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Three Strikes on Carmen 

Thursday, Oct 28 2004
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Photo by Javier Del Real

Every opera company needs Carmen as the “C” to complete the “A” (Aida) and the “B” (La Bohème) of the essential repertory; this season our local forces are providing the full complement. Do not mistake that out of hand, however, as the stamp of good health. The current Carmen at the Music Center is the company’s third try, and they haven’t gotten it right yet.

The problems go back to the opera’s early days, to Bizet’s original sizzling opéra comique with its abrasive orchestration and the spoken dialogue between musical numbers that moved the action furiously forward. Bizet died soon after the 1875 premiere, and tampering hands got to work on the score, slowing the action with sung instead of spoken dialogue, diluting the genius of the original with lesser hackwork. This became the “standard” Carmen, so identified in all the press handouts. Everybody knows that Bizet’s original is by far stronger, but the “standard” version has become so ingrained that singers and conductors are too lazy to learn the better score. Francesco Rosi’s marvelous film, with Plácido Domingo and Julia Migenes-Johnson, now on DVD, preserves this original version.

Like its previous attempts in 1992 and 1998, the Los Angeles Opera’s new Carmen is defeated at the start by its espousal of the corrupt “standard” version, further weakened by the nothing-much conducting of Domingo on opening night, by the work of three of the four principal cast members that ranged from negligible to deplorable, and by a production that clogged the visual receptors even as the music offended the ears. (Two casts of principals are being fielded during the 12 performances, and two conductors. I’ll check out the B-team and report, if there’s anything worth reporting. How’s that for heroism beyond the call?)

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Milena Kitic is the A-team Carmen, Belgrade-born, currently residing in Pasadena, active in local opera. She sings prettily, but without much in the chest. Worse, for a woman of her slender and attractive build, her stage movements are without slink: a Carmen behaving like a Micaela. That latter part — my nomination for opera’s most unnecessary role even under optimum conditions — was sung by Carmen Giannattasio with the requisite forgettable, pale sweetness. From the yawps and howls of Richard Leech’s Don José there were no surprises: a tenor never more than second-rate-utility at the height of his career, now in decline from even that sad state. Only the larruping Escamillo of the ever-reliable Erwin Schrott produced something like a spark of life.

 

To its great credit, and our no-less-great edification, the Philharmonic’s current “Silenced Voices” program uncovers a segment in musical history virtually unknown and certainly undervalued: two generations of Central European music, mostly but not entirely by Jewish composers, deemed unacceptable by Nazi artistic standards and thus removed from circulation. Some of it, of course, survived with its composers who were able to emigrate — Korngold, Weill, Zemlinsky; much of it did not, vanishing as its composers perished in Hitler’s gas ovens. Absent this music, we lack a whole strand of 20th-century musical history parallel to the development of atonality and neoclassicism.

One single thread that did survive, miraculously, is the music of Viktor Ullmann, who as a prisoner at Theresienstadt composed almost 20 works, including an opera, and managed to pass the manuscripts on to a librarian at the camp who preserved them and, many years later, made their presence known. An amazed world first heard the one-act satirical opera The Emperor of Atlantis in 1975; it was given here this past week at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. James Conlon conducted with a small vocal ensemble from Juilliard and the Philharmonic New Music Group; on discs and in two weeks at the Philharmonic, this “Irish kid from Long Island” (his words) has made the rediscovery and restoration of this suppressed concentration-camp repertory a matter of personal priority.

There is more to this music than its creators’ personal stories; both the opera and Ullmann’s Second Symphony, which Conlon conducted with the Philharmonic, are strong and fascinating works that do indeed fill in great stylistic gaps in our awareness of their time. The opera, to a libretto by Peter Kien, treats a fable familiar itself for its time, an allegory involving the personification of Death held at bay, and an Emperor and a Harlequin at odds on the value of Life; into the music there went the expected shreds of Strauss (all Strausses), some Mahler, much Weill, much of the bristle of the young Hindemith. In the symphony, fleshed out by a contemporary editor from notations left by Ullmann on the manuscript of a piano sonata, there is all of the above plus, in a powerful slow movement, a richness of oratory that has the outlines of a Bruckner on a level of eloquence that tragic figure never attained. This is, then, important music. There are Conlon recordings of the two symphonies, on Capriccio; see for yourself.

 

Cage, Ives, Harrison, Riley . . . somebody in heaven must have had a hand in concocting Jacaranda’s first program of the season (and the second one, too, all-Mozart on November 20, with the 13-Wind Serenade, the Piano-Wind Quintet and the “Dissonance” Quartet). Surely you know this concert series by now: chamber music lovingly planned, handsomely set in Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian (where even the organ is the proper size). This first concert, a rewarding variorum of masterwork and not-quite, drew well; word is around.

Matters began with the endearing trivialities of Cage’s Living Room Music, congenial strokings of household furniture brought onstage for the occasion, some to Gertrude Stein poetry, some not. Later there was Cage’s famous silent piece 4’33” performed by pianist Scott Dunn with majestic solemnity; Dunn also participated — fingers and all this time, and with violinist Sarah Thornblade and cellist Timothy Loo — in Charles Ives’ Trio, with its hilarious jumble of quotations one minute and its apparent inability to get to any kind of point the next. Guitarist Miroslav Tadic and violinist Thornblade collaborated in a set of garrulous Terry Riley pieces whose inability to get to a point was part of their charm. Best of all was Lou Harrison’s hugely insistent, dramatic Concerto for Violin and Percussion Orchestra, its killer solos dispatched by a phenomenal 22-year-old violinist named Joel Pargman — remember that name — with a mostly student ensemble led by Donald Crockett.

There are times when you’re listening to a piece, and you squirm in your seat and can’t wait for it to end. There are times when you sit transfixed and pray that it never ends. On successive nights last week — the Carmen and Lou Harrison’s Concerto — I was able to touch both extremes.

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