Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Le Salon de Musiques presents Schubert

A Haunting Second Concert of the Inaugural Season

Review by Rodney Punt

If symphony orchestras are lumbering, soon-to-be-extinct dinosaurs, as some of their critics claim, then today’s chamber ensembles are their evolved, fleet-winged descendants that may yet survive music’s Jurassic Age. The scene in Los Angeles has never been livelier; it’s almost as difficult catching all this autumn's chamber concerts as counting birds in migration.

The latest sighting of the species is called ‘Le Salon de Musiques.’ Co-artistic directors are François Chouchan (series founder) and Phillip Levy, with Bernard Philippe serving as artistic advisor. They have organized an inaugural season of eight concerts focused mainly on German composers. The resident French and German Consulates are patrons. A list of featured artists in the series reads like a Who’s Who of local virtuosos.

Le Salon’s concerts are presented at an underutilized but elegant space within the very heart of the Music Center. The fifth floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the former Curtain Call restaurant hosted fancy gatherings in years past, is both a lovely perch overlooking the central city and an acoustically apt chamber for music. Its dated, high society décor (with stiff chairs) is somehow appropriate for the throwback image this series projects.

Le Salon’s promotional materials and its website have the refinement of a bygone era in their use of lacy script and imbedded composer faces that remind me of the Everybody’s Favorite Piano Music volumes of my youth. Yet there is nothing stuffy about the sincerity of its promoters to beguile and charm their listeners into the glories of chamber music.

I caught the second concert of the series on November 21, a performance of Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major. Completed just two months before the composer’s early death, at age 31, it is one of the greatest chamber compositions in the repertoire. At turns serene and searing, it was also Schubert's last instrumental piece and a swan song to the Classical era whose chief proponents had also included Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

The String Quintet's unusual combination of an extra cello with a standard string quartet provides richer sonorities in the lower ranges and, in the second movement, an ethereal dialogue between the first violin and the second cello. I hear that conversation as between a despairing Life and embracing Death, and it was exquisitely spoken between violinist Kevin Kumar and cellist Antonio Lysy, as supported by the soft, extended harmonies of a string trio within the ensemble consisting of violinist Maia Jasper, violist Robert Brophy, and cellist John Walz.

The outer movements of the work suggest a vibrant society of gypsies and gentry comingling on the streets and in the café’s of Vienna, while a desperate inner struggle consumes the increasingly detached composer, terrified but never self-pitying. In this piece and in his simultaneously composed but incomplete Symphony in D Major and Minor, Schubert seemed to foresee, with agonizing intensity, not only his own demise but the autumn of a European culture that Mahler was so acutely to echo at the dawn of the Twentieth Century.

The musicians had not performed this work together before, but each had been long acquainted with it from other encounters and brought to the afternoon an authentic musical compatibility and refined expression that may have surprised even them. A discernable aura of significance filled the room as the music unfolded.

A pleasant aspect of Le Salon’s format had been the earlier introduction of the piece by two narrators who earnestly if a bit naively read program notes, while the musicians highlighted important motifs to listen for in the performance to follow. After the concert, a question and answer session further reduced the artificial wall between performers and audience. That wall was completely done away with in the bonhomie of champagne and gourmet cuisine mixed with cozy conversation at nearby tables after the concert's conclusion.

For at least one listener at the otherwise light-hearted post-concert celebration, Schubert's String Quintet lingered and haunted.

Photo above: Carole Sternicha
Rodney Punt can be reached at [email protected]

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Friday Phonograph

A Musical Czech Mate?
Josef Suk "no. 4b Little Idylls no. 2."

by Anne French

This Friday's pick is a short work by little known Czech composer, Josef Suk (4 January 1874 - 29 May 1935): no. 4b Little Idylls no. 2 from the "Six Pieces for Piano Op. 7." Suk was the grandfather of famed violinist Josef Suk, and he has been called the "missing link" between Antonin Dvorák (who was his father-in-law) and composer Leos Jánacek. Unfortunately his works are rarely heard outside his native land, where he is considered among the greatest composers of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. His great Poetic Symphony, Azraël, ranks among the most fascinating orchestral works of that time. Other notable compositions include the Fairy Tale Suite (1900); the piano works cycle, Things Lived and Dreamed (1909); and the trilogy of symphonic poems , "A Summer's Tale" (1909). I have chosen this rather melancholy and hauntingly beautiful piano solo played by Margaret Fingerhut.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Intimate Opera Of Pasadena Brings "Amahl and the Night Visitors" to Pasadena Playhouse

December 16-19
Evening and Matinee Performances

mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzmán, tenor Greg Fedderly, baritone Robin Buck
and bass baritone Cedric Berry

Actor Malcolm McDowell will also narrate
"A Child’s Christmas in Wales" by Dylan Thomas

December 16 at 8 p.m. (Gala); December 17 at 8 p.m; December 18 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; December 19 at 2 p.m.

Intimate Opera of Pasadena brings a Christmas gift to the whole family with its upcoming production of Gian Carlo Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors," December 16-19, at Pasadena's historic Pasadena Playhouse. Mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzmán, who has performed the one-act opera under the direction of composer Menotti himself, heads the stellar cast, while Artistic Director Stephanie Vlahos is staging the classic holiday treat.

Guzmán received a nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical for her Kennedy Center portrayal of the Mother of Amahl, the crippled shepherd boy who is healed when he unexpectedly accompanies three kings on a visit to a manger in Bethlehem.

In addition to Guzmán, boy sopranos Caleb Glickman and Leighton Sackby will alternate in the role of Amahl, tenor Greg Fedderly plays King Kaspar, baritone Robin Buck appears as King Melchior, bass baritone Cedric Berry as King Balthazar and Benito Galinda as the Page. Members of the Pasadena Master Chorale will appear as the chorus of shepherds and villagers, with PMC Music Director Jeffrey Bernstein conducting.

A second matinee repertory cast will include soprano Alexandra Schenck as the Mother, tenor Robert Norman as Kaspar, baritone Alex Britton as Melchior, bass baritone Nicholas Shelton as Balthazar, and Benito Galinda as the Page. Glickman and Sackby play Amahl for all performances.

“Given our new digs as opera company in residence at the Pasadena Playhouse, our productions will be truly unique,” says Vlahos, who began her career in Los Angeles as a resident artist at Los Angeles Opera and is now a director for Full Circle Opera Company, The Opera Institute at CSULB, and the Domingo-Thornton Young Artists program at LA Opera, as well as other regional opera companies throughout the US. Joining Vlahos on the production team are Jareg Sayeg, lighting designer; Emmy award winning scenic designer John Iacovelli; and Kate Bergh, costume designer.

Collaborating with Intimate Opera of Pasadena for evening performances is actor Malcolm McDowell, who will narrate "A Child’s Christmas in Wales," by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, following the opera. “Dylan Thomas often gave greatly acclaimed public readings of his works, including 'A Child’s Christmas in Wales,' " says Vlahos. “This poem has resonated with audiences in the same way that more celebrated classics do..."

For more information about Intimate Opera of Pasadena, visit www.intimateopera.net. Pasadena Playhouse is located at 39 South El Molino Avenue in Pasadena, California. A gala opening performance will take place Thursday, December 16, at 8 p.m., with tickets ranging from $60 to $100/person. Ticket prices for the remaining matinee and evening performances range from $35 to $75. Patrons interested in attending the gala dinner with the artists and creative team following the opening night performance should call 626.274.7342 or email [email protected] for more information.


About the Artists

Mezzo- Soprano Suzanna Guzmán is a native of East Los Angeles. She has performed as a soloist throughout Europe, nationally with the Metropolitan Opera, Washington National Opera, Dallas Opera, San Diego Opera, and other companies.
Tenor Greg Fedderly's change in directions focusing on the comprimario tenor repertoire has proven extremely successful, and he is now in demand in major theatres around the US and Europe.

Baritone Robin Buck has distinguished himself in Opera, Oratorio, Concert, Recital and Musical Theater, appearing in over 1000 performances of more than 45 roles (eight of them world-premieres) throughout the United States and Europe.

Bass Baritone Cedric Berry is a First Place winner in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions –Western Region. Mr. Berry has appeared at opera houses nationwide in a wide variety of roles.

Actor Malcolm McDowell has created a gallery of iconographic characters since catapulting to the screen as “Mick Travis”, the rebellious upperclassman, in Lindsay Anderson’s prize-winning sensation, IF…

--- Anne French


by Anne French

Pianist Robert Thies will join members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic next Tuesday, November 30th, at 8:00 p.m. in Walt Disney Concert Hall. The program is sponsored by the Chamber Music Society and features Thies in Dvorák's "Piano Trio in F minor, Op. 65."

No stranger to Los Angeles concert goers, and a frequent soloist with orchestras throughout California and beyond, Mr. Thies is a much sought after soloist and ensemble performer. In 1995, he became the first American pianist to win the top prize in a Russian international piano competition since Van Cliburn's 1958 triumph. Later this season, he will perform the Schumann Concerto with the Pasadena Symphony, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with the Virginia Symphony and the Chopin E minor Concerto with the Naples Philharmonic.

Also included in Tuesday night's concert are Martinu's "Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano," and Nielsen's "Wind Quintet." Scored for flute, oboe (doubling English horn), clarinet, French horn, and bassoon, Nielsen’s Quintet was originally dedicated to the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, who gave the premiere in 1922. An immediate success, it is now considered one of the major 20th century works for winds, a staple of wind quintet repertoire. Log in to http://www.laphil.com/tickets/performance-detail.cfm?id=4349
for ticket information.

Here is the complete program:

MARTINU Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano
Catherine Karoly, flute
Jonathan Karoly, cello
Norman Krieger, piano
NIELSEN Wind Quintet Op. 43
Sarah Jackson, flute
Anne Gabriele, oboe
Monica Kaenzig, clarinet
Shawn Mouser, bassoon
Bruce Hudson, horn


DVORAK Piano Trio in F minor, Op. 65
Shelley Bovyer, violin
Barry Gold, cello
Robert Thies, piano

Monday, November 22, 2010

Wagner’s Lohengrin at LA Opera

Who WAS that Masked Man?

Photo: LA Opera

Review by Rodney Punt

Hiding one’s identity to accomplish a job is not so foreign a concept to understand as latter-day stage directors of the opera Lohengrin would have us believe. Who, except operatives within the Bush administration, would deny Valerie Plame the necessity of keeping secret her membership in the CIA, even if from her husband, to accomplish her mission?

In the popular culture of our youths, did we ever doubt the nobility of purpose of the Lone Ranger just because he wore a mask? The people he saved never knew him until he mysteriously appeared when trouble lurked and they appreciated his need to disappear as soon as evil was vanquished.

The question of obscured identity is, of course, central to Wagner’s Lohengrin, a new production of which L.A. Opera premiered last Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with a headliner cast led by Canadian tenor Ben Heppner.

The apotheosis of the Romantic opera, Lohengrin is the exemplar stage realization of chivalric myth. Its shining knight of the swan is sent from the distant guardians of the Holy Grail at Monsalvat to save a lady falsely accused of fratricide, but he is fated to leave her for the transgression of her wanting to know too much, that too much being his identity. Wagner weaves into this myth other narrative subtexts, such as an actual historic power struggle at the collapse of Carolingian Europe and the rise of the Holy Roman Empire, and a struggle between the remnants of magical paganism and the newly dominant Christian faith.

Today’s revisionist stagings are perversely harsh on Lohengrin. Take for example L.A. Opera’s 2001 version that was later shared with the Kirov Opera -- a dark, dank, and depressing conception in which the central oak tree bore the visual accents of a crucified swan, under which Nazi-uniformed soldiers huddled. As recently as January it would have been revived here were it not that its elements had been cannibalized in the intervening decade for other productions in Russia.

Adversity opening a new door, General Director Plácido Domingo offered up to hastily selected director Lydia Steier (who had assisted on Achim Freyer’s Ring Cycle and is debuting as director) “the opportunity and artistic freedom to rethink the production from the ground up.”

With the ball in Steier’s court, she took as her duty (as stated in notes accompanying the production) “to present a musical score and its story in the most honest and immediate manner possible (with) the work's performance in modern times (justified by) evolving tastes and technologies.”

All very nice, but Steier’s staging focuses not so much on intriguing questions of identity or belief systems as with the opera's historic setting, at best a minor dimension in the opera, but given major prominence here. The action is updated from the Tenth Century to the exigencies of a Twentieth Century nursing station in a burned out church near the front lines of the First World War.

King Heinrich (the historical Henry the Fowler) arrives in the powdered blue ceremonial uniforms of the Kaiser in Wilhelminian Germany. The Brabantians lay prostate in hospital cots as battered casualties of war. Heinrich asks for the assistance of these invalids to defend against the attacking Hungarians. During the course of Steier’s staging, Heinrich will manipulate both Lohengrin and the Brabantians to support his warring ways. Telramund and his allied businessmen will resist war efforts, in some way pulling at our sympathies.

Immediately there are problems of logic and history. Tenth Century Saxony and Brabant (modern day Belgium) were allied members of a confederation whose independent states had elected Henry the Fowler to lead them. The Hungarians were powerful foreign aggressors. Henry was not a rash warmonger, but an enforcer of peace who had kept them out of war for nearly a decade by paying tribute to the swaggering Hungarians. Knowing that this was just a delaying game, he also necessarily prepared for the defense of his realm.

When the historic Heinrich came to Brabant seeking assistance, he was meeting not with wounded foot soldiers but assembled nobles, on the far western boundary of a loose confederation where they had lived peacefully and which his wise policies had made possible.

By updating the timeframe to the First World War and placing the action in the Belgian province of Brabant, battered and recently run over by the Kaiser’s troops, Steier turns history on its head. By 1914, Austro-Hungary was an ally, not an enemy, of Germany and Belgium was their mutual victim. Having the Kaiser/Heinrich beseech as allies the bloodied and decommissioned casualties of his own aggression is risible absurdity.

But all of this is merely the distracting background to a story of individual human conflict and competition, which Steier only routinely unfolds but loads down with additional distractions. She is on firm ground when she suggests the central conflict is between “dogma” and “doubt” (faith vs. skepticism) but this dynamic is not so much Steier’s new idea as Wagner’s original conception. Steier only muddies the action with arbitrary plot inventions.

Resolutely set against the introduction of supernatural elements, Steier’s swan conveyance to and from the action is reduced to a weatherized shimmer in the sky and a very grounded canvas hospital tent where Lohengrin will eventually emerge not as an idolized savior, but as an amputee in suspendered undershirt, his ample gut hanging out, and sporting a gleaming chromium prosthetic leg.

Prior to the action and during the opera’s Holy Grail prelude, Lohengrin had lain languishing within that tent, the victim of the same recent battles as the rest of the assembled lame; he has already fought side by side with those to whom he will shortly become a total stranger. To the strains of the music, his soon-to-be sworn enemy Telramund, double cast by Steier as a field surgeon, removes Lohengrin’s wounded leg.

Undoubtedly the shiny prosthetic has deep symbolic significance for Steier, but it is given no rationale to the audience, other than as a historic prop reminiscent of a piece of Wagner’s originally conceived shining armor. What the amputated leg itself represents is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it is to morph into the missing Gottfried, heir to Brabant, and Elsa’s long lost brother, who emerges in the same tent soon after Lohengrin’s final farewell.

The severed leg sets up another logical fallacy of unnecessary obscurity. The pagan Ortrud, robed here as a blood-stained nurse, tells her husband Telramund in the second act that the removal of even a tiny piece of Lohengrin’s skin can disarm his power, urging him to do so. But she seems unaware (because it is not in the opera, of course) that his earlier surgery has already accomplished the deed, making foolhardy his ill-fated attempt to get a piece of Lohengrin in the final act. We are forced once again to grant Steier absurd artistic license.

Meanwhile, Steier passes up the potentially more interesting encounter of Ortrud and Elsa, the former planting doubts about Lohengrin’s identity. This psychologically more relevant aspect unfolds quite conventionally, receiving far less attention than fussy prop side-shows.

Scenic and costume designer Dirk Hofacker, who had performed similar services in the 2001 Lohengrin, used a standard revolving unit set reminiscent of the iconic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich (The Abby in the Oakwood or Cloister Ruins and Churchyard by the Sea) that have the feel of death and decay. Mark McCullough’s lighting scheme underscores the dingy, bedraggled look in this supposedly most luminescent of operas.

Little imagination was expended moving around the cluttered bodies at the public gatherings, often in the way of easy movement of the principals. For good measure, and to establish the American-born Steier’s newly polished credentials as a Berlin-based stage director, a few of King Heinrich’s troops wear ever-recognizable German battle helmets of the First and Second World Wars. Some also rough up the wounded Brabantians in the third act as they try to win over the hearts and minds of their allied brethren.

Much back story attention had been focused on rumors surrounding the vocal condition of Ben Heppner, set to make his L.A. Opera debut in the title role. The L.A. Times reported just days ago that the world’s reigning heldentenor had received “wounding criticism for a series of problems that have compromised his instrument (and) with the debut looming… both anticipation and concern have mounted.”

More than a few on both sides of the stage were holding their breath as Heppner was about to exhale his. Yet, as the world just witnessed in a miraculous Chilean mine rescue, even pending disasters can find escape.

A frayed Heppner dug deep into the mine of his musical resources for something very precious -- his old vocal technique. Like a veteran racehorse sensing he is on his last outing at the track, Heppner was able to summon forth much of his bright, metallic ping and breath control. Nearly banished for four hours were the annoying wobble and lapse of secure line that had plagued him. A few cracks and dips notwithstanding, Heppner carefully steered through the evening with ample remaining resources for a stirring peroration before his prosaic departure in the tent.

Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski in her Company debut as a conventional Elsa, sailed her lyric silvery-toned soprano over the orchestra while in her upper ranges but was occasionally obscured in her middle voice. Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson was an imposing King Heinrich, who Steier has manipulating the action at every turn, as when he passes a knife to the momentarily swordless Lohengrin in the first act to finish off Telramund. Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick was a stentorian force of malevolent nature as Ortrud, with baritone James Johnson a distressed, Macbeth-like Telramund.

James Conlon conducted with flair his seventh Wagner opera here, his responsive orchestra now fully Wagnerian in its capabilities, and in a pit finally and gratefully uncovered after misguided experiments to obscure it à la Bayreuth for the Ring Cycle. The Grail motif shimmered, the wedding music ennobled, and the regal brass fanfares ringing from the hall’s side rafters were as stirring as from any Olympics ceremony, but of infinitely greater musical caliber in this most lyrical of stage works. The solid chorus – the most resplendent in any Wagner opera – was prepared to its usual high standards by Grant Gershon.

Let me preach a little in conclusion. Lydia Steier should concentrate on resisting her own dogmas. Her conception of this opera, obviously with little lead time, adds scant original thinking to the last dim staging, and endorses Berlin-based Regietheater postures that originated in the aftermath of the Second World War. While it worked for several decades, the all-purpose toolbox of Wehrmacht symbols is by now a tired, clichéd bag of tricks. If applied to any and all uniformed depictions, even those of historic justification, these symbols lose their dramatic potency and breed audience ennui.

Enough already.

Not so much compromised by Heppner’s anticipated poor performance as hobbled by an inexplicably bland and misguided staging, the latest production of Lohengrin had dodged one bullet only to be KO’d by another that it might easily have ducked.


Lohengrin runs at L.A. Opera through December 12.
Rodney Punt can be reached at [email protected].

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Friday Phonograph

Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann meet Chopin

Our friend Anne French is an obsessive troller through the riches of You Tube's classical music collection. We are adding a feature to LA Opus where Anne will post her favorite pick of the week. Look for the "Friday Phonograph" each week and let it be your musical transition to the weekend. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Anne to the LA Opus team. -- Rodney and Joseph.

Today's pick is a scene from Ingmar Bergman's masterful film, "Autumn Sonata," in which Liv Ullman receives a mini-piano lesson from her concert pianist mother, played by Ingrid Bergman. Chopin's Prelude No. 2 is the vehicle for the lesson, which quickly becomes a metaphor for the emotional relationship between the two women. Close-up facial expressions during the dialog result in both breathtaking filmmaking and insightful musical analysis. (Cinematographer Sven Nykvist does his usual impeccable work.) Hope you enjoy it! -- Anne French.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Handel’s Agrippina

Rotten Scoundrels in Roman Sandals

Photo: Opera UCLA


Review by Rodney Punt

Young composers often court attention by sensationalizing their works. Mozart dragged a man to hell in Don Giovanni. Berlioz created a drug-induced nightmare for his Symphonie fantastique. Verdi set blood-and-guts scenarios in his early operas. But before any of these, a composer from staid Saxony, George Frideric Handel, catapulted himself into celebrity in his twenty-fifth year with an opera about skullduggery in ancient Rome. It was to set a high bar for shock values to follow.

Composed for the 1709-10 Carnival season of Venice, Handel’s “dramma per musica” Agrippina earned from its vicariously titillated audience a delirious cry of “Viva il caro Sassone!” Handel overnight became one of Europe’s first international music stars. Soon, even regal London would be at his feet.

Some of history’s most notorious scoundrels figure in Agrippina, with its title role inhabited by the sister of Caligula who was also the mother of a soon-to-be fiddling Nero. The opera is propelled by a throbbing libretto from Vincenzo Grimani and a host of catchy tunes from Handel, many of which he cribbed from earlier works.

The Opera UCLA production mounted over the weekend at the Freud Playhouse – I caught Thursday’s premiere - interpolated additional Handelian material but trimmed even more, tailoring the original three acts into two. Several arias contained only the “A” section of otherwise ABA forms, giving the work thrust but reducing the extended moments of musical contemplation typical of Handel.

Unlike last spring's lavish production of Jonathan Dove’s Flight, this fall's curtailed resources at Opera UCLA dictated an austere approach to Agrippina. James Darrah, a recent graduate who had directed Flight, was invited back by the program's director Peter Kazaras as guest director but this time restricted to the Freud’s stage area (UCLA's so-called "onstage arrangement"). Risers with folding chairs for an audience of one hundred were at the back of the stage facing the proscenium, beyond which the house’s ghostly seats sat empty.

Darrah and his cohorts made up in flair what they lacked in fare. On the stage was designer Ellen Lenbergs’ raised platform, configured as an enormous bed for the first act in Poppea’s bedroom, and with Astroturf as Rome’s Imperial Gardens in the second. To the side of the set was music director and conductor Stephen Stubbs’ modest Baroque orchestra of eleven musicians, including himself on harpsichord. The cast wore Sarah Schuessler’s modern dress (and several patterns of her undress). John A. Garofalo illuminated the performance area, with accents on props like a garden of flowers or blue-lit liquor bottles (even Roman wine was updated here). The various vocal and instrumental performers were both undergraduate and graduate students, with one from the Extension program.

The opera’s plot revolves around the overweening ambition of Agrippina, wife of Roman Emperor Claudio (Claudius), who wants her son by an earlier marriage, Nerone (Nero), to be designated as Claudio’s successor. The storyline follows the rough contour of actual historical events, with the usual compressed timeframes, personalities, and fictional elements to fit an evening’s drama. Energizing the intrigues are Agrippina’s offers of sexual favors to conspirators and threats of bodily harm to those in her way.

The scene opens in the bed of Agrippina (soprano Lisa Hendrickson clad in lingerie inspired by Victoria’s Secret) with her son Nerone (soprano Leela Subramaniam, in the underwear of a trouser role). The two engage in sexual horseplay reminiscent of Der Rosenkavalier but with an incestuous overlay that renders the April-July romance of the Strauss opera chaste by comparison.

Believing Claudio dead at sea, Agrippina seductively lures his two valets, alternately disrobing Pallante (bass Victor Tapia) and Narciso (baritone Brian Vu), and convincing them to proclaim Nerone the new Emperor. Nerone, meanwhile, prepares for his coronation.

The arrival of a very alive Claudio (baritone Ryan Thorn), with his commander, rescuer, and now designated heir, Ottone (mezzo soprano Leslie Cook, fully trousered), causes Agrippina to shift to Plan B. She plies with liquor Claudio’s jewelry-obsessed mistress, Poppea (soprano Katy Tang, also in cheek-peeking lingerie), proclaiming that her real love, Ottone, has given her over to Claudio in exchange for the throne. Much of the cast is now on the bed as tempers flare, pillows fight, and feathers fly at the release of mounting tensions (see above photo).

With Agrippina’s other accusations of his disloyalty, Ottone is odd-man out by the end of Act I, all the players now turned against the only true soul in the opera. It takes Act II to untangle the intrigues. The earlier focus on Agrippina’s schemes shifts to the principled Ottone’s counter-measures. Poppea’s opening scene initiates a promising mood of clarified perspectives that will see Ottone win back her confidence, expose Agrippina’s plots, and, in his pursuit of true love over power, renounce the future throne to the crude Nerone.

At this point in the opera, Darrah makes a critical and canny editorial switch. The original clichéd ending, with Juno descending as a dea ex machina to set all aright, is jettisoned in favor of a denouement of human behavior. The final aria from Handel’s earlier Il Trionfo del Tempo (already mined by him for other bits in this opera) is inserted for Agrippina. Seemingly contrite, she sings of repentance while passively letting Nerone stab to death her unwitting husband, the now extraneous Claudio. While still in this blissful state, Nerone strangles her to death as the placid instrumental strains closing her peaceful aria die out with her. Ah, family!

Handel’s music throughout illustrates his talent for evocative treatments. Nerone’s dotted rhythm entrance in the lower strings denotes his already sinister, degenerate pomposity. Trumpets and timpani make a brilliant appearance at the initial entrance of Claudio, announcing that he has "just conquered Britannia." (Handel may have been signaling his own intentions here.) When Poppea sings of the flames of love in her heart, Handel’s violins quiver in blazing motifs. When Claudio later importunes her affections for himself, Handel’s sinewy melodic line wraps its musical arms around her.

In this version, Act II opens in a much sweeter mood, with Poppea’s hopeful sentiments nestled in the pastoral raptures of recorder and violin sonorities (this evening with an oboe filling in the one of recorder parts) as she sings of the prospect of her lover being innocent. Meanwhile Handel evokes the anxieties of Agrippina in sharp phrases as she sings of the unsettling thoughts tormenting her. Ottone’s decision to sit silently by while Agrippina’s schemes unravel around her is accompanied by a placid, confident ditty in three-quarter time.

Darrah’s projected titles pared down the libretto to its essences, giving clarity to the goings on as it mixed the blunt phrases of Nerone with the elevated language of most of the protagonists.

As clever, dramatically effective, and not incidentally loads of fun as its stage concept was, the production had certain issues on opening night. The cavernous space of the Freud’s back stage swallowed the musical projection of both instrumentalists and the young singers, who needed every reflected assist they could get. The opera’s emphasis on drama necessarily sacrificed a certain musical subtlety. A distant coordination between the singers and the orchestra sometimes hindered good intonation. Orchestra and vocalists occasionally tripped over rapid passagework and Baroque ornamentation was minimal. However, with the realities of rehearsal time and academic schedules, these were understandable and by no means fatal problems. Smart young performers learn and grow at every outing, so one could expect considerable improvement over the weekend.

Performances of two graduate students stood out. As the mercurial Agrippina, Hendrickson, her voice subdued during the first act but nicely opened in the second, protruded a haughty demeanor and impeccable athleticism. The determined Ottone of Leslie Cook projected a clearly focused mezzo with lovely low tones, and created a character of resilient authority and noble poise as Agrippina’s adversary.

Remaining cast members were predominately undergraduates who had their current abilities stretched in their respective roles. Subramaniam’s pleasant soprano had challenges in vocal runs closer to a mezzo range, but with smirking poses and an exotic visage, she nailed the immature character of Nerone. Katy Tang’s pretty Poppea pinged high notes and sprinkled charm as sparkling as her jewelry, but sang with somewhat less vocal focus at mid-register as she learns to extend her range. The Claudio of graduate student Ryan Thorn and the two valets, Victor Tapia and Brian Vu, proved capable protagonists with promising years of vocal growth ahead.

Opera UCLA forges on with its solid educational mission in this challenging work. Though the original Agrippina had an unusually long run of 27 performances in its Venice premiere exactly two hundred years ago, it was never revived by Handel, and is rarely performed today. Its revival here keeps alive this program's spirit of musical adventure, the efforts of Darrah and Stubbs to make a relevant contemporary performing edition being particularly commendable.

Such an opera requires an advanced singing technique and stamina rarely possible in younger voices. However, UCLA’s committed team gave the work a convincing performance, and, in turn, were provided a rewarding opportunity for musical and dramatic growth.


AGRIPPINA -- Libretto by Vincenzo Grimani, Music by G. F. Handel
Production is double cast; runs from November 11 to 14 at various times.

Stephen Stubbs, Conductor & Music Director
James Darrah, Director
Ellen Lenbergs, Scenic Designer
John A. Garofalo, Lighting Designer
Sarah Schuessler, Costume Designer
Rakefet Hak, Music Director of UCLA Opera Studio
Peter Kazaras, Director of Opera UCLA

Agrippina, wife of Claudio -- Lisa Hendrickson
Nerone (Nero), Agrippina’s son from a previous marriage -- Leela Subramaniam
Pallante, valet to Claudio -- Victor Tapia
Narciso, valet to Claudio -- Brian Vu
Claudio (Claudius), Emperor of the Roman Empire -- Ryan Thorn
Ottone, Commander of the Imperial Army -- Leslie Cook
Poppea, a courtesan and Claudio’s mistress -- Katy Tang

Violin I & Leader: Lindsey Strand-Polyak Violin II: Joshua Addison Viola: Ben Bartelt Cello: Chloe Knudsen-Robbins Oboes: Joey Cox and Michael Kaplan Trumpets: Enrico Lopez and Alyssa Keene Double Bass: Ian Sharp Harpsichord & Timpani: Stephen Karr -- Stephen Stubbs, musical director, harpsichord, baroque guitar Stephen Karr, assistant musical director.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Found in Translations

Xenakis's Oresteia, McDuffie's Seasons:
an Embarrassment of Autumn Riches

Iannis Xenakis

by Joseph Mailander

The extraordinary reader and critic George Steiner once found translation to be the fount of real artistic presence. In his long book on the art of translation, After Babel, Steiner termed "interanimation" the process in which "two presences, two formal structures, two bodies of utterance assume a dimension, an energy of meaning far beyond that which either could generate in isolation or in mere sequence." What this means is vital to the work of art that reappears as a separate and yet dependent work, say the Moncrieff translation of Proust, or Verdi's retinkerings of Shakespeare.

In the embarrassment of riches that is the Los Angeles music scene throughout the autumn, two very different organizations presented works last weekend that exemplified Steiner's 1975 thesis to a tee.

CalArts one-time production of Iannis Xenakis's "opera" Oresteia--we only call it an "opera" because there aren't better words for choreographed oratorios in which action transpires more by choral movements and gyrations than by conventional acting--received its west coast premiere Sunday night. It quickly became for its appreciative audience an astonishing exemplar of the kind of dimensions and energies that Steiner hoped artworks that echo other artworks to realize. Based on Aeschylus's immortal cycle of plays in which the troubles of the House of Atreus ultimately serve to lay the foundations of Athenian justice, the plays exhaust every possible dimension of treachery before culminating in the hope of a better day.

For the artist bringing all this together, conductor Mark Menzies, merely where to position himself within the pomo amphitheater known as the Wild Beast--a new venue on campus, designed by now venerable firm Hodgetts & Fung, who were on hand for this performance--was as key an issue as tempo and musicianship. Menzies took stage down left, the musicians scattered within the nebulous soundshell, and singers, men's and women's and even childrens' choruses came and went via stage doors and staircases and sidewalks as though in a madcap Frayn play. And all were ultimately upstaged by a culminating rush by the children into the darkness of the audience to distribute noisemaking pendants with which the audience itself could make their own music to celebrate the bestowing of justice to the world.

Xenakis's orchestration, heavy on percussion redolent of one of his teachers, Messaien, and especially his singers' solos are often insistently jarring, but these only contributed to the spirit of the emotionally jarring Aeschylus cycle. Most intransigently schizo in this score is the way a baritone is required to alternate between falsetto, baritone, and some points in between to give voice to different personages in the cycle, male, female, god and Fury, and execute these in the libretto's ancient Greek to boot. This is not mere mimicry, it is a deliberate conflation of many characters in order to compress the drama into an optimal musical excitement. Paul Berkolds handled this hot-and-cold assignment with forensic rectitude, and was rewarded by the audience perhaps more than any other performers.

It may dishonor the otherwise heroic program a little to complain about the program notes, which were parenthetical to the proceedings at best, but these were uniquely bizarre even for a Cal Arts production, and something should be said. (Many, many organizations contributed much to the one-time production, all were honored ad nauseum before the performance, and it would have been nice to have included a writer somewhere along the line). While the roles of some singers in Xenakis's only dramatic musical work are confusing and conflated enough to those unfamiliar with Aeschylus, the notes only added another opaque layer.

Nonetheless, while most had no idea where anyone was in the program, the engaging oddities, such as men's and women's choruses arguing with each other across the infield, made for the kind of evening that one could experience as a satisfying Gestalt as well as climactic Greek narrative theater.

From the abstruse to the familiar: in the more recent part of his musical life, Robert McDuffie has seen similarities between Vivaldi and Philip Glass: "The chugging ostinatos and the pleasant melodies up top, the repetition, maybe not the formulaic repitition that Glass has become famous for, but I certainly do see a lot of similarities." Those similarities were availed to an abundantly appreciative Disney Hall audience last night, as McDuffie led the Venice Baroque Orchestra in a program devoted to Vivaldi's Four Seasons and a new Glass interpretation of Vivaldi's well-known masterpiece, called Violin Concerto No. 2, "The American Four Seasons."

McDuffie, an imposing yet cagey figure onstage, who moves with his instrument as though following the steps for a medium-tempo foxtrot, first led the chamber orchestra in a fantastic, fully-squeezed Vivaldi, bending some of the familiar notes into more lyrical, warmer Seasons at a country romp. The work itself rushes stunningly well through the concert hall and benefits from the Disney Hall's quixotic but string-friendly acoustics (this may be one of the best suited works for this hall). McDuffie's ensemble brought smooth precision to the performance and, happily, I heard none of the bow-on-strings crash landings that can accompany the furious up-tempo parts of the piece when played by overenthusiastic chamber orchestras.

Robert McDuffie

The Glass work, orchestrated much like the Vivaldi, is still recognizably Glass; there is an electric keyboard rather than a harpsichord, but it is a polite one, and the signature Glass ostinatos linked the cryptic episodes as a promenade from seasons in the sun through love in a cold climate--and if you couldn't tell which was which, that was the point. Glass only samples Glass, ulitmately; he may be nodding to the Vivaldi in mood and in meaning, but has no interest in what it is to make music sound like a cliched lark of a season. No, he rather likes to make music sound like the anomalous hot Santa Ana in November or the unfortunate day in spring when a late frost surprises a blooming apricot.

All in all, Xenakis, Vivaldi and Glass made for a memorable stretch, a supremely interanimate autumn compressed into a single SoCal weekend. Hurray for those who feel such real, intriguing presences, and especially for those who bring them to us.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Kings of León

Corella Ballet Castilla y León
Electrify and Eclectify LA

by Donna Perlmutter

Never mind that the singular and overwhelming thrill of Angel Corella’s ballet company – making its debut at the Ahmanson Theatre Friday – was the dancer’s own sole performance.

Corella Ballet Castilla y León bears the stamp of a savvy artistic director, one who knows how to fill a stage with polished dancers, an appealingly eclectic repertory, the right balance between classical-derived and contemporary ballet, and a flamenco nod to his Spanish origins and sponsors.

So whatever else the luminary of American Ballet Theatre does hardly matters. But when this small dynamo unfurled his fingers, in answer to a flamenco singer’s anguished cry, a thunderbolt shot through the house. Here, in “Soleá,” a duet for himself and sister Carmen Corella, was expressive power at its most commanding. And from that first gesture onward, he discharged a breath-takingly ferocious passion -- it came in knife strokes, surging from his body’s core through his torso, shoulders, arms; it did not depend on the brilliance of his bravura technique (more spins, barrel turns and variations thereof than imaginable). So, yes, the audience gasped and roared its applause at the end.

But it was not a smart move to allow another dancer onstage with him for this number. Lovely though she is, his too-tall sister was merely overshadowed, un-looked at, even. The moment was rivetingly his.

He made it up to her, however, in Stanton Welch’s “Clear,” in which the long-limbed lyrical dancer was the only woman in this bare-chested but chaste male showcase with its tasteful choreographic conterpoint marking the Bach score it was set to.

Clark Tippet’s “Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1,” which opened the program, made its apt announcement to the world: “Get ready, folks, we’ve got a big ballet company here. Yes, it’s only two years old, but it’s not a small-start enterprise.”

And, except for some tentativeness among the soloist couples (fixable by tweaking their partnering maneuvers), the lush Romanticism of the title music struck just the right note for the multi-part, tutu-and-tights epic that used the whole troupe – corps and principals converging in many phalanxes -- to glitteringly complex advantage á la Balanchine.

For its finale there was Christopher Wheeldon’s “DGV,” also a major, stage-filling work but one with a contempo look and sound. Its acronym of a title, standing for “Danse à Grande Vitesse,” refers to the French high-speed train-line opening (we should be so lucky), commemorated by Michael Nyman’s score, a thing of momentous minimalism (and that’s not an oxymoron).

The ballet boasts sleekly flowing, sometimes quirky, ever-energetic movement with moderne accents. Jean-Marc Puissant’s set, underground industrial, and his costumes with their painterly Mondrian motifs, went far to complement the choreography’s inventive permutations. But the relentlessly chugging music, dense and calamitous, left me feeling exhausted. Not enough, though, to blot out the calling card of this impressive company.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

For Keith Olbermann Upon His Release From Indefiniteness

Photo: SI.com

I think that I shall never see
A network quite so soon to flee;

To flee when angry minds are prest
Against an anchor’s false arrest;

To flee a Ball of Odd at play,
When Olbermann had hell to pay;

To see its stressing bosses wear
The news of foxes in their hair;

Upon whose coffers snow has lain,
Where once we lib’rals gave like rain.

If only Keith can make their fee,
Why fool with M-S-N-B-C?

(c) 2010 Rodney Punt