Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

In The Wings - April '11

March 31, 2011

From Lemi Ponifasio's The Tempest: Without a Body Photo: Lemi Ponifasio

Spring has arrived and April is promising some excellent performances around Los Angeles. Perhaps the best place to begin is with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who will welcome Thomas Adès back to town with several shows under the moniker “Aspects of Adès” featuring his work as both a composer and conductor. Starting on April 1, the orchestra will perform Adès’ In Seven Days with its accompanying video installation from Adès collaborator and partner Tal Rosner that was last seen here in May of 2008. This time around, it will be paired with Stravinsky’s Les noces and Concerto for Two Pianos played by Katia and Marielle Labèque. Then on May 5 in conjunction with the L.A. Phil’s New Music Group, the composer will play a piano paraphrase of his opera Powder Her Face and his Concerto Conciso alongside works from Ligeti and Nancarrow. The following weekend will bring two different programs. On May 7 and 8 Adès will lead the world premiere of the latest operatic work from Gerald Barry, a treatment of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Barry had a huge success in L.A. previously when Adès brought his The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit here in 2006, and this return visit should be a high priority. Adès’s visit with the L.A. Phil will conclude on April 9 with a single performance of his newest orchestra piece, Polaris again with video from Rosner paired with Messiaen’s Éclairs sur l’au-delà.

Thomas Adès Photo: Brian Voce

And while you won't want to miss these highlights of the 10/11 season for the L.A. Philharmonic, there are some other programs later in the month as wel,l including Yefim Bronfman playing the Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 under Juraj Valcuha the weekend of the 22nd, Nicolaj Znaider playing the Elgar Violin Concerto under Vassily Sinaisky the weekend of the 15th, and a Beethoven and Prokofiev program the weekend of the 29th with conductor Jaap van Zweden. Of course, in L.A. if you spend all your music time with the L.A. Phil, you’ll be missing out on some other great music. The Jacaranda Music series in Santa Monica will present an all-Liszt program on the 23rd including the rarely preformed Via Crucis as well as Four Goethe Songs with vocalist Buffy Baggott. The Los Angeles Master Chorale will continue its series of programs dedicated to Haydn with The Creation downtown on the 10th. Meanwhile, the Monday Evening Concerts series will conclude its season on the 25th with the music of Hans Abrahamsen and Rick Bahto.

F. Murray Abraham in The Merchant of Venice Photo: Gerry Goodstein

The theater and dance choices around town are particularly strong this month as well, starting right off this weekend with two nights only from New Zealand choreographer and director Lemi Ponifasio with The Tempest: Without a Body, which will be performed at L.A.’s historic downtown Million Dollar Theater on Broadway. (The image at the top of this post is taken from that production.) South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa will present Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky about astronomy and women at the turn of the last century on April 1, while Jane Anderson will look at the life of a very different woman in the world premiere of The Escort at the Geffen Playhouse. Down in San Diego, Ayub Khan-Din’s well-received Rafta, Rafta… will get its long awaited West Coast Premiere at the Old Globe Theater opening on the 3rd. And, of course, L.A.’s biggest theater production company, Center Theater Group, will have three promising shows across its three major stages with Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan starting on the 5th at The Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City; the revival of the late Lanford Wilson’s Burn This at the Mark Taper Forum from the 5th; and the much anticipated arrival of Yasmina Reza’s comedy God of Carnage at the Ahmanson Theater on the 13th with its original Broadway cast, including James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, and Jeff Daniels. Oh, and not to be missed are two big events at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica. F. Murray Abraham will appear as Shylock in Theater for a New Audience's well-received touring production of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice starting on the 14th while for four nights starting on the 7th, Peter Brooks will appear in The Grand Inquisitor and Fragments: From Beckett to Dostoyevsky.

Mark Rylance from the London production of Jerusalem Photo: Simon Annand

With the Los Angeles Opera season concluded, the opera obsessed will have to head out of town for relief. San Diego Opera will offer two productions this month including Struass’ Der Rosenkavalier starting April 3rd with Twyla Robinson, Anke Vondung, and the great Patrizia Ciofi. Ciofi is unbelievably still largely unknown to American audiences and this is a great chance to see her close to home as Sophie. After this will be Gounod’s Faust with young superstar tenor Stephen Costello and Ailyn Pérez in the principal roles. On the opposite coast, I’ll be in New York for New York City Opera’s current run of “Monodramas” from Peter Zorn, Morton Feldman and Schoenberg followed by three nights at The Metropolitan Opera including Strauss’ Capriccio with Renée Fleming, Berg’s Wozzeck with Waltraud Meier and Alan Held, and the new production of Rossini’s Le Comte Ory with Joyce DiDonato, Diana Damrau, and Juan Diego Florez' which can also be seen live in HD in theaters around the world on the 9th. And since you asked, while I’m there, I’ll also be catching Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem on Broadway with Mark Rylance and the Tony Kushner’s mouthful of a new work at The Public Theater, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. Now take your pick.


The Cunning Little Vixen

March 30, 2011

Ernest Fleischmann in 1988 Photo: Lebrecht Collection

At 86, the composer, conductor, and lion of late 20th-century music, Pierre Boulez, rarely makes appearances on the West Coast. So when he appeared to conduct his own sur Incises on Tuesday night at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, you know it was a very special occasion. Indeed, the evening was a tribute to the late Ernest Fleischmann, a champion of new music, and an administrator who reshaped classical music in Los Angeles and around the country. Fleischmann’s achievements are too numerous to mention but include at a minimum being the driving force behind remaking the Hollywood Bowl, building the Walt Disney Concert Hall, establishing the career of Esa-Pekka Salonen, and turning the Los Angeles Philharmonic from a regional orchestra into a world-class one over his three decade association with them. Not that everything he touched turned to gold. Despite landmark achievements, there were some bad decisions and no one achieves this much in a lifetime without some interpersonal collateral damage along the way. But on Tuesday, the focus was on the bright spots in his legacy as Boulez and Salonen were both present for the tribute concert and both spoke with deep love and admiration for their friend and mentor.

It couldn’t have been a finer musical tribute. It was an aggressively modern program that featured the kind of bold music and playing Fleischmann helped make the orchestra’s calling card. Boulez’ masterful performance of sur Incises was a wonder of precision and clarity. Three pianos, three harps, and three percussionists create a waxing and waning flurry of activity. Crystalline ringing rose and then washed into dark eddies for music that was both expansive and overwhelming at times. The second half of the show featured three works including Salonen’s setting of Dona Nobis Pacem for children’s choir. This a cappella work performed by the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus under Anne Tomlinson was perhaps the most musically reverent of the whole evening. Next was Donatoni’s Arpège, which featured members of the L.A. Philharmonic’s New Music Group under Lionel Bringuier in another work marked by its rhythmic intricacy and virtuosic demands. The program concluded with Salonen himself on the podium leading the group and four male vocalists from the L.A. Master Chorale in Stravinsky’s Renard. The comical piece, which recounts the adventures of a fox who lures birds unsuspectingly into her clutches who is then given her own comeuppance by some humans, was tautly played with the Salonen hallmark attention to detail. The Russian text was sung by four of the L.A. Master Chorale's finest including its director tenor, Grant Gershon. The maestro shared that Renard was a piece Fleischmann loved, and his accompanying humorous anecdote about Fleischmann’s reputation as a driver spoke of his love for a lost friend. Renard's warmth and humor was the perfect close to the tribute evening.

It was a somewhat bittersweet evening for me, though. As much as I loved the performances and admired their high quality, it was another reminder that today's L.A. Phil, under music director Gustavo Dudamel, is not the same one it was even just five years ago. The music and faces on Tuesday's program spoke far more of the orchestra's history than its current state. All of this passion for contemporary music and the relationships that helped foster the ascendency of the L.A. Philharmonic, are increasingly a thing of the past amidst the TV cameras and exposed navels of Hollywood celebrities that pass for programming these days. Now, certainly Fleischmann himself was not against publicity when the opportunity arose. But an increasingly artistically-bifurcated L.A. Phil seems to me to be looking for a way to stay relevant in a classical music world that will one day be without the likes of Boulez and Ernest Fleischmann.


10 Questions for...
Mark Delavan

March 29, 2011

Mark Delavan Photo: Christian Steiner

One of the highlights of this summer’s opera season stateside is the presentation of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the San Francisco Opera beginning in June. The company's bet on well-respected vocalists making their debuts in complete Ring cycle roles appears to be paying off with the spectacular Brünnhilde of Nina Stemme and the Wotan of American baritone Mark Delavan. It’s one of the most challenging of all baritone roles, and Delavan has already served up plenty of stamina and impressive singing in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre by the bay in the last few seasons. Of course, he’s no stranger to the biggest baritone roles including Rigoletto, Iago, and Falstaff. He's a familiar face and voice to most American opera fans. His international career has led him to collaborations with the biggest names in opera, and his upcoming Wagnerian marathon under Donald Runnicles will be something to see. He was kind enough to take a break from his preparations to play the King of the Gods to answer 10 Questions for Out West Arts.

1. What role would you most like to perform, but haven’t yet?
That’s a hard one. There is no one answer. I have three lists, in the following three categories: operatic, non-operatic, and non-musical.

Operatic: A few come to mind. Hans Sachs in Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Massenet's Don Quichotte, Goloud in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, and maybe later, Boris Godunov.

Non-operatic: Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha, and Tony in The Most Happy Fella

Non-music: Grandfather... but not too soon!

2. What role would you never perform, even if you could?
Although, I love the opera, the title role in Billy Budd.... he's just too nice.

3. You’ll soon be returning to San Francisco this summer for three complete Ring cycles as Wotan. This is one God who makes some bad decisions that continue to haunt him (and everybody else) throughout three of four operas. What’s your favorite Wotan moment in the cycle?
There is a moment in the third act monologue of Die Walküre where Wotan changes his mind right in front of the audiences eyes. He realizes he is no longer angry at Brünnhilde, but for the sake of the world, he must carry out his curse and put her to sleep. He finishes the first part of the Farewell, with the line "Denn einer nur freie die Braut der freier als ich der Gott", (The one alone will free the bride; one more free than I, a God"). The moment takes place in the interlude music. Brünnhilde recognizes that Wotan has lost the strength to do what he absolutely must, embraces him and looks in his eyes, and Wotan begins the most beautiful section, "Der Augen leuchtendes Paar,..."(Your gleaming pair of eyes..) and reminisces about battles, and meals, and how when he couldn't take another day as King of the Gods, she was there. At the end of this, Wotan says that he must kiss her Godhead from her, and kisses her on the forehead. Whatever happens next is wonderful whatever the director chooses.

In [Francesca Zambello's] production, Brünnhilde feels the "Gottheit" leave her, gets up under her own steam, walks to the rock, looks Wotan in the eye as if to say, "You've done all you can do, Daddy, I'll take it from here," and lays herself down. That slays me! It's lucky that I have some time to recoup before the next section because I always have to choke back a tear.

Mark Delavan as Wotan Photo: Terrence McCarthy

4. What’s the best thing about singing Wagner?
The music and the drama.

5. What’s the best thing about singing something other than Wagner?
One is home in time for David Letterman. (joke!) Seriously, it is the beauty of variety. I love apple pie, but I wouldn't eat it every day. Because of my voice type, in addition to Wagner, I am able to sing Verdi, Puccini, and Strauss. What is better than that?

6. Which music made you want to sing opera?
It had to be Puccini and Mozart. Specifically, La Bohème and The Marriage of Figaro. The opera bug bit me from those two operas.

7. While you’re known for some great villains like Iago, you’re no stranger to comic roles like Falstaff either. As a baritone, is it more fun being bad or being funny on the opera stage and why?
One of the things I like about my career is the wide span of characters. I love being the bad guy, and, lets face it, who wouldn't love to play a god? But as I get older, I see the humor in almost everything! I do love being funny.

Mark Delavan is Iago in Otello at LA Opera Photo: Robert Millard/LAO

8. Your iPod is destroyed by a vengeful mezzo. Which lost tracks would you miss most?
In the first place, I have no vengeful mezzos in my acquaintance...any more! In the second place, people don't mess with my iPod! Very dangerous. Thirdly, I have to categorize the answer to this question again as operatic, non-operatic, and non-musical.

Operatic: I have coachings I put on my iPod that are literally worth thousands of dollars. Case in point, I have coachings on each of the Wotan roles in the Ring with none other than Donald Runnicles.

Non-operatic: Alison Krauss and Union Station's Live double CD from 2002.

Non-musical: My NYC pastor, Tim Keller, and his wife Kathy's 2 CD-set called “Cultivating a Happy Marriage.”

9. What's your current obsession?
My beautiful wife, the Ring cycle and The Gaither Vocal Band.

10. With which of your operatic roles do you have the most in common?
It depends on the day! By the very nature of the ebb and flow of life, I have good days, bad days, funny days, and sad days. Sometimes I have more in common with Falstaff, and others, Iago. While I'd love to THINK of myself as the King of the Gods, what I really have in common with Wotan are his struggles with doing the right thing and failing. Some days, it’s the Dutchman and his tortures. Other days, it's laughing at the world like Gianni Schicchi!


E pluribus unum

March 28, 2011

Jochen Kowalsi in the title role of Akhnaten Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff/LBO.

A friend of mine who’d seen a new production of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten on its opening night last weekend gave me an assessment prior to my seeing the second performance in the run on Sunday. “It was well done, but it’s not opera.” Or at least not what she considered opera. And to be fair, à chacun son gout. But then again Monteverdi and Handel probably would have said the same thing about Madama Butterfly or Tristan und Isolde. (In the former case they would have been right.) But like it or not, Glass’ Akhnaten is indeed very much an opera and nearly a quarter of a century after its debut, it arrived on the West Coast for the first time in a complete form. Need you ask? Who else in Southern California but Andreas Mitisek and Long Beach Opera would even attempt this. (Well, the Los Angeles Philharmonic once would have, and did in a partial concert performance in 2006, but that was a different time…) Akhnaten, like Glass’ Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, reflects on the life of a person who radically changed the way the world around his thought. True story - shortly after ascending to the throne, the son of Amenhotep III changes his name to Akhnaten and for the first time asserts a monotheistic religion for the people of Egypt compelling them to abandon their many idols. Glass' libretto, a potpourri of different texts in different languages, chronicles the outlines of these monumental changes more than it follows a narrative sequence of events. The scenes that make up the three acts are more ceremonial or processional, although they are often wrapped in some gorgeous, hypnotizing music.

LBO as usual did a remarkable job on an unbelievably small budget with Mitisek playing most major roles from conducting to directing except the actual singing. More on that later, but the other person providing a major influence on the success of Sunday’s performance was interactive video designer Frieder Weiss. The sets were minimal with chorus, dancers, and cast dressed in white and lightly colored casual clothes that when accompanied with some Hieroglyphic-inspired poses were more suggestive of Egypt by way of Robert Wilson than say Aida. (Yes, that’s a good thing.) There was a single riser with a lengthy slanted platform attached to it that served as the only prop outside of some cardboard boxes. But Weiss provided an amazing amount of varied and near constant interactive video that was projected on scrims either in front of or behind the stage action. Thousands of little lights dashed about in response to the vocalists’ movements in some 21st-century version of Brownian motion. The effects were often quite grand and beautiful despite their simplicity and general lack of color, providing context in scenes where the libretto was somewhat more obtuse. It seemed almost shocking to me how much LBO could do with a small budget and the simplest interactive video considering the hugely ineffective and far more expensive vision of “interactive video” Robert Lepage has offered up in his vision of Das Rheingold for The Metropolitan Opera earlier this season. (Note to the Met and Lepage, this is how you do it.)

Musically, the evening show was also quite satisfying. Glass’ music is far more difficult to play than it sounds, at least in terms of stamina, and the orchestra hung in there through the first two acts, which were presented together before the intermission. Most of Akhnaten is built around the chorus who sounded quite good as well. Most notable of the soloists was a last minute replacement. Jochen Kowalski who sang the title role in the first performance on March 19 was announced as ill. However, given the short notice between performances, he still acted in the production on the 27th with Akhnaten’s countertenor part sung by Darryl Taylor. Taylor, like all of the soloists, was mildly amplified and he often was forced to perform while sequestered away on darker corners of the stage with the score. He was superb however and managed to stay on pace with both conductor and Peabody Southwell who was cast as Nefertiti in all of the duets. You couldn’t really ask for more, except more rehearsal time to get him in costume on stage. Let’s hope we see much more of him in that position at LBO and other stages soon. But in the meantime, Long Beach and L.A. were lucky enough to have him and everyone else in this very engaging and beautiful work - call it what you will.


Twist and Shout

March 27, 2011

Conductor Kurt Masur

This weekend’s Los Angeles Philharmonic program saw the combination of one of its more frequent guests, violinist Sarah Chang, and a face that hasn’t been around these parts in quite awhile, conductor Kurt Masur. Now at 83, Masur has been spending the spring headlining with a number of American orchestras, and his visit here had been rumbled about given the long repeated rumors of conflicts with current Los Angeles Philharmonic president Deborah Borda when the pair were in leadership positions with the New York Philharmonic in the 1990s. There were certainly no interpersonal fireworks I could appreciate on Saturday when I saw Masur lead the orchestra in a program that included Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture, Brahms’ Violin Concerto and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8. Things started stoically with the Mendelssohn. It was a professional performance with Masur making relatively few gestures while conducting and those he did seemed burdened, requiring excessive effort.

And speaking of burdened and excessive effort, enter Sarah Chang for the Brahms. She assaulted the concerto with a fervor that was not without its virtuosity but wanted for a more lyrical sense and flow. Of course, with Chang you always get the bonus of a floor show. When things get intense, she starts stomping and kicking around the stage like an extra in a Li'l Abner revival. Of course, if you weren’t going to get stomped on, there was always the chance you might get nailed by Chang’s bow which she wielded like an épée at times after completing her solo passages. And while it may be unfair to focus here on the physical mannerisms of her stage presence, in the end they do add to the sensation of her playing being somewhat labored as if she is physically struggling like some grand slam tennis player. The energy seems to go everywhere, and not necessarily always focused on the music. The Brahms sounded like a chore.

The evening concluded with Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8, which provided a pleasant turn of events. After what seemed like another stiff opening, suddenly a switch flipped in the second movement and all the built up tension suddenly escaped. The players smiled and looked at one another, moving with the music in a more relaxed way. The romantic and evocative whorls of the third and fourth movement were warm and filled with a sense of camaraderie and the orchestra sounded assured and sizable throughout the remainder of the night. And while Masur may not have been bouncing around the stage while all this was going on, he did manage to lead the orchestra in a very heartfelt and wise performance of the Dvořák symphony. It took a little bit, but everybody finally got where they were going.



March 26, 2011

Emanuele Arciuli

On Thursday night, REDCAT, CalArts' downtown home to the adventurous, welcomed Italian pianist Emanuele Arciuli, for a one night only solo piano recital. Arciuli is a champion of new music having worked with a variety of living composers on works commissioned for him. What’s more, he’s developed a reputation as a proponent of contemporary American piano works and has even written a book on the subject. That book is in Italian of course, his native language, but as Americans should know by now, we tend to learn more about ourselves from outside observers than anyone else. And if you want to put an even finer point on it, his interest in Native American culture has led to several commissions from Native American composers, a number of which he premiered at The Smithsonian Museum in 2008. One of these was included in Thursday's program in addition t the world premiere of segments of another new commission. Needless to say, this what not your everyday piano recital program.

But let’s start at the end. The show was anchored by Ives’ “Concord” Piano Sonata No.2. With its four movements dedicated to various figures associated with Transcendentalism including Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau. It’s a mammoth work with so much history and American culture stuffed into it that it’s easy to see how it paved the way for all sorts of 20th Century music. Ives takes a whirlwind tour of the end of the 19th Century in his scope quoting Beethoven and Wagner and the sonata can sound like almost anything at different points from Messiaen to ragtime and everything in between. Arciuli took a very direct and visceral approach to the piece giving some fleet and knuckle-busting attacks on the first and second movement. He could make the most of more reflective moments as well, but this was a performance focused on the nitty-gritty of holding together a sometimes large and unwieldy flurry of music into a cohesive, moving whole. His virtuosity was impressive throughout.

What preceded this was a concise summary of some of the music world spinning out form Ives' work. First on the program was James Tenney’s Essay which directly references the written essays Ives wrote to accompany the original publication of the “Concord” sonata. Tenney takes off from Ives by borrowing and then rearranging certain notes from the sonata which are then plucked by the player from the inside of the piano in this case. The exploration of the internal, and non-key production of sound continued with Raven Chacon’s Nichi’Shada’ji Nalaghali. Cahcon is interested in exploring the sounds of the piano in nature or the sound the piano makes in and of itself without actually being played. An electric amplifier is connected inside the closed piano as keys are silently depressed while Arciuli alters the tones and distortions coming from the amplifier. It was a jarring change from much of the other pieces of the program suggesting a very different way to think about music as a passive phenomenon of nature than one actively produced by a musician.

The other Native American composer on the program (the first being Chacon), Barbara Croall, followed with two movements from a new work in progress Gichi-Gamiing. Like Chacon, Croall is interested in the relationship between music and the natural world and these two movements, which were receiving their world premiere in this performance, take inspiration from Lake Superior. The impressionistic work is built on themes from tribal sources, but also invokes the land it comes from. It neatly paralleled the third “Alcotts” movement of Ives’ “Concord” sonata. The first half of the evening closed with Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues which is a tricky and skewed version of familiar American blues riffs on the piano with a touch of discordant and virtuosic flair thrown in for good measure. Rzewski incorporation of popular music themes also harkens to Ives' use of similar material in the "Concord" sonata as well as his demands on the virtuosity of the player. Arciuli kept up the energy and made incredibly difficult passages come off with ease. It was a memorable evening for those in attendance and a reminder about the richness of a uniquely American musical heritage, even if it did come by way of Italy.


Story Time

March 24, 2011

Richard Doyle and James Lancaster Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR.

It is a particularly good time for Irish playwrights. And by that I mean that some of the most consistently interesting and groundbreaking plays continue to come out of Ireland in the last two decades often from the pens of the triumvirate of Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson, and Enda Walsh. And while Walsh has always been a particular favorite of mine for his brand of edgy surrealism, McPherson’s stage world is hard to resist with its sentimental brand of beautiful storytelling and the supernatural. One of his first big successes in the U.S. as a playwright, The Weir, has returned to Southern California at South Coast Repertory in an admirable and very enjoyable production. The play is a ghost story set in a bar in contemporary Ireland. A group of four local men and a woman who has recently moved to their town meet one evening and, with enough alcohol, soon become involved in telling different ghost stories. These stories become progressively more personal and intense as the night wears on. And while the play is not meant to be horrifying, McPherson is drawing a connection between what's scary in the supernatural world and the real life fears and traumas most people know all too well. I don't want to say too much more about what happens in The Weir since the beauty of the story is mostly in the telling of it.

McPherson's plays can be delicate things. They rely heavily on actors being storytellers in the most traditional sense, holding an audience rapt with the sound of their voice and the mastery with which they color and shape a series of events. There is little other action, and McPherson's plots often unfold within the context of the stories the characters tell to one another on stage. The Weir is no exception. In fact the play presages much of the material in McPherson's best known later plays, Shining City and The Seafarer. South Coast Repertory has brought together a cast that manages to get the primary tasks of the evening right. I was most impressed by Richard Doyle who plays Jack, the senior member of the group, and James Lancaster as Finbar, the local boy whose done well in real estate and now brings a client, a young woman not his wife, to meet some of the local townspeople. The cast is rounded out by the very capable Kirsten Potter, Daniel Reichert, and Tony Ward. Accents for the most part are quite stable across the board although some of the cast struggled a bit more with projecting to the back of the house than others. I also found some of the dialog and activity that link the stories in The Weir clumsy and uncertain under the direction of Warner Shook. But in a play whose heart and soul pours out of inebriated monologues, this is a relatively minor issue. The Weir is another largely successful offering from South Coast Repertory and is a great chance to expose yourself to one of the great living Irish playwrights of our time.


Dig In

March 23, 2011

Yuri Temirkanov

It’s always exciting to hear a world-class orchestra play in Walt Disney Concert Hall when the opportunity arises, which would explain the near capacity crowd on hand Tuesday night when the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra appeared under its long-time artistic director Yuri Temirkanov. It was a very intense evening—in fact, almost too intense at times, with the orchestra’s big, brash, and often darkly hued sound. Of course, this was not a light and gauzy program either, so the big aggressive sound of the orchestra made sense for the most part. The night started off with two Russian works, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival and Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, which was played with soloist Alisa Weilerstein. The Rimsky-Korsakov work set the tone right away with a booming and rhythmically intense sound that was almost a size too big for the hall. It felt like the end of most other orchestral programs with its huge exalted climax. It was the kind of thing that makes you wonder why you don’t hear more of Rimsky-Korsakov’s work programmed elsewhere, but then maybe no one plays it quite like this.

The Shostakovich quickly followed with all of its manic folk-like textures juxtaposed with more dirge-like introspection at its core. Weilerstein is a young cellist who has greatly impressed audiences on her prior visits here and she dug into this like a champ. That’s not to say that everything always went in her favor, and I felt she was a bit too easily drowned out in the fast movements by the resurgent orchestra. Her meditative take on the second movement and cadenza were remarkable with her silences speaking as much as the notes coming from her instrument in these seemingly vast solo stretches. It was another piece of intense music played in a similarly intense fashion.

The evening then shifted gears with a rather odd though still enjoyable version of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. It wasn’t quite like any Brahms’ Fourth I’d heard before, and, while it was recognizable, it was as if every nascent folk influence in the entire piece was magnified to its greatest extent. The dark, heavy bass hues pushed aside any Germanic lyricism in favor of something more severe. It was still a very clean and well-organized performance, but it was also as if the Shostakovich wasn’t completely out of everyone’s system yet. The finale came and I for one felt rather spent as if the music had been roughly broken off from a larger whole. Capping off the evening was Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, which seemed a bit more proper and less severe than the preceding music. It was certainly evident of the immense skill of this orchestra and this conductor who clearly have a unique sound in a world full of glossy polish.

The Life of the Mind

March 21, 2011

Bel Powley, Raúl Esparza, Lia Williams and Tom Riley in Arcadia Photo: Joan Marcus

Tom Stoppard's Arcadia is one of those towering works of art that brims with so much everything that it is sometimes hard to get a sense of the quality of any individual performance. This feature of the play is further enhanced by the fact that the work is not yet 20 years old and unlike any number of canonical classics, Arcadia has not racked up the number of revivals that would make it intimately familiar to the average theater goer. So it should be said that the new revival of Stoppard's play that opened last week in New York should be required viewing for anyone unfamiliar with it, although that is not to say it meets or exceeds any and all expectations. Arcadia's greatness rests in part on its wordy eloquence, but more importantly its sheer scope. The play deals with any number of topics and operates simultaneously on a number of levels that are rarely all decipherable on a first viewing. It's an academic mystery, a comedy, and a romance all at the same time. There are two main story lines unfolding in the same single room of an English country estate over a century apart. In the early 19th century, Septimus Hodge is employed as a tutor to the daughter of the estate, Thomasina Coverly. Amidst some comic romantic shenanigans, Hodge is slowly discovering the radical genius of his sole pupil. Meanwhile in the late 20th century two warring academics, Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale, have separately converged on the modern-day Coverlys with their own literary and gardening mysteries to solve regarding events unfolding during Hodge's time. Of course, this description only begins to scratch the surface of a play that actively engages higher mathematics, aesthetic history, English Literature, physical science, botany, Classics, and politics of the academic, sexual, and garden variety.

The production, which is directed by David Leveaux, is imported from London's West End where it was one of the highlights of 2009. It has a simple but effective design that provides as little clutter as possible for Stoppard's great flow of ideas. Scenes that take place nearly a century apart increasingly unfold simultaneously in the same space, but never in a manner that is confusing. And although it is otherwise completely faithful to that predecessor, this Arcadia has been recast with predominantly American actors including Raúl Esparza and Billy Crudup who now appears as Bernard Nightingale but was cast in the original new York run of Arcadia in 1995 as Septimus Hodge. Notably, there are three Brits among the cast including Lia Williams as Hannah Jarvis, Tom Riley as Septimus Hodge, and Bel Powley as Thomasina Coverly. All were excellent. The Americans succeeded to a greater or lesser extent with a variety of accent stability. I was least taken with Esparza's Valentine Coverly who seemed less a frustrated scientist often thrust out of his element than a stage actor playing one.

But there is so much beauty in Arcadia that it is easy to get overwhelmed by it all despite any superficial flaws in the edifice. And all of this is accomplished both in spite of and due to a dense, heavily detailed text that races by far too quickly over three hours in a blaze of poetry for one to grasp before it is gone like some disintegrating treasure.

Ryan Fletcher and Vicki Manderson in Beautiful Burnout Photo: Gavin Evans

On the other theatrical hand this weekend was Beautiful Burnout at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. The play, produced under the auspices of The National Theater of Scotland and London-based collective Frantic Assembly, is an unrelated second project from Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett who were responsible for the widely praised production of The National Theater of Scotland's Black Watch, which took the US by storm four years ago. Granted, I was not in the majority opinion on that one. Though I thought it was well choreographed and visually interesting, it was otherwise rather predictable and hollow. Beautiful Burnout incorporates a similar visual and physical sense to Black Watch within a highly masculine context that is brought to life with the intimate physicality of dance. This is one sharp looking production with a large rotating stage that foregrounds a large multi-monitor video display. The rub, however, is that this is still a play with an actual script by Bryony Lavery that barely rises to the level of the proverbial Wallace Beery wrestling picture. I'd give you a spoiler alert for Beautiful Burnout, but telling you to string together every boxing movie cliche you can think of into a single plot somehow doesn't seem to exactly qualify for that particular warning. It's eye candy to be sure, but Beautiful Burnout can't really make it to the end of the round.


More from the Moors

March 20, 2011

Joseph Calleja and Natalie Dessay Photo: Ken Howard/MetOpera 2011

On Saturday, I attended the matinee performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at The Metropolitan Opera in New York. I found it to be an excellent and very enjoyable performance, which admittedly came as somewhat of a surprise to me. It was my first, in-the-flesh exposure to this Mary Zimmerman-directed staging now in its second revival. The production also had a prior appearance in the company’s Live in HD broadcast series when in starred Piotr Beczala and Anna Netrebko in the title role in 2009 and was again broadcast on Saturday with the production’s original star Natalie Dessay returning as Lucia. There has been plenty of not too happy ink and pixels spent on Zimmerman’s production and Dessay since the show's premiere in 2007. And all the talk probably lowered my expectations somewhat leading to a very pleasant surprise when I discovered that the show actually was quite well done all around.

Earlier this year I listened to both personal acquaintances and their cyber-equivalents speculate wildly about who would “actually” be singing Lucia when the run opened in New York given Dessay’s cancellations both at the Met last season and abroad more recently. And one can always check out the usual on-line locales for hectoring about Dessay and the status of her vocal career. She is loathed by some as an overly perky, hyperactive pixie past her prime. Then she arrives in this run of Lucia, as she has laid out in several recently aired interviews, to take a new low-key, less physically involved approach for which she is then rewarded in the New York Times with a review chastising her for being absent and emotionally uninvolved from the performance.

Well from where I was sitting in the house on Saturday, I’d say it’s all bull. She apparently didn't get any of the memos about the faltering of her career and gave one engrossing, excellent performance. Dessay sounded great for the most part. Her coloratura was more than functional and she was never shrill or screaming. Her mad scene was thrilling and she did, in fact, project the mental instability called for in the part. It may not be the best Lucia she’s ever performed and it may not be the best one anyone else will ever do, but it was world-class and very entertaining. She wasn’t the only one to impress. Joseph Calleja, Dessay’s Edgardo, was the best I’ve ever heard him. Romantic, impetuous and heart breaking, Calleja was vocally certain through the whole show even fleshing out some of the less intriguing passages in the opera like the opening of Act III. Ludovic Tézier sang Enrico with a dark villainous energy and Kwangchul Youn brought the part of Raimondo to a much higher level than one might typically associate with this opera. I even found conductor Patrick Summers engaged in a way that I don’t always expect with the always formidable Metropolitan Opera orchestra.

Now maybe I was lucky and this was somehow an unusual performance in the run. Perhaps things have solidified since the opening performance. Or maybe given that today’s show was also an HD broadcast, everyone involved was on their A-game. From my prior experiences sitting in the live audiences for these broadcasts, I’d say there does seem to be some benefit in being in the house for the performances that are part of the live transmission series. And while some have bemoaned that the Met's productions are increasingly directed for the camera, I'd argue that at least on the days of the broadcast, the live in-theater performances tend to stand out for their quality.

I was also rather taken with Zimmerman’s late-Victorian transposition of the storyline. The presence of ghosts solves many problems in the libretto including the absence of Lucia in the final scene and the lack of a final duet. It is both creepy and simultaneously lays the groundwork for the protagonists encroaching madness. I also loved the group photograph at the close of Act II, which provides a logical and convincing framing device for the out-of-time sextet that, beautiful as it may be, kills the action for the benefit of musical structure. The audience seemed pleased with all of this as well with a huge ovation for the cast and a clearly pleased Calleja and Dessay. Once again it is worth remembering to not believe the hype.


In Spades

March 18, 2011

Karita Mattila Photo: Marty Sohl/MetOpera 2011

I arrived in New York on Friday for what turned out to be a somewhat unusual evening at the opera. It was the third performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades this season at the Metropolitan Opera with an excellent cast including tenor Vladimir Galouzine as Hermann and Karita Mattila as Lisa. The weather outside was warm – very warm for mid-March in New York and with the added recent change to Daylight Savings Time, it seemed that the city’s mind was on all things outdoors. The house wasn’t full and there wasn’t the usual crush of bodies getting into the theater when the doors opened. Even inside when the show started, it was one of the quietest and least effusive audiences I’ve heard here. Which seemed ill matched to the performance, which was quite reasonable despite its faults.

Dolora Zajick and Vladimir Galouzine Photo: Marty Sohl/MetOpera 2011

There were some spectacular performances. I’m a big fan of Galouzine and think he makes one of the most obsessed and driven Hermann’s around. I last saw him perform the role in Houston in Richard Jones’ striking production and felt he sounded strong here as well. Mattila can still make a good showing as Lisa at this stage in her career. I felt she did get a bit thready at the top of her range, but she commands attention and gives 100% as is her usual practice. While the pair has had a somewhat mixed reception in these parts, I found them a marked improvement over the last two performers to appear in this production at the Met, Ben Heppner and Maria Guleghina. The conductor in that last outing was Seji Ozawa and despite his reputation as a top drawer proponent of Tchaikovsky’s operas, I was more taken by Friday’s leadership, which was under the increasingly impressive Latvian Andris Nelsons who gave a fiery and lively turn throughout the score.

I still think the biggest problem with the Met’s Queen of Spades is the dreadful Elijah Moshinsky production with its overly dark, primarily black and white color palette. The production seems to be more about crowd control than anything else with the chorus often milling about the stage. Visually, the whole thing is so dark that rarely do the most distressing or dramatic moments stand out. It's the operatic equivalent of the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland. Just a lot less scary. There are some nice wigs I suppose. The supporting cast was a bit of a split decision. On the one hand Peter Mattei’s Prince Yeletsky was superb and probably the most emotionally resonant vocal performance of the whole evening. On the other had was Dolora Zajick in the bit part of the Countess. Zajick is no stranger to villains, which the countess is portrayed as in this particular vision. Her Russian is only slightly better than her German, but her rather broad approach to the stage action she has to maneuver through here bordered on camp at times especially in the requisite gowns and makeup. Still, Tchaikovsky's musical genius shines through and even the pastorale in Act II drew me in. So even if the rest of the world was happy to be outside, I was still glad to be in my seat at the opera.


Carnival of Sorts

March 16, 2011

Unsuk Chin

Is Joseph Pereira your favorite musician in the Los Angeles Philharmonic? Well if not, maybe he should be. He’s certainly one of my (many) favorites with a string of adventurous performances in the orchestra’s “Green Umbrella” new music series. Last year he appeared barefoot and shirtless to perform Vinko Globokar’s Corpore in which his own body was the primary instrument. Next season, Pereira, the L.A. Philharmonic's Principal Timpanist, will premiere his own Percussion Concerto in conjunction with the orchestra. But on Tuesday, he was again opening up a show in a solo percussion piece, this time digging around in a box filled with multi-colored tissue paper. The piece was Unsuk Chin’s Allegro ma non troppo, which starts with the sounds of crumpled and torn paper that are soon augmented by processed versions of the same sounds on tape. Soon Pereira added to the paper with ticking clocks, water drops, and feather dusters brushing against gongs. The piece comes full circle to the paper again in the end, but there is an increasing intensity throughout from the electronic overlay. This is what I have always loved about the L.A. Philharmonic, its adventurous musicians paired with equally adventurous music, be it their own or others.

It was a strong start to a show that featured both the works of Chin as well as those of Swedish composer Anders Hillborg. After the opening piece, two works from Hillborg followed. Vaporized Tivoli for a small ensemble mimicked the sounds and music associated with a carnival with loud raucous moments mixed with an increasing malevolence that later dissipates into nothing. (Hence the “Vaporized” of the title.) This carnival of sorts had much in common with the playful spirit of so much of Chin's music and seemed well suited with the rest of the evening's offerings. Following the intermission was the very sad, though intensely beautiful, string quartet entitled Kongsgaard Variations. The work was commissioned by California friends of the composer’s and takes off from two bars of Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata. And, although Hillborg never quotes Beethoven directly, he manages to produce music that maintains some of the dignity and clarity of Beethoven’s work in his own.

The big finish to the evening again belonged to Chin with her small ensemble work Cantatrix sopranica. Here the focus is on high voices, two sopranos and one countertenor. Some of the eight sections in the work mimic Baroque opera while others reproduce the sounds of the Chinese opera. The work featured soloists Kiera Duffy, Audrey Luna, and Michael Maniaci and was conducted by Benjamin Schwartz as was Hillborg's larger work on the program. Chin cannot resist the good jokes this setting allows as some of the "songs" that make up this cycle also included shrieks, giggles and the vocalists mimicking the vocal sounds of warming-up. It was all immense fun and a good reminder that contemporary music is not always grim sincerity and intellectual sparring.


A Touch of Adès

March 15, 2011

Thomas Adès Photo: Brian Voce

Be forewarned. The most important programming series of the 2010/2011 Los Angeles Philharmonic season is about to get underway. No it’s not the promised “unbinding” of Brahms to take place under Gustavo Dudamel in April and May with its rapidly disappearing number of new commissions that were to be paired with the composer’s major orchestra works. In fact, some of the most interesting music the orchestra members will likely play all year will take place as part of the “Aspects of Adès” series that was previewed on Monday night during a guest visit from the legendary Emerson Quartet. The L.A. Philharmonic has actively fostered an ongoing relationship with Adès, arguably one of the world’s most important living composers, welcoming him as both composer and conductor on numerous occasions. This season Adès takes on both roles in both his own as well as others' music. The series starts on April 1 with a weekend of performances of Adès’ In Seven Days with its accompanying video installation from Adès collaborator and partner Tal Rosner that was last seen here in May of 2008. In this concert it will be paired with Stravinsky’s Les noces and the Concerto for Two Pianos played by Katia and Marielle Labèque. Then on May 5 in conjunction with the L.A. Phil’s New Music Group, the composer will play his own piano paraphrase of his opera Powder Her Face and his Concerto Conciso alongside pieces from Ligeti and Nancarrow. The following weekend will bring two different programs. On May 7 and 8 Adès will lead the world premiere of the latest operatic work from Gerald Barry, a treatment of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Barry had a huge success in L.A. previously when Adès brought his The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit in 2006 and this return visit is a high priority. Adès’s visit with the L.A. Phil will conclude on April 9 with a single performance of his newest orchestra work Polaris again with video from Rosner paired with Messiaen’s Éclairs sur l’au-delà. It’s almost criminal that this final concert is a one-off performance (especially since I will be out of town for it), but you don’t have to miss out.

But before all of this, audiences got a sneak peak of “Aspects of Adès” in the strangest of places: an appearance by the Emerson String Quartet. Not that the esteemed quartet is an unusual ensemble for Adès’ music. But Adès new string quartet, The Four Quarters, was buried in perhaps the oddest of programs. The show also included Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor as well as a number of other works showcasing Sir James Galway on the flute. Galway is certainly no slouch, but the evening seemed to be reaching for pieces for the Emerson players and Galway to collaborate on including Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D major and Arthur Foote’s A Night Piece. Both of these provided Galway with plenty of room to show off his virtuosity as did Claude Debussy’s solo flute work, Syrinx. But the larger relationship between the flute works and Adès and Debussy music admittedly escaped me.

But any occasion for a new work from Adès is a worthwhile one, and The Four Quarters, which was receiving its West Coast premiere after a debut in New York the day before, continued to document this composer’s fascinating musical journey. The four movement quartet follows the course of a day opening from the rhythmic passing of notes between players in “Nightfalls” into the plucking pizzicato of “Morning Dew.” These were followed in succession by “Days” and finally “The Twenty-Fifth Hour,” which delivered progressively more and more complex time signatures and rhythmic elements. Despite all the fancy notation and complexity, the quartet, like much of Adès music, also manages to be rather accessible in a surprising way. The fact that the Emerson players are as seasoned as they are probably helps, of course. But if the mark of a successful new work is creating a desire to immediately hear it again in the listener, it was a winner in my book. It certainly seemed to provide an interesting complement to Debussy’s rich impressionism. Adès arrived to enthusiastic applause at the end of the performance of his quartet looking every bit the newly minted Angeleno in a black suit, bright red shirt, and sneakers. But while he may have looked every bit the unassuming composer, his impressive and important music bespeaks some exciting shows ahead.


10 Questions for...Patricia Racette

March 14, 2011

Patricia Racette Photo: Devon Cass

There are few American vocalists as beloved and respected as soprano Patricia Racette. She’s a powerful performer known to audiences around the United States and the world for a wide range of repertory. She’s played a key role in several world premieres of American operas, but more recently is leaving her mark on her touchstone Puccini and Verdi roles. Most notably her Cio-Cio San was preserved on video as part of the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series in the phenomenal Anthony Minghella production. She again graces the Los Angeles Opera stage this month in a new role for her, the Governess in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. It’s an exciting performance in a very intense opera and I can tell you from experience that this should be on your must-see list. And what’s more, the always gracious Ms. Racette took time out of her busy rehearsals for The Turn of the Screw to take a shot at the Out West Arts 10 Questions.

1. What role would you most like to perform, but haven’t yet?
I am very interested in taking on Minnie in La Fanciulla del West... always wanted 'to pack' onstage!

2. What role would you never perform, even if you could?
Micaela.. oops, too late! Let's just say that I will never perform it again!

3. You’ll be singing the role of the governess in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw with Los Angeles Opera in March and have been hugely successful as Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes. What draws you to Britten’s works and music?
Britten is for the thinking singer-- not that all singers are not thinkers on some level(!)-- but his music is quite difficult with its angularity and layered harmonics. At the same time, he is also a great storyteller and creator of atmosphere. Stir those ingredients together and you have a theatrical experience, which is what draws me to any role.

Patricia Racette in The Turn of the Screw Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2011

4. The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story. What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever had to do on the opera stage?
Well, there is scary and there is intense.. and there is intensely scary! My final jump to my death in David Alden's Kat'ya Kabonova for ENO was that moment! To be honest, though, I LOVED it! It was almost the feeling of free fall.. (thank goodness for the mattress below!)

5. American operas and new works have played a big part in your career from Moravec’s The Letter, to Picker’s An American Tragedy and Carlisle Floyd’s Cold Sassy Tree. What part or role would you most like to have composed for you next, and by whom?
What a luxurious thought! I am so drawn to Edith Piaf that I think it would be absolutely amazing to have an opera composed for me that allowed me to offer my take on her wild and crazy life-- and it would also be exhilarating to merge my opera and cabaret lives! Any takers?

6. Which music made you want to sing opera?
Puccini,Puccini, Puccini! Specifically Suor Angelica.. and Renata Scotto!

Patricia Racette in Suor Angelica Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO

7. You’ve had remarkable success as Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly, a performance that has been saved on DVD following the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcast of Anthony Minghella’s landmark production in 2009. Which other of your performances might you like to save for posterity?
I am very proud of my Il Trittico performances, as doing that trilogy was always my dream. Beyond that, I would like for my take on Tosca to be remembered.

8. Your iPod is destroyed in a tenor’s tantrum. Which lost tracks would you miss most?
Judy Garland's Judy at Carnegie Hall

9. What's your current obsession?
My new home and role of (Madame) General Contractor for the past 18 months!

10. With which of your operatic roles do you have the most in common?
I would have to say Tosca comes to mind-- not that it's a literal fit since no iconic operatic heroines really give a viable look at the modern woman, but at least Floria speaks her mind and is a woman of action-- with those attributes I concur!


My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

March 13, 2011

William Burden and Patricia Racette in The Turn of the Screw Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2011

It has been a particularly strong season for Los Angeles Opera overall. Following a bold and satisfying Ring cycle last summer, the company has managed to weather the economic storms of the last season with particularly satisfying productions almost always with excellent musical values. And in keeping with this recent trend, the final production of the 2010/2011 season, Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, opened gloriously on Saturday after a 20 year absence. Based on a Henry James novella, The Turn of the Screw is a seriously creepy, dark and twisted story. Not that this fact distinguishes it from any other opera, but the story makes plenty of very disturbing implications that raise far more questions for characters and audience than are answered over its course. An unnamed Governess arrives at her new employer’s country estate. She is welcomed by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, as well as her new wards Flora and Miles and given strict instructions that above all else she should not contact or bother their guardian in any circumstances. Soon however, it becomes clear that the estate is haunted by a former servant, Peter Quint, and his once lover and the former Governess, Miss Jessel. The new Governess becomes convinced that the children are aware of these ghosts and worse yet, the ghosts are trying to seduce the children away from the Governess’ care. Much of the unfolding action is implied and references to the supernatural aspects of the story can be vague and open-ended. Britten wrote a masterful chamber orchestra sized score for the work that is one of the most evocative in 20th-century opera.

Patricia Racette in The Turn of the Screw Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2011

As with L.A. Opera’s hugely successful run of Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, the company again imported perhaps one of the most attractive and interesting European productions of The Turn of the Screw it could find, Jonathan Kent’s 2006 staging for Glyndebourne opera which will be revived there this coming summer. Kent’s fascinating staging, which was directed here by associate Fracesca Gilpin, manages to reflect both the creepiness and the supernatural aspects of the story in a very powerful and condensed way. The huge white room of the set is dominated by a giant rotating wall of window panes that effectively divides the space perpetually into inside and outside. The windows also act at times as the surface of a lake as it casts reflections around the walls of the set. Concentric rotating rings on the stage floor whisk set elements on and off stage and giant gnarly disembodied tree branches lower into view. As the opera proceeds the originally strict division between the inside and outside world begins to break down in subtle ways as the ghosts begin to cross barriers and further inhabit the living world of the other characters.

William Burden (behind) and Michael Kepler Meo in The Turn of the Screw Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2011

Perhaps Kent’s boldest move is to update the action to post-WWII, late 50s Britain from the novella’s late Victorian original. Not that updating an opera's setting is new, but Kent's decision to do so has some interesting implications in this case. While it removes some of the work's late-Victorian and outright Gothic sheen, it heightens some of the more disturbing contemporary undercurrents of the story. The specters of insanity and pedophilia haunt this story at every turn. Kent’s setting makes them palpable to the audience now that the action unfolds immediately prior to the notorious Moors murders committed by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley that would rock the UK in the early 1960s. In a way, Kent’s version of the Governess represents a whole nation on the brink of losing its children in part to a process of post-war cultural and moral decay. It’s a deft idea that works brilliantly.

Patricia Racette in The Turn of the Screw Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2011

Of course all of this would be for naught, if it weren’t for a top-rate cast and musical performance under L.A. Opera’s heroic James Conlon. The star of the show is Patricia Racette making her role debut as the Governess. Racette has a varied career in a wide repertory including many Verdi and Puccini roles. And as much as I’ve admired her Butterfly, I think her Britten work as both Ellen Orford and here may be among my favorite roles for her. She sounded lovely in conjunction both with Ann Murray’s Mrs. Grose and Tamara Wilson’s Miss Jessel. The bright, light tenor William Burden was finally making his L.A. Opera debut as the predatory Peter Quint and Ashley Emerson sang the role of Flora. But perhaps the performance that was most striking to me was that of 12 year-old Michael Kepler Meo as Miles. This young vocalist has quite a career going having sung Miles in several places over the last two years. He’ll also appear in Stephen Schwartz’ Séance on a Wet Afternoon at New York City Opera later this spring. He vocally stands tall against much more experienced singers here and dominates the scenes he is in with his certainty and comfort in the part. If I had any quibble with the performance it would probably be one of scale. This is undoubtedly a chamber opera and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is notorious for swallowing sound. From where I sat, things sounded great, but I wonder if farther back in the house if the sound got lost. In any event, I highly recommend you see The Turn of the Screw while it’s here in L.A. with such a great cast; and if you’re worried about the acoustics, this would be a great time to splurge and sit close. The show runs through March 30.



March 12, 2011

Jonas Kaufmann Photo: Uli Webber

The much-anticipated debut of tenor Jonas Kaufmann to the Western U.S. occurred last night in a recital at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the invitation of L.A. Opera. It was the third and final recital this season by some of the most admired and most attractive male vocalists working today including René Pape and Dimitri Hvorostovsky. But the Kaufmann appearance was special both because it was his first appearance in the area and because his career is currently one of the hottest in all opera. And it was truly spectacular. If the measure of a vocalist is his or her ability to communicate with the audience with little more than the sound of one’s voice, Kaufmann gave one of the most exciting performances I’ve seen in quite awhile. The program was entirely in German with the first half devoted to Schumann including his Dichterliebe and the second to songs from Richard Strauss. Schumann’s Dichterliebe has featured prominently in many recitals here lately including René Pape’s. But Kaufmann made the works sound surprisingly new with a real musical unity and overarching line of development in the cycle. Kaufmann’s voice has a natural baritonal coloring (reminiscent of another very famous tenor well known to L.A. audiences) and the power and clarity in his lower range in quite impressive.

The Strauss works were equally remarkable including a setting of five poems by Felix Dahn. Again Kaufmann displayed a real sense of communicating emotion with the sound of his voice without having to over rely on his physical gestures. His upper register is quite interesting. Certainly less assured, the upper voice was not completely effortless and could be somewhat breathy in the more pianissimo passages. And yet, this was in no way unpleasant to the ear and actually lent a certain fragility and vulnerability to the singing that fit perfectly to the works. By the time he go to Strauss’ “Ich liebe dich” op. 37, no. 2, many in the audience, including myself, was on the verge of something I’d have to call swooning. It was a remarkable evening made even more impressive with the well integrated and equally sensitive accompaniment of pianist Helmut Deutsch.

The enthusiastic reception at the end of the concert was one of the biggest I’ve seen for a recital in L.A. Kaufmann returned to the stage again and again giving five encores, which while not an unheard of number, certainly a notable one in this day and age. These included many familiar choices such as Strauss’ "Breit' über mein Haupt dein schwarzes Haar," "Nichts," and "Zueignung." Lehar’s familiar "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" could have melted stone in this room and Schumann’s "Mondnacht" provided a superb coda to the evening. (Interestingly this song was the first time I'd seen a pianist, in this case Deutsch, play music from an iPad instead of good old-fashioned sheet music.) Based on this recital, I’d say Kaufmann’s reputation as the tenor of the moment is well deserved and hopefully L.A. Opera will find some way to coax him back out to these shores very, very soon.


Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

March 11, 2011


A friend of mine after hearing Gustavo Dudamel conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic recently asked me “What has happened to this orchestra? I don't know where they are headed anymore.” It’s true, the changes of the Dudamel era are afoot and as much as some critics would like you to believe that any differences in the orchestra between today and a couple of years ago are just a matter of different flavors of the same great stuff, this weekend’s program from Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic tells a much more unsettling story. It’s a story of lowered artistic ambitions and the incessant drumbeat of marketing over music. The show that kicked off the weekend was perhaps one of the most questionable programming concepts of the whole season. It included three orchestral “fantasies” by Tchaikovsky based on Shakespeare; Hamlet, The Tempest, and the ever-familiar Romeo and Juliet. Granted it's pretty music, but hardly what you’d call inspiring or thoughtful. It's also a program that is featured on the latest recording from Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra so that the same show has arrived here is no surprise.

To make matters worse, the increasingly star-struck management worked with Dudamel to create the musical equivalent of mutton dressed as lamb. Each of the three orchestra pieces was paired with a short, readily identifiable scene from each play with some bona fide Hollywood stars and all the dramatic lighting you could ask for. Matthew Rhys gave us a bit of the old “To be or not to be” in the requisite unbuttoned collar sans tie which always seems to signify an actor is trying to play the troubled, young Hamlet. Meanwhile Malcolm McDowell channeled both Hamlet’s father and Prospero with the assistance of a script. And in the final segment, Orlando Bloom’s Romeo accosted Anika Noni Rose’s Juliet from across the stage standing in the walkway between the front and middle orchestra sections. Much of the acting, which was directed by Kate Burton, was wooden and the scenes seemed somewhat pointless other than getting a chance to see a star in the flesh. The audience members seated behind the orchestra also got a fair glimpse of Bloom’s exposed midriff as he cavorted in his exhortations of love toward Juliet. And admittedly said midriff just about carried the whole evening which may be the intended effect for a show that will be broadcast to theaters nationwide on Sunday as part of the L.A. Phil Live series.

With so much else going on, it might have been possible to forget there was an orchestra concert going on, but indeed there was. In typical Dudamel fashion, the musical portion of the show was blown up out of proportion to the weight of work itself. The strings dug in and often sounded bright and lovely. There were big swelling moments that were quite dramatic. But there were just as many that were interminably overwrought and slow. It’s hard to imagine how a show with not much more than 60 minutes of music by Tchaikovsky could be so exhausting, but then Dudamel has a way of making even the most unassuming music beg for mercy. The show repeats through Sunday if you're up to it.


A Stranger Calls

March 08, 2011

l-r: Scott Jaeck, Alex Weisman, Eddie Bennett, Barbara Garrick, Myra Lucretia Taylor Photo: Liz Lauren/Goodman Theater 2011

I’ve got one last Chicago note worth mentioning. Between operas, I was talked into seeing one of the last performances of Thomas Bradshaw’s Mary, a world premiere play commissioned by The Goodman Theater. I was somewhat hesitant about seeing this given the veritable conniption fit that many Chicago theater critics had about the show, which had opened in February. Of course, controversy is Bradshaw’s stock-in-trade during his meteoric rise over the last several years. Earlier works such as Southern Promises and Strom Thurmond is Not a Racist in New York and elsewhere have given the playwright a reputation as a provocateur dealing with issues of race, sexuality, and violence. Bradshaw himself prefers to be thought of as a “hyper-realist” giving voice to a world of thoughts that lie just below the surface of our pleasant everyday civilization. That is not to say that Bradshaw is a naturalist, however. His plays seem unreal in nearly every way from stilted cliché dialog to blatantly contrived plot lines. The works can be funny, but are not exactly satirical per se.

Mary, a play that borders on brilliant, is true to this mold. In it, Bradshaw takes on two closely related obsessions of American culture: race and sexual orientation. The play is set in a 1983 that is likely familiar to almost no one. David, a music student, has elected to bring his college boyfriend of one year, Jonathan, home for a Christmas visit. David hasn’t come out to his parents, who live on a former plantation in Baltimore that has been in the family for centuries. Odder still is that David’s family continues to rely on the domestic services of Mary and her husband Elroy whose ancestors were the very slaves David’s ancestors used to own. When Jonathan arrives with David for the visit, he, like the audience, is astonished to hear David’s parents freely use the “N” word and express other overt racist attitudes directly to Mary and one another as the accepted norm of their lives. In fact it's a "norm" that Mary herself defends to David in a later scene. But as Jonathan’s presence begins to upset the status quo of David’s family, Mary and her husband themselves begin to hatch a plot to shoot Jonathan in the groin with a BB gun in order to prevent the two lovers from committing gay sins of the flesh.

From there is gets stranger. And admittedly, even at 90 minutes, Mary provides a huge amount of material to absorb. The mistake, it seems, many critics have made in assessing the work, however, is to assume that it is simply about the inner workings of racism and homophobia. Granted, these issues provide much of the play’s context. But Mary has so much more on its mind. Bradshaw is more broadly concerned with the way in which the most intolerable thoughts and feelings become normative behavior in our lives especially within the inner workings of families. More over, something as small as the arrival of an outsider can upset the entire system permanently with long-lasting repercussions not unlike the natural disaster caused by the flapping of a butterfly's wings. Granted this is not new terrain for the theater, but Bradshaw’s unwillingness to sentimentalize matters is both brave and inspiring. After a turn that seems to be leading to an easily digestible TV-show ending, Bradshaw sticks the audience with a troubling final soliloquy from Mary that underscores the complex reality of what makes us who we are. What's truly shocking about the play is not any of its superficial themes or language, but how brutally honest it is right to the end. This absence of sentimentality seems to be the most bothersome factor to many critics in the Chicago press. Mary is not a play that reassures us that our better nature is going to allow us all to get along. In Mary's world, unity is something we're going to have to work for and work for a lot harder than we have so far.


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