Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

You Better Work

December 31, 2011

Jemima Rooper and James Corden in One Man, Two Guv'nors Photo: Johan Persson 2011
I dread seeing shows that I’ve read other people’s good reviews of or heard a lot of good word-of-mouth about. I dread it even more than seeing shows I’ve heard only negative things about. At least with the negative ones I know I won’t be disappointed, and if the show ends up better than I’ve heard, it’s a pleasant surprise. But with the hits, it’s easy for things to go sour in a million different ways. And it is this phenomenon that may explain why I was absolutely smitten with the National Theater’s production of One Man, Two Guvnors that ended up being my final theater experience of 2011. What a way to go.

The show is all that people have said about it and so much more. Only so often do comedies, and particularly physical comedies, turn sublime. But they do, and this is one of them. The story is a loose adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s Commedia dell’Arte classic The Servant of Two Masters. Guvnors’ writer, Richard Bean, and its director, Nicholas Hytner, have updated the action to a more contemporary setting, 1960s Britain, while trying to preserve the hallmarks of Commedia dell’Arte performance. To adapt Commedia for contemporary audience is not new, but I don’t recall ever seeing it done so well, and so honestly. Hytner and Bean have infused their source material with the unique perspective and elements of British humor. (Or at least those elements of uniquely British humor that fit well in the Commedia setting.) The Brighton of 1963 with its changing sexual mores, skinny ties, and broadening cultural influence is perfect right down to the four-man band, The Craze, that provides original period pop songs transitioning from skiffle to rock for scene changes. But this is no ersatz Austin Powers version of Britain’s swinging sixties. The show is far more loving and affectionate in its humor. And it is far more often precisely on the mark when it comes to big laugh-out-loud guffaws. It’s one thing to laugh in a show, it’s another when you are doing so much of it that you don’t even know it’s happening.

There isn’t a weak link in this superb cast. But it is also true that Hytner and Bean are fortunate in having James Corden in the Arlecchino role of Frances Henshall. Henshall is the clever servant despite his lack of book-smarts whose half-hearted commitment to two different masters is nothing compared to his boundless commitment to food and the promise of romance. Corden proves to be masterful in the kind of physical clowning around that makes legends. I’m not overstating the case when I saw names like Lewis and Tati come to mind in this show. There is a fair amount of audience participation in the show and Corden handles all of it with ease. On the matinee I saw, Corden also confronted a man filming part of the performance with his camera, mid-improvised monologue and managed to keep everyone in stitches while stopping the offending behavior without missing a beat. It’s a shame that he (or any performer for that matter) has to deal with this kind of thing, but his ability to deal with it in a way that didn’t disrupt the show or bring the audience down was in its own way a breathtaking example of his skills.

And yet, there is a real sense of community in this cast’s performance. Tom Edden has just as many great physical comedy moments in the story and Jemima Rooper’s cross-dressing gangster part is superbly done. Daniel Rigby’s lovelorn actor Alan Dangle is perfectly pitched as is Oliver Chris’ Stanley Stubbers. But some of the funniest moments in the show happen when things go slightly off the rails and one can tell that the cast is sometimes cracking each other up as much as the audience. There is danger in this to be sure with things disintegrating into chaos, but Hytner knows when to hold back and has kept everyone reined in so far. The show was almost instantly sold out when it moved out of the NT’s South Bank home into the West End for 16 weeks, and the show and Corden will come to New York this April. Given how quickly tickets disappear for this show, I'd recommend you move on them quickly when you can.


You Slay Me

December 30, 2011

Clive Rowe, Marcia Warren, Peter Capaldi and Ben Miller Photo: Alastair Muir 2011
The Ladykillers is a comedy with a longevity almost as unexpected as the comic crime-gone-awry caper it details. One of the most successful of the Ealing Studio comedies of the post-war period (the other American audiences would be most familiar with would be The Lavender Hill Mob), the 1955 original was written by Bill Rose. Rose, who was born in America, wrote several screenplays for Ealing during his many years in Britain after the war, but he would have his biggest success in Hollywood in the 60s penning It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and wining an Oscar for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? in 1967. The Ladykillers is a rather genteel comedy about a band of criminals who move into the home of an elderly woman while posing as a string quartet in order to plan their latest robbery. The elderly woman, Mrs. Wilberforce, unexpectedly gets pulled into the plot. Things eventually go awry and comedy ensues.

The Ladykillers has now made it onto the stage in London in an update by another well regarded comedy writer, Graham Linehan, the man behind Black Books and Father Ted. Linehan is a smart writer and he knows enough not to fill Rose’s original story with snide contemporary in-jokes or cynical references. And although the play is not adverse to slapstick, it's not simply about bungling incompetent crooks. The show is still genteel, especially compared with the kind of brazen gags that populate something like The Book of Mormon or any number of other successful contemporary U.S. stage comedies. But The Ladykillers is an absolute joy to watch even with a low shock value.

A big part of the success is Sean Foley’s direction of his excellent cast. Foley recognizes that this tale can handle a bit of broad acting, and he gives the cast just enough leeway to ham things up without it overpowering the show overall. No one is spitting out scenery, but it's broad enough to make the audience feel that everyone involved is having as much of a good time as they are. This great cast includes James Fleet, Peter Capaldi, Ben Miller, Clive Rowe, Stephen Wight and Marcia Warren as Mrs. Wilberforce. They revel in moments that provide arch commentary on the changing world of post-WW II Britain. One of my favorite such moments comes when the criminals are enlisted to perform a concert as the purported string quartet for a gathering of Mrs. Wilberforce's friends. It's an obvious ploy to be sure, but The Ladykillers is done so well and is so well meaning, it's impossible not to appreciate it. The show continues its run at the Gielgud Theater in London's West End into the New Year.


Mark Your Calendars

December 26, 2011

From Wunderbaum's Songs from the End of the World.
With only a handful of days left in 2011, it’s naturally a time to reflect and think about the coming year. And in 2012, there’s already a lot of very exciting things to consider and plan for on the preforming arts scene. So while I'm packing for London and before my January preview comes to light next week, I’ll leave you the following music, theater, and performance highlights for the year ahead. Let’s start with L.A.’s biggest classical music organization, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which will continue its current season with a wide variety of works from late 20th-century composers including Louis Andriessen, John Adams, Steve Reich and others. Probably the most important shows coming up for the L.A. Phil will be the world premiere of a new oratorio from Adams entitled The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which will be seen in late May/early June under Gustavo Dudamel, just weeks after Adams himself leads a program with the West Coast premiere of Glass’s latest Symphony No. 9 in April. And as for older music, the most enticing programs of the spring will be a string of recitals from Matthias Goerne accompanied by the L.A. Phil under Christoph Eschenbach and with the conductor alone on piano in works of Schubert the week of April 16. And don’t forget the long-awaited return of Simon Rattle in early May when he’ll lead Bruckner with our local orchestra as well.

And speaking of Adams, the other major living composer with that name, John Luther Adams will have his Inuksuit receive its West Coast premiere along with many other pieces at the 66th Ojai Music Festival starting June 7th. This year’s artistic director is Leif Ove Andsnes and he’s scheduled to appear alongside fellow pianist Marc-André Hamelin and clarinetist Martin Fröst over this first-rate weekend. Back in town, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra will be celebrating music director Jeffrey Kahane’s 15th anniversary with the group by performing a new commission from Brooklyn-based composer Timothy Andres on March 24 and 25 as well as one from Gabriel Kahane on April 21. LACO, along with the L.A. Philharmonic and both the Colburn and Thornton music school will also host the first Piatigorsky International Cello Festival in Los Angeles beginning on March 9 for 9 days of concerts, master classes and recitals with over 20 of the world’s best known cellists including Alisa Weilerstein, Miklós Perényi, Steven Isserlis, and Mischa Maisky. These performances take place in multiple venues with a variety of different music so be sure to check the schedule. Oh and done forget L.A.'s rebelious Wild Up collective that will present "a compendium of hipster music" from both East and West coast young composers on March 23 and 24.

On the opera front, the biggest thing to talk about in Los Angeles prior to the announcement of the 2012/2013 season for Los Angeles Opera next month will likely be Placido Domingo’s performance in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra starting February 11. Long Beach Opera, of course, has assembled another season of rarities from the likes of Poulenc, Martinu, Piazzola, and Osvaldo Golijov. Out of town the two most exciting things on the schedule are Karita Mattila taking another swing at Janacek’s The Makropulous Case at The Metropolitan Opera starting April 27 and Mariusz Kwiecien’s scheduled appearances in the title role of Szymanowski’s King Roger at Santa Fe Opera starting in July. (I’m also crossing my fingers that I may make it to London in late June for the Royal Opera House’s new production of Berlioz’ Les Troyens with Jonas Kaufmann, Eva-Maria Westbroek, and Anna Caterina Antonacci. Stay tuned.) There will be Ring cycles everywhere, of course, on this anniversary year including new stagings at both the Metropolitan Opera and in Munich to name just a few.

The theater offerings are no less interesting. Center Theater Group has planned major West Coast runs of the critically well-received recent New York productions of Sondheim’s Follies in May and Jon Robin Baitz’ Other Desert Cities before the end of 2012. But before all this, L.A.’s largest theater producer will bring concurrently running productions of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park to the Kirk Douglas and Mark Taper Forum stages respectively. The Broad Stage will bring Helen Hunt in Thornton Wilder's Our Town starting January 14. And then there's the exciting line-up at REDCAT which has too many interesting things to detail here but I would not skip the return of the Netherlands' Wunderbaum on April 28 and 29 with Songs at the End of the World. This just scratches the surface so stay tuned for the monthly performance previews and have a great New Year.


Many Nations Under A Groove

December 23, 2011

Sahr Ngaujah in the Broadway production of Fela! Photo: Monique Carboni/CTG 2011
Fela returned to Los Angeles earlier this month. Or more precisely, Fela! the musical that bears Fela Kuti’s name along with the requisite exclamation mark opened the Los Angeles leg of the show’s current national tour at the Ahmanson Theater. The show is a return of sort in that Fela Kuti, the person, spent some developmentally critical time in Los Angeles in 1969 where his exposure to activists in the Black Panther movement helped fuel his own political leanings and viewpoints. These events, including Kuti’s meeting with Sandra Iszadore, are depicted in the semi-autobiographical story line, which just as frequently veers off into exuberant dance, powerful live music, and a dash of magical realism thrown in for good measure. Which is good since the dance and musical numbers are frankly amazing and far more interesting in the end. There’s a musical education to be had in Fela! and the show is vitally compelling theater.

I first saw this show in January of 2010 in New York and thought very highly of it then and still. Choreographer Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis assembled the book with Kuti’s own music for a product that is far more idea-oriented than its average jukebox music brethren. The show has suffered its own share of slings and arrows as well, including Charles Isherwood’s charges of minstrelsy and the more general criticism that the overall image of Kuti constructed by the show glosses over some of the less-than-noble aspects of its subject's life and personality. But this is art, and most audiences have been sophisticated enough to appreciate that all art, and especially theater, is about making inherently unfair decisions to create something that is inextricably bound up in particular social and political perspectives. Jones and Lewis have created as valid an image of Fela Kuti as anyone might. It isn't the only possible one. If there is any crime in Fela!, it’s that American theater hasn’t provided for a dozen shows just like it on the same topic all from different perspectives. Maybe Fela! wouldn’t have to say so much to and for so many if other voices were given more opportunity and space to speak.

All that being said, this touring production of Fela! does suffer some unavoidable set-backs at the Ahmanson. The show critically relies on interaction between the audience and the ensemble members, often moving around the auditorium which in prior incarnations is highly decorated, blurring the line between stage and seats. The large, aisle-free Ahmanson refutes this, constraining the motion and activity to the stage and a series of call-and-response audience participation moments. This distance can take a big bite out of the finales of both acts where the intensity and actions of the ensemble seem far less encompassing and the political bite of Kuti's music is blunted.

One of the things I was most excited about in revisiting the show, though, was the strength of its cast, many of whom had appeared in the original production. Sahr Ngaujah, who appeared again in the title role in the show I saw, gives one of the most remarkable stage performances I’ve seen in the last few years and deserves far more recognition for this performance than he has sometimes received. He manages a character with very fine lines between humor and rage with real nuance. The show also preserves the thrill of having a red hot live band on stage. Fela! gets that a musical is about music, and having the flesh and blood players to make that sound on stage conquers the whole evening. It's a great show even in this somewhat lesser carbon-copy performance at the Ahmanson; and if you haven't seen it, you should before it ends on January 22.



December 21, 2011

Josh Young as Judas Iscariot Photo: David Hou
In the lead up to the opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of Gounod’s Faust, tongues wagged over the fact that the production’s director, Des McAnuff, has been jetting back and forth across the country during rehearsals. This was due to competing assignments in New York and La Jolla, California, where his production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar was simultaneously in rehearsals at the La Jolla Playhouse for its West Coast premiere. (The show, which originated at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is scheduled to arrive on Broadway in the Spring.) And while some commentators felt that the Met’s Faust may not have been getting all the attention it deserved, after seeing Superstar on a recent Sunday, I can tell you there’s little reason to believe this. On a basic level, the two productions are essentially the same in design. Apparently for today’s audience the distance between heaven and hell on stage is minimal.

McAnuff’s Jesus Christ Superstar incorporates a metal catwalk that runs along both sides and the back of the stage with stairs on either side. The rear of the stage is dominated by a large blind that is used for projections in what is otherwise a vacant space. Sound familiar? The only way you can tell the two shows from one another without a program on first glance would be the costumes. While McAnuff’s Faust is tastefully robed in the first half of the 20th century, Superstar has gone the way of a futuristic dystopia by way of Jerusalem. Actually, Weber’s music would probably give things away as well. It’s 70s rock licks sounded about as mannered as Gounod’s grand French operatic tradition. And whereas McAnuff’s Faust often suffers from too little stage business, Superstar periodically succumbs to too much. The energy level is high, no doubt, but the historical accuracy of the apostles tumbling moves when approaching the savior may be hotly contested by some of the faithful.

That’s not to say that the production isn’t effective at times. It builds on Webber and Rice’s initial idea of casting Christ as a modern-day rock star in retelling the events of the seven days leading up to his crucifixion. That sense is maintained especially in the all-out finale with its neon lit cross and Judas in dark blue skin-tight sequins. But there are just as many moments when the whole thing looks silly or even amateurish. For instance, most people have been to San Diego enough times to know there are plenty of hot guys there that could serve as leather clad go-go boys when Jesus comes to cleanse the temple. Jesus Christ Superstar takes itself very seriously and McAnuff isn’t afraid of building on Webber and Rice's broad strokes to differentiate between good and evil. McAnuff's vision steers perilously towards the farcical at times despite its good moments.

The pacing is very tight, however, and the evening races by at just around two hours even with an intermission. In the performance I attended, Jesus was played by Jeremy Kushnier with an appropriate serenity that bordered on ambivalence. Josh Young had the meatier Judas Iscariot part and at times seemed to be channeling Tim Curry’s Frank N. Furter. Chilina Kennedy’s Mary Magdalene was the evening’s most Broadway-ready performance and was vocally the most solid of anyone else on stage. Will the show fly when it arrives in New York? Maybe. But I think it probably needs to feel a bit less like Rhythm Nation: 1814 if it’s going to make it. Or they could just cast Janet Jackson.


Love, Christmas Style

December 19, 2011

Jason Danieley, Andrew Mueller, Jenni Barber and Michelle Duffy Photo: Henry DiRocco/Old Globe 2011
At Christmas time, stages are typically filled with either the most familiar entertainments or family-friendly fare. In San Diego, as one approaches the plaza outside of the two indoor stages of The Old Globe, there is a large tree decorated in various Dr. Seuss related items in conjunction with the company's production of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which is playing to big crowds. But there is another holiday treat going on right next door in the White Theater with a decidedly more adult attitude. It's a new musical called Some Lovers with book and lyrics from Spring Awakening's Steven Sater and music by Burt Bacharach. The single act has many things going for it, but primary among those is a reminder of what a potent songwriter Bacharach is. Of the songs that make up the score, there's not a dud in the bunch.

On the surface, the show is based on O. Henry's “The Gift of the Magi”. Some Lovers chronicles the ups and downs of a multi-decade love affair through a series of Christmas-time meetings between a couple that is preoccupied with Henry's classic tale. They often read or recite it to one another and, unsurprisingly, parallel some of the key events in the story. The couple is represented on stage by two pairs of performers: a younger version of Molly and Ben: Jenni Barber and Andrew Mueller; and an older and wiser pair played by Michelle Duffy and Jason Danieley. All four performers occupy the same physical space and at times interact with their past/future selves in imagined ways trying to undo the past or remake the future of this unfolding relationship.

But as much as the story owes to “Magi,” perhaps the more dominant archetype here is Sunday in the Park with George. Ben's career as a budding songwriter through its ups and downs is all-consuming, often leaving Molly feeling like a third wheel to Ben's relationship to his art. Of course, Ben's tendency to compose on the piano provides a perfect setting for Bacharach's songs of heartbreak and love gone wrong. The four performers are all given some big solo moments, but the show heats up most in the quartets where past and present intermingle freely. There were some intermittent pitch problems in these group moments and it sounded like Danieley had a worrisome widening vibrato at times. But overall the show's musical qualities are strong and the performances from Mueller and Duffy were first rate.

The show's a pleasure, even if it could probably use a little tightening. After the clouds begin to gather over the young couple's new love, there is a certain repetitiveness to Ben and Molly's conflicts. One argument begins to feel just like the next and a sense of the overall direction and movement of the show gets lost. But for an holiday show with this much lovely music that serves as a respite from family stressors and yet another Nutcracker and Messiah, Some Lovers has little competition. The show runs through December 31 in San Diego so take advantage of this break from the hectic holidays before its gone.


Remember When

December 18, 2011

Bernard Labadie Photo: Luc Delisle
The last week leading up to the holidays brought the most familiar of music to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, nearly all of it from the 18th Century. The final regular subscription shows for the year with the Los Angeles Philharmonic were all Mozart affairs with Symphony No. 41, a snippet from Idomeneo, and Piano Concert No. 27. The conductor was Bernard Labadie, a Baroque specialist, whose previous appearances here with or without his own ensemble, Les Violons du Roy, have been well liked by many including me. The show on Saturday, though, overall was not up to the quality of those prior appearances or at least my memories of them. Of course, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is not a period practice ensemble and to compare them to the smaller Baroque specialist outfit is unfair. However, they've produced excellent performances of 18th Century fare in the past under him, and just this season, the produced some amazing playing of Handel under the direction of Emmauelle Haïm, so a lively earlier sound is certainly possible under the right circumstances. The sound on Saturday was very big and very polished for Mozart, and while pleasant enough, not particularly exciting either. None of this was improved upon by the choice of soloist, Italian pianist Benedetto Lupo. He, too, was both professional and technically accurate in his playing. But it was also uninteresting without clear lines and could be rather unemotional. I found the tempi in the Symphony to drag a little as well.

Mozart is not the easiest of music to get right, and by that I mean played in a manner that incites excitement in the listener. Handel’s Messiah is probably even more so. That’s not necessarily due to technical issues as much as the piece’s omnipresence at this time of year. Any performance invites comparisons to others and my current gold standard is the superb version filmed in Vienna with Ensemble Matheus under Spinosi including a full staging directed by Claus Guth. My dream version at this point would be staged as well, this time by Achim Freyer who worked wonders in Los Angeles with with Bach's Mass in C Minor all those years ago. In Los Angeles this year, you have several Messiah options. The Los Angeles Philharmonic hosted Nicholas McGegan and the Bay Area's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra for two performances of Handel’s big oratorio last week. They availed themselves nicely with the assistance of their 24-member chorus and four soloists. The playing from the orchestra was up to its usual standards and McGegan led a well-paced performance with the expected cuts and plenty of character. The soloists were all fine, including countertenor Daniel Taylor, soprano Dominique Labelle, baritone Nathaniel Watson, and tenor Thomas Cooley. Cooley and Labelle stood out with ample power in the hall. Was it the best Messiah ever? No. But it was a good one by any standard and a welcome addition for a time of year that is often overrun with overly familiar music not always given the fairest shake.

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The Silent Treatment

December 17, 2011

Olympia Dukakis and Marco Barricelli Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2011
How many star vehicles for Olympia Dukakis can one theater-going year contain? Well this year I’ve seen two, and they were remarkably similar experiences. She is undeniably a fine actor and I understand the impulse to put her at the center of a show. Both times I’ve seen her on stage this year, I was impressed with her ability to communicate so immediately with her audience. Yet on both occasions, she was ultimately let down by odd or lackluster material that didn’t do her justice. In February, she starred in an Off-Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, a heavy-handed psychoanalytic tragedy about an artist-drifter who comes to act as a grim reaper for an elderly woman coming to the close of her days in a European villa. I didn’t write about this show at the time, but it was largely unsatisfying and provided a template for Dukakis recent stage appearances here in Los Angeles.

This weekend she wraps up a run in Morris Panych’s Vigil at the Mark Tape Forum downtown. It’s been one of the weakest season’s for the Taper in many years with five productions (one of which was actually on the Ahmanson stage) virtually all of which were either solo or small cast star-vehicles or half-baked revivals. (The exception was Theresa Rebeck’s world premiere Poor Behavior which gave the season its only real comic bite.) Panych’s odd-little dark comedy doesn’t change the season’s overall course. Vigil is a two-hander about a man, played by Marco Barricelli, who has come to see his dying aunt at her request. The aunt, played by Dukakis says almost nothing throughout the whole evening. Dukakis has a total of nearly 5 lines with the entire two hours taken up with a monologue delivered by the nephew. He’s a neurotic fellow whose relentless unanswered questions and stories end up telling us all about his own life and family. Dukakis, who has only one line in the entire first hour, meanwhile gives a wonderful, nuanced performance that is entirely about her body language. It’s a testament to her craft and it certainly the best part about the show.

Unfortunately, the play is fairly weak overall. Panych strings together short, staccato scenes punctuating them with morose punch lines often emphasizing the neurotic nephew’s desire for this whole episode to over and done with. There is an element of surreal absurdity to the play and the nephew’s unplanned visit soon stretches into months and months rather than days. His eagerness to see the aunt dead soon gives way to a sentimental story about loneliness and friendship in the face of death. Barricelli delivered Panych’s one liners with some zing, which one would hope for since Panych also severed as the director in this run. But I often felt the whole show was holding back, taking the easy way out of resolving what are some troubling scenarios and questions right down to those about suicide and our universal mortality. Panych is so wedded to the clever structural elements and turns of events that make up the story that the show feels forced and less funny than it might be otherwise. He fortunately has a very fine actor in Dukakis who can help carry the weaker parts of this material. But she deserves somehting a bit meatier than this outing.


You're the Colosseum - Best of Music '11

December 15, 2011

Gerald Barry Photo: Betty Freeman
In 2011, I once again spent more hours sitting in the dark looking at other people on a stage than I care to admit. But as always, there are moments that take a nothing evening and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile. So, as is the annual Out West Arts tradition, here’s the list of the 10 best things I saw on a stage this year that involved music. (The 2011 theater list won’t appear until January given that I have a number of new shows I’ll be seeing right up to the end of the month so stay tuned.)

1. Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Thomas Adès. 4/11. It’s a crime Barry isn’t a bigger name in music and opera and his setting of Earnest is exhibit A. A riotously funny musical version of Wilde’s play even in this concert version outshone everything else with its smashing plates and a bass singing Aunt Augusta. This opera should be on every opera company’s to do list and was easily the most fun I had at any show all year.

Nina Stemme, Andrea Silvestrelli, Ian Storey, and cast Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2011
2. Wagnerian diamonds in the rough - James Levine conducting Die Walküre at The Metropolitan Opera on May 14th, 2011 and Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde at San Francisco Opera 6/11. Even in not-so-great Wagner productions this year there were some causes for celebration. Despite Robert Lepage’s underwhelming production of the Ring at The Metropolitan Opera, this single performance of Die Walküre, which was projected as part of the company’s Live in HD series around the world, was just about as thrilling as opera gets. On the closing day of the Met’s season, music director James Levine led a ferocious performance raging against everything awful in the world. The odds were against him from a set that delayed the start of the show by nearly half an hour to his own health problems, which had led to many cancellations earlier, and then later on, in the year. In what increasingly looks like it may have been Levine’s last appearance in the Met pit, the beautifully conducted and sung performance was thrilling for all the high-wire, risk-taking, do-or-die human fragility that makes opera as exciting an art form as it is. Francesca Zambello’s Ring production in San Francisco only faired moderately better with less sensational musical qualities, with one very big exception: Nina Stemme. In California, she proved herself to be the world’s reigning Brünnhilde in her first complete cycles. Watch out Munich.

The chorus in The Death of Klinghoffer Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2011
3. John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer at Opera Theater Saint Louis. 6/11. The best overall single opera performance I saw this year was Adams’ still controversial work about terrorism and humanism, which returned to the U.S. after an unusually lengthy hiatus. OTSL put together a production that caught all of the opera’s beauty including a phenomenal choral performance. There are few things more exciting than hearing music this beautiful come to life. It was a stirring and heart wrenching evening.

4. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Shostakovich’s Prologue to Orango and Symphony No. 4. 12/11. The best single orchestral performance I heard this year was a return appearance of Salonen to the orchestra he made famous with music that was funny, painful, tortured and insanely difficult in a way that communicates with the audience and holds together on an aesthetic level. Salonen has few rivals with this kind of program and his mastery that weekend made me ache over what has been lost in L.A. in his absence.

Robin T Buck and chorus Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff/LBO 2011
5. David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field at Long Beach Opera. 6/11. This single act from Lang with musical accompaniment from a string quartet was both emotionally stirring and intellectually challenging. A meditation on memory and the weights of history, Crossing a Field got the kind of bold, fascinating treatment one has come to expect from Andreas Mitisek and his Long Beach company who create so much out of such limited resources that it should put most American opera houses to shame.

6. Sofia Gubaidulina’s Offertorium performed by the CalArts Music ensemble and wild Up with soloist Mark Menzies at REDCAT. 5/11. Gubaidulina made a rare personal appearance in Southern California this May in conjunction with performances of several of her works including Glorious Percussion with the L.A. Philharmonic. The most impressive of those was her large scale violin concerto that got an unimaginably loving and enthusiastic performance from CalArts students and faculty. Joining them was conductor Christopher Rountree, the leading force behind L.A.’s biggest, boldest collaboration of young musicians, wild Up that had a banner year playing just about everything they or you, could think of. Watch their space for more.

David Lang and Grant Gershon with members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Photo: Ken Hively
7. David Lang’s the little match girl passion at Jacaranda Music. 1/11 and with the Los Angeles Master Chorale. 11/11. Lang had quite a year in Southern California and his multi-prize winning treatment of The Little Match Girl got a stunning four-voice chamber performance under the auspices of the Westside’s new(er) music leader, Jacaranda Music. Months later, one of the soloists from that performance, Grant Gershon, led his regular ensemble, the Los Angeles Master Chorale in a version for full chorus. The two performances were strikingly different and emotionally devastating in completely different ways, a testament to Lang's writing as well as the talents of the various performers.

Simone Alberghini, Maxim Mironov, Nino Machaidze, and Paolo Gavanelli in Il Turco in Italia Photo: Armin Bardel/LAO 2011
8. Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia at Los Angeles Opera. 2/11. LA Opera had a banner spring season including this masterful comedy with a superb cast including Nino Machaidze, Paolo Gavanelli, and Thomas Allen among others in a modern whimsical production from Christof Loy in one of his show’s first outings in the U.S. Once again LAO proved that taste is one of its biggest strengths in bringing a show that takes what is arguably a light entertainment and turns it into undoubtedly something far greater. You’d be just as well off on this item if you chose to substitute it for LA Opera’s production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw from 3/11, which was equally as good in a Jonathan Kent production with Patricia Racette.

9. San Francisco Symphony’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 under Michael Tilson Thomas. 10/11. MTT and his orchestra proved that hard work and perseverance can pay off with a world-class performance of Mahler’s Third. Profound and perfectly proportioned, it was Mahler to be envied and aspired to by those of us in Southern California.

Philippe Jaroussky Photo: Ana Bloom
10. Beautiful Baroque singing everywhere you turned, from Philippe Jaroussky (10/11), Andreas Scholl (10/11), Lucy Crowe (5/11), Iestyn Davies (11/11), and Vivica Genaux (10/11). Everywhere I went this year, it was was consistently vocalists who specialize in Baroque music that impressed me most for some reason, often jaw-droppingly so. The U.S. debut of the year either has to go to Lucy Crowe who dominated Handel’s Hercules at Lyric Opera of Chicago, or it could just as easily be Iestyn Davies who gave a fantastic performance in Rodelinda at The Metropolitan Opera. The world’s leading countertenor, Andreas Scholl was in that same Rodelinda but his appearance with The English Concert in works of Purcell in Los Angeles was no less awe-inspiring. And within just days of this appearance, Philippe Jaroussky sang alongside Apollo’s Fire Orchestra with glorious tone at UCLA while Vivica Genaux was heard with the Philharmonia Baroque orchestra giving the best performance of “Agitata Da Due Venti” I’ll ever likely hear.

Honorable Mention: There were a number of other shows that could just have easily made the top ten this year including Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Boris Godunov, the return of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha to The Metropolitan Opera complete with protestors, Berg’s Wozzeck in either Santa Fe or New York, "Monodramas" at New York City Opera, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande with Simon Rattle at The Metropolitan Opera, Mitsuko Uchida playing Schumann at Carnegie Hall, Gabriel Kahane’s Orinoco Sketches, which premiered on the L.A. Phil stage in the spring, wild Up playing punk rock and Barlow at Beyond Baroque, Thomas Adès conducting Stravinsky’s Les Noces with the L.A. Phil, Santa Fe Opera’s production of Vivaldi’s Griselda from the mind of Peter Sellars, and the glorious magnetic voice of Jonas Kaufmann be it in recital or as Siegmund.


To Know Him is to Love Him

December 14, 2011

The cast of Godspell Photo: Jeremy Daniel 2011
Did I mention that I saw the current revival of Stephen Schwartz’ Godspell when I was in New York recently? It apparently had slipped my mind until someone asked me about it recently and truth be told, I did decide I was going to try and catch up with all the big late 20th-century Jesus musicals this month since I’ll be seeing Jesus Christ Superstar this weekend in La Jolla. Godspell, of course, is a different beast from Weber and Rice’s extravaganza. Schwartz took a much more obtuse, non-narrative approach to the same material with a show that even today functions more as a love-in than a conventional story-driven drama. And while there’s no real proselytizing in the show, the current revival comes at you with such an overabundance of good will and conviction that it has an air of desperation about it. The show is filled with New Testament parables from the Good Samaritan to Lazarus dutifully told by a rag-tag band of young theater performers who look like they wear only clothes they bought on Etsy. It’s all about making the material real to a contemporary audience, though, so the stories are peppered with jokes and allusions to just about everything you can think of to the recent Occupy protests to Republican presidential hopefuls. At times one wishes that the feeling wasn’t quite so up to the minute, but the jokes do tend to be reasonable ones even if the overall effect can be overwhelming. Just when you’re about to catch your breath, the cast members start passing around the hand-held confetti cannons.

That’s not to say there aren’t some really enjoyable performances here. The Jesus part goes to Hunter Parrish who manages to undercut his sharp good looks enough to seem inviting as a would be religious figure. Uzo Aduba stands out among the players as well vocally as does Wallace Smith. I was also taken with Telly Leung who gets to exhibit more range and skills here to those who may be familiar with him from the recent Star Trek movie. But even these talents can get mired in all the activity going on in this show. One wonders whether further distractions are needed here, but apparently the show’s promoters think that it might be warranted. In an odd case of life imitating…well…theater if not art, just as the ensemble enters the stage at the top of the show all with their heads buried in their individual smart phones, Godspell will reportedly get its own “Tweeting” section devoted to people who wish to use their mobile devices during the performance at some point in the future. Regardless of whether or not this bogeyman frightens you, the real question will be whether any of these would-be users will actually be able to get a signal in the depths of the Circle in the Square Theater. And if so, will they be communicating about the show, or will it be about something else?


Beyond God the Father

December 13, 2011

Monette Magrath (Abbie) and Jason Dechert (Eben) Photo: Craig Schwartz/ANW 2011
I caught up with A Noise Within’s second production of the Fall, their second in their new Pasadena home, Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms on Sunday. It’s a very good production of a 20th-century play that isn’t the kind of thing that most contemporary audiences quickly gravitate to. It’s filled with the kind of overt psychoanalytic thinking and references to Greek tragedy that can come off heavy-handed. Recent productions of Desire Under the Elms like the one Robert Falls recently took to New York, have dealt with this by running with the outlandish aspects of the story and doubling-down on them with surrealism. Perhaps the greatest achievement of director Dámaso Rodriguez in his staging for A Noise Within is his ability to keep the play relevant despite taking a far more naturalistic approach to the material.

Rodriguez also takes a traditional tack with the material, focusing heavily on the relationship between elderly Ephraim Cabot’s son, Eben, and Ephraim’s very young, brand-new wife, Abbie Putnam. Eben’s long standing desire to inherit the family farm is soon challenged by his new-stepmother’s plans until it is supplanted (and conflicted) by their desire for one another. Before you can say Oedipus, tragedy ensues. But this central relationship works with two young increasingly well known local faces, Monette Magrath as Abbie and Jason Dechert as Eben. Magrath strikes just the right tone of menace and desperation in Abbie while Dechert comes off as beautifully bruised in as believable a way as possible given the circumstances. William Dennis Hunt portrays an Ephraim more damaged than deadly here, but the combination of these three occupying the majority of the play’s action works quite well.

Better yet, the production itself suggested ANW’s continued adjustment to their new surroundings. John Lacovilli’s two story set, the Cabot family farm, expands to fill the available space more naturally than the concurrently running Twelfth Night. The overall feels was more relaxed and intimate, drawing the audience in from a greater distance into the thrust stage area. Sightlines at the Pasadena space are greatly improved and the cast is far more exposed from every angle demanding more from everyone. The cast and crew delivered all this on Sunday. Luckily, you’ve got two more chances to see Desire Under the Elms this weekend before it and Twelfth Night close for the holidays with the company returning in January with a short revival of their hugely successful production of Noises Off.

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French Lessons

December 12, 2011


The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra celebrated the influence artists have on one another in their performances this weekend. Appropriately enough, the shows coincided with one of their own collaborations, the 20th anniversary of Kent Twitchell’s giant Harbor Freeway Overture mural that motorists heading north out of downtown on the 110 freeway have grown accustomed to. The eight-story tall painting commemorates LACO and its members including three players still in the orchestra to this day - Julie Gigante, Allan Vogel and Roland Kato. Like the mural itself, LACO has become an integral part of living in Los Angeles with great performances like the one which I saw Sunday at the groups’ Westside home, UCLA's Royce Hall.

Music Director Jeffrey Kahane led the orchestra through works inspired by the French Baroque and in particular the music of François Couperin. The evening started with Ravel’s impressionistic recollection of Couperin’s music with Le tombeau de Couperin. The players produced the kind of lush romantic sound that is usually associated with a much larger ensemble. The other composer on the bill most directly inspired by Couperin was Thomas Adès whose Three Studies from Couperin took a slightly different approach. Adès starts with Couperin’s music itself and uses several of his themes originally written for Harpsichord as starting points for his own contemporary music. Whereas Ravel uses Couperin more as an idea, Adès takes a re-constructivist approach with a music that is surprisingly modern and clean in its overall tone despite the clearly Baroque patterns that travel right along with it demanding to be attended to. It's just a snippet of what makes Adès such an urgent composer and it was the highlight of the night.

The evening also took up Respighi’s Gil uccelli, a piece with several brief movements, each related to a specific French Baroque (or earlier) composer and a bird. Again Kahane managed a light, fleet sound from the orchestra. If there was a weak point to the evening, it was Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, a single movement piece for orchestra and solo cello. The underdeveloped, almost concerto didn’t quite fit the program’s overall theme. It also didn’t seem to win over too many in the audience. Ralph Kirshbaum was the soloist and he seemed to struggle on Sunday with stretches of wrong notes and a sometimes abrasive tone. He played an encore from the Bach Cello Suites that was far more assured and typical for a performer with his reputation. His appearance served a s a prelude for one of the more exciting events of the Spring here in L.A., the inaugural Piatigorsky International Cello Festival that Kirshbaum will head up in March with appearances from many of the world's greatest cellists for a series of concerts, master classes and other events or 9 days that will involve collaboration from LACO, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Colburn School and the USC Thornton School of Music. Check out the full schedule.


Boston Common

December 11, 2011


The Boston Symphony Orchestra, one of America’s most storied major orchestras, is capping off an unsettled decade. Following the departure of long-time music director Seiji Ozawa in 2002 after some controversial and tumultuous years, the symphony appointed James Levine as its new music director in 2004. Unfortunately, Levine’s own plans to reinvigorate the organization were met with yet more controversy and eventually his own declining health after many cancellations led to his own resignation earlier this year. But the Boston players have soldiered on through all of it, and they arrived in Los Angeles on Saturday as part of their current tour with Levine’s substitute for the out-of-town shows, newly-minted Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot. The program on Saturday night was a fairly typical one for a contemporary American orchestra with Brahms' Violin Concerto played by Gil Shaham followed by John Harbison’s Symphony No. 4 and Ravel’s second suite from Daphnis and Chloe.

The best news is that years of turmoil at the top has not hampered the overall quality of the Boston Symphony’s sound. The strings were absolutely lovely and polished throughout the whole show Saturday. The winds were equally spectacular with a horn section to die for. The playing was always assured and confident. But whether or not all of the music director changes of the last several years are to blame, the players' polished sound was one of the few things the lackluster and frequently dull evening had going for it. Much of the performance overall was lacking a needed energy. Maybe it was just an off night for Morlot and the players, but the end result was unmistakable. From the very beginning of the Brahms’ concerto things sounded awry with a lazy and slow Allegro non troppo. When the Adagio arrived with virtually no change in tempo things continued to go downhill. Even Shaham who can usually be counted on for a spirited performance seemed sloppy in his attacks, his sound turning screechy at times. The music moved along, but Morlot appeared to be unable to pull much out of the orchestra other than competent, accurate playing.

Things didn’t improve much later on. Harbison’s 2003 Symphony No. 4 is in five movements that contain a variety of references to different musical genres. It can stop and start with little rhyme or reason. There is certainly interesting music there, and the L.A. crowd is no stranger to this strain of contemporary music. But again there was a particular lack of enthusiasm that dragged things down. I never felt that Morlot really made a case for this particular piece in this particular program, though again the playing was clean and of a high professional quality. Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite seemed to connect more directly with the orchestra. At last a pulse was felt and Morlot seemed to dig in as well. But by this point, it was a bit too little too late, though the wind soloists availed themselves all quite well of this ornate score. It was tempting to wonder how different things might have been if Levine’s health had not turned out to be what it was. And for at least this one night on the road in Los Angeles, it was hard to believe that things wouldn't have turned out better.


Woman in Chains

December 09, 2011

Renée Fleming, Andreas Scholl, and Stephanie Blythe Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2011
Before it gets away from me I did want to say a few words about the Metropolitan Opera’s current revival of Handel’s Rodelinda, which will conclude its run in New York on Saturday. I was in the audience last Saturday and have to say I had a great time, though admittedly sometimes for the wrong reasons. There is much about this opera that doesn’t work in this particular house. The Met has very little experience with Baroque operas, and the house, which is already too big for the works of Gluck and Mozart, is seriously ill-proportioned for Handel. The production was originally another star vehicle for Renée Fleming in 2004 and she returned to headline the revival as well. And love her though I do, vocally she is not the biggest attraction in this particular music, which cuts against her strengths of warmth and richness with a lot of fine detail that she never really does justice to.

Andreas Scholl and Iestyn Davies Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2011
But I felt really especially sympathetic towards her on Saturday for her pluck and perseverance in Stephen Wadsworth’s campy production. The novelty of the show is that Wadsworth has laid out the different scenes in a very wide linear set that moves left and right as the opera progresses bringing new portions into view for the audience. The setting is the 18th century which is good enough as any, but Wadsworth cannot resist histrionic gestures often undercutting the actual emotional content of scenes. Rage is most often expressed by throwing books or other objects to the floor. Fleming first appears on stage shackled by the wrist to a bed post by way of a long chain. As if this didn’t look silly enough, once removed on Saturday, the prop got wedged between the set and stage apron in the moving machinery, eventually dragging the bed along with the characters as they started to move into the next part of the moving set. The bed then got wedged up against the proscenium as stage hands tried to secrete the wayward furniture back into the wings. There was plenty of romping around and costume changes in the stable to enjoy after this. But, perhaps the most audacious moment, though, and the one that showed Fleming’s true mark of a diva, was her choice to overlook Wadsworth’s decision for the second countertenor (an excellent Iestyn Davies as Unulfo) to have abdominal surgery performed on him while laying on a table in the library as she sings her big concluding aria. As much as I like to rail against operatic conventions, can't we give the diva her moment at the end without whiskey-soaked wounds and cries of pain in the background? Just asking.

All of these unintentional chuckles were met with some spectacular singing, though, from the rest of the cast. There was the nearly miraculous Stephanie Blythe, of course, as Eduige. And then there was the splendid Andreas Scholl as Rodelinda’s husband, the deposed King Bertarido. Scholl is perhaps the most accomplished countertenor before the public and he sounded like it on Saturday with real agility and lightness to his sound. And yet he filled the house well under the thoughtful conducting of Harry Bicket. Earlier this year I had mentioned the soprano Lucy Crowe may have had the best U.S. Premiere of any singer this year, but now I feel she has might serious competition for that title from that same surgical patient, Iestyn Davies who appeared as Unulfo. He's commanding on stage with staggering vocal technique. It's the kind of voice where one begins to wonder, where has this guy been all this time. We need more of Mr. Davies vocalism around these parts, and soon. So whether the show's star gets the treatment she deserves, this Rodelinda is a good time and there are ticket's still available for tomorrow.


What is the Word

December 06, 2011

Nicholas Isherwood with Movses Pogossian, Stephanie Griffin, Karen Ouzounian, and Jonathan Hepfer Photo: mine
The longstanding outpost for late 20th century and newer music in Los Angeles, Monday Evening Concerts, returned for its latest season on Monday at its most recent home, the Zipper Concert Hall, on Monday. It was a quietly intense evening filled with music inspired by the work of Samuel Beckett either in spirit or word. Beckett’s work, and particularly that of his later career, is undeniably musical in its sparse yet forceful language. This economy, and its related abstraction, make it ideal for composers who were interested in similar types of musical structures and language. Monday’s program went about this in two ways. The first half included pieces more related in terms of structure and style than actual content. Heinz Holiger, who will enjoy a major retrospective of his musical output at next year’s Salzburg Festival, has set a number of Beckett’s plays, but Monday’s concert began with his viola solo, Trema. The work rapidly shifts back and forth between two different sets of material mimicking a sort of restrained frenzy that certainly had parallels to the kind of psychology found throughout Beckett’s world. Holliger’s piece led immediately into a later work from John Cage, Seven. Here the viola is joined by six other players including piano and percussion. For most of them, only a handful of notes or chords are indicated over a period of twenty minutes with only general guidelines suggested for the precise entry or length of any of them. The resulting music can be highly variable, or even largely silent depending on the decisions the players make. On Monday, the excellent ensemble of MEC regulars performed a version that fit into the Beckett theme easily with its halting almost isolated islands of sound and subtle shifting percussion.

The second half of the show took on Beckett in a more direct way with Kurtág’s …pas á pas – nulle part…, a setting of the author’s poetry. Like much of Kurtág’s output, …pas á pas.. is a collection of miniatures – twenty-nine to be exact each clocking in at less than a minute or two. Beckett’s terse, dark, and sometimes morbidly humorous poetry almost precisely paralleled the notes of the three string players, percussionist, and baritone. Often the voice and instrumental parts traveled in tight unison. This is dramatic, and very literary material with Kurtág’s typical elaborate titling of each miniature in a manner almost more elaborate than the poetry itself, with different segments being dedicated to everyone from Holliger and Boulez, to Helmut Lachenmann and Erik Satie. One could spend a day just sorting out the elusive connections between Kurtág’s words and Beckett’s. But the dedication that may have most pointedly shaped the performance was that of baritone Nicholas Isherwood who announced from the stage that his mother had died earlier that very day and that his performance was given in tribute to her. Performing in the wake of such an immensely painful and nearly universal event was admirable and I would certainly offer my prayers and condolences to Isherwood and his family. But it also made for a ferocious and exacting performance, perhaps even the performance of a lifetime for an artist. Beckett’s mordant tone, and his ironic sense of living in the face of our certain mortality may never have sounded so poignant as it was then. Isherwood highlighted two of Beckett's short texts before the performance that caught the spirit of the moment best for him. And it certainly made a great and unique start for the MEC season.

sleep till death
come ease
this life disease


Great Apes

December 05, 2011


Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles this weekend there was another acute reminder of what was lost with the departure of Esa-Pekka Salonen from the Los Angeles Philharmonic a couple of years ago. Salonen, of course, has returned both last season and this year for two weeks of programming as conductor laureate and in his final appearance this year, he and the orchestra delivered the kind of outstanding large-scale multimedia project that was a hallmark of his tenure here. The program last weekend was straight forward enough. It included two pieces from Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4 and the world premiere of an operatic fragment, Orango. But the demands of these particular works and the themes that link them were mighty stuff and the end result was one of the best L.A. Philharmonic performances I’ve seen in the last couple of years.

The show started with the much discussed Orango or more specifically the completed Prologue to Shostakovich’s opera of the same name. The work was commissioned in 1932 for the Bolshoi Theater on short notice to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the October revolution. Shostakovich and his librettists chose a farcical story about a half-man, half-ape creature, Orango, who is created out of, and eventually falls victim to, the excesses of capitalism. The project was never completed and largely forgotten until a musicologist, Olga Dignoskaya came across a piano and vocal score for the opera’s prologue in Shostakovich’s papers archived in the Glinka Museum. With the support of Shostakovich’s wife, the piece was orchestrated and completed by composer Gerard McBurney prior to its world premiere here in Los Angeles.

The final product the orchestra played this weekend certainly sounded like Shostakovich from that period and had all the maniacal and comical musical hallmarks one associates with such a pointed farce. The Prologue concerns a giant celebration where an audience demands of the party’s host (sung by Ryan McKinny) to be entertained by the captive Orango (sung by Eugene Brancoveanu). At first the host is uncomfortable bringing Orango forward due to his propensity for aggression, but he eventually relents. However, Orango does in fact become agitated in response to several of the guests who have had prior undisclosed interactions with him—including the zoologist (Michael Fabiano) who helped create the creature by cross breeding an ape and a human—that will serve as the plot for the rest of the opera. The music is wild, rapidly changing genres at a whim.

And like so much of Shostakovich’s music, the Orango Prologue is notable in its potential for double meaning. It is clearly a farce about the evils of Western capitalism, but it is also taking not very subtle shots at the failures of the October revolution 15 years after the fact. And it was this double meaning, of the social unrest over economic inequalities and the failure to address them in the past or present that was at the heart of the stage direction collaborator Peter Sellars brought to the evening. Most of the singing party-goers were seated in the WDCH audience during the show implicating the concert’s viewers as participants in the overarching politics of the work. All the characters and chorus were dressed in contemporary street clothes. And just to make the connections clear, Sellars used a video consisting of repeated quick-cut still images displayed above the orchestra that included contemporary images of Occupy Wall Street protests, military drone aircraft, and the pensive faces of monkeys (some clearly in a laboratory setting) to accompany the music. This was not timed to the music, but was meant to allude to the cinematic work of Shostakovich’s contemporaries such as Sergei Eisenstein. Sellars had also pointed out the parallels in Shostakovich’s own musical structures with some of the cinematic ones used by Eisenstein. Even at this stage of the game, Sellars knows how to provoke and clearly some in the audience weren’t comfortable with this. But I felt, given the nature of the work at hand, it was appropriate for music that was meant to be comically confrontational. It was a wild and free-spirited performance by American orchestra standards, and even by L.A. Philharmonic standards.

The next surprise came with the highly-related Symphony No. 4 that followed. Shostakovich famously withdrew this work in 1936 following Stalin’s negative reaction to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the composers own relative black listing. It was a dangerous time for the composer as the government began to arrest or take action against his friends, family and associates leaving him constantly on guard that he, too, might be punished in some new, unexpected way. The monumental symphony reflects a justifiable paranoid state of mind with its rapid and unpredictable changes in tone and structure over its immense hour-plus length. It can be frighteningly dark and ephemeral or boisterous and militaristic. It is not a work for the fainthearted to perform and requires incredible amounts of control and organization to keep unified. Salonen was up to the task and gave the performance a masterful comprehensive sense of place and direction. The third movement was nothing short of riveting with music more chilling than anything in a movie thriller. This was the other side of Orango’s comic response to that sort of police state totalitarianism. One can cope through dark sardonic laughter, but underneath insidious fear still lurks. Salonen and Sellars have both been around enough to pull off this brilliant program - one that youthful vigor and excitement alone could never have spoken as eloquently too.


The Subject Was Roses

December 04, 2011

Jonas Kaufmann and Marina Poplavskaya Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2011
With all the twittering about protests and such, you might forget there was an actual opera performance going on at The Metropolitan Opera on Saturday night. There was one and it was immensely frustrating. It was the second performance of a new production of Gounod’s Faust directed by Des McAnuff that was seen earlier this year at English National Opera. This time around it starred Jonas Kaufmann in the title role alongside Marina Poplavskaya as Maguerite and René Pape as Méphistophélès. The show, although admittedly not an entirely home-grown production, is a step in the right direction for the company after a number of recent awful premieres such as Michael Grandage’s Don Giovanni that appeared to have virtually no stage direction at all. But despite its aspirations, this Faust is unusually empty at most moments.

McAnuff has ideas, all right. The story goes that when Pamela Rosenberg originally commissioned what would become John Adams’ Doctor Atomic for San Francisco Opera she had asked the composer for a work to fit into a series of productions related to Goethe’s Faust that would cast J. Robert Oppenheimer as just such a figure. Well, she didn’t get exactly what she’d first asked for, but McAnuff has delivered more-or-less the same thing built atop Gounod’s setting of the story. Now Faust is an atomic scientist of the mid-20th Century working on the bomb and desiring his youth during an earlier war-torn era. It’s a single unit set consisting of a large steel girder framework with a spiral staircase and elevated catwalk on either side. Initially the elderly Faust (Kaufmann still showing his Movember pride) stands among the bombs and women in white coats scurrying about his lab before planning to end it all. Then Pape shows up in a white suit and Poplavskaya in the first in a series of hideous dresses that will haunt her all evening and we’re off to the races.

Or are we? The show seems to sputter and never recover from here on out. Very little changes from scene to scene and before long it all becomes rather dull to look at, like some sparsely appointed modern loft apartment, albeit one with a killer AV system. The characters in this apartment seemed superficially related to one another and scenes bleed from one to another with little differentiation. And even though I rather liked the small twist of an ending which reframed the opera in a manner more open to interpretation, it was like that same timidity had crept back in. This Faust despite its positives needs to go farther and needs to do more. This time a sharp looking contemporary design and overall concept was hollowed out with ambivalent and underdeveloped stage action. Even stage images meant to grab attention fell flat like the curtain of giant red roses that descends during the final parts of Act III. This problem was only compounded by a shockingly detached performance from Kaufmann. He wanders about with nary a clue to whether he is feeling love or anger or anything. As to how much of this was bad direction isn't clear, but it wasn't fun to watch. His vocal performance was not up to his recent standards either.He often turned to crooning and at the top of Act III, after the shouting incident, he cracked right in the climax of Salut, demeure chaste et pure taking a shine off of a performance that had a number of otherwise remarkably lovely moments. Poplavskaya was just a touch harsh vocally at moments, but she’s got the market cornered on onstage crazy and the maniacal look on her face in Act IV and V was a highlight. (Of course she is dirty and has a bad hair cut by this point indicating that she must be crazy given that these are the universal stage markers for madness.) The Act IV cathedral scene between her and Pape was the most engaging things got dramatically.

The unquestionable star of the night was Pape whose suave, somewhat bemused Mephistophélès was the charismatic center of the whole show. Let’s put it this way – if this had been a Saturday night at Akbar in Silverlake instead of the Met, as yummy as Kaufmann and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin are, on this night I’d still have chosen to go home on the back of Pape’s Harley in a hearbeat. But I digress. Nézet-Séguin led a lush, but light performance from the pit seemingly unflappable with all that was going on around him. He again left no question why everyone is rightfully excited about him on the East Coast as he turned another operatic warhorse into something musically enthralling. More of him, please. It was nice to hear some of the Act V cave scene preserved, although the ballet music was still cut. And while I'm at it, I would certainly be pleased to hear more of Russell Braun whose enraged Valentin seemed more like a suitor than the brother. Still I'd take this mixed bag over a number of recent things at the Met in that the show has some guts as compared to none. Who knows? With time and a different set of performances, this might turn out to be a memorable Faust after all.


A Shout Out
or, Oper für alle

The Occupy L.A. mural
So this happened. On Saturday I attended the second performance of The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Gounod’s Faust. I was sitting in the orchestra pondering this mess of a production (more on that later) as the first intermission was drawing to a close. As the lights dimmed and the crowd quieted, awaiting the arrival of conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a man’s voice, which sounded as if it were coming from above the orchestra level, suddenly began to shout “occupy Wall Street” repeatedly. It was shouted about 10 times by my estimation, but by the second or third salvo the rest of the audience started to respond. There was supportive applause, laughter, and groans in equal amounts. Amidst the pervasive mumbling were some shouted retorts, some more colorful than others. Someone from the Metropolitan Opera’s house staff started to come out on stage. But before this man with a headset could make any announcement, the shouting stopped and he retreated back into the wings without comment. Nézet-Séguin came out seconds later and the show went on more or less like nothing had happened. I assume the shouting man was escorted out, but I don’t actually know this since I didn’t see him. The whole incident didn’t take more than a minute or two. It was the second such Occupy movement-related activity at Lincoln Center in three days. I had caught the tail end of the protest that followed Thursday’s performance of Glass’ Satyagraha at the Met.

And while I didn’t have much to say about it then, Saturday’s shout out reminded me of something from before. When I was finishing college, I once had an opportunity to have dinner with a small group of fellow students, our professor, the philosopher and author Linda Singer, and her friend and colleague, Judith Butler. Butler had just given a talk about photography and the right-wing politicians who were trying to score points over the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and public funding for the arts. She discussed the controversy over what she slyly described as pictures of “appendages resting on velvet” and people asked her questions about the typical American preoccupations over “rights” and “censorship”. But eventually, the conversation turned to some of the problematic elements of Mapplethorpe’s work concerning issues of race and aesthetics. Someone posed a question about the difference between tactics in critiquing Mapplethorpe’s work from these two very different ideological perspectives. Butler’s answer, as I remember it, was that the best way to address any concerns about art, or how it is made, funded or supported, should take a proliferative form. If you’ve got a problem with how art is made/produced/funded, then make/produce/fund your own in response in a manner that addresses your concerns and critiques. Fight art with art so to speak.

How all this relates to Thursday and Saturday at the Met Opera can be interpreted several ways. But I’ve always favored this idea that the best response to anything you don’t like is to be proliferative and productive in response. The opera house and the particular artistic forces it relies upon, have always been the locus of cultural contention, political or otherwise. Composers like Verdi and Wagner, or Glass and Adams for that matter, regularly infused their work with political concerns and shaped them in response to the issues of their days. Currently there are numerous musicians and artists who have been supportive and involved through such organizations as Occupy Musicians putting together both performances and recordings across the country. On the West coast meanwhile, members of Occupy L.A. have yet to protest in or at an opera performance there. Yet, some of the people camped out by L.A. City Hall produced a mural left behind when the city later evicted them from the site. The city is now trying to preserve that mural as a piece of public art. And while that won’t immediately resolve any of the social and economic justice issues at the heart of this movement, there is something powerful in it. We need more art, and more speech to bring about change - not less. Here’s to a world of such beautiful revolutions.


In the Wings - Dec '11

December 03, 2011

Photo: Clive Barda
December brings its usual combination of holiday fare to Los Angeles stages this month. But even if you’re not in a holiday mood, there are plenty of things to choose from in town. Probably the one must see show is the latest appearance of Esa-Pekka Salonen with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend where he’ll lead a cast of exciting young singers such as Ryan McKinny, Eugene Brancoveanu, Timur Bekbosunov, and Michael Fabiano in the world premiere of the recently discovered fragments of Shostakovich’s abandoned opera Orango with a completed orchestral score by Gerard McBurney. This will be paired with Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony and will also mark the return of Salonen’s friend and theatrical collaborator Peter Sellars to the WDCH. There are a number of other good shows this month as well from the Los Angeles Philharmonic including a Mozart program led by Bernard Labadie the weekend of the 16th. And if you need your end of the year Messiah fix there are two excellent choices: the Los Angeles Master Chorale will perform it with your assistance on the 12th or without on the 18th, or you could hear the recently Grammy-nominated Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra give their version on either the 13th or 14th.

Ludovic Morlot Photo: Sussie Ahlburg
And there’s one more out-of-town guest you won’t want to forget, the Boston Symphony Orchestra will appear on the 10th with Gil Shaham and the recently appointed Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot in a show to include John Harbison’s Symphony No. 4. There’s other great music in town of course. The Jacaranda Music Series will continue on Dec 2 with a holiday show from Anonymous 4, which will also feature the premiere of a new commission from David Lang. While on the 10th and the 11th, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra will feature an evening of French works inspired by Couperin from Ravel and Thomas Adès. And then there’s the return of the Monday Evening Concert Season on Dec 5 with pieces from Holliger, Cage, and Kurtág’s setting of Beckett.

Sahr Ngaujah in Fela! Photo: Monique Carboni 2009
Of the new theater offering’s this month, the one I’m most excited about is the local premiere of the Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis' musical Fela! on the 13th. The show on the life of artist Fela Kuti comes complete with a live band on stage and was fantastic both in New York and London and promises to be so here as well. There is also two new shows worth considering in San Diego. The Old Globe opens up Some Lovers, a new Burt Bacharach musical written by Spring Awakening’s Steven Sater on the 8th. Meanwhile the La Jolla Playhouse will offer a pre-Broadway run the the latest revival for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Back in Los Angeles there are plenty of other ongoing productions to catch as well and I’m going to take a look at A Noise Within’s Desire Under the Elms on the 11th and the Olympia Dukakis vehicle Vigil at The Mark Taper Forum on the 17th.

Lenny Henry and cast in The Comedy of Errors Photo: Johan Persson/NT 2011
And just in case you thought the holidays would be slow around here, I’m off to London over the New Year with full reports on the Royal Opera’s revival of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg under Anthony Pappano and another outing of Verdi’s La Traviata with Ermonela Jaho, Stephen Costello, and Paolo Gavanelli. On the theater side there it’s mostly comedies with Graham Linehan’s adaptation of The Ladykillers, the National Theater’s One Man, Two Guvnors in the West End, and the new production of The Comedy Errors at the NT’s Olivier Theater. So have a great month and a Happy Holiday.



December 02, 2011

NY Phil and Daniel Harding: Photo mine
I spent my first 24 hours or so in New York the weekend mostly at Lincoln Center. I wasn’t alone. After seeing The Metropolitan Opera’s spectacular production of Glass’ Satyagraha when it opened, I returned for another viewing. It was a particularly emotional performance and even more intense than I remember. Richard Croft, who sang Gandhi, sounded a little under the weather, but he, like the rest of the cast, were totally invested. Upon leaving the house, I saw the 200 or so people behind a barricade standing along Columbus Avenue outside of the plaza as part of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement. According to numerous other sources, Glass himself and other artists such as Laurie Anderson were there, but I didn’t see any of them as I left. Given that there were more exiting audience members on the plaza than protestors supposedly being kept out of the same area, the whole scene came off as arbitrary and unfocused with people pretty much going where they wanted as a handful of police officers looked on.

The revolution had apparently moved on by the next morning. I had returned to the plaza and Avery Fisher Hall for a performance from the New York Philharmonic led by conductor Daniel Harding. The program consisted of the Deryck Cooke version of Mahler’s 10th Symphony. It’s a piece still met with some raised eyebrows in that Mahler had not completed the work before his death and had requested the sketches and drafts be burnt in the event of his death. But you know Alma. Over the intervening years, a number of folks took a crack at completing the other movements of the symphony besides the well-known Adagio. Cooke’s version from the early 1970s has gotten a fair amount of traction. Its advocates have included Simon Rattle, so given that Rattle’s one-time protégée Harding is leading the work’s first NY Philharmonic performance in 25 years, it seems logical. Harding doesn’t exude the kind of personal charisma from the stage so in demand from conductors his age these days. And he’s not beyond a tepid, overly polished performance as evidenced by his appearances with the Dresden Staatskapelle last year on tour in the U.S.

But Friday’s performance was excellent with Harding tapping into a very Mahlerian sound whether or not the music being performed was unquestionably his. Harding’s biggest strength was giving the work a sense of unity. When he reached the Finale, admittedly a very different point than the opening Adagio, there was a sense of things coming full circle, fading into the distance much as the work creeps up from the distance to begin with. There was excellent and well-managed contrast with Harding eliciting delicate tender playing in the wake of thundering crescendos. The numerous tempo changes sounded like second-nature to Harding and he proved masterful at maintaining tension through pauses particularly in the lead up to the finale. I’ll leave the rest to your own discovery. The show repeats one more time on Saturday night if you’re in town.


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