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Off and Running, Maybe 

Wednesday, Sep 19 2001
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Photo by Ken Howard

Nobody said it would be easy. Barely into its season of reincarnation, the L.A. Opera has already found its path strewn with boulders. The New York tragedy contributed; the Lohengrin opening, on the Wednesday after the Tuesday, had to be postponed. (A makeup performance is scheduled for October 1.) The opera’s conductor, Kent Nagano, whose appearance signals a new era in which strong conducting assumes a higher priority than before, was marooned in Germany. His return in time for the second Lohengrin — which in the light of shuffled schedules had become the premiere — was accomplished via a hairbreadth flight to Mexico before arriving in town.

The other glitch in the opening-week festivities may take longer to untangle. The September 9 London Sunday Times carried a scattershot end-of-the-world piece to the effect that the Los Angeles Opera was in the process of self-immolation. The blame, claimed the L.A.-based writer John Harlow, fell largely on Plácido Domingo’s extravagant planning — most of all the George Lucas–designed Ring, which Harlow pegged as bankrolled at some $45 million, twice the whole of last season’s revenue — and that board members were up in arms. An answering letter from the L.A. Opera’s publicist poked the article full of holes, yet later that same week the company’s executive director, Ian White-Thomson, sent in his resignation after little more than a year on the job. The board chairman, Leonard Green, will hold the fort while the search goes forward for a replacement, but the company’s history since Peter Hemmings’ early days has been a pitched battle between management’s adventure and the board’s parsimony. I can only pray that board members can be otherwise entertained on the Moses und Aron night.

Meanwhile, we’ve had terrific opera these past couple of weeks: terrific performances and also terrific forward steps in mending some of the holes in previous seasons’ programming. Both operas — the opening-night Queen of Spades and the ensuing Lohengrin — were endowed with leadership from the podium stronger than anything I can remember since the Simon Rattle Wozzeck or the Salonen Pelléas. What’s more, both conductors — Valery Gergiev and Kent Nagano — bear long-term commitments to the company. The Queen of Spades represented the company’s first-ever and long-overdue venture into the Russian-language repertory; the Lohengrin was only the company’s third Wagnerian enterprise in 15 years. Somebody at the drawing board apparently knows where to put the dots.

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The Queen of Spades had been promised once before, in 1990, but was canceled in favor of Verdi’s Don Carlo with Domingo plus an otherwise forgettable, mostly Russian cast. Of the two Tchaikovsky operas that linger in the repertory, Eugene Onegin may be the more digestible for its thread of human-size emotion; The Queen is by some odds the more powerful and complex. The opera dates from the time of the Fifth Symphony; its music has that work’s deep mellowness from clarinets and horns. There is also, surprisingly and delightfully, quite a lot of Mozart, in masterful pastiche: the long orchestral prelude to Act 2, and the ensuing delicious, lightweight pastorale. Between those moments and the others where the hero’s madness drives the music toward dissonance and grinding counterpoints, this opera may be Tchaikovsky’s most daring score.

And “daring” is, as well, the word for the treatment accorded the work. German designer-director Gottfried Pilz dispenses with the libretto’s scenic suggestions. Pilz has instead created a single performing space, a huge room raked from right to left, dominated overhead by a huge crystal chandelier. A dark area down front at stage level serves as a kind of limbo where the madman-hero Herman, a mere wraith in the darkness, contemplates his demons. The one space serves as park, ballroom, the Countess’ bedroom and — with shadows eerily projected onto the rear wall — gaming house. Everything moves, usually at feverish pace; more than once a chorus bursts into the scene like a flood from a broken dam; the crowds literally dance to Gustavo Llano’s whirlwind choreography.

And so does the opera itself, under Gergiev’s propulsive leadership, with the frazzled bedazzlement of Plácido Domingo’s Herman, his 60-year-old pipes in near-pristine estate. Russian soprano Galina Gorchakova, her smallish voice nicely colored toward the dark side, was the touching Lisa; mezzo-soprano Susanna Poretsky, a recent winner in the Domingo-sponsored Operalia competition, offered a charming take on her one big aria. The evening’s loudest, longest cheers, however, went to the veteran Elena Obraztsova, who had little actually to sing about but whose silent enactment of her moment of death — punctuated in Pilz’s production only by the fall of her cane onto the resonant floor — was one of the evening’s breath-stopping moments.

The soft shimmer of Lohengrin’s opening A-major chord filled the house last Saturday with comfort and promise. Amazement was in the air. I have to go back one more time (at least) to see the magic of Alan Burrett’s soft gray-to-violet lighting across Maximilian Schell’s dynamic chorus groupings in the first act, the collage of Yevgeny Lysyk’s paintings of Gothic architecture projected across the whole stage — like a dozen Cologne Cathedrals interwoven — in the second act; the Act 3 soldiers with their strange but effective see-through cloaks and shields that allowed the eerie gray lighting to flood the stage with passion and menace near the end. I wasn’t sure about Nagano’s Wagnerian identity, but I needn’t have worried. This was the sound of Romantic Wagner: resonant, beautifully balanced, even to the great squashy mass of offstage brass tone here and there, and — alas, for those given to a posteriori judgments — uncut and splendidly broad.

Sweden’s Gösta Winbergh was the Lohengrin, his tone steely and commanding at first, softening down to a most appealing tenderness later on. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka’s Elsa was as endearing as any I can remember, again spanning a wonderful range, from the dreamy “Song to the Breezes” to the nagging insistence in the “Bridal Chamber” scene that brings on her downfall. Tom Fox’s Telramund exuded his usual gut-twisting menace. Eva Marton’s Ortrud was the one major disappointment, not the stipulated mezzo-soprano with her death-dealing tones of darkness and thrust, but an aging soprano scooping her way toward pitches she can no longer command. Lucinda Childs — Einstein on the Beach, remember? — was credited with the “choreography.” That didn’t exactly mean “ballet” this time, but rather an imaginative stylization of slow moving, especially among Elsa’s entourage. This was one more remarkable aspect in an overall conception that generated marvelous refreshment for the eye and the ear. It appears that local opera has finally achieved its deserved firm foundation. And that, good friends of opera, is something beyond price tag.

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