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Museum Pieces 

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Photo by Craig SchwartzIt doesn’t matter that the Getty Center’s Harold M. Williams Auditorium is in itself a conventional space reminiscent of everybody’s high school assembly hall. It acquires its magic through proximity, the presence nearby of rooms full of Renaissance stained glass or 17th-century drawings. Hearing music in that space, however drab the setting, plays upon our memories of having just come from those other rooms; it engenders a higher stage of fulfillment than merely seeing or merely hearing. There ought to be laws mandating that kind of surrounding for all musical events — so that, for example, we could sail up to this week’s Peter Grimes with the fragrance of fresh fish in our noses. Get to work on it, Plácido.

Late last month, Greg Maldonado’s Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra, one of our two splendid early-music ensembles, performed a fine program of music, mostly unfamiliar and chosen with high imagination, from the early 17th century. That was also the time of Peter Paul Rubens and his Flemish contemporaries, whose drawings filled a nearby room. This was one of those experiences when you could easily forget where one sense left off and the other took over. The drawings, vivid in line and color, have that element of lustiness that comes easily in cold climates (think of Breughel as immediate ancestor). The music, as some of the new thinking about dissonance and dramatic passion had begun to spread northward from Florence, where composers were busily inventing opera, also had some remarkable twists and turns that might have sent the previous generation of composers to an early grave. The one well-known work on the program, the Chromatic Fantasy by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, which Edward Murray played on an exquisite small organ, goes through some startling harmonic twists and turns on its way to its D-minor home base. Music like this never sounds old, never loses its powers of amazement.

The program that night was full of nice things: dances, vocal pieces sacred and secular, showoff pieces for lute. One of the most remarkable entries was a kind of almost-opera from Florence. Its composer was Francesca Caccini, the daughter of Giulio Caccini and an acclaimed composer and performer in her own right. Giulio Caccini, the father, was one of opera’s pioneers; right around 1600 he was the archrival of Jacopo Peri, whom we’ll get to in the next paragraph. By 1625, when Francesca composed her La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina, opera had really taken hold, and composers had made fair exercise of the art of turning melodic shapes into outcries of joy and passion. At the Getty, Maldonado’s little instrumental ensemble and an even smaller vocal group performed the prologue to Francesca’s opera (based on the Alcina episode in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso that Handel also set a century later), and it was wonderful: ravishing vocal lines, powerful turns of harmony, an early masterpiece in an art form still in its radiant, formative youth.

As it happened, Francesca Caccini’s delightful small excerpt turned into the curtain raiser for another grand event at the Getty two weeks later. Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini ran head-to-head in the struggle to get the first opera on the boards. Both composers worked on an Orpheus opera; after all, what better commercial for a new art form than the story of a singer charming his way past the demons of Hades to win back his dead Euridice? Peri got there first, on October 6, 1600; Caccini’s Euridice came in two years later, has now been lost and, from reports at the time, was the inferior work of the two. The Euridice of Peri is generally regarded as the first opera, at least the first whose score has survived.

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Leave it to Michael Milenski’s Long Beach Opera to take note of this 400th anniversary, and to do something about it. Leave it to them also to resist with utmost fortitude the temptation to leave well enough alone — although in this case preserving the “well enough” state of Peri’s opera might have had its dreary side. Dreariness is not, nor has ever been, in the Long Beach Opera’s vocabulary.

And so we had a Williams Auditorium stage, transformed in Darcy Scanlin’s designs, by means of a mirror floor and several levels of semitransparent hangings, into a chamber full of shimmer and trick reflections. That much, at least, was pure magic. Smaller details were more puzzling. The male singers came in through a door sporting one of those triangular “Men’s Room” plaques, although no similar amenity existed for the women in the cast. Pluto surveyed his realm while tending to a roast and a stew pot on an old-fashioned cook stove; Hell’s Kitchen, one might imagine. Audrey Fisher’s costume designs were of this century, and tended toward sleaze; okay, the company works on a shoestring. Even so, the stage-gadget quotient, as marshaled by stage director Isabel Milenski (daughter) on her first time out with the company, might count as excessive.

Not so, however, the music: a lithe, beautifully shaded performance by Michael Eagan’s Musica Angelica (our other early-music ensemble), led this time by Andrew Lawrence-King, with elegance in the probably authentic singing of Ellen Hargis and Paul Cummings in two major roles, and not-bad work from the rest of a large cast. Contrary to usual Long Beach practice, Euridice was sung in the original Italian, not in an English translation. Just as well.

I would hesitate before naming Euridice a neglected masterwork importantly restored. Only a few years after this commendable pioneering effort, Claudio Monteverdi brought Peri’s unadventurous recitative to an infinitely higher expressive level through a command of dissonance and dramatic variety only hinted at in the earlier work. But Milenski — who, by the way, has given us the entire Monteverdi canon in earlier years, in unforgettable, innovative stagings — has once again proved the unique and genuine value of his daredevil enterprise. His next offering, by the way, is Thomas Adès’ ravishingly silly Powder Her Face, a 400-year forward leap in operatic time. What’ll you bet he lands on his feet?

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