Scroll To Top

Around the world
with the L.A. opera

Around the world
with the L.A. opera


A grand tour of recent productions, from the stunning to the disappointing, with stops in Troy, Seville, Paris, Sweden, Egypt, and Verona. Many unlucky lovers will not survive the trip.

PHOTO: R. MILLARD (c) LOS ANGELES OPERAIdomeneo: Troy toy Anyone who has even the slightest familiarity with Edith Hamilton's Mythology may have found himself in the head-wagging know-it-all position as he watched the Los Angeles Opera production of Idomeneo, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's aurally splendid recap of the aftermath of the Trojan War. To call it a recap is actually a misnomer, because this opera--one of Mozart's grandest efforts--concerns a little-known postscript to that conflict. Yes, we all know that Odysseus took forever to return to Sparta and his dutiful wife, Penelope; yes, we all know that for all combatants the trip home was fraught with danger and high drama involving practically ceaseless pleading for Neptune's intercession--well, to be consistent, let's call the old sea god Poseidon, because this war took place long before the Romans came along and appropriated everything about the Greek culture, merely giving the Hellenic gods and goddesses new monikers more suited to the ears and tongues of people living up and down the length of the boot. So Poseidon it should be, although Mozart's librettist apparently had no such compunction as yours truly; he was only too happy to slap the Roman names on the old gods, especially, here, Neptune/Poseidon (but enough of this argument!). So Idomeneo has been gone from the throne of Crete for some time--even though some scholars assert that the Trojan War itself lasted a mere blink of a marble eyelash--having set out to help his Greek brethren smash Troy's King Priam some long time ago and apparently having the most god-awful trip back home from Troy. But now the war has ended, the Greeks have won the pennant and gotten Helen back to Menelaus where she belongs, and Idomeneo is on his way back to the throne of Crete, a chair he hasn't actually sat upon for--goodness!--such a long time that his son, Idamante, has achieved manhood with Papa missing out on all the significant moments in the hitherto young boy's life--this was, after all, way before Kodak moments. Apparently Priam's daughter, Ilia (not mentioned in The Trojan Women or any of the more accessible tales of the battle) has come to Crete via a supershuttle, as has Agamemnon's daughter, Elettra (presumably before she conspired with her brother, Orestes, to commit her own legendary betrayal, inciting matricide and then her own death in a sort of reverse Liebestod). And you thought your family was a mess! Beset at sea, Idomeneo promises Neptune to sacrifice, in exchange for his own safety, the first living person he encounters back in his native land. Hey--did I hear someone say "self-centered bastard"? Well, as fate would have it, the first person the king bumps into turns out to be Idamante, whom the old warrior fails to recognize in light of their long separation. Idamante, meanwhile, is in love with Ilia, which gives Elettra another reason to start coming unwound. As was often the case with those mythological entities, the girl was fairly tightly wrapped, and her re-creation here by Veronica Villaroel, with thrilling singing but acting apparently inspired by Elsa Lanchester as the bride of Frankenstein, lent a certain flavor of old-time Hollywood to the role. Gods and monsters, anyone? In the trouser role of Idamante, Kate Aldrich shone, and as Ilia, Adriana Damato did likewise; the two of them singing together made beautiful music, even if their acting was somewhat tepid in light of Villaroel's lavish histrionics. Were it not for the supertitles, I'd gladly have closed my eyes as this apparently doomed couple sang their love duets. They sounded beautiful together, as is often the case when you have a soprano and a mezzo doing an operatic duet, but really, their acting could have used a few favors from the gods to whom they often sang. In the title role, Placido Domingo proved once again that he is a true force of nature, singing well beyond the constraints so freely attached to aging opera stars, particularly tenors and sopranos. It's those high notes, you see, and though there is a certain huskiness now to Domingo's voice, it is ideally suited to roles such as this semibarbaric Cretan king. (And no, I wasn't going to say "Cretan cretin." Have some respect, please!) And, as one might expect from a veteran as seasoned as Domingo, his acting was faultless. Why, he was downright regal! The action continued with Idomeneo discovering to his horror that his intended sacrificial lamb is none other than his own son, necessitating the consulting of oracles and deciding to banish Idamante (with Ilia, which sends Elettra into a complete emotional nosedive, beautifully sung but acted as if she were appearing in a silent movie); then there is a sea serpent (of course!), which Idamante slays and thus earns the Cretan throne for himself. Then they all live happily ever after--except for poor Elettra, of course, whose future is not even hinted at in this opera, but, well, we all know what eventually happened to her. Hey, at least she got a psychological complex named for her, which is more than you can say for any other character in this seldom-performed piece of the Mozart oeuvre--seldom performed, that is, when compared to such "common" fare as Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Die Zauberflote, or Cosi fan Tutte. But make no mistake about it--Idomeneo has been done to death (often with Domingo taking the title role), and that we are just now finally seeing it done here in Los Angeles points to the relative newness of our city's interest in the art. It may have taken Idomeneo nearly two decades to arrive on our western shores, but I think it's a hell of a good time. It makes wonderful wallpaper when you're just goofing off around the house, and to see it staged well--and Los Angeles Opera staged it beautifully--is one of the reasons to love opera. For in Idomeneo the titular Cretan king has no queen, so it helps if the audience is loaded with, at least, opera queens. As the set designer, Michael Vale worked wonders without resorting to Greco-Trojan kitsch, and what he gave us was an effective rendering of a tiny island nation in the--what is it?--Adriatic Sea. Costume designer David McVicar worked wonders with a few bolts of fabric, giving the women characters nice long Grecian-inspired gowns and the men charming knee-high pleated skirts. Since McVicar also acted as producer of this epic, I think he is doubly deserving of praise. The stage director, Vera Lu;cia Calabria, might've done something to tone down Villaroel's over-the-top Elettra, perhaps showing her Vanessa Redgrave's elegantly grief-stricken performance in the Michael Cacoyannis film of The Trojan Women. Then she might have shown Aldrich and Damato Genevieve Bujold's mad-as-a-hatter rendition of Cassandra in the same film and said, "Like this, but bring it down several notches." Lastly there is Kent Nagano, who conducts Mozart just as I like to hear it--as though I'm listening to my CD player. Nagano gets a big sound out of his orchestra, and his sense of tempo is flawless. He's neither too fast nor too slow, which should appease any operatic Goldilockses in the house. Hey, I freely admit I'm one, and the rest of you know who you are. PHOTO: R. MILLARD (c) LOS ANGELES OPERA

Carmen: Cigarette girl Georges Bizet's Carmen may have some of the best-loved music in all of opera, but I think this Sevillian love-hate story is about as dumb as you can get. I've always dismissed those who've claimed that the French can't do opera, but on closer appraisal--especially of this wildly idiotic tale--I'm beginning to agree. Granted, this opera does boast the crowd-pleasing chestnuts "La Habanera" and "The Toreador Song," but the story's psychological underpinning is so wildly insane that I can't think what Bizet's librettist was taking with his absinthe. This potboiler is so often done that to give a recap feels embarrassing. So I'll just focus on the performances, une bonne idee if ever I had one. Our title character, who somehow manages to be seductive even after toiling all day in a cigarette factory in Seville, was played by Milena Kitic, whom in the past I have loved. But I've seen Jennifer Larmore do this role, and Kitic didn't come close to that performance. In my disappointment I found myself thinking of the moment in Terrence McNally's Lisbon Traviata where Mandy says something to the effect that Marilyn Horne was discovered singing "La Habanera" while driving a backhoe in Downey or some such out-of-the-way locale. When my mind starts to wander to comedy during an ultimately tragic opera, that isn't a good sign, just for the record. Don Jose, the soldier who is so smitten with our tobacco-rolling heroine, was done by tenor Richard Leech, doing his utmost to make something memorable out of a fairly uninteresting character, if you overlook the glaring fact that he kills Carmen in the final act. Bass Erwin Schrott, whom I usually enjoy, seemed a little too Ricky Ricardo in the role of the bullfighter Escamillo, for whose besos Carmen ditches the hapless Don Jose. In the thankless role of Micaela, Carmen's sole gal pal, soprano Carmen Gianattasio (whom I also usually like) did her best to inject the words Hey, look at me! in every syllable she sang. But this opera belongs to the fake Carmen, not the real one, and seldom have I ever written a line that so appears to be a try at a laugh but is actually deadly earnest. Go from the too-beige streets of Seville to the dim mountains and then the (also beige) outskirts of Seville's bullring, and even the first-timer will grasp that this titular femme fatale has a wish that is indeed fatale, but--oh, don't ask why. Dressed to the nines for Escamillo's big moment with el toro, Carmen spies Don Jose (clearly coming ever more undone as the clock ticks). Rather than entering the stands of the bullring, where the worst she could expect would be to get spattered by some bull's blood or maybe some reveler's spilled sangria, the death-wishing temptress tempts death at the hands of Don Jose, who is clearly capable of such an act. Which he does commit. And thus ends this not terribly bright story, a rather silly tale held aloft by a handful of unarguably great melodies. Conducting on opening night was Maestro Domingo, who did a fine job. This music must run in his veins, after all. Directing was Emilio Sagi, who likewise did a fine job with what I consider to be a flat drama (but that could be a result of overexposure). Set designer Gerardo Trotti would have pleased me mightily more if he had resisted the lure of beige. Costume designer Jesu;s del Pozo designed interesting garments for these largely miserable citizens of Seville. At least he avoided beige, so one was provided with some welcome color. I don't want you to read this and think that Los Angeles Opera put on a bad Carmen--far from it. I'm sure novices were enthralled. But I've seen Los Angeles Opera do this piece before, and I've seen the company do it better (if still relentlessly beige). It's rare that I get so caught up in the look of an opera that I give it a poor review, but isn't Spain supposed to be colorful? This Carmen looked as though it were set just off the highway on the way to Palm Springs. Well, just chalk me up as a casualty of Carmen burnout. After all, cigarettes can kill.


La Boheme: Why, oh why, do I love Paris?

La Boheme, Giacomo Puccini's deathless tale of life and love among the starving artists of Paris, is perhaps even more familiar a tale than Bizet's Carmen. It may in fact be the best-known opera in the repertoire; in junior high a thousand years ago we were given a project in music class to construct shoebox dioramas from an opera, and I chose to render Rodolfo's chilly Parisian garret. I grew up thinking that was the life for me, drama queen that I am. And whenever I found myself down and out I always found myself comparing my straits to those of Puccini's bohemians. One of my favorite operatic memories is of watching Live From Lincoln Center when Tony Randall was hosting. He was doing a sound bite with Renata Scotto, who scored big with her performance of Mimi, the doomed female lead of the production. Randall asked Scotto, "And what if Mimi doesn't die?" Scotto looked puzzled, as though Randall had just asserted that the earth were flat, and then she burst out, "But Mimi must die!" End of discussion. I've seen Los Angeles Opera do La Boheme numerous times, but unlike Carmen, it never fails to please. This latest time, we had a superb pair of lovers with soprano Ana Maria Martinez doing the ultimately tragic Mimi and tenor Marco Berti in the angst-ridden role of Rodolfo. With an entirely excellent supporting cast--notably Shelley Jameson as Musetta and Alfredo Daza as Marcello--this crowd of fun-loving (though impoverished) Frenchies sang up a storm, from Rodolfo's "Che gelida manina" (referring to Mimi's frozen little hand; these folks didn't even have space heaters, and they could burn only so much of their furniture for warmth) on through to Mimi's death aria. Because, as Renata Scotto so memorably said, "Mimi must die!" But there's a rousing bunch of good-time tunes in this piece before things get grim, and even then it's still rapturously beautiful. Los Angeles Opera's cast and crew delivered, all in the right time period, so what more could one ask? Conducting duties were handled flawlessly by Lawrence Foster; production was thanks to Herbert Ross, who knew precisely how much Hollywood razzle-dazzle he could get away with; and Stanley M. Garner, our director, provided a masterful set of instructions for the performers to work from. Gerard Howland, set design, and Peter J. Hall, who provided costuming for this evergreen, gave La Boheme the look of gaiety even if all was not well in the city of light. You could see this opera a zillion times and never tire of the music. I know I went out humming, and I'm sure I wasn't the only audience member to be doing so.


Vanessa: Cries and whisper Samuel Barber's Vanessa is rarely performed, so you may know little about it. Well, take the bleakest Ingmar Bergman film, set it to music with an English libretto, and you've got Vanessa. This production marked superstar Dame Kiri Te Kanawa's operatic debut with the company (she did a recital here a few seasons back), and it also brought back the original Erika, Vanessa's niece--Rosalind Elias, who made waves in 1958 at the opera's world premiere--in the rather frigid role (this is Scandinavia, after all) of the Old Baroness, who hasn't a word to say to her daughter Vanessa. The title character, superbly sung by Dame Kiri, has been living a life of quiet desperation for two decades: she is aching to be loved passionately. Apparently, so is Erika (done here marvelously by mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer), but more about that later. Enter, one chilly night, Anatol, of indeterminate age but apparently younger than Vanessa. Vanessa falls for him in less than a New York minute, and he seems to return her warm feelings. As performed by tenor John Matz, this "visitor from the past" exuded all the fire one could want in a frigid northern clime, and one who falls for him rather impetuously is, of course, Erika. She has a night of illicit passion with him and then becomes ever more demolished as she realizes the foolhardy path she has tripped. For Anatol has pledged himself to Vanessa, and that near-spinster isn't about to loosen her grip on her man. Things come to a head when Erika has a meltdown during a party and rushes out into the snow with not even the semblance of a wrap. She is found hours later, nearly frozen, and for some time she lingers in her sickbed, defying all of the Doctor's (baritone David Evitts, in great form) efforts to restore her to health. Despite being in Vanessa's age group, I sympathized more with the shattered bitterness of the young Erika, and I found her confessional duet with her grandmother, the Old Baroness, to be heartbreaking. Vanessa and Anatol prepare to leave the country for a more social city life, and this move leaves Erika in the position of being the old gal's caretaker. The Old Baroness has her own set of issues, foremost among them being that she can't abide anyone's falling to lust. Or maybe she just resents that she's old and needs to be taken care of; either way, it doesn't promise a happy life for Erika as Vanessa and Anatol take their leave. After Vannie and Ana have split, Erika closes up the house, and a stony chill reigns. I'd have my head in the oven in the next act, if there were one, but that's all Barber gives us. Sadness, silence, and stultification: It's a convincing rationale for the high rate of suicide in Sweden. As new as this opera was to me, I really didn't know what to expect, so I had no carved-in-stone ideas about anything that was to be presented. I was pleased with Simone Young's conducting, but I had nothing to compare it to. Likewise, I found the sets and costumes, apparently both the handiwork of Paul Brown, to have just the right touch of being on the money without falling into the valley of oppression. This was a very dark opera, so it helped to have a bit of light in the design. As for John Cox's direction, I have no complaints there either. This is a fairly static opera, so it would seem to me that fussy bits of stage business would have stuck out to the point that the Old Baroness would never have unclenched her jaws. And that, dear readers, would have been a loss.

(c) LOS ANGELES OPERAAida: Walk like an Egyptian

It seems that Giuseppe Verdi's Aida--another operatic warhorse--was just presented by Los Angeles Opera, but on reflection I think it may have been three seasons ago. It may even have been longer ago, but this opera is another in the canon of opera staples, so it has a tendency to linger in one's mind. Just hearing the name "Leontyne Price" is enough to whisk you to the banks of the Nile, although the title role has been performed by everyone from Birgit Nilsson to Maria Callas. But Leontyne is my idea of Aida, and I know I'm not alone there. I'm pleased to report that Los Angeles Opera peopled the ancient Nile riverbanks with a truly outstanding cast, which is something to be truly grateful for when you're viewing something as often done as this piece. Fun fact to know and tell: Aida was commissioned to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. As the captive Ethiopian princess, soprano Michele Crider, in spite of being eight months pregnant, sang the house down, hitting high notes that were a thrill, never shrill. Mezzo Irina Mishura, as the pharaoh's daughter Amneris, produced an ear-tickling array of sounds from her very mellow throat. I'm happy to say that she never left one with the wistful hope that Aida would soon return to the stage, although when Crider did come on--for arias and ensemble singing both--it was always a glad occasion, especially in her duets with Mishura. In the role of Radames, the Egyptian warrior who prays that the goddess Isis will select him to lead his nation's army against the insurgent Ethiopians (and beloved of both Aida and Amneris), tenor Franco Farina was aurally super, although I found his acting occasionally somewhat flabby. Not so with baritone Lado Ataneli, as Aida's father, the Ethiopian king Amonasro, whose musical and theatrical abilities made him a spot-on addition to the cast. Truly, nobody flat-out disappointed me, from the royalty down to the lowliest servant, and the chorus handled Verdi's majestic crowd tunes with aplomb. Bravo, conductor Dan Ettinger. He not only led the orchestra through their paces with all the majesty Verdi could have wanted, but the chorale portions were as moving as you could dream them to be. I've always been a sucker for chorale vocalizing, and I've always had the highest regard for the ladies and gents of the Los Angeles Opera chorus. As nurses can do for a hospital stay, the chorus's performance can make or break your time at the opera. I'd be seriously remiss if I didn't praise Peggy Hickey's choreography, which in this opera is fairly extensive. It's always a treat to see a throng of scantily clad women or (let's be frank) half-nude fellows scampering about the stage in same-sex abandon. Hats off also to stage director Vera Lu;cia Calabria; this is one of those operas that shows you how the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion suffers from a lack of size, yet she managed to crowd the boards with enough actors, choristers, and supernumeraries (not to mention a pair of wheeled elephants) to sink a battleship. Yet things never appeared cramped. This production was the first revival of the Pier-Luigi Pizzi production of however many seasons back, so the general look of the opera was quite familiar. However, as is true of all genuine classics, you just never tire of looking at them. And, judging by this Aida, you certainly never tire of listening to them.


Romeo et Juliette: Those star-crossed lovers... How fortunate that I just recently watched the Zeffirelli film of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, for the Charles Gounod opera of the piece (in French: Romeo et Juliette) had its Los Angeles opera premiere shortly thereafter. Despite having seen and read the play countless times, there are always little bits of business that I forget, so I was glad for the brush-up. This meant that I wasn't enslaved to the supertitles, which--when your eyesight is as poor as mine--can be a terrific boon. Doubling my pleasurable anticipation of an evening of sonic delight was the news that soprano Anna Netrebko was cast to perform Juliette. Having seen and adored her as Lucia di Lammermoor last season, I was ecstatic at the thought of what she would do with this part. Let me go on the record here and now as acclaiming both her singing and acting as sublime. There's also the potentially problematic point that Juliette is supposed to be merely 14, at best, so you need an actor who can play young--if she is not indeed that young. Far be it from me to get into some icky rant about Netrebko's age; I'll simply say that she was entirely believable as an early teen. This young woman acts as well as she sings, which makes her always welcome inside my head. In the role of Romeo, Rolando Villazon was more of an unexpected treat. I've seen and heard him before, but--as I've often said--I'm partial to the womenfolk. But in Romeo et Juliette, Gounod provided the lead tenor with melodies as rapturous as any I can name, and Villazon milked them for all they were worth. It's not often that I use the word "thrilling" when describing any male opera performer's voice, but I'll say it here: Villazon's singing was thrilling, the equal in every respect to Netrebko's. At times, I thought he was going to send me into cardiac arrest. His is a voice that soars. And, like Netrebko, Villazon played considerably younger than his true age. So both leads, in my opinion, were nothing short of perfect. Oh, well, the entire cast was wondrous, especially Reinhard Hagen as Friar Laurence and Suzanna Guzman as the Nurse. Their singing with Villazon and Netrebko, during Romeo and Juliette's marriage, had me in tears--and I don't usually weep at the opera. Also worthy of mention were Marc Barrard as Mercutio and Florian Laconi as Tybalt. In the trouser role of the non-Shakespearean character Stephano, Anna-Maria Panzarella sang a very moving little aria. And the members of the chorus--whee!--were put through their paces with all the panache that Chorus Master William Vendice always brings to the job. Visually, Romeo et Juliette was splendid to gaze upon; both its Erector Set design (courtesy of John Gunter) and its mid-19th-century costumes (thanks to Tim Goodchild) were just the thing. Director Ian Judge made quite sure that all cast members were doing exactly what they were hired to do. And orchestrally this opera was a sumptuous lump of ear candy, thanks to conductor Frederic Chaslin's expert leading of the musicians. As this evening's thrill ride drew to a close, I knew I would be on my feet at the start of the ovation. That I would be joined almost in one motion by the entire house was something I've never experienced before, so I wasn't expecting it. But it happened. It seems that Los Angeles has finally grown to appreciate opera, and in Romeo et Juliette the city was given a real gift. We may not always live up to our nickname "The City of Angels," but when Romeo et Juliette made its bow, there were angels all over the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's stage.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Fred Goss