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All That Glitters 

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Photo by Robert Millard

THE RIGHT SOUND

"Extraordinary, how potent cheap music can be," muses one of Noel Coward’s most perceptive characters, and there is La Bohème to prove his point. Nobody will claim high artistic stature for Puccini’s assault on the lachrymal glands currently in its welcome return run at the Music Center. But there is no vaccine yet legally marketed to render those glands immune to that moment in the final act when the dying heroine falls into the arms of her adoring . . . I’m sorry, I can’t go on. (I never could.)

Whatever this opera’s place along the spectrum of artistic purity, everything about it truly works. The orchestral sense is astounding; more than in any other of Puccini’s operas, the music rising from the pit — sinuous, seductive, insistent — becomes a participant in the drama. Take, as one instance, the brassy tune in parallel fifths that brings up the curtain in the second act; then hear that same music rendered soft and wintry to start Act 3. Take another instance, the hollow desolation — violins and cellos two octaves apart — at the end of the men’s duet in Act 4. This is a real Puccini sound; I’ve never heard its like from any other composer. (The small pit orchestra in the Baz Luhrmann production at the Ahmanson a few months ago, amplified, couldn’t come close to these sounds. Lawrence Foster’s L.A. Opera Orchestra provides the real thing.)

Of all Puccini operas — and, for that matter, of all the misguided attempts by other composers after Verdi (including Samuel Barber, whom I’ll come to in a minute) to keep the genre of Italian opera alive — La Bohème exerts its hold with the greatest ease. It moves with sure dramatic sense; if this be cheap, I find it no more so than Carmen. It lends itself to all kinds of extra-Puccinian treatments, mostly absurd. On Broadway there is Rent, which is not absurd at all, but builds with great spirit upon a loving attempt to wonder what those people might be up to today. I found this far less a violation than the last Metropolitan Opera production of the actual opera, which was Franco Zeffirelli’s virtuoso attempt to load the entire population of Paris onto the stage, with the intimate actions and reactions of the principals pushed several miles back from the footlights.

In Los Angeles we have the late Herbert Ross’ 1993 production, fresh, intelligent and, with a few tatters, exactly right. He, too, surrounded the play with a sense of neighborhood and a small amount of extraneous action — amusing byplay for the landlord and wife in Act 1, for example. Stanley M. Garner’s restaging adds a few more details, including a chamber pot in Act 4 that — alas! — actually gets used. The anachronisms in Gerald Howland’s stage designs are a hoot: an unfinished Eiffel Tower (actually completed in 1889) in the background although the action is identified on supertitles as 1898; Musetta arriving in a fancy touring car from at least 1915. Marco Berti and Ana Maria Martinez were the okay first pair of lovers; they are to be replaced later this month by the celebrity duo Mr. & Mrs. Alagna. (Stay tuned.) A young Mexican baritone named Alfredo Daza is the Marcello, quickly rising through the company ranks. He deserved, and got, the biggest hand.

NOTHING FOR A DAME

Why dig up Vanessa? Samuel Barber’s gloom-infused heart-throbber — text by Gian-Carlo Menotti after Isak Dinesen, apathetically received at the Met in 1958, later revised — seems best described as unnecessary. Its music, little beholden to the quiet elegance of the composer’s songs or his enchanting Knoxville cantata, offers nothing in the way of profile. As an "easy" piece for an aging soprano to hold the stage a few years after the high C’s begin to fade, it may have some currency. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa has currently taken possession of the title role; she comes to us with it after stopping off in Washington and Monte Carlo, and her performance last Saturday night suggests that she has no need yet to fall back on such easeful repertory. It’s a little like asking Kobe Bryant to function in a wheelchair.

Menotti’s libretto reduced the plot outline of one of Dinesen’s Gothic Tales to the texture of a very high-class soap opera. Three generations of dowagers past, present or future, who either don’t speak to one another or drown one another in verbiage, are all three variously driven gaga (or in one case impregnated) at the arrival of a dashing stranger. The setting is somewhere in a mysterious Northland where blizzards howl just beyond the meager plastic walls of Paul Brown’s fragile set, whose glitzy curved staircase tells me more of Rodeo Drive boutique than wintry terrain.

Such is the uncertainty that permeates the work and renders it ultimately unsatisfactory. So much good flowed from Barber’s pen; a new evaluation would not be out of place. Even the overworked Adagio for Strings — better heard in the original quartet version, of course — has a noble, elegiac flow that cannot be ignored; the first of the Essays for Orchestra is such a well-made piece that you regret his being pushed into creating two inferior sequels. The other opera, Antony and Cleopatra, was an even more monumental failure but with some monumentally thrilling scenes that ought to be rescued somehow. And then there is Knoxville, Summer of 1915; you cannot refuse the highest honors to a composer who has so tenderly and endearingly evoked the essence of being young, alive and loved.

Against all of this, Vanessa is a mess. Stylistically, its music is all over the place, a thin gruel brewed from respectable but unmatched sources. It sings well, of course. Barber himself, a fine singer from recorded evidence, at least knew how to create good roles; not Vanessa but the ingénue Erika, well sung here by Lucy Schaufer, stands as a first-class operatic creation. A nice touch: Schaufer’s big scene is with Rosalind Elias, who was the Erika at the opera’s premiere in 1958 and again at the revise in 1965, and who now sings the Old Baroness. I hope she doesn’t remember what I wrote (for the New York Herald-Tribune) in 1965, because she sounded terrific the other night.

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