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The Visionary 

Thursday, Jan 23 2003
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Luciano Berio was to have been among us these weeks, with his new edition of Monteverdi‘s Coronation of Poppea at the Music Center and several other performances of his music in the area planned to honor his special genius. An ongoing illness, plus injuries from a recent car crash, denied us his presence, with the Poppea not quite finished. As an attempt at recompense, the L.A. Opera dug out a short Monteverdi vocal piece that Berio had orchestrated in 1966, and used it to open a program that was otherwise mostly trash. A remarkable vocal ensemble from Stuttgart sang Berio’s spellbinding A-Ronne at the County Museum (where his marvelous Folk Songs had been performed a few weeks ago); his Korot for an ensemble of cellos lit up last week‘s Green Umbrella at Zipper Hall. On January 27 the fearless Ardittis return to LACMA with the latest in Berio’s ongoing series of solo works -- this one for cello -- that he calls Sequenze; another performance of Folk Songs is listed at UCLA three days later.

A-Ronne bears Berio‘s fingerprints etched with remarkable clarity. It dates from the mid-1970s, and exists in two versions: the poetry spoken, with some musical pitches suggested, by an ensemble of five actors; the poetry sung by eight singers (originally the legendary Swingle Singers, who had also created Berio’s Sinfonia in 1968). Both versions were once recorded, but don‘t hold your breath. The poem is by Edoardo Sanguinetti, the Italian mystic who has long been one of Berio’s household gods; in three brief stanzas it consists of a musing on the notions of beginning, middle and end, in quotations from many sources in many languages. Berio‘s setting, spread in fragments among his actorsingers, repeats Sanguinetti’s words something like 20 times. You have the feeling of being inside these words as they in turn seem to dance inside one another. Berio has defined the work as a “documentary” on Sanguinetti‘s poem, which is just right.

A visionary, a documentarian, a poet, a prophet . . . Berio’s strength in his great works is the way that they seem to operate from the inside, and to end up being as much about themselves as about outer stimuli. The Sequenze -- available in an essential three-disc Deutsche Grammophon box -- demand from each solo musician (one of whom is a singer) a kind of internal disquisition on the nature of instruments and their respective horizons. Several of his works bear generic titles: Sinfonia, Opera, Coro -- and A-Ronne, which, according to Berio, means “A-to-Z” in some archaic Italian dialect -- and are as much documentaries as sublime musical experiences. Opera, which was greeted with thunderous booing and a few heartfelt cheers (including my own) at its Santa Fe premiere in 1970, rams together a story about the Titanic, a couple of other plotlines, and the entire contents of an opera company‘s scenery warehouse. The exhilarating Coro demands that each of its 40 singers be seated beside each of its 40-member orchestral players; even on the recording -- another essential DG disc -- the richness and changing colors of these shifting sound textures cast a remarkable illumination on the hour’s worth of poetry (Sanguinetti again, and others).

At LACMA, A-Ronne was sung at top energy -- in a version that drew upon both the spoken and sung editions -- by six members of Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart in the first of three concerts that also included Gesualdo and Monteverdi madrigals of astounding harmonic daring, microtonal fantasies by the latter-day visionary Giacinto Scelsi that seemed to draw sustenance from this ancient music and move it upward into the atomic age, and, as the final offering, Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s 75-minute Stimmung, which, this once, didn’t quite work for me: beautifully but coldly sung, lacking in aura. There is a magical moment in this work: In a long moment of a silence so deep that you can almost taste it, one voice intones in wonderment, “Diese Stille!” This time that moment merely came and went.

The group had flown over, with help from the admirable Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes, for these three concerts and these alone. Word spread quickly, and the second and third concerts drew large crowds. (It is worth repeating that LACMA‘s concerts are free to students with ID.) The concerts, plus the Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella event built around the visit of the fabulous cellist Anssi Karttunen, and the premiere of William Kraft‘s English Horn Concerto (about which more next week), plus five days of 80-degree sunshine, made for one of those weeks when the very thought of not being in Los Angeles seemed an obscene proposition.

Berio had created his edition of Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda -- rewriting the string parts for modern instruments and building out the supporting music for harpsichord -- for a student performance at Juilliard in connection with an anti-war rally; in this regard, at least, it fell into place to inaugurate the L.A. Opera‘s hastily concocted substitute program for the missing Poppea. There was no staging, nor was any needed; the power of Monteverdi’s “madrigals of war” is the vividness of their vocal lines, as Monteverdi sets out to create, note by note, the whole new language of musical passion. The small ensemble under Kent Nagano splendidly re-created the flying hooves and the clash of swords. Alfredo Daza sang Tancredi‘s few lines; Kresimir Spicer’s rich, fluent tenor delivered the narration; and, above all, there was Isabel Bayrakdarian‘s Clorinda, radiant and intense. She returns to us next season, as Figaro’s Susanna; count the days.

The murk and the slime of the first measures of Massenet‘s Werther, which ensued, offered sad if not conclusive evidence of opera’s plunge in the two and a half centuries after Monteverdi. Roberto Alagna made his local debut as Werther: a somewhat talented tenor and something of a heartthrob (as in his self-indulgent if somewhat squally Cavaradossi in the recent film of Tosca); as Werther‘s ladylove Charlotte, Frederica von Stade gave a compelling demonstration of an aging singer making do, with charm and intelligence but not, alas, much voice. At the end there was Alagna again, as a punk-rock-star Otello in, thank God, only one act of Verdi’s great score. I have no space to list the wrongs of his performance (against the decent if colorless Desdemona of Carmen Giannattasio); I can only wonder what must have gone through the head of Placido Domingo, officiating on the podium, as a role that he must surely still own suffered lurid degradation in such undeserving hands.

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