Esa-Pekka Salonen’s return to the Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl began a week of cultural overload such that you’d ordinarily expect in mid-January. Yet here we were in summer’s waning days. Well, for starters, it wasn’t just any old week at the Bowl; it was the kind of challenging, provocative week that the place deserves at least once every summer — or more. There was even — would you believe — opera with the video screens used not just for mug shots of second clarinetists but actually for a purpose: to carry the translation of the text, just as in a real opera house. When did you ever see that before at the Bowl? (Ans.: never.) Someone in the Philharmonic’s video department has finally awakened to the reason those screens belong up there.
I have long admired Diavolo, Jacques Heim’s company of airborne dancers, athletes and, for all I know, masters of the game of Quidditch, who interact in bodily conversation with each other and with inanimate structures to create a language of dramatic movement beyond easy definition. On a warm Tuesday at the Bowl, cheered to the skies by a large and warm-hearted audience, the operative word was “interaction,” and the result was thrilling.
The music was Salonen’s 2001 Foreign Bodies, “fiery masses of sound,” says the composer. Out of Tina Trefethen’s large cube — placed center stage, pierced with several holes — arms, legs and then whole bodies twisted their way into view, matched by the music’s twisting, furious undulations. As the 10-member dance company re-formed downstage and continued their interactions, the cube behind them broke apart into large pie-shaped segments of lustrous metal and plastic on which the dancers zoomed up, down and around, propelled by the music’s built-in urgency. Lights onstage and overhead picked out spots on the structures, which then reflected back to surfaces along the Bowl’s walls and ceiling. The whole spectacle was an interlock of moving dancers and structures uncannily matched by Salonen’s marvelous score. I can’t remember ever seeing the Bowl’s performing space turned into something quite this sensually alive — oh, maybe when Gustavo Dudamel conducted the incandescent music of Revueltas at his debut there two years ago. When else?
Eventually, the parts of the cube pushed back into their original shape and the music wound down — it lasts some 20 minutes, and you can hear it on the same Deutsche Grammophon disc with Salonen’s Wing on Wing. I wonder at the future of this remarkable piece of performance art. It’s a masterpiece in Diavolo’s repertory and a gorgeous illumination of the Salonen work as well. It belongs with Salonen and the Phlharmonic, not to be danced with some creaky ballet orchestra and not with a recording. It needs to be on a stage as part of a concert, in the same place as a featured soloist in a concerto. Somehow or other, it belongs in a repertory, even if that repertory has yet to be invented.
Mahler’s First Symphony, by Salonen and the Philharmonic alone, filled out the program, with the called-for offstage trumpets at the start really far offstage — a trick that always makes you think that Mahler actually composed with the Bowl in mind. It was a grand, broad performance, properly vulgar where such seemed to be called for, properly heaven-storming at the end.
No Sex, Please
Two nights later, there was Boris Godunov, not the one with the familiar Polonaise and the Love Duet but Mussorgsky’s original, no-frills creation: austere, somewhat dry in orchestral sound, its rhythms and melodic shapes deeply rooted in its composer’s naive national identities before his “rescue” by his more sophisticated colleagues. This is the version that Valery Gergiev brought to Orange County earlier this season with his Kirov company and his trunkfuls of seedy scenery, the worthwhile part of their misbegotten “Ring-around.” Mikhail Kit, who was the Wotan in some of the Ring performances, was also the Boris in one of their two performances of that opera and, as he was at the Bowl, an aging but eloquent singing actor. It would be good to see him for once on a properly designed and directed stage set. One assumes that for Salonen this Boris project must be something of a trial run for some project as yet unannounced. Los Angeles’ local companies have yet to produce a Boris Godunov in any version.
Nobody will ever agree on the proper Boris. Unquestionably, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff’s reorchestration of the opening scenes, including the “Coronation” choruses, makes a swell but wrong noise. Mussorgsky’s dark, edgy original, with its irregular rhythms, peers behind Rimsky’s finery to reveal a more troubled Russia with its impoverished masses, and endows the ascent of Boris with the right cynical coloration. The Polonaise and all the love-duet stuff were Mussorgsky’s own inferior capitulation to spicing up the action; leave them out and you’ve got more than three hours of almost continuous men’s voices. Most performances of Boris are some kind of conflation of Mussorgsky’s own two versions, with scenes left in or out: a scene at St. Basil’s Cathedral from the first version, a scene in Kromy Forest from the second. Since both scenes end with a Holy Idiot bewailing the fate of Russia, you can’t have both, and at the Bowl we got St. Basil’s. Salonen’s performance, with Mr. Kit heading a capable cast of visitors, most of them from the Maryinsky Academy of Young Soloists and the massed but sometimes wobbly forces of the Pacific Chorale, followed the pure Mussorgsky original. Judging from wisps of overheard conversations from prematurely exiting Bowl-goers, it did not fulfill everyone’s idea of a swell night of opera at the Bowl. At the very end, as if on cue, there were coyotes in ardent conversation above the parking lot. They knew something that the rest of us must guess.