Friday, September 18, 2009

Thomas Hampson and Vlad Iftinca to give recital of German and American Songs

by Rodney Punt

Even in these budget-challenged times, the LA Opera devotes some of its resources to the art of song, and thanks be for that. American mega-baritone Thomas Hampson with piano collaborator Vlad Iftinca returns to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday, October 3 at 7:30 pm, for a survey of two contrasting song traditions, those of Germany and the USA. When an artist of Hampson's caliber comes to town with comparable talent as his pianist, a song recital can be an enlightening experience, as many remember from his last recital a few seasons ago at UCLA's Royce Hall.

Hampson has significant ties to Southern California, having studied in his formative years at Santa Barbara's Music Academy of the West. While much of his career has been spent in Europe, with a long domicile in Austria, in recent years he has returned to his roots in the States. Always supplementing his formidable opera presence with concert and recording work in Lieder (German art songs), he is now one of the most important proponents of American song as well.

The Romanian-born pianist Iftinca has worked with several New York-based singers in recent years. As a staff pianist at the Metropolitan Opera and a coach with the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, he is also active in developing young singing talent, as well as collaboration with other pianists, notably in recordings of works for four hands.

If opera is the macrocosmos of vocal music, song is its microcosmic counterpart. The current production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen depicts externalized action on an cinematic scale. By contrast, a recital of Lieder conveys human emotions through internalized musical snapshots. Most songs last no longer than three or four minutes; singer and pianist take their places on the stage before us unadorned with theatrical setting or movement. The chromatic musical palate of song is every bit as rich as opera, but where the latter comes in dazzling Technicolor, the palate of song with piano accompaniment registers with us more like the equally beautiful flickering colors of an opal.

The LA Opera has been kind enough to provide the program selections to LA Opus in advance of the recital
The German first half surveys the Lieder tradition from its near beginnings with the incomparable Franz Schubert, through the emotionally charged atmosphere of Franz Liszt’s progressive Romanticism, and on to two of its final exponents, Richard Strauss and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The program includes three gems of Schubert (An die Leier, Das Fischermädchen, Der Doppelgänger), three rarely heard songs of Liszt (Im Rhein im schönen Strome, Es rauschen die Winde, Die drei Zigeuner), a single song of Korngold (Pierrot’s Tanzlied from Die tote Stadt), and four late Romantic offerings from Strauss (Himmelsboten, Freundliche Vision, Traum durch die Dämmerung, Heimliche Aufforderung). What Schubert had begun in Vienna, Korngold summed up in Hollywood, as the most famous composer of the Golden Age of American film, though the song above was from his Vienna days before emigration to our shores.

The program shifts gears for its second half with mostly single song selections of no less than 11 American composers, “A Panorama of American Song” according to the program, including a rarely sung Stephen Foster piece (Open Thy Lattice, Love) two crowd-pleasers from Aaron Copland (The Dodger, The Boatmen’s Dance), a Charles Ives selection (Charlie Rutlage), and one by a former resident of our own L.A. West Adams district, the late and beloved William Grant Still (Grief).

Further program info can be found on Hampson’s website, and particularly the song projects page, which has several essays on American song. For tickets, contact the LA Opera's website.

Don't miss the opportunity of hearing Thomas Hampson at the peak of his artistic powers with a pianist in sympathetic partnership with him. Whatever your mood when you arrive, the variety of songs to be offered from these fine musical artists should guarantee some will chime with your state of mind - or shift it to a higher level !

First d'Amore

LA Opera rolls out Elixir of Love for season premiere

by Donna Perlmutter

For reasons obvious to many of us music director James Conlon felt compelled to write a program-book essay in support of Donizetti’s ”L’Elisir d’Amore” (now advertised by Los Angeles Opera as – “The Elixir of Love” -- even though it’s sung in Italian, which is understandable to the local Spanish speakers who comprise maybe half of our city’s population).

Well, we’ll take him at his persuasively written word. There is a case to be made for the whole genre of bel canto opera buffa – you know, the style whose quaint comic clichés come feathered in 19th-century conceits and spills over with lovely lyric tunes and rambunctious rhythmic cheer (that some of us find overbearingly simplistic some of the time).

But never mind all that. Just know that this gorgeous production, new in 1996, and trotted out only once since then, has everything else to recommend it.

As the curtain opens on Johan Engels’ stunning unit set --magically lit (by Joan Sullivan-Genthe) – such sober possibilities as a Chekhov farmhold, with servants as intimates, or Bertolucci’s film “1900,” come to mind. The last thing it conjures is a frothy comedy.

Director Stephen Lawless places the action inside a barn whose huge, slatted gate of dark wood looms over all; a pale sky, framing picturesque hay stacks upstage, makes for a strikingly luminous contrast. The décor becomes a springboard for interaction – workers, gathering wheat and shaving corn from cobs, mingle with the principals: no choruses are plunked down on stage left or right, as arbitrary units.

Lawless’s shrewd touches reject silliness and lend grateful dimension to the characters: Gianetta (Valerie Vinzant) tries to vamp Belcore on his way to woo Adina, then sulks resentfully on failing. Nemorino shows his transformation from woebegone to triumphant by flinging heavy sacks of grain onto a wagon like Clark Kent changed to Superman.

The assembled cast in this 2009 edition suffered two important cancellations – the immensely gifted Rolando Villazón and Ruggero Raimondi, whose Don Giovanni (in Joseph Losey’s 1979 film) lives in my mind.

Still, Giuseppe Filianoti filled the bill nicely as the besotted bumpkin Nemorino, certainly looking the part but also showing the capacity to mock his rival’s antics. He focused his bright tenor well, if without finding much sweetness anywhere or even while delivering the opera’s hit tune, “Una furtiva lagrima” -- though here he did boast an impressively applied dynamic range and head tones to spare.

As Dulcamara, the charlatan selling love-and-everything-else-potions, Giorgio Caoduro, could not match the uproarious antics of Thomas Allen, from the original cast. But his clear, forward-placed, burnished baritone stood him in good stead. So did Nathan Gunn, as the puffed-up, preening regimental authority Belcore, come across with panache, not to mention with his finely crafted coloratura intact.

The star, however, was Nino Machaidze (photo above), the Georgian soprano making her U.S. debut. As Adina, she was the image of a much sought-after, self-indulgent, rich and pretty girl who could also show, in small ways, that she was unnerved by Nemorino. Her lyric voice, a thing of beauty – soared effortlessly, especially in the long-lined passages filled with romantic fervor, and powered itself to the upper climactic reaches with excitement. But for the insistent patter it often turned chirpy.

Leading the whole enterprise Conlon coaxed from the orchestra loving accompaniments – supple, spirited, nuanced and tender in turn. The only disappointment came in Act 2, when a single, mystifying, red light bathed the stage.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Divine Providence

Ah! Opera No-Opera at REDCAT

by Joseph Mailander

"The most incomprehensible thing about the universe," says a singer/chanter/character--not important which one--halfway through the unusual linked fragments that together form Ah! Opera No-Opera at REDCAT tonight and tomorrow, "is that it is comprehensible." There are a deluge of such looking-glass observations flooding into the audience-in-the-rectangle space through the production, which draws from post-structuralist theory as well as the gamut of countercultural idioms from the seventies, idioms such as spoken word poetry, performance art, Deleuzean creativity, progressive chord loft jazz, Woody Allen's belle epoch movies, hyperkinetic New York dance, all of that wonderful incomprehensible time. Also subtitled A Counterpoint of Tolerance, the work--which is no opera, nor theater--is certainly multipronged and certainly tightly executed for such an apparently loose amble through thirteen stories, arranged like a clock in a likely deliberately helpful-unhelpful program diagram.

The audience is invited to take off their shoes and stay, the usual REDCAT seating stripped away as in a high school gym, and a cushy mat covering the entire area. Sitting along the perimeter, the audience files past the interior perimeter of musicians, most equipped with iMacs in the middle of their saxophones, percussion, etc., and initially focuses on scatting/recitativo singers and a slow moving woman in white. Emily Dickinson and tending foxgloves (cf. especially I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed, 214) are cited in the first segment; the audience wonders about the inclusion of the word "chiliocosm"--twice--and indeed we are heading straight for them...

The woman in white proceeds as though walking a labyrinth, following her own path with the emotions of Carol Lay's Story Minute heroine, now cartoonish glum, now cartoonish in consternation, now hopeful, now pathetic, now determined, quite slowly. She suddenly pops to life as out of a cake in one of the segments, losing her modest Wilma Flinstone bun in the back and now gyrating, even vibrating madly, for an exhausting strip of time: as with so many REDCAT dance performances, you are not only in awe but hopeful that paramedics are waiting in the wings as she takes her martyr's cooldown in the middle of the floor, breathing almost too heavily for comfort.

Notable along the way are the segments' flirtations with the word "providence"--one segment even unfolds at the University of Rhode Island to accommodate the word as place-name--this kind of Stoppard verbal tennis runs through the libretto no-libretto with surprising gracefulness.

This work would have been possible in the seventies, when so many of its elements were part of the loft scene, except for one element: those iMacs, which relay sound, noise, music, the kaleidescope of lighting, red lasers dancing in the figure in white's hair, and other information to the performers, especially the musicians, as the work progresses. The music itself is friendly and almost all in minors with occasionally jarring major sevenths (I believe) when it bothers with a tone; mysterious seventies jazz-soundtrack chord progressions such as thirds are also especially favored. The dancer gets taped by a cameraman, who becomes part of her choreography; there are hundreds of such nuanced delights as these. It is a brilliant piece, highly entertaining, with booming firings from all quarter: Director Travis Preston, writers David Rosenboom and Martine Bellen, and choreographer Mira Kingsley, and also Laura Mroczkowski's lighting design and Ajay Kapurs synching of interactive media.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Only Now for Misha

Baryshnikov at the Broad

by Donna Perlmutter

Finally! Fifteen years after the post-prime part of his career began Mikhail Baryshnikov has struck artistic gold. Yes, it took that long for the one-time Russian heartthrob to find his terra firma footing, so to speak -- no longer the paragon, at 61, who could toss off balletic pyrotechnics with laughing ease, defy gravity, devour space and dazzle us with the purity and power of his dancing.

But he always knew how to extract the human element in his characterizations of elegant, ironic humor or burning ardor.

And In a program at the Broad Stage, that little Westside jewel of a performance venue, Baryshnikov put on his best show of the decade.

At last we could forget about the primo virtuoso assoluto and find the vital dancing actor he was, and still is, even without the heady stuff. At last he did not come up empty, after rummaging through the once-revolutionary modern dance baskets, masquerading, to our disappointment, as a dark denizen of esoterica and recruiting the genre’s big-name choreographers to clothe him mostly in duds.

Here he gave us substance instead of shtick.

This time the custom-tailored pieces he danced with Anna Laguna abounded in the kind of sophistication and originality, he’s been searching for ever since hanging up his leotards and tights and heading for the less demanding portals of experimentalism.

Remember him in his prime in Twyla Tharp’s “Push Comes To Shove?” The street-wise, snazzy vaudevillian mugging his way through a Jimmy Cagney routine, ambling onstage – black derby cocked at an angle, the picture of smoldering mockery and calculated finesse – splicing fireworks from his balletic arsenal into a couth boogaloo?

Well, that same Misha, the master mime magician, materialized here in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Valse-Fantasie.” Set to Glinka’s old-chestnut, rinkydink music, the piece let our hero morph into an elegant suitor a lá Charlie Chaplin, telling graphic stories about a whole range of romantic approach/avoidance impulses and the myriad of gradations between them – often tagged with jokey modern dance accents.

But to appreciate its excellence – along with Swedish dance-maker Mats Ek’s works on the bill – you must credit these two creators for knowing how to squeeze every bit of juice from an unregenerate star who is no longer so springy or oiled as before.

Ek’s “Solo for Two” illuminates Laguna’s deep sorrow, a wrenching anger mixed with anguish as she bends herself in half, arms and torso swinging from the heavens to the ground – but not without a comic flourish here and there, flapping air up under her skirts, scratching her head.

The companion piece, “Place,” is the real marvel, its music by Fläskkvartetten (Flesh Quartet), a deliriously lyric and whimsical electro-acoustic lanscape that accelerates in volume and tempo as it mingles with the choreography -- original duet interactions the likes of which are hardly ever seen.

It has Laguna (Ek’s wife) and Baryshnikov dancing a love story, but not unburdened by stormy glitches and reconciliations, all calibrated to reflect real life. As they race in a circle, bound together as a single, ecstatic heartbeat, the image brands itself in the mind’s eye. A table, here, becomes both their prop and a gauge of emotional ebb and flow, depending on how they use it. Similarly Laguna deals with a chair in “Solo.”

Far less engaging was Benjamin Millepied’s “Years Later,” a cheeky foil, nonetheless, for Misha, here and now in streetwear, doing his contemporary cool-guy casual dancing in front of an old black-and-white film showing the young Kirov firebrand in practice clothes, leaping high the air, with perfectly pointed feet and turned out thighs. But wait, a third figure intervenes, as film layered on film: last year’s Baryshnikov as a black cameo, semi-obscuring the virtuoso action.

A very clever tease. In effect, “I don’t want you to be able to compare me then to now.” Nor did his audience need to.