Opera: LA Opera’s “The Marriage of Figaro” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

March 23, 2015

By Jane Rosenberg

Los Angeles.  Before there was Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, before Renoir’s Rules of the Game or Sturges’s The Lady Eve, there was Mozart and Da Ponte’s The Marriage of Figaro. Through beautifully delineated characterizations, both musically and poetically, Mozart’s tender and often hilarious opera reminds us what it is to be human – to love, to rage, and to accept our weaknesses.

Though we may marvel at the machinations of the plot, which contains more confusion, deception, and disguises than an episode of I Love Lucy, like all heartfelt comedy, love and reason finally prevail: Figaro, Susanna, and Countess Almaviva foil the count’s attempted seduction of Susanna on the night of Figaro and Susanna’s wedding; the lustful Cherubino escapes punishment to love another day; and Rosina and the count reconcile.

The cast of “Marriage of Figaro”

A gifted cast, assembled for LA Opera’s revival of an earlier production, was supported by the sublime colors and textures fashioned by James Conlon and his musicians. The evening was a true symbiosis of voice and orchestra.

Though the opera’s title bespeaks Figaro as the driving force behind the chicanery, it is really the two women, Susanna and Countess Almaviva, who unite to bring about the happy conclusion they so richly deserve.

Guanqun Yu as the Countess and Pretty Yende as Susanna.

Nowhere else in the opera is the class equality that Beaumarchais advocated so apparent as in the relationship of the two women. For all Figaro’s intelligence and interference, Almaviva still remains the master – Figaro and the household tiptoeing around him at every turn. However, between Susanna and the countess Rosina there is no power struggle but rather sisterhood. They deeply understand the workings of the human heart and it is their alliance that makes all things right.

Pretty Yende as Susanna.

In her debut as Susanna, Pretty Yende, first impressing LA audiences as Micaëla in Carmen in 2013, brought a warmth and richness to her singing, which underscored the humor and intelligence of her characterization. With her agile voice, she was particularly beguiling in her Act Four aria, “Deh, vieni, non tardar.”

Guanqun Yu, as Rosina, appeared here this season as the same character in Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles. Affecting in both operas, she was a lustrous presence capable of soaring top notes contrasting with the darker harmonies needed to express her pain over her husband’s philandering, so keenly illustrated in her second aria “Dove sono.” And together Yende and Yu melted hearts in the Act Three letter duet.

Renee Rapier as Cherubino and Roberto Tagliavini as Figaro.

A bass baritone working primarily in Europe, Roberto Tagliavini’s warm, shaded, and expressive instrument had the power to convey all of Figaro’s dynamics from smooth patter to simmering rage. His acting, however, could use some fine-tuning in a role where one expected wily grace and a bit of swagger.

Ryan McKinny, however, never falls short in the acting department (apparent also in his portrayal of Stanley in Streetcar Named Desire seen here in 2014). He is all the arrogant, entitled count – handsome, sensual, and duplicitous – which made his comic sequences all the funnier. Nor did his singing disappoint with his pleasing, lyrical baritone.

As Cherubino, Renee Rapier was appropriately lustful, bringing a goofy, awkward, adolescent quality to the role and was affecting in her Act Two canzone, “Voi che sapete.”

Setting the piece in the 1950’s neither detracted from nor added to the opera’s enjoyment, though one felt a slight uneasiness when Almaviva donned a military uniform. Was he a member of Franco’s regime? The circle skirted dresses of Rosina and Susanna, and the highly styled, extravagant ensembles of Marcellina were certainly a nod to the fifties and in keeping with their characters. The attractive interior sets of Act One, Two, and Three, gave way to the sparse outdoor set of Act Four. The lack of a lush garden was compensated for by the colorful fireworks display both vocal and pyrotechnic at the opera’s conclusion.

Robert Brubaker as Don Basilio, Lucy Schaufer as Marcellina and Kristinn Sigmundsson as Doctor Bartolo.

As Marcellina, who is foiled in her attempt to wed Figaro when she discovers he is none other than her lost child, Lucy Schaufer (seen here as Berta in The Barber of Seville and as Susanna in The Ghosts of Versailles) proved again that she is a marvelous comedic actress and singer of considerable power and finesse. The rest of the cast, including Kristinn Sigmundsson as Doctor Bartolo, Robert Brubaker as Don Basilio, So Young Park as Barbarina, and Philip Cokorinos as Antonio, were delightful.

With The Marriage of Figaro LA Opera, under the superb direction of Maestro Conlon, has completed its Figaro trilogy, an enlightening and warmhearted gift to Los Angeles.

The LA Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro continues through April 12.

Figaro: Roberto Tagliavini
Susanna: Pretty Yende
Count Almaviva: Ryan McKinny
Countess Almaviva: Guanqun Yu
Cherubino: Renée Rapier
Doctor Bartolo: Kristinn Sigmundsson
Marcellina: Lucy Schaufer
Don Basilio: Robert Brubaker
Don Curzio: Joel Sorensen
Barbarina: (3/21 – 4/4) So Young Park
Barbarina: (4/9 – 4/12) Vanessa Becerra
Antonio: Philip Cokorinos

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Librettist: Lorenzo Da Ponte
Conductor: James Conlon
Director: Ian Judge
Scenery Designer: Tim Goodchild
Lighting Designer: Mark Doubleday
Costume Designer: Deirdre Clancy
Chorus Master: Grant Gershon
Original Choreographer: Sergio Trujillo
Choreographer: Chad Everett Allen

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Photos by Craig T. Mathew courtesy of LA Opera.

To read more opera, 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 Music: The Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group at Disney Hall conducted by John Adams

January 15, 2015

By Jane Rosenberg

John Adams


Los Angeles. Like a Prospero calling forth the winds, John Adams set the accomplished artists of the LA Phil New Music Group to blowing, gusting, darting, and flying Tuesday night at Disney Hall. Billed as a theatrical evening, two of the pieces, Frankenstein!! and the U.S. premiere of Hommage à Klaus Nomi, were sung and staged with Dadaist vigor. The other, For Your Eyes Only, was an instrumental joyride.

Frankenstein!! by H.K. Gruber, the noted Viennese composer, was inspired by H.C. Artmann’s children’s rhymes. Diabolical and whimsical all at once, the words, as sung by the pitch perfect Pieter Embrechts, combine the likes of vampires, werewolves, John Wayne, rats, Batman, and mince pies. Though heavy on the percussion – popping paper bags open the piece – there are bursts of delicious lyricism that envelop and carry one along on a magic carpet ride of a composition. Gruber uses twelve-tone elements from the Schoenberg school along with tonal structures to create a sound world of emphatic beauty. Adding to the spell is a grab bag of toy instruments, the most visually arresting being the plastic hoses spun by a very game group of instrumentalists.

Heinz Karl Gruber

Heinz Karl Gruber

Gruber’s music and narrative have the vaudevillian atmosphere of Brechtian theatre, and Pieter Embrechts, a Dutch singer/songwriter/actor performs with striking virtuosity as he takes on, not only multiple characters, but also the demands of the score. With his infectious delight in the subversive, we become Embrechts’ co-conspirators in this madcap journey through Artmann’s mind and the dynamic music of Gruber.

The only disappointment was the placement of a portable, collapsible film screen on a tripod behind Embrechts, which displayed illustrations of the text by Sebastiaan Van Doninck. The images on this primitive apparatus were viewable only to the audience seated up close in the center orchestra. Budgetary issues apparently necessitated an inexpensive set and this was the weakest link in an otherwise wonderfully satisfying piece.

Tiptoing rabbits, bumps in the night, snippets of boogie woogie, flares of the operatic, hints of tango, ghostly shades of Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Ives, the stuttering of Porky Pig, and the tooting of trains are but a few of the sounds conjured by the fifteen minute piece of John Zorn’s For Your Eyes Only.

John Zorn

John Zorn

In this short composition, the LA Phil New Music Group displays virtuosic precision, giving clarity to what one can only imagine is a minefield of obstacles in this non-linear piece where tempos are constantly shifting and nothing is repeated. Adams himself said it was impossibly difficult to memorize. But the rewards are ample. Zorn marries a Pop sensibility with a kind of Cubistic abstraction to reveal what I can only call the inner workings of the human brain. It’s a Joycean ramble through the mind of modern man, (not a depressive but one with a sense of humor). There are pitfalls. If you fall in love with one fragment of sound, it’s likely to disappear in a moment. But consolation comes quickly. Something equally fascinating arrives to create a delectable smorgasbord of music.

Olga Neuwirth

Olga Neuwirth

Rounding out the evening or should I say testing endurance, we have Olga Neuwirth’s Hommage à Klaus Nomi (nine songs for countertenor and chamber orchestra). Nomi was a unique pop singer/countertenor performing in downtown New York in the nineteen seventies. His onstage and video persona was part David Bowie and part German Expressionist with his triangulated tuxedo jacket, white face, black lips, and three-pointed helmet of dark hair. In his distinctive voice, Nomi sang everything from Cabaret songs, to pop tunes like “You Don’t Own Me,” to Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament.” Neuwirth conscripts nine of his signature numbers and strings them together in her own arrangement. The result is an odd duck of a piece: haunting on the one hand but curiously flat on the other. Nomi’s sly wit and subtlety is lacking as Neuwirth’s scoring turns both sprightly pop music and poignant Baroque arias into overwrought dance hall music.

Nathan Medley

Nathan Medley

Valiantly sung by countertenor Nathan Medley, this startling work, demands much from Medley. Without the benefit of makeup and proper costuming (an odd production decision has him wearing drab gray pajamas), he seems like a distressed hospital patient for most of the evening. The theatrics are staged amidst dozens of multi-sized white balloons, which serve as vague screens for Nomi’s image or backgrounds for decorative patterns of color. Medley is asked to serve up various histrionics – very unlike Nomi’s more stylized performances – and to improvise some 1980’s dance moves. Not easy for anyone who’s a classical performer without a strong level of comfort on the dance floor.

As for the singing, Medley is amplified to the hilt and supported by sampled backing vocals. If elegant modulation is what one hopes for in a countertenor, this proves difficult to achieve under the circumstances.

Adams and the New Music Group work hard to illuminate Neuwirth’s composition, but one wonders if Nomi’s oeuvre is better served by watching YouTube videos of his output. I do thank Neuwirth, however, for shining a light on this fascinating German artist who shined so briefly before dying of AIDS in 1983.

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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 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.

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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


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.

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Photos courtesy of LA Opera.

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


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

February 24, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

On Saturday night, at the LA Opera, evil was palpable, insinuating itself in every corner of the house; and though innocence was destroyed, Britten’s opera, Billy Budd, triumphed.

In the grandest of all his operas, Benjamin Britten and his librettists, E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, created an opera of sweeping power and existential beauty. Isolated onboard the H.M.S. Indomitable, a ship rife with fear, the artists and chorus of the LA Opera navigated the dark world of Melville’s novella. With clarity, refinement, and power, Britten’s operatic seascape was brought to heart-wrenching life.

Like a Poseidon of the pit, conductor James Conlon conjured all the elements that make up Britten’s exacting score: myriad textures, recurring motifs, and haunting rhythms. The orchestra  became the voice of Melville, himself, commenting, seeking, and despairing. Conlon drew a delicate transparency from his excellent musicians, so crucial in contrasting the lower ranges of the male voices.

From the moment he stepped on board the Indomitable, baritone Liam Bonner was wholly believable as Billy Budd: enthusiastic, handsome, innocent, confused, loyal, unaware  of his own charisma and strength

Liam Bonner as Billy Budd

From the exuberance of his first act aria, “Billy Budd, king of the birds!” to his second act tender, “Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray,” Bonner’s baritone was both robust and delicate, producing musical shadings that conveyed both the pathos and fervor of this tragic hero.

Richard Croft as Captain Vere

As the conflicted Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, tenor Richard Croft masterfully provided the vocal balance necessary for the opera, surrounded as the character is by baritones and bass-baritones. With his elegant and expressive voice, caressing each word of the text, Croft conveyed all the agonies and angst of a man who sacrifices his moral center to the letter of the law, ultimately condemning Billy to an unjust death. Vere’s character, so central to the unfolding drama, remains an enigma; and though his actions are perplexing, it is his conundrum that makes this drama linger in the mind and get under the skin.

Greer Grimsley as John Claggart and Liam Bonner as Billy Budd.

Driving the tragedy of “Billy Budd,” we have the monstrous, John Claggart, Master- at-Arms, and the embodiment of evil. Conveying the dark shadings of Claggart’s character through his potent bass-baritone, Greer Grimsley’s performance was at its best when in concert with his victims. Feeding off the helplessness of the weak, he was convincing enough; but in his Act One, Scene Three credo, when he sang of his depravity (“O beauty, a handsomeness, goodness would that I never encountered you…”), he appeared overly conflicted. After all, this is a predator, and sexual repression aside, he is unscrupulous in his desire to destroy. I longed for a little more reserve – more Dracula perhaps, less Freudian unease.

Originally staged by Francesca Zambello in 1995 at the Royal Opera House in London, and later performed in 2000 here in Los Angeles, the current production was directed by Julia Pevzner, who met all the challenges of the opera’s demanding logistics. The sets, designed by Alison Chitty, were handsome in their minimalist approach, but had certain defects.

Trapezoidal panels covered in what looked like navy-blue striped wallpaper, meant to evoke the sea, unfortunately overtook the sides of the stage, blocking views for a large portion of the audience. I longed for a hint of water and sky, for a glimpse of the infinite sea and starry firmament. More successful was the double tiered deck, which, when lowered, created the upper deck, but when raised, revealed the ship’s interior.

The crew of the Indomitable prepares for battle.

Particularly thrilling was the conversion of the ship at rest to battle-ready mode. The movement of the men as they mounted their battle stations, then began firing on the French ship, was a tour de force and a tableau vivant worthy of Delacroix or Gericault. Under Grant Gershon’s superb direction, the men of the LA Opera chorus delivered a rousing battle scene. The audience was enveloped in the experience of sound, drama, and art coming together to create an undeniable spectacle.

The crew of the Indomitable

Elsewhere, the chorus exhibited mastery, from the sailors’ shanty, “O heave! O heave away, heave,” to their terrifying cries of disgust after Billy’s hanging. As officers Redburn and Flint, Anthony Michaels-Moore and Daniel Sumegi were notable, not only offering comic relief in their duet condemning the French; but also in their mounting anxiety over the potential for mutiny. Michaels-Moore gave a stirring account of his character’s experience on the Nore, an English ship that, in reality, suffered a mutiny in 1797. In fact, the historical mutinies at Spithead and on the Nore create the background atmosphere of dread that permeates the entire opera.

James Creswell was a sympathetic Dansker, who offers advice and comfort to Billy.  With his rich and luminous bass, Creswell gave a gratifying portrayal of the wise and world-weary old sailor. And as the stricken and fearful Novice, Keith Jameson, with his cowered body language and agile tenor, embodied the unwilling instrument of Claggart’s scheme to compromise Billy.

Liam Bonner as Billy Budd sings his farewells.

The sacrifice of the beautiful Billy, too naïve and trusting for the rough world, reaches its emotional apex in the quietest of all the scenes in the opera. Alone, shackled, and awaiting his execution, he sings his farewells to his shipmates, the sea, and the grandeur of life. As Bonner sang his last aria and our hearts contracted (and I confess, my tears flowed), we were held spellbound in this poetic evocation of a life half lived.

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Photos by Robert Millard courtesy of  L.A. 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.  


Ballet: Los Angeles Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” at Royce Hall

December 23, 2013

By Jane Rosenberg

Without snow drifts, fir and spruce trees, or chilling temperatures, we, in Los Angeles, must make do with a Christmas season of brilliant sunshine, swaying palms, and stately cypresses. Happily, we have the Los Angeles Ballet to bring us a taste of the holiday with their annual Nutcracker.

With charming costumes by Mikael Melbye and pleasant sets by Catherine Kanner, this production is reimagined by artistic directors, Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary, and set in 1912 Los Angeles.

When Drosselmeyer, danced by Nicolas de la Vega, swept into the Stahlbaum’s living room in his floor length fur, I wondered if 1912 Los Angeles enjoyed cooler temperatures. (Also puzzling were the snow-laden trees outside the living room windows.) The fur, however, would have worked perfectly, had the production been set a few years later and Drosselmeyer been cast as a Hollywood, silent-era film director or actor, complete with camera and tripod. After all, what is a moviemaker but a magician – a perfect metaphor for Drosselmeyer? If this was the intention, then Vega had the exaggerated mannerisms of a Valentino heartthrob and the looks to match. His toymaker was all enthusiasm, hugs, and bravado – the menacing quality of the character found in most productions (and in E.T.A. Hoffman’s tale) dispensed with.

In the first act, the cast of children, beautifully coached and surprisingly natural, was a true pleasure. As the troublesome Fritz, Aidan Merchel-Zoric, was deliciously spoiled and raucous. His troop of mischievous boys let loose and enjoyed themselves without inhibition. Seventeen-year-old Mia Katz, in the role of Clara, portrayed a teen-ager on the verge of maturity and eager for new experiences. As the parents of the two youngsters, Colleen Neary and former NYCB principal, Adam Lüders, were a benevolent and touching pair.

In a nice Upstairs, Downstairs touch, two butlers (David Renaud and Brent Slacke-Wolfe) passed champagne and cavorted with Chaplinesque footwork, then partnered a pair of hip-wiggling maids (Andrea Bell and Chelsea Paige Johnston). Danced ebulliently by David Block, the Nutcracker was no passive wooden toy but a life-size doll. When poked and prodded by Fritz, in a hilarious twist, the Nutcracker swiftly poked him back.

This Nutcracker was all goodwill, the darker shades of the original story absent. Even the mice felt more Walt Disney than Tim Burton, particularly in what appeared to be a mouse Conga-line-dance as they playfully snaked around the room or perched cozily on Clara’s bed while she slept. Unfortunately, with the menace absent, the subsequent battle scene lost its power, deteriorating into goofiness and undefined patterns.

“The Nutcracker” Act Two from “Dance Me A Story: Twelve Tales from the Classic Ballets,” copyright 1985 by Jane Rosenberg.

The corps de ballet looked crisp and radiant as the Snowflakes at the end of Act One and charming in the “Waltz of the Flowers” in the second act. With Clara and the Nutcracker’s throne partially obscuring my view of the action in Act Two and the columns at the back of the stage taking up space, the dancing seemed cramped rather than expansive. Though the female corps had solid technique, I found the use of the hands, in general, rather awkward – less graceful extensions of the arms, more distracting punctuation marks. This held true for the female principals and soloists as well. As the Rose in the flower waltz, Bianca Bulle, replacing Allynne Noelle, performed admirably.

Snowflakes Ensemble in “The Nutcracker“

Snowflakes Ensemble in “The Nutcracker“

Rather than the Sugar Plum Fairy, (we are in the Land of Dolls rather than the Candy Land of most productions) we have Clara’s doll, Marie, performed by a radiant Allyssa Bross. One wished for more subtlety and pathos in her performance, however. Tchaikovsky’s score, at its most melancholy in this pas de deux, is certainly a clue that this is a singular moment in the ballet when Clara is invited to witness what mature love is all about – romance, joy, and heartbreak all at once. As Marie’s Prince, Kenta Shimizu, was an excellent partner, dancing with style, grace, and subtle power.

The Land of Dolls of Act Two was a curious locale: a vaguely Persian environment with turbaned inhabitants. Though a duo of heralds, portrayed as movie cliché eunuchs, kept looking out to sea, Clara, the Nutcracker, and Drosselmeyer, arrived by sled. The Act Two divertissements were well danced.

The Arabian coffee divertissement is always a crowd pleaser and this one was no exception.  Alexander Castillo tirelessly partnered a sinuous Julia Cinquemani in a dizzying series of lifts and embraces. As the Harlequin and Columbine dolls of Act One and Two, Robert Mulvey and Isabel Vondermuhll were a piquant pair, and the Russian dancers led by Dustin True (also dancing the Cossack doll in Act One) were skilled, throwing themselves into the leaping, spinning choreography. Mother Ginger became Mother Gingerbread, her skirts a gingerbread house, her head poking out of a candied chimney. Her doors opened to reveal a troop of happy Hansels and Gretels – a revisionist take on the imprisoned fairy tale siblings. Nevertheless, it was nifty change of pace and a striking visual.

One has to applaud this young company, now in its eighth season, for securing a place in the ballet firmament. One would wish, however, that in future, they could raise the funds to bring live music into the equation. No matter how well the Los Angeles Ballet dances The Nutcracker, without a live orchestra to perform Tchaikovsky’s lustrous score, they cannot hope to glow as bright as their promise.

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 Art by Jane Rosenberg.  Photo by Reed Hutchinson.

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.  


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