Friday, September 24, 2010

Il Postino in world premiere at LA Opera

Domingo’s enduring, endearing dominion

Photo: Robert Millard

Il Postino (The Postman)
Music and libretto by Daniel Catán
Conductor, Grant Gershon
Director, Ron Daniels
Scenery and costume designer, Riccardo Hernandez
Lighting designer, Jennifer Tipton
Projection designer, Philip Bussmann
Choreographer, David Bridel

Principal cast
Pablo Neruda, Plácido Domingo
Mario Ruoppolo, Charles Castronovo (title character)
Beatrice Russo, Amanda Squitieri
Matilde Neruda, Cristina Gallardo-Domâs
Donna Rosa, Nancy Fabiola Herrera
Giorgio, Vladimir Chernov
Di Cosimo, José Adán Pérez
Mario’s Father, Gabriel Lautaro Osuna
Priest, Christopher Gillett

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Music Center
Los Angeles, California
Thursday, September 23, 2010

Review by Rodney Punt

He came. He sang. He conquered. He got a contract renewal - even before he sang.

Plácido Domingo, tenor extraordinaire at the age of 69, but who's counting, just debuted his 134th role. This number is the operatic equivalent to Babe Ruth's and Hank Aaron's combined home runs. The man remains a vocal phenomenon. And yes, his contract as LA Opera's General Director was just renewed for two more years from this coming June.

But I digress. Let's pick up the action a few days ago where that eternally stalking nemesis of opera, the nail-biting economics of production costs, threatened to hem in an opening night.

The day after the struggling "Recovery Summer" officially staggered to the finish line, it was autumn and the LA Opera's own recovery season commenced with the world premiere of Daniel Catán's Il Postino, a work tailor-made for a certain tenor who also runs an opera company. The need for recovery, in case you've been napping all year, stems from the financial dive that LA Opera took mounting Richard Wagner's massive Ring Cycle, which concluded just three months ago.

A lot was riding on this premiere. But that's why they pay Domingo to work both sides of the lights. His company, with as much heart and pluck as its director, goes all in on a bet when the chips are down.

The 1994 Il Postino had been a "little" movie with an art-house feel, a poignant slice-of-life that struck a chord with the public. It's a gentle story: humble Italian postman meets local girl while famous exiled poet teaches him metaphors. Could this fragile filmic narrative strike a larger-than-life musical chord in opera?

The short answer is yes. Catán's Postino is a well-crafted, old-fashioned romantic opera, a crowd-pleaser with a conservative but genuinely expressive musical vocabulary. The score's Puccinian style is augmented with devices from Ravel, Britten, and Richard Strauss. Touches like a simple fisherman's accordion and a big ensemble tango lend it color and locale. Its composer does have a fondness (weakness?) for unresolved cadential ninth-chords, which touchingly, if repetitiously, end both a big Act III scene, and later the the opera itself.

The score suits its subject. The work's fitfully tepid drama, alternating humorous and brooding moments until a final denouement rises to tragedy, takes its sweet time in building emotional steam, but composer-librettist Catán gratefully resisted adding gratuitous spice to the existing narrative.

Ron Daniels' debut as Postino's stage director was fortunate. His clean-lined, minimalist concept proved effective in telling a story with many levels and much incident. He was aided by David Bridel's unobtrusive and naturalistic choreography. Philip Bussmann's stunning projections - impressive on both the stage and undoubtedly in the accountant's office - made unnecessary the construction of costly set pieces, and lent a quicksilver quality to the work's many scene changes.

Particularly effective was the sequence of projected sea waves, fisherman nets, starry nights, and town bells (the latter accompanied by a theme lifted from Strauss). Riccardo Hernandez's elaborate, picturesque props and period costumes filled out the rest of the handsome décor, a notable scene being Mario's lonely boat resting on shore, symbolic of both his greatest quest and its cessation.

A few months ago, the veteran Domingo had performed here a baritonal tenor role in Die Walküre and there an outright baritone role in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. Any worries that the Spanish-born, Mexican-reared Domingo had lost his mojo as a lyric-dramatic tenor were soon allayed. With a voice the envy of many a tenor thirty years his junior, he triumphed as the Chilean poet and social crusader, Pablo Neruda. His ring was clarion and the voice of even tone throughout the register, an occasional glottal low note of little consequence. Domingo's acting was pared down from the usual opera melodramatics to a nuanced wistfulness as the brooding, later regretful poet-leader of national struggle.

As his self-selected acolyte, tenor Charles Castronovo's title character, the feckless Mario, more than held his own in various scenes with Domingo. The apprenticeship in the opera could as easily mirror a similar real life relationship between the two Hispanic tenors. Castronovo's voice, with its superb technique and lovely bloom, is a younger and at this stage still a smaller version of his famous mentor's, but very much successor material, as was revealed in their side-by-side tutorial duet on the meaning of "metaphors."

Soprano Amanda Squitieri's winsome barmaid, Beatrice, was a perfect foil for Mario's starry-eyed idealist. With a young voice that sparkles as brightly as her smile, Squitieri stole hearts on both sides of the proscenium. A dramatic standout was her first encounter with Mario in the bar, where her competitive, seductively engaged character triumphs in an impromptu match of pinball soccer. Here, as elsewhere, the telling lighting designs of Jennifer Tipton enhanced the drama, throwing a bright glow from the game table into the intense faces of the lovers-to-be.

Fine performances came from supporting cast members, their characters well-etched by a savvy Catán: soprano Cristina Gallardo-Domâs as Neruda's adoring wife, Matilde; mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera as the comically skeptical Donna Rosa, gun-toting mother of Beatrice; baritone Vladimir Chernov as ironic leftist Giorgio, best friend of Mario; baritone José Adán Pérez as the slimy political strongman, Di Cosimo; guitarist-baritone Gabriel Lautaro Osuna as Mario's simple but loving father; and tenor Christopher Gillett as a wise priest whose intervention with a Donna Rosa on the prowl is a lot better timed than that of Romeo's Friar Laurence.

"Great sorrows in little hearts" was the guiding principle of Giacomo Puccini. What Catán established in the early scenes of this opera were ordinary sorrows in little hearts, expressed in big, melodious orchestrations a little ahead of the drama. But the drama soon caught up and quickened the second and third acts with a secondary narrative. Neruda's suffering for his oppressed Chilean people had by then fired up Mario's political activism against Di Cosimo's fraudulent political leadership, even as the younger man was aware that the departed Neruda had probably forgotten him. Neruda's wrenching return, too late for the reunion of teacher and pupil, was poignantly - and masterfully - depicted in Catán's concluding scene.

Some will criticize Catán's score as not spiky enough for today's audiences. But this composer knows his mind and owns a technique fully capable of expressing his dramatic intentions. Just as Puccini had made more polished and sensuous the crude Verismo tradition he inherited, so Daniel Catán has made subtler the Puccinian tradition to fit this less overtly intense drama. This is a civilized and gentle tragedy brought to life by a gifted artist and craftsman. Compared to other premieres the LA Opera has offered in recent years - Grendel, Nicholas and Alexandra, or The Fly, for instance - this work's musical expressivity soars high. It should stay with us for years to come.

There was another mentoring mission at work on Thursday evening. Occasional conductor Domingo had assigned LA Opera chorus master Grant Gershon - better known as the director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale - conducting responsibilities for his first season opener. In the event, Gershon's orchestra initially enveloped some of the voices as they warmed up to the evening's tasks. But he soon had the orchestra calmed down. Gershon's was a propulsive, idiomatic musical leadership, with clear cues to the singers on a potentially tense opening night. He has grown to prominence locally through a combination of hard work, native talent, and calm persistence. Gershon has now arrived as a preeminent musical force.

Il Postino, the little opera that could, had momentarily banished memories of the high-concept, regietheater Ring Cycle and returned the LA Opera to what it does best: provide great singing vehicles for lovely voices. And it had not broken the budget bank in doing so.

But more than that, this opera had sung in the apt but still unusual operatic language of Spanish. That made it feel more akin to an Hispanic than an Italian spirit, even with its Italian title and setting. Sonorous words like azul, luminosa, mariposa, and desnuda were projected on the stage's backdrop as its poet protagonist taught his novice pupil the art of metaphor and poetic perception. They announced also the operatic potential of a new world, more properly The New World.

Audience members from the longstanding Hispanics for LA Opera support group were not the only misty-eyed ones seeing the enchanted words of their native language floating on a heavenly blue background. With a composer who was born in Mexico and is now a Los Angeles resident and a cast consisting predominantly of Latin Americans, some native to our city, this production mirrored demographic changes underway in neighborhoods just blocks away from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's uptown doors of gloss and glass.

Bravo to an opera company whose best days are assuredly still ahead of it.

Rodney Punt can be reached at Rodney@artspacifica.net.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Chatty Romp

Bramwell Tovey leads Candide at the Bowl


by Donna Perlmutter

Victimized by bitter circumstance? Not on a bet. Bernstein’s Candide showed up at the Hollywood Bowl in concert version, courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic led by Bramwell Tovey, and a cast of remarkable singers. Yes, it was almost the best of all possible worlds.

But that doesn’t mean we didn’t run home afterwards to dig outour beloved recording of Lenny’s incandescent pastiche based on Voltairean satiric optimism – you know, the original one with Robert Rounseville, Barbara Cook and Max Adrian.

Because once you hear that delicious score with its Straussian- Mahlerized waltzes, mock-lugubrious tangos, soaringly sincere ballads and patter songs that bounce along on wildly witty lyrics -- you cannot do without another hit or two. (Foiled this time: we found the vintage vinyl-player in broken-down condition.)

Of course Lenny and his cohorts Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman, back in 1956, had personal inspiration enough to seize on the 18th-century philosopher’s picaresque novella -- they were listed in Red Channels, Joseph McCarthy’s despised catalog of communist suspects. Among other notables the comic opera boasted major entries by poet laureate Richard Wilbur, together with those of Stephen Sondheim and Jonathan Miller. Later revisions and permutations led to greater merriment along the way, but Bernstein’s clever hand, even in the narration and lyrics, was always there.

At the Bowl, we had a big dose of Lenny’s and John Wells’ extended narration (the 1989 edition) – long treatises told through the Voltaire stand-in, Pangloss/Martin, who mischievously maps out the characters’ worldwide tribulations. But, alas, there was much too much of this telling; it robbed the music’s forward momentum. And besides, the numbers themselves explained the narrative -- with its hilarity intact, as well as its sadness -- underscored by the whole cast’s terrific presence via big screens and mics.

Still, Tovey and the Philharmonic brought off the overture with brash vitality (although no conductor I’ve heard, including Lenny, has matched the original recording’s Sam Krachmalnick who propelled its last bars, those colliding structures, into sparkling peaks of exhilaration).
Throughout this Candide he never lost the flow – be it upbeat or ballad. For instance, when the Old Lady goes from “boredom to whoredom” and complains: “I’m homesick.” “For where?” “For anywhere but here.” there was emphasis enough for the literary/comic tone to come through. And when the lovers’ duet “Oh Happy We” divulges the pair’s absurdly parallel realities, he knew to speed up to the cadence.

The cast, and the swinging-swaying chorus, were admirably in sync. Richard Suart, the Gilbert and Sullivan veteran, was no slouch in the Pangloss/Martin department. Nor did Frederica von Stade lose a scintilla of her comic flair as the world-weary Old Lady, although she lamented “missing half of my back-side.”

In the title role Alek Shrader was that perfect combination of tenorial purity and sweetness. (Remember, he’s the guileless fool who learned the hard way that life is one long compromise.) His Cunegonde, Anna Christy, took on the gold-digger role with apt self-mockery and bravura, rising to the occasion for “Glitter and Be Gay.” She sang with agility and abandon, except for the smudged stratospheric notes, persuading us that Bernstein was positing his own answer here to Zerbinetta’s equally treacherous aria from “Ariadne auf Naxos.”

In the end there is really no way to over-praise this miraculous piece of musical theater – except to say to would-be presenters: Bring it to your stages often, trust the score (whatever version), drop most of the narration, and make your patrons radiantly happy.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sophocles’ Elektra staged at the Getty Villa


Photo: The J. Paul Getty Museum

J. Paul Getty Museum’s Getty Villa, Los Angeles
The Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater
Thursday, September 9, 2010, 8 pm


Review by Rodney Punt

The pursuit of justice is usually considered a noble aspiration. But what if that pursuit is tied to a grievance-driven, murderous obsession? Such is the disturbing premise of Sophocles’ Elektra.

On a chilly Thursday evening at the Getty Villa’s Fleischman amphitheater, the classical Greek play received a world premiere in its new translation by playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker. Eight actors and two musicians, under the accomplished direction of Carey Perloff, artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater, validated the ancient work as having plenty to say about contemporary hang-ups. Which, of course, are pretty as much the same today as they were two thousand years ago.

Sophocles begins the action in his version of the myth after Clytemnestra and her paramour, Aegisthus, have murdered Agamemnon, the father of Elektra and Orestes, and claimed his throne. Both siblings pine for revenge, but the exiled Orestes is only occasionally able to communicate with an oppressed Elektra, who languishes at her mother’s palace hoping Orestes will return to avenge them both.

Christopher Barreca’s stark designs set the scene. The Getty Villa’s impressive north face is a stand-in for the entrance of the Mycenae palace, fenced off as if under siege in chain link and barbed wire. The actors come and go before this gated façade, with musicians providing an underpinning to punctuate the action. Candice Donnelly’s costumes are modern slacks and jackets for most of the men, long dresses for most of the women, with the latter suggestive of classic Greek styles.

The action begins with Annie Purcell’s crazed Elektra, nearly feral with self-neglect, her dirt-stained face a study in fear and loathing, lamenting, “I have no strength, no friends,” and feeling “the expert on misfortune.” She implores her sister, Chrysothemis, a pretty but passive Linda Park in the flowing white gown of a wannabe princess, to help take down their mother – alas to little avail.

Elektra has better luck with Olympia Dukakis’ stentorian Chorus Leader, who, like a sympathetic town elder, at first implores the young royal to restraint, but later is won over to her revolt. Dukakis here and later occasionally reverts to the original Greek language for passages of lamentation, alternating with the other Chorus actor, Sharon Omi. The effect produced is similar to that of mystical Latin in Catholic liturgies.

Sparks fly in Elektra’s confrontation with the Clytemnestra of Pamela Reed, whose commanding entrance has her draped in flaming orange and red as she promenades the palace’s grand corridor, its chain-link barrier parting like an accommodating Red Sea. The very embodiment of haughty pride, Reed is as unsparing a Greek Mommy Dearest as Purcell is an insolent Elektra. The two implacably antagonistic women argue like lawyers facing off in a cosmic courtroom drama, accusation and counter accusation hurled like daggers.

Old pro Jack Willis is a jewel as the Tutor who conspires to visit the palace bearing a disarming deception - an urn supposedly filled with Orestes’ ashes. Call it a Trojan pony that throws Clytemnestra off the scent of treason. Willis’ rough-hewn, hilariously bogus description of the death of Orestes gives comic relief just in time. Credit Sophocles for this deft interlude between Elektra’s two most emotional encounters.

Elektra's mourning scene for Orestes is a searing moment in emotional loss, but it is short-lived. As the newly arrived Orestes, Manoel Felciano brings hunky heroism to the role. His scene with Elektra, in a well-nuanced and gradual revelation of his identity, gives momentary opportunity for the two siblings to try a little tenderness before the Tutor announces to his young conspirators, “This is the moment to act.”

Orestes’ bloody dispatch of both Clytemnestra and her consort, Aegisthus - portrayed by a masterfully arrogant and intimidating Tyrees Allen - is accomplished off stage, but is no less repellent for that, as the queen’s bloody body is soon paraded before Aegisthus – and the audience - shortly before he meets his own end.

The musical contributions of supporting actor Michael Wells on percussion, Theresa Wong on a modern cello, and Omi as vocalist are impressive. Composer and Musical Director Bonfire Madigan Shive’s music establishes from the start a mood of lamentation with sighs in the high register of the cello, cruel sonic blows soon answering from a hand drum. At emotional moments the cello’s tone will constrict in pain or lament in its lowest register. At one point it is even plucked like a guitar.

Wertenbaker’s translation sustains a requisite tone of high-style epic poetry, even as it peppers it with trenchant patois. Sophisticated phrases like “an exponential explosion of outrage” or “Your spirit is turned to cinder” may be quickly countered by Elektra chatting in vernacular about a “tit-for-tat murder,” or Tutor observing, “Orestes is dead; that’s the long and short of it.” The mixture of high and low invigorates the dialogue.

Elektra bears a close resemblance in incident and psychology to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Both explore the corrosive damage of compulsive memory that leads to matricide. Elektra’s loathing will not forgive or forget. As with Hamlet, her urgency is magnified by her utter powerlessness to avenge the wrong she sees. Elektra/Orestes and Hamlet desperately seek the right moment for action, and both seize it when it arrives.

Although the fateful consequences to Orestes do not appear in this play, as they do in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Greeks would have been prepared for the misery about to visit him from the Furies. Given the parallels in the two plays, Shakespeare may have known little Latin and less Greek, but he must certainly have known his Greek mythology.

Sir Francis Bacon, a contemporary of Shakespeare and one of the founders of modern thought, observed toward the end of his own tumultuous life: “Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man's nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.”

Modernizing civilization had already by Bacon’s time erected grand legal institutions to adjudicate disputes, and those institutions have been strengthened measurably in ours. Too bad human emotions have progressed so little over the same passage of time.

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Elektra runs through October 2, 2010, on Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 pm. An accompanying exhibit, The Art of Ancient Greek Theater, up through January 3, 2011, is well worth a separate visit.

Rodney Punt can be contacted at Rodney@artspacifica.net