A Trivial Traviata

Photo by Ken Howard
THE L.A. OPERA'S CURRENT LA TRAVIATA -- its second attempt to scale the expressive heights of Verdi's irresistible tragedy -- is its best production so far this season (five down, two to go), but that, alas, isn't saying very much. The singing on opening night, barring an occasional wandering from pitch, was the work of intelligent singers giving a glorious score their best shot. On the podium, Gabriele Ferro shaped a well-paced musical realization of a much-loved opera that doesn't exactly perform itself. Nobody fell down during the ballet. Giovanni Agostinucci's visuals, co-sponsored by the L.A. and Washington operas and Belgium's Opéra Royal de Wallonie, were oversize and stifling in the time-honored tradition, as they might have been for a Traviata a century ago. Marta Domingo, wife of L.A. Opera honcho-designate and supertenor Plácido, had promised in a program note that her staging would jerk tears in the old-fashioned way, and she made good on her promise. But . . .

The Violetta, American soprano Carol Vaness, poured out her heartbreak standing, lying supine and at various angles in between. Vaness' Violetta, beautiful and moving to watch, still left questions she has raised here before, about her suitability for the long Italian vocal line. Barring a few off-pitch notes at the start, her singing was nicely calculated but sadly lacking in the abandon that makes a great Verdian melody into a transfiguration of
human speech. As her errant swain Alfredo, Greg Fedderly seemed somewhat mended vocally from the strain he'd been showing in recent performances. The voice is no longer pretty, as it once was, but he threw quite a resonant tantrum at the end
of the second act. As the elder Germont, Finland's Jorma Hynninen could have taught both his colleagues how to turn Italian bel canto into audible flame, but apparently didn't. The choral forces in the opening party scene were of a size to drink Paris dry; they then returned in the bordello scene (a doozy of a shocking-red job that drew some of the evening's heartiest applause) ready for more.

It was all very familiar, and very dusty. Anyone hoping for a fresh and enlightened approach to Verdi's fragile masterpiece, a conception blown free of the dust of 145 years of performing practice, was obviously in the wrong opera house. What was even dustier was the decision to honor the ancient practice of cutting the opera to ribbons, dropping major arias (including big numbers in the second act for both Alfredo and Papa Germont) and specified repeats, leaving jolting gaps in the musical fabric. Most houses nowadays open these cuts at least partway, offering one of the two stanzas of the arias here omitted, allowing Verdi more of his say on his own time scale (a model of terse dramatic construction even at full length). The company's 1992 Traviata, though otherwise wretched, at least offered that one amenity.

No such luck this time, however, in this resolutely old-school Traviata, a probable foretaste of the state of local opera when Plácido Domingo -- splendid but aging singer, moderately capable conductor, impresario of qualities yet to be confirmed -- assumes his new office next year without giving up his day jobs at the Washington Opera and New York's Domingo's Restaurant, and with Marta Domingo prominent in the entourage. (She is slated to stage Puccini's La Rondine here next season.) Strange, isn't it, that at a time when so much of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's music making manifests a growing enthusiasm for exploring far horizons (see below) -- for reaching out toward new ideas, new manners of presentation, new audiences -- the most potentially spectacular of our musical institutions backslides into a comfy mom-
and-pop operation. The future of local opera, some would have it, lies firmly in the past.



OUT OF SILENCE, A SOLO FLUTE BEGAN A sinuous, ecstatic slow melody over the quiet throb of harps and, if I heard right, a guitar. The melody soared, seemingly without end; in empathy with the player, my own breath faltered. Gradually, the Philharmonic -- huge forces, including percussion by the dozens, a sampler, and "normal" instruments in vast array -- took up the line, which never seemed to stop as it churned to a brutal crescendo. A few from the near-capacity audience made their way toward the exits with the dazed, what-hit-me look we know well from new-music events. Most of the crowd remained, to cheer -- 45 or so minutes later -- John Adams' marvelous new work for orchestra, his longest so far and quite possibly his best.

In a pre-performance chat with Esa-Pekka Salonen, Adams admitted that the new piece "behaves like a symphony." Instead, he has called it Naïve and Sentimental Music, cribbing its title from a Schiller essay on differentiating between instinctive (naive) and the calculating (sentimental) kinds of art. Okay; the pleasure I derived from first hearing did not include any particular effort to match what with what. All three movements work their way toward intense climaxes through powerful gatherings of resources; the slow movement is deeply dark and inward, and the outer movements rattle your bones with the splendor of immense performing forces wondrously deployed. Just the final note -- resounding bright and clear from winds and brass that at this last moment have shaken loose from the percussion's clatter -- still rings in my ear as I gather these thoughts. Some of Naïve's great wrenching moments bear the imprint of music's greatest hits; Stravinsky's Rite of Spring shows up in the distance, a distinguished visitor in meritorious company.

Adams has moved great distances. Gloria Cheng-Cochran played his early piano piece Phrygian Gates here not long ago and has recorded it for Telarc: half an hour or more of a single pulsating surge and, thus, miles removed from the tensile strengths in the melodic lines out of which this new work is woven. To venture upon an orchestral score of that magnitude, when most orchestras pay their lip service to new music with 10-minute soundbites (for which Adams has composed several) smacks of the death wish. Yet this new work, which had its world premiere at the Music Center last weekend, is a four-orchestra co-commission: four orchestras (in Los Angeles, Sydney, Vancouver and Frankfurt) willing to gamble that Adams -- not Glass, not Lloyd Webber or McCartney, not Yanni -- might be the composer to lend luster to the cause of new music. O brave new world that takes such chances!

Vaness' Violetta: Void of Verdian va-voom

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