Live Music: The Pasadena Pops at the L.A. Arboretum in “Hooray For Hollywood”

August 18, 2014

By Don Heckman

Pasadena, CA.  The warm months of summer always bring a luscious banquet of musical events, much of it presented in colorful outdoor venues. One of the best has begun to emerge in the performances of the Pasadena Pops Orchestra under the baton of Michael Feinstein, amid the gorgeous greenery of the L.A. Arboretum.

And Saturday night’s performance, titled “Hooray For Hollywood,” was a perfect blend of all those elements, brought to their peak under the guidance of Feinstein, who matched his appealing singing and precise conducting with a scholarly knowledge of the rich and diversified music of Hollywood, past, present and future.

The Pasadena Pops at the L.A. Arboretum

The Pasadena Pops at the L.A. Arboretum

Add to that the line-up of appealing performers that Feinstein, with the aid and support of ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) also added to evening in an obvious quest to create an immensely enjoyable performance. Among the headliners: Debby Boone, Maureen McGovern, Kevin Earley, Alan Bergman, Paul Williams and much more.

The far-ranging tone of the performance began early, with Feinstein’s whimsical reading of (appropriately) “Hooray For Hollywood,” supplemented with some humorous new lyrics as well as Feinstein’s ever amusing sidebar comments.

“I wanted to grow up to be like Alan Ladd, and I did,” he noted, with a smile. (Although he did not look in Paul Williams’ direction when he said it.)

Michael Feinstein conducts the Pasadena Pops

The heart of the show, and the highlight of the vocal performances were energized by tunes from what might accurately be called The Great Hollywood Songbook. Consider the following:

Paul Williams singing “The Rainbow Connection,” a song he wrote for Kermit the Frog in Sesame Street.

Maureen McGovern‘s rich voice, soaring through a sequence of gripping interpretations, vividly bringing to life a medley of songs from”The Sound Of Music.”

Debby Boone‘s “You Light Up My Life,” a song classic from the film of the same name, still completely owned, in every musical manner, by Boone’s still-vibrant singing.

The talented young Kevin Early displaying his musical versatility with convincing versions of a pair of very different tunes: “The Way You Look Tonight” (from Swing Time) and “On The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe (from The Harvey Girls).”

And, perhaps best of all, Alan Bergman‘s stunning reading of “The Windmills of Your Mind,” from The Thomas Crown Affair, with lyrics by Bergman and his wife, Marilyn, music by Michel Legrand. I’ve heard Alan sing it many times, and been deeply moved by each performance.

The music of Hollywood is not just song, of course. Michael Feinstein’s “Hooray For Hollywood” \thoroughly explored that other area – the soundtracks that are essential to a film’s emotional flow. And with an orchestra as adept as the Pasadena Pops, the results could only be world class. As they were.

Among the numerous highlights, there were selections from such familiar film names as Johnny Green, Elmer Bernstein, the Sherman Brothers, Michael Giachino, Erich Korngold, and more:

- The overture to Mary Poppins. The Raintree County overture. Music from The Magnificent Seven. The Prologue to The Sound of Music. Themes from Silverado.(conducted by composer Bruce Broughten),l And the Overture to Funny Girl.

Call it an amazing evening of music, and fascinating glance at the role it plays in the creative workshops of Hollywood. And let me add a coda of thanks to Michael Feinstein, his gifted orchestra and line up of stars, all of whom provided one of the Summer of 2014’s most pleasant experiences.

While I’m at it, Feinstein and the Pasadena Pops, along with guest stars, return on Saturday, Sept. 6, for a show that promises to produce similar musical pleasures: “New York! New York!” I’d say don’t miss it. Especially if you’re an expatriate New Yorker.

 


Live Music: Gustavo Dudamel Conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in an evening of Beethoven.

July 23, 2014

By Don Heckman

It was warm at the Hollywood Bowl Tuesday night – warm verging toward hot, one of those Bowl evenings when the temperature, and conversations about the temperature, can distract listeners from the music on stage.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

But not on this night, a night in which Ludwig van Beethoven, Gustavo Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic were so creatively in sync that the magnificent Symphony No. 5 and the lesser known Triple Concerto captivated the entranced audience, wiping away concerns about the simmering temperature.

The Triple Concerto, with violin, cello and piano as its solo instruments, is a work that reflects Beethoven’s apparent – and eminently successful — desire to write a piece that showcases each of the individual instruments, as well as their collective qualities as a piano trio.

Performed by violinist Renaud Capucon, cellist Gautier and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the rarely heard work came vividly to life. And by the time the ensemble dug into the buoyant, polonaise qualities of the final movement, the stage had been set for the climactic work of the night.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, arguably one of the world’s most frequently heard classical works, never loses its appeal – either for eager listeners, or for conductors equally desirous of displaying their skills upon such a vital composition.

In this memorable performance, that appeal was ever present for an audience mesmerized by the gripping qualities of the Symphony’s unfolding themes. Their responses, climaxed by the waves of applause and shouts of “Bravo!” sweeping across the Bowl after the final notes were sounded, recalled the commentary by Beethoven’s contemporary, E.T.A. Hoffman after the first performance of No. 5 in 1808.

“This wonderful composition, in a climax that climbs on and on,” wrote Hoffman, “leads the listener imperiously forward into the spirit world of the infinite!”

Gustavo Dudamel

It’s a thought that was also present in Dudamel’s shaping of the work from the dramatic utterance of the Fifth’s fanfare-like opening four note motif to the rich melodiousness of the final movement. If Dudamel was tempted in anyway to invest his direction of the work with the dramatic qualities that are so essential to his style, he pushed the thought aside. Instead, he allowed Beethoven and the Fifth itself to provide every element of emotional drama the work needed.

And the results were extraordinary. Whether a listener was a newbie to a live performance of the Fifth, or familiar with numerous past versions, Dudamel and the Phil provided a standard that will surely be recalled as one of the vital performances of a definitive classical work.

To say it was a night to remember is surely correct, but even a sweeping generalization of that sort doesn’t give full justice to this remarkable performance. So all praise to Beethoven, Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

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Dudamel photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.


Picks of the Week: July 21 – 27 In Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, London, Paris and Tokyo

July 21, 2014

By Don Heckman

It’s another warm Summer week, with many international jazz clubs shuttered in their annual July -August hiatus. But there’s still some fine music to be heard.

Los Angeles

Strunz and Farah

Strunz and Farah

- July 22. (Tues.) Strunz and Farah. The dynamic guitar duo of Costa Rica’s Jorge Strunz and Iran’s Ardeshir Farah, showcase their irresistibly eclectic playing in one of their rare L.A. Appearances. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

- July 22 & 24. (Tues. & Thurs.) Dudamel & Beethoven. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, under the kinetic conducting of Gustavo Dudmel illuminates a July evening with an all-Beethoven’s program featuring the classic Symphony No. 5 and the fascinating Triple Concerto. The Hollywood Bowl.  (323) 850-2000.

Robert Davi

Robert Davi

- July 24. (Thurs,) Robert Davi. “Davi Sings Sinatra.” Actor/singer Davi’s association with Frank Sinatra dates back to the 1977 film Contract on Cherry St. Since then he has become the most musically convincing of the Sinatra-styled singers, applying his own creative imagination to the “Blue Eyes” style. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

- July 24. (Thurs.) Noura Mint Seymali. The compelling voice of Mauritanian singer is featured in the opening event in the Skirball Cultural Center’s 18th Free Sunset Concert Series. The Skirball Cultural Center.  (310) 440-4500.

- July 24 – 26. (Thurs. – Sat.) The Ron Carter Trio. Ron Carter may well be the most recorded bassist in jazz history. But he’s also a fine composer and the leader of his own impressive trios. Catalina Bar & Grill.  (223) 466-2210.

Gloria Estefan

Gloria Estefan

- July 25 – 26. (Fri. & Sat.) America & Americans Festival: Gloria Estefan. The L.A. Phil’s celebration of the music of North and South America continues with an appearance by Grammy-nominated vocalist Setefan with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by Thomas Wilkins. The Hollywood Bowl.  (323) 850-2000.

- Juy 26 (Sat.) Elliott Deutsch Big Band. Trumpeter/arranger/composer Deutsch leads his briskly swinging ensemble with the skills that have made him the arranger of choice for the likes of Cheryle Bentyne, Bill Watrous and others. Vitello’s.  (213) 620-0908.

- July 26 & 27. (Sat. & Sun.) The Central Ave. Jazz Festival. A spectacular assemblage of world class jazz in L.A.’s most memorable jazz setting. Featured artists include Kamasi Washington and Next Step, Patrice Rushen & Ndugu Chancler, Mongorama, The Gerald Wilson Orchestra, Michael Session, Ernie Andrews, Dr. Bobby Rodriguez and more. Admission is free. The Central Ave. Jazz Festival.

- July 27. (Sun.) Peggy King and Corky Hale. She may be best known as “pretty, perky Peggy King” on the ’50s George Gobel television show. But in her later career, King’s matured into an impressive vocal artist. She performs with the superb accompaniment of pianist Corky Hale, who has been at the keyboard (or the harp) with everyone from Billie Holiday to Frank Sinatra.  Catalina Bar & Grill.  (223) 466-2210.

San Francisco

Tierney Sutton

Tierney Sutton

- July 24 – 27. (Thurs. – Sun.) Tierney Sutton. “Songs of Joni Mitchell.” A gifted vocalist with an emotionally rich style of her own, Sutton is one of the rare singers to have the musicality and the interpretive skills to handle the complex Mitchell catalof of songs. Click HERE to read an earlier iRoM review of Sutton singing Mitchell. An SFJAZZ event at Joe Henderson Lab. (866) 920-5299.

New York City

- July 22 – 26. (Tues. – Sat.) John Pizzarelli and the Swing Seven. Singer/guitarist Pizzarelli is in his most appealing medium when he’s digging into the pleasures of Swing, backed by an equally swinging bunch of players – as he is here. Birdland.  (212) 581-3080.

London

Randy Brecker

Randy Brecker

- July 22 – 24. (Tues. – Thurs.) The Brecker Bros. Reunion Band. Trumpeter Randy Brecker and saxophonist Michael Brecker were one of the gifted brother acts in modern jazz. Since the death of Michael in 2007, Randy has kept the memories of the Brecker Bros. Band alive and well. He’s joined by his wife, Ada Rovatti, in the band’s saxophone chair. Ronnie Scott’s. +44 (0)20 7439 0747.

Paris

- July 24. (Thurs.) The Mike Stern & Bill Evans Band. Expect some blues grooves and fusion fireworks when Stern and Evans get together with drummer Dennis Chambers and bassist Tom Kennedy. New Morning Paris.  +33 1 45 23 51 41.

Tokyo

- July 25 – 27. (Fri. – Sun.) Jose James. In his own unique way, vocalist James is searching for, and often finding, a blend between jazz, soul and hip-hop. Will it please the fans of each genre? Check him out and see. Blue Note Tokyo.  +81 3-5485-0088.

 

 

 


Ballet: The National Ballet of Canada’s “Romeo and Juliet” at the Dorothy Chandler

July 13, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

From opening curtain to final bows, choreographer Alexi Ratmansky, along with his set and costume designer, Richard Hudson, and lighting designer, Jennifer Tipton, hurls us into the very heart of a fifteenth century Renaissance painting in his Romeo and Juliet, created for the National Ballet of Canada and premiering at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion this weekend.

With simple yet evocative sets and exquisite costumes, this production has the immediacy of a Pinturicchio fresco. That artist had the ability to breathe life and personality into the daily doings of the contemporary characters who populated his paintings. Like Pinturicchio, Ratmansky has the unique gift of creating personality, not out of paint, of course, but out of movement. In Ratmansky’s world, legs, feet, arms, torso all speak a language, carrying within them humor, whimsy, pathos, and purpose.

Guillaume Cote as Romeo and Elena Lobsanova as Juliet

For me Ratmansky’s most formidable gift is his ability to infuse movement with wit and levity. He embraces the human spirit in his choreography by exposing our foibles, weaknesses, and desires – those qualities that make us quintessentially human. This aspect of his artistry works to advantage in the early scenes of Romeo and Juliet when the irrepressible youth of Romeo, Mercutio, Benvolio, and Juliet is in full flower.

Everywhere we turn, whether in the Market Square, at the Capulet’s ball, or in Act One, Scene Two when we meet Juliet and her nurse, the exuberance and optimism of youth shines with truth. In fact, this very exuberance – this love of life and sense of immortality (so brilliantly exemplified in the dancing of Piotr Stanczyk’s Mercutio) — makes the inevitable tragedy all the more painful.

Guillaume Cote as Romeo and Elena Lobsanova as Juliet

It is in the more serious moments of Shakespeare’s drama where I felt something lacking in the ballet. Perhaps I longed for less movement, less personality, and more stillness. When Guillaume Côté’s superbly danced and deeply felt Romeo partners his Juliet – a childlike Elena Lobsanova – in the post nuptial scene of Act Three, there is a clarity of intention so vivid in the Kenneth MacMillan version that seems clouded here.

In some part it is due to the performance of Lobsanova – a charming, lithe Juliet full of winning delicacy and grace but unable to transcend childish love to give a convincing portrayal of an awakened woman, tortured by overwhelming passion and her inability to enter into her marriage with Romeo in the full light of day.

Guillaume Cote as Romeo and Elena Lobsanova as Juliet

Much has been written about the age and inexperience of Lobsanova, a second soloist at the National Ballet of Canada when Ratmansky chose her for his Juliet. Now a first soloist, she has been dancing the role for three years. But youth is not a prerequisite for playing Juliet: Alessandra Ferri, at forty, danced Juliet, and her indelible performance was the pinnacle of sexual abandon and dramatic and artistic accomplishment.

It is with the portrayal of Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio’s friendship where Ratmansky reaches the heights, as well as with his inventive patterns and stylistic innovations in the crowd and ballroom scenes. His choreography for the three young men is full of unique partnerings, buoyant lifts, and fanciful footwork. His scenes of swordplay, whether between Tybalt and Mercutio or Tybalt and Romeo have the dash of an Errol Flynn movie minus the clichés. In fact, swords are used repeatedly throughout the ballet. In the ballroom scene’s “Dance of the Knights,” the men of the Capulet house dance without the women but with their swords – a militant note that foreshadows the violence to come and is tribal and primitive, conjuring a feudal society where death is a constant threat.

It is followed by the noble dance of the women, which has a civilizing effect on the room – a room arranged with the grandeur of Veronese’s The Feast in the House of Levi. Though Romeo and Juliet is a drama about men’s violence and its devastating effects, women are not merely passive onlookers in Ratmansky’s production. They threaten, cajole, and stand their ground beside their men. It is for them, however, to mourn the loss of their husbands and sons.

In another beautifully realized moment at the ball, reminiscent of the bride and groom lifted on chairs over the heads of the guests at Jewish weddings, Juliet is lifted by Paris, as simultaneously, Romeo is held aloft by Mercutio and Benvolio. The two future lovers lock eyes as they repeatedly soar above the heads of the crowd. Exquisite details of this sort abound in the ballet, but they are the very details that ultimately intrude on the forward momentum to the inevitable tragedy. Ratmansky has created a fully realized Renaissance world but one where the joy of daily life takes precedent over the mythic tragedy of feuding houses.

Romeo and Juliet illustration by Jane Rosenberg

Romeo and Juliet illustration by Jane Rosenberg

The atmosphere of the ballet, whether choreographed by MacMillan, Lavrovsky, Cranko, Neumeier, or Ashton, owes its life to Prokofiev’s score – one of the greatest ballet scores of the twentieth century. Under the direction of The National Ballet of Canada’s David Briskin, the Los Angeles musicians gave a fine rendition of Prokofiev’s complex music. However, during some of the more percussive sections, the orchestra members under Briskin sounded as if they were keeping time rather than propelling the music forward to create Prokofiev’s explosive sound – one particularly muddy section happening at the opening of Act Three.

There is no doubt as to the quality of the corps of the NBC. And the principals and soloists are standouts in all roles: Piotr Stanczyk, as mentioned, is a pitch perfect Mercutio – so effortless in his humor and swagger that Ratmansky should consider creating a Commedia dell’arte ballet around him. As Benvolio, Robert Stephen is a delightful and potent member of the trio. McGee Maddox’s Tybalt is imposing and lethal. Lorna Geddes’ Nurse is full of fun and vigor, dressed in an abundance of white fabric, which swaddled her from head to toe. The Friar Lawrence of Peter Ottmann is more dance than mime and he deepens the role with his presence. As Lord and Lady Capulet, Etienne Lavigne and Stephanie Hutchison are elegant and moving. And Patrick Lavoie dances Paris with ardor and humanity, particularly in the welcome simplicity of his Act Three, Scene Three solo with Juliet’s four lovely bridesmaids.

One would imagine that if Ratmansky lingered in Canada with his creation, time would season and deepen this Romeo and Juliet, a stunning addition to the pantheon of memorable versions that have gone before.

Photos courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada. 

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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 Music: The 2014 Opening Night at the Hollywood Bowl

June 22, 2014

By Don Heckman

The Hollywood Bowl and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Wilkins, offered another Hall of Fame, season-opening program Saturday night. And once again did it with the class and creativity that have characterized these annual events. I’ve been covering the season-opening nights at the Hollywood Bowl for years now and each succeeding presentation gets better and better.

Wilkins and the HBO set the stage with performances of Elmer Bernstein’s Fanfare for the Hollywood Bowl and Prokofiev’s March in B-fat Major, opening the way for a program once again glowing with star quality performers.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this richly entertaining evening was the presence of a stunning array of female artists. And extraordinary female artists at that – from The Go-Gos and Pink Martini to Kristin Chenoweth, all of whom were this year’s inductees into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame.

Add to that the fact that each of the inductees was introduced by high visibility female performers: Taraji P. Henson introduced Pink Martini; Carol Burnett introduced Kristin Chenoweth; and Natasha Bedingfield introduced The Go-Gos.

In addition, Helen Hunt led a tribute to YOLA (The Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles); and singer Lea Michele joined Chenoweth in a portion of her performance.

Kristin Chenoweth

Kristin Chenoweth

Emmy and Tony Award winner Chenoweth may be best known for her roles in Wicked, You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown and the TV series Glee. But her far-reaching performing skills, all on full display in her relatively brief but exhilarating appearance, were the stuff of legends. Singing, strutting, dueting with Michele, interacting whimsically with the enthusiastic audience, the diminutive but energetic Chenoweth thoroughly affirmed the wisdom of inducting her into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame.

The Go-Gos

The Go-Gos

The Go-Gos, the first all-female rock band to write their own songs and play their own instruments, startled the music world by reaching the top levels of the Billboard charts in the ’70s and ’80s. Amazingly, they’ve lost none of their skills or their musical panache. Still rocking, still dominating the stage, they once again underscored the capacity of female musicians to be completely competitive in a male-dominated music world. And they did so again on this creatively dynamic evening, romping through some of their most familiar hits.

China Forbes and Tom Lauderdale of Pink Martini

China Forbes and Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini

The final inductees were the gifted players in Pink Martini. Led by pianist Thomas Lauderdale and singer China Forbes, the group’s skills have included collaborations with the likes of Carol Channing, Jimmy Scott, Michael Feinstein, and many more. And it’s not surprising that their international, multi-lingual skills, on full display in this performance, have made them one of pop music’s true boundary-less ensembles.

The Grand Finale of Opening Night 2014 at the Hollywood Bowl

Appropriately, of course, the program came to a typical Hollywood Bowl grand climax with all the inductees on stage together to sing “I’ve Got Rhythm” with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, brightly illuminated by a characteristically spectacular fireworks display, enhanced by beaming laser effects.

It was, in sum, one of the most unforgettable finales of recent memory, showcasing the induction of three perfectly chosen musical artists and ensembles into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame.

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Photos courtesy of Mathew Imaging/Hollywood Bowl.


Picks of the Weekend in Los Angeles: June 19 – 22

June 18, 2014

By Don Heckman

With Summer arriving in all its glory, I thought it would be helpful to concentrate the Picks for this long, mid-June weekend on the rich array of music to be heard here in the Southland.

Sally Kellerman

Sally Kellerman

- June 19. (Thurs.) Sally Kellerman. Sally’s back, and that’s great news for all fans of irresistible singing. Better known to many as “Hot Lips” from her role in the film version of Mash, Sal is a vocalist who brings vivid, story-telling qualities to every song. Click HERE to read an iRoM review of one of her recent Los Angeles performances. The Gardenia. (323) 467-7444.

- June 19 – 22. (Thurs. – Sun.) Marcus Miller. Multi-instrumentalist Miller, moving smoothly from bass clarinet, brings a sparkling array of jazz inventiveness to everything he plays. His current group includes saxophonist Alex Han, trumpeter Lee Hogans, keyboardist Brett Williams, guitarist Adam Agati and drummer Ronald Burneer, Jr. Catalina Bar & Grill.  (223) 466-2210.

John Chiodini

John Chiodini

- June 20, (Fri,) The Denny Seiwell Trio. Drummer Seiwell’s resume includes gigs with an array of world class bands in genres of every style. This time he leads his own stellar group, featuring John Chiodini, guitar and Joe Bagg, keyboards. Vitello’s.  (818) 769-0905.

- June 20. (Fri.) Chuck Manning and Steve Huffsteter. Two of the Southland’s most inventive jazz horn players, saxophonist Manning and trumpeter Huffsteter wrap their improvisational skills around every tune, stimulating each other’s creative imaginations. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

- June 20 & 21. (Fri. & Sat.) The John La Barbera Big Band. La Barbera’s Big Band hasn’t yet received the attention it deserves, and here’s a chance to see them in action in Sherman Oaks, on the broad stage of Jazz at the Cap.  (818) 990-2001.

- June 20 & 21. (Fri. & Sat.) Chambers, Herbert & Ellis. Here’s a rare, and not to be missed, display of jazz vocalese in the competent musical hands and soaring voices of this trio of world class singers. The Gardenia. (323) 467-7444.

- June 21. (Sat.) The Grand Reopening of the Alex Theatre.  Emmy and Tony award winning performer Martin Short joins Matt Catingub and the Glendale Pops Orchestra for a spectacular evening of song, dance, comedy and pure entertainment.  The Alex Theatre.  (818) 243-2611.

Les McCann and Lee Hartley

- June 21. (Sat.) Lee Hartley & the Les McCann All-Star Band. The appealing vocal team of Hartley and McCann are great on their own, and even better when their surrounded by the superb musical backing of guitarist John Chiodini, pianist Barney McClure, bassist Jim Hughart and drummer Enzo Tedesco. Jazz at the Rad.  (310) 216-5861.

- June 21. (Sat.) “Nutty.” Jazz for Jetsetters. This always-intriguing jazz octet applies a broad stylistic array of jazz rhythms and styles to their interpretations of pop and rock classics. If you loved the ’60s, dopn’t miss these guys. Steamers.  (714) 871-8800.

- June 21. (Sat.) Opening Night at the Bowl. The Hollywood Bowl kicks off a spectacular Summer season with the induction of Kristin Chenoweth, The Go-Go’s and Pink Martini into the . The celebration will climax with a spectacular fireworks display.  Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame (323) 850-2000.

 

 

 


Opera: LA Opera’s “Thaïs” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

May 30, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

Orientalism, sin, sex, and religion: Jules Massenet’s opera, Thaïs, has it all (and a thrilling Placido Domingo to boot). A lavish production, now on stage at the Los Angeles Opera, revels in the nineteenth century fascination with extravagance versus asceticism but is oddly bereft of sexual content. The story, taken from Anatole France’s 1890 novel, Thaïs, features a courtesan turning from a life of lust in Alexandria to the chastity of a convent in the Egyptian desert through the ministrations of a fervent monk.

Nino Machaidze as Thais

Nino Machaidze as Thais

The Thaïs of the beautiful Georgian soprano, Nino Machaidze, however, seems chaste throughout – more like a noble presence who trades worldly riches for a simpler life, rather than a woman who accrues wealth and position through her obvious charms and then gives it all up for the Christian promise of eternal life. The result is not uninteresting: less an abrupt turnaround from Eros-inflamed goddess to pious innocent as is typical of most productions. But though director Nicola Raab has made Thaïs’ transition more believable, in the process she has sacrificed the extremes of behavior that make for a fascinating portrait of a courtesan. The result is a tepid Thaïs, not in voice, for Machaidze gives it her all, but in manner.

Placido Domingo as Athanael

On the other hand, Placido Domingo’s Athanaël is a powerhouse of tormented passions: in turn pious, angry, jealous, loving, and lustful. Making a transition in his seventies from tenor to baritone, Domingo is ageless, singing with an expressive warmth that envelops the house. In monkish long hair and dressed in rags, he inhabits his own world – true to the opera and distant from the oddly populated environment created by the scenery and costumes of designer, Johan Engels.

There is no doubt that this is a sumptuous and gorgeous staging, but it has problems. We open on cenobitic monks in a monastery outside of Thebes, Egypt in the fourth century A.D. Instead of the banks of the Nile, we are in what looks like the suggestion of a three-story library in an indeterminate place during the Industrial Revolution. Instead of monks dressed in the manner of Domingo’s Athanaël, we have men who seem to be Oxford University dons, outfitted in academic robes. The scenery and props originated with the Gothenburg Opera in Sweden and favor a nineteenth century look. The set revolves for the second scene of Act One and, instead of the Alexandrian estate of Nicias, Thaïs’ current lover, we are in a French theater, populated with all manner of “actresses” dressed in flamboyantly beautiful costumes culled from nineteenth century opera and theater posters.

Thais Act One

Thais Act One

It’s dazzling but perplexing, unmooring us from any scenic cues as to where we are. And when Thaïs makes her grand entrance, she wears a golden dress weighed down with trim and jewels and laden with bird plumage – a twenty-first century version of a nineteenth century version of an Egyptian queen’s costume. The outfit inhibits her movements – she is no lithe and seductive courtesan – and because she never touches her lover, Nicias, when singing of their shared passion, the moment falls flat.

Queenly rather than sexy, Machaidze’s first act gets off to a shaky start – her voice lacking in subtlety and nuance. It is in the second act “Mirror Aria,” in the beautiful jewel-box set of her boudoir, when we begin to hear more delicate shadings of tone and texture, which culminate in her ravishing duet of Act Three with Domingo.

Paul Groves as Nicias

Paul Groves as Nicias

As Nicias, tenor Paul Groves was a likable presence, whose voice also gained in luster as the evening progressed. As the slave girls, Crobyle and Myrtale, Hae Ji Chang and Cassandra Zoe Velasco chirped and laughed as required and were adorable in their Scheherazade-like outfits. Milena Kitic proved an elegant and creamy voiced Albine, the abbess who takes Thaïs into the convent.

Portraying the old monk, Palemon, bass Valentin Anikin lacked compassion as spiritual advisor to Athanaël, his voice rather remote and aloof. Putting Palemon and his monks in dusty tuxedos with top hats for the monastery scene of Act Three was a baffling choice. And again, instead of a monastery, they idle for nearly the entire act in the ragged seats of a broken down theater in the desert with a backdrop of sand dunes, which are obvious depictions of a woman’s breasts.

Athanaël, more dead than alive, languishes in the monastery, possessed by his desire for Thaïs and haunted by a vision of her death. Rushing to the convent, now in the same desert set where the monks had idled, he finds a dying Thaïs.

Placido Domingo as TK and Nino MachaidzeTK aS Thais

Placido Domingo as Athanael and Nino Machaidze as Thais

Athanaël, however, doesn’t find her on her deathbed or, as in the 2008 Met production, enthroned like a Byzantine Madonna. Instead, on a raised platform, dressed in a satin wedding gown and jewels, she awaits her apotheosis. Though an interesting interpretation, she stands apart from Athanaël who grovels below her, isolating the two in physical space (a metaphor for their psychic isolation from one another). However, one longed for their parting to have a more intimate connection before Thaïs’ soul rises to heaven, leaving a suffering Athanaël behind – an Athanaël who has now come to crave worldly love for Thaïs above all else

Though the plot, as handled by Massenet’s librettist, Louis Gallet, greatly abridges the novel, omitting details that would make transitions and characters clearer, Massenet fills in the gaps with his lovely and beautifully lyric score. The LA Opera Orchestra under the direction of conductor Patrick Fournillier brings out both the tenderness and urgency of the music. And Robert Cani, the solo violinist responsible for playing the haunting symphonic intermezzo known as “Meditation” does so with a stirring simplicity.

This is an opera of contrasts: earthly passion versus spiritual calling, voluptuousness versus severity, the here and now versus eternity. Massenet’s music balances these extremes with a graceful score that lingers long after the production ends. We are fortunate in Los Angeles to have Thaïs performed here for the first time and with the incomparable Domingo at its heart.

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Photos by Robert Millard courtesy of LA Opera.

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

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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.  

 

 


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