Phantoms of the Opera | A Lot of Night Music | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Phantoms of the Opera 

Wednesday, Apr 26 2000
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Will American opera audiences ever see the Light? I wouldn‘t count on it, not while the Mmes. Butterfly and Tosca fatten their lead in the audience polls, on Momma Domingo’s cooking.

The Light I refer to is the collective title of the formidable cycle of seven operas, now nearing completion, out of which we were vouchsafed about an hour‘s worth of teaser at the County Museum’s most recent Monday Evening Concert. Karlheinz Stockhausen began the project in 1977: seven operas named for days of the week, each the length of one of Wagner‘s Ring dramas and purporting -- on a scale that dwarfs even Wagner’s scenario -- to encapsulate the import of music, the several worldwide conceptions of the nature of divinity, mankind‘s ultimate strengths and weaknesses, and, for all anyone knows, the fluctuating price of tea in China. The operas themselves are less about singing, more about an integration of song, nonvocal sound both instrumental and electronic, stage spectacle and gesture. Stockhausen’s written scores detail not only the music but the most explicit intricacies of stage design, movement and choreography -- the culmination of his lifetime obsession with total serial organization that makes Wagner‘s Gesamtkunstwerk seem like random dabbling. The music itself is a complex concept in which exact melodic formulas are attached to the dramatic and spiritual aspects of Stockhausen’s scenario; it, too, is a vast compendium into which elements of strict 12-tone composition, Buddhist chant, jazz ‘n’ rock and public hoopla are stirred. (The score for Saturday involves an American college marching band among the participants.) The word beautiful doesn‘t always come first to mind in this music; hypnotic does.

Most of the cycle has so far been produced in Milan -- at La Scala or, in the case of Saturday, in a sports palace. There’s a fascinating video documentary on preparations for Monday, the first opera of the cycle, in the 1988 production at La Scala. A huge statue of Eve dominates the stage; she gives birth to 14 grotesque creatures who ride around to a ”Baby-Buggie Boogie“ but are ordered back into the womb by Lucifer. The womb is impregnated again by a grand piano (playing Stockhausen‘s Klavierstuck XIV, music originally written for Pierre Boulez’s 60th birthday). This time seven proper babies emerge, and their singing is converted to birdsong, etc. Get the idea?

Any or all of this might add up to a case for its creator as certifiably mad, except for one thing: the rich, intense power of the music. At LACMA, Markus Stockhausen, a phenomenal brass player who has also obviously inherited his father‘s showmanship genes, played the 27-minute ”Pieta,“ the solo ”aria“ for tape plus a tampered-with flugelhorn capable of quarter-tones, from Tuesday; he then joined Stefano Scodanibbio, the spellbinding double-bass magician whose frequent appearances here have won him a deserved cult following, in a long segment from Thursday. For almost an hour, in near-total darkness, the museum’s drab Bing Theater throbbed to the discourse of superhuman musical entities, set free in outer space. You got the impression, for the moment anyhow, that all the other music in the world has been trying to attain the condition of Stockhausen. Then the lights came on, and the planet reassumed its shape.

Stockhausen‘s star appears to be waning, at least in the marketplace. His entry in the latest Schwann catalog contains only nine compositions, down from 13 in the previous issue; there are probably more available from the Stockhausen Verlag in Germany, at higher prices. Resist his music if it pleases you, but listen at least to the distillation of pure sound into pure silence that makes up the hourlong essence of Stimmung, in the magical performance on Hyperion by a group that includes Paul Hillier. The Ardittis have been playing his ”Helicopter“ Quartet (from Wednesday), which is exactly what its name implies: four players sky-high in separate conveyances, cued by heaven-knows-what. A natural choice, you’d think, for the Hollywood Bowl this summer, but no such luck.

You didn‘t, of course, have to journey all the way to Stockhausen-land for operas on not-quite-rational subjects. At Costa Mesa’s Performing Arts Center there was Offenbach‘s The Tales of Hoffmann, the final offering in what has been, by some distance, Opera Pacific’s finest season. Music director John DeMain conducted with understandable pride; Vinson Cole, hobbling through his evening‘s chores with an injured knee and, therefore, a cane, was the splendid Hoffmann; Richard Bernstein sang the four avatars of Nemesis with slithery insinuation; Jan Grissom sang the four ladyloves of Hoffmann’s tormented existence, a little shrill for the tormented Antonia, perhaps, but kooky in her Marilyn getup as the mechanical doll Olympia. Ian Judge‘s staging, on a set magically and swiftly transformable, was a trove of smart ideas.

Hoffmann runs rather long nowadays. Recent scholarship, mostly by the editor Fritz Oeser, has restored some valuable music that for one reason or another had been dropped over the years. If you know the opera from, say, the wonderful old Michael Powell--Emeric Pressburger movie conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham -- as indeed you should -- the new version runs nearly an hour longer. It includes a lot of rediscovered music for Hoffmann’s companion Nicklausse that provides a whole ‘nother psychological dimension. One problem concerns the traditional ”Diamond Aria“ and big Septet, both in the Venice scene; they were not by Offenbach at all and, in the interests of ”authenticity,“ might well be dropped -- except that they are also very good. At Opera Pacific, they were kept: enlightened tampering, a different species altogether from the sorry events detailed here last week.

On successive nights there were adjacent Mozart piano concertos, both led from the piano and performed in ways remarkably far apart. In No. 22 (K. 482), at the Philharmonic, Christian Zacharias seemed melted and made amorous by the miraculous songs welling up from Mozart’s winds; he even invited their soft singing into the first-movement cadenza he himself had devised. Next night, however, in No. 21 (K. 467) with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at Royce Hall, Jeffrey Kahane seemed determined to withstand the blandishments even of the divine slow movement‘s endless melody. It was a steely sort of performance he gave, with tempos in the outer movements that blurred passagework now and then and left crucial melodic turns somewhat unfulfilled. I kept thinking of the late Robert Casadesus, whose crystalline, tinkly Mozart some people admired, others did not.

I have heard better Mozart from Kahane, and hope to again. In any case, his program also had French hornist Richard Todd in a romp through that sublime giggle, the First Concerto from Richard Strauss’ days of youth: glorious, restorative music by a composer who was soon to go astray but hadn‘t yet.

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