, and Magnus Lindberg’s Chorale. Ticciati’s soloist for the Grieg piece was pianist Lars Vogt who has always struck me as far more attractive and youthful in person than in photographs. Last night he also struck me as a pretty brilliant musician breathing ample life into Grieg’s very familiar music. It was a thinking-man’s approach to the music, paced out with no rushing. The clear romantic line of the second movement struck me as one of the more romantic (with a small r) things I’ve heard in months. The first and third movements were elegant and restrained allowing the composition to provide its own thrills.

Dale Hikawa Silverman with the black viola on the right.
Photo: mine 2010

The rest of the show was equally strong. Lindberg’s 6 minute Chorale was tantalizingly too short. Even the closing work, Elgar’s Enigma Variations sounded more coherent than I typically think it is. Perhaps the real mystery of the evening for me though, was the black replacement viola played by Dale Hikawa Silverman throughout the evening. Whether it’s a temporary or permanent replacement of her usual instrument is unknown to me, but it’s funny how the smallest details can catch your eye and interest when they are out of place. The show repeats on Saturday night.


Bureau de Change

March 18, 2010

Alice Coote as Maffeo Orsini in Lucrezia Borgia
Photo: Bayerische Staatsoper 2009

Here at Out West Arts, I’m not usually one to breathlessly follow the ins and outs of casting changes at opera houses around the world. It’s endlessly boring and puts too much emphasis on the vocal performances in the art form as a whole for my taste. Not that I don’t like to get chances to see big stars as much as the next guy, I just don’t think it rises to the level of news all that often. But I will admit getting a chuckle this week over the sniping coming out of the San Francisco Opera press department over the withdrawal of Elina Garanča from this fall’s upcoming production of Werther. As noted on both Parterre Box and Iron Tongue of Midnight, San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley had some pointed words about Garanča’s apparent “buh-bye” via her website announcement of a series of conflicting recitals she had scheduled in Europe during the dates of the Werther run. From the press release:

Regarding Ms. Garanča, Mr. Gockley commented, “It pains me greatly to announce that Ms. Garanča has chosen not to appear in next season’s Werther as promised. She is a glamorous young star who has created a stir in Europe and at the Metropolitan Opera, and I was looking forward to presenting her West Coast debut. However, after extensive discussions with her management and having filed a grievance through the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), I am satisfied that the financial settlement we have reached disposes of the matter.”

The replacement will be the lovely Alice Coote and I for one am thrilled to have another chance to hear her, though I've preferred her Mozart and Baroque appearances over others I've heard her in. Oddly, she doesn't quite rank for a photo on the SFO website's Werther page like Garanča did. But I'm no expert in the politics of these things that determine who is and isn't a big star.

As for Garanča's departure, I find the tone of Gockley's comments comical. He's the one who has been hell-bent on bringing "star power" back to San Francisco at nearly any cost—encouraging audiences to focus on the issue at post-show feedback groups in the past few years and soliciting contributions specifically for the purpose of recruiting big stars. When getting names starts to take precedence over broader artistic values, trouble can certainly arise both on and now off-stage. Apparently, Gockley and SFO weren't quite able to offer the money or prestige that Garanča wanted or she wouldn't be doing something else I'd wager. I guess being a "singers' house" isn't the plum draw that it once was for international talent. And in the meantime the old adage about playing with fire appears to hold true.


Keep It Simple

March 17, 2010

Susan Hellauer, Marsha Genensky, Jaqueline Horner-Kwiatek and Ruth Cunningham of Anonymous 4
Photo: mine 2010

The Los Angeles Philhramonic’s Baroque music-oriented concert series, “Baroque Variations”, often leans more toward the "variations" than the "Baroque" part of this union. It’s not at all out of the ordinary for Mozart or Beethoven to creep in with the Handel, Vivaldi, and Telemann that one might normally expect on any given performance in the long running series. Yet, while fudging on the more recent end of the “Baroque” era is common, incorporating works that push the beginning edge of the time period is quite rare. But Wednesday was one of those evenings where the “variations” varied all the way into the Middle Ages and the beginning of polyphony. The occasion was a visit from one of the perennial favorites when it comes to early music, Anonymous 4.

I’ll admit that Anonymous 4 is one of those groups that has existed on the outskirts of my full attention for many years. Their reputation for unique and beautiful performances certainly preceded them, but actually seeing them live made me sit up and take notice. They are fairly unique in the musical world and their scholarship and devotion to performing music that turns off many ears accustomed to the conventions of the last 500 years or so is remarkable. The group has had some minor changes in its line-up over the last two decades, and does not perform and record on the same scale as they did nearly a decade ago. They have taken long breaks for side projects over the years, but when they do come back together it generates a lot of excitement. But none of that changes the absolutely unique beauty of what they do.

Wednesday’s program was entitled “A Medieval Ladymass”, an evening designed to accompany perhaps their most famous recording, An English Ladymass of 1993. The 90-minute compilation includes fragments of many different masses devoted to the Virgin Mary, a common figure of devotion in masses of the time period. And while the fragments vary in their source and content, they work together to form a mass in a practice that was common in the Middle Ages. The four vocalists, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jaqueline Horner-Kwiatek and Ruth Cunningham, rearrange themselves into trios and duos throughout, presenting an extended performance with no break for intermission. The experience of the vocalists in their long history singing with one another is apparent throughout. The beauty they derive from music as technically straightforward as these chants and motets is a wonder. Some in the audience clearly struggled with the lack of nary even a lute on stage, but for those willing to engage the music on its own terms, it was a very good evening.


King for a Day

March 16, 2010

Justin Huen (standing) and Leandro Cano in Oedipus el Rey
Photo: Boston Court Theater 2010

On Sunday I went over to the Theater at Boston Court in Pasadena to see the local premiere of Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus el Rey. Sadly there are fewer theater options in Pasadena these days following the recent demise of the Pasadena Playhouse. And after entering the packed lobby at Boston Court on a Sunday afternoon, it was tempting to contrast the two organizations and what factors, including what has been appearing on their stages in recent years, that may or may not have led to these different fates.

Boston Court is a much smaller theater, despite its posh digs, so it may not be as beholden to presenting as broadly popular fare in order to fill those seats. But the differences in programming are still a stark contrast. The Pasadena Playhouse closed following a revival of Camelot and it’s schedule has been packed in recent years with other eagerly audience-pleasing revivals. There have been new works as well, including musical treatments of Ray Charles’ life story and the film Sister Act. Meanwhile, Boston Court is presenting a 2010 season entirely of world premieres. (Admittedly two of those plays, including Oedipus el Rey, have "rolling premieres where they are having a few debuts in rapid succession in different cities around the nation.) New work has always been a big part of the diet at Boston Court mixed in with a good number of unorthodox takes on classics. They’ve had musicals as well, including an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull and a comic-book style fantasy from composer Eric Whitacre to name a few. And while there are certainly many more factors involved in a theater company’s success besides programming, looking at the content of recent seasons one has to wonder – what, in fact, do today's audiences want to see?

I think Boston Court has been, and continues to be on the right track. The all premiere season is a great and challenging idea in times that would encourage many organizations to go into retreat. The first offering in this premiere series is Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus el Rey, a re-envisioning of Sophocles’ drama in a contemporary L.A. barrio. This is not a new tactic for Alfaro who tread pretty much the same course with Electricidad, which had a local premiere at the Mark Taper Forum in 2005. This time around we have Oedipus released from North Kern State Prison where he has been mentored by a blind Tiresias. Upon release from prison, Oedipus commits the murder which will shape his destiny on the streets of L.A. and then moves into a neighborhood where he will soon be working all of the angles.

Alfaro’s reworking of the plot into modern day elements works well for the most part, including a chorus of fellow felons who take on the roles of most of the minor characters at different points. And while the themes of fate and questioning the gods are still central to the adaptation, Alfaro appears to be unable to avoid filling the story with oodles of psychological characterizations and interpersonal conflicts that were not usually concerns of the Greeks. A lot of time is spent on explaining the romance that develops between Oedipus and Jocasta and Oedipus’ feelings toward Tiresias following his momentous revelations. And while all of this may make the story more acceptable to a modern audience, it also seems to weigh things down in a play that is much more about the folly in questioning one’s destiny. But some wounds are hard to avoid opening when they are staring you in the face, and Alfaro’s Oedipus goes for every one no matter how much they bring the action of the play to a dead stop.

Despite this, there’s a lot right about this show. It certainly looks good and is well lit. The performances are all strong especially Justin Huen as an unusually young and virile Oedipus. Director Jon Lawrence Rivera keeps a good balance between the wit and tragedy in Alfaro's adaptation. And while I never felt shocked by the well worn events of the story, I did admire the craft behind it. The play runs for two more weeks here in L.A. before moving on to Washington DC.

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Tell You Why Tomorrow

March 15, 2010

Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello
Photo: Ken Howard/San Diego Opera 2010

What better way to compensate for the sorrows of a weekend with one less hour of sleep than to offer up the joy in the most romantic of French Operas? At least that seems to be the strategy for San Diego Opera, which kicked off four performances of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette on Saturday night. It’s a pretty good evening and likely the highlight of their 2010 season if for no other reason than for the two remarkable leads, Stephen Costello and Ailyn Pérez. The label of “rising young star” gets thrown around a lot, but these two singers, who are married in real life, are the real deal. Pérez is scheduled to sing Amelia opposite Placido Domingo’s Simon Boccanegra at La Scala later this spring. (And here’s wishing him a speedy recovery from his recent surgery.) Costello has recently stepped into a number of major roles at the Metropolitan Opera and will be going from the B-cast to the A-cast in a number of major European venues next season. Hearing the pair sing Gounod’s version of the ill-fated lovers makes it clear why they are on their way up. Costello is both agile and athletic and assails high notes with ease. He had a tendency to milk sustained notes for more than they were worth on almost every occasion presented to him, but this indulgence aside, he was pretty exciting. Pérez can also fill the house with ease and manages the flights of notes in her part skillfully. She had a tendency to turn harsh at the very top of her range, but the screaming there settled down after a little warming up. In addition to the sound, the young couple looked the part of their characters, which is always nice when you can get it in the opera house.

Sadly, not much of the rest of the show is quite up to their par. In fact, even with their wonderful vocalism, many of the big climactic scenes fell short due to a number of issues including Cynthia Stokes’ pedestrian direction. The rather drab single set creates the specified balconies and interiors, but little more. The choreography was labored and cramped, although the cast had clearly spent some time on the fight sequences. The orchestra was led by Karen Keltner in a performance that was sufficient, although not always as lyrical or engaged with what was going on onstage. Things could become a little too plodding at times, and then rushed at others. There is a fine line between bounce and wobble if you know what I mean. The chorus sounded much stronger than in the recent production of Nabucco. But the negatives don't blot out what's good in the show. There are three more performances in the next two weeks. So, if you want to see tomorrow’s stars today, it’s worth checking this Romeo out.



March 13, 2010

Joyce Yang, Edo de Waart, and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2010

I have long been a fan of Dutch conductor Edo de Waart. Even after abandoning the music director post at Santa Fe Opera before it had even started, he remains one of those conductors I feel I can always count on for a worthwhile performance. He’s in town this weekend conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic and does deliver a very impressive program of Strauss and Beethoven. In fact, I’m starting to think of de Waart as a superior conductor of Strauss this season. He led magnificent performances of Der Rosenkavalier in New York last fall while pinch-hitting for James Levine and this weekend he served up Ein Heldenleben. It was big, beautiful and cheeky in that Straussian way. Strauss may have joked about his “Hero’s Life” being inspired by Beethoven’s Third Symphony, but in fact it’s more likely a twist on Wagner’s Siegfried. It was another rich and polished performance from the orchestra that was Romantic, but not histrionic. Concertmaster Martin Chalifour played beautifully in his extended solo passages as well.

The other half of the concert was occupied by a 10 year-old work from Qigang Chen entitled The Five Elements. These short miniatures were, in fact, inspired by the five elements of fire, water, earth, wood and metal. Chen, the final student of Olivier Messiaen, draws from both eastern and western musical traditions in his work which was evident even in these brief moments. Although the orchestration involved relatively little traditional or folk instrumentation, sounds associated with Chinese music were replicated in various places in the orchestra. It was a nice way to start the evening, although I’m not sure how it necessarily related to anything else. The middle of the program was taken up by a much less successful third Beethoven Piano Concerto performed by Joyce Yang. It may have been simply a matter of lack of rehearsal time with the orchestra, but Friday’s performance sounded robotic and heavy handed from Yang. The orchestra was there to pick up the ball, but on a number of occasions, Yang was nowhere to be found. Still, the Strauss was good enough on its own to make the evening worthwhile and the show repeats Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.


Light as a Feather

March 11, 2010

Anne Sofie von Otter, Myung-Whun Chung, and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Photo: mine 2010

This year’s UCLA Live performing arts series has been lighter than usual in the classical music department. In fact Wednesday’s appearance from the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France is just about the only large ensemble appearing in this season’s offerings. But gratefully, it was a notable one. The orchestra appeared with music director Myung-Whun Chung who is no stranger to French ensembles or composers over the course of his career. So the decision to plan an all-Ravel program on this trip to LA certainly played to the performers’ strengths even if it was essentially a greatest hits evening - the complete Ma mere l’Oye, Daphnis et Chloé Suites 1 and 2, La Valse, and Schéhérazade with guest vocalist Anne Sofie von Otter.

But greatest hits are greatest hits for a reason, and the Philharmonique played with such lightness and polish they were hard to resist. The attacks were so controlled and subtle that at times the playing seemed like breathing. It was as natural and pure with a total lack of self-consciousness. There were still plenty of dynamics, but the shifts were seamless. As lovely and masterful as it was; though, there is a down side. Sometimes that much effervescence can lead to everything blowing away and disappearing into thin air. Chung’s guidance could also leave few clear edges to hold onto as well. But there was ample beauty. Von Otter was quite good throughout Schéhérazade. The last two times I’ve caught her live, she sang either Carmen or Brangäne, and the Ravel seemed a better fit for her. She sang with a rich tone and a vulnerability that grabbed the audience. It was certainly the highlight of the evening.


Busy Work

March 10, 2010

Peter Eötvös, Gregory Vajda, and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2010

Tuesday’s “Green Umbrella” program sponsored by the Los Angeles Philharmonic seemed neglected in a way. The L.A. Philharmonic’s "Creative Chair" for new music, John Adams wasn’t there, and the Philharmonic’s Associate Conductor scheduled for the program, Lionel Bringuier, was absent following an injury. Whether or not either of these facts contributed to the lower than normal turn out for one of the contemporary music programs at the WDCH isn’t clear. But outside of the talented Philharmonic members that played in the program, the evening seemed rather untethered from the place and organization as a whole. Nevertheless, it was still a fine evening, featuring primarily the music of Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös. A well-known figure in Europe, Eötvös has been featured on local stages in the past including a big role in the 2007 Ojai Festival, and his return was welcome.

There were three of his works on the schedule, all of which were led by Eötvös' fellow countryman Gregory Vajda, with the exception of a string quartet. Setting the tone was Snatches of a Conversation which, as the name implies, involved a half-whispered vocal part consisting of phrases one might overhear in a crowded restaurant or party. The percolating music had a heavy jazz influence including a major part for a double-bell trumpet played by Brandon Ridenour referencing the snatches of jazz the composer remembered hearing over illegal radio channels in his youth in communist Hungary. This musical scatter of notes was reflected in two other works, Sonta per sei and Korrespondenz, a string quartet. The six players in the Sonata were two pianos, a sampler, and three percussionists. It too achieved a certain stillness or meta-narrative apart from the jingling passages in both sets of instruments. Korrespondenz was played by the Calder Quartet and was intended to mimic actual letters written between Mozart and his father when the young composer was living in Paris. The words from the letters are printed in the score and different sets of notes are matched with different letters and sounds in the words. The conversation takes place between the viola and first violin on the young man's side and the cello and second violin standing in for the father. All of the works seemed to create something much larger apart from their methodologies and intricate and busy activity.

The other piece on the program belonged to a student of Eötvös', Vykintas Baltakas, entitled (co)ro(na). Baltakas composed this piece as part of a series of works built up from small musical elements of one another and expanded into much larger proportions. (co)ro(na) alternates sequences of jittery percolating notes across the ensemble with longer held notes placed for sharpest contrast. It felt cut from a similar cloth as the other works in the program and captured the same sense of stillness in the context of motion. All of the music was fascinating to listen to and rather exciting overall. And, while apparently being a major European conductor and composer doesn't pull the weight around L.A. that it used to, it's programs like these that continue to be the highlight of the L.A. Philharmonic season.


I'd Like To Thank The Academy

March 08, 2010

Grant Gershon, the LA Master Chorale, and Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra
Photo: mine 2010

It may have been Oscar night, but the Los Angeles Master Chorale mostly filled the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday for a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. I know it seems there would be a lot of overlap between the typical LAMC audience and the typical Oscar show audience, but nonetheless there were bodies in the seats so somebody had made some tough decisions. I myself had just gotten off a plane from Chicago and was very glad I made the choice I did because it was a very good performance from the talented vocal artists of the chorale.

Of course, the evening was particularly blessed not only with the leadership of director Grant Gershon, but also by the forces of Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra. As is usually the case, the LAMC sounds just that much better when they’re paired with an orchestra good enough to keep up with them. Gershon took a very balanced and magisterial approach to the piece. In recent years, I seem to have run across an increasing number of semi- and fully staged productions of this work and I must admit I’ve rather grown to love performances that play up the operatic and theatrical aspects of Bach’s work. And while this was not one of them, Gershon and the LAMC did maintain a reverence and spiritual quality to the evening that made it worthwhile.

The many soloists were drawn from the ranks of the chorale and most were quite good. I was particularly fond of Steve Pence’s Jesus. I think he also had some of the most reasonable German of the evening. In fact, considering the accent and diction issues overall, it seems like it might have been better just to perform the work in English translation. Such an approach has worked well for directors like Jonathan Miller, and a translation can emphasize the more communal aspects of the work. But, in any event, it was another lovely evening from the LAMC.


Under The Weather

March 07, 2010

Anne Schwanewilms, Mariusz Kwiecien, Kyle Ketelsen, Danielle de Niese, and Joyce DiDonato
Photo: Dan Rest/LOC 2010

Talk about a mixed blessing. Lyric Opera of Chicago’s final production for the season is a revival of Le Nozze di Figaro. It couldn’t be cast any better with a group of singers as pleasing to hear as they were to watch on stage. But there are some significant obstacles to the show’s total success. The good news is that some of these will likely resolve well before the end of the run. But back to that cast – Mariusz Kwiecien, Danielle de Niese, Kyle Ketelsen, Anne Schwanewilms, Andrea Sivestrelli, and Joyce DiDonato. DiDonato’s Cherubino is worth the entire evening in and of itself. Kwiecien is also exciting throughout in one of his best roles as Count Almaviva. De Niese's Susanna is bright and plucky if a little croony at times. If there is any unwelcome guest amongst the cast, it’s a virus. In particular, the one that continues to afflict the superior Schwanewilms who is cast as the beleaguered countess. As on opening night, she was announced as ill but sang anyway and was clearly frustrated by her difficulty, particularly at the end of Dove sono. It was admirable that she came off as well as she did all considering and she got the warmest ovation of anyone the whole evening at the end of her troubled aria. Ticket holders later in the run are in for a real treat when she is more fully recovered.

But there were problems of the non-viral variety as well, particularly in the form of the pacing from conductor Sir Andrew Davis. This may have been a beautifully sung Figaro, but it’s the slowest one I’ve attended in recent memory. Yes, comedy can be slow, but Figaro is not a work that benefits from it. There are many sweet knowing smiles over the course of this four hours, but few actual laughs. I kept longing for the thing to develop some real energy and drive as virtually every note was lovingly cradled by the orchestra and cast to the point of distraction. The production from Sir Peter Hall is as predictable as it is forgettable with one too many dark rooms and earth-toned costumes. The evening is neither bright nor vibrant, but with singing this good overall, it has major compensations. The production runs through March 27.


Square Deal

March 06, 2010

John Relyea and Paul Groves
Photo: Dan Rest/LOC 2010

I’m in a happily sunny Chicago this weekend for the final productions of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 09/10 season. On Friday (at the company’s invitation) I saw the new Stephen Langridge production of Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust. The work has been here, there, and everywhere lately including a major new production at the Metropolitan Opera last season from director Robert LePage. Despite this, LOC's jumps in with another quite modern update to Berlioz’ almost-opera that despite some noticeable similarities, couldn't be more different in tone and effect.

Langridge’s Faust staging utilizes a fair amount of modern technology and projected video much like LePage's recent staging. But despite the common love of technology, Langridge elects to update the action of the piece to the later-half of the 20th century in an unnamed Eastern European town. Faust is a computer scientist who feels alienated from the world of soldiers and the beautiful blond young women they love. In fact the dancers and chorus are all attired in one of a small number of identical and dowdy costumes corresponding to various types of persons in the village(e.g., the old woman, the middle-aged woman, etc). Only Marguerite stands out with her long black hair and brown dress. The set is minimal and overshadowed by a series of rafters that raise and lower in a variety of patterns and colored lighting effects. It’s stark at times, but the video projections and colorful props add for a distinct and often striking visual sense. Langridge also uses a series of Faust and Marguerite doppelgangers at times to reenact elements from the story not explicitly spelled out by Berlioz in the musical action such as the arrest of Marguerite and the poisoning of her mother. I thought this worked well and helped connect the narrative elements of the work. Langridge doesn't waste time with pretty dance numbers that exist solely for their own sake but keeps things moving with the decline and fall of the lovers.

Musically it was a bit of an off night, but by no means a shabby one. This is a world-class cast by any measure, but many of the cast have sounded better. Susan Graham, the evening’s Marguerite, was announced to have had a cold before the start of the show, but outside of being a little underpowered, it was hardly what you’d notice. Paul Groves sang Faust, which is one of his signature roles. He's not quite got the handle on the high notes in the score that he was able to do about a decade ago, but his familiarity with the character and experience pays off in other ways. He's a very believable actor and his Faust is truly tragic. John Relyea makes an excellent Méphistophélès as he has done elsewhere and was appropriately menacing in his shiny purple suit throughout. Sir Andrew Davis led the orchestra with an appreciably light hand.

Not everything works as well as it could. When Faust looks out at the soldiers preparing for war in Scene 3, Langridge presents a modern day red beret militia practicing rifle maneuvers. And while this may be a modern day equivalent, Faust's lack of emotional reaction takes on a different meaning. Instead of the audience marking how Faust lacks any passion for glory, it seems more reasonable that he might regret the loss of young life in the folly of war. Given that in a modern context the viewer is more likely to identify with Faust's reaction than reject it, some of the meaning is lost. Still, on balance, the production works on many levels and gets the bigger picture across. It's far more effective in the second half when we see the decisions made by the lovers unravel under the machinations of the devil. There are three more performances between now and march 17 for those of you in the Chicago area.


Jack Be Nimble

March 05, 2010

James Conlon, Lise de la Salle and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2010

If the start of Daylight Savings Time this weekend isn't enough for you, there's an even more potent harbinger of Spring in Los Angeles this weekend as the Los Angeles Philharmonic welcomes James Conlon back to town. One of the many fringe benefits of Conlon's work as Music Director of the Los Angeles Opera is that we’ve been privileged with a series of excellent concerts he’s led across the street at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Thursday’s all-Prokofiev outing was another in this very well played and satisfying series. Conlon likes to speak to audiences (a sadly rare event for LA Phil audiences these days) and noted that taking a break from all the Teutonic goings-on in his preparation for LA Opera’s upcoming Ring cycle performances with a decidedly Russian evening may have been striking some sort of musical balance. Whether or not that's true, it was an excellent show.

The first half of the program, which he termed the “Opus 1” section, included Prokfiev’s First Symphony, the “classical”, and his First Piano Concerto played by soloist Lise de la Salle. The symphony, like the concerto, seemed detailed and fleeting and I felt I was rushing to savor every moment of these comparably brief works. De la Salle’s playing was limber in this very demanding storm of notes, and while she may have wanted for a little more power sometimes, it was an admirable and memorable appearance. After the break were the omnipresent selections from Romeo and Juliet which I will admit I wasn’t super excited about. But much to my surprise, Conlon had something new to offer local ears in a very theatrical take on selections he took from the whole ballet intentionally to emphasize the narrative flow. Conlon's operatic expertise served him well taking music that risks sounding pedestrian and tuning it into something more cohesive and exciting. The orchestra had a real richness of sound and marshaled through two players breaking strings and the subsequent on-the-fly repairs. But while it may have been a bad night for individual strings, it was a great night for the audience. And while Prokofiev may not be Wagner, hearing Conlon lead the orchestra under these circumstances whets one’s appetite for the far more ambitious undertaking under his musical guidance over the next few months.


In The Wings - March '10

March 03, 2010

Sally Dexter in Jonathan Kent's production of The Fairy Queen form Glyndebourne 2009
Photo: Tristram Kenton

For better or worse, my March will be dominated by out of town opera. Over the 5th and 6th I’ll be in Chicago for Lyric Opera's new production of Berlioz’ beautiful La Damnation de Faust with Susan Graham and Paul Groves and a well-cast Le Nozze di Figaro with Mariusz Kwiecien, Danielle de Niese, Joyce DiDonato, and Anne Schwanewilms. A little bit further away in New York at the end of the month I’ll be checking out the latest from the Metropolitan opera including Verdi’s Attila, Shostakovich’s The Nose, and the new production of Thomas’ Hamlet with the dreamy Simon Keenlyside and the just announced Marlis Petersen who'll be taking over for an ailing Natalie Dessay. (I love Dessay, but Petersen's recent Lulu in Chicago was a formidable bit of performance.) While in town I’m also seeing Purcell’s The Fairy Queen from William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at BAM and La Traviata with Angela Gheorghiu. There’ll probably be something else on the agenda, but I haven’t made up my mind yet. But I’ll let you know. San Diego may be a little closer to home, but I can never get enough French opera (And really, who can?) so I’ll be checking out Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette on the 13th starring hunky Stephen Costello and Allyn Pérez.

Lise de la Salle
Photo: Stéphane Gallois

As for Los Angeles and surrounding environs, the big opera tickets will have to wait for next month, but Long Beach Opera will not leave us hanging by venturing into John Adams’ Nixon in China on the 20th. The Los Angeles Philharmonic will be contributing some promising programs with pianists of all stripes this month starting on the 4th with the return of James Conlon who’ll lead an all Prokofiev evening with the First Piano Concerto played by Lise de la Salle. The next weekend brings Edo de Waart and pianist Joyce Yang, this time playing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto and Strauss. And to round out the trifecta, we’ve got Lars Vogt playing under Robin Ticciati in Grieg’s Piano Concerto starting on the 18th. And if you want another big keyboard name to round out the month, there’s the ever-present Emanuel Ax in a recital with Dawn Upshaw on the 23rd before his Chopin performances the following weekend.

Frank Denyer
Photo: Keshav Nigam

If new music is what you yearn for, the two bet choices will likely be the “Green Umbrella” Program at Walt Disney Concert Hall on the 9th focusing on the work of Peter Eötvös. Meanwhile, Monday Evening Concerts will offer up the decidedly less familiar work of Frank Denyer on the 8th. But if your looking for the more familiar, you might want to check out the LA Master Chorale in Bach’s St. Mathew Passion on the 7th or the all Ravel Program at UCLA’s Royce Hall from the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France with Anne Sofie von Otter. And speaking of vocalists and UCLA, Ian Bostridge will be making appearance on the West side as well on the 24th. And if you want to go back in musical time even further, the Anonymous 4 will be downtown at WDCH on the 17th.

Where else could I possibly be? Well there’s A Noise Within’s production of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing! on the 21st and Boston Court Theater’s premiere of the latest from Luis Alfaro, Oedipus el Rey on the 14th. Reprise will bring us Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum on the 20th. And how about Rosanna Gamson’s latest dance piece TOV at the REDCAT on the 19th. So don’t say you haven’t been warned.


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