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Flicka can sing,
Dead Can Dance

Flicka can sing,
Dead Can Dance

Bartoli

and many other revelations have marked the recent adventures of our Los Angeles opera critic, including productions of The Grand Duchess,Pagliacci, and Parsifal, a Cecilia Bartoli recital, and--gasp!--a rock concert.

Los Angeles Opera started its 20th season with a quintet of efforts that ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime. First there was The Grand Duchess, a Jacques Offenbach piece of comic operetta that I was looking forward to with a mixture of desire and dread (more about those conflicting emotions later).

Next came Ruggero Leoncavallo's grand (if brief) Pagliacci, which was staged by Franco Zeffirelli six years ago in an eye-popping display and was--this time out--to star two singers I am mad for, Roberto Alagna (be still, my heart!) and Angela Gheorghiu, in its splendid and colorful, and extremely well remembered, revival.

Act III was performed solo by the mezzo-soprano of the century, if I may be so bold, Cecilia Bartoli. The great artiste sang a dazzling recital of arias from her recent equally dazzling CD release, Opera Proibita. In the presence of such great artistry, words fail me. Oh, but I'll gush nevertheless...later on.

Next up was Giacomo Puccini's famous Tosca, a standard of the operatic repertoire if ever there was one. Alas, I missed it. I'll have to see Floria Tosca hurl herself over the wall some other time. Shucks!

Last came a piece of Richard Wagner's, Parsifal, which I was looking forward to with mixed emotions. Parsifal is Wagner's final opera, one of his most melodic, and well worth the nearly five-hour sitting time it entails. However, this was slated to be a Robert Wilson production, and while I always enjoyed his efforts back east at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, staging the music of composers such as Philip Glass, I've found his two operatic endeavors--Puccini's Madama Butterfly (due for revival this season) and the aforementioned Parsifal--a shade too high-concept for my liking. I hope to elaborate later, but it won't be easy. Heck, it wouldn't be easy given a traditional production of Parsifal, and--trust me--this was anything but.

Lest you think I am a slave to the Los Angeles Opera, I should mention that early in the season (for the opera, that is, but late for the Hollywood Bowl, where I had the pleasure), I saw once again one of my all-time favorite '80s goth bands, Dead Can Dance, in their first ensemble appearance here in, oh, 600 or 700 years. Lisa Gerrard, Brendan Perry, et al. were supported by the French pop group Nouvelle Vague (which means "new wave," for those of you who've lost your French), and a more stellar evening would be hard to imagine in terms of screaming-meemie old-time thrills.

My friend Flicka

World-renowned mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, who assumed the title role in Los Angeles Opera's production of The Grand Duchess, has been one of my favorite singers for about a decade and a half. Most of the adoration came from my love for Von Stade's recording of Joseph Marie Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne, which caused me to fall instantly in love with her smooth, mellow tones. I heard that recording the day the 1992 Los Angeles riots erupted, by way of historical setting.

In addition to hearing her do the Auvergne songs, I saw her in a production of Dead Man Walking, singing the role of the doomed prisoner's unfortunate--nay, pathetic--mother. At that time my friend Ray, who took me to the presentation, knew the singer who had the role of Sister Helen Prejean (alas, I have forgotten her name; suffice it to say it wasn't Susan Graham, who created the role in New York). So, because my friend knew the lead, we went backstage after the opera, and there I met Ms. von Stade.

Ray had long ago told me that Ms. von Stade's nickname is "Flicka," which apparently means something coy in Swedish, if that is indeed where the singer, her family, or her nickname comes from (I feel certain it wasn't from the horsey TV show of the '50s). Starstruck fool that I am, I was overcome to be mere inches from Flicka, and so it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to seeing her again, this time in a piece by the French composer Offenbach, whose The Tales of Hoffman is one of my favorite operas.

The Grand Duchess is titled La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein in French, but we were seeing a presentation of the comic operetta wherein the speaking parts were done in English and the singing in the original French. Worse still, I felt, although my date, Jerry, disagreed with my somewhat prejudgmental dismay, the entire production was being handled by Garry Marshall, TV's producer of Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy. Never a fan of the the former but a great fan of the latter, I nevertheless looked askance at Marshall's treatment of Offenbach's piece, although I have to say that his production had great appeal for the non-opera-loving masses, and I found myself greatly outnumbered.

Here the Duchess von Stade was joined by baritone Rod Gilfrey as Prince Paul, formerly seen in Los Angeles in Mozart's The Magic Flute and Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd, to name just two. Lately he's seldom been seen on this coast, to which I can say only that's indeed a pity. Scores of others joined this distinguished duo, and I shall get to them if space permits (read: if I don't run out of steam). Some were fine, others not so, and remember--I'm easy.

Perhaps most outrageously of all, Mr. Marshall had decided that this operetta needed the ghost of Offenbach himself to lend comic oomph where "needed." So we were treated to Jason Graae, clad in white, as the ghostly Offenbach, doing everything but drop his drawers in the pursuit of low comedy (but, now that I think of it, such an action might have carried me a little further than all the borscht belt humor I was dodging). Hey, I love Graae doing comedic turns with the Los Angeles Gay Men's Chorus, but keep him off of Buff Chandler's stage when an opera or an operetta is being staged--please. His "bits" felt like commercials somehow interjected into an HBO showing of an Ellen DeGeneres laugh-a-thon. They just weren't needed.

The story of this operetta is so silly that you'd think I was complaining about too much mayo in my pimiento cheese sandwich, but perhaps I've become more of an opera queen than I had realized. I've always characterized myself as an opera lover, but in this case that designation applied to my date. I just knew Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams were backstage struggling into their Laverne and Shirley costumes, and at any moment Garry M. would cue them to come out doing a misplaced chorus of "Shlemiel! Shlemazel!" (But that is rather what Jason Graae was doing, come to think of it.)

In all fairness to the memory of Offenbach, his French dialogue of two centuries ago might've been foolish, but I think it would sound like Racine compared to the pointless drivel that Marshall threw at us. It's no wonder that the performers onstage seemed to be having even less fun than those rarefied few of us in the audience. As I said earlier, my date loved it. Well...a chacun son gout, one sniffs in such instances.

But back to the story: The duchess's nation is at war with someone, much as we seem always to be these days. Anyway, in a nutshell, The Grand Duchess concerns a young private (Fritz, as done by Paul Groves) who is affianced to a peasant girl, Wanda (Constance Hauman). They are very much in love, but the duchess, who needs a 12-step program if ever a title character did, finds the private ever so appealing (and, well, Groves is) and she just keeps promoting him, causing great consternation among her various generals and barons (among whom were John Cheek, Anthony Laciura, and Paul Vogt). Most disturbed of all by this behavior is Prince Paul, who has for some time been attempting to win the duchess's hand and, in the process, has taken a beating at the hands of the tabloids, who mock him for his failures in love.

As the erstwhile Private Fritz is promoted steadily by the infatuated duchess, the prince and several barons--along with a recently demoted general--are doing a little politicking of their own to get "General" Fritz returned to his proper rank (not to mention his proper love interest, Wanda). In a finale that could come only from a master of TV schmaltz, all is put right at the end, and the two loving couples (at least those we know about; there was, after all, a dog) are joined in holy matrimony. And now a word from our sponsors...

Fear of clowns

After the nonsensical Grand Duchess, it was heartening to be treated to a serious opera, Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, which starred two sparkling performers. The leads were sung by the husband-and-wife team of Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu (as already mentioned). While it's true that Gheorghiu could sing Alagna right off the stage if she were to let go, he is the possessor of one of my favorite tenor voices, even if it is more suited to a bel canto repertoire than the seriousness of Pagliacci. (And, kids, he's a doll. Really!) Still, he acts wonderfully, and in this modernish sort of retelling of Othello he kept our pulses at fever pitch. Ms. Gheorghiu, on the other hand, had to tamp down her vocals, but she has all the presence of a great diva and the beauty that her role (and her luscious husband) demand. Fun fact to know and tell: Leoncavallo not only composed the music but wrote the libretto of Pagliacci based on a criminal case that his father, a district judge, tried sometime in the 19th century. (The opera was first presented in 1892, the year my grandfather was born. Ah, my lost youth!)

The Franco Zeffirelli production, which could easily have been taking place in an alley of the East Village in New York City, remained as quirkily dazzling as when it was originally produced, and by the time Canio (Alagna) kills not only fellow performer Silvio (Mariusz Kwiecien), who has cuckolded him, but his own wife, Nedda (Gheorghiu), in a jealous rage (they're all street performers, some clowns, some not), our eyes and ears have been swept up into the stratosphere of operatic excess, producing in us a state of arousal bordering on the erotic.

I'm usually not a great fan of reruns, but when it is an offering as sumptuous and alluring as Pagliacci, I say, let 'er rip. I have many more viewings of this opera to go before I am even remotely bored, and when it is produced as charmingly as this offering by the Los Angeles Opera, I'm not complaining, especially when it is cast as wonderfully as the two productions I have seen at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. La commedia e finita? Never. Bravo! Encore!

Go for Baroque

OK, class, take note: During the early 1600s, the extremely powerful Vatican (which makes present-day churchmen look downright sissified) declared opera to be a forbidden venture. That Georg Friederich Handel, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Antonio Caldara nevertheless ventured to Rome to write operas seems almost foolhardy, but let's be generous and simply call it terribly brave.

During this Baroque period, many great pieces of music were composed and performed, and thanks to the wide-ranging interests of Italian superstar Cecilia Bartoli, these pieces of early operatic music have been resurrected and enchantingly sung as few other than Ms. Bartoli could do. (I'm frankly at a loss to think of anyone who might have attempted the project with her success, to be quite honest.)

In a one-night-only recital, Ms. Bartoli, backed by the Orchestra La Scintilla of Zurich Opera, sang pieces from her CD Opera Proibita, and she achieved with her voice all the thrills of the great chariot race in the 1959 movie of Ben-Hur. Rocking her hips in a stunning emerald gown (with a train, no less), Bartoli demonstrated just why she is considered the treasure of operatic singing that she is, a performer with the cachet of a Maria Callas and a much broader appeal than La Divina's, if you'll indulge me.

I have heard several people say they don't like the way Callas sounded (I'm not one of them, at least not since I learned what opera was all about), but I have never ever heard anyone trash the sound produced by the zestful Bartoli. Her performances are not only polished but infectiously appealing. So appealing was this recital that by the end of the evening we were all in near-hysterics in the opera house at the Los Angeles Music Center.

This evening saw the audience on its feet for one standing ovation after another, and the wonderfully agile-voiced Ms. Bartoli earned every round of applause, thrilling all of us present not just with her vocal talents, which are practically beyond description, but also with the sheer good-natured gusto with which she trilled these arias by Handel, Scarlatti, and Caldara. These aren't simple Joni Mitchell ballads, kids, and Ms. Bartoli sang one complex piece after another with a delight that was as complete as anything I've ever seen or heard.

And she never stopped smiling, even while she was doing super-fast-time vocally and hitting every note dead-on.

They say that Callas inspired more than one heart attack among her listeners. I can think of far worse ways to go than by hearing Cecilia Bartoli popping a high C. Dearest Ms. Bartoli, please don't be a stranger!

Vissi d'arte

I would be doing the Los Angeles Opera a great disservice if I failed to mention that in between Ms. Bartoli's recital and Parsifal there was a production of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca, an important operatic standard which I missed due to ill health. (Oh, the miseries of growing old!) All who saw this production (and to whom I later spoke) found it quite enchanting, which is to say they took care to rub salt in my wounds. But I am hoping nevertheless that it was a full-house effort and a piece that the Los Angeles Opera will revive before I start to think I am Mamie Eisenhower, which--trust me--could happen at any moment.

No, Noh Wagner!

Trying to find the words to critique Los Angeles Opera's production of Parsifal, Richard Wagner's last opera, has had me tongue-tied for weeks. First let me just say this: I adore Wagner, have never heard a note he penned that I didn't crave.

But then let me say this: Robert Wilson, much as I admire him outside of the opera hall, should be shot.

As I stated in my intro, I always liked his productions at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where his material was far more modern than Wagner, generally ranging in the Philip Glass-era of musical composition, for which his quirky sensibility seemed perfectly suited. But to throw him at Wagner seems almost sinful. He did things to Wagner's "pure fool" that struck me as unforgivable. Pretty? Often. But more often pretty confusing.

This opera is a piece that deserves an essay question on the SAT, so involved and complex is its story. I shall try to do it justice, but I will leave my comments about Wilson's odd production till I am finished here. To try to explain what he did is nearly impossible, especially since--to tell you the truth--I didn't get him at all.

Long ago there was a gang of knights dedicated to preserving the Holy Grail, from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper and which Joseph of Arimathea then used to catch the blood of Jesus as it dripped down from the cross. (Pretty!) But let me not get carried away with my ex-Catholicism.

These knights of the Grail have also been, at one point, the keepers of the spear that the Roman centurion used to pierce Jesus' side, but this relic has since fallen into the hands of Klingsor (an excellent Hartmut Welker), who is not just a failed former knight-to-be but a sorcerer to boot. The basic problem is that king of the knights Amfortas (Albert Dohmen) has been wounded and lies gravely ill, and only the spear (which is in Klingsor's possession) can restore him to health.

Needed to regain the spear is what the knights call a "pure fool" (i.e., Parsifal, performed with his usual aplomb by the ageless Placido Domingo). Totally mixing up the works are Gurnemanz (Matti Salminen), who is way too harsh with the rather simple Parsifal, and Kundry (Linda Watson, also excellent, especially given the demands put upon her by Wilson's staging). Kundry is a tormented woman who is tied both to the knights of the Grail and to Klingsor. She ends up throwing in her lot totally with the knights after receiving a kiss from Parsifal, which Wilson never lets us see.

That Parsifal should return from his encounter with Klingsor bearing the spear and curing Amfortas should come as no surprise to anyone who knows of the religious inspiration for this opera, one whose performance Wagner had strict rules about. For one thing, he forbade clapping till after act II, and for another, he wouldn't consider letting this masterpiece travel--that is, it could be performed only at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, home to all of his operas. Parsifal is a piece that Wagner intended as being a depiction of the triumph of good over evil, and that's what it is.

As for Wilson, I will give him a few props, but only a few (and remember, this was spread out over a nearly five-hour period). OK, his backdrop and his lighting were stunning. (If only he didn't insist his performers move with such calibrated care, maybe we could talk.) Wilson borrowed heavily from Japanese Noh theater in staging this piece, which is already a mixture of Christianity and Buddhism. Thus we have a young boy sleepwalking across the stage many times, moving only his hands as though he were part dolphin.

Flower maidens, who have loved many of the wicked knights of Klingsor that the young Parsifal slew, make an enchanting spectacle as well as a glorious sound in their white pod costumes. And Klingsor in his castle, an aperture cut into the cyclorama at the back of the stage, is marvelous, reminiscent of the Wilson I always loved back in New York.

Listening to Wagner as often as I do, I don't generally find him confusing, but here I must admit I did. Though Kent Nagano conducted with sublime poise and all the singers shone, Wilson did a great deal that was startlingly new, removing Parsifal from the realm of clunky armored knights and giving this production a terribly imaginative look. But with Parsifal making (I think) its debut appearance at the Music Center, I feel we might have benefited from a tad less modernity and returned successfully to the tried-and-true old school. As they sing in Fiddler on the Roof: "Tra-DI-tion! Tradition!"

Dancing queen

For years I have had two main favorite groups whom I first heard in the 1980s: Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance. It's true my love for Cocteau Twins got a head start on Dead Can Dance through hearing Elizabeth Fraser sing "Song to the Siren" on the first This Mortal Coil CD, It'll End in Tears, back around 1984. But very soon after that signal moment I was given a tape of Dead Can Dance's Spleen and Ideal, and I found it likewise fascinating. Their work on It'll End in Tears had nothing like the impact of the Twins' offering, but still I sat up and took notice. For one thing, I had never heard a singer with the odd (but pleasurable) vocal qualities of Lisa Gerrard, one half of Dead Can Dance (the other being Brendan Perry, whose voice is much more accessible). Although it is generally Gerrard for whom the crowds go wild, I am very fond of Perry's vocal talents as well. And though Gerrard is known for her playing of the Chinese dulcimer, Perry has that ability as well. So there you are.

Over the years I have collected every single recording Dead Can Dance has ever made, and when one of their songs pops out on my CD player, it always makes me happy. So their concert at the Hollywood Bowl, just up the street from my house, was an event I couldn't miss, even if tickets were costly enough to feed a family of four for a month.

And what songs did they do? Well, I have never been able to keep the name of any of their tracks in my head, so odd are they (as is also the case with Cocteau Twins), but I can tell you they did material from every CD they've ever released, including their eponymous debut CD, Aion, The Serpent's Egg, Within the Realm of a Dying Sun, Spleen and Ideal, Spiritchaser, Into the Labyrinth, and Toward the Within.

Have I missed any? I hope not, but my memory is not what it used to be. Still, whether I've forgotten CDs or not, they were simply magnificent, and I was walking on air for days. Call me old school, but that is definitely not how Dead Can Dance sounded. Their music is timeless.

Opening for Dead Can Dance was a French pop group called Nouvelle Vague, and yes, they were new wave, but with a definite twist. To hear them do Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" in a sort of hip-swinging French manner (though they sang in more than creditable English) was pure magic, as was listening to their version of Depeche Mode's "Just Can't Get Enough." They also included such classics as Dead Kennedys' "Too Drunk to Fuck" and many other tunes whipped up from new wave raucousness to a bossa nova swirl. Tres bien, Nouvelle Vague! Vous regnez.

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