Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Dido & Aeneas , Bluebeard’s Castle in a Duo at LA Opera

Paula Murrihy and Liam Bonner as Dido and Aeneas

By Rodney Punt

Two probing views of obsessive love spelled success for the marriage of inconvenience between Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Their double-bill opening Saturday at the Chandler Pavilion marked the LA Opera’s second collaboration with wave-making Australian stage director Barrie Kosky. It also heralded the promise of a long-term relationship.

Chief Director of Berlin’s Komische Oper from 2012, Kosky debuted here last year with a spoofy Mozart’s Magic Flute that looked like a silent movie. As with that production, this sparely staged pairing originated in Europe, but that's where their resemblance ends. Change-ups are a habit of the chameleon-like director.

Two and a half centuries span the two tragedies of Dido and Bluebeard, one with a lot of fun, the other with none. When Kosky teases in an interview before the opening that the works have little in common, you can count on seeing as many parallels as lanes on the freeway you took to the Music Center. He spins an enigmatic few of them in the printed program: “Arrival and departure, departure and arrival, a woman and a man, a man and a woman, a lost Eden, a forgotten Eden and a remembered Eden.”

The protagonists of these tales are fodder for a psychiatrist’s couch. Except for her brief amatory union with Aeneas, Dido’s clinical depression keeps her so withdrawn from her court she heeds neither cheering up nor sinister plots. Duke Bluebeard’s guarded split personality is a fatal attraction to obsessive new wife Judith, who, against his will and her own safety, makes him reveal his lethal all.

However linked the psycho-atmospherics may be, their respective stagings sharply contrast. Katrin Lea Tag’s spare scenery, slow-rising curtains, and vivid costumes (owing much to Julie Taymor and Germany’s Pina Bausch) evoke radically different landscapes, historic time zones, and sound-worlds. The use of unscripted whispers in both works heightens the drama and helps span their stylistic discontinuities.

Dido and Aeneas

Dido is bathed in bright lights and dressed in (mostly) pastel-infused but freakish period clothing. Its drama unfolds on the outer edge of the stage proscenium, barricaded from behind by an accordion-shaped screen. The narrowly defined space emphasizes the wafer-thin superficiality of the courtiers, and probably also Dido’s hold on power. A long white bench stretches across the stage to seat the retinue: a collection of nit-wits, sycophants and nasty plotters, who by turns ape the droopy sentiments of their queen or trot off to bizarre and brazen behaviors.

All the while they sing nicely to Purcell’s delicate score. (“If you drop it will break” was Kosky’s earlier characterization.) The music was realized with great fluency in the large hall, aided in projection by the forward placed screen. The modest-sized baroque orchestra was peppered with period instruments (wood bassoon, oboe and flute, with a continuo of organ, harpsichord and theorbos) and conducted to precision by Steven Sloane.

As Dido’s sister Belinda, soubrette soprano Kateryna Kasper is the court’s excitable teenybopper. Her “To the hills and the vales” shimmered with youthful enthusiasm as sung to an enchanted audience from the outer edge of the orchestra pit.

From left: G. Thomas Allen, John Holiday, Darryl Taylor
Outlandish comedy comes from the combo of a sorceress and two witches sung by an improbable assemblage of three African-American countertenors, led by recent Operalia winner John Holiday (the sorceress) with G. Thomas Allen and Darryl Taylor. Dressed in pitch black and suggesting a trio of harping crows, they were the conspirators against Dido who pranced and danced and shook their jowly cheeks in celebration of their own wickedness. Holiday even changed into a mock Dido dress as he spitefully employed an imposter Mercury to order Aeneas’ departure for Rome. This has the intended effect of fatally demoralizing his queen. The sketch leveled the audience with laughter.

Handsome Liam Bonner’s Aeneas, en route from Troy to Rome, is presented more as feckless wanderer than purposeful hero. His plush baritonal colors lent plummy hues to his bass region and a tenorial gleam higher up. After Dido’s fragile state of mind dismisses him for even thinking of leaving her, Aeneas stomps off stage and down to the the audience seating area, slamming a side door on his way out. Temper, temper.

Dido is the only role treated as serious, and the contrast of her demeanor with that of the others enhances her isolation. In her local debut as the sole holdover from European productions, Irish mezzo Paula Murrihy’s aristocratic poise and pearly voice captured Dido’s exquisite melancholy, furious anger, and, in her famous lament “When I am laid in earth” and its aftermath, her grisly end-of-life journey of shocking gasps and sighs. As she dies, orchestra members and courtiers, who earlier had migrated from stage to pit, depart one by one, so that when Dido finally expires in a slump, she is left alone to commune with eternity. The scene touchingly recollected the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson of not so many years ago singing Bach’s Ich habe genug.

Bluebeard's Castle

Claudia Mahnke as Judith and Robert Hayward as Duke Bluebeard

The mood of Bluebeard’s Castle after the interval grows even darker and much heavier. It unfolds on a large empty disc sitting in the Chandler’s cavernous backstage, blackened but otherwise unadorned. The two protagonists, also draped in black, rotate on this disc in a glacially slow but intense dance of death. The spatial infinity suggests the bottomless pit of Bluebeard’s concealed and bloody marital history and also Judith’s morbid curiosity. The use of people in lieu of sets, which was suggested in Dido, here becomes literal. Traditional productions employ seven actual doors, which Judith coaxes Bluebeard to open, but in this instance three sets of supernumeraries stand in for the chambers containing his former wives. Former iterations of the Duke himself stream gold dust, leafy vines, and water in a dystopian Garden of Eden made fearsome and fatal after the fall.

Claudia Mahnke as Judith and Robert Hayward as Bluebeard act out their Hungarian rendition of Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf, forcing open the doors to each other’s personalities. If, due to unrelieved narratives, their vocal tours de force can’t quite keep us engaged for the hour-long layer-peeling intensity, their joint efforts earn points for honesty and sheer perseverance.

Ensemble in Bluebeard
Bartók’s score is an expressionistic time bomb. Its massive modern orchestra can be compared in size and sonority, also artistic importance, to those of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Berg’s Wozzeck. Each morbid revelation in the opera is accompanied by an ever more splendid soundscape, the most dramatic being the brass ensemble that depicts the castle’s magnificent gardens in a kind of post-Wagnerian grandeur. Steven Sloane and his instrumental charges bridged the huge stylistic chasm after Purcell’s light textures to realize superbly this musical Mount Everest.

Apropos and worthy of note, the heavy costs of this joint production were not in sets but in musicians, and thanks for that.

Left in the mind’s eye after the performances was Dido’s white claustrophobia and Bluebeard’s black infinity, like the eternally clinging teardrops in a yin-yang.


Performances continue through November 25. Contact: LA Opera

All photos are by Craig Matthew for the Los Angeles Opera
Rodney Punt can be contacted at Rodney@ArtsPacifica.net

Monday, October 27, 2014

Windsbacher Knabenchor in stunning choral performance

By Douglas Neslund

Once school starts in the Fall, one is rarely treated to a performance by a touring company of schoolboys. Even less should one expect to hear a boys’ choir that stands atop a virtual pyramid of professional choral ensembles, but this was clearly the exception.

Hosted and joined in song by the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus of Pasadena, the young men and boys from Windsbach in the Franconian portion of Bavaria, Germany, put on a demonstration of choral beauty that thrilled all in attendance at Pasadena’s Presbyterian Church.

The Windsbachers at home have their own choir school, and are supported by the German government. But in Germany, as in this country, the arts are under continuous threat that funding might be withdrawn at any time. Losing such a funding source at this level would likely destroy a living, breathing jewel of German arts and artists.

Difficulty of an all a cappella choral program was not at issue in the following repertoire drawn from a long list of musical morsels:

1.             Os justi meditabitur, by Anton Bruckner
2.            Domine, ad adjuvantum me, by Gottfried August Homilius
3.            Ich lasse Dich nicht, by Johann Sebastian Bach
4.            Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst, by Rudolf Mauersberger
5.             Lux arumque, by Eric Whitaker
6.            A Hymn to the Virgin, by Benjamin Britten
7.            The Creation, by Willy Richter (men's voices)
8.            Kommt, ihr G’spielen, arranged by Melchior Franck
9.            Das Echo, by Orlando di Lasso
10.         Heidenröslein, arranged by Heinrich Poos
11.         Wohin mit der Freud, arranged by Friedrich Silcher
12.         Mein Mädel hat einen Rosenmund, arr. Lissman/Göttsche
13.         Das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust, arranged by Helmut Barbe
14.         Waldesnacht, by Johannes Brahms

Delicacy and utter beauty of tone, tight harmonic relationship among the various choral parts, and uniformity of vowel sounds, when coupled with an emotionally-charged interpretation by choirmaster Martin Lehmann, successor in 2012 to long-term Kapellmeister Karl-Friedrich Beringer, produced an unforgettable tapestry of sound.

The use of vowel colors throughout the spectrum is produced by choirs who learn to use that range without tearing the choral fabric. Mr. Lehmann’s conducting style, unlike so many conductors elsewhere, does not attract undue attention to himself despite exaggerated gestures, but is a very expressive act directly connected with the text and its interpretation. In the Bach, for example, he chose to “bend” the tempo, dynamics and internal choral balances to match the motet’s text. Such individualism is very dangerous, as it exposes the young singers to possible false starts, inadvertent “solos” and internal imbalances. Despite those risks, Maestro Lehmann succeeds in painting an aural portrait of each composer’s work that is distinguished and authentic.

There was nothing mechanical or suppressed in this performance. The music flowed, beautifully sung in every measure, every note. The Mauersberger is an 8-part wrenching series of questions as it asks why the city of Dresden needed to be bombed and leveled 69 years ago. The Whitaker requires very tight, unharmonic chord clusters perfectly performed. To end the concert with Brahms’ evocation of a forest at night was a benediction to be cherished. Two of the selections required a semi-chorus of eight singers to separate and alternate with the main chorus – perfection in tone, volume, and unity, especially in the cherishable Britten.

To begin the performance, Anne Tomlinson’s Concert Choir and Steven Kronauer’s Young Men’s Ensemble of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus demonstrated why their respective ensembles continue to attract critical attention. A comparison of the German and American choirs would be difficult to gauge, but it’s clear the pursuit of perfection is a hallmark of both organizations.

All three choirs joined together under Maestro Lehmann’s direction to end the concert with Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s beautiful "O Täler weit, o Höhen", and Ms. Tomlinson lead the assembled in James Erb’s familiar arrangement of the American folksong, "Shenandoah".

The Windsbacher America tour continues in New England through November first. Here is a YouTube sample (although this concert was even better!): http://youtu.be/DlIK-zy70ws
The choir's English website is here: https://windsbacher-knabenchor.de/en

Photos courtesy of Mila Pavan and the Windsbacher Knabenchor

Monday, October 20, 2014

Los Angeles Master Chorale and “Voices of Light”

By Douglas Neslund

Maestro Grant Gershon and the “full call” Master Chorale opened the 51st Season with a sensational gamble: a performance of Richard Einhorn’s musical setting, “Voices of Light,” to a 1927 silent movie by Carl Dryer entitled “The Passion of Joan of Arc” projected above the Chorale, Orchestra, and five soloists.

Einhorn’s score is not so tightly wedded to the film that it cannot be performed without it. On this night, the composer was present, and enjoyed prolonged applause and appreciation from the audience.

It is understatement to say the film is enhanced by the music. Indeed, without it, such a movie with its überdramatic focus on Joan’s face in all of its possible facets of pain and suffering made it difficult to watch. 

Actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti demonstrated the narrow range of emotions of a naïve young woman put through intense questioning by a “court” of sorts by leering priests, lawyers and others who clearly relished the torture, up to and including her death by immolation. The camera spent a lot of time transmitting Joan’s unrelenting emotional turmoil in close-ups that, as the film approached its dénouement, was finally too much and averting eyes were not uncommon in the large audience.

Musically, Einhorn’s composition is well-crafted, focused and displays the composer’s fine sense of the dramatic. The solo work, vocally and instrumentally, was excellent, most notably by Concertmaster Roger Wilkie’s violin and John Walz’s ‘cello contributions. The five vocalists included sopranos Hayden Eberhart and Claire Fedoruk, mezzo-soprano Adriana Manfredi, tenor Daniel Chaney and baritone Abdiel Gonzalez. Mr. Cheney’s voice has gained an extra measure of empathy since last heard, that fits his assignments here to a particularly fine and effective degree.

The Master Chorale performed at its usual first-rate level, responding to Maestro Gershon’s every request as they worked through the Latin and French libretto.

Images courtesy of Richard Einhorn @ richardeinhorn.com 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Verdi's Masked Ball Returns to S.F. Opera

Julianna Di Giacomo (Amelia) Photo by Cory Weaver
by Rodney Punt

It was the closest Giuseppe Verdi’s ambitions would ever take him to an operatic King Lear, but he had to drop that project for a more feasible one.

Verdi’s masterpiece of misplaced intentions, A Masked Ball (Un ballo in maschera) opened at the San Francisco Opera on Saturday night in a lavish, if dated, period production, last mounted here in 2006. John Conklin’s costumes, worthy of a Zeffirelli extravaganza, go back to the 1977 era of Kurt Herbert Adler. If the production seemed deja vu, the work remains fresh and unhackneyed, a tragedy unique in the Verdi canon, with human frailties but no real evildoers.
The action has a king’s misplaced love for the wife of his best friend leading to expected tragedy, but it is the manner of the story’s treatment that explores new shadings of human understanding with a dose of Shakespearean jest (left over from Lear?), keeping the tone on a lighter plane than the story’s ill-fated conclusion might suggest. With moods switching on a dime, Masked Ball foreshadows Verdi’s last two Shakespeare operas. Call it a tragedy with comic relief. 
Read full review on San Francisco Classical Voice.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Jessie Chang and Friends Shine in San Diego

By Erica Miner

Internationally acclaimed, award-winning pianist Jessie Chang is known for her virtuosity, lovely tone, and unique, distinctive style. San Diego’s First Presbyterian Church (http://www.fpcsd.org), which gives an extensive concert series often including members of the San Diego Symphony, hosted Chang and four of her SD Symphony friends (violinists Jisun Yang and Julia Pautz, violist Chi-Yuan Chen and cellist Yao Zhao) in an ambitious program featuring Darius Milhaud’s intriguing La création du monde, op. 81a, and Antonin Dvořák’s beloved Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, op. 81.

In the early 1920s, as African and Afro-American fashion swept the Paris of Josephine Baker and Picasso, Milhaud journeyed to New York, where he frequented Harlem’s nightclubs and bars and mingled with jazz musicians. Captivated by the city’s “authentic” jazz culture, he returned to Paris with a great love for jazz, blues, swing, and the exotic, pulsating rhythms of Africa, and began to write in the jazz idiom. “The music was absolutely different from anything I had ever heard before, and was a revelation to me,” the composer said. “Against the beat of the drums the melodic lines crisscrossed in a breathless pattern of broken and twisted rhythms.” At Création’s premiere in 1923, critics declared the music “frivolous” - more appropriate for a dance hall than a concert hall. The same detractors changed their tune a decade later, when a highly popularized jazz style became the subject of their philosophical discussions.

Originally commissioned in 1922 by Ballets Suédois, a company contemporary to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the six-movement work generally is performed in concert halls rather than as a ballet. In their rendition of Milhaud’s own arrangement for piano quintet, Chang and her friends impressed, not only with their virtuosity but also with their intuitive understanding of Milhaud’s bluesy harmonies, melodies, and irresistible foot-stomping rhythms. The players distinctly emphasized the “blue notes” of Gershwin and Bernstein and the rhythmic influences of Milhaud’s compatriots Ravel and Poulenc, captivating the audience with their energy and dynamism.

The ensemble’s virtuosic skills shone to great effect in the Dvořák quintet, which holds its own well-defined place among the pantheon of other monumental masterpieces of this genre; i.e. those of Brahms, Schubert and Schumann. Dvořák’s work is unique in that he melds his own individual expressive style with the Czech folk song and dance melodies of his native land.

Each movement offered opportunities for the individual instrumentalists to excel. The players’ enthusiasm stood out in their separate solos and also produced an impressive ensemble. Chang’s pianistic brilliance and appealing musical warmth were brought to prominence throughout the technically and interpretively challenging work, as she negotiated the fiendishly difficult piano part with seeming ease, especially in the spirited folk dance-based Furiant third movement, which has been known to defeat the most intrepid pianists. 

Yang’s aggressive leadership and penetrating tone were impressive. She and Pautz were perfectly matched, each standing out in their individual solo turns and blending seamlessly, as if one instrument, while playing together. So, too were Chen and Zhao, providing a solid, perfectly synched lower-range foundation to the upper voices. Dvořák, who played viola in his early musical life, clearly loved the instrument, and Chen rose to the occasion with his poignant, sensitive rendering of the extended viola solo in the Eastern European folk ballad-based Dumky second movement. From the opening solo in the first movement and throughout his solo turns, Zhao performed magisterially, at times evoking Dvořák’s cello concerto, the mainstay of the instrument’s solo repertoire. 

Chang, along with Yang, Pautz, Chen and Zhao, will perform again at San Diego Central Library on Nov. 9.

Photos used by permission of Jessie Chang
Erica Miner can be contacted at eminer5472@gmail.com

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Conductor Christopher Hogwood Has Died

It has been announced that the conductor Christopher Hogwood has died at the age of 73. The official announcement on Hogwood's website reads, "Following an illness lasting several months, Christopher died peacefully on Wednesday 24 September, a fortnight after his 73rd birthday. He was at home in Cambridge, with family present. The funeral will be private, with a memorial service to be held at a later date." Read more on the Grammophone announcement.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Persians of Aeschylus Premieres at Getty Villa

Gian-Murray Gianino as Xerxes
Review by Rodney Punt

Despite the attempts of sane minds to stem the destructiveness of war, its eons-long sway, arising from human greed or grievance, seems to be eternal.

The oldest surviving play in western civilization, Aeschylus’ The Persians, clocking in at just shy of 2,500 years, has been trotted out each recent decade as a cautionary tale against hubris whenever the USA goes to war. It relates the disastrous campaign by the superior forces of Persia against the seemingly outnumbered Greeks in the naval battle of Salamis, where the Persian armada was routed at great loss of life.

Aeschylus, who had participated as a combatant in the wars he wrote about, was both generous and shrewd when he set his version of the story from the perspective of the defeated Persians, not the triumphant Greeks. Generous in that the grief and humiliation of an enemy was humanized; shrewd in that references in the play by Persians to Greek battle prowess come across as the grudging admiration of a foe, not the jingoistic bragging of a victor.

(The Greek city-states, by the way, were by no means all on speaking terms with each other; many were in fact allied with Persia.)

In the 1993 aftermath of the first Gulf War, Peter Sellars mounted a blaring, glaring, and unsparing production of the play for Edinburgh and Los Angeles (the latter at the Mark Taper Forum), where the shade of dead King Darius screamed his regrets over a loudspeaker. Later stagings in the style of 24-hour news-cycles shook up Edinburgh and New York after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. This month, as the American response to the rise of ISIS draws our country into another campaign in Iraq to bomb fanatics into obedience, the Getty Villa in California’s peaceful Pacific Palisades, hosts the New York-based SITI Company for the latest version of The Persians.

The company as the Chorus
Refreshingly retro under company co-artistic director Anne Bogart’s direction at its premiere last Wednesday, its stylized choreography, elegiac tone, and professional elocution emphasized reflection over gimmick, pathos over bombast, and precision over pretension. Forgoing the attention grabbing but ultimately ephemeral stage effects of recent outings, this one left an afterglow of emotive substance to ponder.

It wasn't perfect, but it was mighty good. The story unfolds more as an ensemble piece than as individual tours de force, though there were some of the latter. Principal players emerge from within the Chorus and then blend back into the ensemble when their moment is over.

With nine transparent orange curtains draped as backdrop between the columns of the Villa’s northwest façade, the actors emerged one by one from its entrance door and assumed sculpted positions, sometimes as if they were statues speaking. The highly disciplined SITI Company’s declamatory speech (in Aaron Poochigian’s skillful new translation of the play) combined with dance and music to evoke the feel of ancient ritualistic theater as it delivered its timely message.

The stage area was the tiled exterior floor space between the Villa’s wall and the theater’s semi-circular seating. Bogart choreographed her nine actors in geometric dances -- sometimes individualized, often in unison imitation -- to achieve drama and action around and within the dialogue. The quirky movements recalled those associated with primitive Asian peoples who over the millennia populated vast areas from Asia Minor eastward all the way to North America.

The Chorus of Persian Elders initially attempts to calm Queen Attossa of Persia’s apprehensions of disaster, and throughout the play comments on the eventual disaster’s significance. ("The Greeks serve no king.") The Queen fears for her son, Xerxes, who has led the Persians on the campaign against the Greeks that only the death of her late husband, King Darius, had prevented from his leading.

Will Bond (Messenger) & Ellen Lauren (Queen)
A threadbare Persian messenger (the willowy, bare-chested Will Bond, tied to an oar for an impossibly long interval) is the first to report the news to the Persian court. Returning General Xerxes (an emotionally wounded, nuanced Gian-Murray Gianino) then arrives in brocaded tatters and chronicles to his mother the armada’s disastrous defeat by the wily Greeks. ("Athens has killed our sons.") Having lost his initial encounter, the rash Xerxes ("popped up with pride," according to his mother, and as history suggests trying to outdo his father) had doubled down his forces in an attempt to gain victory, but only found further defeat and the near destruction of all his charges.

The Queen (in a powerful performance of human distress by Ellen Lauren) wails in her grief at the news ("So much for the odds"), but engages in damage control at court for fear that Xerxes could lose standing in the empire. ("The people will be free to speak what they want.") She is hardly consoled by further woeful regrets of her ghostly late husband, Darius (a sepulchral Stephen Duff Webber), who curses his reckless son and laments the destruction of all he had built during his lifetime.

The Persians is not so much drama – there is no real confrontation or conflict – as an extended ode of lamentation. In its unfolding in this production, the burden of forward momentum fell on the Chorus, whose songs and dances (the latter sometimes almost painterly abstractions) energetically interpret the sad revelations. Their sweep was not always in perfect sync with details of the narrative, but that is only to quibble with what was throughout always an engaging larger picture.

Ring and Chorus around Queen Attossa
In that regard, the costumes of Nephelie Andonyadis (modern men’s suits with the ladies in floor length dresses) created a feel of kindred time zones between the ancient world and today. An arresting flourish was the long gold train behind the Queen's dress, which configured later as an encircling corral of protection. Darron L. West’s sound-design of percussive noises, rattles, and bells reinforced the action with punch and a feel of timeless profundity. Composer Victor Zupanc’s minor-mode songs were less successful, seeming a tad too comfy Elizabethan England for a tragedy set in an exotic ancient Persia.

Xerxes couldn't have known it then, but his hubristic rush to war at Salamis may just have saved what we refer to today as western civilization. Now it's our turn to think twice before we act in wars heading the other way.


Incidental grouse: While the seating duration on the nicely cushioned cement bleachers was no Greek marathon, it was uncomfortable without a backrest for an intermission-challenged 90-minutes.

Photo credits:
1. Gian-Murray Gianino as Xerxes (center) in "Persians" by Aeschylus at the Getty Villa. © 2014 Craig Schwartz. 
2. The Chorus in "Persians" by Aeschylus at the Getty Villa. © 2014 Craig Schwartz. 
3. Will Bond as the Messenger in "Persians" by Aeschylus at the Getty Villa. © 2014 Craig Schwartz. 
4. SITI Company cast in "Persians" by Aeschylus at the Getty Villa. © 2014 Craig Schwartz. 

Review of Premiere on Wednesday, September 3, 2014, Getty Villa, Pacifica Palisades, California
Rodney Punt can be contacted at Rodney@ArtsPacifica.net