They knew how to do things then. Opening night, 1938, at the Hollywood Bowl consisted of nothing less than Wagner’s Die Walküre, four hours plus, with Valkyries on horseback careening down the verdant nearby hills. The legendary Maria Jeritza was the Brünnhilde; Richard Hageman, better known for such salon tearjerkers as “Do Not Go, My Love,” was on the podium. National and international celebrities attended, or so the press gushingly reported.
Nowadays we get our Wagner one act at a time, indoors and out. The Philharmonic gave us Tristan und Isoldeover three nights (with three admissions) this past season, and a single act of Die Götterdämmerung served to light up the sky as the Bowl’s first serious-music event earlier this month. (Okay, so an 80-minute single Wagnerian act runs the same as the whole of La Bohème. Even so...) And now news is at hand that the first-ever local production of all four parts of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, the grandiose 18-hour artwork that keeps getting promised and postponed and promised again by the Los Angeles Opera, is slated to sneak in instead under the auspices of the Long Beach Opera for two performances next January. The four operas will be performed — get this — over two days, each opera running anywhere from two to three hours, in English in the 820-seat Center Theater. On top of this comes news that the Metropolitan Opera is planning a new “family version” of its current production of Mozart’s Magic Flute, to run 90 minutes instead of the usual three hours. No word has come from the Met as to whether ticket prices will be adjusted accordingly. Wanna bet?
John Mauceri conducted the Götterdämmerung at the Bowl; no Wagnerian slouch, he had led a respectable Walküre at Opera Pacific during that company’s more adventurous days. He also delivered an authoritative and delightful exegesis on the whole tangled Ring plot that almost, if not quite, atoned for the lack of supertitles. This was, surprisingly enough, Mauceri’s first time on the Philharmonic podium in 25 years.
Christine Brewer, the Philharmonic’s Isolde last December, moves on rapidly toward Wagnerian eminence. Her Brünnhilde, even through microphones, had its own thrilling impact, defiant and, at the end, richly human. Christian Franz, the Siegfried, and Christine Goerke, the Gutrune, were forged from lesser metal but not by much; Kurt Rydl, whose wobble had lent a nice comic edge to his Ochs in the L.A. Opera’s recent Rosenkavalier, put it to far less admirable service as the villainous Hagen this time around.
Some work has obviously been done on the Bowl’s sound system over the down time. The absurd echo has been vanquished or substantially reduced; the sound, from a point halfway back, is at least as true-to-life as, say, an early LP. The video screens still strike me as wasted expense, but perhaps I’m missing some of the pop-oriented entertainment that fills them on the weekend concerts. The coordination between the camera shots and the people actually performing at any moment is no better than last year; it can’t be without an enormous budget for extra rehearsals, and I’m still not convinced that all that many people go to the Bowl to watch TV screens. You’d think that at least there’d be a way of getting the texts for vocal works up on the screen, but that might also be wasted effort for the benefit of few. At least the short bursts of Magic Fire — live, at center stage — as Valhalla and its neighborhood went up in flames at the grand Wagnerian finale, provided the evening’s visual reward for those among the fast-dwindling crowd who had stuck out those 80 minutes to the end.
Two nights later there was Gershwin: not the master of Broadway sass whom we all rightly adore, but the aspirant to a place among the Higher Artists whose aspirations merit a raised eyebrow or two. The Piano Concerto in F, from which Jean-Yves Thibaudet extracted the ultimate measure of razzle-dazzle on this occasion (with proper support from conductor Leonard Slatkin and the Philharmonic), is my case in point — a head-on collision between high-flying creative ambition and a woeful inability to make anything work from one minute to the next. Any single musical notion is uncommonly attractive, and their variety is vast: the veritable torrent of syncopated flourishes that begin the work, the curious lapse into a kind of static Charleston rhythm that stops everything a few minutes later, the lovely blues tune for solo trumpet that begins the slow movement, the pseudo-Yiddish kvetch that takes over midway in that movement. But what is there in this music that holds us by the collarbone and renders thrilling the progression from idea to idea? This question seems beyond Gershwin’s power, or his interest, to resolve; we are left, in the perceptive words of Paul Rosenfeld, one of the few American critics to resist the inevitability of the “Great American Composer” bandwagon in Gershwin’s case, with “a heap of extremely heterogeneous minor forms and expressions.”
Curiously, the same program also included a shorter and less-known Gershwin piece also for piano and orchestra, his Variations on “I Got Rhythm,” in which I sensed the presence of a real and serious composer, genuinely in charge of his material and aware of where he wants to take it. The form of the piece, a series of compositional essays on a single (and singularly great) tune, prevents its wandering afield, and the permutations devised by Gershwin over its 10-or-so-minute span are the work of a genuine smart-ass.
The program ended with Gershwin’s An American in Paris, a piece whose cleverness I usually find endearing and surely would have this time. But I was out of sorts by then; one large chunk of inferior Gershwin and two monumentally undistinguished pieces by Gershwinoids Ferde Grofé and Robert Russell Bennett disinclined me to inflict my state of mind on anything else that evening.