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A Cut Above 

Thursday, Feb 20 2003
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Photo by Robert Millard

BARRING A STUMBLE OR TWO, the Los Angeles Opera usually strikes gold in its forays into bel canto comic opera: Don Pasquale and L'Elisir d'Amore, La Cenerentola and The Barber of Seville. This is not, as some believe, an easy repertory; its particular demands — clarity, timing, and an exquisite balance so that every line in those marvelous ensembles comes through clean and bright — are as crucial as in any other part of the repertory, perhaps more so. The company's first Barber was produced as a laff riot, and therefore ruined; my only memory is of Rodney Gilfry, during his "Largo al factotum," doing some shtick with a chamber pot. It only ran one season, and was replaced in 1997 with Michael Hampe's intelligent, immensely lovable staging. That production has now been revived at the Music Center, and runs two more times this weekend.

First developed by Hampe during his tenure at the Cologne Opera (but with Mauro Pagano's plain, serviceable sets actually created at Tokyo's Kunitachi College of Music), the production remains wildly comic without once transcending the limits of the opera's wise words and insidiously seductive music. Those who would transfer Mozart's operatic actions to the far side of the moon, or Wagner's Ring to the Lincoln Tunnel, are urged to observe Hampe's demonstration of the superior strength in dramatic truth telling. Much of this strength stems from the simple, imaginative stage blocking. You get the feeling that real people, confronted with situations similar to Rossini's antics, just might cross the stage in that same way.

Aside from Vladimir Chernov's dashing, insinuating Figaro, the cast principals are new to the company: gossamer-voiced tenor John Osborn, just a shade too pale of tone, as the amorous Almaviva; bass-baritone Bruno Pola as a Bartolo fatuous but somehow also dignified; basso Simone Alberghini somewhat underpowered as the conniving Basilio. The new Rosina, Romanian mezzo-soprano Carmen Oprisanu, is the production's real find: a honey-voiced singer with splendid command of vocal acrobatics, graceful to watch, unerring in her comic sense and, again, never departing from the role's innate dignity.

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The opera was presented more or less complete, lacking only Almaviva's big closing aria, which is cut more often than not. (It does delay the final curtain with not-quite-first-rate music.) Smaller roles were nicely dispatched, best of all by Suzanna Guzmán as the put-upon slavey Berta, and by Dietmar König, who embellished the mute role of the servant Ambrogio with a repertory of showstopping grunts — again, well within the great comic spirit of the original work. Gabriele Ferro's conducting was convincingly paced, although there were moments when the orchestra did tend to out-shout the singers, at least on opening night. On the other hand, it made me more keenly aware than usual of the further beauty of Rossini's scoring, the lovely small lights as oboes and clarinets add their ping to all that merriment down in the strings.

I MAY BE STRETCHING A point, but hear me out: Luciano Berio's Sequenza XIV, which had its U.S. premiere during the Arditti Quartet's recent concert at LACMA, is another work as purely Italian as Rossini's comedy, and in many of the same ways. The Sequenze are among my favorite works, so you've probably heard this all before: More than merely showoff pieces for various solo instruments (including the voice of Berio's former wife, Cathy Berberian), they are a series of dialogues within each instrument, each of them a way of regarding the world around it and finding its specific place. The new Sequenza is for solo cello; it was wondrously performed by the Arditti's Rohan de Saram. It is an extended conversation — 12 or so minutes, if memory serves — by the cello with itself, a melodic gambit played by the bow on strings, an answering phrase by the cello being knocked upon. The conversants touch on many things; by the end we know we've been reached by some beautiful, very mysterious wisdom. All the Sequenze work this way, as you can hear in the indispensable Deutsche Grammophon set of the first 13; no two of the works, of course, achieve their epiphany in exactly the same way. That, as I was saying, is the special grace of this cherishable composer.

Helmut Lachenmann's Third Quartet, subtitled Grido (Scream), was the big work — by the clock, I mean — on the Arditti's program. Prominent people inform me that Lachenmann is the world's greatest living composer, so naturally I must pay attention. Thus far I have heard Marino Formenti playing his Syrenade (at last season's Eclectic Orange), during most of which the pianist depresses the keys without creating sound. I have purchased the discs of his "music with images," a sort-of opera based on the sad, sad Hans Christian Andersen tale of "The Little Match-Girl," and from the Web site I read that "Lachenmann's multilayered music theater becomes what opera . . . always was, a reflection of exterior and inner states of being, analysis and criticism of existing conditions and their aesthetic counterpart . . ." And now I have remained awake through his new Quartet, which, the program notes informed me, is a reaction to the "exterior of our repressible — yet no less real — inner longing for liberated space for the perceptive soul of 'new' music."

Herr Lachenmann is a cruel taskmaster. If these intimidating words of his were to lead to something as tangible as the Berio Sequenza, or Beethoven's Grosse Fuge — which began the Arditti's program with its challenge delivered out of a cannon's mouth, so "liberating" that we still cannot fully grasp the extent of the space it demands — I might react with greater pleasure to his demands. (I might, in other words, know what the hell he's talking about.) But his Quartet turned out to be more empty space sporadically poked through by notes. Morton Feldman's music is a little like this sometimes, but I find the four hours of Feldman's For Philip Guston a marvel of concision up against Lachenmann's half-hour near-silent scream.

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