Friday, February 25, 2011

Dudamel and the Teatro alla Scala

Note from the publisher: With this review of La Scala's production of Carmen, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, we welcome Evan Baker to LA Opus. You may know Mr. Baker from his excellent program notes for the San Francisco Opera. With Maestro Dudamel back in Los Angeles after an interval concertizing abroad, it seemed a good time to share Mr. Baker's perspective on one of those music-making events of the popular new conductor of the LA Phil and most famous graduate of El Sistema, Venezuela's famed music education program.


Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Performance date: November 8, 2010

Gustavo! Sur tes pas nous nous pressons tous!
Gustavo! sois gentille, au mois réponds-nous!
Et dis-nous quel jour tu nous aimeras!
Gustavo ! dis-nous quel jour tu nous aimeras!

Gustavo! Here we all are close around you!
Gustavo! Be nice, just answer us!
And tell us what day you’ll love us!
Gustavo! Tell us what day you’ll love us!

With this slightly altered text from Georges Bizet’s Carmen before the opera’s namesake first entrance in Act One, one might apply this text to Gustavo Dudamel’s seemingly few appearances at Disney Hall as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

So might be the thinking of those grumblers at Dudamel’s extended absences from the Los Angeles concert scene. Gifted musicians including Dudamel are booked with orchestral and opera engagements many years in advance. An immediate cancellation of a large number of existing contracts simply to extend Dudamel’s presence in Los Angeles is, for artistic and business reasons as well as good form, not possible. Artistic development requires guest engagements, which includes conducting opera, and in Dudamel’s case, at one of the foremost opera houses of the world, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy.

Dudamel has in his short career to date conducted only three fully staged operas (not counting last year’s concert performance of Carmen at the Hollywood Bowl). All of them were at the Teatro alla Scala: Don Giovanni (2006), La Bohème (2008), and now Carmen. None were new productions, each being revivals. Carmen opened the 2009-2010 Scala season (conducted by Daniel Barenboim), also culminated the season itself in November. One must take into consideration that because each of the works was a revival, the opportunity to leave one’s own artistic imprimatur was limited. In general (based on my own experience of working in European opera houses), rehearsals for revivals receive small amounts of time; the opportunity of working with soloists on their interpretations may only be happenstance at best. Several musical ensemble rehearsals might occur. The schedule may permit some stage rehearsals, but these are primarily for singers to familiarize themselves with one another as well as the scenery. Dudamel may have received several rehearsals with the orchestra, including the Sitzprobe (a purely musical rehearsal for the singers alone with the orchestra) and a run through with the full production.

The production of the opera was a two-sided affair. Musically, it was a solid performance by the singers and the orchestra. Dudamel, when conducting the Overture, entr’actes, and the music that required no coordination with the stage, was lively, theatrical, and the orchestra sparkled. I had the sense, however, that when he concentrated on keeping the musical forces in cohesion with the stage action and his enormous energy and vitality was somewhat dampened.

La Scala’s production did not do complete justice to the house’s proud theatrical traditions. The set’s massive grey, movable brick walls with steps at the right gave no indication of the opera’s setting in Seville or the high mountain pass. Some semblance could be discerned, albeit only slight, of the entrance to bull-fighting arena in Act Four. Based on the revival, it is difficult to judge if respected Sicilian theater director Emma Dante, here making her first foray into opera, had any clear concept in mind. Presumably, a commentary on misogyny and the heavy presence of the Catholic Church was the prevalent theme. Reports emanating from the rehearsals for the premiere back in December, 2009, indicated that many of Dante’s ideas either were toned down or rejected outright.

With the exception of Anita Rachvelishvili (who recently made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the same role), the entire cast was new to the production. The staging seemed to suffer from the lack of rehearsal. Certainly, without the direct supervision of the original director, much of the original details were lost and the singers reduced to observing pre-determined traffic patterns.

One of the few directorial conceits seemed to have passed muster was the overweening and distracting presence of religious figures. One was the constant presence of a priest accompanied by acolytes bearing a large wooden cross whenever Micaëla (Alexia Voulgaridou) appeared. In turn, white, hooded, and crowned religious figures followed Escamillo (Gabor Bretz) who made his first appearance lowered on an “elevator” into Lillas Pastia’s tavern. During Bretz’s pièce de résistance with the Toreador aria, the hooded figures extended their robes in fan-like shapes as if to act as invisible “shields” for the toreador. Fortunately, in Act Three these characters remained far in the background as silent observers during Escamillo’s encounter with the smugglers and his well-executed knife fight with Josè.

Another of Dante’s ideas survived the cut, that of Josè’s attempt at the final moments of the opera to rape Carmen before he murders her. Such brutality, while a potentially truthful reflection of reality, is out of place with the music. If the singers are reasonably talented, then the music combined with Josè’s desperate words should be more than sufficient to create not only great drama, but also exhibit the heightened sexual tensions between the protagonists.

No simpering Micaëla for Voulgaridou; instead of the usual light lyric soubrette of the past, this was a person with a healthy voice and a strong, dramatic character that contrasted Josè’s infatuation with Carmen. The third act narrative of Josè’s mother on her sickbed with Micaëla inverting her costume from black to white; the religious acolytes lurking in the background came forward to extend her skirt down the stage representing an enormous bed sheet with Voulgaridou at its head, effectively mimicking the mother’s pleading in her despair for Josè.

The up and coming American tenor, Bryan Hymel had the unenviable task of following Jonas Kaufmann’s Don Josè from the premiere in December 2009. Hymel, however, acquitted himself well as both an actor and as a singer worth watching in the future.

Anita Rachvelishvili made her professional stage debut with the Scala production. Working with the director Dante, she eschewed s the portrayal of Carmen as the erotic vamp. Instead, her Carmen is a tough, down to earth woman, filled with joie de vivre. Yet at times, she revealed vulnerability, particularly in the scenes with the tarot cards and recognition of death during the smuggler’s scene in Act Three, as well as her final and fatal encounter with Josè. Rachvelishvili possesses a dark timbred mezzo-soprano and used s it well on this occasion.

As an opera conductor, Dudamel is not yet quite on the same level as in his symphonic repertoire. When presented with the opportunity of conducting a new production, Dudamel will undoubtedly exploit his substantial musical gifts and deliver memorable, invigorating, and exciting performances of opera. What say the Messieurs Domingo and Conlon to providing Dudamel precisely that opportunity?

The Friday Phonograph

Last Friday in February - Can Spring be Far Behind?

by Anne French

I just looked at the calendar and realized that today is the last Friday in February. Soon the month of March will come blowing in like a lion and exit like a lamb, having ushered in the first day of Spring along the way. Today's Friday Phonograph heralds this much anticipated period with Henry Purcell's My Beloved Spake, a portion of a larger work titled Come, Ye Sons of Art. A few lines of lyrics, "For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come...," are filled with promise and hope. They came to mind today, and I share them here in a wonderfully joyful anthem sung by The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, directed by Timothy Brown. May your weekend be filled with the promise of Spring.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Turk in Italy Comes to Town in an Airstream Trailer

Review by Rodney Punt

If you have not yet seen The Turk in Italy at LA Opera, here’s what you need to do: Drop everything and buy a ticket before they are sold out. Then call your cousin in Milwaukee and tell her to book the next flight out to L.A. so she can join you.

Honestly, it’s that good.

Gioacchino Rossini’s opera arrived in Los Angeles last Saturday for only the second time since its La Scala premiere 197 years ago. (A NYCO production also at the Chandler Pavilion in 1978 featured Beverly Sills, and the nearby Long Beach Opera produced it in that city in 1995.) It comes via the Bavarian State Opera from a 2005 production that originated in Hamburg. LA Opera may be curating more than producing these days, but it has a knack for choosing winners.

Turk (Il Turco in Italia) is homage to Mozart, a comic cocktail that mixes two parts Così fan tutte with a twist of Abduction from the Seraglio. Under masterful direction and with a dream-cast of veterans and newcomers, it is a once in a lifetime production of dazzling invention and dizzying non-stop action. It is also one of Rossini’s more subtle scores, emphasizing ensembles and interaction over arias, though its few moments of quiet musical contemplation are much to be savored.

Felice Romani’s libretto for the 1814 opera (borrowed from an earlier work) followed the wildly popular L’Italiana in Algeri by one year. In this farce about the love-games people play, Italian glam-girl Fiorilla, wife of doting middle-aged Don Geronio, has a wandering eye for exotically handsome Selim, a Turkish prince on the outs with his lover, the slave Zaida, who, with fellow fugitive Albazar, has encamped in Italy with a wandering band of gypsies. Narciso, meanwhile, pines for his former lover Fiorilla. A series of attempted liaisons, attendant histrionics, and a masked ball with mistaken similar identities (third photo below) leads to some genuinely poignant soul-searching about the true nature of marital happiness.

Spicing up the drollery (this is where the opera pivots into comic genius), the poet Prosdocimo, observing all, uses this tawdry reality show to shake his writer’s block and shape an opera libretto, becoming unwittingly entangled in everyone else's troubles.

Making their debuts at LA Opera, Christof Loy, the original production and stage director at Hamburg, and Axel Weidauer, directing L.A.'s revival (with Herbert Murauer’s sets and costumes and Reinhard Traub’s lighting) have updated the Neapolitan setting to a mid-twentieth century La Dolce Vita Italy, where frivolity reigns and anything goes in social mores.

Prosdocimo's search for an opera plot is used as a conceptual premise to spoof all opera conventions, particularly those of contemporary directors. If Peter Sellars can stage Così fan tutte in a contemporary diner, this Turk will update the action to an Airstream camp-trailer, out of which a score of gypsies file as if from a Mack Sennett two-realer. In equal opportunity roasting, Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach is mocked with scenes punctuated by glacially moving cast members in bathing suits. Further emphasizing the self-conscious mockery, chorus members playact as stage technicians, sporting black teeshirts emblazoned with "LA Opera" logos.

Did I say the production had a dream cast?

Simone Alberghini’s dark baritone and his exotic swarthy suaveness lend commanding authority to the title character of Prince Selim (top left), whose somewhat shadowy background makes him all the more attractive to the ladies. His allure isn't hurt any by his arriving on an airborne Turkish carpet behind a scrim painted as the Naples harbor.

Nino Machaidze’s Donna Fiorilla (top right), with superficial appetites that include an Imelda Marcos-sized shoe collection, is spurred on by her illicit attraction but regrets it later in a final aria recanting her capriciousness. Delivering a stunning display of bel canto lyricism in that aria, Machaidze garnered the largest applause of the evening on opening night.

Paolo Gavanelli, as the much put upon Geronio (above center), proves again that, in addition to being a Verdi specialist, he is also one of the world’s great buffo baritones, delivering a spectacular display of parlando (Italian patter). With twice as many resonant words streaming out of his mouth as anyone else on stage, he is the work’s desperate center of gravity, in all senses of the word, and a man who must reclaim his wife and his honor in the face of humiliating cuckoldry.

Young mezzo Kate Lindsey’s lovely, lithe Zaida (right) more than holds her own vocally and dramatically as the lover whose passion and constancy win out in the end. Possessing a dancer’s grace, she needs no stunt double for her many lifts and thrusts. (She is also suited for lyric trouser roles, and her Nicklausse last summer at Santa Fe was the single redeeming element in their muddled Tales of Hoffmann.)

Tenor Matthew O’Neill’s Albazar is sympathetic as Zaida’s helper. Tenor Maxim Mironov’s Don Narciso (below right) is as effective in florid vocal outpourings as his Don Ottavio-like character is ineffective as the spurned lover pursuing an unresponsive Fiorilla.

Veteran baritone Thomas Allen brilliantly gauges the hapless Prosdocimo. Plagued with encounters too close for comfort -- props, characters, even walls seeming to jump into his path -- he ends up in a surgeon’s nightmare of bandages and crutches worthy of Naked Gun's Officer Nordberg.

He may have gotten his opera story, but the cost to Prosdocimo in this production has been steep. (above right, below left)

In the end, capricious Fiorilla, faced with the loss of her husband, comes to her senses, just as proud Selim realizes that all along his true love had been his faithful Zaida. While the others have reconciled themselves to their individual fates, our final view of the two couples, as Loy and Weidauer have it, is in side-by-side households, dealing with the the usual domestic stresses and strains but as assuredly married as any two couples in modern suburbia. (photo below)

Under James Conlon's sensitive and idiomatic leadership, and after some rough moments in the overture on opening night, the orchestra sparkled as it kept the action moving, sprinkling Rossinian pixy dust over the assembled and deftly changing gears from the frivolity later on for a few tender moments.

Original audiences thought Turk a lukewarm knock-off of the Italiana of the year before, rejecting it without realizing the new musical and dramatic paths the composer was exploring. While Italiana hewed to convention by producing a laugh-fest of comedic plot entanglements, catchy melodies, and high-flying solos, Turk goes a step further by integrating music into the action with its sophisticated ensembles and short cavatinas. Its serious moments are all the more effective by arriving so unexpectedly. Think of Turk's following Italiana as you would Mark Twain's following his fine Tom Sawyer with the even greater Huckleberry Finn.

Profoundly simple insights, it would seem, are sometimes found in the most superficial of packages -- and scintillating of scores.

The Turk in Italy opened February 19 and continues on February 27 and March 2, 5, 10, 13 at various times. See Los Angeles Opera.

Photos by Robert Millard and courtesy of LA Opera. Above from left: 1) Simone Alberghini and Nino Machaidze, 2) Paolo Gavanelli and cast, 3) Kate Lindsey and Thomas Allen, 4) Alberghini, Lindsey, Machaidze, Maxim Mironov, 5) various

Rodney Punt may be contacted at [email protected]

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Friday Phonograph

Image of an Egyptian Maiden from Jean-Philippe Rameau

by Anne French

Egypt has thoroughly dominated worldwide news in recent weeks. So when I spotted a video of Jean-Philippe Rameau's L'Egyptienne (The Egyptian Maiden), it seemed like a timely selection for this week's "Phonograph." Composed as a section of Rameau's Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin in 1726, the title is a reminder of Egypt's enormous influence on the human psyche over centuries of culture. The music itself is delightfully playful and coquettish, executed magically here by pianist Grigory Sokolov, who maintains its embellishments with delicacy and grace. Here's to a light-hearted start to a wonderful weekend.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Secular Spirituality: Scenes from a Gallery, Set to Music

-----------------------------------"Calculated Risk" by Michael Westmoreland. Photo courtesy of the artist

Short Take Review by Rodney Punt

Churches today showcase secular spirituality in the arts. Chamber Music at All Saints’ in Beverly Hills is part of this movement, its organist-choir director Craig Phillips a composer-in-residence. Two West Coast premieres, Scenes from a Gallery (2008, organ, violin and flute) and Sojourn for Organ & Winds (2009, with oboe, Bb clarinet, F horn, bassoon) featured his traditional, lyrically gifted style.

Scenes, inspired by Mussorgsky, comments on six contemporary artworks: the swirls of “First Chakra Light”, thrusting wings of “Calculated Risk”, isolation of “Lone Tree”, birdcalls of a winged “Muse”, geometric chord progressions of “Mathematical Equation for Grace”, and abstractions of “Breaking Loose.” Sojourn’s single movement in four episodes has cinematic Handelian motifs, bucolic horn calls, swelling mountain vistas, and a village dance for organ – all atmospherics of Alet-Les-Bains, France.

Inserted mid-way, Francis Poulenc’s Sextet (for winds) brought the sassy joie-de-vivre racket of naughty French Pigalle to a stone-sober English church.

Concert: Scenes from a Gallery
Performers: Craig Phillips, organ; Pip Clarke, violin; Heather Clark, flute; Cathy Del Russo, oboe; Donald T. Foster, clarinet; James Thatcher, horn; Mark Robson, piano; William Wood, bassoon
Date: January 23, 2011
Venue: All Saints’ Episcopal, Beverly Hills

Rodney Punt may be reached at [email protected]

Jacaranda Music presents The Little Match Girl Passion

------------Cedric Berry, 
Grant Gershon, Adriana Manfredi, Elissa Johnston -- Photo: jacarandamusic

Short Take Review by Rodney Punt

Composer/Librettist David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion (2007) is a winter’s tale without a happy ending. Based on the H.C. Andersen tearjerker, a beggar girl is forced to sell matches in the snow, lighting them one by one in a losing battle to keep warm. The setting elevates the story to a universal secular passion, with music of pointillistic brightness and mesmerizing grace. The music has traces of minimalism and chant; its utmost economy of motifs treads an inexorable path from the dread of a flickering heartbeat to a death in frozen stillness.

Its cast of four singing narrators did double duty as eerie trance-inducers and light-as-a-feather percussionists: Elissa Johnston, soprano; Adriana Manfredi, mezzo-soprano; 
Grant Gershon, tenor
; Cedric Berry, bass baritone.

The concert also had other genre-bending works: Elliott Carter’s spidery Sonata for flute, oboe, cello & harpsichord, Sofia Gubaidulina’s oddly-registered pulsing sonics for organ in Light & Darkness, Joan Tower’s big-boned Night Fields for string quartet, and Alfred Schnittke’s goofy-glorious Sound & Resound for organ and trombone.

Performers in other works above: Pamela Vliek-Martchev, flute; Leslie Reed, oboe; Timothy Loo, cello; Gloria Cheng, harpsichord; Mark Alan Hilt, organ; Lyris Quartet (strings), Steve Suminski, trombone

Concert Title: Perilous Balance
Date: January 22, 2011
Venue: First Presbyterian, Santa Monica
Future concerts: Jacaranda Music

Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Recital Excitement

Broad hosts Salerno-Sonnenberg, Bell, DiDonato

Joyce DiDonato: photo by author

by Donna Perlmutter
Santa Monica’s Broad Stage is crackling with musical fireworks these days – in swift succession there were celebrity violinists Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Joshua Bell. Then came the starry mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. For three consecutive nights revelers packed the house and got what they came for.

Among those treats, a rarity. Now when have you seen or heard from that first fiddler mentioned above? Not recently. But when Salerno-Sonnenberg arrived at the Eli-Edythe Broad jewel of a hall, leading and playing with the San Francisco-based New Century Chamber Orchestra, the 50-year-old virtuosa lit up the stage with her pizzazz, passion and personality.

In fact, those qualities also proved infectious to the mostly female string ensemble. Could we -- jokingly, of course -- call it a version of Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Orchestra (plus four men)? Seriously, though, the playing was robust, full-bodied, spirited, and nowhere more so than in Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade,” a work seared indelibly in many minds by Balanchine’s same-titled ballet, the waltz a thing of smiling loveliness under Salerno-Sonnenberg’s ministrations.

So, too, was the rest of her program made up of easy-access music, leaning to various ethnic rhythms. Bartók’s “Romanian Folk Dances, ” with their deep syncopations in gutsy minor key, had a special allure. And Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires,” arranged by Leonid Desyatnikov, was just as characterful. Vivaldi quotes kept creeping in here and there. But this account was less intriguing than the Gidon Kremer edition we heard downtown several years ago when the Latvian violinist and his Kremerata Baltica played their “Seasons,” which slyly alternated full sections of the Vivaldi score with Piazzolla tangos.

This violinist, though, who used to upset the staid world of classical music with her self-styled outfits and antic playing, managed a gritty, grunting sound, perfectly in touch with tango style -- and also with the Billie Holiday-ish edgy tone we heard in her encore, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”

But Joshua Bell, the next night’s arrival, was no less engaged or engaging -- though focusing on perfect, tonal polish and breath-taking virtuosity. With pianist Sam Haywood – who took equal partnership in Schubert’s dense and rousing "Fantasy in C" – he fashioned high drama. The grand flourish in this music suited him to a T. And all the facets of his extravagant technique that did not get displayed here – the complex filigree, the glassy refinement, contrasting with the great thrusting strokes -- spilled over in the encores, pieces by Wieniawski and Chopin.

One thing, though, that Bell did not (does not) manage from the stage is any sense of inclusiveness with the audience. That belongs largely to women, methinks. And was borne out by mezzo Joyce DiDonato, last on these three nights and accompanied sensitively by pianist David Zobel. She and Salerno-Sonnenberg welcomed their fans sitting out front. They chatted about themselves unself-consciously, praised the Southern California climes that granted a haven from raging snowstorms elsewhere and proved that warmth and charm are critical parts of the performer’s wares.

Still, DiDonato has the goods. She knows how to stand alone onstage and create drama equal to a Hamlet speech – which she did in Haydn’s “Scena di Berenice,” soaring to the top at forte and never producing any wild notes, only purity of delivery. She ran the gamut of emotions – everything from wrenching despair to tenderness in a chillingly delicate trill. Mind you, this number came first in a program of French and Italian songs and arias – no easy warm-up for her. And she went again for the drama in the “Salce” from Rossini’s “Otello.” A stunner.

Her other Rossini offerings hewed to the composer’s lesser-known songs, leaving DiDonato’s big ornamental display to Chaminade’s “L’éte,” which she sang with the kind of glittering coloratura that charms the birds off the trees.

My only quibble is with her mushy diction. And, like most trained singers -- DiDonato included -- they unfurl their magnificent voices without scaling down for wistful little popular songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Although she tried, this girl from Kansas was no Dorothy.

Donna Perlmutter is an award-winning critic, journalist and author. Formerly chief music/dance critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, she contributes to the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Medea Cries for Justice in an Abandoned Warehouse

Review by Rodney Punt

There is at least as much to praise in the careful preparation of Luigi Cherubini’s rarely performed Medea as in its ultimate performance by the Long Beach Opera. That amounts to a lot on both counts in the US stage premiere of the opera’s original version, which opened the 2011 season on January 29. In keeping with the LBO’s iconoclastic ways, it was staged in the site-specific space of the former EXPO Furniture Warehouse in north Long Beach.

Cherubini was one of those innovative composers to whom the even greater ones that followed were indebted for his bridges to new stylistic worlds. What made him so compelling in the aftermath of the French Revolution was his choice of emotionally charged scenarios, his muscular treatment of the orchestra, and his dramatic vocal declamations. For all that, we listen to Cherubini today with ears influenced by what others like Beethoven and Weber would make more of later.

An editor’s scalpel and some creative license shaped this production, so the term “original” in describing it must be taken with a grain of salt. LBO General Director Andreas Mitisek’s Medea has enhanced dramatic flow at the expense of its reflective choruses and other passages cut from the score. Some of that music was strategically rearranged for single voices when deemed important for the narrative. An element of the ancient Euripides play was interpolated as prologue to the opera. Original spoken dialogue was also restored. (A nineteenth century version, in Italian and with recitatives by Franz Lachner, is more familiar in recordings, and it was once a vehicle for soprano Maria Callas.)

The net result of the LBO’s rewriting is an opera considerably shorter (an hour and a half vs. three hours) and leaner musically than the original, but with newly gained dramatic thrust. That drama is further advanced in the expressive English translation of Suzan Hanson, who also performed the title role. Mitisek’s creative energies are present everywhere else as stage director, set designer and conductor.

The production is built around two contemporary metaphors: 1) marital conflict as a boxing match - this one on a raised square platform centrally placed in the vast interior of the warehouse like Madison Square Garden - and 2) the excesses of self-indulgent beautiful people in the mold of Lindsay Lohan and Robert Downey Jr., whose fame and fortunes too often lead them into dissipation. Neither of these metaphors is new, but both are employed effectively.

The action is omnidirectional on the central stage, with actors in anachronistic dress - some modern, some classic - facing several directions at once. Lighting is projected up from within the central stage unit itself, carving sharp contrasts on the actors’ faces.

Medea’s agony is central to the story. She is an ally betrayed, a lover forsaken, a wife scorned, and a mother soon to be bereft of her children. Her prologue tells us that she had secured her husband’s career by helping him obtain the Golden Fleece. Yet the heedless man-on-the-make now throws her aside for a nubile cypher, his marriage to whom will secure him another rung on the ladder to political power. Medea is abandoned without remedy or recourse. We see under her large skirt the writhing bodies of her children by Jason, foretelling the outcome of a struggle between protective maternal instinct and a compulsion for revenge. That compulsion will turn into a trail of blood, consuming the whole kingdom.

Vocal and dramatic performances of the seven principals were on a very high level. Hanson’s steely but plaint soprano imbued Medea (left) with an intensity that invoked sympathy more than revulsion. Tenor Ryan MacPherson was stentorian as Jason (below), a perfect fusion of heroic bearing and hunky male callousness. Ani Maldjian as Dirce (above) was the spoiled, erotically charged, pill-popping daughter of Roberto Gomez’s blustery king, Creon. Peabody Southwell as Medea’s attendant Neris nearly stole the show with her melting pledge of loyalty to her mistress, in a duet with a sinewy, entangling bassoon. Ariel Pisturino and Diana Tash, along with Southwell, contributed solid performances as chorus stand-ins. The voices of all filled with ease the amorphous warehouse cavern.

The orchestra’s big-boned effects were well performed if not ideally transmitted in the tubby acoustics of the space and its corner location within it. In particular, the sheen of the upper strings was missing. One can hear Cherubini struggling in his orchestral textures to free himself of the operatic conventions he inherited, straddling as he does the high classic tradition with emerging romantic tendencies.

Coordination between singers and the somewhat remote orchestra was better than might be expected, facilitated from monitors at each of the four sides of the center square-cut and due, no doubt, to solid drilling from Mitisek, who led the proceedings with a steady hand throughout.

Site-specific productions have certain risks, including unanticipated glitches to be worked out after initial shakedowns. For this viewer on opening night it was the supertitles projected on each of the far walls. With the audience at floor level viewing the action several feet above, the actors mostly obscured their own scrolled utterances.

It was bold of Euripides in 431 BC to alter an old myth by assigning the murder of Medea’s children directly to her and not the occupying Corinthians. It was equally bold of Luigi Cherubini to write an opera in 1797 that went even further by shaping perceptions of a woman at least as much a victim of her crime as its perpetrator. It is not surprising that both productions were met with less than full acclamations from the predominantly male audiences of their respective eras.

Medea’s tragic story is one that remains modern by speaking to the issue of human rights in general and women’s rights in particular. Cherubini may have set the way forward for male composers to come, but he also contributed to the advancement of women when he exposed the injustice of male dominance over them. This advocacy, as much as Cherubini’s trend-setting music, keeps historically important Medea relevant as well for today’s audiences.


More on Luigi Cherubini’s Medea

Just as Gluck at mid-eighteenth century had scraped off the excesses of ornamented Baroque opera to prepare for the truer-to-life operas of Mozart, so Cherubini was to abandon the relatively polite manners of Mozart’s high classical style in favor of the more emotionally charged sound-worlds in the era of the French Revolution.

Beethoven, Weber and Schubert saw in Cherubini the operatic equivalent of the sonata form’s expanded expressive possibilities. An immediate operatic response to Medea, which had premiered in Vienna in 1802, was Beethoven’s Fidelio of 1805-1814. Just as heavily influenced later was Weber’s Der Freischütz, the first German romantic opera, and one which has motivic elements lifted directly from Medea. Composer Louis Spohr, an intimate of both Beethoven and Weber, was to write of Cherubini in his diary of 1821:

With the richness of his invention, his select, often exotic harmonies, and his clever exploitation of available resources, gained through long experience, Cherubini can achieve such overpowering effects that one is swept along, even against his will, and, rendered oblivious to the obviously contrived, surrenders to his feelings and his pleasure. What would this man not have accomplished if he had written for Germans instead of for Frenchmen!

German chauvinism aside, this was a description of the new spirit of romanticism in opera, and it would be no exaggeration to claim for Cherubini the role of co-founder of German romantic opera. Decades later, no less a creative dynamo than Richard Wagner was still assiduously studying the scores of Luigi Cherubini.

All Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff. From above: 1) Suzan Hanson, Ryan MacPherson, 2) Ani Maldjian, 3) Suzan Hanson, 4) Ryan MacPherson

Rodney Punt can be reached at [email protected]

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Friday Phonograph

You've Got a Valentine From Georges Delerue

by Anne French

I've decided it's easier to choose a card, a box of chocolates, a dozen roses, or the myriad of traditional things one does on February 14th than it is to choose one piece of music for the occasion. Cupid apparently does not shoot arrows aimed at musical scores. But I knew I could rely on the genius of Georges Delerue to capture the spirit of the day. And I knew there must be a French film providing a perfect vehicle for Delerue's genius. So I kept looking, and voilà! I found this poignant and haunting theme written by Delerue forPhilippe de Broca's 1972 film, Chère Louise, starring Jeanne Moreau. I confess I never saw the film, but if this theme isn't romantic, I don't know what is. So listen now, and I'm sure the sentimental value will be strong as ever on Monday. Happy Valentine's Day!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Junky and Monkish

George Herms takes a bric-a-brac opera to REDCAT
Monkish junkman Herms, with slide of protégé.

by Joseph Mailander

Towards the end of George Herms' musical-assemblage bricolage, The Artist's Life; a Free Jazz Opera, the lanky septuagenarian is hoisted into the air, far above two other suspended pieces of urban junk, a metal spiral staircase and a 600-pound buoy, that have also been lifted, spun, and "played" in performance. The stress load on REDCAT's rafters endures, and so does the point: there is lots of junk in the world, and the human spirit is both kin and transcendent to it. Like plants, as critic Robert Hughes has said, we need the shit of others on which to feed, and nobody in contemporary multimedia takes this to heart more than Herms.

Herms is equal mixes ad hoc artist and structured entertainer. While engaging, his constructions of detritus and his over-serious North Beach-circa-1960 stage presence play as much to giggle fits as to solemnity. He is possessed of as much gravitas as a boulevardier falling into a manhole, Chaplinesque in his solemnity.

His current work is scored as a "Free Jazz Opera" and two formidable jazz ensembles run away with the music to it. There are moments that make you laugh, and moments that make you wince. The first musical piece is pure brazz loft jazz and you wonder if you are in for ninety minutes of Eric Dolphy times seven. Through the piece, Herms stamps papers with various stamps on paper plates, makes unrecognizable impressions, and then holds them up to the two music ensembles, as though they are sheet music. They are not, of course; they are spontaneous conceptual art, and don't mesh with music at all.

But as much of the rest of the media are the recognizably found-objects we see in assemblage sculpture, much of the rest of the music is recognizable west coast jazz, some of it as friendly and refreshingly familiar as Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers ensembles of old. The music is pumped out by Bobby Bradford Mo’tet and the Theo Saunders Group, and these two units are split on stage, delivering sturdy, brassy, spot-on bop and modal jazz through the evening.

If there is disappointment, it is that Herms does much not explore the musicality and tonality of the found objects he fetishizes. A spinning staircase and later a spinning buoy--rolled out on dollies and hung from the rafters--end up exceptionally large gongs emitting exceptionally small dongs. Herms taps them, somewhat rhythmically, somewhat curiously, and appears to have no special talent for percussion, In fact, the production's highly talented and multi-faceted soprano, Diana Briscoe (she not only sings and dances, she helps Herms slip into his hoist), invited to play the buoy by rapping it with a short segment of a 2x4, brings far more musicality to the exploration than Herms, who seemed satisfied to pound one of the buoy's indentations that consistently resounded a perfect B perhaps because he recognized the note.

Highlights for me included a very solemn construction and erection of a makeshift cross during the piece that celebrated death and the final dance in which Herms shoulders a helter-skelter stepladder riddled with detritus and dances with his sporting soprano.

It does not require genius or even much irony to announce a makeshift--everything is makeshift--encore entitled "Concerto for Saw and Cellphone" in which the audience is invited to take out their cells and take photos. But it does take an affable amount of panache to pull such a thing off, even such an evening off, and ultimately Herms leaves you laughing over his bric-a-brac, and appreciative of art for entertainment's sake. I took a photo too (below), and left very pleased to have taken it, and very pleased to have come.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Friday Phonograph

A Brief Respite from the Stormy Winter

by Anne French

What could be better than an aria from Bach's Easter Oratorio to remind us that winter cannot last forever? And when countertenor Andreas Scholl sings a joyous duet with a baroque oboe d'amore, the results are truly spectacular. Belgian oboist Marcel Ponseele, one of the greatest oboists of our time, provides a brilliantly played obligato for the incomparable Scholl, performed here with the Collegium Vocale of Gent, Germany. I have learned that in addition to being a master of the baroque oboe, Ponseele also builds oboes based on 18th Century models. My Friday favorite for this week is Saget, Saget, Mir Geschwinde, from the Easter Oratorio of J.S. Bach, conducted by Philippe Herrweghe. May it bring a bit of warmth to your weekend.