SOONER OR LATER MOST OPERA COMPANIES get around to Nabucco. It has its historic place, as Verdi's first triumph and for the "Va pensiero" chorus that became the anthem of oppressed Italy. (At the L.A. Opera the chorus was encored, and cheered both times.) Hebrews, virgins, Babylonians, the first of the great father-daughter duets that thread like a golden gleam through the composer's legacy: The vintage Verdi is all there in this raw, primitive score. I've had my blood made to sizzle at Nabucco performances . . . but not this time.
From the pit there was the usual Lawrence Foster routine: You waited in vain for a transcendent shaping of those crude but soaring phrases. You also waited in vain for scenery and stage action to match the bronzes and brasses of the music. The program listed estimable names: Jane Greenwood's costumes, Michael Yeargan's sets, Elijah Moshinsky's production and Thor Steingraber's staging; I couldn't bring myself to believe that any of the above were within miles of the Nabucco currently at the Chandler Pavilion. Greenwood's costume design puts the Nabucco in red jammies against Alan Burrett's red lighting and thus turned him into a floating head. Maria Guleghina, from the Met's current stable of blockbuster sopranos, sang the bad daughter, Abigaille; Kate Aldrich was the good daughter, Fenena. As Nabucco, the Georgian (Tbilisi, not Atlanta) baritone Lado Ataneli displayed a smallish but impressively Verdian vocal line.
Sooner or later some companies also get around to Puccini's spaghetti Western, but not for as good a reason. I hear less musical impulse in The Girl of the Golden West than in any other mature Puccini; if you left with any tune in your head, it would have to be one of the American folksongs that got co-opted here and there. The orchestration is thick and unwieldy; the usual Puccini trick of doubling the vocal line in the orchestra at a couple of octaves' distance -- so elegant and touching in La Bohème -- becomes in this work a boring, obsessive mannerism. As "Meester Johnson di Sacramento" and his ladylove, pistol-packin' Minnie, Plácido Domingo and Catherine Malfitano made a lot of noise, some of it impressive; as the love-racked "Sceriffo," Wolfgang Brendel provided the evening's only real vocal style. Simone Young conducted, sleepily at first, later with impressive momentum. The fight scenes were terrific, with a few Hollywood stuntmen worked into the ensemble; best of all was Burrett's lighting, which looked as if someone had actually been up to the gold country and remembered its magic.
WHATEVER ELSE YOU MAY SAY ABOUT THE rumblings (backstage and out front) around the start of the Los Angeles Opera's 17th season, the fact remains that the company did get its curtain up on time for these first two productions earlier this month. That didn't happen last year, due to the 9/11 turmoil. Two operas, neither of them anybody's particular favorite but both of them worth doing sometime or other, came across in a more or less recognizable state.
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Those rumblings need our attention, of course. Two blockbuster-size ventures that figured prominently in the company's immediate or middle-distance plans have now been dumped or at least tabled: Prokofiev's War and Peace, formerly due next month, and Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung, originally slated for next year and now rescheduled for God knows when. Both announcements arrived to a chorus of weeping and wailing and grave doubts as to whether opera in Los Angeles now truly lies dead in the water -- as some cynics had foretold at the company's inaugural in 1986.
The Prokofiev was to be a guest shot by Valery Gergiev's Kirov Opera, a production already trundled to the Met last year, where its sheer and costly bulk created several kinds of havoc even in that huge house. As a solace, the Kirov is sending us a less pricey production, Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which is also -- dare I breathe it? -- a better opera all told. Yes, there are eloquent moments in War and Peace, along with some pretty waltzes (in the "Peace" part, of course) and some battle fireworks; there is also an earlier Kirov production that came to San Francisco several years ago, and which I praised at its video release in 1996, modest and imaginative and as clear a realization of Tolstoy's convolutions as the eye could want. Nowadays, however, there are patrons with blockbuster bankrolls who require blockbuster productions onto which their own names are prominently plastered, which then run the risk of being stranded for lack of travel funds when the moneybags spring a leak.
This new blockbuster-will-save-us mentality looms even more menacingly over the whole Ring business, and has ever since the project was first announced -- ecstatically, if you recall -- at Plácido Domingo's first major press conference, two years ago. Isn't this a strange time for the Ring to bulk so large in opera companies' planning here, there and everywhere? (There are faint rumors, in fact, that Los Angeles' first Ring might come not from the Music Center but from a curious alliance of UCLA's Performing Arts division and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.) From the beginning, all we've known about the L.A. Opera's Ring is the looks of the thing: all those kazillions of dollars for George Lucas' light shows and a Valhalla worthy of Vegas. All this at a time when the world's vocal resources can afford maybe one and a half capable casts to cope with Wagner's blockbuster vocal writing. Does the estimable Jane Eaglen face a lifetime of a Brünnhilde one night in Minneapolis and the next night in San Diego?
Much as I love -- or, let's say, revere -- Wagner's stupendous game plan, it strikes me as lazy thinking, this assumption that an opera company doesn't earn its place on the map without a Ring under its belt. If we must posit the list of what the L.A. Opera owes its audience, many items come to mind, most of them more necessary (and more practicable) than this pie-in-the-sky project. Under the Wagner rubric there is, for starters, Die Meistersinger, a work that could restore anyone's faith in Wagner -- and, for that matter, in opera itself. (Peter Hemmings promised it once, but then backed down.) The company owes a huge Verdi deficit: a Don Carlo and Ballo in Maschera to atone for previous misdeeds, a Forza del Destino long overdue, a Simon Boccanegra likewise. And imagine a company so lopsided on matters Russian that it can give us Pique Dame and Lady Macbeth but never yet a Boris Godunov. Sondheim, anyone? What a ravishing A Little Night Music that stage could hold! Against these problems, all this talk about War and Peace and the Skywalker Ranch Ring might strike observant outsiders as unbalanced. Some insiders, too.