Thursday, April 3, 2014

Whale Swallows Jonah in Cathedral!

"Jonah and the Whale" (1621) by Pieter Lastman

By Douglas Neslund

Following the general theme of a Biblical story in its annual presentation at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles Opera and its Music Director James Conlon were faced with finding a suitable vehicle to succeed Benjamin Britten’s brilliant “Noah” and the excellent medieval play “Daniel.”

The requisite forces were to include two or three soloists drawn from the LAO roster and a myriad of amateur actors, dancers, instrumentalists and singers. And kids. Lots of kids.

A commission was offered for such a work, based on the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet, the wicked city of Nineveh, and a man-swallowing whale. This adventurous plan fell through, as the youthful commissioned composer could not fulfill his end of the bargain.

Another composer, Jack Perla, was handed the chance to write the one-act opera ultimately entitled “Jonah and The Whale,” featuring the principals of Jonah, with the title role played and sung by tenor Matthew McNeill, his estranged wife Sarah (Hai Ji Chang), Margalit, Jonah’s mother (Cassandra ZoĆ© Velasco), Captain Mordecai (Valentin Anikin), Townspersons/ Sailors (Rebecca Nathanson, D’Ana Lombard and Joshua Guerrero, and Sailors (Vladimir Dmitruk and Kihun Yoon). A featured vocal ensemble including soprano Lisa Eden, alto Michelle Hemmings, tenor Ashley Faatoalia and bass Vincent Robles contributed.

An aggregated adult chorus made up of members of the Cathedral and eight other churches and groups were joined by a children’s choir comprised of five school and church affiliates. All of the above were supported by a small core of professionals from the LA Opera Orchestra and dozens of young people from various schools and conservatories. And a bell choir, too.

Smaller children had acting roles: some as fish, some as crabs, some were jellyfish, while others played krill. Yes, non-Biblical krill. And were very good at it, too, as they joined Jonah in the belly of the whale.

Fortunately, the principal singer-actors were miked, as one would expect them to be in a very large space as the Cathedral. Although sitting in darkness for most of the time and being unable to verify, it would be expected that additional mikes were utilized in key places amongst the choirs, orchestra and first-chair participants.

The three most principal singers, Mr. O’Neill, Ms. Chang and Ms. Velasco, sang their difficult roles with as much passion, conviction and emotion as allowed by the often incoherent score. There is nothing about the vocal skills of these soloists that would deny them first-rank designation among current practitioners of the operatic arts. But it is not possible, given the artificial volume controls not in their own hands, to evaluate their singing further. The secondary principals were equally fine, but also miked.

Someone, however, apparently misjudged the cumulative sound of orchestra, chorus and soloists in the Cathedral’s space – at least from the writer’s seat in the third row for the second of two performances. A lot of ensemble performance got lost in the miasmic sound waves colliding – too many singers and players playing too many notes and too many chord mashes piling one on top of the previous one, and sound-enhanced principals providing yet another layer. A chorus singer in both events said that the Friday night performance was sonically much superior to the one reviewed on Saturday night, and stated that it sounded as though the amplification was doubled for no apparent reason.

When Mr. Perla’s score first arrived and was made available for study by participants (about six months before downbeat with the composer’s final additions not arriving until February), Director Eli Villanueva was compelled to scrap his first staged concept and start all over. A lack of clarity in the score as regards downbeats due to a constantly shifting rhythmical scheme made it difficult for Mr. Villanueva and his valiant amateurs to form stage pictures with any coherence to the score and story line. Scenery Designer Carolina Angelo and Lighting Designer Tantris Hernandez gave the large audience understandable frames, and Costume Designer Paula Higgins had no problem representing Biblical characters.

Presiding again over the masses of singers, players and krill, was Los Angeles Opera’s Conductor James Conlon, who may not have envisioned a commission turning into quite this much of a challenge, soldiered bravely on through innumerable time changes and wrong entries by principals, although it didn’t seem to matter one way or another.

Thus hangs the question: will a revised “Jonah” join “Noah” and “Daniel” in a three-opera cycle as originally thought (with Britten’s “Noah” being presented every other year)? Or will the present “Jonah” be revised for the 2019 slot or scrapped entirely, and a new commission awarded a new Biblical opera?

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