Friday, May 1, 2009

Recovered Voices: LA Opera presents Die Vögel (The Birds)


Die Vögel (The Birds)

Opera in two acts (1920) by Walter Braunfels

Sunday, April 26, 2009 - 2:00 pm, LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles Music Center

James Conlon, conductor

Darko Tresnjak, director

David P. Gordon, scenery

Linda Cho, costumes

David Weiner, lighting

Peggy Hickey, choreographer

Grant Gershon, associate conductor & chorus master

Brandon Jovanovich, tenor, as Good Hope

James Johnson, baritone, as Loyal Friend

Désirée Rancatore, soprano, as the Nightingale

Stacey Tappan, soprano as the Wren

Martin Gantner, baritone, as the Hoopoe

Brian Mulligan, baritone, as Prometheus

Matthew Moore, baritone, as the Eagle and Zeus

Valerie Vinzant, soprano, as the First Thrush

Daniel Armstrong, baritone, as the Raven


Review by Rodney Punt

Last Saturday night, the blazing brass fanfares of Die Walküre conveyed Siegmund, the opera’s tormented hero, to his oblivion. Just fifteen hours later, birdcalls from the opera Die Vögel (The Birds) coaxed the mid-20th Century German composer, Walter Braunfels, from his heroic oblivion.

The verboten composer’s opera was the latest installment in the estimable Recovered Voices series. Under the committed guidance of conductor James Conlon, it is dedicated to works of composers, most of them Jewish, who were suppressed by the Third Reich.

The juxtaposition of The Birds with Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, in alternating repertory, is laced with historic irony. Wagner was the idolized composer poster-boy for the heinous regime (though unwittingly appropriated a half century after his death). But he was also the aesthetic godfather for many of the banned composers, and especially for Braunfels. Wagner’s influence on The Birds, directly and through successors like Richard Strauss, is apparent from the first to the last note.

Braunfels might have been among the honored composers of National Socialism had he only gone along with their request to provide theme music in the form of a Nazi anthem. Although partly Jewish by inheritance, he had been raised a Protestant and converted to Catholicism as a result of the First World War. He fit the mold of an acceptable social conservative.

Problem was Braunfels couldn’t abide the Nazis, spoke out against them, and refused their importuning. Having lost his teaching position in Cologne, he kept a low profile throughout the war. At its end in 1945, the combination of Germany’s severe economic slump and Braunfels’ by then old-fashioned compositional style doomed him from further public interest. The Nazis effectively banned not just his music, but his moment in history.

A verifiable hit at its Munich premiere in 1920, The Birds is a late-Romantic comic charmer by virtue of exotic novelty and fluency rather than originality. Based on the Aristophanes comedy of the same name, it abounds in clever musical birdsongs, comic scenes, mock heroics, and heavenly temper tantrums. Think Magic Flute meets Ariadne auf Naxos, with a dose of Salome. But its plot drags with musical excursions into ballet and trivial plot cul-de-sacs.

Braunfels adapted his own libretto from the ancient Aristophanes comedy. The plot has two buddies, disillusioned with the complications and bickering of urban life, searching for a better world. They decide it can be found in the realm of the birds. The idealistic “Good Hope” immediately falls for birdland beauty queen “Nightingale”, while the earthy “Loyal Friend” finds enterprising pursuit in setting off the birds against the gods by refusing to convey human food to heaven. Loyal Friend soon becomes the power behind the bird-throne until haggard Prometheus arrives and warns against defying the gods. Soon enough jealous Zeus thunders his wrath and restores the old order. Exit all in status quo.

It is a pity Braunfels chose to shape his version of The Birds more to the ending of Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King rather than the original Aristophanes. In the latter, the birds and their human manipulators, with the help of Prometheus, cause the gods to capitulate. The wily Greek’s play thus anticipates by two millennia the spirit of the Renaissance, in which human ingenuity overcomes heavenly superstition.

The conservative Braunfels apparently couldn’t take that step. Turning Aristophanes on his head, he restored the old deities to their supremacy just as he had clung to his inherited religion and musical hand-me-downs. This conservative proclivity of the composer, more than the suppression of the gun-clinging Nazis, has probably consigned him to just an honored footnote in musical history.

Still, The Birds, with judicious cuts, has appeal. It could become an occasional alternate to, say, Hansel und Gretel as a fairy-tale introduction to opera for young people. This production, with its splashy color and charming naivete, seemed already to have been targeted to young people, or the young at heart in all of us. For all its static plot elements and deflating denouement, it was a gorgeous production to see and hear, not the least because of its production elements and fine casting.

Given the constraints of a steep-raked Walküre set underneath his own stage, I thought Darko Tresnjak’s direction was delightful. The Birds set was like a Happy Face sticker applied over the circle-of-death clock of Die Walküre underneath. In accord with the production’s concept of innocence were David P. Gordon’s fairy-tale scenery (especially his brilliant “bird castles in the air” props – see illustration above), Linda Cho’s sumptuous and fanciful bird costumes, David Weiner’s full-spectrum lighting, and Peggy Hickey’s quirky bird choreography.


The vocalists were uniformly good, and included a couple of company debuts: tenor Brandon Jovanovich as a resonant and fresh-voiced Good Hope, and his ladybird-in-waiting, soprano Désirée Rancatore as the Nightingale, a pretty soubrette with a slight wobble the evening I heard her. Baritone James Johnson’s Loyal Friend carried with aplomb the traditional duties of the shrewd side-kick. Soprano Stacey Tappan’s Wren was a stand-out, encapsulating the quick, angular motions of her avian species. Baritone Martin Gantner was the properly befuddled Hoopoe whose pretense of leadership masks his inner coward. Brian Mulligan’s baritone channeled the stentorian role of Prometheus, modeled on Salome’s Jochanaan. Baritone Matthew Moore well accounted his two high flying roles, the Eagle and Zeus, and the Young Artist Programmers, soprano Valerie Vinzant as First Thrush and baritone Daniel Armstrong as the Raven, are safe to quoth opera arias evermore.


As we have come to expect, James Conlon and his orchestral forces, like the super professionals they are, rose to the occasion of their challenging duties less than a day after an exhausting Die Walküre performance. Conlon’s own batting average with this opera company is so high, I am beginning to fear a draft pick from the L.A. Dodgers at Chavez Ravine across the freeway.



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