Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Make It Work

April 11, 2010

Robert Brubaker, Martin Gantner, and Anja Kampe in Die Gezeichneten
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

So, you know that moment on Project Runway where Tim Gunn enters the workroom at the end of a long day where contestants have just barely completed their “looks” for, say, a group of six-year-olds, only to announce the bad news. Now, he says, they all have to come up with a companion look for the kids’ dowdy mothers based on the first outfit with virtually no money to do it with. This is more or less the situation Los Angeles Opera and director Ian Judge find themselves in with the final production of the 2009/2010 season, Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten. This is a U.S. premiere and the third in a series of productions under the banner of “Recovered Voices,” which revisits some of the 20th-century composers whose careers and lives were adversely affected by the rise of Germany’s Third Reich. As if this set up wasn’t a tall enough order, Judge was faced with the challenge of developing a production that would fit within the constraints set forth by the concurrently running new production of Wagner's Götterdämmerung designed by Achim Freyer. The steeply raked set with circular turntable and large scrim covering the stage are fixed elements that Judge had to design around and according to other reports, had to do so with very little money.

Robert Brubaker and Anja Kampe
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

But, just as there’s always a TV designer who rises to the occasion to win the “mommy-and-me” challenge, Judge took what he was handed and ran with it for a visually engaging and very affecting evening of theater. In fact, this production marks another milestone in that it officially makes Judge the closest thing L.A. Opera has to a “house director.” He has now directed more original productions for the company than anyone else in their 25-year history, including such works as Tosca, Le Nozze di Figaro, Tännhauser, and Don Carlo. Much has been said about the cost of L.A. Opera’s new Ring cycle. And for those who can’t conceive where the money went, you may want to start with Die Gezeichneten. The company invested in hundreds of thousands of dollars in state-of-the-art video projection equipment for the Ring, and they are just now getting to show off the myriad of other uses these elaborate new toys have. There are virtually no sets for Die Gezeichneten and only occasional pieces of furniture make it to the stage. But the video projection onslaught that covers the front scrim, stage floor, and back curtain is a work of art in and of itself. Images appear, move and alter themselves in a shifting sea all congruent with the stage action. Judge even makes use of the rotating floor, providing an opportunity to shift scenes with virtually no pause in the music. After last season's disappointing production of Braunfel’s Die Vögel, where director, Darko Tresnjak, fought the constraints of Freyer’s Ring design every step of the way, Judge comes to the rescue proving that a minuscule budget and numerous design restrictions don’t need to limit one's artistic vision.

But Judge wasn’t the only one whose vision saved he day. James Conlon stuck with this project and advocated for it in the face of economic troubles, insisting on a complete, full staging of Schreker’s score. And what music it is. Schreker’s late romantic stew is not unrecognizable, but his indebtedness to Strauss is matched by an awareness of Schoenberg in an opera that is as much Lulu or Salome as it is Rigoletto. All the Wagner-playing as of late has provided the orchestra one hell of a workout, it appears, because turning to Schreker’s score seems second nature to them. I don’t think I can recall ever hearing such lovely playing from the orchestra under James Conlon. Pair that with a singular performance from Anja Kampe in the role of Carlotta and you have an evening with first rate musical values regardless of the rest. There are many other fine vocal performances, though, including Robert Brubaker as the hunchbacked Alviano and Martin Gantner as Count Tamare.

A scene from Die Gezeichneten
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

Like Strauss’ Salome, however, all that beauty comes with strange bedfellows. In this case it’s a libretto that is so depraved that one spends the first hour asking oneself, “Is this really what the opera is about?” Yes it is. And no, this is definitely not an opera to bring the kids or family to. It can be pretty graphic at times, although I never felt it was in a distasteful way. The action of the show is updated from 17th-century Italy, to the early 20th century and roughly concerns a wealthy, but physically deformed, landowner who is planning to give up his private island off the coast of Genoa over to the people and the city in an act of generosity. The problem is that the island has been used, unbeknown to Alviano, by a group of young nobles as part of a ring to kidnap and sexually assault the daughters of local aristocrats. It gets messy from here, and let's just say it's not a happy ending. But there's nothing in Die Gezeichneten that’s any more disturbing than some of the storylines in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. And, while it may not quite live up to that standard, this is one performance that is completely worth seeing.


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