LA Opera: “Florencia en el Amazonas” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

November 24, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

Lush orchestration, fervent arias, soaring high notes: these are the hallmarks of Daniel Catán’s opera, Florencia en el Amazonas. Earnest in its desire to please and enlighten, what the score and libretto lack in conveying the wildness of the Amazon is compensated for by L A Opera‘s singers and musicians embracing the work’s shortcomings to ultimately produce a moving picture of love lost and regained.

Hailed as European style opera in the grand tradition sung in Spanish and written by a Mexican composer, one wished for less Puccini-esque high romance and more tropical fervor. Though the score weaves in the occasional beats of an African drum (the djembe), the hints of a steel drum, and the wooden sounds of the marimba, the jungle is mainly evoked by harp, strings, and woodwinds. Melodic lushness is prized over dark dissonance and so the result is a big and beautiful but somewhat homogenous sound. There is none of Manuel de Falla’s tragic intensity, rather we hear more Italian opera and the French Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. It is a tantalizing blend but far from the themes of eros and death that might mark a trip down one of the world’s largest rivers replete with anacondas, caimans (related to alligators), and piranhas.

Conceived as an homage to the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Florencia en el Amazonas is set on a riverboat sailing down the Amazon.

David Pittsinger as the Captain, Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Paula, Gordon Hawkins as Alvaro, Veronica Villaroel as Florencia and Lisette Oropaso as Rosalba.

 

Verónica Villarroel as Florencia Grimaldi

On board is a legendary prima donna, Florencia Grimaldi, voyaging to sing at the opera house in Manaus, Brazil, but secretly on a quest to find her long lost love, Cristóbal. Along with Florencia, the plot follows the fate of two couples – one in the first flush of romance, the other in the fading days of a troubled marriage.

Lisette Oropea as Rosalba and Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Arcadio

Lisette Oropea as Rosalba and Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Arcadio

Rosalba, a young writer longing to hear and interview the legendary Florencia in Manaus, meets Arcadio, the captain’s nephew and they fall in love. It’s a prim sort of love with a few chaste kisses. Why? We are in the hothouse environment of a riverboat on the steaming Amazon, but civilization meets us at every turn of the wheel. And yet, in confessional moments, Florencia (oddly unrecognized by her fellow travelers) sings of how Cristóbal, her heart’s desire, awakened her body to love. That body stands immobile, except for a swoon on hearing the news that Cristóbal, a butterfly hunter, has died in the jungle. No impact of sexual longing here, only the regret of leaving him behind to pursue her career. Director Francesca Zambello went so far as to visit the Colombian state of Amazonas (where the opera opens), trek through the jungle, and ride a riverboat. I found myself wishing she had taken more of the grit and heat of the journey and overlaid it on her directorial decisions.

Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Paula and Gordon Hawkins as Alvaro

Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Paula and Gordon Hawkins as Alvaro

The other couple, however, suffers less from the lack of sexuality in the production. Paula and Alvaro, long married and weary of each other, bicker and complain to frequently humorous and touching effect. There is a sad reality to their relationship yet in the end they realize that their love endures. Paula, sung by the mezzo, Nancy Fabiola Herrera, performs, with her passionate and nuanced voice, the most moving aria in the opera when she thinks Alvaro has been lost at sea. There is a truth, both musically and dramatically to her sudden awareness that pride has built the wall between them.

Florencia’s search for the man she left behind permeates the narrative. With her heart full of remorse, she is the lynchpin of the opera, and her voice needs to carry the poetry of the story. In the portrayal of this diva of renown, one longs to hear a voice of haunting beauty, a distillation of the mystery of the river and the regret of a life half lived. Chilean soprano, Verónica Villarroel, is not quite up to the task. Though she sings in bursts of insight (her most poignant aria is early in Act Two), her vocalization is erratic and at times unmodulated.

David Pittsinger as the Captain, Arturo Chacon Cruz as Arcadio and Lisette Oropaso as Rosalba

David Pittsinger as the Captain, Arturo Chacon Cruz as Arcadio and Lisette Oropaso as Rosalba

With architectural clarity, a handsome riverboat creates the setting for the journey. A pity then that projections of the surrounding jungle are depicted in faded pastel colors – more amateur landscape painting than the mystery and vividness of a painting by Henri Rousseau – though the flocks of birds and other tropical creatures who glide across the projections add a nice touch. But it is not only the backdropset that misses an opportunity.

Aspects of the plot, as written by librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain, undermine the conception. A cholera outbreak at the end of the opera, which prohibits the boat from docking at its destination and precipitates Florencia’s final aria of transfiguration, happens almost as an afterthought. Rosalba and Arcadio’s love remains largely undeveloped. Narrative transitions are too quick and clumsy; directorial decisions are too timid. Rather than sultry and sexy, we get English garden party. I imagine the sexiness was to have been provided by Eric Sean Fogel, who choreographs dancing river sprites to represent the magical waters of the Amazon, a clever idea. The dancers look sensual enough in their golden loincloths with their undulating bodies mimicking the ebb and flow of the river, but the choreography is a bit too predictable to have lasting impact.

As the young lovers, Lisette Oropesa as Rosalba and Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Arcadio are a charming pair. Oropesa’s soprano floated with a lithe and silvery line. Chacón-Cruz’s lyric tenor rewards, though at times he pushes harder than necessary both musically and dramatically, in his role as chronic malcontent. Rounding out the cast are Gordon Hawkins as the imposing and believable husband, Alvaro; David Pittsinger as a sympathetic and velvety voiced Captain; and José Carbó as Ríolobo. Described in the program as the spirit of the river, the character functions as narrator and deckhand, until the moment he dons golden feathers and flies onto the ship to sing about the river and its renewal of the earth – all done in a commanding and fluid baritone.

LA Opera’s highly regarded chorus master, Grant Gershon, directs the orchestra, bringing to the fore all the colors of Catán’s shimmering score. The LA Opera chorus triumphs in their brief appearances as the teeming populace on shore. All in all, it is an amiable night at the opera as we travel in grand European style through the Amazon.

* * * * * * * *

Photos by Craig T. Mathew courtesy of LA Opera.

To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

.

Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.   Jane is also the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  


Live Theatre: Robert Wilson’s staging of “The Old Woman” with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe at Royce Hall

November 16, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

Los Angeles, CA.  Whether dancing and crooning like a Dadaist Bob Hope and Bing Crosby or wailing like dying coyotes, Baryshnikov and Dafoe bring a scorching vitality to the stage as they interpret through spoken word, dance, and song the absurdist universe of the Russian poet, Daniil Kharms, as seen through the magic lens of Robert Wilson.

With hints of Russian avant-garde theatre, Surrealist cabaret, English music hall, American vaudeville, and nineteen-seventies experimental theatre of Lower Manhattan from which Wilson evolved (and Dafoe participated in with the Wooster Group); this night of divine lunacy has Baryshnikov dancing flamenco with a pair of dentures as  castanets and Dafoe capering with a string of sausages. They wear dusty dark suits and ties, their toupees are arranged in a curious corkscrew of hair pointing sideways, and their faces are painted Geisha-girl white with black circles rimming their eyes like spectacles.

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe

Mirror images of each other, the duo performs symbiotically: sometimes they repeat the same phrase in unison; sometimes Baryshnikov translates Dafoe’s English into Russian.  But whether they act as the writer and the old woman, or as two best friends, or as the oppressor and the oppressed, together they are a force of nature – clowns caught up in an indifferent world, shrugging off pain with a jab of the arm or a kick of the leg.

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe

Adapted for the stage by Darryl Pinckney, the novella, The Old Woman, is an evocation of a writer and his travails over the taunting corpse of an old woman. Kharms, born in St. Petersburg in 1905 suffered, as so many of his fellow artists did, at the hands of the Soviet Regime. His writings read more like fragments of thought, narrative, and pain wrapped up in a package of absurdist humor.    Pinckney fractures the tale even further, giving us repetitive verbal vignettes compressed into twelve scenes. Sometimes the repetition weakens the work – one could wish for a bit more of Kharms’ text from the story to find its way into the dialogue – other times it adds to the humor.

The evening has its maddening moments with all the repeated phrases, a bit like a stuck recording. But the quiet grace of scenes such as Baryshnikov confiding in the audience in Russian (discreet titles in white positioned on black panels on two sides of the proscenium translate), or Dafoe and Baryshnikov in a poignant embrace offers a counterpoint to the aggressive repetition.

“The Old Woman”

Wilson’s sets have the strong flavor of Russian Constructivist theatre design from the nineteen twenties and Vavara Stepanova and Liubov Popova’s designs in particular.   Suspended trapezoidal window frames, a giant swing, linear angled and mangled furniture, a chicken coop, and a giant suitcase, all set on a stark stage, form the platforms on which Dafoe and Baryshnikov sit, recline, and cavort. Whether creating a Constructivist pallet of black, white, and red or using vibrant primary colors, the lighting concept of Wilson (light design by A.J. Weissbard) paints the scenes with luscious pops of pigment. But Wilson’s world, though it glimmers with artistic and theatrical influences, is unique to our times and sets the bar for contemporary, Minimalist design and staging.

The recorded music, assembled by Hal Willner, weaves standards like “Tiger Rag” and “Goodnight Sweetheart,” with Tom Waits’ boisterous, carnival-esque “Innocent When You Dream.” In the more pensive moments there is Arvo Part’s haunting music. For a few moments we are treated to the singing talents of Dafoe and, a surprise, Baryshnikov singing sweetly in Russian. As far as the dancing goes (there is no credited choreographer), Dafoe’s long legs kicked, strutted, and spun around the stage like a pro’s.

And Baryshnikov? Just to see him point a foot or display a graceful hand enthralls. But he does far more than that. His body takes on the attributes of in turn, a vaudevillian, an old woman, and a young lady. The duo dances everything from an absurdist tango to a soft shoe with walking sticks. Though the song and dance elements of the piece are not its driving force, let me ask: Could this be the beginning of a beautiful partnership?

Photo by Lucie Jansch courtesy of CAP UCLA.

* * * * * * * *

To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

Jane Rosenberg Dance Book cover.

Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  Jane is also the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children

 


Live Dance: BalletBoyz Perform at the Ahmanson Theatre

November 9, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

Los Angeles. A troupe of all male dancers performing at the highest level, rigorous choreography, spare sets, superb lighting, and textured, evocative music – these were the ingredients for a marvelous night of dance at the Ahmanson Theatre, courtesy of choreographers Liam Scarlett, Russell Maliphant and the BalletBoyz.

An associate company at Sadler’s Wells in London, BalletBoyz was founded by artistic directors Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, former principals of the Royal Ballet. Though the name of the company brings to mind the playfulness of youth, make no mistake, this is dancing of serious intent. Hailing mostly from Italy, France, and England, the ten dancers who make up the group perform as an organic whole, moving seamlessly through the off kilter lifts, acrobatic sweeps, and heroic postures of the evening’s choreography.

Ballet Boyz  on ground andhigher

Serpent by Liam Scarlett evokes the fluidity and muscularity of the creature as defined by the serpent of ancient legend and myth. This is the heroic beast of the Greek sculpture, Laocoön and His Sons, not a slithering reptile tied to the earth. And when the dancers pair off, arms meeting arms then deflecting them in quick motions, or a body is lifted upside down with legs pointing into air like the blades of a windmill, the effect is that of athletic games of the ancient Olympics. Scarlett’s choreography, as well as Maliphant’s, makes use of the troupe’s versatile dancers who have internalized the postures of the danseur noble and are able to add grace and sophistication to their performances.

Adding to the sculptural effect, the men dance bare chested and wear flesh colored athletic leggings, which create a pure body surface to act as a canvas for Michael Hulls’ beautiful lighting. In one breathtaking sequence, the white screen that serves as a backdrop for the piece is illuminated with a glowing purple, while the dancers are lit in the gold of late afternoon sunlight. Chiascuro, the use of light and dark to create volume in painting, abounds throughout the piece, as Hull emphasizes the dancers’ forms in a Caravaggio-like tour-de-force.

The Minimalist compositions of Max Richter, from his album Memoryhouse, range from sounds of dripping water to classic harpsichord. But whatever the instrument or style, the music supports and harmonizes with the dance, never threatening to overshadow it.

Much of the movement often drops to floor level – not my favorite aspect of so much of contemporary choreography. It often feels like an easy way to create drama through motions of falling, sliding, and writhing on the floor. In the case of Serpent, however, this has a purpose in line with the theme of the piece. Scarlett creates intricate, elegant choreography that keeps you on the edge of your seat, waiting for the next surprise.

The second piece of the evening, Fallen, by Russell Maliphant is a work that uses all the skill, inner resources, and grace of the dancers. We are on a bare stage, no backdrop, just the raw walls of the theatre. The dancers are clad in vaguely military garb: sleeveless jackets, camouflage style pants. The percussive sounds of composer Armand Amar, with its roots in traditional world music, sets the mood with insistent rhythms and propulsive beats.

What captures me here is how Maliphant creates a human jungle gym of movement, shapes, and positions. Again we are aware of sculpture – this time it is the work of Rodin with all its solemn beauty and power. It is a dance of angles and circles, weights and measures, pressure and resistance. Male tribal rituals are evoked as men dance in circles or partners spin each other. Andrea Carrucciu and Leon Poulton dance a martial arts type pas-de-deux with kicks, thrusts, and jabs to great effect; but every dancer in the company rises to the same superb level.

If you haven’t seen Maliphant’s Torsion, created in 2002 for artistic directors Nunn and Trevitt, you can find it on YouTube and you are in for a treat. Torsion is a seventeen-minute pas-de-deux of hypnotic beauty performed in a loft-like setting. In Fallen, Maliphant uses some of the vocabulary of Torsion, enlarged and expanded for the ensemble. For example, there is an often-repeated sequence of movement for four dancers that is magnetic and almost indescribable. While in constant motion, one dancer, with no volition of his own, is lifted from a horizontal position, anchored to the knee of another, and buttressed on an angle by the arm of another. The choreography is remarkable for its subtly and complexity, and the dancers are remarkable for the sheer strength that enables them to perform the steps.

Only two parts of the evening perplex me, but both have nothing to do with the dancing. First is the extended use of rock songs while the audience is sitting and waiting for the show to begin. It has neither a relationship to the dances to come, nor to the subsequent music. The second, shown at the opening of each work, are two short videos of the choreographers talking about the creation of their pieces. Informative though it is, it underestimates the audience’s capacity to understand the work and seems unnecessary, since the dances and the dancers speak so eloquently for themselves.

Performances through November 9:

The company includes: Andrea Carrucciu, Simone Donati, Flavien Esmieu, Marc Galvez, Adam Kirkham, Edward Pearce, Leon Poulton, Matthew Rees, Matthew Sandiford, and Bradley Waller.

* * * * * * * *

Photos courtesy of BalletBoyz.

To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

Jane Rosenberg Dance Book cover.

Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  Jane is also the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children

 


Picks of the Weekend in Los Angeles: Nov. 6 – 9

November 6, 2014

By Don Heckman

Steve Tyrell

Steve Tyrell

- Nov. 6 – 9. (Thurs. – Sun.) Steve Tyrell. Add an amiable Texas twang to a jaunty sense of swing and a convincing way with a lyric, and that still doesn’t add up to the magic that happens when Tyrell digs into the Great American Songbook. Catalina Bar & Grill. http://www.catalinajazzclub.com (323) 466-2210.

Lani Hall and Herb Alpert

Lani Hall and Herb Alpert

- Nov. 6. (Thurs.) Herb Alpert and Lani Hall. The veteran jazz trumpeter/painter/sculptor and his vocally superb wife are back again at their home base – Alpert’s jazz friendly, elegant Bel Air club. They’ll no doubt be working over material for their current touring. And that’ll be a musically captivating gift for anyone who can squeeze into what will no doubt be a full house crowd. But it’ll be worth the effort. Click HERE to read a review of the dynamic duo’s most recent appearance at.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

- Nov. 6. (Thurs.) David Ornette Cherry. He’s the son of trumpeter Don Cherry, who worked frequently with free jazz icon Ornette Coleman– thus David Ornette Cherry’s middle name. A keyboard player with his own unique approach to contemporary improvisation, he’s an imaginative jazz artist who deserves a hearing on his own right. The Blue Whale.  (213) 620-0908.

Los Lobos

Los Lobos

- Nov. 8. (Sat.) Los Lobos and Los Lonely Boys. The mutiple Grammy-winning group from Los Angeles are one of the popworld’s most eclectic ensembles. Blending everything from Latin pop and Chicano rock to TexMex and Americana their music has a fascinating body-moving appeal. Opening the bill, Texas’ Los Lonely Boys follow a similar musical path. Valley Performing Arts Center.  (818) 677-8800.

- Nov. 8. (Sat.) Dimitri Matheny Quartet. Matheny’s warm, engaging flugelhorn playing has thoroughly established him as one of the most emotionally expressive improvisers of his generation. He performs with the sterling backing of Joe Bagg, piano, Pat Senatore, bass, Dick Weller, drums. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

Johnny Mathis

Johnny Mathis

- Nov. 8. (Sat.) Johnny Mathis. He doesn’t show up often any more in the Southland, so don’t miss this opportunity to hear the hit-maker of the ‘6os and 70s up close in action. Segerstrom Center for the Arts.  (714) 556-2787.

- Nov. 8. (Sat.) The New West Symphony. Marcelo Lehninger conducts the gifted players of the NWS in Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, and the Dvorak Concerto in B minor for cello and orchestra, featuring cellist Lynn Harrell. The Cavli Theatre at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. (805) 449-2100.

HIGHLIGHT EVENT: SATURDAY AND SUNDAY NOVEMBER 8 & 9

The 2014 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition and All-Star Gala Concert

Thelonious Monk

The annual jazz competitions produced by the Thelonious Monk Institute are among the most celebrated jazz events of the year. And the 2014 installment is no exception. This year’s competition again showcases a talented, ambitious group of young players. The semi-finalists will first meet at U.C.L.A.’s Schoenberg Hall on Saturday, Nov. 8. (The semi-final event is free and open to the public.)

The three finalists will then perform in the Competition’s Gala event on Sunday, Nov. 9 at Dolby Hall. The distinguished panel of judges for both stages of the competition includes trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire, Terence Blanchard, Randy Brecker, Roy Hargrove, Quincy Jones and Arturo Sandoval.

Following the finalists’ performances and the selection of this year’s winner, an All-Star Gala concert will feature Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Terri Lyne Carrington, Ron Carter, Vinnie Colaiuta, Jimmy Heath, Marcus Miller, Dianne Reeves and others.

In another highlight of the Gala, the Institute will present its prestigious Founders Award to President Bill Clinton.

The Thelonious Monk Institute 2014 International Jazz Trumpet Competition  (310) 206-9700.


Opera: LA Opera’s “Dido and Aeneas” and “Bluebeard’s Castle” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

October 27, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

Two opera tales of thwarted love: one, Dido and Aeneas, in which a heroic queen loses her lover and her kingdom; the other, Bluebeard’s Castle, in which a doomed aristocrat loses his bride and his salvation. Both operas constitute the very definition of tragedy, a form that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a play or other literary work of a serious or sorrowful character with a fateful or disastrous conclusion: opposite to comedy.”

The LA Opera served up these two stirring masterpieces in a double bill directed by Barrie Kosky of the Komische Oper Berlin. One, Bluebeard, stayed true to its tragic form, the other, Dido, was a puzzling foray into comedy.

Much has been made of the unusual pairing of these two short operas created over two hundred years apart. I found this decision an inspired one for they have much in common – most noteworthy being the glimpse of Eden shared by the lovers, Dido and Aeneas and Judith and Bluebeard, followed by banishment and despair. They seem two sides of an existential coin. And musically, they compliment each other – the transparent delicacy of Purcell coupled with the expressive vitality of Bartok. Why Kosky chose to subvert his thoughtful construction by reimagining the haunting Dido and Aeneas as a comic romp is perplexing.

The opera opens on the chorus and principals crowded together on a long white bench running the width of the stage. The bench is pushed to within a few feet of the proscenium with a pleated gray screen poised directly behind. Figures are arrayed in pastel colors and the house lights are up. So far so good. Then Belinda, Dido’s lady in waiting, sings, “Shake the cloud from off your brow.” With exaggerated hand motions, her head bobbing and eyes popping, a startled smile on her face, Belinda foreshadows all that is amiss with the concept. At every turn, Kosky directs his principals to act out broad comedy better suited for operas like Falstaff or Gianni Schicchi. Yes, Kosky entertains with the slapstick antics of Dido’s attendants who become a gaggle of sorority sisters rather than the concerned subjects of the noble queen. He has the audience roaring with the Sorceress and two witches (three countertenors replacing the traditional mezzo-soprano and two sopranos). And he elicits a laugh when Aeneas slams off the stage and out of the theater like a petulant schoolboy. But this staging goes beyond interpretation to become a misreading of the magnitude of Purcell’s tragedy.

“Dido and Aeneas”

Culled from Book IV, The Passion of the Queen, from Virgil’s The Aeneid, the opera, Dido and Aeneas, tells the tale of Dido, the proud queen of Carthage, who reluctantly gives her heart to Aeneas, a prince of Troy, only to be abandoned. Her great love lost, Dido dies broken hearted and, with her death, so too dies her kingdom. Musically, it is supremely beautiful, recounting a story of inconsolable sorrow, which permeates the score. Just listening to Dido’s Lament, “When I am laid in earth,” can bring on tears. It is one of the most moving arias in all opera. Kosky’s concept, though exhilarating at times, undermines the nature of the opera, draining it of pathos and its final catharsis. Dido and Aeneas are reduced to teenagers with a crush on each other, making Dido’s empire seem more like a high school corridor than the vast kingdom of Carthage. When Dido sings her Lament at the end of the opera, one is left curiously unmoved.

Kosky makes a directorial decision to overlay the concluding orchestral music with Dido, alone on stage, convulsively sobbing – a sobbing that goes on for about five minutes. I’m sure, for some, this is a startling piece of theater, but for me, it is an unforgivable distraction from the music and incomprehensible in light of the preceding comedy.

Paula Murrihy, as Dido, puts heart and soul into her performance, but her queen is never allowed the nobility of her role to shine forth. Musically, she brings a lovely luster to the upper registers, but one wished for more heft in the lower registers, which convey the core of Dido’s passion.

Paula Muorrihy as Dido and Liam Bonner as Aeneas

Paula Muorrihy as Dido and Liam Bonner as Aeneas

As Aeneas, Liam Bonner’s baritone is a thing of beauty. A knockout in last season’s Billy Budd, Bonner has all the gifts: a supple sound, skilled acting, an attractive presence, and personal charisma. His Aeneas shares the same fate as the other principals, however. Cast as a wayward schoolboy, he isn’t permitted to expand into the hero of Virgil’s Aeneid. Fortunately, his potent voice conveys the grandeur of his character.

John Holiday (center) as the Sorceress, with G. Thomas Allen (left) as the First Witch and Darryl Taylor (right) as the Second Witch

John Holiday (center) as the Sorceress, with G. Thomas Allen (left) as the First Witch and Darryl Taylor (right) as the Second Witch

Kateryna Kasper is a solid Belinda with a warm and beguiling soprano. As the Sorceress and her two witches, John Holiday, G. Thomas Allen, and Darryl Taylor bring the house down, but seem more like exiles from a Mel Brooks movie than the conspiring trio who precipitate the tragedy. In fact, they are so hilarious that someone should design a new production around them. Kosky’s strength in this piece resides in directing the machinations of the chorus. They move en masse across the stage and into the orchestra pit, creating tableaux worthy of heroic painting. Thanks to Grant Gershon, the chorus sings as an organic whole, interpreting the music as Purcell wrote it with crystalline purity.

Conducted by Steven Sloane, the LA Opera Orchestra, though marvelous in Bluebeard’s Castle, seems unsteady in Dido, lacking cohesiveness, resulting in a loss of clarity and transparency. It is with Bluebeard’s Castle that the orchestra shines, savoring the complexities of Bartok’s vigorous score, with its debt to Debussy and Hungarian folk music.

An opera written for two voices and large orchestra, Bluebeard’s Castle (also titled Duke Bluebeard’s Castle), is a mesmerizing portrayal of the strangled emotions of twentieth century man. Loosely based on the fairy tale by Charles Perrault, this Bluebeard doesn’t end as well. Abandoning her family and betrothed, Judith marries Bluebeard and enters his menacing castle, which harbors dark secrets. She thinks her devotion can save him from his agonizing loneliness, only to discover that by her ceaseless curiosity, she dooms them both. In more traditional stagings, Judith opens seven doors, each displaying in turn, Bluebeard’s bloodstained torture chamber, armory, treasury, garden, dukedom, lake, and finally the room his three former wives occupy in a kind of half-life.

"Bluebeard's Castle"

“Bluebeard’s Castle”

Kosky goes a different route, creating the contents of the doors out of various bodies inhabiting the stage. Judith pulls leaves out of Bluebeard’s suit jacket, symbolizing the garden; water pours out of the cuffs and coat of three actors perched mutely on stage (stand-ins for Bluebeard himself) symbolizing the lake of tears. All this takes place on a slowly revolving circular platform designed by Katrin Lea Tag, as Bluebeard and Judith bemoan the unfolding events. Kosky stays true to the character of the piece, succumbing to the tragic elements while interpreting the clash of husband and wife in his own terms. His duo is dressed in modern attire, beginning and ending their journey as a contemporary couple in turmoil, engaged in a Freudian battle of wills.

Robert Hayward as Bluebeard and Claudia Mahnke as Judith

Robert Hayward as Bluebeard and Claudia Mahnke as Judith

The flaw here, however, is that like Dido and Aeneas, Kosky abandons the noble, epic nature of his characters. Missing is the initial courtly restraint that lends pathos to Bluebeard’s solitude and the heroic to Judith’s mission to save him. Because Judith and Bluebeard seem frantically at odds from the moment we encounter them – two wounded and desperate animals – the drama has nowhere to go as the music builds to its inevitable climax. What we are left with is reduced to a domestic drama. Perhaps that is enough, but I longed for less Albee and more Shakespeare.

Bass-baritone, Robert Hayward, and soprano, Claudia Mahnke, embrace their roles as the tragic couple. Musically, they prove a compelling pair, illuminating Bartok’s short melodic phrases as the orchestra weaves its magic spell and thunders towards Bluebeard’s final secret.

* * * * * * * *

Photos by  Craig Mathew courtesy of LA Opera.

To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

.

Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.   Jane is also the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  


On Opera: Director Barrie Kosky in Conversation with LA Opera’s Christopher Koelsch

October 19, 2014

 By Jane Rosenberg

Ebullient, outspoken, and intelligent, Barrie Kosky, artistic director of the Komische Oper Berlin, and stage director of LA Opera’s upcoming production of the double bill Dido and Aeneas/Bluebeard’s Castle presented his concept of this unusual opera pairing during a conversation with opera president, Christopher Koelsch at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Thursday. (This is the first in a series of live streaming conversations on the LA Opera’s website – a welcome addition to the Opera’s continuing efforts to offer insights into their productions as they do with their regular pre-performance talks).

Barrie Kosky

Barrie Kosky

If you were lucky enough to see the LA Opera’s production of The Magic Flute in November of last year, then you may know that Kosky, along with his collaborators Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt, were the team responsible for this clever and visually arresting re-imagining of The Magic Flute. If Kosky brings the same level of ingenuity to Dido and Aeneas/Bluebeard’s Castle then the audience is in for a remarkable evening.

Conductor Constantinos Carydis conceived of the unconventional pairing of the two operas and though Kosky acknowledged that the operas, written more than two hundred years apart, are from two entirely different sound worlds, there are narrative parallels and psychological truths common to them both. Both deal with obsessive love, loneliness, loss, and on a spiritual and intellectual level: the theme of arrival and departure. Aeneas arrives in Carthage, gains Dido’s love, only to leave again, unknowingly destroying the woman he loves and the empire she rules. Judith arrives at Bluebeard’s Castle, only to find herself trapped in a nightmare world of secrets and unable to leave.

Favoring Minimalist stagings to allow the emotional power of the music and the performances to provide maximum heft, Kosky, in one of his many moments of humor, called himself an “Opulent Minimalist.” Certainly, his production of The Magic Flute gave the audience a very crowded visual field, however, the structures supporting the video projections were simple. For him, and certainly visual artists would agree, Minimalism entails distilling things to their essence.

The essence of Bluebeard, in Kosky’s staging, is not about the architecture of the doors and walls in Bluebeard’s castle; but about the primacy of the performer and the human voice. In the narrative, Judith’s curiosity compels her to open door after door, looking for a way to let light into the enchanted, dark world of the castle. In this new production, set on a slowly revolving white circle, the doors and walls are replaced by bodies harboring those secrets, in a very clever and compelling piece of staging. Emotions are raw and exposed – a veritable Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in Hungarian – as Kosky explained to his amused audience.

Robert Hayward as Bluebeard and Claudia Mahnke as Judith in a scene from "Bluebeard's Castle," presented in 2010 at the Frankfurt Opera

Robert Hayward as Bluebeard and Claudia Mahnke as Judith in a scene from “Bluebeard’s Castle,” presented in 2010 at the Frankfurt Opera

For Dido and Aeneas, fragility seems to be the essence of the unfolding tragedy for Kosky: the fragility of Purcell’s score, the fragility of life, and the condition that Dido finds herself in – trapped between the needs of her court and her love for Aeneas. Kosky jokingly urged everyone to bring a box of tissues to cope with the raw power and emotional catharsis of Dido’s final aria and ensuing death.

It is this raw power that interests the director who asserted that opera as an art form should take the audience out of its emotional comfort zone. Opera “fundamentalists,” as he called those who insist on productions that hark back to their originals, miss the point. Opera isn’t a fixed form, with only one viable approach, but rather, like all theatre, an interpretive art form always open to investigation.

As for his working methods, he said: it all starts with choosing the right piece of musical theatre, then “riding the surfboard on the wave” of the music. After assembling a first rate cast, anything becomes possible, because he trusts great performers to draw out character and present human truths. A director, with a musical education, Kosky first plays through the score on the piano to digest the music, then listens to as many CDs as he can. Ideas emerge from the process. The rehearsal period is a long one as he and the conductor grapple with how sound should convey the meaning of the words of the libretto. One of the joys of his profession, he said, is directing the chorus. Rather than leaving them as a static entity, he prefers to move them into the action to create a deeper level of performance.

And how do you see the future of opera? Christopher Koelsch asked Kosky in conclusion. The director felt that every hurdle faced by an opera house was unique to each house and its city. But the fundamental issue was accessibility. It’s all about the ticket prices, he explained. Because opera is subsidized in Germany, the lowest ticket price at the Komische Oper is eight Euros. Subsidies allow Kosky to reach a broad audience and at the same time maximize the productions with full orchestra, full chorus, and top performers. In his view, opera is here to stay. It is the only theatrical form that links us to the ancient Greeks – to Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles; and because of that, we are linked to something primal… and one hopes, eternal.

* * * * * * * *

Photos courtesy of LA Opera.


Picks of the Week: October 15 – 19 in Los Angeles, New York City and London

October 15, 2014

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Dee Dee Bridgewater

Dee Dee Bridgewater

- Oct. 16 – 18. (Thurs. – Sat.) Dee Dee Bridgewater. She’s a Grammy and Tony award winner, an actress, a radio star and a U.N. Ambassador. As if all that wasn’t enough, she’s also a dynamic jazz artist, a singer with a unique style and a creative imagination. She doesn’t make a lot of L.A. Club performances, so don’t miss this one. Catalina Bar & Grill.  (223) 466-2210.

- Oct. 16. (Thurs.) Gregg Arthur. Add Australian singer Arthur to the growing list of male vocal artists finding inspiration in the Sinatra style and the Great American Songbook repertoire. And he does it with authority. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

Billy Childs

Billy Childs

- Oct. 17. (Fri.) Billy Childs. Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro. Pianist/composer Billy Childs showcases a live performance of his new recording, finding new creative aspects in the music of singer/songwriter Laura Nyro. He’s aided by the vocals of Becca Stevens, Moira Smiley and Lisa Fischer. Segerstrom Center.  (714) 556-2787.

- Oct. 17. (Fri.) The Los Angeles Philharmonic. Prokofiev and Dvorak. In an evening of extraordinary international taent, Basque conductor Juanjo Mena leads the L.A. Phil in performances of the Dvorak Symphony No. 7 and the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3, with Uzbekistani pianist Behzod Abduraimov. Disney Hall. (323) 850-2000.

- Oct. 18. (Sat.) Laura Pausini. Consider it good timing for Italian singer Pausini to make a Southland appearance in the week of Christopher Columbus celebrations. A major Italian star, she should be heard by American listeners, as well. The Greek Theatre. (323) 665-5857.

Jane Monheit

Jane Monheit

- Oct. 19. (Sun.) Jane Monheit.   “Hello Bluebird: Celebrating the Jazz of Judy Garland.”  Monheit applies her rich vocal timbres and and brisk rhythms to a fascinating view of the Garland’s jazz roots.  Saban Theatre. (888) 645-5006.

- Oct. 19. (Sun.) The Buddy Rich Band. It may no longer be led by the charismatic drumming of the late Rich, but his band still retains the character and the spirit of the original. Catalina Bar & Grill. (223) 466-2210.

- Oct. 19. (Sun.) The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Mozart Serenade. Douglas Boyd conducts Mozart’s Serenade in D Major and George Benjamin’s First Light, and cellist Steven Isserlis is the soloist for Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 2 in D Major. A CAP UCLA event at Royce Hall.  310-825-2101.

 

* * *  L.A.’s HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK   * * *

TEKA and her NEW BOSSA QUARTET

Oct. 19. (Sun.)

Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. (310) 474-9400.

 Brazilian singer/guitarist Teka and her New Bossa Quartet perform music rich with free flying jazz, the irresistible rhythms and melodies of Brazil, and the lyrical pleasures of the Great American Songbook.

*************************************************

New York City

- Oct. 14 – 18. (Tues. – Sat.) Benny Green Trio. The virtuosic Green is one of the few pianists influenced by Oscar Peterson who does so with convincing improvisational authority. Birdland.  (212) 581-3080.

- Oct. 16 – 19. (Thurs. – Sun.) Cassandra Wilson. A jazz singer who is one of the few uniquely original performers in the field of jazz vocalists. Blessed with a voice rich with warm, expressive timbres, she uses it at the service of a compelling creative imagination. The Blue Note.

London

- Oct. 15 & 16. (Wed. & Thurs.) Al Di Meola plays Beatles and More. Always in pursuit of new expressive arenas for his superb guitar playing, Di Meola applies his remarkable skills to the classics of the Beatles songbook. And more. Ronnie Scott’s.  +44 20 7439 0747.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 236 other followers