Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Dido & Aeneas , Bluebeard’s Castle in a Duo at LA Opera

Paula Murrihy and Liam Bonner as Dido and Aeneas

By Rodney Punt

Two probing views of obsessive love spelled success for the marriage of inconvenience between Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Their double-bill opening Saturday at the Chandler Pavilion marked the LA Opera’s second collaboration with wave-making Australian stage director Barrie Kosky. It also heralded the promise of a long-term relationship.

Chief Director of Berlin’s Komische Oper from 2012, Kosky debuted here last year with a spoofy Mozart’s Magic Flute that looked like a silent movie. As with that production, this sparely staged pairing originated in Europe, but that's where their resemblance ends. Change-ups are a habit of the chameleon-like director.

Two and a half centuries span the two tragedies of Dido and Bluebeard, one with a lot of fun, the other with none. When Kosky teases in an interview before the opening that the works have little in common, you can count on seeing as many parallels as lanes on the freeway you took to the Music Center. He spins an enigmatic few of them in the printed program: “Arrival and departure, departure and arrival, a woman and a man, a man and a woman, a lost Eden, a forgotten Eden and a remembered Eden.”

The protagonists of these tales are fodder for a psychiatrist’s couch. Except for her brief amatory union with Aeneas, Dido’s clinical depression keeps her so withdrawn from her court she heeds neither cheering up nor sinister plots. Duke Bluebeard’s guarded split personality is a fatal attraction to obsessive new wife Judith, who, against his will and her own safety, makes him reveal his lethal all.

However linked the psycho-atmospherics may be, their respective stagings sharply contrast. Katrin Lea Tag’s spare scenery, slow-rising curtains, and vivid costumes (owing much to Julie Taymor and Germany’s Pina Bausch) evoke radically different landscapes, historic time zones, and sound-worlds. The use of unscripted whispers in both works heightens the drama and helps span their stylistic discontinuities.

Dido and Aeneas

Dido is bathed in bright lights and dressed in (mostly) pastel-infused but freakish period clothing. Its drama unfolds on the outer edge of the stage proscenium, barricaded from behind by an accordion-shaped screen. The narrowly defined space emphasizes the wafer-thin superficiality of the courtiers, and probably also Dido’s hold on power. A long white bench stretches across the stage to seat the retinue: a collection of nit-wits, sycophants and nasty plotters, who by turns ape the droopy sentiments of their queen or trot off to bizarre and brazen behaviors.

All the while they sing nicely to Purcell’s delicate score. (“If you drop it will break” was Kosky’s earlier characterization.) The music was realized with great fluency in the large hall, aided in projection by the forward placed screen. The modest-sized baroque orchestra was peppered with period instruments (wood bassoon, oboe and flute, with a continuo of organ, harpsichord and theorbos) and conducted to precision by Steven Sloane.

As Dido’s sister Belinda, soubrette soprano Kateryna Kasper is the court’s excitable teenybopper. Her “To the hills and the vales” shimmered with youthful enthusiasm as sung to an enchanted audience from the outer edge of the orchestra pit.

From left: G. Thomas Allen, John Holiday, Darryl Taylor
Outlandish comedy comes from the combo of a sorceress and two witches sung by an improbable assemblage of three African-American countertenors, led by recent Operalia winner John Holiday (the sorceress) with G. Thomas Allen and Darryl Taylor. Dressed in pitch black and suggesting a trio of harping crows, they were the conspirators against Dido who pranced and danced and shook their jowly cheeks in celebration of their own wickedness. Holiday even changed into a mock Dido dress as he spitefully employed an imposter Mercury to order Aeneas’ departure for Rome. This has the intended effect of fatally demoralizing his queen. The sketch leveled the audience with laughter.

Handsome Liam Bonner’s Aeneas, en route from Troy to Rome, is presented more as feckless wanderer than purposeful hero. His plush baritonal colors lent plummy hues to his bass region and a tenorial gleam higher up. After Dido’s fragile state of mind dismisses him for even thinking of leaving her, Aeneas stomps off stage and down to the the audience seating area, slamming a side door on his way out. Temper, temper.

Dido is the only role treated as serious, and the contrast of her demeanor with that of the others enhances her isolation. In her local debut as the sole holdover from European productions, Irish mezzo Paula Murrihy’s aristocratic poise and pearly voice captured Dido’s exquisite melancholy, furious anger, and, in her famous lament “When I am laid in earth” and its aftermath, her grisly end-of-life journey of shocking gasps and sighs. As she dies, orchestra members and courtiers, who earlier had migrated from stage to pit, depart one by one, so that when Dido finally expires in a slump, she is left alone to commune with eternity. The scene touchingly recollected the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson of not so many years ago singing Bach’s Ich habe genug.

Bluebeard's Castle

Claudia Mahnke as Judith and Robert Hayward as Duke Bluebeard

The mood of Bluebeard’s Castle after the interval grows even darker and much heavier. It unfolds on a large empty disc sitting in the Chandler’s cavernous backstage, blackened but otherwise unadorned. The two protagonists, also draped in black, rotate on this disc in a glacially slow but intense dance of death. The spatial infinity suggests the bottomless pit of Bluebeard’s concealed and bloody marital history and also Judith’s morbid curiosity. The use of people in lieu of sets, which was suggested in Dido, here becomes literal. Traditional productions employ seven actual doors, which Judith coaxes Bluebeard to open, but in this instance three sets of supernumeraries stand in for the chambers containing his former wives. Former iterations of the Duke himself stream gold dust, leafy vines, and water in a dystopian Garden of Eden made fearsome and fatal after the fall.

Claudia Mahnke as Judith and Robert Hayward as Bluebeard act out their Hungarian rendition of Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf, forcing open the doors to each other’s personalities. If, due to unrelieved narratives, their vocal tours de force can’t quite keep us engaged for the hour-long layer-peeling intensity, their joint efforts earn points for honesty and sheer perseverance.

Ensemble in Bluebeard
Bartók’s score is an expressionistic time bomb. Its massive modern orchestra can be compared in size and sonority, also artistic importance, to those of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Berg’s Wozzeck. Each morbid revelation in the opera is accompanied by an ever more splendid soundscape, the most dramatic being the brass ensemble that depicts the castle’s magnificent gardens in a kind of post-Wagnerian grandeur. Steven Sloane and his instrumental charges bridged the huge stylistic chasm after Purcell’s light textures to realize superbly this musical Mount Everest.

Apropos and worthy of note, the heavy costs of this joint production were not in sets but in musicians, and thanks for that.

Left in the mind’s eye after the performances was Dido’s white claustrophobia and Bluebeard’s black infinity, like the eternally clinging teardrops in a yin-yang.


Performances continue through November 25. Contact: LA Opera

All photos are by Craig Matthew for the Los Angeles Opera
Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Monday, October 27, 2014

Windsbacher Knabenchor in stunning choral performance

By Douglas Neslund

Once school starts in the Fall, one is rarely treated to a performance by a touring company of schoolboys. Even less should one expect to hear a boys’ choir that stands atop a virtual pyramid of professional choral ensembles, but this was clearly the exception.

Hosted and joined in song by the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus of Pasadena, the young men and boys from Windsbach in the Franconian portion of Bavaria, Germany, put on a demonstration of choral beauty that thrilled all in attendance at Pasadena’s Presbyterian Church.

The Windsbachers at home have their own choir school, and are supported by the German government. But in Germany, as in this country, the arts are under continuous threat that funding might be withdrawn at any time. Losing such a funding source at this level would likely destroy a living, breathing jewel of German arts and artists.

Difficulty of an all a cappella choral program was not at issue in the following repertoire drawn from a long list of musical morsels:

1.             Os justi meditabitur, by Anton Bruckner
2.            Domine, ad adjuvantum me, by Gottfried August Homilius
3.            Ich lasse Dich nicht, by Johann Sebastian Bach
4.            Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst, by Rudolf Mauersberger
5.             Lux arumque, by Eric Whitaker
6.            A Hymn to the Virgin, by Benjamin Britten
7.            The Creation, by Willy Richter (men's voices)
8.            Kommt, ihr G’spielen, arranged by Melchior Franck
9.            Das Echo, by Orlando di Lasso
10.         Heidenröslein, arranged by Heinrich Poos
11.         Wohin mit der Freud, arranged by Friedrich Silcher
12.         Mein Mädel hat einen Rosenmund, arr. Lissman/Göttsche
13.         Das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust, arranged by Helmut Barbe
14.         Waldesnacht, by Johannes Brahms

Delicacy and utter beauty of tone, tight harmonic relationship among the various choral parts, and uniformity of vowel sounds, when coupled with an emotionally-charged interpretation by choirmaster Martin Lehmann, successor in 2012 to long-term Kapellmeister Karl-Friedrich Beringer, produced an unforgettable tapestry of sound.

The use of vowel colors throughout the spectrum is produced by choirs who learn to use that range without tearing the choral fabric. Mr. Lehmann’s conducting style, unlike so many conductors elsewhere, does not attract undue attention to himself despite exaggerated gestures, but is a very expressive act directly connected with the text and its interpretation. In the Bach, for example, he chose to “bend” the tempo, dynamics and internal choral balances to match the motet’s text. Such individualism is very dangerous, as it exposes the young singers to possible false starts, inadvertent “solos” and internal imbalances. Despite those risks, Maestro Lehmann succeeds in painting an aural portrait of each composer’s work that is distinguished and authentic.

There was nothing mechanical or suppressed in this performance. The music flowed, beautifully sung in every measure, every note. The Mauersberger is an 8-part wrenching series of questions as it asks why the city of Dresden needed to be bombed and leveled 69 years ago. The Whitaker requires very tight, unharmonic chord clusters perfectly performed. To end the concert with Brahms’ evocation of a forest at night was a benediction to be cherished. Two of the selections required a semi-chorus of eight singers to separate and alternate with the main chorus – perfection in tone, volume, and unity, especially in the cherishable Britten.

To begin the performance, Anne Tomlinson’s Concert Choir and Steven Kronauer’s Young Men’s Ensemble of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus demonstrated why their respective ensembles continue to attract critical attention. A comparison of the German and American choirs would be difficult to gauge, but it’s clear the pursuit of perfection is a hallmark of both organizations.

All three choirs joined together under Maestro Lehmann’s direction to end the concert with Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s beautiful "O Täler weit, o Höhen", and Ms. Tomlinson lead the assembled in James Erb’s familiar arrangement of the American folksong, "Shenandoah".

The Windsbacher America tour continues in New England through November first. Here is a YouTube sample (although this concert was even better!): http://youtu.be/DlIK-zy70ws
The choir's English website is here: https://windsbacher-knabenchor.de/en

Photos courtesy of Mila Pavan and the Windsbacher Knabenchor

Monday, October 20, 2014

Los Angeles Master Chorale and “Voices of Light”

By Douglas Neslund

Maestro Grant Gershon and the “full call” Master Chorale opened the 51st Season with a sensational gamble: a performance of Richard Einhorn’s musical setting, “Voices of Light,” to a 1927 silent movie by Carl Dryer entitled “The Passion of Joan of Arc” projected above the Chorale, Orchestra, and five soloists.

Einhorn’s score is not so tightly wedded to the film that it cannot be performed without it. On this night, the composer was present, and enjoyed prolonged applause and appreciation from the audience.

It is understatement to say the film is enhanced by the music. Indeed, without it, such a movie with its überdramatic focus on Joan’s face in all of its possible facets of pain and suffering made it difficult to watch. 

Actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti demonstrated the narrow range of emotions of a naïve young woman put through intense questioning by a “court” of sorts by leering priests, lawyers and others who clearly relished the torture, up to and including her death by immolation. The camera spent a lot of time transmitting Joan’s unrelenting emotional turmoil in close-ups that, as the film approached its dénouement, was finally too much and averting eyes were not uncommon in the large audience.

Musically, Einhorn’s composition is well-crafted, focused and displays the composer’s fine sense of the dramatic. The solo work, vocally and instrumentally, was excellent, most notably by Concertmaster Roger Wilkie’s violin and John Walz’s ‘cello contributions. The five vocalists included sopranos Hayden Eberhart and Claire Fedoruk, mezzo-soprano Adriana Manfredi, tenor Daniel Chaney and baritone Abdiel Gonzalez. Mr. Cheney’s voice has gained an extra measure of empathy since last heard, that fits his assignments here to a particularly fine and effective degree.

The Master Chorale performed at its usual first-rate level, responding to Maestro Gershon’s every request as they worked through the Latin and French libretto.

Images courtesy of Richard Einhorn @ richardeinhorn.com 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Verdi's Masked Ball Returns to S.F. Opera

Julianna Di Giacomo (Amelia) Photo by Cory Weaver
by Rodney Punt

It was the closest Giuseppe Verdi’s ambitions would ever take him to an operatic King Lear, but he had to drop that project for a more feasible one.

Verdi’s masterpiece of misplaced intentions, A Masked Ball (Un ballo in maschera) opened at the San Francisco Opera on Saturday night in a lavish, if dated, period production, last mounted here in 2006. John Conklin’s costumes, worthy of a Zeffirelli extravaganza, go back to the 1977 era of Kurt Herbert Adler. If the production seemed deja vu, the work remains fresh and unhackneyed, a tragedy unique in the Verdi canon, with human frailties but no real evildoers.
The action has a king’s misplaced love for the wife of his best friend leading to expected tragedy, but it is the manner of the story’s treatment that explores new shadings of human understanding with a dose of Shakespearean jest (left over from Lear?), keeping the tone on a lighter plane than the story’s ill-fated conclusion might suggest. With moods switching on a dime, Masked Ball foreshadows Verdi’s last two Shakespeare operas. Call it a tragedy with comic relief. 
Read full review on San Francisco Classical Voice.