Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Hell Bent for Leather

October 31, 2010

Paulo Szot as Don Giovanni at the Dallas Opera Photo: Karen Almond/Dallas Opera 2010

Yes, Paulo Szot won the wet T-shirt contest in Dallas Opera’s current production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Or at least he should have. To be honest there is no wet T-shirt contest in this production, although there is a somewhat out of place splashing in the fountain scene in Act I. To be honest this decidedly unsexy production could have used one. In fact it could have used any number of things. By today’s standards, this import from Washington National Opera to Dallas, directed and designed by John Pascoe, is mighty tame. No heroin shoot-ups, neon lights, or police raids here. It’s just shoulder pads, mullet hair, and lots of fabric. The period is non-specific with Zerlina in her wedge espadrilles like she’s on her way to Studio 54 while others are in something approaching 19th-century garb. At times I’d swear Dona Elvira was channeling Kelly McGillis with her stretch pants, trench coat and multi-colored bustiers. Actually, the period non-specific take on the opera is not without its merits. It did manage a dark and creepy look and there were some interesting set elements including the Commendetore’s funeral. I also felt Pascoe did an excellent job of clarifying the who-knows-what-when plot elements in Act I that are sometimes a bit confusing. But I was most bothered by the difficulty managing the dramatic aspects of the story in favor of the comic ones. A lot of bad pizza comes up in this work, but Pascoe and his team more often than not glaze over it instead of milking the natural laughs to their fullest when they arise.

The cast was an interesting array of singers. At the center, as mentioned above, was Tony-winner Paulo Szot in the title role. He’s one attractive man and proved earlier this year he can carry an opera like Shostakovich’s The Nose, which he did for the Metropolitan Opera. In this season he’s singing a lot more opera on a lot more stages around the world and quite a bit of Mozart. I had mixed feelings about him here. He has a lot of stage presence, no doubt, but he was a bit underpowered in this particular cast and was not helped by the giant angular costumes he spent most of the evening swimming in. I felt he got a little croony at times as well. His Leporello, Mirco Palazzi, was much more engaging with his puckish performance and his round even tone. He was making his American debut in Dallas, and I’m hoping I get to hear more out of him soon. The women in the cast included Claire Rutter as Donna Anna, Georgia Jarman as Donna Elvira, and Ailyn Pérez as Zerlina. All of them had their moments. Rutter has a big voice and went after her arias with abandon. Jarman was probably the most consistently enjoyable to listen to, though she, like everyone else, was hampered by some fairly difficult costumes. The orchestra under Romanian conductor Nicolae Moldoveanu gave a solid contemporary performance of the score that kept moving and had a decent dramatic range. Of course, the house was by no means full on Saturday night, given the holiday weekend and game three of the World Series (which the Rangers won). But luckily there are two performances left before the show closes. It’s a good opportunity to see this great opera and Szot in the flesh if you haven’t had a chance. So, if you're in Dallas next weekend, check it out.

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The Other Boleyn Soprano

October 30, 2010

Photo: Dallas Opera 2010

I’ve stopped off in Dallas this weekend. It’s a city I find myself more enamored with on each visit and I must admit the allure of their beautiful new modern Winspear Opera House looms large. The Dallas Opera recently opened their second season in their new home with Mozart’s Don Giovanni (more on that later), but on Friday, the season’s second production, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena opened up in a new version from director Stephen Lawless and designer Benoit Dugardyn. It’s a good show and very enjoyable overall despite some technical concerns. In fact I was rather surprised by the show overall in that the elements I was most worried about on paper turned out to be pretty good (the singing quality) and those I was more optimistic about were more of a disappointment (the staging). But that only goes to show that you shouldn’t always trust your expectations, particularly when it comes to opera.

Donizetti’s take on the second and third wives of England’s Henry VIII has as little to do with history as anything Shakespeare wrote about the same family tree. Anna Bolena is one of three “Tudor” operas the composer penned and the first in terms of the trio’s dramatic chronology. Of course this is the deep heartland of the bel canto repertoire and it comes at an interesting moment for Dallas Opera. Anna Bolena completes the company’s presentation of the "Tudor" trilogy and arrives in the wake of the recent death of Dame Joan Sutherland, perhaps the most important bel canto soprano of the 20th century and an artist who made her American debut (and gave her American farewell) in Dallas. Ironically, despite this legacy, the current cast of Anna Bolena in Dallas contains a number of vocalists with rather questionable bel canto chops.

The lead is sung by Hasmik Papian who has carved out a niche singing bel canto roles despite nagging questions in many quarters about her ability to manage the technical elements of doing so, especially over the last several years. On Friday, she didn’t manage a trill and the roulades were sloppy to non-existent. But she is still very pleasing to listen to and manages her high notes with ease. She is an engaging actress as well and was able to fill a very empty set with enough drama to keep the evening aloft. Jane Seymour was sung by another artist not known for her colouratura technique, Denyce Graves. Graves has sounded rocky to me vocally on her most recent outings, but as Seymour she was more solid and assured than what I’ve heard in the last few years. The Act Two duet between the two artists was a highlight. Was it ideal bel canto singing? No. Was it an enjoyable evening of opera? Absolutely. As much as Sutherland’s standard-bearer shadow reaches out over bel canto operas, I think it’s important to remember that she almost single-handedly revived much of this languishing repertory due to her super-human vocal skills. Holding everyone to that standard is both unfair and unrealistic. There are so many beautiful bel canto operas and I think it would be a shame if they didn’t live on being sung by other professional, if decidedly more human, voices.

I should also mention how impressed I continue to be with the young tenor Stephen Costello, who appeared as Henry Percy, Boleyn’s former lover returned to court. He’s warm and assured and could easily give the likes of Juan Diego Florez a run for his money. He and his wife Ailyn Pérez, who is currently singing Zerlina in Don Giovanni here, are going to give a free concert for patrons and new subscribers on November 8 and will return to San Diego Opera in Faust in April next year. If you haven’t seen them, you should. The orchestra sounded good and was led by music director Graeme Jenkins. Jenkins took rather leisurely tempi throughout, keeping the singers comfortable. And while the energy never flagged, the show did feel it was getting a bit long in the tooth by the final scene.

But as much as I was pleasantly surprised by how well the vocal part of the show came off, I was equally taken aback by how flat and uninteresting the staging was. All of the action played out in a semi-circular Elizabethan stage area with chorus members appearing on two balcony levels above the stage floor. This set has served as the basis for all the "Tudor" opera productions Lawless' had directed in Dallas, often with similar casts. The lower level was obscured by tall wooden panels connected by hinges to form a screen. The panels could be noisily moved back and forth in different configurations allowing for various shaped empty rooms. Occasionally, three display cases were rolled out revealing the king’s robe and crown, the queen’s robe and crown, or a chopping block with attached sword. It was kind of like shopping at 16th-century Nordstroms. Some metal grates were dropped from above to represent a prison in the last scene after small amounts of hay were dropped on the floor. Which was a good thing since everyone knows you can’t be crazy on an opera stage without getting dirty or putting something unusual in your hair like broken flowers or hay. Then there were those bucks. In a hunting scene in Act I, two bare-chested men enter wearing horned deer skulls and engage in a mock fight until one of them is downed and Henry VIII comes to finish him off. It sounds a lot sexier than it actually is, trust me. The rest of the costumes were all straight out of Britain’s National Portrait Galley so everyone was pretty recognizable. But it was really up to the cast to make this thing work, and they did. Anna Bolena runs through November 14.


Pretty Vacant

October 28, 2010

Daniel Harding and members of the Dresden Staatskapelle in Orange County Photo: mine 2010

On Tuesday, I got to see the first of two performances from the Dresden Staatskapelle (or as the cover of the Orange County Performing Arts Center program proclaimed them, the Dresden Staaskapelle) on my schedule for this week while on their current US tour with conductor Daniel Harding. This stop was close to home in Orange County, which welcomed one of the world’s oldest and most respected orchestras into one of the world’s newest concert halls in Costa Mesa. (The other performance this week is on Halloween in New York where the ensemble will play Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival.) Brahms seems to be the composer of choice for European orchestras these days when they come to the US, so seeing the ever-present Symphony No. 2 in the prime spot on Wednesday’s show from the Dresden players was no surprise. And in some ways, neither was the performance. This orchestra oozes finesse out of every pore. There were amazingly precise moments throughout, particularly in the last movement, and particularly from the strings. It was played beautifully without a doubt. However, it was also like one of those beautifully printed glossy magazines. The joy of its beauty can be complicated by the difficulty separating the pages which stick together with abundant static electricity. Sometimes a few rough edges can make it easier to appreciate things.

Things were similar in the first half of the show, which was packed with other commonplace orchestral works. Schumann’s “Manfred” Overture started the evening with wonderful entrances and exits. This was followed by Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with soloist Rudolf Buchbinder. The playing was very accurate and pretty. But it seemed almost too easy, thrown off in a casual way that was oddly uninvolving. Granted, in a program like this one filled with staples and virtually no contrast, the artistic goals are set somewhat low. And there are worse things than an evening of well-played staples. Harding is a reasonable conductor and seems to communicate well with an orchestra that has been there and done that. The organization’s management has had particular trouble holding onto music directors over the last several years and Christian Thielemann is scheduled to take over the reigns in 2012. So, in the meantime, the pretty music carries on. And though it isn’t always terribly involving, pretty isn’t a bad thing either.


Like Poppies

October 25, 2010

Jemma Redgrave and Daniel Rabin in Miniskirts of Kabul Photo: John Haynes

So what was I doing Sunday while I was missing Placido Domingo sing the opening performance of Cyrano de Bergerac at San Francisco Opera? I was across the bay in Berkeley in one of the all-day marathon performances of The Great Game: Afghanistan from London’s Tricycle Theater now on its U.S. tour at Berkeley Rep. All 11 hours of it with breaks and intermissions. Yes that is a long time to sit in a darkened theater in a single day for a single performance. It even stands out in a season of marathon theatrical production from the revival of Tony Kushner’s seven-plus hour Angels in America at the Signature Theater in New York to the return of the Elevator Repair Services’ equally long Gatz at The Public Theater. But even with the quality of these lengthy productions, The Great Game stands out. In fact, its success almost depends on its extreme length. It’s a massive work with all kinds of foibles and weak spots, but it is an absolutely unique theatrical experience and worth every minute of it.

Raad Rawi and Shereen Martineau in The Lion of Kabul Photo: John Haynes

The Tricycle Theater set out to develop a long work examining the history of the West’s involvement in Afghanistan. The company, directed by Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham, is no stranger to current, unabashedly political theater and intended from the outset for The Great Game: Afghanistan to be as much of a teach-in on the state of this very troubled part of the world as it was to be any sort of more familiar theater piece. Based on prior experiments, they recruited a diverse group of mostly British playwrights to craft brief, one-act plays touching on pivotal scenes from a century and a half of Afghan history. The scenes were then strung together in a somewhat chronological order and buffered with a variety of monologues – some imagined from the mouths of historical figures and others quoted verbatim from today’s news. An excellent ensemble cast of 14 players present a huge number of myriad characters in varying settings and time periods. The Great Game is first and foremost the rarest of things to a modern audience - a history play. The characters tend to be notable politicians and activists both famous and infamous, recreating imagined versions of known events. Like any history, the show is a moving target itself. Since its 2009 premiere in London, it has already been updated with the latest content, referencing elements from as recently as September 2010 on the current tour.

Rick Warden, Karl Davies, Nabil Elouahabi and Daniel Betts in Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad Photo: John Haynes

The Great Game: Afghanistan is divided into three parts each containing four single act mini-plays and two or three monologues for extra padding between them. Part One deals with British colonial occupation of and wars with the country and its eventual independence between the years 1842-1930. Part Two surveys the role of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in the region in the 1980s and 1990s. And Part Three looks at Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 until the present day. Yet even with the variety of different creative voices and perspectives in the show, it does have a definite political edge, especially in the home stretch where its creators appear to firmly place themselves in an ideological camp advocating for a continued Western military presence in Afghanistan to prevent what they see as threats from a resurgent Taliban and continued weak Afghan political system. Not that this is a simplistic or uncomplicated view of life during near constant wartime. The Great Game: Afghanistan may be historical but it is not neutral or passively observing.

Shereen Martineau and Sheena Bhattessa in The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn Photo: John Haynes

All of the mini-plays take place in a rather sparse black square in front of a painted historical mural that is built upon, defaced, and finally transformed into a field of poppies by the end of the day. Not all of these brief stories work. Some, like Stephen Jeffrey’s Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad and Ron Hutchinson’s Durand’s Line invest the play’s earliest events with a television movie realism that borders on the farcical. Others like Lee Blessing’s Wood for the Fire are suspense films without the suspense. But there are wonderful, inspiring moments as well, including the terrifying The Lion of Kabul from Colin Teevan, recounting the moral wasteland of the Taliban mind and David Grieg’s lyrical Miniskirts of Kabul. There is melodrama from Abi Morgan’s The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn and poetry from Ben Ockrent’s Honey. There is not a clean or easy ending here, and Simon Stephen’s Canopy of Stars about the return of a British soldier from Afghanistan to his family’s questioning about what good his soldiering has come to seems to almost end the conversation of the play mid-sentence.

Cloudia Swann and Tom McKay in Canopy of Stars Photo: John Haynes

But that is the kind of theatrical experience this is – an ongoing dynamic consideration of the now to be revisited as the situation develops. And herein lies the strength of The Great Game: Afghanistan. It never comes close to landing all its punches, but it soldiers on, striving for something more—a deeper understanding, regardless. Seeing any of the three individual parts of this work might give you a sense of the project, but I would argue that without the entire experience, the viewer misses out of the grand sweep of history under consideration which is exactly the point. So see them all. The Great Game: Afghanistan continues in Berkeley through November 7th before leaving for an engagement at The Public Theater in New York.


Pacific Overtures

October 24, 2010

James Conlon and the San Francisco Symphony Photo: mine 2010

While the Giants may have won the division playoffs, San Francisco itself is under siege by the artistic staff of L.A. Opera this weekend. Over at the War memorial Opera House, LAO general director Placido Domingo is opening a production of Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac today in his long awaited return to the Bay Area. (Sorry sports fans, I won’t have any report on this one until the last show of the run when I’ll be I town to catch the company’s upcoming The Makropulos Case with Karita Mattila.) But the opera stage isn’t the only organization hosting L.A. Opera artists this weekend. The San Francisco Symphony welcomed LAO music director James Conlon to their stage for one of his trademark thoughtful and well-played programs.

If there was a unifying element to the evenings program, it was overtures; though, as Conlon pointed out, those are not always what they are billed to be. First up was Wagner’s prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which the symphony players brought to life with warmth and grandeur. It immediately brought to my mind how exciting it would be to hear that entire work on the LAO stage. Conlon mentioned that he and the company had hoped to bring the work to L.A. in 2007, but ended up presenting Beethoven’s Fidelio instead for all of the usual reasons. But one can always hold out hope for tomorrow. At the other end of Saturday’s performance were three Dvorak overtures, In der Natur, Carnival, and Othello. In his remarks from the stage, Conlon argued that these three works, composed at the same time and all just before his 9th Symphony, represent a symphony of their own when taken together. In fact he pointed out the direct musical links between the three with examples from the orchestra players to make his point before requesting that the audience hold their applause until all three works were played so as to emphasize the symphonic arch of the three movements. The resulting “Overture Symphony” addressed big themes including the cycle of life, and the beautiful Othello, which ended the concert was quite stirring. It’s a show Conlon has done elsewhere, but it continues to please and is a real testament to his interest in providing thoughtful, challenging programming.

There was dessert on Saturday, as well, though it came as a second course. Joshua Bell appeared and played the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1. It was a showy virtuosic display, which there is always a place for, but as usual with Bell, it felt like empty calories to me. He did his little “Yankee Doodle” encore stunt that people can’t seem to get enough of. The show repeats again on Sunday before Conlon returns to L.A. to begin work on L.A. Opera’s upcoming Lohengrin production next week.


Sing Me to Sleep

October 23, 2010

Chalres Dutoit, Jonathan Lemalu and the L.A. Philharmonic Photo: mine 2010

There’s more Shakespeare in Los Angeles this weekend at the Walt Disney Concert Hall where Charles Dutoit arrived for the first guest conductor spot of the season with a performance of Hector Berlioz’ choral symphony, Roméo et Juliette. Composed in 1839, it was one of Berlioz’ love letters to Shakespeare, that particular exercise common to just about every major Romantic composer of the 19th Century. In fact, Roméo et Juliette is perhaps Berlioz at his floweriest, with sweet smelling bouquets of melody at every turn. Of course, this being Berlioz, the symphony has a number of little catches that make it just that much more off-kilter and, in my opinion, quite admirable. There’s a certain modernity to the work, in that Berlioz elected not to set the entire narrative, nor did he stick faithfully to Shakespeare’s narrative. There a huge reconciliation scene at the end where Friar Lawrence, sung here by baritone Jonathan Lemalu, leads the chorus of Montagues and Capulets in an oath of reconciliation after the deaths of the young lovers. Beyond this, Berlioz only utilized soloists in the work for bit parts. In addition to Lemalu, Lauren McNeese and tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt appeared briefly in the first section as other minor characters who often don’t deliver dialog as much as provide commentary on the unseen action at times. All of the talking between Romeo and Juliet is done by the orchestra, which seems appropriate. Berlioz’ pointed out this tactic helped to underline that this piece is not an opera but something different.

But, while Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette can feel like an oddity on paper to modern eyes, it certainly didn’t sound like one on Friday with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale. Dutoit has given many wonderful performances here in Los Angeles in recent years. He has a light touch and was careful not to overpower this most Romantic of French works. But maybe he should have been a little heavier handed. While the singing and playing by everyone involved was lovely, it was a fairly sleepy performance. There was little drive from on segment to the next as if every phrase was accompanied by a heavy sigh. The piece calls for a huge orchestra and (double) chorus by the standards of Berlioz’ day. And yet rarely are everyone’s engines firing at the same time. There were a couple of moments in Part One where the typically wonderful Fouchécourt seemed a bit out of sync with Dutoit and the orchestra. It would be unfair to say however, that this wasn’t an evening of lovely music. It just wasn’t an exceptionally exciting, edge of your seat one.


Story Time

October 22, 2010

Laurie Anderson in a London performances of Delusion Photo: Nils Jorgensen/Rex Features 2010

When a show is bookended by the questions “How do we begin again?” and “Did you ever really love me?” you know you are in for one bleak evening. Such was the case this week with Delusion, the latest offering from Laurie Anderson that arrived for one night only appearances in Santa Barbara and at what’s left of the UCLA Live performing arts series in Westwood. As if being at Royce Hall after the near collapse of public performing arts programming there, Anderson delivered one dour if interesting evening. Not that there weren’t moments of levity. She can still crank out punchy opening lines for stories that soon veer in another direction. But the subject mater ranged from the end of the American empire to dealing with the death of a mother. For a show about the creative and destructive power of language Anderson has filled her text with pointed existential questions around many corners. Her stories cover many of her favorite patches of thematic ground from the technological and scientific to a fantasy world of professional whimsy where she imagines herself on a mistaken identity book tour. There are lots and lots of mothers here as well and Delusion is rich with psychoanalytic content as Anderson reflects on the death of her mother and later dreams she has given birth to a dog.

I found Delusion much more substantial that some of Anderson’s more recent appearances in L.A. There was less of a sense of responding to the zeitgeist here and something deeper if not necessarily always warm or reassuring. Anderson utilizes her familiar and well honed strategies in the performance from her electric violin playing to vocal alteration and the use of mini-cameras for projected video images. It’s a familiar milieu that can produce a comforting and trance like sense, though admittedly it contains none of the surprise or wonder that these same maneuvers did decades ago. The spirit is there, but its hard not to desire the surprise of the new once so closely associated with this founding figure of performance art. Delusion however, still proves that nobody does a dark and stormy evening quite like Anderson can when she sets her mind to it.

Knock Three Times

October 20, 2010

Members of The L.A. Phil New Music Group with Jeffrey Milarsky Photo: mine 2010

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Green Umbrella” series devoted to contemporary classical music kicked off its new season on Tuesday. And while newer music no longer shares quite the pride of place it once did for the organization as a whole, Tuesday’s program was a significant and enjoyable one. It featured works from the three composers who founded Bang on a Can, the New York-based collective for the support, composition, and performance of contemporary music. Bang on a Can is known for many things including their annual marathon concerts. In fact there are few organizations or individuals that have played as large a role in this area, and hearing a much shorter program of the music of Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and David Lang was a nice East Coast moment here by the Pacific. (Though, to be fair, it should be noted that Lang is an L.A. native)

First up was a movement from Gordon’s Weather, a work that the composer notes was inspired by chaotic weather patterns. Scored for a small string ensemble, Weather drew on Baroque techniques, in particular the use of canons, in a modern way that sounded equal parts Arvo Pärt and American minimalism. Although the piece consisted of small repeating units that changed over time through small variations while overlapping one another, it wouldn’t be mistaken for the music of Reich or Glass. Gordon has produced a large and diverse body of work that is not unfamiliar to Los Angeles audiences including Decasia, which was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and seen here in both 2006 and 2008, as well as the opera What to Wear presented at REDCAT (where else) in 2006 to a libretto by Richard Foreman. Next on Tuesday’s agenda were two quartets from Julia Wolfe. The second, Early That Summer, was for a traditional string quartet. But the first and perhaps more surprising piece was Dark Full Ride for four drum kits. Wolfe fully exploited the physicality involved in this instrumentation, and the sequences of cymbals and kick drums connected with a very receptive audience.

Perhaps my favorite works of the evening, though, belonged to David Lang whose career has been on quite a tear lately since winning the Pulitzer Prize for the little match girl passion in 2008. He’s having a big year in Los Angeles where match girl will receive a local premiere from Jacaranda in January and where his opera The Difficulty of Crossing a Field will be presented by Long Beach Opera in June. The first of two pieces Tuesday was a setting of the Velvet Underground song “Heroin” by Lou Reed for male voice and solo cello. The idea was excellent providing a new and revealing context for Reed’s own poetry. There was a video accompaniment by Doug Aitken, that I wasn’t convinced was completely necessary, but Gloria Lum’s sad cello in contrast to the vocal performance by Theo Bleckmann was great. The evening concluded with Lang's Piercedwhich was originally commissioned by Real Quiet, the piano, cello and bass trio—with small string ensemble accompaniment. It’s rhythmically complicated and has an American sound verging on the jazz-influenced but also not oblivious to the contributions of American minimalism. Highly seductive, the piece seems much larger than it is without dramatic pounding and grunting. It was a strong finish to a brief snapshot of the rich musical legacy Bang on a Can and its founder's have created. And it didn't even take all day.


You Make Me Feel Brand New

October 19, 2010


The above image is one that Los Angeles Opera has recently released in promotion for their much anticipated and star-studded production of Wagner’s Lohengrin that will be opening on November 20. Conducted by music director James Conlon, the show will feature Ben Heppner in the title role in his company debut, Soile Isokoski as Elsa and Dolora Zajick in her role debut as Ortrud. On closer inspection of the L.A. Opera web-site, I noticed something else interesting about this upcoming run. Lohengrin has gone from a revival of the previous 2001 production directed by Maximillian Schell as announced previously to an “all new” production. Inquiring minds want to know, so I posed the question about the source of this transformation to Christopher Koelsch, the company’s COO and Senior Vice President.

Interestingly enough, this Lohengrin is new in a way similar to the way in which the prior production was new. In 2001, the company acquired a production that had previously graced the Mariinsky Theater. Upon arrival, Schell and his creative team decided it wasn’t exactly what they wanted, so the sets were “repurposed” in the service of an essentially new production. It opened at the most difficult of times in the days following the attacks of September 11, which resulted in the cancellation of the opening night. Now nearly a decade later, artistically, history is repeating itself. Upon review of what the creative team had to work with, director Lydia Steier and colleagues have decided that the 2001 version isn’t exactly what they had in mind and are starting over largely from scratch. Some of the sets have again been repurposed, and Dirk Hofacker who was responsible for the 2001 scenic design elements is again on board this year. However, the production is otherwise entirely new with new costumes, lighting, and the all important stage business. Steier is a rapidly rising young American who has worked under Achim Freyer during L.A. Opera’s recent Ring cycle and has had a number of her own important new stagings throughout Europe. I’m told this new Lohengrin will have a look more firmly rooted in the WWI era of the early 20th Century and will not be a show you’ve seen here before or elsewhere.

So you may want to check it out. It’s also worth noting that the company continues to run daily ticket specials, offering up available seats in different sections of the house for different individual performances of all operas this season—at significant discounts. You can follow them online or on Twitter if you’re looking for something in particular that you haven’t yet got tickets for. And this Lohengrin might be just the ticket.


Husbands and Wives

October 16, 2010

Serena Evans, Christopher Benjamin and Sarah Woodward Photo: John Tramper

On Friday, I headed over to Santa Monica for the opening of Merry Wives of Windsor in a 2008 production from Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London, which was kicking off its US and UK tour this year at the Broad Stage. We here in Los Angeles have been blessed with regular visits from the 13-year-old company for many years now, starting in its days under the direction of Mark Rylance when the troupe appeared as part of the now defunct UCLA Live International Theater Festival. These days, the Globe actors and crew have set up shop at the more inviting Broad Stage where they appeared last year in Love’s Labour’s Lost and their return in this most unproblematic of Shakespeare’s comedies is certainly one of the highlights of this year’s Broad season. It’s a lovely, simple, and very funny production, well received in London during it premiere in 2008 and again in revival there this past summer. It deserves to be a big hit here as well.

The play is most known for its central character and primary fool, Sir John Falstaff. His nearly delusional beliefs about his prowess and magnetism drive what is essentially a family comedy. It’s easy to understand why Verdi was drawn to this material, incorporating most of it in his appropriately titled opera, Falstaff. But the Globe players under original director Christopher Luscombe, have refocused the attention here on the two married couples, the Fords and the Pages, whose insecurities and good humor provide most of the laughs. The press around this production has invited audiences to think about Merry Wives as a precursor to the modern day sitcom. And while there is definitely an Ethel and Lucy vibe to the interactions between Alice Ford and Meg Page, this comparison may be too dismissive of not only the play's quality, but the gentle beauty of this staging. The set on this stop of the tour consists of little more than a circular stage with a rotating center and outer perimeter. There is a short wooden tower wall that is rotated to signify changes in scene from interior to exterior and which acts as a platform for the musical ensemble that accompanies the cast periodically. The beautiful Elizabethan costumes are nicely set off by the straightforward set.

The Globe Theater casts are typically excellent, and I was very impressed with the women at the crux of this one. Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward play Mrs. Page and Ford respectively with complete glee and impishness. Christopher Benjamin’s Falstaff was engaging, but subtle enough not to overwhelm the domestic comedy at the play’s heart. And while it’s not the Elizabethan Globe Theater, the Broad is an excellent site for this show given its warmth and intimacy. You should go. It runs through October 24 before it leaves for New York.

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No Ordinary Love

October 15, 2010

The Los Angeles Philharmonic with Gustavo Dudamel, Jean-Yves Thibuadet, and Cynthia Millar Photo: mine 2010

This is a big weekend for big music with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The only work on the program conducted by music director Gustavo Dudamel, which kicked off Thursday night, was one of the 20th Century’s towering masterpieces, Messiaen’s Turangalila-symphonie. Just about everything about this work is big. At eighty minutes, it calls for a huge orchestra, it has a fiendish piano part, played here by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and it deals with some heady concepts like love, death, joy, and transcendence. Composed in the late 1940s as a commission for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the piece is one of three on themes taken from the Tristan and Isolde myth. Turangalila is what Messiaen himself called a “love song” but it encompasses so much more than simply physical or spiritual love. It is equally interested in the relationship between love and death, the human and the infinite. There are passages of a fragile celestial beauty set against others far more terrestrial with frightening almost lumbering themes. Of course, choosing such a scope unavoidably places Turangalila in the shadow of Wagner’s great opera on the same legend, but Messiaen’s orchestral work is just as ambitious if not as equally daring.

Dudamel, and to a similar extent Thibaudet, are not names one typically associates with 20th Century music of this sort. And while Dudamel has conducted 20th Century and contemporary music here in Los Angeles on several occasions, it is no secret that many audience members who’ve come to cherish the L.A. Philharmonic’s reputation in this area have been disappointed by his perceived lack of interest and experience in this area. Plenty of music from the last 60 years is still on offer for the L.A. Phil these days, but less and less of it is under the purview of the orchestra’s music director. The Turangalila performances this weekend are a major opportunity to recapture some of this audience, and the crowd was filled with many more young hipster faces than one might normally see on a weekend at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

And overall, things went pretty well. This was a solid, well-intentioned performance throughout. Dudamel’s strengths were on display as he made the most out of the several big climaxes in the symphony and could take your breath away at the end of the “Joie du sang des étoiles” with a massive joyful crescendo. One could certainly have asked for more clarity and precision, however. And while the energy never flagged, there were still balance issues at times. The prominently featured piano part and that of the ondes martenot played here by Cynthia Millar could sound washed out at times as opposed to functioning as searing punctuation in the heavenly proceedings. Still there was a feeling of rapture there. And even if the overall performance wasn't a dream come true, hearing the Turangalila played live may well be - so it would be wise to catch one of the three remaining performances this weekend.


It is Written

October 13, 2010

A scene from the Elevator Repair Service's Gatz Photo: Chris Beirens

I should run for governor. It should be easy enough. These days it appears all you have to know how to do is vilify minority groups or provide the populace with movie picks to get elected. I’ve got some ideas for real change, though. How about improving public high school education by replacing actual reading in English Literature classes with avant-garde theater performances of the same novels. I can tell you from first hand experience that it worked wonders for me after seeing the seven plus hours of Gatz from the troupe known as the Elevator Repair Service at the Public Theater in New York this weekend. I’d seen the group once before in Los Angeles at REDCAT in one of the most memorable performances I’ve seen in recent years, The Sound and The Fury (April Seventh, 1928), and was highly anticipating Gatz, a larger scale project using a similar tactic. Gatz has made the company’s name, and well it should. It’s nothing short of a theater miracle.

The gambit is this. The company performs the entire text of F. Scott Fitgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. What I mean by this is that the novel is read aloud by a narrator, Scott Shepherd of Wooster Group fame, who assumes the role of the novel's narrator, Nick Carraway. All of the rest of the novel's dialog is spoken as lines by the other members of the cast. And in the instance of Gatz, the company offers a multi-layered interpretation. All of the physical action and dialog occur within the context of a modern day office. The narrator enters his office at the beginning of the show and wordlessly struggles to get his computer to boot up. He stumbles across a copy of Gatsby as he contemplates this everyday chore and begins to read aloud. Soon other office workers, going about their daily routines, are drawn into his reading and begin to take on the roles of characters in the novel. This classic tale of the limits of self-determination and the dark side of the American Dream cannily parallels the beat-up workday office world of the cast, and the myths Fitzgerald brought to life nearly a century ago are again examined, but this time under the glow of fluorescent lights.

I hated this novel in high school and hadn’t thought about it in years. But hearing it now in such a thoughtful and exciting context made me see the novel anew and as something vital and far less obtuse than I remember. There’s even room for telling humor and self-awareness of the novel’s own idiosyncrasies here with a cast that is both inside and outside the primary performance of the text at the same time. And while the entire ensemble cast was spectacular, I must make special mention of Shepherd. I’ve read that after the many performances of Gatz the troupe has given around the world over the last five years, he has the novel memorized. Although he appears to refer to the text throughout, he does deliver the entire last chapter from memory after six grueling hours. Even with three day-long performances a week, it’s a wonder that he gets through the show while still maintaining his voice. Granted, Gatz is not a short and sweet evening at the theater, and you should be prepared to sit for a good stretch. But missing this great and unique experience, if you have a chance to go in New York, would be a big mistake, so go. The show continues through November 28, and I'd see it again in a heartbeat if I had the chance. And if I'm elected governor, I'll make sure that everyone else gets a chance to as well.


King for a Day

October 12, 2010

René Pape and Oleg Balashov in Boris Godunov Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2010

Talk about déjà vu. Just about 48 hours after taking in the Metropolitan Opera’s large, but largely disappointing new Das Rheingold, I found myself in virtually the same situation with the opening performance of the company’s new production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Outside of the fact that the latter was twice as long and in Russian, the strengths and weaknesses of the two shows were eerily similar. Perhaps the best news of the evening was the fantastic performance from René Pape in the title role. He was on his A-game this evening, steady and sure with a rich, booming tone and a nuanced, very physical performance overall. Undoubtedly a career defining moment for him, and the best I've heard him sing in a history of excellent performances. And this comes in the midst of an almost entirely Russian principal cast. Needless to say there were several other spectacular performances to marvel at including Mikhail Petrenko’s Pimen, Andrey Popov’s Holy Fool, and Ekaterina Semenchuk’s Marina. Grigory, the pretender to the throne, was sung by Aleksandrs Antonenko with vigor and plenty of volume if not a lot of subtlety and detail. But better than all this was the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under Valery Gergiev. The typically great orchestra really outdid themselves on this evening with a performance as good as I’ve heard from the Mariinsky orchestra or any number of other ensembles. Gergiev knows Boris Godunov inside and out, and his acumen paid off here spectacularly. The Met Opera Chorus excelled in some of the most important choral music in all opera.

What more could you want? Probably a production to go with it. Despite all these wonderful musical qualities, the production, and the evening as a whole, was another great big non-starter. It’s hard to know where to begin with this mess. As was widely reported earlier this year, the production’s original director, Peter Stein, dropped out only a few weeks before final rehearsals began over a visa spat. The Met turned to American Stephen Wadsworth to step in and make a coherent production at this point, largely relying on the costume designs, sets, and score that the rest of the still intact design team had already been working on for years. So it is not entirely his fault that the resulting hybrid work, part Wadsworth’s but with Stein’s indelible stamp, is rambling, obvious, and throws away many of its best assets.

One of the most unusual choices made early on was to develop a hybrid score using just about everything from Mussogrsky’s original 1869 version of the work as well as most of the additional scenes written for the 1872 revision. This everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach creates a very long Boris Godunov that struggles for a sense of unity. I get the impression that the original goal here was to focus on Boris Godunov as an opera first and foremost about the sweep of Russian history. The giant history text Pimen is working on at the start of the first act appears as a gaint book that is placed on the floor of the stage and remains there throughout with characters wrapping themselves in it at times or mangling it's pages in riots. The minimal sets consist of little more than gold-painted walls that are periodically removed to reveal a blank blue sky in the enclosed space. This is in contrast to the chorus' colorful costumes, which creates an overall effect reminiscent of Russian icon paintings. At first it is attractive but is very tiring after about 20 minutes. The stage action is otherwise predictable with people lolly-gagging around on huge maps and such.

Worst of all, the bonus material of Mussorgsky's later score dilutes the dramatic tension. Act III, "the Polish Act" recounts the pretenders seduction by a Polish princess and gives Pape a nice hour long break in the middle of the show. But while Grigory's interest is just perking up in this scene, ours is starting to flag. Worse yet, after the climactic final scene with Boris, we're treated to a violent riot of the peasants quelled only by the pretender's arrival. Talk about staying too long at the fair. In the end, the biggest problem with the production (and arguably with the opera itself) is wanting to have it both ways - both filled with the historical sweep and packed with psychological insight. In an effort to do both, neither is particularly accomplished. There was no booing I could hear on Monday when Wadsworth and the design team took their curtain call. Nor was there an enthusiastic cheer, suggesting that this Boris was met with more ambivalence than feeling, never a good sign in any opera.


More Life

October 11, 2010

Robin Weigert and Christian Borle Photo: Joan Marcus/Signature Theater 2010

On Friday and Saturday, I attended preview performances of Signature Theater Company’s much anticipated and quickly sold out and extended revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Both parts will open at roughly the same time at the end of this month in New York, and I jumped at the chance to see the show, though it is still in previews. One of the biggest questions in my head going in was just how relevant this seven hours of theater over two sittings would be like after more than 25 years when the action it describes takes place. The events Kushner describes are still open wounds, but let’s face it, there have been more than a couple major catastrophes financial and otherwise in this city and this world since the mid-1980s. But then I review the news services here this very weekend in this very city and am immediately reminded of the ways in which little has changed when gay men are beaten here for the simple reason of their existence. Heck, bigotry toward homosexuals wrapped in a shroud of faith is a political platform for some candidates in New York this season. No wonder the tickets for this show vanished so quickly. Despite all that has changed for the better, Angels in America couldn’t be more urgent and incendiary today.

Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck Photo: Joan Marcus/Signature Theater 2010

Of course, Kushner’s landmark play is about so much more than homophobia and, granted, the HIV/AIDS crisis does not have the same shape now that it had then. One of the works greatest strengths is the complicated and multi-layered way it takes on topics from faith and religion to American identity. And even at this arguable early stage, the Signature Theater production handles these quite well. The very good ensemble cast is directed by Michael Grief, best known in New York for his work on musicals such as Next to Normal, Grey Gardens, and Rent. But if you think this Angels in America is going to turn into some kind of “Springtime for Hitler”, think again. He manages to keep the magical realism in the play real enough and never lets things get too bogged down in more maudlin fantasy.

Zachary Quinto and Billy Porter Photo: Joan Marcus/Signature Theater 2010

That is not to say that I thought everything was in perfect shape for an opening. There was still work to be done particularly on the first few scenes of Part I. Some of the performances haven’t completely gelled yet in terms of consistency throughout the entire piece. And there are lots of small technical and timing issues that have yet to be completely attended to. But that is to be expected at this stage. What is far more important is that these performances sweep you up and grab you emotionally already. After seven hours I didn’t want it to end despite my familiarity with the piece on stages and the Mike Nichols film. The set design is simple with a large thin pale curtain used for video projections, which is pulled back to reveal a bifurcated set with two rotating halves to rapidly change between scenes, provide logical space for action that plays out in two different spaces simultaneously. It's direct and attractive.

Robin Bartlett and Frank Wood Photo: Joan Marcus/Signature Theater 2010

I would be remiss not to mention the actors in the cast. Louis is played by Zachary Quinto, Prior by Christian Borle, Belize by Billy Porter, and Joe Pitt by Bill Heck. All four were quite convincing in both comic and dramatic passages. Best of all, while all are physically attractive, the emphasis was away from complete hardbodies considering that most all of them get some time naked on stage. Frank Wood is Roy Cohn to Robin Bartlett’s Emma Goldberg and Hannah Pitt. Bartlett is as impressive in her male characters as her female ones. Robin Weigert is the angel and Zoe Kazan plays Harper. Kazan goes for a more blatantly insane Harper in my opinion than others, with the anger and rage as easily on display as the anxiety and neurosis. All of the cast were strong.

But honestly, given the cultural moment in this country, this production could be crap and it would still be worth seeing. Luckily it is quite far from crap and by opening I imagine it will be superb. So much has changed, but so little has as well. All these years and still, the great work begins.


Ghost in the Machine

October 10, 2010

Bryn Terfel and Stephanie Blythe in Das Rheingold Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2010

On Saturday, I was in New York for the fourth performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Das Rheingold. The new vision, created by Canadian auteur Robert Lepage, replaced an over-two-decades old storybook version by the venerable Otto Schenk. Yet after millions of dollars, structural stage reinforcements, and immense amounts of hand wringing, the most notable thing about this new production is how remarkably similar it is to the one it replaced. Outside of a precious few special effects, perhaps the only real difference between the two is that disposal of the old sets raise concerns over formaldehyde and asbestos while ridding the world of Lepage and his team’s handiwork will bring up issues over mercury and other hazardous metals. The large 24-plank set piece undulates and repositions itself with relative ease and does produce some memorable images such as the first appearance of the Rheinmaidens floating high above the stage on wires in front of an interactive projection of an underwater world. But for all the trouble and money, the massive rotating set does surprisingly little.

But no amount of machinery can take the place of actually directing a cast of vocal artists. And onstage Lepage has surprisingly little to say, new or otherwise, about Das Rheingold or its action. The principals wander around downstage for hours gesturing with little to do in costumes that are at best unfortunate. From Bryn Terfel as someone’s special homage to Pete Burns (or perhaps Ratt's Stephen Pearcy circa 1984. See above), to Patricia Bardon’s Erda whom my friend Jim described as the Cindy Brady of Erdas, no one gets out of this show without either a mess to wear and/or having to slide down the large planks of the set at some point while doing so. The laughter produced by the dumping of Fasolt's body off the set seemed unintended but was just one of such moments.

l-r: James Levine with Stephanie Blythe, Adam Diegel, and Wendy Bryn Harmer Photo: mine 2010

On the plus side, the musical qualities of the performance were quite high. Maestro Levine may not be bounding on or off stage for bows with ease, but his conducting seems unhindered in any way. The orchestra was superb throughout. Vocally, the revelatory performance of the afternoon belonged to Eric Owens. This is a big and well–deserved success for this personable and very interesting artist, and gauging by the audience response, he’s arrived here in New York. Oddly he was not evenly matched in the triad at the center of this opera. Bryn Terfel’s Wotan had a beautiful tone but was strangely removed and uninvolved. Richard Croft’s Loge was underpowered and neither particularly mischievous nor scary. He seemed like he stepped out of some buddy movie or video game. On the women's side, I was fairly impressed with Stephanie Blythe’s Fricka, who was never shrill, though I never got any real sense of the relationship between her and her husband in the staging.

Of course, I don’t want to go so far as to say that this design is so flawed that there is no hope for the many hours of Ring operas planned to follow in Das Rheingold’s wake. Lepage’s large set could be used more actively and provides many interesting possibilities that have yet to be explored. And furthermore, given that the Met is finally letting go of an older production that had more than overstayed its welcome is an important step. But Lepage’s new Das Rheingold is undoubtedly a half-measure. It needs to go much farther in terms of its ambition and scope to deliver something worthwhile and that doesn't mean just delivering more technological wizardry. But unlike Wotan and the gods of Valhalla, there is still some time to change this production’s eventual destiny, and hopefully Lepage and his team are thinking more creatively about their next steps.


Crowd Pleaser

October 08, 2010

Thursday brought the opening night of the 2010/2011 Los Angeles Philharmonic season at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. It’s the second season under music director Gustavo Dudamel, and while the gala event program was enthusiastically received, it was a decidedly less ambitious evening than the starry first night last year. That evening was a welcome to Dudamel hyped to the rafters and featuring a Mahler symphony (the 1st) and the world premiere of a new work by a major American composer (John Adams’ City Noir). But not every season can go for those heights on opening night, and after the drubbing Dudamel and the orchestra received in the press around the country on their Spring tour, a more standard format for Thursday's occasion was called for with a big star vocalist and crowd-pleasing arias. The star in question on this night was a big one, Juan Diego Flórez, and he did not disappoint, right down to the string of high Cs in “Ah mes amis” in his first encore.

But back to the beginning. The show started a little late, which is not unusual for this kind of event, which was being broadcast on the radio. The first half of the show consisted entirely of Rossini - opera overtures paired with tenor arias. Somewhat comically, a number of people in the audience were thrown off guard by the opening drum roll from the overture to La gazza ladra. Mistaking it for the start of the National Anthem, pockets of people in both the Terrace and Orchestra sections of the auditorium stood up only to realize seconds later that this was not to be one of those more patriotic evenings and some twittering over the confusion ensued. But Flórez was not far behind and he gave exciting excerpts from La Cenerentola and Semiramide. Wisely, Dudamel chose to stay out of the way of the night’s biggest asset and let JDF do his thing. The orchestra sounded a little underrehearsed to me, but with Dudamel busy with the Vienna Philharmonic as recently as last weekend, and a whole other program in store in L.A. for the rest of this one, something is bound to fall through the cracks. (One wonders what shape the Turangalila-symphonie will be in by next weekend on such a schedule.) Sadly the original program was truncated due to time and one of the three Rossini overture/aria pairings was jettisoned, as Dudamel announced from the stage.

After the break, Flórez and Dudamel returned for a number of Latin songs and two short orchestra works, Moncayo’s Huapango and Márquez’ Danzón No. 2. The ever-present “Granada” was on the bill and many in the crowd responded to the well-known songs in this part of the program. Here the orchestra sounded warm, and Dudamel made the most of the dancing rhythms in many of these works. Flórez’ voice seemed a bit drier here in the wake of a bigger and more romantic orchestral sound. He gave the crowd two familiar encores, “Ah mes amis” and “La donna è mobile”, before they were pelted with silver and pink streamers. And with that, another season is underway.


Radio Waves

October 07, 2010

A scene for Moby-Dick at the Dallas Opera Photo: Karen Almond/Dallas Opera 2010

Be aware that this coming Tuesday, October 12th, Dallas’ WWR 101.1 FM will be broadcasting a taped performance of Jake Heggie’s most recent opera Moby-Dick from its world premiere run earlier this year. The production which starred Ben Heppner, was well-received (though I had some of my own reservations about it) and will be part of upcoming seasons at both San Diego and San Francisco Opera. If you’re interested in hearing it for yourself, the program will air at 8 PM Central Time (Which is 9PM on the East Coast of the US and 6PM Pacific Time in case you were wondering) and can be streamed over via the wonder of the inter-tubes here.

UPDATE: Speaking of the radio. The Los Angeles Philharmonic's season opening gala tonight will be broadcast live on NPR. (The details are here.) The program features star tenor Juan Diego Florez who will sing Rossini arias and some Spanish-language songs as well under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel. You've been warned.


Look Before You Leap

October 04, 2010

Brooke Shields and Raúl Esparza in Leap of Faith Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2010

There are a few things to recommend the new Alan Menken and Glenn Slater musical Leap of Faith that opened up at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles on Sunday (and which I saw in one of the final previews on Friday night). It’s a pleasant enough story based on the 1992 film of the same name starring Steve Martin in the role of Jonas Nightingale, the flim-flam revival preacher who inadvertently renews evereyone's faith and musters up some bona-fide miracles in a drought-stricken Kansas farm town. Of course, I liked Leap of Faith better when it was titled The Music Man and starred Robert Preston and Barbara Cook. But a loving copy can still be enjoyable in certain circumstances. Sadly, though, this is not one of them. Menken and Slater’s new musical version of the story lives and breathes cliché and ham-handed dialog for at least the first two hours of this evening. The music is largely forgettable in that contemporary musical theater way as it mines a sort of lite-Gospel strain that is appropriate for the setting.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the show is that despite the long dull stretch of the first and most of the second act, the last 20 or so minutes that make up the 11 o’clock number and the finale actually come to life. It leaves you to wonder, where was this musical the rest of the time? The success of the big finish is largely due to the show’s biggest theater star, Raúl Esparza as Nightingale. He’s one of the most charismatic stars on Broadway, and his talents are on full display here. He deserves a big fat original musical built around him in the worst way. But this is so not it. That 11 o’clock number, “Jonas’ Soliloquy” is lifted almost directly out of Gypsy and a dozen other shows. Esparza can apparently do a version of Mama Rose as well as any number of actors who’ve won Tonys for doing just that. And while his character is reflecting more on the role of faith in his life than his inability to meet the demands of his unbridled ambition, Esparza pulls off a very affecting moment in the follow-spot.

Then there is the matter of Brooke Shields as Marva, a local waitress and mother of a disabled boy who is about the only one in town not falling for Nightingale’s scam. (The other exception is the town sheriff.) I love Brooke Shields. She has superb comic timing and great stage presence. I admire her personally for speaking up for what she believes in and calling rot on the Tom Cruises of the world. But love her all I can, she does not carry the vocal part of this at all. To call her pitchy would be kind, and though I know she’s made star turns in musicals before, Leap of Faith would not convince me to see more of her in similar material. The rest of the cast has some excellent voices including Kecia Lewis-Evans and Leslie Odom, Jr., who play a mother and son duo. But all the lovely singing in the world can’t compensate for a book with so little going for it. Leap of Faith runs through October 24.


In the Wings - Oct '10

October 03, 2010

Daniel Harding who'll appear with the Dresden Staatskapelle this month Photo: Harald Hoffmann

October is a particularly promising month on the performance front both in Los Angeles and around the country. Probably first and foremost on the horizon is the opening of the Los Angeles Philharmonic season on Oct 7, the second under music director Gustavo Dudamel. He and the orchestra have a pretty full plate this season and perhaps something to prove after the conductor had his hat handed to him by most music critics on the ensemble’s American tour at the end of last season. There will only be two weeks of performances under Dudamel in the fall after the gala opener which will feature a number of crowd pleasing nuggets from Juan Diego Flórez. The show most worth seeing, and perhaps the most important of the whole season, will feature Messiaen’s Turangalila-symphonie over the weekend of Oct 14th. As a companion piece, there will be a performance of Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps in the L.A. Phil chamber music program on Oct 12 as well. The other L.A. Phil performance I would recommend this month will occur over the weekend of the 22nd when Charles Dutoit will lead an excellent cast in Berlioz’ choral symphony, Roméo et Juliette. Fans of Bang on a Can may also want to check out the L.A. Phil's New Music Group on Oct 19 when they'll present works from the influential New York collective's founders. There’s also one excellent visiting orchestra in town next month when the Dresden Staatskapelle appears in Orange County at the Segerstrom Concert Hall on Oct 27 under Daniel Harding with Brahms’ Second Symphony and a Beethoven piano concerto.

Olga Wehrly and Tadhg Murphy in Penelope Photo: Robert Day

If you are in the mood for things more operatic, there is still plenty of time to check out the two very find productions L.A. Opera has on stage, Il Postino and Le Nozze di Figaro. While I’m out of town this month, I’ll be stopping in at the Metropolitan Opera on the 9th for Robert LePage’s new vision of Wagner’s Das Rheingold followed by the premiere of the company’s new Boris Godunov on the 11th to see if it survived the recent director transplant from Peter Stein to Stephen Wadsworth. At the end of the month, I’ll also be visiting the beautiful Winspear Opera House in Dallas for a Don Giovanni, starring the ever higher-profile Paulo Szot (Oct 29) and the premiere of a new production of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena (Oct 30).

A scene from the Elevator Repair Service's Gatz Photo: Chris Beirens

October is also packed with exciting theater events all over the country. New York will host a new production of Kushner’s Angels in America at the Signature Theater (Oct 8 and 9) as well as the Elevator Repair Service’s production of GATZ (Oct 10), which will be presented at The Public Theater. Also off Broadway but equally exciting is the U.S. Premiere of another Druid Theater production from playwright Enda Walsh whose Penelope will surface on Oct 31. Elsewhere, Berkeley will be one of a few U.S. cities to host The Tricycle Theater’s massive trilogy Afghanistan: The Great Game consisting of 12 short plays by a collection of authors on the history and culture of this long war-torn region (Oct 24). Los Angeles also has a number of—hopefully—worthwhile events including the premiere of Leap of Faith the new musical from Alan Menken and Glenn Slater starring Raúl Esparza and Brooke Shields, which opens on the 3rd. Center Theater Group’s other opening this month is Venice, a new piece from Matt Sax and Eric Rosen, which kicks off on Oct 7 at the Kirk Douglas Theater. Shakespeare’s Globe Theater will return to the Broad Stage this month as well with their version of The Merry Wives of Windsor (Oct 14). And I would be remiss not to mention Sarah Ruhl’s great In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, which is running alongside Gina Gionfriddo's Becky Shaw (Oct 22) in Orange County at the South Coast Repertory Theater.

And in the non-play performance category there’s a few other things worth noting. Laurie Anderson will return to UCLA’s Royce Hall for a single performance of her latest Delusion on the 21st. Meanwhile at REDCAT downtown, Tere O’Connor Dance will present Wrought Iron Fog starting on the 14th and will welcome pianist Alfred Brendel in conversation on the 28th about music and everything. My work here is done.


Speaking of Rock Legends

October 02, 2010

I know this is old news from last weeks Gala premiere of the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Das Rheingold, but I still think it's fairly cool and worth repeating here. Maybe next year Renée Fleming can interview Iggy Pop. Enjoy.


Brighten the Corners

Pavement at the Hollywood Bowl Photo: mine 2010

It was the 1990s all over again on Thursday for a show that officially closed out the L.A. Philharmonic-sponsored summer season at the Hollywood Bowl. And what better way to go than a triple art-rock bill featuring the bands No Age, Sonic Youth, and California’ own legendary Pavement. This was at the tail end of a string of reunion shows for Pavement after nearly a decade away from any joint projects. The show, which front man Stephen Malkmus announced from the stage as their last in America, was a potent, concise reminder of how great and how fragmented the band could be, always coming together and falling apart in different ways simultaneously.

Sonic Youth at the Hollywood Bowl Photo: mine 2010

Long before they took the stage, however, were two other notable sets. The duo No Age kicked things off with a group of pulsing, guitar and electronic driven songs reminiscent of any number of 1990s acts. For a moment it was as if Clinton was still in office, and all was right with the world. Following them was the oddly placed Sonic Youth. The band has outlived and out-influenced everyone around them, including Pavement and their willingness to open for one of their arguably more conventional artistic offspring only reinforces how they got to be the legends they are. In keeping with the musical theme of the evening, the band focused heavily on material from 1988’s Daydream Nation, arguably the source for all important rock music for the next decade and a clear precursor to Pavement’s own work. They are still as tight as ever and delivered intense versions of “Hey Joni”, “The Sprawl”, and “Candle”. They closed the all-to-brief set with a blistering “White Cross”.

There was still more show to go, however, and Pavement arrived to a wildly enthusiastic if not capacity audience at the Bowl. The set drew from all of the band’s studio albums and unsurprisingly focused on their most fertile period spanning both Slanted and Enchanted and the subsequent Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. There was exuberance and the material sounded assured and easy-going. But this is Pavement and a bit of disorganization and the freewheeling nature of things was apparent at the margins. The Hollywood Bowl has strict set time limits being an outdoor venue in a residential neighborhood and, like many popular music performers there, the band felt pressure to keep moving. On a few occasions Malkmus visibly rejoined the other band members to stop dawdling and keep moving in between songs as the stage countdown clock kept ticking away. (In classic Sonic Youth style, that outfit had turned the giant red LED clock located near the foot of the stage around for all the audience to see for the last fifteen minutes or so of their set giving things and apocalyptic air.) But not unlike its home state, Pavement managed to persevere through the convoluted and contradictory impulses of its component parts to remind us why we loved them so much in the first place.


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