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Nudity, Gunshots, Sex, Feathers 

Wednesday, Jun 24 1998
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They've done it again, Michael Milenski and his weird and wonderful Long Beach Opera. What looked on paper like a couple of time-wasting, doom-destined ventures in operatic futility have turned out - in the time-honored Long Beach tradition - fascinating, irritating, provocative and more than somewhat worthwhile. And even though the two works offered over recent weekends in the Carpenter Center at Cal State Long Beach seem to have journeyed toward that friendly space from different planets - Henry Purcell's not-quite-dramatic setting of John Dryden's The Indian Queen and Manfred Gurlitt's not-quite-successful setting of Georg Buchner's Wozzeck - they both told welcome tales of horizons beyond the familiar limits honored by other grander but more cautious local purveyors of operatic entertainment.

I saw the second (and last) performances of both works. Of the two, the Purcell/Dryden concoction was by some distance the more curious and rewarding, stirring up by far the greater range of joy and anger in the gratifyingly large audience. Dryden's play was written in 1664; Purcell's score, left unfinished at his death and probably rounded off by his brother Daniel, was created for a 1695 London revival, not as an opera but as a set of incidental songs, ensembles, instrumental interludes and dances inserted during the course of the play. Public taste in Dryden's world was held spellbound in an age of exploration and discovery. Painters and writers filled the empty stages of the recently discovered Americas with richly colored civilizations that never existed; the craze continued for decades and gave rise to such later exotica as Rameau's Les Indes Galantes and the novels of Chateaubriand, with their glorification of the "noble savage."

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Dryden's play applied a light, exotic gloss to the time-honored conflicts of love, loyalty, honor and deceit that had nourished playwrights since Euripides; his rival queens and their lovers and villains are only casually located in a never-never Mexico of the writer's imagining. Purcell's music sounds like - well, like Purcell's music: a wonderfully rich jewel of the English baroque, astonishing in its flights of dissonant adventure. Neither play nor music is any more Mexican, however, than A Midsummer Night's Dream is Greek.

At the entrance a warning was prominently posted: "The performance will include nudity, simulated sex, gunshots and feathers"; a further warning against highfalutin carry-on might well have been added. The Long Beach perpetrators - David Schweizer, who directed; Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Elaine Katzenberger, who fashioned a drastically updated script into which tiny dribs and drabs of Dryden's play were occasionally woven - moved the dramatic accents some distance from the original text, thereby widening even further the gap between the original sense and contemporary stage biz. Staggering indeed was the informational overload; the text, much of it delivered as rap, nipped at artifacts Latino from I Love Lucy to West Side Story; a video screen overhead showed quick images of Mexico's struggles over the centuries: Wallace Beery as Pancho Villa, Pete Wilson as, alas, Pete Wilson.

An Inca chieftain, in shades and with an uncontrollable left arm, rode around in a Dr. Strangelove wheelchair. A couple of swingin' American tourists scarfed a few margaritas and mixed into the action. You get the picture?

Purcell's iridescent music, however, was left largely intact. A young Austrian conductor, Andreas Mitisek in his American debut, shaped a performance both lively and lovely with the splendid Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra; in the title role, soprano Sharon Barr sang her one well-known tune, "I Attempt From Love's Sickness To Fly," prettily indeed. Scholarly instincts should, of course, lead me to rise up in horror at all the visual vandalism. But ponder the alternative; consider, that is, any possible contemporary value in a scrupulous, scholarly rendition of Dryden's high-flown imagery in its prissy Restoration prose, broken off now and then by a few shafts of Purcellian light, and then slogging back through the web of Drydenesque metaphor. For all its anachronistic absurdity and monstrous self-indulgence, I had a fine time at the Long Beach Indian Queen.

There is a La Boheme by Leoncavallo, the I Pagliacci guy; a Falstaff by the notorious Salieri; a Don Giovanni by a certain Giuseppe Gazzaniga. All three works display a certain modest proficiency, and also serve to measure the stature of the superior versions of these essential dramas by Puccini, Verdi and Mozart. At Long Beach, Manfred Gurlitt's Wozzeck served somewhat the same purpose, but to less fortunate effect. Alban Berg's opera, completed in 1925, mere months before the Gurlitt version, is not yet standard repertory among major opera companies, and there is some justification in regretting the effort expended on a patently inferior commodity while the "real" Wozzeck, an acknowledged masterpiece, gathers dust for years between performances.

The power in Berg's work lies, to a great extent, in its mastery of musical characterization through his meticulously controlled variety of styles. By the short evening's end, the suffering Marie and Wozzeck, their doomed small child, the monstrous Doctor and Captain have all entered our bloodstream, whence they will not be easily dislodged. Gurlitt's music - post-Mahler, pre-atonal - clothes Buchner's fire-etched words in a reasonably skillful but monotonous gray blanket of sound. Both settings derive their impact from the sense of immense speed, the breathless progression from short scene to short scene. Late in the Gurlitt work, however, there is an inexplicable hiatus in the action, an overextended scene with children - as if the audience needed some kind of sherbet break - and the work never quite regains its momentum.

The Long Beach forces endowed the opera with better than it deserved: a resourceful staging by Julian Webber joined with Neal Stulberg's splendid pacing; Anthony MacIlwaine's set, superb in just the outlay of imaginative simplicity so lacking in the Dryden/Purcell the night before, wondrously lit by Adam Silverman. Stephen Owen, a local bass-baritone with most of his credits in European houses so far, was a sonorous, immensely sympathetic Wozzeck; the always-reliable John Duykers and John Atkins contributed handsomely as Wozzeck's evil spirits; Helen Todd's Marie was, to these ears, somewhat on the shrill side. Garron Howe acted the role of Wozzeck and Marie's child, rather strapping for the product of a three-year relationship, if truth be known.

Nothing in opera chills the blood as do the final moments of the Berg Wozzeck, as the unwitting child trots off to view the bodies of his dead parents. Gurlitt's ending, a reiteration for chorus of the leitmotif of terror and helplessness that underlines the whole of Buchner's harrowing drama, is by comparison standard operatic melancholy. It sends its audience homeward saddened but not, as in the Berg, aghast. The difference is between competence and genius.

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