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Out West Arts
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This is great. One of Salonen's last gifts to the Los Angeles Philharmonic during his tenure as music director, this Violin Concerto (played here by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra) is probably the most important example of the genre since John Adams'. (Unsuk Chin's is another contender for this title to be sure.) The soloist is Leila Josefowicz for whom the worked was composed and she gives an athletic, enthralling performance in this clear, well-balance DG recording. The concerto is paired with Salonen's Nyx which is also receiving its premiere recording.
1 year ago | |
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Elza van den Hever and Joyce DiDonato Photo by Ken Howard/Met Opera 2012

This Saturday, the Metropolitan Opera will broadcast a live performance (in HD as we are incessantly reminded) of the company’s new production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda across the world. I saw the production on New Year’s Eve and although there is not a single surprising thing about it, you should go see it. The primary reason is because of the biggest non-surprise in the show – the incomparable vocal artistry of American mezzo Joyce DiDonato in the title role. She sang the role spectacularly in Houston earlier this year to great acclaim and she is no less successful here. She is nothing short of radioactive in this performance. Her vocal lines are so beautifully shaped and cared for, her inner reserve as the imprisoned queen so heart stopping, it will leave you stunned. Her opening scene, the second part of Act I, may be one of the best things I saw on any opera stage all last year. DiDonato has taken the mantle as one of opera’s true international super stars in recent years, and here she delivers with a title role deserving of her superb artistry.

Of course a world-class performance from DiDonato is no surprise. Sadly given the artistic fortunes of today’s Met, most of the off kilter underwhelming elements of the production otherwise should also come as no shocker. David McVicar’s by-the-numbers staging has all the dramatic tug of a Macy’s window display. It’s dark and lovely but slavishly follows the house imperative against interpretation or analysis. All of that is fine and well, but what McVicar does to the poor soprano Elza van den Heever is nearly unforgivable. She takes on the other meaty role in the opera, Elizabeth I of England, and musically you could ask for little more from her. San Francisco audiences were lucky enough to hear many of such performances during her time there, and her Met debut is a notable one. Except for the cartoon villain mannerisms McVicar foists on her character, like trying to snap a riding crop in two as a sign of anger, for example, in one of the opera’s several unintentionally laugh out loud moments. This is not good theater – plain and simple.

The Met orchestra sounded lovely if under-rehearsed on opening night under maestro Maurizio Benini. Hopefully things will have settled down in time for the broadcast on Saturday, but on New Year’s Eve the sound was sluggish and wandering at times. Matthew Polenzani is also on stage as Leicester, but, thanks to Donizetti, blink and you’ll miss him. In the end this is Donizetti’s version of Schiller’s play, and the dueling queens, who never actually met in real life, are still the centerpieces. And the Met has recruited two formidable women in these roles making this very predictable new production worth seeing despite its many failures.
1 year ago | |
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Measha Brueggergosman Photo by Mat Dunlap

So, after being on hiatus, how do I get started again? I say just jump right back in.

Opera composers have long relied on stage plays as a source of dramatic material. It seems a natural choice: take something stage worthy to begin with and set it to music. What could possible go wrong? On occasion composers have even taken the text of a play as a libretto in and of itself, though more often than not they use an adapted version of a text for their own music dramas. It’s as true now as ever, and a recent visit to Los Angeles by Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös reminded us that these stage-to-stage endeavors are rarely as uncomplicated as they might seem. On Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group under its “Green Umbrella” series gave the local premiere of Eötvös’ version of Angels in America, the landmark multiple award winning two-part drama from Tony Kushner. The opera received its world premiere in Paris in 2004 and has been seen in several different venues both in America and abroad. It has undergone many changes and re-orchestrations over the last decade from a small predominantly electronic instrument-based ensemble to the larger chamber orchestra-sized one that appeared in Los Angeles this week as part of a series of events Eötvös is participating in here this week.

In some ways this is asking for trouble. Angels in America is a play a lot of art loving folks here hold near and dear to their hearts, particularly here in Los Angeles where the play first stumbled forth onto the stage of the Mark Taper Forum. Gay men of a certain age view Kushner’s play as their play in a sense – or at least a highly biographical take on their own lives and communities in the not so distant past. But an opera, even a long one, can’t absorb all seven hours of Kushner’s miraculous, wordy wonder, and like composers before him, Eötvös had to make some hard choices, which he did with Kushner’s assistance and that of librettist Mari Mezel. What's left is a peculiarly non-American take on the most American of plays with much of the political context stripped away. Some grumbling was to be expected with such a devoted audience, but the grumbling seemed fair even beyond the devotion of an audience for the original work. Angels in America in this instance is as disappointing as often as it isn’t.

The problem lies in Eötvös’s focus almost exclusively on the magical realism in the piece. He is enamored with the hallucinogenic, fantastical dream sequences of the play from Prior Walter’s wrestling with the Angel to Roy Cohn’s extended dialogues with Ethel Rosenberg. They are undoubtedly some of the strongest moments in the play, and they are well served with Eötvös modernist dark discordant score. Sadly though a single piece of theater, the work falters without a clear overarching framework. Understandably cuts have been made, but it feels like they have been made again and again in the wrong places. Scenes are kept for the beauty of their language or their profound sentiment, but necessary connecting narrative elements are too easily lost, creating confusion in the final act as to exactly how things got to the point they have. Worse yet, Eötvös’ monochromatic score cuts against the proceedings as often as it seems to drive the action forward. Angels in America turns out to be as didactic as an opera as it is a play. But while that works on stage, it fails overall in the concert hall.

Musically, the members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and their guests availed themselves of this score, which featured both acoustic and electric instruments as well as amplified voices, expertly. Pablo Heras-Casado served as the conductor as he will for the world premiere of Eötvös’ new Violin Concerto written for Midori this coming weekend. He kept things well coordinated and relatively fleet for such a wordy libretto. Measha Brueggergosman appeared as the angel and gave a lusty, visceral performance as a supernatural creature in a sea of human neurosis and pain. David Adam Moore’s Prior Walter was the center of the large eight-person cast and handled singing about erections when it was called for with a believable ease. There’s as much spoken dialogue in the show as sung text and the cast included many other fine vocalists such as Julia Migenes and Janice Hall. All of the eight vocal actors on stage were joined by three other vocalists: Jamie Jordan, Abigail Fischer, and everyone’s favorite local barihunk Abdiel Gonzalez who provided layering and augmentation to the individual sung lines throughout in a sort of mini mirror chorus. It was one of Eötvös’ most clever and resounding musical effects in an evening that often provided drama and more than a little magic. Even if it did so at the expense of delivering a unified dramatic whole.
1 year ago | |
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Well in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s been awhile since I’ve been able to update Out West Arts. I’ve gotten some notes of concern from long-time readers over the last few weeks and just wanted to assure everyone that I’m not dead and am very much alive and likely in a theater or concert hall near you. Unfortunately, as many of you know OWA is entirely a labor of love for me and occasionally a few other participants around Los Angeles, but it has always been subject to the forces of my own life in the off line world. I’ve never talked much about that here and don’t intend to start now, but suffice it to say that family responsibilities have put added pressure on my time over the last two months and writing OWA has not made it onto the agenda for awhile. The hiatus won’t last forever, though. I’ve seen great stuff like Glass’ Einstein on the Beach and Joyce DiDonato’s kick-ass Carnegie Hall recital in support of her new recording Drama Queens. And I’ve seen garbage too, like much of the current Los Angeles Philharmonic Season so far. (If Salonen’s performance of Wozzeck with the Philharmonia Orchestra on their recent Los Angeles visit didn’t bring tears to your eyes for the lost past, you should have heard the Mahler 9 they did together.) But fear not, I’ll be back to spew more in the not too distant future. So, stay strong sports fans and by all means if you see me in public, stop by and say hi.
1 year ago | |
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Andrew Norman
Hot young composers seem to be everywhere these days. It takes something special to stand out, especially in this world of social media and hyper-connectivity, but American composer Andrew Norman has quickly made an ever growing name for himself. And best of all he manages this remarkable feat with something decidedly old fashioned – his music. His work has been featured on local stages many times including some notable performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But this former USC student begins making a big splash of a return on the local scene this month when he takes up a three-year stint as Composer-in-Residence for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, which will open its season at the Alex Theater in Glendale this Saturday October 6th. Included on that program conducted by LACO Music Director Jeffrey Kahane will be Norman’s The Great Swiftness and the orchestra will continue to feature his works and new commissions on several occasions over the next few years. This is more good news for everyone as Norman, one of this year’s finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in music, will be bringing his energy and insight to a local audience with a huge interest and appetite for contemporary music. Before things get started, though, Norman was kind enough to take a minute to answer the OWA 10 Questions to tell a little about where he’s going, his favorite hamburger, and his love for working with kids.
  1. How important is contemporary technology to your creative process?
    My relationship with technology is complicated. I'm not a natural with computers. At all. So I have yet to write a piece that has any component of electronic music in it. Which I feel bad about, but am also growing to accept as part of my (possibly anachronistic) creative identity. But I do use notation software - sometimes early in the writing process, sometimes late - and occasionally midi playback, depending on the kind of music I'm writing.
  2. What’s your current obsession?
    Rearranging the furniture in my living room. I find endless fascination in the many ways objects can be in a room.
  3. You’ve been appointed Composer-in-Residence for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra starting this year, one of several such positions you’ve held with various ensembles. How important is this sort of long-term collaboration with a specific group of musicians to your work?
    SO IMPORTANT. Music making can and should be personal thing, and the more we can do to make new orchestral music a more personal sort of collaboration, the more honest and energized the final product will be. I love getting to know an orchestra and writing for them as people, not just players.
  4. Music education and working with young people has played a big part in your career to date. How does this activity contribute to your work as a composer?
    Young people have so much creative energy! Working with young people is like tapping into this huge, unbridled energy source; I can fill up and take it back to my own work. Sometimes I feel bad because I get SO much out working with kids - I hope they get something, too.
  1. What music made you want to be a composer?
    When I was a little, little kid my parents would play this compilation tape of the greatest hits of the Baroque. I think it was somewhere between Air on the G String and Pachelbel's Canon that I decided to become a composer.
  2. What’s your second favorite opera after Berg’s Lulu?
    Britten's Peter Grimes. I stood through half a dozen performances of it as an usher at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion back in the day.
  3. When should I clap?
    Whenever you feel like it.
  4. You’re one of The USC Thornton School’s most beloved graduates. What do you miss most about living in Southern California after your time in Europe and New York?
    Disney Hall and In-N-Out Burger.
  5. You recently completed a concerto for theremin and orchestra as part of your tenure as Composer-in-Residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Are there other unusual instruments or combinations of them you have future plans to write for? And may I suggest more pieces for the ondes martenot?
    Actually, the theremin concerto was written first for Carolina Eyck and the Heidelberg Philharmonic, and later adapted for BMOP. But yes, I tend to be drawn to instruments with dangerously wide vibratos (theremin, ondes martenot, aging mezzo sopranos...), and I learned so much from writing the theremin concerto that I want to write another, and another. There's so much you can do with it! And I've got a shot at being the Wieniawski or Vieuxtemps of the Theremin world - like in a 100 years thereminists in conservatory will earnestly debate the varying merits of Norman 4 vs. Norman 3 or 5. That's the kind of immortality I want.
  6. What’s the next big thing we should be looking for from Andrew Norman?
    I don't know! Let's focus on me figuring out how to write music today, and once I've got that down I'll get back to you.
1 year ago | |
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The Joffrey Ballet's 1987 production of The Rite of Spring used the original sets, costumes, and choreography from the 1913 production. Photo by Herb Migdoll
The Los Angeles Philharmonic and music director Gustavo Dudamel returned to their winter home at the Walt Disney Concert Hall this very hot weekend to open up the 2012/2013 season. I’ve always found these initial performances of the fall season a little unsteady over the years. There’s something about the move that while relieving in the acoustic sense, still feels unsettled like everyone is getting back to the way things ideally should be with the better programming and better sound that audiences have been starving for all summer. This year was no exception, but it was a particularly unsatisfactory weekend for Dudamel and the Philharmonic. In fact, this weekend’s show, which I caught on Sunday, may have been the worst single performance I’ve heard him and the orchestra give together over his musically erratic, artistically lackluster tenure as music director here in L.A.

Of course, part of the reason for this may have been the works programmed for the occasion, which included Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, a work that served as the calling card for the orchestra under former music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, and one they recorded together to some acclaim. Those very familiar interpretations were well known to virtually all regular members of the L.A. Philharmonic’s regular audience. And certainly a different interpretive style is natural and to be expected. But Dudamel’s take on this landmark of the 20th Century fell short in virtually every way imaginable. Gone was the percussive, rhythmic dance sense of the piece. Gone was the brisk, ferocious aggressiveness grabbing at your throat and the sharp edged clarity and uniformity cultivated by the orchestra – the sound that in part had catapulted them to the forefront of world orchestras for their performances of 20th Century works. Instead Dudamel led the orchestra through a performance that had some animalistic qualities, but was disorganized and confused often to the point of cacophony. Gone was the sense of rhythm and timing with Dudamel’s trademark indulgent and inexplicable tempi. The sound went in all directions, at once blunting the force of the performance and leaving one perplexed as to what the point was. This was not a Rite that sounded like the harbinger of the 20th Century, but one that was lost wandering in a disorganized sea of noise.

The rest of the evening fared little better. The show started with a lifeless and cold tour through Ravel’s Pavane pour une infant défunte. This did little to pave the way for the world premiere of a new work from longtime L.A. Philharmonic collaborator composer Steven Stucky whose 20 minute single movement Symphony rounded out the first half of the evening. The work was of a similar structure to his prior Radical Light and Silent Spring in format with contrasting material that waxes and wanes from a more subdued entrance the composer refers to as “peaceful” to contrasting moments more reflective of turmoil. The piece isn’t programmatic in any way as Stucky himself insists, but instead relies on a series of orchestra gestures execute with flair by Dudamel and the players. But it was hard to get behind the piece with much excitement when the overall feeling was that the music was somehow resting in the background of something else. Granted the work didn’t get shown in the best of lights sandwiched between two musical debacles as it was, so further listening is warranted. But in the meantime, one can only hope that as in year’s past, the show that opens the regular weekend programming of the fall season for the L.A. Phil is not the standard bearer for the year to come but a transition period from which much greater things will happen.
1 year ago | |
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Joyce DiDonato and Nicole Cabell Photo by Cory Weaver/SFO 2012
If Vivienne Westwood and Gerhard Richter had a love child and that particular offspring were an opera production, it might look like Vincent Boussard’s new staging of I Capuleti e I Montecchi which arrived in San Francisco this weekend after its premiere run in Munich. Bellini’s take on the Romeo and Juliet story, which is not influenced by Shakespeare’s famous play but the source material the bard himself used, has elements most in the audience will find familiar if only slightly rearranged. Here we have Romeo who has just killed Juliet's brother, competing for her hand in marriage against Tybalt in this version of the story that focuses more on the warring families. Boussard’s production though runs from any of the typical trappings associated with this tale of doomed lovers with one of the most obtuse and abstract stagings to grace the San Francisco stage in some time. Vincent Lemaire’s large grey abstract backdrop which evokes a battle on horses towers over the empty stage at sharp uncomfortable angles which is made even more obtuse with the addition of garish neon colored rag collections that the cast wear as costumes designed by none other than Christian Lacroix. And while all the characters in the show are male with the exception of Juliet, the women who do appear onstage evoke the oblivious world of Edina Monsoon with their giant frizzy wigs and Technicolor wardrobe.

And yet, there is something to this, and I’ll admit that by intermission, this barren off-kilter world communicated something to me about the isolation the two young lovers felt as if totally removed from a reality that keeps intruding on the only thing they can see – each other. Guido Levi’s lighting is a masterpiece of rich shifting color that communicates as much emotional subtext to the evening as the musical and theatrical components. It brings to mind the best of the work of Robert Wilson with its painterly approach to a set that can otherwise be static and dull to look at. This production will not make everyone happy and the opening night audience did toss out its share of boos. But there is something to this and some startling images including when Juliet climbs atop a sink in her room, in fact the only feature of any kind in her room, in an attempt to reach out for a statue of two lovers suspended high above the stage and her floor. In essence it is a production that mirrors the very spirit of bel canto opera itself – one that achieves its ends by dealing within a strictly controlled and outwardly pleasing aesthetic milieu despite the shifting dramatic or emotional content of the libretto at any particular moment.

Of course the show also benefits from three of the most important American vocal artists working today. Joyce DiDonato’s international reputation continues to grow and is well deserved. Her Romeo is known around the world and San Francisco is lucky to have such a gripping, colorful, and inviting performance to behold. She floats pianissimos with ease and never gives a hint of unsteadiness or strain flying through the ornamentation of her part. Her Romeo is often heartbreaking and boiling over with emotion. Eric Owens plays Juliet’s father anchoring the few moments on stage that don’t involve either of the lovers. But perhaps the biggest surprise for me on this evening was Nicole Cabell. Her career has grown surely and steadily over the last seven years or so with appearances in a number of major French roles as well as Mozart. But none of this would have prepared one for the riveting, ornamented, and detailed vocal performance she turned in on opening night. Cabell delivered on all the promises of her big competition wins of recent years as a Juliet who was alternately loving, sad, and increasingly emotionally unstable. Her duets with DiDonato were some of the best operatic singing I’ve heard all year. This Juliet is a major leap forward for Cabell and suggests that it wont be long before she is at the top of the operatic game on a much bigger scale. And with the supportive but never indulgent ear of conductor Riccardo Frizza both she and DiDonato shone even in moments where the orchestra sounded a bit rough around the edges. Saimir Pirgu had several good moments as Tybalt as well, although the tenor did exhibit some unsteadiness at the very top of his range on this evening.

Sure there are oddities that chafe in this evening like the giant staircase that dominates the stage in the closing scene of the Act I and the opening of Act II. But in the end, the aesthetic holds and there is a consistency of approach and care that takes this opera about warring families and manages to put Bellini’s version of the lovers right at the center of the action. The show comes highly recommended on many levels and can be seen at the War Memorial Opera House through Oct 19th.
1 year ago | |
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Amanda Detmer and Sanaa Lathan Photo by Michael Lamont/Geffen Playhouse 2012
Lynn Nottage’s most recent play By The Way, Meet Vera Stark has arrived in Los Angeles for it West Coast premiere this week at the opening of the fall season for the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. The play is a distinctly light-hearted follow-up to Nottage’s last stunner of a play, Ruined about the atrocities of war faced by African women on this very planet in these very days. But even though we are making the acquaintance of Vera Stark for the first time, Nottage is treading territory and a certain light-hearted tone familiar to her audiences in such works as Intimate Apparel. Vera Stark is an actress in a time and place, 1930s Hollywood, where African-American women rarely get the opportunity to do any work at all in their chosen profession. In fact much of the evening deals with Stark’s relationships with the white folks she works with as she struggles to find her place in a town where she and her friends are largely unwelcome outside of serving in a variety of domestic and supporting roles both on screen and off.

But Stark, a sharp sly Sanaa Lathan, perseveres landing a large role, though it is still as a maid, in the fictional 1930s classic film “The Belle of New Orleans” opposite her white friend, cousin, starlet and employer Gloria Mitchell, played here by Amanda Detmer. This film will end up establishing Stark’s name in cinematic history and serves as the substrate for the play’s second act ostensibly set during a modern–day film conference where fake scholars debate the legacy of Stark while also revisiting her last filmed interview as part of an appearance opposite Mitchell in a 1970s TV talk show guest spot. If it sounds like the play gets “meta” it does. But not necessarily successfully. Filmed segments are mixed with live action here including a live performance recreation of the video interview segment from the 1970s. While the first half of the show has an almost madcap sitcom feel to it with Stark and her friends desperately trying to finagle roles in a big Hollywood film, the second half portends to be far more sophisticated. It rarely succeeds in getting there, though, as director Jo Bonney burdens the academic conference framing device with stock cartoon faux-academic caricatures that grouse and mug for comic effect in what struck me as an unintentional parallel to the minstrelsy that Stark and her friends find themselves constrained to recapitulate in an effort to work breaking down walls in their own chosen field.

It is the confused tone that makes By The Way, Meet Vera Stark most frustrating. The show goes deliberately for cheap laughs when in range of making its biggest points. Nottage also seems uncertain of how to balance this content against the drama of the interpersonal relationship and history of Mitchell and Stark, which at times is offered up as a mystery only to be abandoned in favor of other pursuits and never revisited. The play does cover territory worth considering, though, and despite its faults and the missteps of an overly jocular production, By The Way, Meet Vera Stark does manage to give voice to a particular moment in American cultural history with respect to African-American women that doesn’t always make it way on real life stages. The show continues at the Geffen through the 28th of October.
1 year ago | |
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Bastian Trost, Sean Patten, and Berit Stumpf; in front: Simon Will
Photo by Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
CalArts’ downtown black box theater, REDCAT, kicked off its Fall season this weekend with another of the kind of performances that it's hard to find elsewhere around town. The multinational performance collective Gob Squad was the weekend’s guest and they brought with them one of their most well-received pieces from 2007, Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good). It's a witty and supremely clever piece that builds level upon level in a game that takes on history and the way art serves as a form of fractured and inadequate memory. That may sound heavy, but the show itself is often outright silly with a metaphysical complexity lurking just below the surface.

The four onstage performers, Sean Patten, Berit Stumpf, Bastian Trost, and Simon Will originally appear as cast members in a triptych of films. There is already a certain artifice however in that the three “films” that are simultaneously projected on the large screen the audience is presented with are not really films but live black and white video feed of the performances the cast is carrying out immediately behind that same screen. The three projections are ostensibly recreations of some of the most famous films of Andy Warhol, most notable Sleep and Kitchen. Of course Warhol’s at times infuriatingly deconstructed and experimental films aren’t gripping material for the stage, but the Gob Squad players know this and instead give their characters plenty of dialog and action that reflects on the idea of Warhol’s film work as a time capsule and the way in which we view the historical relevance of artistic works. Sleep, a single shot film of someone sleeping, now becomes a satire of the acting process itself as various cast members reflect on their inability to get into the role of Warhol's original sleeper. Often Gob Squad's commentary is played for laughs as when Berit and Bastian pretend to snort instant coffee as a substitute for the drugs they assume their 1960s counterparts would have used. There are oodles of contemporary neuroses which serve as an intentional counterpoint to the exploratory angst of Warhol’s Factory and its many denizens.

Of course God Squad’s Kitchen goes even further in its intellectual gambit. Soon the boundaries between the three running films break down and cast members trade and exchange roles in different films taking over the performances of their peers. And by mid-way, each of the performers is furthermore replaced by a stand in randomly selected from the audience who appear in the live streamed performances as the original cast members sit in their former audience seats feeding them their lines one at a time. This most direct manner of implicating the audience in the performance is deft and highly affecting. On the opening night, the cast was blessed with superb and uncanny replacements including the gorgeous and super talented Ayana Hampton who craftily dove into the neurotic gay persona of Simon with zeal. Granted Gob Squad's Kitchen doesn't always maintain its intensity and can get caught up in its own absurdity veering towards tedium. But considering the source material of Warhol's own films. these are not qualities to be expunged, but celebrated. All of which were expertly done in this promising start to the REDCAT season.
1 year ago | |
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Placido DOmingo and Marina Poplavskaya Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2012
How many Foscari does it take to screw in a light bulb? This is just one of dozens of questions left unanswered in Verdi’s I due Foscari (The Two Foscari), an early relative rarity that has made its way to the stage of Los Angeles Opera for the opening of the 2012/2013 season this weekend. And while the opera isn’t a comedy, it is in need of just such a punch line to spice up one of the more tepid season openers in Los Angeles in quite a while. Foscari is LA Opera’s big ticket production of the season. It’s the only new production and the only off the beaten path offering for a company still being careful about its footing in these turbulent economic waters. The reason for the show’s existence right now is much easier to answer. LAO General Director Placido Domingo is the star, and the opera features a juicy baritone role for him. It’s his 140th role and fits in with his current desire to sing many of Verdi’s baritone roles as he has already done with some success in Simon Boccanegra all over the world. LAO’s new production of I due Foscari directed with all the placidity one could imagine by Thaddeus Strassberger, will also tour the world with stops in Valencia and the Royal Opera House in London. But despite some world class performances from Domingo, Music Director James Conlon, and one soprano spitfire by the name of Marina Poplavskaya the show is mostly a dud.

At the very core of the problem is the opera itself. An early effort with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, Verdi certainly had some of his core obsessions about fathers and their children sorted out for the stage, but despite the success of both Nabucco and Ernani which preceded it, dramatic narrative is largely absent from Foscari. As the opera opens, the elderly Venetian Doge, Francesco Foscari, played by Mr. Domingo, finds himself in a tough spot as his son, Jacopo Foscari, the handsome Fracesco Meli, has returned from an exile to stand trial again on new charges of treason and murder that are never explained in any concrete way. Members of the Doge’s ruling council have it out for the younger Foscari and convict him despite his innocence and sentence him to further exile. The rest of the opera consists of Jacopo’s wife, Lucrezia, a radiant Poplavskaya, begging and pleading for this second exile not to happen or for her at least to be allowed to go with him while the father wrings his hands over his inability to do anything about it. Most operas rest comfortably on a certain amount of fait accompli, but I due Foscari ends more or less right where it begins three acts and three hours later.

Along the way there is some lovely singing. Mr. Domingo amazes again with his tenor interpretation of a baritone role. His stage presence and ability to deliver a nuanced complex performance is still unparalleled. He’s a living breathing master class onstage. And when he's performing, he continues to serve as more than enough justification for reviving this piece and giving it a brand-spanking new production. Poplavskaya does crazy like nobody else, and her Lucrezia is delicious to watch despite having little to do. Her tone was patchy in the upper registers early on, but by Act II she had settled in and was bright and penetrating. Francesco Meli made his local debut as the wrongly accused son and gave a reliable if not always completely assured vocal performance. It you’re no fan of tenors, this may be the opera for you in that Mr. Meli is forced to appear either caged or chained under the threat of violence throughout the whole evening including a rather inexplicable Act I aria in which his cage is lowered down from the fly space above, eventually making its way through the stage floor below. Conlon made the best case for Verdi’s zesty score and tapped into all those things that made the composer great even in his earlier years on Saturday. Clearly a little more rehearsal time with the principals was needed, however, as things went awry on more than a few occasions despite a stunner of an Act II trio.

But perhaps the biggest misstep here was the almost absent production directed by Strassberger with set designer Kevin Knight. The principals appear and disappear on a series of elevated wooden plank walkways that extend and retract surrounded by giant stone walls whose lower regions have crumbled and remain standing through a series of what look to be metallic supports. Despite costumes that reference 15th-century Venice, the whole thing feels like David McVicar’s vision of Fire Island at times. A walk way above provides space for the chorus to enter and leave along the way, but visually there isn’t much going on in this dark, static space even when a fire breather arrives briefly for a festival at the start of Act III. And in another odd twist, projected video used to open each act is covered with several screens of brief explanatory text as if the production team was worried that the libretto wasn't going to be able to quite make sense of it all. They were right, but the text also gave off the air of a B-movie growing tiresome by the start of Act II where the audience is reading over Verdi's beautiful opening score. The show never feels as menacing or conflicted as its characters are inside and it passes without much of an emotional bump. Still it's another chance to see the incredible Mr. Domingo do things that really nobody else in the opera world can which may be reason enough to go before the show closes on October 9.

1 year ago | |
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