Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Special Seasoning

January 31, 2011

Alek Shrader and the cast of Albert Herring from Santa Fe Opera in 2010 Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2010

After a week of teasers on Facebook, the Los Angeles Opera will announce its 2011/2012 season line-up tomorrow. It’s a very good, and relatively well-balanced season overall and should definitely be attractive to both regular subscribers and new patrons alike. (At least I know that I’m excited about it and think you should be too.) Still coping with ongoing economic realities, the company will again offer six productions, three in the Fall of 2011 and the rest in the Winter/Spring of 2012. Best of all, the company has avoided the pitfall of the last decade by offering up mostly operas that are either new to the company or haven’t been seen in the last five years.

The season opens on Sep 17 with the company premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, starring a predominantly Eastern European/Russian cast including Dalibor Jenis in the title role and Oksana Dyka as Tatiana. James Conlon will conduct these performances as well as those of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, which will be playing in repertory at the same time. Cosi will welcome the local debuts of Aleksandra Kurzak and the über-hawt Ildebrando d’Arcangelo among others. November will bring a revival of Ian Judges’s production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, last seen here in 2005 with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. And while those days are not coming back, this revival will come about as close as you can get with the Juliette of Nino Machaidze (who has sung the role to great acclaim in Salzburg and elsewhere) and the Romeo of one of opera’s other hottest male commodities Vittorio Grigolo. The company’s artistic director Placido Domingo will conduct.

James Conlon will return in the Spring to conduct two more productions. First will be Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra featuring Placido Domingo doing his much-lauded tenor turn in the title role. The cast also includes Ana Maria Martinez, Vitalij Kowaljow (as Fiesco), and Paolo Gavanelli (as Paolo Albiani). Opposite this Boccanegra will be Benjamin Britten’s comedy Albert Herring in the very well-received Paul Curran production from the 2010 Santa Fe Opera Festival. As there, the ensemble cast will center on the handsome rising star, Alek Shrader in his company debut. The season will close out with a revival of Puccini’s La Boheme, opening on May 12 under the baton of Patrick Summers. And while this is certainly a familiar quantity to LA Opera regulars, the casting of young soon-to-be-superstars Stephen Costello and Ailyn Perez may not be. This real life couple has won accolades around the country in both Dallas and San Diego, and their appearances here is a smart move for the company.


What I Did For Love

January 30, 2011

Lise Lindstrom in Act III of Turandot Photo: Cory Weaver/SDO 2011

It’s a Turandot kind of year in California. Puccini’s final unfinished opera will be seen nearly everywhere including San Francisco in the Fall and this summer at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles with Gustavo Dudamel leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a concert performance starring Christine Brewer. But before all of this, San Diego Opera got the first say in this year’s Turandot bonanza when their 2011 season opened on Saturday night with an attractive and highly enjoyable production. Despite the promised star power in the other two later this year, this Turandot will be hard to beat. There are two primary reasons to see this show, the first being David Hockney’s colorful and very enticing sets, which are populated with equally bright costumes designed by Ian Falconer. The set design was originally seen in 1992 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in a co-production with San Francisco Opera where the show was filmed in 1993 starring Eva Marton. Hockney made important contributions to the opera stage throughout the 1980s and 1990s all over America and it is a testament to his vision that these same productions such as his Tristan und Isolde and The Rake’s Progress continue to be lovingly revived in cities around the world. The stage is never dull to look at and his candy-colored vision eschews any tired naturalism in an opera that couldn’t be any farther from it if it tried. Best of all, Hockney has a great sense of focusing attention on the primary action on stage where it belongs without muddling things with too much detail.

Lise Lindstrom as Turandot Photo: Cory Weaver/SDO 2011

San Diego’s other big asset on opening night was one of the best Turandots around, Lise Lindstrom. The American soprano made a big splash in this same role at The Metropolitan Opera in 2009, and she recreates that same excitement here. She has the voice to actually sing the part and never once shouts or barks to be heard over the orchestra. Furthermore she looks the part, leaving no one wondering why Calaf is so preoccupied with her to start with. Lindstrom sometimes faded in the lower end of her range, but this was a performance absolutely worth seeing and remembering. Better yet, I'm told she will return to San Diego in 2012 for Salome which should definitely be worth seeing. The rest of the Turandot cast was reasonable with a confident Carlo Ventre as Calaf. His “Nessun Dorma” got the job done and he remained athletic and energetic all evening. Ermonela Jaho’s Liu was popular with the audience for its showy high notes though I found her sound a little unstable in some of those moments.

The chorus, which was led by Charles Prestinari sounded great, which is particularly good news considering how much music Puccini gave them to sing here. Edoardo Müller conducted the San Diego Symphony Orchestra with a relaxed feeling throughout, never overpowering the vocalists. He may have been overly deferential at times, underselling some of the score's biggest and most dramatic moments, but it was still a solid and admirable performance. Lotfi Mansouri's direction tended towards the prosaic, but in an opera that is very much about pageantry it wasn't as noticable as it could have been otherwise. On the whole, San Diego's new Turandot is a pretty satisfying evening at the opera and there are three more performances through Sunday Feb 6. I'm told the next performance is already sold out, so, if you're in town, you should move fast on the remaining tickets for next weekend.


Murder By Numbers

January 28, 2011

Clifford Morts and Christine Horn Photo: Odyssey Theater

The Odyssey Theater is currently hosting a homecoming of sorts this week with the West Coast Premiere of Adding Machine, the musical version of Elmer Rice’s 1923 play by Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt. This highly unusual work has had very successful runs both in Chicago and Off-Broadway in New York, but its genesis in the mind of Jason Loewith actually comes right back to the fertile creative environment of Los Angeles. According to program notes from Loewith and Odyssey artistic director Ron Stossi, Loewith was working as a production manager at the Odyssey Theater in the early 1990s when he was first exposed to Kurt Weill’s operatic treatment of Elmer Rice’s Street Scene through a friend at Long Beach Opera. This inspired further interest in Rice’s plays and eventually the idea that one of the playwright’s earliest works, The Adding Machine, might make the ideal source for a musical. It wasn’t until many years later that an appropriate composer, Joshua Schmidt, and adequate funding came into the picture, but luckily they did and this quirky, highly unusual musical came to life.

The original play draws heavily on the themes one might associate with composer’s such as Weill, and The Adding Machine has much to say about socialism and the alienation of the common man by an increasingly mechanistic society in the early 20th Century. Its protagonist, Mr. Zero, finds himself unable to escape his humdrum life complete with a nagging wife until he unceremoniously kills his boss after he is fired following 25 years of service adding numbers. This murder leads him to prison, execution, and strangely enough the afterlife. But before and after this, he has a potential romantic entanglement to resolve with Daisy, a co-worker who has taken a liking to him. It is often grim material about the unhappiness in the characters’ lives caused by the larger corporate and societal forces around them. Despite the fantastical nature of some of the events in the story, there is a gritty naturalism as well, including some rather bracing numbers that highlight the racist and anti-Semitic attitudes of some of the characters including Mr. Zero.

But despite all of this darkness, the music part of this musical acts as a counter-weight to the proceedings. Schmidt avails himself of American popular music idioms from Gospel and blues to Tin Pan Alley for a pastiche that would have been familiar to Weill. The songs are also rhythmically complicated at points, which seemed to be an unresolved issue for the cast when I saw the production on Thursday. There are some excellent voices to be sure particularly from Kelly Lester as Mrs. Zero and Christine Horn as Daisy. But even with all of this natural musical talent, the cast and musicians sounded like they needed a bit more practice time together to make everything flow smoothly. The star of the show Clifford Morts was Mr. Zero. He handles the disaffection of the part well, though vocally he was somewhat outpaced by the women. The production itself is sparse and focused and it too is plagued by some kinks that have not been completely resolved. The overall effect is otherworldly with only minimal distinction made between reality and the afterlife.

But even with some of these rough edges still jutting out, Adding Machine is such an unusual and offbeat piece in today's theater landscape, it would be a shame to miss it. The show does make a connection and these unusually unlikable characters soon become heroes to the audience despite this. It's now on stage back at The Odyssey Theater—where it all began—through March 20.

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Saved for Posterity 2

January 26, 2011


There was an embarrassment of riches coming out this week from The Metropolitan Opera on DVD. Some of the best of their recent Live in HD series finally reached an in-home format where you could watch it at your leisure on something other than a computer monitor. And as much as I loved the Salome and Madama Butterfly from the 08/09 season, I feel a particular affection for the other two big releases this week, John Adams’ Doctor Atomic and Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra in that they were both productions I had the pleasure of seeing live in the house. (You can read my prior thoughts on Doctor Atomic here and Boccanegra here.) The releases are notable further in that they both capture operas recently released with similar stars in other productions from other houses. This is the Metropolitan Opera's unique take on these operas and represents a snapshot of where the house is artistically right now.

John Adams’ Doctor Atomic has installed itself already in the minds of many as one of the new century’s first important new operas. Less than a decade old, the Met has provided Adams’ dark, dense, and beautiful opera with its second available DVD recording, which is a testament to how strongly some people believe in this particular opera. I’m one of them and was thrilled to see Penny Woolcock’s staging live on, even if I don’t think it improved on the original Peter Sellars vision seen in both San Francisco and Chicago. Gerald Finley stars again in the role he created of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Finley’s performance of the Act I concluding aria, “Batter My Heart”, remains an indelible moment in contemporary opera and one seriously beautiful piece of music. There are appearances from Richard Paul Fink, Eric Owens, Meredith Arwady, Thomas Glenn, and Sasha Cooke to appreciate as well. But perhaps the other name associated with this production that makes the DVD so highly recommended is the Met Opera debut of conductor Alan Gilbert the year before he took over his current post as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. His masterful handling of this contemporary score was a clear indication of the passion and interest for new music he would bring across the Lincoln Center Plaza and it makes for one exciting opera performance. Plus, if you look hard enough, you may see me in the audience for this taped performance.

Understandably, though, Doctor Atomic is not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea with its abstract, amalgamated and often poetic libretto. And for those folks, the new release of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra may be more to their liking. The big story here was the casting of opera super-star Placido Doming in the title baritone role. And while it’s possible to see this simply as stunt casting, even a cursory viewing of the work indicates quite the opposite. True, Domingo’s tenor voice greatly changes the familiar tone of the title role. But his star power, acting expertise, and sheer tele-magnetism make this a performance worth seeing. This revival of the somewhat dated Giancarlo del Monaco staging can look a little dreary in the flesh, but the HD cameras inject some life into the dark and static sets making everything more intimate. There are other DVDs available of Domingo singing this role in the recent past that are now available. But none of them have the superb Metropolitan Opera orchestra or music director James Levine on the podium. This may not be the way Verdi imagined Boccanegra sounding, but I'd wager even he would be hard pressed to deny that it is a great and very watchable performance.

Saved for Posterity

January 25, 2011


Over the post-holiday blues yet? Well, if not, Sony Music and The Metropolitan Opera have the perfect after-Christmas gift for you or anyone who cares about music with four new DVD releases in the company’s live in HD broadcast series. Now, I have not typically written about these events here at Out West Arts, preferring to focus on flesh-and-blood performances I’m sitting in the audience for. But I’ve seen most of the HD broadcasts so far at some point and would say that the four performances that are reaching the public today on DVD are among the four best the house has broadcast in the series to date. The new releases include Strauss’ Salome, John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra with Placido Domingo in the title role.

Perhaps my favorite among all of these great releases is the searing Salome from the fall of 2008 starring Karita Mattila. Mattila reprised her original, highly lauded 2004 performance of Strauss’ titular baddest-of-all-bad-girls at the opening of the 08/09 season for The Metropolitan Opera, and the house was extremely wise to capture it on video the second time around. It’s simply amazing. Mattila’s power and beautiful lyricism rise above everything else in this production leaving one dumbfounded in its wake. Salome is a piece that turned music, and opera in particular, on its ear, and any production that can revive that feeling a century after the fact is a keeper. There are other great vocal performances here including Kim Begley’s Herod and Joseph Kaiser’s Narraboth. Jürgen Flimm’s contemporary and colorful production looks fantastic as filmed under the direction of Barbara Willis Sweete. Patrick Summers leads the always-excellent Met Opera Orchestra in a big, beautiful turn as well. But this show is undoubtedly dominated by Mattila’s voice and her incredible physical performance. The best of the best and not to be missed.

The 08/09 live HD broadcast season for The Metropolitan Opera also brought a revival of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which, like Salome, was led by Patrick Summers. Now, I will be the first to admit, I am no fan of this opera generally. In fact, despite several opportunities to see this particular show while in New York, I had passed it by every time and only elected to see the broadcast after hearing so much about it. The production, conceived by director Anthony Minghella and choreographer Carolyn Choa originated at the English National Opera and originally opened the 06/07 season in New York as the introductory salvo in Peter Gelb’s new administration of the company. At the time it seemed like an underwhelming idea to me, but after seeing this broadcast, I quickly learned how misguided my judgment was. Minghella’s take on Butterfly is simply the most convincing one I’ve ever seen – even if only on video. It is cinematic in the best sense of the word, highly attractive and stylish at every turn. It can be richly romantic with flower petals falling from above and flocks of bird puppets. It can also be intensely dramatic as in the climactic scene of Butterfly’s death awash in red. The production stars American soprano Patricia Racette in the title role for what is undoubtedly a career high mark for her. Marcello Giordani is the able Pinkerton and Dwayne Croft and Maria Zifchak round out the rest of the principal cast. And, while not every moment of Gelb’s administration at the Met to date has reached this level of success, the importing of Minghella’s Butterfly continues to set a standard for what the house is striving to become. It’s also a DVD worth owning. Stay tuned for Doctor Atomic and Simon Boccanegra later on.


Under a Loggia

January 24, 2011

Louis Lortie Photo: Elias

The Canadian pianist Louis Lortie returned to Southern California on Sunday to help the Philharmonic Society of Orange County kick off the 200th anniversary year of Franz Liszt's birth. He’s appeared at Segerstrom Concert Hall before, as he has in Los Angeles, and to be honest both times I’ve seen him play in the past, it has been as a pinch hitter for someone else who called in sick. And while those prior appearances were certainly adequate, neither prepared me for the wonderful recital he gave on Sunday in Costa Mesa. Liszt’s 200th birthday is a big one, and Lortie chose to perform what is arguably the composer and pianist’s masterpiece, Années de pèlerinage in its three volume entirety. (Though without all of the movements Liszt later added in an additional supplement to the second suite or "year".) Années is a massive work that encompasses nearly three hours of music. Liszt composed the components of each suite over a period dating from as early as 1848 to as late as 1877. Grouped into three “years,” each suite references geographical locations where Liszt had traveled and is meant to capture some of his own thoughts and experiences of these places. What’s more, the Années captures a cross-section in the development of Liszt’s compositional style. They vary from lush Romantic reflections on Italian poetry to virtuosic flurries in passages that change and morph in tone as they go along.

Lortie tackled the suites in two sittings on Sunday, each 90 minutes long without an intermission. In the afternoon her performed the “first year” and the first four movements of the “third year” leaving the balance of that suite and the “second year” for the evening performance. Lortie specializes in these Romantic solo works and his love for Liszt's huge and varied travelogue showed throughout. He flew at the keys with amazing speed at times only to later turn with a soft and warm touch in other passages. And while it may not have been the most crystalline of performances, his total commitment to the spirit of Liszt was evident throughout. He even managed to hold audiences in both sittings in complete silence throughout with not a clap or interruption at any time. At the end of the afternoon performance on completing Les jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este from the second suite, he almost appeared to be in tears from emotional if not physical exhaustion. A sentiment I could relate to given the tender beauty of his performance. That is not to say I thought everything was perfect. Lortie seemed a little pedal heavy at times to my ear and the acoustics of the Segerstrom Concert Hall could get a little muddy the lower and louder things got. But this is quibbling over something so deeply felt and on such a large scale. The program ended with an encore of Liszt’s Gondoliers, one of the movements from the supplement to the “second year” the composer published in 1861. Ultimately, the involved and lovely playing was admirable, and Sunday’s performance was a great way to commemorate the upcoming Liszt anniversary.


Best of Both Worlds

January 23, 2011

David Lang shakes the hand of Cedric Berry while Grant Gershon, Adrianna Manfredi, and Elissa Johnston look on Photo: mine 2011

I am not a beach person. And here in Los Angeles it takes a lot to get me west of La Cienega Blvd. But if there is anything that can do it, it’s the superb programming from L.A.’s Westside home for 20th-century music and more, Jacaranda. Directors Patrick Scott and Mark Allan Hilt have built a remarkable series in virtually no time that showcases some of the most exciting music in town. The philosophy centers on playing music that doesn’t get heard enough and the series’ home at First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica is typically packed on a Saturday night like the one this weekend. This show, entitled “Perilous Balance,” was an evening of contrasts and symmetry leading up to the main event, David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, which was presented by a superb ensemble including, Cedric Berry, Adrianna Manfredi, Elissa Johnston, and L.A. Master Chorale Music Director Grant Gershon. It was another big event for Jacaranda and a hugely successful performance.

Prior to the main course, however, were a number of works spanning the latter half of the 20th Century, all dealing with opposites or contrasting ideas in relatively small musical spaces. There were quartets from two American composers, Elliot Carter and Joan Tower, which were set against organ works from two ex-Soviet legends, Schnittke and Gubaidulina. Carter’s Sonata for flute, oboe, cello and harpsichord from 1952 was the oldest work on the program and started things off. This early work is all about icy clarity and what Jacaranda Artistic Director Patrick Scott described as "winter sonorities" in his remarks before the show. The technically involved playing from the ensemble, which included Gloria Cheng on the large more modern 16-foot stop harpsichord called for in the piece, set a high standard for what was to follow. Next up was an initially dark organ solo from Sofia Gubaidulina entitled Light and Darkness played by Jacaranda Music Director Mark Alan Hilt. The composer's trademark crashing keyboard waves of sound were interspersed with much quieter and reflective moments for a very spiritual effect. The first half concluded with a splendid performance from the Lyris Quartet of Joan Tower's 1994 Night Fields. As the name implies, this rather serious single movement evokes the natural world in the dark, but even more so calls to mind the quartets of Shostakovich, albeit in a more readily accessible way.

After the break, we heard Schnittke's Sound and Resound for organ and trombone. An unusual pairing of instruments to be sure, and one that Scott invited us to think of as an overture to The Little Match Girl Passion in describing the immensity of the world she inhabits. Then it was time for the main course, and the performance of Lang's 2007 Grammy and Pulitzer Prize winning composition was moving and splendidly done. This is music that sounds deceptively straightforward. A quartet of vocalists, each of whom must also manage some basic percussion parts, travel through 15 movements alternating between narrative recitatives and more reflective ensemble interludes. The four vocalists perform more or less the same text throughout with staggered entrances, placing a premium on perfect pitch and timing. The work is somewhat self explanatory and creates a recognizable musical passion inspired by Bach's own St. Matthew's Passion, but uses Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl as the foundation instead of the traditional religious texts. As with the works that preceded it, Lang draws contrast in his music between the dark cold world of the little girl and the colorful light of her visions in the flame. The music can be halting and there are abundant silent pauses, but when the vocal harmonics burst into existence, they are marvelous, if still like the match flame, short-lived. The crowd sat in appreciative silence afterward before giving Lang, who was present for the performance, and the vocalists a standing ovation. And while those can be a dime a dozen here in L.A., this one was well deserved and it was another feather in Jacaranda's newer music cap.


Seems Like Old Times

January 21, 2011

Christina Pluhar of L'Arpeggiata

While our own beloved Los Angeles Philharmonic is off gallivanting around Europe, the Walt Disney Concert Hall hasn’t gone empty. On Tuesday, L’Arpeggiata, the ensemble formed and led by Christina Pluhar, arrived in Los Angeles for one of their trademark early music fusion performances. Pluhar and her band of players take a unique spin on the whole period practice movement in classical music. L’Arpeggiata is about much more than playing the music of Baroque composers on period instruments with period technique. The group is equally concerned about recreating some of the performance process from that era by incorporating more improvisation and personal perspective into the mix. But in this case, improvisation means much more than coming up with a cadenza for a Mozart piano concerto. Pluhar and her players are actively involved in creating new music themselves by riffing on the basic harmonic and rhythmic conventions of Italian, Spanish, and other folk music traditions. These would have been familiar to musicians of the Baroque period in their own performances and often individual ensembles and musicians would make their own interpolations of these basics a standard part of their repertory as opposed to simply playing someone else's music note for note.

Over half of the pieces in Wednesday’s performance were actually original contemporary songs that more or less sound as if they were written by the Baroque and early music composers on the program. The goal is not simply to create a facsimile of music from long ago but to incorporate some of the inventiveness and improvisation that was a hallmark of musical performance from the era in question. There was a uniformity of feeling to the show that was aided by the appearance of two soloists, vocalist Lucilla Galeazzi and dancer Anna Dego. The performance entitled “La Tarantella: Antidotum Tarantulae” was taken in large part from the group’s 2002 recording of the same name. Ms. Dego appeared regularly with her uninhibited movement in various dances from a Fandango to the titular Tarantella. Often she was joined by Ms. Galeazzi whose earthy sound fit perfectly with the folk overtones of her original songs of love, joy, and heartbreak. All the while Pluhar accompanied everyone on the theorbo, and her ensemble masterfully blurred the lines between European high art music and the more popular folk traditions that informed them.

There was lovely playing throughout, but I must admit as warm and friendly as the evening was, I felt it was a bit lost in the large and mostly empty expanse of Disney Hall on this evening. This is intimate music in a way, meant to be shared directly with others in a visceral manner. The show was well-meaning and accessible, but almost to a fault with a sound that bordered on the overly homogeneous despite its diversity of antecedents. But even if this lack of edge or variety hampered the show overall, the technique and musical commitment to the project cannot be ignored.


Happy 70th Birthday Placido Domingo!


Adams in New York

January 20, 2011


I am so excited about seeing John Adams' Nixon in China next month at The Metropolitan Opera in New York. You should be too, since it will be included in the company's HD live broadcasts to theaters everywhere on Sat Feb 12. Adams, who will conduct in New York, and director Peter Sellars recently appeared on The Greene Space on New York's WQXR along with several stars of the upcoming production to talk about the work's creation and offer some musical highlights. The show was filmed as well, and you can watch the great clip above for all the details. It promises to be the spring's must-see opera event.


If My Memory Serves

January 18, 2011

John Lithgow Photo: Craig Schwartz 2011

The rough economic waters have been tough on many performing arts organizations here in L.A., and each one has been forced to respond in its own way. Center Theater Group is no exception to this rule, and L.A.’s biggest theater organization has gone from the ambitious production of Kingsley‘s Dead End complete with a flooded orchestra pit that announced the arrival of artistic director Michael Ritchie in 2005 to a remarkably lean 2010 season. CTG is still in business, which is good news in and of itself, but the writing is on the wall with shows that have small casts, big name movie stars, and/or recognizable touring musical properties especially at the Ahmanson and Mark Taper Forum at the music center downtown. It is a testament to the company that despite the inevitable adjustments of ambition, the productions themselves have continued to be surprisingly good in quality overall including a wonderful recent run of Next to Normal at the Ahmanson and Judith Ivey’s spectacular turn in William’s The Glass Menagerie just last Fall.

This year, the Mark Taper Forum will host only four productions with an additional offering included for the venue’s subscribers: Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations at the Ahmanson that will kick off later this month with Jane Fonda. Before that, however, the first of this year’s Taper shows, Stories by Heart is now on stage this month. The show meets two of the three necessary criteria in the current environment, it has a big movie star in its author and performer, John Lithgow, and it has a small cast in that it’s a one-man show. It’s a somewhat slight, but enjoyable production, which consists of dramatic readings of two short stories, P.G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By” and the more obscure Ring Lardner’s “Haircut”. Lithgow, of course, is a remarkable actor and he delivers the stories with expert skill as promised in the title, by heart. But this literary-inspired endeavor is no Gatz. Each story is wrapped in a small amount of personal, sentimental context from Lithgow, who explains the personal significance of the story-telling project and the development of Stories by Heart.

If anything, the show is more of a testament to the skills of Wodehouse and Lardner than anything else and both works do lend themselves well to this dramatic treatment. But Stories by Heart even at over two hours is still an insubstantial wisp of a show. Lithgow makes a play to underpin his readings with some requisite big questions he asks the audience directly regarding why we, as humans, like to tell and hear tales. He posits that all theater is about storytelling early on and that actors are, by definition, storytellers. I’m not so sure about that contention; though, I’d agree most of the time it is true. I think there are plenty of other reasons people go to the theater besides stories such as visual spectacle, and emotional response, both of which can happen in the most non-narrative of theatrical events. In fact, if there is anything unusual about Stories by Heart, it is how old-fashioned it is. Narrative is far less crucial to the stage now than it has been at perhaps anytime and the tightly-plotted stories of Lithgow’s monologues seem out-of-place and overly neat despite their many fine qualities. The show is not unpleasant, though, and continues at the Mark Taper Forum through Feb 13. A word of advice, though. Although the text for both of these stories is readily available on line, go unprepared, its better to experience them told live.

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Head of the Class

January 16, 2011

l-r: Linda Gehringer, Brian Kerwin, Marin Hinkle, Lily Holleman and Arye Gross Photo: Henry DiRocco 2011

Orange County’s South Coast Repertory is no stranger to new works or the latest and greatest of recent plays that have started life elsewhere. So it is no surprise that the company and artistic directors David Emmes and Martin Benson moved to bring a work from arguably the hottest young playwright of the moment, Annie Baker, to Southern California. Her comedy, Circle Mirror Transformation, opened there over the weekend with an excellent, seasoned cast, and I’m happy to say that Baker’s work lives up to all of the hype that precedes her. Not only does it have one of the best play titles in years, it is an inventive, smart comedy that sets a fairly high standard for anything else you might see on a local stage this year.

The set up is simple. Four students and a teacher meet at a local community center in small town Vermont for a series of amateur acting classes. All of the play’s action takes place in the rehearsal room during class times and nearly all of that occurs in the context of the acting exercises or games the teacher, Marty, leads her students through. (It’s one of these exercises the play takes its name from.) While this may sound like a rehash of Christopher Guests’ Waiting for Guffman, it couldn’t be further away from it. This is not a series of gags about small town life and characters bumping up against dreams of the theater. Instead the plays incredible economical dialog unravels a story about the experiences the characters have with one another both inside and outside of class. There are stretches of pregnant silence throughout and many of the laughs stem more from what isn’t spoken than what is. Baker never wastes time explaining the exercises letting them speak for themselves in her short, clipped scenes expertly directed by Sam Gold who has been closely involved with the success of Baker’s plays in New York.

The cast, all veterans of many local stages, is superb. Linda Gehringer plays Marty, the group's leader who is coping with the strains of her marriage to James, played by Brian Kerwin, who has been obligated to participate in the six week class. Meanwhile recently divorced Schultz, embodied here by a surprisingly hawt and butch Arye Gross, is beginning to fall for New York escapee and former actress Theresa, played by Marin Hinkle. The group is rounded out by the adolescent Lauren, winningly embodied by Lily Holleman whose go at teen angst never overwhelms the show and is spot on throughout. These are all great performances that mine the actors’ physical range in a script of relatively few words and the subtext of what the characters’ actually do say when they speak. There is a heart in Circle Mirror Transformation as well besides the laughs. Skeletons come clambering out of everyone’s closet as these characters learn to stretch their acting muscles and Baker expertly communicates this information to the audience in a manner that is both economical and smart. So if you want to see the next big thing, that can actually deliver on its promises, head down to Orange County where Circle Mirror Transformation continues at South Coast Repertory until Jan 30.

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Do You Like Bass?

Rene Pape Photo: Lenny's Studio

Well, if the bass in question is René Pape, the answer is yes, very much. He’s one of the world’s leading basses in a rather broad repertoire of roles and he was in town on Saturday for a recital hosted by Los Angeles Opera. (You should check out his web site complete with downloadable wallpapers and ring tones.) It was the first of three recitals the company will host this season featuring some of the hottest dawgs in all opera including Dimitri Hvorostovsky on Feb 10 and the L.A. debut of the tenor of the moment Jonas Kaufmann on Mar 15. But Saturday started out on the lower end of the vocal range with an all-German program performed by Pape alongside his accompanist, Brian Zeger. And, while I heard some grouching about this serious offering from others, I for one was excited about it, considering that to date, virtually all of my exposure to Pape has been in roles outside of his native German tongue, including Philip II, Gounod’s Méphistophélès, and most recently Boris Godunov. So, an evening of Schubert, Schumann, and Hugo Wolf sounded to me like just what the doctor ordered – a serious, if familiar, German Lied recital.

It went quite well. The fact of the matter is that Pape has an amazing voice. It’s a clean and warm sound and the sheer beauty of it was inescapable even in the program’s less winning moments. Things did start out a little rocky with selections from Schubert’s Schwanengesang. Pape dove into the material in an assertive business-like fashion that almost missed the musicality of the songs. He seemed uncoordinated with Zeger and overly brusque. But, as he entered into Hugo Wolf’s Michelangelo Lieder, things began to chill out a little bit and gel, despite the continued insistence by some audience members to fill every silent gap between songs with unnecessary and distracting applause. The first half concluded with seven more Schubert songs that were very pleasing to the ear.

After the intermission was Schumann’s familiar Dichterliebe, which finally got the attention and respect it deserved from a more attentive audience. Pape was often superb here, managing ample heartbreak and drama. Although Pape is a competent actor, he can be overly rigid at times as well. He struggled more with the ironic comical moments of some of these songs, missing the wry smiles that lie in their texts. But, despite his lack of a personable demeanor, it’s impossible to deny the beauty of his voice. He closed the evening with two encores, Strauss, and in perhaps one of the only somewhat sly jokes, “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific. The song has become a requisite for virtually all bass-baritone vocalists everywhere in recent years, and Pape’s reliance on printed lyrics for the first time during the evening seemed to be its own wry comment on the omnipresence of the tune, though it was sung with skill all the while.Overall, it was a lovely visit and while Pape has yet to grace us in L.A. with a performance of a complete role, it was still a treat to hear him in recital.


Number 9

January 15, 2011


I’ve never thought of Mahler as a morning person (or perhaps more accurately a morning composer) but it turns out, he can be. Or at least that was my thought Friday as the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed Mahler’s Ninth Symphony as part of their Friday Midday series, which had a starting time of 11:00 AM. And, while it might seem a wee early for all that German Romantic mix of life and death in the natural world, it came off pretty well. The program was the second under music director Gustavo Dudamel in two weeks and like its predecessor, it will be presented on the orchestra’s European tour later this month (which will feature stops in Lisbon, Madrid, London, Paris, Cologne, Budapest, and Vienna). It was a solid and fairly enjoyable performance of Mahler's Ninth and likely as good of one as you might hear on an American concert stage. And while that may not be world class, it’s not shabby either.

Mahler has not been Dudamel’s strength up to this point in his career. His tendency for dramatic overstatement can make music that is already filled with the same insufferable. But things started off well on Friday with surprisingly understated first and second movements. He let the whimsical folk elements in the second movement be themselves without overworking them while keeping his exuberant bouncing on the podium to a minimum. The brass sounded lovely and large when they needed to be. Still there didn't seem to be an overall vision or direction to the performance. This is an immense work that can feel cathartic if built in the right way. And while there were many beautiful stretches, they often seemed to me to be individual moments never adding up to a bigger whole.

But that is not to say that the final movement wasn't well done. The finale's fitfulness and slowly grinding, quiet ending came off superbly here. The strings swirled beautifully, and Dudamel elicited performances that were remarkable for their passion and involvement from the players. There was plenty of scrappiness though, and I often wished for more precision and control. All that lovely quiet exposes the smallest foibles for players and such moments stuck out unpleasantly at times. But Dudamel's Philharmonic is first and always about grand gestures and on the whole, it was a successful, if occasionally disjointed, performance. And while the symphony may not have taken me somewhere I hadn’t been before this time around, it was an enjoyable trip getting there even on a Friday morning.


What a Long Strange Trip It's Been

January 11, 2011

Michel Galante and the Argento Chamber Ensemble

Michel Galante and the very fine Argento Chamber Ensemble returned Tuesday to Los Angeles and their home away from home, Monday Evening Concerts, hosted at Zipper Concert Hall downtown. As usual Galante and MEC Artistic Director Justin Urcis had put together a fascinating program of music less than thirty years old. The joys of MEC are many but being exposed and, perhaps, surprised by the unknown is chief among them. This first program of 2011 was built around the West Coast Premiere of Fausto Romitelli’s Professor Bad Trip. Romitelli was an Italian composer who died prematurely in 2004 at age 41 but left behind a significant body of work that grew out of his studies with the likes of Grisey and Donatoni both in his native Italy and in Paris at IRCAM. He was influenced not only by spectralist techniques but also by the likes of Giacinto Scelsi, and Professor Bad Trip is marked by waves of sound that are closer to drones than not. Romitelli was also interested in the boundaries, or lack of them, between musical genres; and the 40 minute, three-movement Professor Bad Trip plunges right to the heart of this by juxtaposing familiar classical music instruments against wailing electric guitars.

The work forages in the fields of psychedelic rock for its contrasts and the music often speaks to states of altered consciousness. The professor in this “Bad Trip” may well be Henri Michaux whose words from his own drug-influenced writings adorn Romitelli’s score. The three movements, or “Lessons” as Romitelli calls them, were composed between 1998 and 2000 and were introduced separately by a voice-over. Interestingly, with all of the electronic wailing in the piece, the biggest licks of the evening went not to the electric guitars but to an electric cello. Argento’s Jay Campbell flew at the instrument for an extended solo in “Lesson 2” that rivaled anything I’ve heard on a rock concert stage. The work was filled with other oddities including kazoos and harmonicas all amplified in a way that highlighted the other-worldliness of the sound. Interestingly, none of this overwhelmed the more traditional elements of the ensemble including violin, viola, piano, clarinet, trumpet, flute and percussion. This was far from a battle of the bands but more like two distant relatives sharing one strange but fascinating trip.

Before the psychedelics were a number of smaller works, often cut from similar, but far more subtle cloth. Brian Ferneyhough’s La Chute d’Icare contrasts a methodical small ensemble against a dizzying flurry of notes from the clarinet played with remarkable dexterity here by Carol McGonnell. She returned later in the first half with perhaps the most contrasting eight minutes of solo music imaginable with Salvatore Sciarrino’s Let me die before I wake. McGonnell explained after the show that Sciarrino was inspired by the subject of euthanasia for this short solo that involved extremely quiet notes that were only partially sounded, each tone both originating and expiring with little more than breath sounds. The near silence held the unbelievably still audience completely transfixed throughout. The evening was filled out with three miniatures from Gérard Pesson including La Lumière n’a pas de bras pour nous porter. This solo work for piano was played by Joanna Chao and, like the Sciarrino, called for keys that were only partially sounded in a random pattern with most of the sound generated from the striking of fingernails against the keys, which was then amplified.

At the end of the program, conductor Galante, McGonnell and guitarist Oren Fader stayed on stage for a brief discussion in an effort to connect more with the Zipper Hall audience. They talked about their struggles to find opportunities to develop richer, longer-lasting experiences with particular individual works, given the amount of rehearsal time the ensemble spends on them. This has been a challenge for Argento, which do not have the economic and political advantages that most of their European counterparts enjoy. The group, however, talked about an exciting experiment of weekly concerts they performed last year in New York, playing the same pieces weekly over a period of a month to audiences that would often return repeatedly. And while their appearance at MEC may have been a one-off here in Los Angeles, the chance to take this particular “bad” trip was worth all the effort. Here’s looking forward to their next visit.

BTW, Argento will reprise their performance of Georg Friedrich Haas' in vain in New York on Feb 18 at the Park Avenue Armory as part of the Tune-In Music Festival and it should not be missed if you're in town.


Practice, Practice, Practice

January 08, 2011

The Prophet Jeremiah by Michelangelo

This weekend brought the first performance from the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 2011 and a return for music director Gustavo Dudamel to the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage. I saw the performance Saturday night, which was odd in many ways right from the beginning when L.A. Phil President Deborah Borda came on stage to announce that the evening’s show was a rehearsal of sorts for the big live concert broadcast scheduled to take place the next day, Jan 9. She warned there would be a brief fanfare before Vanessa Williams, who’d been tapped to host the following day’s broadcast, comes on stage to rehearse her welcome to movie theater audiences. She also pointed out the presence of arguably the most critical players in the Los Angeles Philharmonic during Dudamel’s time with the organization – the cameras. Those devices and their operators are seemingly everywhere when Dudamel is around. The lackluster L.A. Philharmonic season opening gala from October was recently released on DVD, and Dudamel has been everywhere, glad-handing it with Tavis Smiley and Jay Leno in the run up to the orchestra's movie screen debut across North America. If the strategy behind all this has been to sell tickets to live shows, it seems to be working. The Dudamel-led concerts this week and next have been more or less sold out for some time, and I’ve seen more folks in and around Walt Disney Concert Hall groveling for tickets recently than I care to admit.

After Borda’s comments, things got under way, but it was a long and drawn-out evening by any record. The rehearsal of backstage elements for the broadcast apparently dragged out some of the pauses for the in-house audience a little. In fact, the break between the first two pieces on the program ran a few minutes longer than usual, prompting one disgruntled gentleman to shout into the waiting silence, “This is a total disrespect to your audience.” Grumbling ensued and after a moment, a half-hearted attempt at why-are-we-waiting clapping arose, dividing the audience, which had an equal number of shushers. And while I found this impatience unattractive, I can also understand feeling put-off by having the full-price ticket you bought turn out to be for a final dress rehearsal for something else as opposed to an actual seasoned performance.

Of course, in between all of the lights, camera, and action was a concert to be heard. There was some lovely playing throughout, but overall, it was fairly underwhelming. It was easily the most ambitious of the programs the L.A. Philharmonic will include in its live broadcast trio of shows this year, but that isn’t saying much when you consider it included John Adams’ Slonimsky's Earbox, Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. The first half was populated by the two 20th-century American composers that it is now clear Dudamel favors by the frequency with which they’ve crept up in his programming. He’s toured Adam’s recent City Noir around the country, and Slonimsky’s Earbox was an interesting work to start the evening with. Dudamel doesn’t have much of a touch for Adams’ work, but the piece bubbled along nicely despite its sloppiness. The Bernstein/Dudamel connection is much harder for me to fathom. Dudamel's first shot into the limelight was on the back of Bernstein's dances from West Side Story, and the composer's Symphony No. 2 was toured as well last year. But, as a friend of mine commented this week, Bernstein’s music is notable in that it isn’t Copland’s, yet has the distinct disadvantage of not being Ives’. Bernstein’s first symphony, subtitled “Jeremiah”, evokes the world and events of the Old Testament prophet and has some pretty vocal lines for a mezzo in the third movement, sung here nicely by Kelley O’Connor. I can’t say it really connected to me, though, and I wasn't sure what to make of it here.

The evening concluded with the Beethoven, which was what one has come to expect from Dudamel at this point. It did sound well rehearsed on Saturday, but was plagued with histrionic tempi. The first two movements were painfully slow to the point of annoyance. Things eventually picked up speed, but never got much more transparent or precise. In the end Dudamel wrapped up the show with his preferred big flourish. The audience gave their most enthusiastic response of the evening at this point, apparently forgiving any perceived slight from earlier on. They earned an encore, an excerpt from Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 1, played full-throttle and off balance. And then the whole long, exhausting thing was over as we could hear Vanessa Williams over the PA system chattering away backstage about all the excitement that everyone had over the show. Clearly she and the L.A. Philharmonic were going to be prepared for the live cameras rolling tomorrow.


That Late 60s and Early 70s Show

January 07, 2011

Paris Remillard and Steel Burkhardt with the cast of Hair Photo: Joan Marcus 2010

Once a young radical, the musical Hair is now well into its middle age. But like many who came of age in the 1960s, there’s still a spirit of love and rebellion that lives on despite any ravages of time. Or at least it felt that way on Thursday when L.A.’s Pantages Theater welcomed the national touring production of Hair for a just-over-two-week run. The show, which originally surfaced on Broadway in 1968 at The Public Theater, returned to New York as recently as 2009 in a very successful Tony-Award winning production. That show is faithfully recreated now in L.A. and delivers many of the original’s joys and pleasures in a professional and very good looking production. Hair has never been a work about sophisticated story arcs or clever language. It has only the most meager of outlines of a plot about a young man who struggles with the decision of whether he will dodge the draft or leave his Bohemian group of hippie friends in New York for the U.S. Army and eventually the Vietnam War. Instead, the show has always been about capturing some of the feeling and sentiment of the countercultural moment in the late 1960s and early 1970s. With its frank portrayals of drug use, sexuality, and frequent political content, the show broke new ground in its day and presented a version of life that many in this country were just coming to grips with at the time.

This revival of Hair catches many of those sentiments, both personal and political, beautifully. And while there is undoubtedly some dated material (one pregnant character excitedly lights and smokes a joint in Act II) this revival is largely a success. What the show lacks in storyline, it makes up for sheer energy and spirit in recapturing a moment in time. The ensemble cast members, who are referred to as the Tribe, spend as much times cavorting amongst the aisles and audience member as they do anywhere else. This is an especially great feat considering the relatively large size of the Pantages, but the excellent cast is on the move and the audience interaction, an integral part of the show, comes off with seeming ease. Even the huge dance party or "Be-In" that concludes the show with audeince members running up on stage to join the cast in an exuberant celebration seemed exciting and rather refreshing in this environment. The opening night's conclusion seemed especially poignant in this respect given that the audience was filled with numerous celebrities who, this being L.A., had made appearances in any of a number of previous incarnations of the show either on a professional stage or in the 1979 film version.

The show has a simple but brightly lit and very colorful set that surprisingly does not grow tiresome over the nearly three hour running time. The music of course has memorable songs that most audience members will recall the words to with ease. It's an equal opportunity show with all of the ensemble cast getting their moment to shine. I was particularly taken with Kaitlin Kiyan's rendition of "Frank Mills," perhaps one of the most lyrically beautiful and understated moments in score. Caren Lyn Tackett's performance of "Easy to Be Hard" was also memorable. Still the show is at its most powerful in its biggest ensemble numbers, and the opening "Aquarius" and the closing "Let the Sunshine In" provided superb bookends to the evening. "Let the Sunshine In" is one of those songs that is familiar to many, but its context in the show, and its nagging darker undertone, shouldn't be forgotten. This revival of Hair, now in L.A. through the 23rd of January, restores the song to its rightful condition - a beautiful and joyous, but simultaneously sad and tragic anthem of one of the most turbulent times in American history.


The Utmost Importance

January 04, 2011

Brian Bedford and Charlotte Parry Photo: Joan Marcus 2010

In a last minute substitution, I ended up at a preview performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which is scheduled to open on Broadway later this month in a production from the Roundabout Theater Company. And while it is still a work in progress, it’s worth mentioning some of the production's strengths that may foretell its success later this season. The name this show has been built around is a well-respected one—Brian Bedford. Lauded for his work in Molière and Shakespeare, Bedford is directing this revival and also starring in it. The twist is that he's in drag as Wilde’s perhaps most notorious character, Lady Bracknell. The show is actually an import from the Stratford Shakeseare Festival in Ontario where Bedford received glowing notices for his work. You may think Earnest and Lady Bracknell have been done to death. And they have. Any new revival has a lot to overcome in terms of arguing for its relevance and necessity.

But fortunately, this revival seems off to a good start at least with Bedford at its core. His performance was surprisingly earthy. It’s easy for Bracknell to become a caricature, harboring all of Wilde’s criticism of the Victorian age. And while Bedford never misses with any of her zingers, he gives her a much more earth-bound feel, as if she were an actual person whose concerns, while comical, are not at all outside of the reality of the world she inhabits. Bedford never plays the drag angle for cynical laughs, and avoids campiness. He plays Bracknell as straight as can be and it was lovely to watch.

Many of the women in the cast including Sara Topham as Gwendolen Fairfax and Charlotte Parry as Cecily Cardew, John Worthing’s ward, had high energy and were eminently watchable. Dana Ivey and Paxton Whitehead make wonderful appearances as Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble respectively. Of course, this is still a preview and there is work to be done as well. The pacing, especially of the first act had yet to gel and seemed unusually slow. This quickly righted itself by the second act, but the show still hadn’t mustered the snap to grab one's attention from the opening curtain. But soon it may and the amount of clarity already on display is heartening. Mounting Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest runs the risk of seeming unnecessary given how familiar it is to many an audience. But based on what Brian Bedford has put together thus far, this appears to be one of those worthwhile ventures.


Cage Match

January 03, 2011

Lily Rabe, Byron Jennings and Al Pacino Photo: Joan Marcus/Public Theater 2010

While I’m on the topic of great things I saw in New York, I should mention The Public Theater’s production of The Merchant of Venice now on Broadway at The Broadhurst Theater. Outside of the throngs trying to catch sight of the latest injury at those Spider-Man previews, Shakespeare was easily one of the hottest tickets in New York this Holiday due to great reviews and a marquee name in Al Pacino who applies his formidable skills to Shylock. The accolades for everyone involved are well deserved. Had I not seen this on Jan 1, 2011, it would have easily been on the OWA 2010 best of theater list for what is truly a fresh and thoughtful approach to the most thorny of plays. (Be warned: the following discusses some of the details of this production's climax, so if you don't want to know, you may want to stop here.)

Most of the credit must be given to director Daniel Sullivan who has put the play in a new context not by rethinking Shylock in any way, but by rethinking Portia. This is a Merchant that plays its antisemitism as it lays. But the kicker is how Portia, becomes an equal center of focus here. The comedy inherent in the script is still there, but is toned down and Bassanio, Portia’s love, is forced to carry more of the yucks than she is for once. All of this initially seems subtle until the concluding scene where the genius of the staging reveals itself. Instead of a light-hearted wrap-up with Portia and her lady Narissa giving their beaus comeuppance for giving away their engagement rings, Sullivan recasts Portia as disillusioned by Bassanio. Now Portia has come to know her betrothed’s nature and the vile antisemitism and dealings of his closest friends is evident to her. She has found her love, but as is universally the case, upon closer examination there are some downsides to her prince charming. The father’s fortune Portia helped deed to Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, causes tears and remorse in its recipient as Portia looks on from above in the play's closing image.

In addition to the fresh approach, the play benefits from a very simple but good looking production. The stage contains a number of metal work gates that are situated in concentric circles and rotated to different positions to differentiate various scenes. There is a small two-story tower with balcony and spiral staircase as well and a large abacus filled panel above that suggests an exchange market. The set never gets in the way of a number of great performances in the cast. Lily Rabe deserves every prize she can get her hands on for this performance, which is far more complex that the typical sharp and witty young woman who usually populates this story. Then there is Al Pacino. He’s the name above the title in this revival and while that is not surprising, my past experience has suggested it is no guarantee of anything. I remember a particular run of Wilde’s Salome directed by Estelle Parsons in 2006 where he played King Herod that is still one of the most excruciating things I’ve ever seen. But his Shylock is superb – angry, defiant, and never overdone in any way, it’s one of those Hollywood star-turns on Broadway that actually delivers returns. (Not that Pacino doesn’t have an extensive theater history, I’m just pointing out his broad-based fame which has grown out of his film career is used to help sell tickets which is certainly a reasonable thing to do.) The evening was a great one for me as well, because it was one of those where my feelings about a work changed. The Merchant of Venice is considered a great play by many but before now I’ve never understood why. And thanks to Daniel Sullivan and The Public Theater, now I get it. The show has recently been extended through February 20 and is highly recommended.


Down by the Water

January 02, 2011

Stéphane Degout and Magdalena Kozená Photo: Ken Howard/MET 2010

As New Year’s Eve demonstrated how The Metropolitan Opera is trying to catch up with the rest of the opera world in terms of ambition of its productions with its bracing import of a new La Traviata, my trip over to the house the following day provided examples of another change being made there for the better. Not only are there new creative faces behind the scenes, there are some in the pit as well, as the company makes efforts to draw in many of the world’s most renowned conductors (many for their first appearances here) to lead its world-class orchestra. Regardless of the quality of the productions they land with, virtually all of these debuts were universally heralded from Esa-Pekka Salonen to Riccardo Muti and Daniel Barenboim. This December, it’s been Sir Simon Rattle’s turn, and he too is providing one revelation after the next from the pit with Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, which I was very fortunate to see in the closing performance of its run.

This has long been a work Rattle has championed on different stages with various casts. In fact, my only other live exposure to the complete opera to date was a concert performance under Rattle with his usual house band, the Berlin Philharmonic and vocalists Simon Keenlyside, Angelika Kirchschlager, and Laurent Naori. Sunday’s performance in New York was even better than that one. Debussy’s colorful impressionism which can be done in by its own subtlety is more dramatic than any verismo score you can name in Rattle’s hands. He was matched with an excellent cast that went from strength to strength. Magdalena Kozená sang Melisande with clarity opposite a solid and capable Stéphane Degout. The increasingly impressive Gerald Finley sang Golaud and received a huge ovation from the audience. It is increasingly clear here and elsewhere that Finley’s time for operatic super-stardom has arrived. Willard White, long a favorite of Rattle's, made a superb Arkel.

But unfortunately, the musical quality of the performance wasn’t quite matched by the rather blah Jonathan Miller production being revived for the run. After Willy Decker’s brisk, modern La Traviata staging just hours before, Miller’s mid-90s-Met-Opera-bait of darkly lit Gothic walls and statuary came off as profoundly uninspired. Granted this is not an opera that gets a lot of play here in the U.S., and how often a new look is warranted for Pelléas is a legitimate question. But this unnecessarily naturalistic approach did manage to severely undercut the abstract and symbolist nature of the opera itself. Debussy’s sole opera is a fragile thing built around a female character with a past that is never revealed and with constantly obtuse motivations. The more human she seems, the odder her behavior comes off. Pelléas et Mélisande needs mystery and even if it didn’t get all of what it required on stage, this performance certainly delivered in all the musical aspects of the work. Here’s hoping I’ll hear other things this good in 2011.


Beat the Clock

January 01, 2011

Marina Poplavskaya and Matthew Polenzani Photo: Ken Howard/MET 2010

The last time I saw Verdi’s La Traviata at The Metropolitan Opera in New York was just last March for the Angela Gheorghiu/Leonard Slatkin tempest in a teapot. And although it was not my original plan, on New Year’s Eve, I returned to the house for the opening performance of their “new” La Traviata production directed by Willy Decker in a recreation of his well-received and wildly-popular 2005 Salzburg Festival staging. The two productions could not be farther apart in nearly every aspect. The former 1998 Franco Zeffirelli production is all Disneyesque Euro-fantasy with its ruffles and soft edges. This new arrival is razor sharp, gorgeously modern and broadly interpretative. (Some may argue Decker has simply exchanged one set of clichés for another, but at least his are of more recent vintage.) However, while the last Zeffirelli production may represent where The Metropolitan Opera has been over the last few decades, it’s not clear whether this new production actually represents where the house is going. It might be more accurate to say that the new production represents where the house, under General Manager Peter Gelb, wishes it had been. Decker's La Traviata is the kind of success Gelb's Met would like, even if in this particular case it is already after the fact.

The "new" production has been widely seen already in the wonderful DVD recording of the original Salzburg run. Decker has stripped away virtually everything to focus almost maniacally on the impending death of Violetta adrift in a world of men. All of the action takes place in a giant empty white rotunda with a single entrance to the side. There is a bench around the back wall and a giant clock spinning towards Violetta’s death. Dr. Grenvil is present onstage throughout the whole performance watching and reminding Violetta of her fate that she is in the process of alternately embracing and running from. The entire chorus is dressed as men and Violetta pops out from the black-suited crowd in a simple bright red dress and heels with her hair tied up with a white flower. Act I also features a large red couch that Violetta climbs and sits upon even as it is hoisted above the heads of the chorus. It’s all very visually striking, and I found myself struggling to glance down at the supertitles given how drawn I was to the action on stage. Liberties are taken with the storyline, but these are relatively minor. And some of these, like the taunting of Alfredo by the masked chorus in a mock bull-fight in Act II, I felt added a lot to the overall piece.

And yet despite this, there was something missing. The whole evening had a rather ersatz feel to it like the show was a facsimile. A very good one, but a facsimile nonetheless. This is in part due to the fact that the documented original run of the production in Salzburg was a bit of an operatic perfect storm. It featured the talents of Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon at the point where their own fame and talent were at a white hot moment of arrival, and the show, which is physically demanding, highlighted both their vocal prowess and their visual appeal. And while originally this evening many years later was meant to recapture that magic, those two individual singers have moved on in various directions, leaving the chores to a new set of principals. It should be said that all three of them this evening, Marina Poplavskaya, Matthew Polenzani, and Andrzej Dobber all acquitted themselves admirably. But excellent as they may be, none of them are in the particular position that the prior cast was at that particular time.

I was most taken with Poplavskaya. Vocally she sounded strong throughout as she had the last time I heard her sing the role in Los Angeles. The biggest surprise to me was her acting. I’ve always found her a bit cold and stiff on stage. But this is a show that totally depends on her movement and interaction with others, and she rose to the occasion being flirty, athletic, alluring and singing her heart out at all times. This Violetta is a new benchmark for her. Polenzani’s Alfredo also called for athletics both vocal and otherwise, and he, too, put out much more than what you might expect. By the time he rolled into Act II, he was warm and agile with a lovely tone. I continue to feel that Dobber is one of the most underrated baritones around, and he clearly won over many new fans on this evening as Giorgio Germont. This may not have been the cast the production was intended for, but this was undoubtedly world-class singing. Gianandrea Noseda conducted the orchestra in a lovely, detailed performance. It didn’t always sound completely stable to me, though, as if more time was needed with the chorus to get the overall coordination in some of the scenes. Noseda's role is critical in that this is a production heavily focused on the rapid passage of time. The Salzburg performances were conducted by Carlo Rizzi at an a breakneck pace to reinforce this point, and even here in New York, the show only contains one intermission. Noseda was not to be rushed, however, and the tempi could drag a bit even if they were never slow by any normal standard.

At the close of the evening the audience was certainly peppered with some boos as Willy Decker came onto the stage, but it was largely a positive reception from where I sat. Whether or not this meant that most of the audience had been won over or that the audience's familiarity with the design had weeded out dissenters in advance of the opening is anybody’s guess. But the Met’s new La Traviata does represent the type of operatic success Gelb and his company are looking for. This attempt to recreate opera magic may not have actually achieved that goal, but it’s undoubtedly a show worth seeing from a company that is still headed in the right direction, even if it hasn’t quite arrived there yet.


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