Wednesday, Jun 14 2000

The Motherland reclaimed some of its territory these last few weeks: Benjamin Britten rampant at the L.A. Opera and some magnificent noises from two of his younger compatriots at the 54th running of the Ojai Festival. Britannia rules -- or comes closer, at any rate.

Britten‘s operas have been a triumphant thread through the local company’s 14 years under their compatriot Peter Hemmings: four operas to date, and Peter Grimes on the agenda next fall, all splendidly staged and, under Roderick Brydon‘s earnest if unspectacular musical leadership, honorably performed. (Robert Duerr conducted the first Midsummer Night’s Dream, Brydon the revival.) The Billy Budd comes from London‘s Royal Opera, in Francesca Zambello’s smashing production. On Alison Chitty‘s set, the decks of the HMS Indomitable rise, fall and tilt, revealing a starry infinity at one juncture, and cramping down to form an imprisonment of its principals, both physical and psychological, at another: the saintly Billy, the desperately lovelorn Claggart and the benevolent but catatonic Captain Vere.

By so doing, designer and director have given the interlock of symbols in Melville’s agonized parable -- over whose exact meanings scholars will forever haggle -- a compelling and convincing shape. E.M. Forster‘s libretto, while taming Melville’s visionary prose, touches up its unspoken homoerotic undercurrents in word-painting sharply defined. (The similarity to Thomas Mann‘s Death in Venice, which Britten turned into his final opera, is made inescapable in Forster’s setting.) Zambello‘s propensity for freeze-framing Rodney Gilfry’s Billy in a set of tableaux worthy of any Sunday-school calendar, rendered celestial in Alan Burrett‘s ecstatic lighting, does, however, project a rather gaudy illumination at times onto another of the story’s disturbing, captivating undercurrents.

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Rodney Gilfry, whose career has been nurtured from the L.A. Opera‘s start-up -- a walk-on as the Herald in the inaugural-night Otello -- now owns the role of Billy worldwide: brilliantly in command of the heartbreaking poignance of his final haunting ballad, as well as the physical ease in climbing foretops and ladders. As his antagonist and ultimate victim, Jeffrey Wells creates a hulking, horrific Claggart, his inner ambiguities constantly gnawing at his ironclad exterior; Robert Tear’s Captain is exactly right in its tone of incertitude blended into nobility. Among his cohorts, the character of Mr. Redburn, sung by veteran baritone Richard Stilwell -- the Metropolitan Opera‘s first Billy Budd and still an eloquent figure on deck 22 years later -- is worthy of particular notice. And so, for that matter, is all of this new Billy Budd, a distinguished note of departure for Peter Hemmings, proof of the potential that, when circumstances permit, can be glowingly fulfilled on our local operatic stage. It runs through June 17.

The newly minted Brit eminence exploded in everyone’s eardrums during the extraordinary Ojai weekend, not once but repeatedly, with the presence and the works of two young (or at least young-at-heart) composers, Thomas Ades, 29, and Mark-Anthony Turnage, 40, under the curatorial aegis of their 45-year-old compatriot Sir Simon Rattle, his rise to world-master status sealed by his recent appointment to lead the Berlin Philharmonic. Under Rattle‘s exuberant leadership, huge new works by both composers howled and sizzled in Ojai’s sublime evening air. Both works, incidentally, are available in recent recordings on the EMI and Argo labels.

Of the two, Ades‘ Asyla has, in its three-year existence, piled up the greater reputation, ranging from horror to ecstasy: a hugely affirmative four-movement almost-symphony, running some 20 breath-stopping minutes, bristling with positive energy, not above a dig or two at music’s past -- or do I just imagine those Brahmsian bits growling their way through the first movement? -- fearless in its demands upon performers and listeners. Turnage‘s Blood on the Floor, its title from a Francis Bacon canvas, ranges, if anything, even further -- wildly, unevenly perhaps, but with an eagerness to get it all out front that can hold you spellbound if you let it. (Even the recording, which arrived only a few days before Ojai, is a shattering experience.)

Running just over 70 minutes, in nine movements ranging from rowdy-dowdy to intense eloquence, Turnage’s score enlisted a jazz combo (guitarist Mike Miller and, from the recording, drummer Peter Erskine and Martin Robertson on soprano sax made harrowingly beautiful) on a raised platform above the full Los Angeles Philharmonic on an already crowded stage, mingling abrasive modernist orchestral outbursts with the composer‘s acknowledged adoration for the jazz of Miles Davis. One other Turnage work, Kai, a 10-minute cello concerto (again with jazz combo), began the Festival’s first evening event: dark, rumbling lyricism, its solo lines rhapsodically delivered by the Philharmonic‘s Ben Hong. As ear balm there was sublime surcease in two short French works from earlier days, in concert performances led by Rattle: Ravel’s The Child and the Magic Spell rerun from the downtown performance the week before, and the delicious nose-thumbing of Francis Poulenc‘s The Breasts of Tiresias, to Guillaume Apollinaire’s surrealist, pun-drenched text on the joys of procreation. Even without stage setting -- aside from what Ojai‘s sylvan scenery provides on its own -- both works radiated enchantment. Once again the Ravel’s delights included Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham as the Child; in the Poulenc, Heidi Grant Murphy was a sheer delight as the feminist who gives up bust and motherhood in the cause of women‘s lib.

The four young men of New York’s Flux Quartet brought on a fascinating program of experimental chamber music, including a collage work for strings and tape by first violinist Tom Chiu and a curiosity by none other than Benjamin Franklin; pianist Gloria Cheng, the Los Angeles treasure, tied the Festival to-gether with a solo recital of music by French and British composers; Japanese-born, USC-trained composer Naomi Sekiya‘s Deluge, winner of Ojai’s new ”Music for Tomorrow“ award, gave pianist Vicki Ray and the Philharmonic a bracing 10-minute workout. For the young of any age, a ”family program“ offered Saint-Saens‘ familiar Carnival of the Animals led by Rachael Worby, with sprightly 13-year-old pianists Jessica Ou and Valerie Lau, and actor Peter Bellwood delivering clever narrative verses created by Stephanie Fleischmann, daughter of Festival director Ernest. A true ”family“ program, in other words.

By any measurement, then, it was a full and wondrous weekend. Next year promises an all-American sweep, including music by Harry Partch, the most original of all homegrown mavericks, with the Philharmonic’s own Esa-Pekka Salonen in charge. And next year‘s prospects at the Opera have also suddenly turned glowing, with the appointment of Kent Nagano as principal conductor, a position much needed where none existed before. Onward!

There’s no space to deal with the Long Beach Opera‘s latest production -- a double bill of Italian one-acters by Puccini and, better yet, Luigi Dallapiccola’s Volo di Notte -- but I‘ll do so in a week or two. There’s one more performance, Saturday, June 17, at the Carpenter Center at Cal State Long Beach, and I urge you to make tracks. Even by this brave company‘s usual high standards, this is a terrific accomplishment.

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