Minimal Merriment 

Wednesday, Dec 12 2001

The Merry Widow here, The Merry Widow there: twice in four days, and twice betrayed. Shouldn’t there be a Purple Heart for critics?

Having found much to deplore in the San Francisco Opera‘s current jihad against Franz Lehar’s endearing and enduring theater piece, my colleague Mark Swed ventured the assurance that the Los Angeles Opera‘s staging -- same performing version, same set and costume designer, same stage director -- would still, somehow, rise above the disasters up north. In one respect his confidence was justified; audiences at the Music Center have, at least, been spared the ludicrous update that trendy Wendy Wasserstein was engaged by San Francisco to inflict upon Christopher Hassall’s bland but serviceable 1958 Englishing. Within five minutes of the curtain‘s rise at San Francisco’s Opera House, the audience -- rather sparse, in fact, the night I went -- was beguiled by cute jokes about mutual funds and rolling blackouts.

Otherwise, it breaks my heart to relate, I find little reason to extol one performance over the other. Both use the overstuffed, waterlogged performing edition that was dreamed up in 1981 by San Francisco‘s Lotfi Mansouri and Richard Bonynge as a showcase for Mrs. Bonynge, the eminent Joan Sutherland. To Lehar’s generous 80-or-so minutes of music were added an interminable ballet and a big choral number from elsewhere in the Lehar canon -- from the operettas The Count of Luxembourg and Paganini, to be exact. With these encumbrances plus the Wasserstein script, San Francisco‘s production clocked in at a near-Wagnerian three and one-half hours. Even without the spurious new text, the Los Angeles version, a mere 20 minutes shorter, doesn’t exactly zoom. The Los Angeles Widow is a borrowed production produced last year at the Utah Opera; San Francisco‘s is newly built. Both use Michael Yeargan set designs, Thierry Bosquet costumes and Mansouri’s directorial hand; they are as nearly identical as never mind. Was everybody paid twice?

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Yeargan‘s sets fill the eye with a pastiche of Art Nouveau Paris, including the swirls and squiggles of Hector Guimard’s subway entrances; Bosquet‘s fin-de-siecle costumes float free of gravity’s constraints. At the Widow‘s first entrance -- sheathed in blazing red atop a staircase and surrounded by white-tied admirers -- you had to wonder if another Dolly had been cloned. On San Francisco’s podium there is Erich Kunzel; here there is John DeMain; either presence should, you‘d think, guarantee the proper style for congenial musical theater. But no, not in this cluttered, lumbering, joyless pageant.

In San Francisco, Australia’s Yvonne Kenny has some sense of this style: the wisdom, the cynicism, the lustrous voice; I hear little of that from Los Angeles‘ Carol Vaness, the latest sad instance -- of which we’ve had several -- of this fine singer unsuitably cast. By far the best performance in either cast is Rodney Gilfry‘s sly, insinuating Danilo, dancing such alluring rings around Vaness’ woodenness as to make her look positively airborne. Next month Gilfry takes on the Danilo for San Francisco‘s later performances, to Flicka von Stade’s Widow. Now that might be worth the trip. ”Might,“ I said.

For a couple of weeks last month, Jean-Yves Thibaudet was all over town: a couple of pop-classic concertos with the Philharmonic, chamber music at Skirball‘s Ahmanson Hall, jazz (or so it was billed) at the Knitting Factory, a visit to a public school, a master class at Zipper Hall, all gathered under the Philharmonic’s new artist-in-residency program. He‘s a handsome fellow and infinitely charming, and his manner suggests full awareness of those attributes. As he made his way through the prickles of Poulenc’s garrulous, blithely tongue-in-cheek Sextet (with Philharmonic members, at Ahmanson), you could hear the piece as a self-portrait, of composer and performer alike.

The Knitting Factory gig ruffled a few feathers, however. Abetted by a motormouth stooge named Joel Silbermann, Thibaudet tossed off some simplistic, nay patronizing, insights about jazz that suggested little awareness beyond what you get from record-album notes. His playing -- of arrangements of arrangements of Bill Evans and Ellington arrangements -- was tidy and spiritless, with none of the suave, blithe rhythmic command that had lit up his Ravel, Poulenc and Gershwin. So, for that matter, was the sense of the whole event, which played down to a distinguished and savvy audience that had come to celebrate the coolth of a Philharmonic event in a Hollywood rock club.

The master class at Zipper made amends. For over an hour, Thibaudet listened with great care as five young Colburn School students went through their offerings. His comments, in all cases, went to the cores of problems, the mechanics of playing and the rewards that come with mastery. I‘ve been to master classes that turned into ego trips for the visiting artists and had no value (beyond intimidation) to the students. Thibaudet’s was different; in his reaching out to these youngsters I sensed the presence of a caring musician.

Les Arts Florissants (”The Arts a-Blooming“) takes its name and its inspira-tion from a work by the prolific Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643--1704), who ended his years as organist at the Sainte-Chapelle. If you can summon visual memories of that extraordinary space, with Parisian sunlight pouring through its floor-to-ceiling stained glass, you‘ll get a fair likeness both of Charpentier’s own music and of the sounds of the ensemble that honors his name. William Christie, who founded the Paris-based group in 1979, actually hails from Buffalo, but that doesn‘t seem to have undermined his success in revealing to French audiences a part of their own musical glory.

At Irvine’s Barclay Theater (and the next night at UCLA‘s Royce Hall), the group -- 20 singers, 27 players -- sang Charpentier’s holiday music: an Advent antiphon, a small Christmas oratorio, and the well-known Midnight Mass, in which old French carols form the substance for an actual Mass celebration. ”Exquisite“ comes most readily to mind, yet there was nothing of the prissy or timid in the performances under Christie, as that term can sometimes imply. The whole evening, not a moment too long, became a transport back to a part of music‘s lustrous past, its vivid colors newly, honestly restored.

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