Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

August 31, 2010

Robert Mandan and Maggie Peach. Photo: Ron Sossi/Odyssey Theater 2010

Being funny is hard enough. To expect big ideas from a comedy seems unfair if not outright impossible considering what a fickle thing real laughs can be. Take Alan Ayckbourn for instance, a prolific and quite successful playwright whose brand of British sex comedy has become a staple in the English speaking world over his lifetime. His ubiquitous works are many things, and in the right hands they are undoubtedly funny. But even what seems on the surface to be dated farce can tap into much deeper streams as proven by Matthew Warchus’ recent revival of The Norman Conquests that appeared in both New York and London. Here in Los Angeles in recent years one of the biggest purveyors of Ayckbourn’s work has been the Odyssey Theater Ensemble who’ve made a point of a revival nearly every summer over the last several years and are currently in the midst of a successful run of Bedroom Farce. The terrain is familiar, three couples of different ages comically deal with a fourth far less stable pair in the wake of a disastrous house-warming party. It's the 1970s and who is bedding down with whom and under what circumstances is of paramount importance. Also par for the course is Ayckbourn’s use of a clever framing device. All the action in Bedroom Farce takes place in one of three bedrooms that the eight characters enter and exit over the course of the play with most of the cast on stage in one of the three contiguous rooms at all times.

The Odyssey revival pulls this off quite well. Director Ron Bottitta and his very good ensemble cast have succeeded in assembling a show that is first and foremost funny and thus meets the most basic requirements of comedy. The very talented cast milks the smell of fish, the assembly of furniture, and the more thorny topic of acute back pain for solid laughs throughout this well-paced and energetic evening. But does it go beyond funny? Not always. But this Bedroom Farce has its moments. Particularly from Kate Hollinshead and Maggie Peach who dispatch every understated “Yes, quite” for maximum effect and tap into the underlying dialog about these characters’ lives without having to say a thing. I was also rather fond of Robert Mandan’s Ernest whose enthusiasm for a ripping adventure story was a take home moment from this evening as well. So even if Odyssey's Bedroom Farce doesn’t always live up to more than light comedy, it does manage that task quite well. And isn’t that enough of an achievement in itself? Bedroom Farce runs through September 26 on the Westside.


Don’t Hold Back

August 30, 2010

The Chemical Brothers on stage at the Hollywood Bowl Photo: mine 2010

Sunday was a chance to take stock of the more danceable corners of the electronic music world, which were on display at the Hollywood Bowl. The event was one of six “world music” programs put together by KCRW, but, as usual, some of these evenings take broad liberties with the “world music” title in an effort to include genres of music popular on the radio station. Sunday’s “world” consisted of Britain, Canada, and the U.S., but regardless of geography, the point of the show was electronica with headliners The Chemical Brothers who are currently touring in support of their latest release, Further. Before that piece of business, though, were two younger, more puckish, outfits: Yacht and Chromeo. Portland Oregon’s own Yacht started the evening off with a performance-oriented set complete with similarly uniformed dancers and band members all in black with large triangular white collars. The stylish front persons Jona Bechtolt and Claire L. Evans delivered a brief theatrical set heavily reminiscent of Gary Numan, at least visually, but certainly with its own charms. This led nicely into the second slot on the bill, Montreal’s Chromeo. Unlike Yacht, Chromeo favors a more straight forward party atmosphere based in a early 1980s pop pastiche. But for all the Robert Palmer and Dire Straits references, the act owes far more to the Zapp Band and Roger than anybody else. It’s certainly a good time with Chromeo, if a familiar one. The performance of “Night By Night” which will lead off the forthcoming Business Casual was a highlight of the sly set.

But all of this seemed somewhat like kid gloves when the Chemical Brothers arrived on stage amidst the darkness that would frame them throughout their seamless dance set. Oh, there was a giant video screen with elaborate images, many of which accompany Further and come along with the download on iTunes. But The Chemical Brothers are about a unified experience that doesn’t focus on them as personalities, which only adds to the irony of a live "performance" from artists who rely heavily on synthetic and sometimes prerecorded elements. At just about two decades in the electronic music game, the duo has blazed enough trails for others to follow. Their music is no pastische or homage to a bygone era, but continues to push forward with big beats and high intensity. The evening drew primarily from the quite good recent release Further with a smattering of previous hits including “Setting Sun”, “Galvanize”, and “Star Guitar” among others. And while I’ve never been a big fan of “transcendence” or “transport” in the context of a musical performance, The Chemical Brothers produced one tight, admirable set on Sunday. And they threw quite a party while they were at it.


Let's Get Serious

August 25, 2010

Sarah Chang and Leonard Slatkin with members of the L.A. Philharmonic. Photo: mine 2010

Tuesday brought a whole evening’s worth of orchestral music from Dimitri Shostakovich, which was sufficient reason to brave the numerous obstacles to enjoying music at the Hollywood Bowl. Our beloved Los Angeles Philharmonic was paired up with two names that don’t immediately leap to mind when you think of Shostakovich - violinist Sarah Chang and conductor for the evening, Leonard Slatkin. (Though to be fair, both have recorded the major works on Tuesday’s program in their substantial catalogs and are not at all strangers to Shotakovich's works.) To start was one of those brief reminders that for all of the heavy baggage associated with Shotakovich, he composed more than his fair share of easy-access film and theater music. Tahiti Trot was written on a dare to demonstrate the composer could set Vincent Youmans’ “Tea for Two” from the musical No, No Nanette in under an hour. He did and these few minutes proved a light-hearted kick-off to some much more serious business at hand.

Chang arrived for the First Violin Concerto last heard quite spectacularly with the L.A. Phil, if my recollection is right, in February 2008 with soloist Vadim Repin under James Conlon. Chang has a tendency towards physical histrionics like stomping that I’ve noticed in prior outings here. And even though details may have been blunted by my distance from the stage, they seemed blissfully absent on Tuesday. Chang is no slouch and readily dispatched the requisite furious finger-work, but I found the opening lament of the Nocturne a little dry and uninvolved even if her playing lacked any hesitation. As things got more fast and furious, she seemed to rise to the occasion with a little more abandon and a little less control that brought things around with a little more excitement. The only other issue was the typical loss of much of the gorgeous bass sound that permeates the concerto in the dead Bowl acoustics.

This thinning of the bass sound also plagued the performance of the Symphony No. 5 that followed the intermission. Slatkin knows his way around 20th-century music and has been giving solid performances everywhere following the now largely forgotten scandale of last season’s La Traviata debacle at the Met Opera. Here he was as assured as he was this summer in Santa Fe. Slatkin and the orchestra compensated as much as possible for the muffled bass by making the most of the work’s many other charms. Things did go a little awry in the Largo, with an overly muddy sound. But it was an enjoyable performance that showed off the brass nicely and could be fleet when it needed to. No, not shabby at all for a Tuesday at the Hollywood Bowl.


Things You Should Know

August 24, 2010

Placido Domingo as Pablo Neruda in LA Opera's forthcoming Il Postino Photo: Art Streiber/LAO 2010

1) In celebration of the company’s 25th Anniversary season that starts on September 23rd, the Los Angeles Opera is having a one-day spectacular sale on Wednesday, August 25. Tickets to all performances in the 10/11 season are 25% off by following this link. As I’ve mentioned previously, this is a great season, and this may be the most economical chance to get seats for next year. Don’t miss the all-star Lohengrin, Il Turco in Italia or the world premiere of Catán's Il Postino (above) in particular.

2) Voting is now open for Gramophone Magazine’s 2010 artist of the year, which you can conveniently do online. You’ve got many great choices, but you should vote for the now video-blogging Joyce DiDonato whose career has gone red-hot this year after some incredible singing and stellar perseverance.

3) And on a sad note, Orange County Register classical music critic Tim Mangan notes on his blog, Classical Life, that he too has been “reassigned.” Did he have too many negative things to say about a local arts organization? Sadly, the culprit in this case is not simply his employer's lack of ethical standards. Mangan notes that starting in mid-September he’ll be writing a daily celebrity news column and only dabbling in classical music when the powers that be decide it must be done. Apparently, the potential subscribers of the OCR have spoken and they’d rather read about Mel Gibson or whoever than thoughtful, well-written arts criticism, so it looks like they're going to get what they want. Meanwhile, U.S. print news organizations continue to make the same bad decisions that got them into this mess in the first place. Good luck, Tim.

And as it appears that there is more of a need for Out West Arts than ever before, I guess I’ll keep going. Until then...

It Is Written

August 23, 2010

Ryan Welsh and Melanie Lora
Photo: Ed Krieger/Boston Court 2010

The Oxford English Dictionary has proven to be a fertile source for narratives over the last decade. Particularly popular in the wake of Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman were stories surrounding James Murray, one of the earliest editors of the OED. It’s also the setting for the quite good new play The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder by Moby Pomerance, now receiving its world premiere at The Boston Court Theater in Pasadena in a collaboration with Circle X Theater. Of course, while Murray’s Sisyphean task is the backdrop of the story, Pomerance has much bigger fish to fry, and in fact quite a lot of them, in his family drama. The Good Book is actually about the familiar stress and strains of families and particularly the roles of adult children reconciling their pasts while still caring and supporting their elderly parents. In Pomerance’s version James Murray is primarily assisted by a daughter, Jane, whose years of toil and bitter resentment of her absentee brother Paul comes to a head when the prodigal son, a cartographer, suddenly returns from Africa for a visit. And while both children must come to grips with their aging father, in some ways James Murray recedes into the background as a more static character bridging the gap between his two children. Fond memories are revisited, old wounds are reopened, and the Herculean labor of the OED carries on.

On the one hand, none of these family conflict story lines are particularly original. On the other, the setting is unique and Pomerance is wise to pack the show with enough dictionary intrigue to keep things interesting. If there is any problem, it may be that things are a little too packed with two servants, rotating employee/volunteers working on the dictionary, and sundry subplots to accompany it all. The Good Book is a busy play that sometimes seems to be missing a real overarching sense of direction. One may wonder if the dictionary will ever be completed, but this is never really the source of tension in the family drama that seems to percolate along slowly before coming to a somewhat predictable head. At its best, The Good Book manages to evoke the kind of excitement a Merchant/Ivory film might. Director John Langs elicits strong performances from everyone including a particularly good Melanie Lora as Jane and Ryan Welsh as Paul. Accents are largely stable and convincing throughout, and the play manages to evoke a Victorian air without being particularly Dickensian. And though some of the psychological concerns of the characters, including Jane’s rather easy acceptance of her brother’s implied homosexuality, may be a bit out of place for the time period of the play’s action, it’s still a fairly interesting exercise. The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder is worth seeing and runs through September 5 in Pasadena.

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Location, Location, Location

August 21, 2010

Wainwright in feathers from a 2010 London appearance. Photo: Kasia Bobula 2010

Rufus Wainwright has always had a flair for the dramatic. And lately that’s taken him farther and farther away from the mainstream of contemporary popular song with side trips into a full-length opera, 2009’s Prima Donna, and a variety of other music and theater ventures. His most recent recording All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu might seem to return to a simpler model with its stripped down piano and vocals. Written during the course of some difficult months leading up to the death of his mother earlier this year, the recording is certainly introspective if not always easily accessible. And yet, when Wainwright appears on stage in his current U.S. tour as he did at the Greek Theater in L.A. on Friday, it's clear that his recent interest in pursuing theatrical avenues outside of conventional pop formats continues unabated.

The first half of the show, as the nearly half empty Greek Theater was told, would consist of a single song cycle that Wainwright requested be uninterrupted by applause or photography. He then appeared dressed in a gauzy black robe trimmed with black feathers and a train trailing him across the stage as he slowly approached the piano where he launched into All Days Are Nights in its chronological entirety. By presenting a work in a format perhaps more familiar to followers of classical music such as a song recital and recasting himself as an artist closer to Liszt than Elton John, Wainwright was asking for trouble. It’s an ambitious presentation of an ambitious work that could not have arrived in a less appropriate venue than the beer-swilling, outdoor home for summer music in L.A. The crowd was certainly respectful, but the pretension of the presentation complete with video, frequently ran the risk of overwhelming the beautiful songs.

The songs themselves from All Days Are Nights are often quite good. But as Wainwright branches out into more demanding and varied musical fields one begins to wonder if his own skills as a performer are up to the task. I mean I love the songs of Benjamin Britten but no one, including Britten, wanted to hear him sing them himself. Wainwright often pushes for notes well out of his range and his playing can be more than a little sloppy at times. This first quite serious segment of the show seemed like it was only halfway to where it needed to go.

The second set, featured a notably brighter, sunnier, and more loquacious Wainwright as well as the familiar songs presented in a familiar fashion. The shift in tenor into the second act was a bit steep, but not unenjoyable, especially considering that Wainwright had much firmer control of his vocal and musical resources here. His sister Martha Wainwright, who also opened the show, joined him at times onstage. She’s just completed a new recording, Sans Fusils Ni Souliers A Paris, of Edith Piaf covers that isn’t currently available in the U.S. Which is really a shame considering how lovely her samplings of them were at the start of the evening. Luckily we live in the world of the intertubes or whatever you want to call it so you can order it here.



August 19, 2010

Toby Stephens
Photo: Johan Persson/NT 2010

Now that my jet lag is finally starting to subside, I should mention one last performance on last week’s schedule before it slips my mind. On a overnight layover in London, I did catch the National Theater’s new production of Büchner’s Danton’s Death starring Toby Stephens. There’s little about this history play in a new adaptation by Howard Brenton that doesn’t feel somehow out of place. The play follows the interpersonal intrigue among Danton, Robespierre and a number of other principal figures during the Reign of Terror in Paris in the spring of 1794. It’s a play filled with characters filled with intense passion about political and social ideals written by a young man, Georg Büchner, who was filled with them as well. And while Büchner was interested in exposing the hypocrisy in the violent tactics of the terror, he was simultaneously enamored of the revolutionary spirit in all of the play’s characters. Put at the center of this mix Danton, a revolutionary who has decided he’s more lover than fighter, and you’ve got one fairly explosive combination for a theatrical production.

So why does this production directed by Michael Grandage fall so flat? There are plenty of virile speeches delivered from virtually every character at all points of the basic stage set, but there’s something wary and tired about it all. There’s an energetic youthfulness that has been misplaced here, I wager, in an effort to draw clearer parallels between the evils of the Terror and those places in which terror lives on in our contemporary sociopolitical context. Not that Grandage’s production is in any way anachronistic or filled with outright contemporary references. It just comes off like a classroom lecture. There are some splashy effects including a very convincing guillotine scene at the play's conclusion. At the center of the performance is Toby Stephens in the title role. He was excellent in 2007’s revival of Pinter’s Betrayal at the Donmar Warehouse and there is no doubt he can carry big starring roles like Danton on stage. But his “Can’t I just be left alone to love?” protestations begin to have a sitcom sensibility by the time the midpoint of this Danton’s Death is reached. The rest of the cast is quite good, but most of the other characters in the play are so underdeveloped, it’s hard to feel much connection to any of them. Robespierre all but disappears by the halfway point and Danton’s wife has a lovely speech when she finally is given something to do toward the end of the play. Danton’s Death, despite its relevance, never really rises above a somewhat dry history lesson, and for all of its youthful passion, it feels decidedly inert. It continues at the National Theater in London through October 14.


All Good Things...

August 15, 2010

Genia Kühmeier, Christiane Karg, and Elisabeth Kulman Photo: Hermann und Clärchen Baus/Salzburg Festival 2010

Without a doubt, the new production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice was the best opera I saw at this year’s Salzburg Festival. I know that may come as a surprise, and I’ll admit that it wasn’t what I was expecting either. In fact, getting a ticket to Saturday’s performance, which featured members of the Vienna Philharmonic led by Riccardo Muti, was somewhat of an afterthought and was not part of my original plan for the week. And I’ll admit that I may have overreacted somewhat considering that I felt I had just slogged through three days of musically exceptional, but dramatically inert opera performances. Suddenly being surrounded by Dieter Dorn and Jürgen Rose’s bright, simple, attractive, and often witty staging seemed like a godsend. The largely empty and deep stage is surrounded by a white frame that further encloses a circular space with a revolving floor. The space is further surrounded at times by a semi-circular back wall which may be mirrored at times. The three principals and entire chorus are in modern street clothes and there is a small non-singing “chorus” of women who act as doubles for Orfeo, and who later transform into Euridice after her redemption. Amore arrives on a glowing magic carpet surrounded by a tableau vivant of gods who watch the actions play out. And in a move swimming against the current stream, there are no dance numbers to go along with the substantial orchestral passages in Gluck’s score. Instead, Dorn and Rose rely on a variety of scenarios enacted by the chorus. Most humorously in the final interlude as the lovers are reunited, they watch couples enter the stage and act out unspoken conflict and resolution. Flowers are rejected and thrown, and, bless their hearts, Dorn and Rose even toss in a gay male couple in the mix right here in straight-laced Salzburg.

But besides a staging that is active and interesting to look at, this Orfeo ed Euridice is blessed with immensely satisfying musical credentials. Riccardo Muti takes everything he does with great care. He may not always be right about somethings, but his leadership of the orchestra was impeccable and this was the most satisfying account of the opera I’ve yet heard. The Vienna Philharmonic players had sounded great this week in many settings. But after richly polished Bruckner and the most romantic Berg I’ve heard, who would have imagined such a light and detailed turn of this particular opera. And then there were three excellent vocalists paired with an uncommonly good Vienna State Opera Chorus. Elisabeth Kulman sang Orfeo and gave one of the most honest-to-goodness heartbreaking renditions of Che farò senza Euridice you’ll ever hear. For once the aria sounded like the remorseful funerary music it actually is. Genia Kühmeier was the Euridice, and Christine Karg sang Amore. Both were bright and light and beautiful. For names that don’t get billing above the title this was superb casting, and, even more importantly, beautiful singing. So, it just goes to show, hang around long enough, and something good is bound to turn up. It was a great week in Salzburg, and the current Orfeo ed Euridice is absolutely the opera most worth seeing in a festival full of big names and big stars. It runs through the 24th of August.


It's Come to This

August 14, 2010

Piotr Beczala and Anna Netrebko
Photo: Hermann, Clärchen & Matthias Baus/Salzburg Festival 2010

Probably the most popular show at this year’s Salzburg Frestival would be the five performances of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette that Anna Netrebko is scheduled to appear in over the next few weeks, the second of which I saw on Friday. Given that she is one half of the festival’s "it-couple," it’s no surprise, even though the production is a revival from 2008 which starred a radiant Nino Machaidze at the time. Plus the road to her performances in this particular Bartlett Sher production has been somewhat of a long one. Let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we? Eager to recapture the excitement Netrebko and Rolando Villazon had created here in the 2005 Willy Decker production of Verdi’s La Traviata (the one that will premiere as a “new” production at the Met this coming New Year’s Eve), the Salzburg Festival made plans to feature the pair in Romeo et Juliette as had the Metropolitan Opera. The two had appeared in the opera in February 2005 in L.A. (and Massenet’s Manon in 2006) to great excitement. But faster than you can say “vocal crisis” Villazon was out of the Met’s 2007 outing, and Salzburg had it’s fingers crossed for 2008 when they would take a stab with the same pair. While Villazon pulled it together for Salzburg that year, Netrebko went and fell in love and all that, eventually resulting in her dropping from that production due to pregnancy and leaving Villazon to film a DVD with Machaidze. Now it’s 2010 and Sher’s Romeo is back as is Netrebko and the new tenor of the moment, Piotr Beczala as Romeo.

So understandably, these appearances by Netrebko have probably seemed a long time in the making though she has been a staple at the festival for nearly a decade. And it certainly seemed by audience response that the show was in fact worth the wait. Netrebko is still one of the most interesting performers around and she does appear to put quite a bit into it. Vocally, she is not the singer she was in 2005 with a much darker tone and I found her runs a bit sloppier than I remember from 5 years ago. But this doesn’t take too much away from her Juliette. Beczala is well paired with Netrebko overall. He’s got an athletic sound, and though I found him a little pinched at the top in this particular performance, he was more than satisfying overall. Yannick-Nézet-Séguin, who is currently leading all of the Don Giovanni performances at this year’s festival, was in the pit with the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra. He was a bit more tame in his choices than what I would have expected after hearing him rip into Carmen eight ways to Sunday last year at the Met, but it was an attentive and often loving performance.

As with a number of other show’s here in Salzburg this week, the biggest problem was the visually boring Sher production. Bartlett Sher is wise in deciding to use his strongest asset, the Felsenreitschule to full advantage with little if an other scenery. He does have a thing for stairs however and litters the stage with platforms that everyone must climb up and down during their frequent lengthy treks back and forth across the very wide stage. There’s a lot of billowing fabric and enough swashbuckling to make the average 8 year old happy, but the staging does little to generate any excitement. The costumes can be a problem as well, turning Netrebko into a walking ball of cotton candy with hair for Act I. In fact I’m not sure about what all the long hair business is for Netrebko and Beczala in this staging, but if it weren’t for the costumes, you’d think it was a Whitesnake reunion. But cotton candy or not, people are getting what they want as long as they get a ticket before Netrebko is out of town. Which is a shame since the production continues through August 30th and the last four performances will feature the return of the excellent Nino Machaidze as well as two performances from Stephen Costello as Romeo. In fact, if you can do without the celebrity, you may just want to catch one of these shows.


Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Regie?

August 13, 2010

Iréne Theorin and Waltraud Meier in Elektra
Photo: Hermann und Clärchen Baus/Salzburg Festival 2010

Following the return of Claus Guth's formerly controversial Don Giovanni in Salzburg, I was anticipating what boo-inducing surprise Nikolaus Lenhoff’s new production of Strauss’ Elektra might have in store. Perhaps one of the opera companies most associated with the Regietheater movement over the last thirty years, the Salzburg festival has been there and done that when it comes to the unusual. But sitting through Elektra in its second performance here on Thursday night one might be excused for thinking the days of stage-director induced scandale here are long, long gone.

Lenhoff’s vision of this Greek tragedy is so tame, it wouldn’t look out of place on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera – even prior to Peter Gelb. In fact take out a brief upstage appearance by Klytamenstra’s body suspended from above in a bloody abattoir, you’d pretty much have the 1992 Otto Schenk/Jürgen Rose production last revived at the Met for Susan Bullock and Deborah Voigt in 2008. Just tilt the set back and to the left at a more rakish angle and, voilà, you’ve got about 20 years of opera history. The large empty concrete hall serves as little more than a place for the principals to stand and sing while staring off in the distance and avoiding any falls into any of the pits in the stage floor.

Ironically, virtually everything else about the show is near perfection. Iréne Theorin sings the title role bracingly and is well matched with her Klytamnestra, Waltraud Meier, and Chrysothemis, Eva-Maria Westbroek. And in a bit of luxury casting, René Pape sings the brief but critical role of Orest. All faced some challenges in the listless staging. An excellent sounding Westbroek was evidently instructed to enter and exit in her best simpering Carol Brady impersonation. Having seen her give such excellent acting performances in other settings, I’m pretty sure this wasn’t her idea. Meier was announced as having “lumbago” prior to the curtain, which would restrict her movement even though she would still be able to sing. And sing she did, giving one of those sterling performances that it seems only she can, back pain or not. Theorin was very strong despite her gothic-influenced makeup and her time in the stage floor’s many trenches.

But the most amazing element for me was the incredible performance of the Vienna Philharmonic under conductor Daniele Gatti. Now I know that Gatti is a bit of a polarizing figure, loved deliriously be some and reviled by others. For Elektra he led one no-holds-barred dramatic, loud, and fairly aggressive orchestral performance. Undoubtedly any lesser cast would have been overwhelmed without a second thought. But this was not a problem here. So tame as the evening was as theater, there were more than a few sizable consolations. And at least for tonight, the notion of “Regietheater” couldn’t have been any further away from the reality of the moment.


What's the Big Idea?

August 12, 2010

Patricia Petibon and Michael Volle in Lulu Photo: Monika Rittershaus/Salzburg Festival 2010

On Wednesday in Salzburg I got a chance to see what has so far been the most challenging and confounding opera production of this year’s festival, Vera Nemirova’s take on Alban Berg’s Lulu. Just about everything you’d expect from Lulu both musically and theatrically is thwarted in this staging. And while I’m not sure if that makes it good or bad, it certainly makes it thought provoking. For an opera that already stands out in the standard repertoire musically, Nemirova’s attempt to challenge assumptions about the work risk making it even more alienating. The staging itself is highly static and minimal. Almost all props and set elements are removed in favor of a few huge painted backdrops by German artist Daniel Richter. Richter’s dayglo colored primitive figure drawings are interesting to look at but come nowhere near carrying the lack of activity on stage otherwise. Much of the rest of the action takes place near the foot of the stage involving little more than performer interaction. There is a large black lacquered triangle with several doors that serves a “Laugh-In” style peep show for Act II and is upended as a sort of hovel for the characters in the second scene of Act III. All of this is upended in the first scene of Act III which takes place almost entirely in the auditorium with the Paris party attendees tossing fake 500 Euro notes in the air and the vocalists sliding in between rows and walking atop partitions in the theater all under the spin of several mirror balls. And while this was an interesting change of events, it comes quite late in a very long show.

Probably the most frustrating thing though is the acting performance of star Patricia Petibon in the title role. The petite coloratura soprano has recently taken up the role and vocally she’s strong, even if I wasn’t always crazy about her German diction. However, she almost always seems emotionally uninvolved from the rest of the cast. Not that her Lulu was self-absorbed, she just seemed uninterested in anything going on around her one way or another. I debated for a while if this was a flaw, but I later decided that this may have been Nemirova’s intentional directorial choice. In the extensive program notes, Nemirova argues that Lulu represents a mythical figure. She points out the relationship between Lulu and Pandora in the original theatrical source materials the opera is based on and suggests the Lulu is a primal force bringing a world of ills into existence as a sort of bridge between the Gods and Humanity. This is strictly in keeping with the Salzburg Festival’s theme this year about the interaction between Gods and Man resulting in tragedy, particularly in Greek Mythology. To drive this idea home, there are moments where the audience is asked to identify with characters other than Lulu. In addition to the Act II party scene, the conclusion of Act I features a huge mirror backdrop that reflects the audience as the house lights are turned up during the scene when Lulu forces Dr. Schön to sign the message breaking off his engagement. The gesture implies a unity between himself and the audience in the wake of Lulu’s force of nature.

I should caution, though, that Nemirova does not see this as simply a “war-between-the-sexes” issue with women representing Earth/Nature/Instinct and men representing Reason/Logic/Order. There’s even some arguably feminist alterations in the plot with Countess Geshwitz escaping Jack the Ripper in the final scene to actually do what she says she plans to do, go to University and fight for the rights of women. Still this sort of detached Lulu who is neither exactly femme fatale or capricious woman-child does come off as blank and uninvolved at times. Despite Petibon and Nemirova’s best intentions I’ll admit I found the first two acts pretty dull and it wasn’t until the rapid expansion of the performance area in Act III that I really began to feel involved in any way. That’s not to say there weren’t some remarkable vocal performances among the cast. The consistently excellent Michael Volle made the most of the space he was given with Dr. Schön. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner’s final moments as the Countess Geschwitz were some of the most beautifully sung of the whole evening. Thomas Johannes Mayer’s turns as both Animal Trainer and Athlete pretty much grabbed the audience as much as they did Lulu.

This unexpected approach in the staging was paralleled musically in some ways. The Vienna Philharmonic gave a superb performance under Marc Albrecht, but one that sounded nearly Romantic given the circumstances. Many of the rough edges of Berg’s score seem polished to an intense shine creating an almost pretty sound at times. Which I guess is only fair. If it’s legitimate to make Salome and Elektra sound like they were written by Schoenberg in a live performance, I suppose having Berg sound like Der Rosenkavalier is within reason. It just wasn’t what one might normally expect. And while I believe there is a value in confounding expectations, I’m also not convinced Nemirova’s Lulu achieves enough of what it sets out to do. There are some excellent ideas here, but not enough of them come to fruition over the course of five hours to make the show a real success.


A Little Night Music

August 11, 2010

Jörg Widmann, András Schiff, and Miklós Perényi Photo: Silvia Lelli/Salzburg Festival 2010

I’ve been sorry to not have more time to sample the wonderful live performances of Wolfgang Rihm’s music that is on display everywhere this year at the Salzburg Festival. Such a broad based dedication of time and resources to a living composer’s music is undoubtedly a huge honor, and it makes one wonder who will step into these shoes in years to come. One answer may be German composer and clarinetist Jörg Widmann who at 37 has already racked up a number of significant awards and commissions in both Europe and the U.S. He appeared in both roles at the Salzburg Festival on Tuesday in a chamber music program in the lovely Grosser Saal of the Stiftung Mozarteum. The three other participants in this program were pianist András Schiff, cellist Miklós Perényi, and the composer Johannes Brahms. Brahms was ostensibly the influence for this series of chamber music programs at this year’s festival, and Schiff was the star performer who was consistent throughout the evening.

He started off with excerpts from Bach’s Art of the Fugue, which was unsurprisingly super. Then came the actual Brahms on the program, the Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1 where Schiff was joined by Perényi for one of those great performances that makes you wonder how something like this is related to what you normally call chamber music. Subtle and endlessly surprising are not two sentiments I typically associate with Brahms, but there you have it. The second half of the evening belonged to Widmann in one manner or another. First up was the premiere of a solo piano work Widmann composed especially for Schiff called Intermezzi for Piano. Widmann notes these five short movements are heavily influenced by a series of Intermezzi composed by Brahms in 1892/1893. Widmann describes his composition as being intermezzi in the sense that he views them as tapping into “the secret after a sound, as well as the anticipatory pre-sound, the space of the in-between.” And, as the description suggests, Schiff played the series of notes by turns dramatic and restrained as if each set presented elements simply hanging in the air. It was well received by the audience and made way for the closing work: Zemlinsky’s Trio for Clarinet, Piano and Cello in which Widmann played with the other soloists. Zemlinsky’s late Romantic swirl provided an excellent cap to some extremely impressive playing and a wonderful show. And while nothing is certain for the future, musical otherwise, Widmann left the audience wanting to hear more and that is always the best possible sign.


Meanwhile, in Another Part of the Forest...

August 10, 2010

Christopher Maltman and Erwin Schrott
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/Salzburg Festival 2010

The Salzburg Festival upped its celebrity hoo-haa quotient this weekend with the opening of the first of its two opera revivals this summer, Claus Guth’s controversial staging of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which was last seen here in 2008. Much of the stellar cast from the prior outing remains intact including Christopher Maltman in the title role, Dorothea Röschmann as Donna Elvira, and Erwin Schrott as Leporello. Of course, Schrott is one half of this decade's Salzburg glamour couple, the other half being soprano Anna Netrebko who opens up in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette here on August 10. And, of course, this being Salzburg, when she showed up to her husband's opening night all big-hair and red satin evening gown, the audience went all googled-eyed, standing and taking their own photos as she entered the theater as if she were Cameron Diaz or something. Netrebko and Schrott love Austria and, baby, it loves them right back. I have to admit there is a part of me that's jealous that opera starts don't get this kind of treatment in the U.S. as I sit here watching lengthy profiles of Netrebko, Andris Nelsons, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and the winner of Salzburg's firs Young Conductors Award, David Afkham, on television tonight.

But I digress. There was some Mozart to attend to, and it was attended to quite well with utmost care. This time around the conducting fell to Yannick Nézet-Séguin (who’ll also be leading the Vienna Philharmonic in Romeo et Juliette). He’s got the chops to keep things moving and his Mozart never got too heavy or dragged. Of course, you can’t go wrong when the Vienna Philharmonic plays just about anything, so there was little to complaint about from the pit. On stage the cast was pretty much excellent in both acting and singing terms. Maltman and Schrott are cast as drug-addicted low-lifes in Guth’s vision, but they manage to inject the parts with a lot of dark humor. Schrott does this whole drug twitch thing that’s hysterical. And then there’s the pecs and guns issue. This is not a staging for out-of-shape guys, that’s for sure. And while pretty much everybody is fully dressed the whole time, if you doubt it’s a consideration, just check out which image made the cover of the upcoming DVD release of the 2008 performance.

I was particularly thrilled to hear Dorothea Röschmann who has pretty much dominated every Mozart role she has sang here over the last several years. She’s is simply amazing. Best of all, she didn’t outclass anybody in the cast. Aleksandra Kurzak sang Donna Anna with real tenderness and clarity. Meanwhile, Joel Pietro made his Salzburg debut as Don Ottavio when the scheduled Joseph Kaiser called in sick for the opening. Anna Prohaska was convincing in a very physical Zerlina. Adam Plachetka, who sang Masetto, was good as well and got in on the hairy bare chest action in his limited stage time.

As for the Guth staging, what a difference two years makes. While he got nowhere near the audience response anyone else did on opening night, there were few if any boos to be heard either. All of the opera’s action is set in a very realistic looking dark forest. The huge wooded area fills the stage and rotates with characters popping out of the dark for scenes at every turn. The main conceit is that Giovanni is shot in the abdomen by the Commandetore during their altercation in the very first scene and our favorite player spends the rest of the opera living on borrowed time as he knows he is slowly dying himself, though still going throughout the motions that make him who he is. Giovanni and Leporello are portrayed as junkies and shoot up in the arm and neck on at least one occasion. There are handguns at times and a scene where Donna Anna and Don Ottavio drive a car onto the stage where Giovanni poses as a mechanic in another failed effort to seduce Donna Anna. This somber tone is maintained right through the end when the final chorus is eliminated in favor of Giovanni’s descent into hell being the last word. Guth notes n the program that for him Don Giovanni is not funny and he resolves the tone problems of the opera by focusing instead on what he perceives as the protagonist's struggle to come to terms with his own death. Certainly a reasonable idea and I felt it was a very enticing and good-looking staging. I appreciated the relentless sobriety underpinning a rather disturbing story that is sometimes too easily played for laughs. But admittedly, this forest scenario provides few distinctions between scenes and can be a bit hard to follow. Guth also upends many of the characters’ individual motivations in various scenes in a way that makes sense, but may be hard for some audience members to absorb. But no matter. This is one great sounding and star-studded Don Giovanni. And who is going to complain about that during the middle of a warm and beautiful Austrian summer.


Another Country

August 09, 2010

Mojca Erdmann, Virpi Räisänen, Julia Faylenbogen, Elin Rombo, Johannes Martin Kränzle Photo: Ruth Walz/Salburg Festival 2010

One of the star attractions of this year’s Salzburg Festival is the work of 58-year-old composer Wolfgang Rihm whose music is being featured in numerous settings including the world premiere of his latest opera Dionysus. The festival has pulled out all the stops under the banner “Kontinent Rihm.” As the program for these events attests, Rihm’s music is so varied and multifaceted, it is a continent of its own. While that geographic metaphor may or may not be an overstatement, it is true that I’ve had some fortunate opportunities to travel a remarkable, if compact, sampling of Rihm’s work in as little as two days. Rihm’s music has taken various forms over his highly productive and lauded career, but he has been firmly rooted in a European and typically atonal modernism throughout much of it. In more recent years, his works have had a higher and higher accessibility quotient that can be heard both in Dionysus as well as 2007’s Das Gehege, which premiered in Munich.

Anne-Sophie Mutter and Riccardo Chailly with members of the Vienna Philharmonic
Photo: Wolfgang Lienbacher/Salzburg Festival 2010

On Saturday, there was a very short chamber performance of two string quartets, Nos. 5 and 10, from the Arditti quartet. Written almost 15 years apart, the two reflect changes in the composer’s attitude despite their common interest in structural issues. The No. 5 quartet is a single movement written in conjunction with two others, No. 6 and No. 7, to for a sort of meta-quartet when taken together as a set of three. Meanwhile, the No. 10 is a three-movement work in its own right that fades into existence with a quiet movement of simple pizzicato notes and dissipates in a similar fashion. The Arditti’s committed and technically superb performance showed the works in their best light and set the stage nicely for the following morning when Anne-Sophie Mutter appeared with the Vienna Philharmonic under Riccardo Chailly with Rihm’s Gesungene Zeit or “Time Chant.” Like the tenth String Quartet, Rihm’s single movement violin concerto has a fascination with small quiet notes and gestures. He composed the piece specifically for Mutter who has made it a staple of her repertoire. It begins with a series of extremely high notes played slowly and very softly. It’s in a range that often trips up the best performers, and Mutter’s certainty about the material gives it a beauty even in the quietest and highest of registers. Rihm was welcomed here, as he has been everywhere in the festival, with warm and enthusiastic ovations.

Wolfgang Rhim with the Arditti Quartet (behind music stands
Photo: mine 2010

So it was no surprise to see the composer get such a positive response at the curtain call for the final performance of his latest opera, Dionysus, which I saw on Sunday. It’s subject is Friedrich Nietzsche who is identified only with the letter N in the libretto. Moreover, Rihm fashioned the text almost exclusively from Nietzsche’s poetic text Dionysos-Dithyramben. And while there are certain references to historical aspects of the philosopher’s real and imagined life, this is not a narrative piece. Instead, it’s a consideration of philosophical concepts and an imagined psychological profile. N is paired with an adversary/companion, Ein Gast (a guest), who will later become the god Apollo and flay N’s skin from his body. That skin then becomes a separate actor in the work re-enacting a much-repeated story surrounding Nietzsche’s decline into insanity where the philosopher physically intervened to stop the beating of a horse. It’s never exactly clear what is going on, and scenes rapidly shift from one to another in a dream-like fashion. The poetic language never describes action or emotional states as it does reference other psychological concepts. All of this is further abetted by director Pierre Audi and visual designer Jonathan Meese who cover the set in abstract shapes and mysterious images of faces and words referenced in the libretto. Perhaps my favorite image was at the start of Act III when a giant pair of yellow eyes stared out from behind a scrim featuring a black and white video image of patrons milling about the adjacent Karl Böhm Hall complete with reproduced crowd noise. It's a puckish image as if to glare at the audience and say "Having fun yet?"

The final scene from Rhim's Dionysus
Photo: Ruth Walz/Salburg Festival 2010

But Dionysus is not all about the clever gesture. The dense and beautiful music fills the two and a half hours with real purpose and drive. The opera was an ideal assignment for Ingo Metzmacher and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin who sounded warm and detailed in the midst of a very thorny score. The music is often like N's own rush of thoughts and dreams and it provides the most crucial link between the listeners and the action on stage. The soloists were all wonderful including Mojca Erdmann as Ariadne, one of the many women in the cast N seems unable to obtain in any way. N himself is sung by baritone Johannes Martin Kränze who has the guts to wear a tight bodysuit throughout much of the final scene. The guest is Matthias Klink who brings a tone that is alternately playful and regal to his part. And even when there is relatively little in Rihm's dreamscape to hold onto, the players project the utmost certainty and confidence. I must say that it was thoroughly enjoyable and impressive.

As a side note: Some may wonder why I liked Rihm's Dionysus so much compared to Lewis Spratlan's recent premiere in Santa Fe, Life is a Dream. It is true that the two works do have a number of musical techniques and stylistic issues in common. For instance, both operas rely on atonal compositional techniques, and both deal primarily with philosophical issues. For me the big difference is that Dionysus doesn't attempt to give you any of the answers. Rihm is perfectly content giving the audience layers and layers of puzzles to consider in working out his project for themselves. On the other hand Life is a Dream takes the exact opposite tact, assigning characters lengthy platforms to lay out positions and ideas over and over. Rihm relies on relatively short passages from Nietzsche's writing that are repeated in different contexts to different effects while Spratlan's characters have a lot of explaining to do often crushing the music aside. In Rihm's Dionysus the music often does the talking. The audience is then an active participant in trying to figure things out. What I like best about opera is when it engages you directly not just simply as a viewer, but as a thinker as well.


High and Mighty

August 08, 2010

Anja Harteros and Wolfram Rieger
Photo: Wolfgang Lienbacher/Salzburg Festival 2010

I started my week in Salzburg on a high note. Or perhaps it would be better to say I started them on Anja Harteros’ high notes. On Saturday night, she gave a recital at the Haus für Mozart that was simply incredible. It was as if I’d never actually heard a Lied recital before now. What’s more, there wasn’t an ounce of clever programming gimmicks to give the show unnecessary structure. There was no set of songs that required research or extended explanation. No unifying non-musical theme was used to pull a group of disparate works together. Instead it was simply Lied: Brahms, Schubert, Wolf and Strauss. Better yet, her accompanist Wolfram Rieger provided really eloquent playing in conjunction with Harteros’ bright and clear vocals.

There were so many strong points in the recital, it’s hard to pick only a few to mention. The evening started with some of Schubert’s moment of religious fervor, “Die Allmacht” and “Die junge Nonne.” And while the sacred may not have seemed like a natural place to start a vocal recital in Salzburg, Harteros provided a searing connection to Schubert’s own humanistic version of Christianity. As the show continued, all of the usual German romantic themes of love and nature were there, but sung like this, they seem fresh and new. I’ve always been particularly fond of Strauss as well and his “Meinem Kinde,” based on a poem by Gustav Falke was another of the evening’s highlights. Maternal love may be another of those hackneyed themes, but this was immensely touching. It’s too bad I won’t get to see Harteros in any staged operas at this year’s festival, but take heart Southern California, she's scheduled to perform the Marschallin in San Diego Opera’s production of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier next April.


The Lost Weekend

August 07, 2010

Nancy Carroll and Adrian Scarborough
Photo: Johan Persson/NT 2010

Before reaching Salzburg this week, I had a layover in London that allowed me to see the much lauded and popular new production of Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance. I got to see this National Theater production the old fashioned way – live in the theater as opposed to a filmed broadcast to a theater near me. But no matter what the format, the NT has managed to continue its recent roll of crowd-pleasers and critical winners with this revival of a rarely seen early work. The unexpected bit with After the Dance is that director Thea Sharrock and her superb cast does this by playing Rattigan’s drama from the 1930s entirely straight. After the Dance has long been a footnote in Rattigan’s career. An early flop that predated most of his career-making successes in mid-20th Century Britain, the play was one Rattigan distanced himself from later in life. There are many reasons, but one issue has to do with timing. After the Dance concerns the upper-crust “Bright Young People” who came to notoriety in Britain in the 20s and 30s. Rattigan’s play set on the eve of WWII draws what he sees as the hollow moral center of this life into the light. The play was well received, but a commercial failure given that it opened mere weeks before Britain declared war on Germany in 1939. And while it seems relevant on the surface, it wasn’t apparently what people wanted to see at that moment.

After the Dance is intensely melodramatic. An alcoholic, blocked writer elects to have an affair with the fiancee of his cousin resulting in wide ranging effects for everyone. His wife, in particular doesn't take the news well despite her efforts at keeping up appearances. There are a lot of speeches and tales about people becoming a bore to one another. With just a little tweaking, the play could have been the smash camp comedy of the year. But somehow it isn’t. Part of it is superb acting from Benedict Cumberbatch as the writer in question, and his wife, played by Nancy Carroll. They’re not just believable, but actually sympathetic. Meanwhile a number of superb comic foils played by Adrian Scarborough, Pandora Colin, and Jenny Galloway keep the tone mixed enough that the whole thing doesn’t sink under its own weight. Even the elaborate Mafair apartment set looks incredibly good on the stage and one is quickly taken in by the proceedings. In this production it’s actually possible to believe that the hand-wringing over any number of soap-opera plots actually elevates into a cautionary tale about paying the price for the moral choices we make in maintaining our sense of self. And some 60 years later, its a bit easier to see the wolf at the door and know how this gin0soaked party was in fact over in more ways than one. There is one week of performances left if you've got the chance to see it


Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger
(In The Wings - August '10)

August 04, 2010

Wolfgang Rihm and Ingo Metzmacher
Photo: Wolfgang Lienbacher/Salzburg Festival 2010

It’s time for a new look, don’t you think. Certainly the close of the fourth year of Out West Arts calls for a makeover. I’d like to give a big shout out to Jeff who, in addition to doing some editing here and there, is the force behind keeping this blog from looking like a pre-fab template. It’s been a great year here, and I’ve connected with some great people. I’ve kept a lot of things the same, but have added some new links including one to Anne Midgette’s blog for the Washington Post which I have shamefully neglected before now. (Thanks for the shout out this week, Anne!)

Patricia Petibon and Michael Volle
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/Salzburg Festival 2010

And to celebrate August and the OWA anniversary, I’m going to Salzburg! Included in the trip are all six of the staged operas the Salzburg Festival is putting on this year including four new productions: the world premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s Dionysus, Patricia Petibon starring in Berg’s Lulu, the Ricardo Muti-led Orfeo ed Euridice, and Strauss’ Elektra, featuring the powerhouse trio of Westbroek, Meler, and Theorin. There will also be two star-studded revivals: Claus Guth’s controversial vision of Mozart’s Don Giovanni with Christopher Maltman, Erwin Schrott, and Dorothea Röschmann among others and Bartlett Sher’s Roméo et Juliette with Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala. The young and very talented Yannick Nézet-Séguin will head both revivals. And if that isn’t enough for you right there, I’ll also catch a Lieder recital from Anja Harteros, and Bruckner and Rhim performances from the Vienna Philharmonic under Riccardo Chailly, and a chamber concert with András Schiff. Bookending the time in Salzburg are two layovers in London, which I’ll spend at the National Theater for performances of Rattigan’s After the Dance and the recently opened Michael Grandage-directed production of Büchner’s Danton’s Death.

René Pape as Orest in Strauss' Elektra
Photo: Hermann und Clärchen Baus/Salzburg Festival 2010

August will close out with a handful of late summer offerings when I return to L.A. including a Shostakovich program at the Hollywood Bowl featuring Sarah Chang under the direction of Leonard Slatkin on August 24. There are also appearances from the Chemical Brothers at the Bowl on the 29th and Rufus Wainwright will visit the Greek Theater on the 20th. And while I may try to squeeze in a few as yet to be determined theater events, I’ll definitely be seeing the world premiere of Moby Pomerance‘s The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder at Boston Court in conjunction with Circle X Theater on the 22nd.

That’s my August and the start of the fifth year at OWA. I want to continue to thank everyone who has offered commentary and support to this space. I love to hear from people who’ve liked and disliked things I’ve had to say here so keep writing. I hope you continue to enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it.

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Rattle and Hum

August 03, 2010

Simone Dinnerstein in Santa Fe
Photo: mine 2010

I wanted to make one last note about my experiences in Santa Fe before moving on. On the last day of July, wedged between opera performances was a short but very sweet recital from Simone Dinnerstein. The program featured her much celebrated Bach, in this case the French Suite No 5, as well as four Schubert Impromptus, Op. 90. All were played with a striking accessibility and clear-headedness that reinforces her meteoric rise to fame in the last few years. Much has been made of her unconventional path to success. But if there is anything unconventional in her performance style, you wouldn’t have noticed it in the beautiful St. Francis Auditorium in Santa Fe. In fact I was most impressed by her unbelievable professionalism in the face of some incredibly rude audience behavior.

One of the drawbacks to Santa Fe is its elevation. Over 7,000 feet above sea level, the city presents breathing challenges even to the healthiest visitors. Singers must come to the city weeks in advance to acclimate to the elevation before they start seriously rehearsing. Every year there’s visitors who are unaware of this fact, resulting in a significant number of Emergency Department visits for altitude sickness. Soon, these same folks can be seen dragging oxygen tanks behind them around town. Trust me, given my own personal family experience with the phenomenon, it is no fun.

But perhaps even less fun is trying to listen to a piano recital over the click of someone’s "demand flow" oxygen tank. You breath in and the machine blows a puff of oxygen into your nostrils. A modern miracle to be sure, but a decidedly noisy one for a piano recital. Admirably Ms. Dinnerstein prevailed, but not a second of her performance went by without the rhythmic click and puff of someone’s oxygen tank. The St. Francis Auditorium is a small venue and the noise was clearly audible to everyone throughout and as much as it was ruining the experience for me and heaven knows how many others, I admired Dinnerstein’s cool collection and ability to play despite the circumstances. I know I would not have been able to tolerate it. And perhaps it is wrong of me to say so, but people, if you can’t sit through a show quietly without making constant noise, maybe you shouldn’t be there. (And for those of you wondering, oxygen tanks do not all have this particular kind of “demand flow” system that produces the rhythmic clicking noise.)


A Flair for the Dramatic

August 02, 2010

Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Carmen
Photo: mine 2010

Sandwiched between my trip to Santa Fe and my week in Salzburg was another brief operatic excursion here in Los Angeles. Continuing its tradition of presenting a single performance of a complete opera each summer, the Los Angeles Philharmonic appeared at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday with Bizet’s Carmen. Which would seem unnecessary considering that this was the opera they presented just two years ago under Bramwell Tovey with Denyce Graves and Stuart Skelton. But where there is a Gustavo Dudamel and an ebullient press corps, there is a way. So Carmen returned again for a large audience by prior year’s opera concert standards. The performance was highly touted as Dudamel’s first opera performance in the U.S. and I enjoyed it because it was the first time I’ve really been reminded of the positive first impressions I had of the young maestro when I first saw him lead Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in 2006. Sunday’s Carmen performance from Dudamel and the L.A. Phil was very, very good and what I see in retrospect looking back is that the conductor’s penchant for overblown dynamics works far better in the opera pit than the non-opera concert stage. This is especially true at the Bowl where the lousy acoustics deaden everything. Here, the grand gestures look more reasonable and the rough and tumble goes a long way towards just getting heard. This was a lively, even detailed, Carmen with energy and real musical motion. And the Los Angeles Master Chorale and L.A. Children’s Chorus both lived up to the high standard of the evening as well. What a pleasant surprise.

It’s too bad that the cast and technical aspects of performing at the Bowl failed such a great orchestral performance. Natascha Petrinsky, a mezzo largely unknown in the United States, was the Carmen and wore the obligatory red dress, sashaying across the stage at every moment. She gulped down consonants like a narcotics addict does Oxycontin. And while she had a dark colored voice that wasn’t completely unpleasant, she lacked a particularly French sound. Her Don José was Yonghoon Lee who sounded quite nice after a little warm up early in the evening. He was a decidedly stiff actor on the concert stage, however, and there wasn’t much chemistry or tempestuousness in this particular affair. The B characters in the story including Kyle Ketelsen’s Escamillo and Alexia Voulgaridou‘s Micaëla were far more satisfying. Of course, Voulgaridou’s touching appearances were trampled on by the haphazard bowl acoustics with ample static and feedback from the tight miking. Of course there was the lovely electrical surge and pop during the Habanera as well, which makes one wonder how much rehearsal time the vocalists actually got on stage before the show when ideally some of these problems could have been worked out.

So it was a good evening. And even if the choice of Carmen isn't much of an artistic statement if this show was in fact as important a landmark as some would have you believe, it was still a very strong performance. And hopefully its the harbinger of better things from Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic.


Fish Story

August 01, 2010

l-r: Dale Travis, Juan Ontiveros, Judith Christin, Jonathan Michie, Alek Shrader, Christine Brewer, & Mark Schowalter.
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2010

One of the unique things about the Santa Fe Opera is the way in which the seasonal monsoonal evening thunderstorms often provide added atmosphere to the operas that appear on their stage. I can remember a recent Salome and Billy Budd where nature provided uncredited scenic design with lightening and thunder. But things don’t always work out that way and Friday’s opening performance of Britten’s Albert Herring, though thoroughly enjoyable, was not assisted by the routine thundershowers during the performance. Besides watching incongruous mists of falling rain waft across the bright sunny English countryside on May Day, the inclement weather provided some acoustic challenges to the production as well. Albert Herring calls for comparably small orchestral forces and like it or not, sometimes you cannot simply out-sing and outplay mother nature.

Of course, with a superb cast that Santa Fe has assembled, one might think that possible. Everyone on stage is excellent, including the bright tenor of Alek Shrader in the title role. His more savvy peers, Sid and Nancy, are sung by an excellent Joshua Hopkins and Kate Lindsey who is paring her spectacular turns as Hoffmann’s Nicklausse with another attention grabbing, if smaller, role. Jill Grove proves her comic chops in a hysterical performance as Florence Pike. Also notable among the cast was baritone Jonathan Michie as the Vicar. He's one of Santa Fe's current apprentice singers who made his main stage debut after the originally cast Wayne Tigges was tapped to permanently fill in for the four villains in the concurrently running Les Contes d'Hoffmann. And, though it is not the central role in the piece, Christine Brewer’s Lady Billows gets deserved top billing. She’s famously known for her sense of humor in real life, and Brewer proved she can translate that into a fantastic comic performance. Granted, I couldn’t help feeling that one of the greatest living Wagnerian sopranos was slumming here in Albert Herring, but stage appearances from Brewer are not as common as one might like, so I’ll take what I can get.

The production itself, designed by Paul Curran, is fairly set-intensive even by Santa Fe standards, with full-fledged scene changes throughout and a cast of supernumeraries who move furniture like they’re loading a Mayflower van. The first half of the show is brisk and often quite funny. Sadly, though, Curran and, arguably, conductor Sir Andrew Davis let things flag a bit in the second half. After Albert’s inebriation, the self-reflection comes on a bit heavy for an arguably slight opera. And maybe it’s just me but the Albert/Sid/Nancy Sedgwickian triangle at the center of the plot seems a might trying. Usually the homoerotic subtext of Britten’s operas strikes me as being a product of his own time. But watching the quite handsome Shrader buddy-buddy with Sid and Nancy on the store counter was like substituting Singin’ in the Rain for Y tu mamá también.

But no matter your feelings about Albert Herring, this is a fine production that musically and theatrically lives up to the high standards Santa Fe has developed over the years. Hopefully when you go see it the weather will be a little more design compliant. The show runs through August 24.


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