LOS ANGELES - The Music Center was jumping during the weekend leading
up to Memorial Day. In just two days, LA Opera premiered a new production
of Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier," featured Bryn Terfel in a revival of
Verdi's "Falstaff"; across the street, the Philharmonic concluded its
season with an Ives-Adams-Ravel program; and four national music- and
arts critics' organizations converged on the area, to hold their annual
In an overdrive matched historically perhaps only by James Levine, Kent
Nagano conducted both difficult and demanding works, the Opera's outgoing
music director embarking on a revolving repertory of seven "Falstaff"s
and seven "Rosenkavalier"s with nary a day off between now and the middle
of June. Impressive, perhaps impossible, athletic accomplishment as
that may be, the quantity produced by a musician is of little interest
when measured against the quality of music-making.
And that, the matter of quality, is the big news from the Dorothy
Chandler Pavillion. Presiding over an orchestra of remarkable (and
hardy) musicians, exemplified by concertmaster Stuart Canin, Nagano
produced extraordinarily consistent musical direction both times,
supporting world-class vocal performances. Nagano's restraint and
"classical" interpretation made the local band sound as if it inhabited
the conductor's current home in Berlin or the future one (as of next
year) in Munich. Without exception, the two performances unfolded without
a hiccup, an excessively swelling "big tune," a single instance of hanging
Some of the best-known conductors give in at times to the seduction of
Strauss' sentimentality and excess, to the potential rambunctiousness
within Verdi's (and Shakespeare's) account of the dissolute knight - but
not Nagano. It may not be to everybody's liking, but the consistency
of his restraint, his total support of the singers was rare and admirable.
Clearly, there was a price to be paid. Take just the short, ravishing
tenor arias in each opera - Fenton's and the Italian Singer's. No
open-throated, ecstatic singing here, only partially because of the weak
sound produced in both roles, but mostly under the restraint of Nagano's
Fortunately, in both operas, supporting the singers was the right thing,
investment producing high return. Terfel's Falstaff is casting made in
heaven, the larger-than-life bass-baritone becoming the oversized knight.
He was vocally impeccable and dramatically - in a welcome surprise -
measured and just right. Diction, phrasing, the balance with the rest
of the cast and the orchestra all came together in a winning, memorable
performance. Milena Kitic's Meg Page, Jane Henschel's Mistress Quickly,
and Celena Shafer's Nannetta were delightful; the effort in Kallen
Esperian's Alice was occasionally audible. The old Covent Garden
production is still holding together (more or less), with Hayden Griffin's
sets and in Stephen Lawless' direction. The inn folding up into the
giant tree for the last scene continues to amaze.
There were several Terfel-equivalents in the "Rosenkavalier"'s female
roles, but first one must deal with what stood between them and the
audience. Those easily distracted might not have had a full measure
of this musically blissful Sunday evening. Los Angeles Opera invested
heavily, wisely and luckily in exemplary musical forces, but also engaged
a director (Maximilian Schell) and a designer (Gottfried Helnwein)
hell-bent on distraction.
Schell made his cast move about in strange ways, to the point of
handicapping Elizabeth Futral (Sophie) with pointless teetering-reeling
motions; had the Marschallin's little servant do a mocking break dance
behind her back; and, maintaining his association with movies, projected
act-opening scenes to the stage of a 1925 silent film. Helnwein - the
fascinating/loathsome/thought-provoking artist of misshapen, abused
children posed with smiling SS officers, and many similar projects -
contributed painted faces, masks, "Yellow Submarine" costumes, some
chorus members with animal heads, and so on... claiming in the program
notes that "almost 200 costumes... the presence of Eros and death...
the spirit and humor of this romantic masterpiece... (combine in the
production team's) basic understanding for historical Vienna and its
morbid charm in which the opera takes place."
Erase all that, the visual excess and misdirection. Pay no attention.
Listen to the voices and the music. "Opera is only truly successful
if all the elements connect in the same spirit," Helnwein has said.
If only his work and Schell's connected with the spirit of Nagano's
restrained and rich interpretation, with Adrianne Pieczonka's vibrant,
affecting, brilliantly sung Marschallin, with Kurt Rydl's landmark Baron
Ochs, sung and acted on par with the most treasured performers of the
role in the opera's history. Alice Coote's Octavian was fine, but she
seemed uncomfortable, more physically than vocally, and one cannot work
without the other. Coote is a remarkable musician-singer, with peerless
phrasing, and yet she couldn't quite realize the character while roundly
abused by Schell and, especally, Helnwein.
Behind the principals, Robert Bork's Faninal, Margaret Thompson's Annina,
Susan Foster's powerful Marianne, there was a score of fine singers
in minor roles, and William Vendice's Opera Chorus, struggling under
Helnwein's grotesque costumes. And yet, beyond diminished performances
by two normally superb singers, this "Rosenkavalier" still had enough
vocal and orchestral excellence to justify repeated visits to it.
Preferably, with closed eyes, and hoping for Coote and Futral to come
out on top again.
Against the "production values" in the Pavillion, Esa-Pekka Salonen
closed his season in Disney Hall with a kind of spartan purity. The
Philharmonic - or, rather, the "Phil," as in "Phil your world with music,"
and how pharyngeally cute is that? - continues to program with verve
and imagination, and this concert, Sunday afternoon, was a fine example.
Between Ives's "Unanswered Question" (Salonen conducting an empty stage,
musicians "hidden" throughout the hall) and a brilliant Ravel "Daphnis
and Chloe" (featuring John Alexander's Pacific Chorale), John Adams'
Philharmonic-commissioned "The Dharma at Big Sur" somehow seemed to
both bridge and pull together the two.
With elements of both Ives' ragged edges and Ravel's hypnotic colors,
"Dharma" is one of Adams' most lyrical, accessible and complete pieces.
Only a half an hour long, the work has the feel of a major, lengthy,
substantial symphony, its flow sustained throughout. The electric-violin
soloist was Tracy Silverman, who played sensationally, but acted as if
a graduate of the Helnwein School of Distraction. Walking from one end
of the stage to the other may be OK, but turning, dervish-like, until
becoming dizzy doesn't seem to improve a performance.
[log in to unmask]