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Thirteen Operas in 12 Days 

Thursday, Jun 26 2003
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Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff

At the Los Angeles Opera, Don Giovanni sang his seduction music to Zerlina while escorting her toward a blood-red bed built for two. In Long Beach, cops and thugs and modern-day terrorists stalked the streets of 18th-century Peru. In San Francisco, Mephistopheles turned up in Faust’s study sporting a crimson baseball cap, and a modern grand piano figured among the scenic elements in the 16th-century Spain of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Up and down the West Coast, the gloom of June has been pierced by flashes of misguided genius, bent on imposing latter-day stage gimmickry on works far better off in their pristine conceptions — attempting to repair the unbroken.

Mind you, I am under no compulsion to argue for the strict staging of operas as set down in their original librettos. Look up the old photographs of Bayreuth productions in Wagner’s day, or Il Trovatore as staged for Caruso; you can practically smell the dust. Contemporary stage technology enables miracles of stagecraft that set forth the dramatic values of the repertory in accordance with — or even far beyond — the dreams of composers and librettists. But the gadgetry I witnessed in two weeks of hectic opera going had nothing to do with composers’ or librettists’ dreams. To me they seemed more like the efforts of smart-ass producers who, having determined that the works’ original dramatic values were beyond saving for contemporary audiences, decide to create their own substitutions. The worst aspects in the staging of Los Angeles’ Don Giovanni, or San Francisco’s The Damnation of Faust and Il Trovatore, were the sense of a blatant discrepancy — call it hostility, if you will — between the looks of the productions and the drama inherent in Mozart’s and Berlioz’s and Verdi’s wonderful music.

In bursts of further wacko creativity, the directors of all three productions contributed gobbets of pseudo-psych to the program booklets. “Onstage we see the huge head of a horse, a burning pyre, a grand piano . . .,” wrote Il Trovatore’s director Brad Dalton. “Like distorted Jungian symbols, they commingle to form a landscape of dreamy associations, as in Alice in Wonderland.” Very eloquent, but what, pray, does the glorious squareness of Verdi’s melodramatics have to do with Jungian dreamscapes? San Francisco also revived Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s La Cenerentola, not very well sung but with Ponnelle’s antic staging left intact. And across the street, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony did a lusty Flying Dutchman — Mark Delavan’s Dutchman and Jane Eaglen’s Senta were probably audible all the way to Oakland — with no scenery at all. None was needed.

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Mozart’s incomparable score was handsomely delivered under Kent Nagano’s urgent, affectionate baton. The young (30!) bass-baritone Erwin Schrott, the Giovanni, was the evening’s find, both in stage presence and in a voice like idealized warm chocolate: a young Cesare Siepi, in other words. Andrea Rost sang a commanding Anna; Adina Nitescu, a properly frazzled Elvira; Rosendo Flores, a rather toneless Leporello but fun to watch. The production, from Warsaw’s Polish National Opera, took place in a box whose black walls changed to mirrors in one scene. The murdered Commendatore, whom Mozart’s music clearly delineates in a majestic D-minor, returned not as the “statua gentilissima” but as a moldering corpse.

San Francisco’s Il Trovatore was also done in a black box, and that set the tone. The soldiers sang their marching song in place; the nuns — who have the opera’s prettiest music — sang onstage, not backstage as written, as part of an infernal clutter; the grand piano merely served as something to lean upon. Marco Armiliato conducted routinely, and the singers responded in kind, except for the Azucena of Dolora Zajick, superb as always. Richard Margison was the Manrico, and Marina Mescheriakova the Leonora, both of common coinage.

The Berlioz Damnation gets a whirl this anniversary year; I suppose the fact of its not being an opera at all — merely an oratorio with no stage rubrics from composer or librettist — is the enablement for adventurous producers. San Francisco’s “adventure” was the work of two with-it Germans, longtime associates of general director Pamela Rosenberg: Jürgen Rose to design the box — white, this time — and Thomas Langhoff to move his singers around that space, both inside and out. Fedoras and trench coats were the costume of choice (as in last year’s Saint François); the Sylphs were done up in thongs and vinyl out of Frederick’s of Hollywood. (A post card to subscribers warned that this might offend delicate sensibilities; something like 80 people turned in their tickets, and several more requested seats farther up front.) David Kuebler was the wan-voiced Faust, Kristinn Sigmundsson the Mephistopheles, and Angela Denoke the Marguerite; all three made partial amends, as did Donald Runnicles’ vivid conducting. Unaccountably, the beautiful “Minuet of the Will-o-the-Wisps,” thematically related to other moments in the work, was omitted.

 

Meanwhile, in Long Beach, Michael Milenski’s 25-year stewardship of the opera company he founded came to a typically Milenskian end: a marvelous variorum of seven — count ’em — short pieces, some of them operas only by courtesy, and a typical David Schweizer–directed romp with — or at the expense of — Offenbach’s frothy La Périchole. The Times’ Pasles did his predictable savaging of the Offenbach, thereby missing the seductive elegance of Andreas Mitisek’s conducting and the splendid ensemble work of the young cast. Mitisek will succeed Milenski as head of the company; he has proved his high qualities on the Long Beach podium since 1998 and did so this time as well.

The “Seven Small Operas” once again defined the spirit and the intelligence behind this remarkable operatic venture. The only real “operas” were Darius Milhaud’s three Opéras Minutes, tiny (but wonderfully action-laden) settings from Greek mythology, created in 1928 for the small-opera festival in Germany that also produced Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny-Songspiel. What a stroke of genius, reviving these immensely wise brief pieces. Isabel Milenski did the staging “curated” by her father; Mitisek conducted the small instrumental ensemble and the six-member chorus. Unforgettable.

Jeff Morrissey sang Ravel’s Don Quixote songs to middling effect with Ellen Milenski’s Dulcinea at the piano. Melissa Weaver’s “staging” of Monteverdi’s six-part madrigal Tears of a Lover at the Tomb of His Beloved enveloped the haunting music in simple classical dance movement. Robert Moran’s six-minute setting of some Gertrude Stein foofaraw was pure rapture; Nicholas Francis Chase’s interweaving of words by Ann Haroun went nowhere, but not without charm. You came away — or, at least I did — with the sense of having spent a couple of hours with the human brain at its most imaginative.

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