Friday, May 29, 2009

Full-fledged swoons across town

LA Opera's Traviata and Preljocaj Ballet's Les 4 Saisons close a feverish spring

By Donna Perlmutter

There she was, being denounced by her abandoned lover before all those horrified guests gathered at the elegantly risqué party. But did this Violetta end up on the floor, flung there by her hurt and angry young man? A repeat of that awful operatic cliché we see, coming and going, in “La Traviata?”

Not with Marina Poplavskaya, who sang the Parisian courtesan this time around in Marta Domingo’s 2006/07 production for Los Angeles Opera (originally staged for Renée Fleming), which is a quite ordinary mounting otherwise. No, what the Russian soprano gave us was a full-fledged romantic swoon onto the divan behind her. And how right she made that one epic moment -- as though Alfredo’s outrage, signaled by his sudden flinging of money at her was the gust that blew her over. (Nothing like Fleming’s merely contrived faint on the stairway.)

In fact, Poplavskaya’s handling of the role was right all around. Especially in the singing department – for, apart from some touch-and-go moments in the coloratura treachery of “Sempre libera,” she made Verdi’s expressive intentions clear and his music effortlessly natural, one phrase flowing organically to another, a stream of tonal beauty with a dark-hued mid-range (including those Slavic-styled covered vowels) and a blooming top that sounded almost like a different voice.

She far outshone her cohorts. Massimo Giordano was an Alfredo who inhabited off-the-rack histrionics to portray the spoiled but naïve young aristocrat. He rose to bursts of tenorial splendor but otherwise his voice lacked focus and nuance -- a disappointment compared with memories of Rolando Villazón, a truly impetuous lover. Nor did baritone Andrzej Dobber, a stiff, not just proper Victorian patriarch, manage more than a display of well-schooled singing. But L.A. Master Chorale director Grant Gershon, in his first foray with the company, was a model conductor: exceedingly sensitive to the cast without being indulgent, and grasping the overall arc of Verdi’s musico-dramatic effects.

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Indulgence was the watchword, though, at Royce Hall, when UCLALive! brought us another return of Preljocaj Ballet, this time “Les 4 Saisons,” using Vivaldi as the basis for what could be dubbed “A Day at the Beach!” – given all the seashore scenes. What the choreographer formerly focused on -- a contemporary “Romeo and Juliet” in dark, gritty, hard-edged reality, for instance – has been replaced by this whimsical romp, a series of vignettes that sample a little of this-a, a little of that-a, all designed to fill out an overly-long but audience-pleasing night out.

Not to sell Mr. Preljocaj short, there were some keenly arresting moments: a trio, for example, in which a masked man dances slowly from one stage side to the other while the two women take turns slipping into the mask attached in kissing-closeness to his -- all of it rife with metaphor.

Then there were bursts of bright physicality in bikinis, Paul Taylor-esque bent-knee brio dancing, a rope-jumping exhibition framing a tug o’ war contest, a bare-legged glam strutter in high heels yelling out non-sequiturs (this was a direct steal from Pina Bausch, but without the depth of personality) -- all sexual cartoons. There were even Achim Freyer-like mobiles hanging overhead that bounced onto the stage from time to time. Hand it to the choreographer, he knows how to send ‘em home happy.

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On another UCLA stage, the Freud Playhouse, things turned otherworldly when the Los Angeles Ballet, under the fine coaching hand of Thordal Christensen, mounted that 19th century hallmark of Romanticism, Bournonville’s “La Sylphide.” As a former Royal Danish Ballet Dane director he could not have excused himself from this labor of love. But one hardly needs to know that to wonder about those times so long ago, namely, at how men’s minds were so messed up by the idea of an elusive feminine spirit, the notion of naiads and dryads, faeries and sylphs, appearing and disappearing in the moonlit glade, ever out of physical reach.

This ballet, though perfectly poetic in its images, could serve as a handbook on the obsession with those spirits, circa 1830’s – in contrast, these days, to fantasy as the stuff of graphic sexuality.

Well, the three-year-old company had the whole period thing in hand – no easy task – with this lovely, scenic production borrowed from the Houston Ballet. What’s more, it had the key talent: Corina Gill, in the title role, danced with apt delicacy, her arms framing her head so as to make just the right rounded composition, her shoulders sloping, her elbows bent, her little butterfly wings, diaphanous glimmers. And Eddy Tovar, as the tormented Scotsman James, ever chasing his supernatural reverie, executed chiseled entrechats, his pointed toes, as he jumped in place, like daggers of passion, his whole body an integrated whole in elegant turns and leaps. Colleen Neary, co-director, took on Madge the Witch, gesticulating and grimacing her way expertly through the role.

All the others performed admirably. The only quarrel, and it could have been answered with a bigger budget, was the canned music. Oh, how needed was that live accompaniment!

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But there were no quarrels with Tim Miller’s new show at Highways, “Lay of the Land.” Once more the widely acclaimed performance artist found new paths, taking us from the little boy in Whittier with parents who – despite trying to put him in a gender re-education program – were kind and empathetic folks, to the mature man with that deeper, more modulated voice. Somehow he always taps into a meaningful metaphor for his life experience, while expecting Damocles’ sword to fall on his head.

It was, as always, a light into another’s soul – comedic, thoughtful, whimsical, and, yes, pained at the prospect of our often uncivil society.

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