Star-Crossed and Sweetly Sung

You could arrive at the Los Angeles Opera‘s latest offering with a personal list, rather long, of the works still undeservedly neglected by the company: Verdi’s Forza for starters, Wagner‘s Meistersinger, the two Manons, and on and on. You’d be pretty far down the list before you arrived at Vincenzo Bellini‘s The Capulets and the Montagues. (I’ll spare you the unpronounceable Italian.) Surprise and delight would then attend your arrival; the local guys have reached deep into the repertory of the forgotten, accorded Bellini‘s fluent, elegant score the treatment worthy of a masterpiece, and demonstrated that it deserves no less.

Getting to that realization does, of course, take a little work. You have to get Shakespeare off your back, and Prokofiev and Bernstein as well. Felice Romani’s workaday libretto harks back to the obscure Italian novel that Shakespeare probably also knew but greatly expanded; his lovers, somewhat longer in the tooth, have already bedded down at curtain‘s rise, and Romeo has asked Papa Capulet for Juliet’s hand. But Romeo is also the leader of the Montague family forces, which are trying to unseat the entrenched Capulets in Verona, and Juliet is caught between love and filial loyalty. The tragic ending, however, is the same. (Since the current production updates the action to around 1910, however, you have to wonder how the presumed-dead Juliet gets dumped into the family tomb without the benefit of embalming.) Oh yes, and Bellini, honoring the old bel canto custom, has written his Romeo for a mezzo-soprano. Any teenage moviegoer with throbbing heart will attest that the notion of an androgynous Romeo isn‘t all that novel these days.

By the time the first act (of two) floats blissfully to its close, however, your every pore should be tingling from the sheer spun-sugar incandescence of Bellini’s music for the lovers, and the way Laura Claycomb (the Juliet) and Susanne Mentzer (the Romeo), singly or in duets of rapturous togetherness, send this music skyward, a pairing fashioned in vocal heaven. Never mind director Thor Steingraber‘s off-the-wall update, with the Capulets done up in black tie rather than splendid Renaissance robes and the warring factions having at one another with swords, daggers and (!) handguns. Never mind that the lovers are also given alter egos, who dance out the torments of love during Bellini’s long orchestral intros. Never mind that Robert Israel‘s handsome, skeletal scenic pieces actually relate to no time and all time. Nobody goes to a bel canto opera for the dancing or scenery.

Actually, there’s more to the opera than the lovers‘ gorgeous music. Act 1 ends with an extended ensemble, the five major characters each confronting a separate dramatic problem, the music surging forward toward a tremendous climax. In 1835, five years after The Capulets, Gaetano Donizetti fashioned the same kind of knockout ensemble, for six singers, at the turning point of his Lucia di Lammermoor and did so no better than Bellini here. What Bellini was good at -- the long melodic lines like human breathing transfigured above the orchestra’s gentle prodding that distills the harmony into the texture of idealized honey -- no other composer of his time could equal.

The Capulets runs through October 31; it is one of the company‘s truly sublime offerings. The cast -- all Americans, by the way -- is uniformly good: a newcomer, Eric Halfvarson, as a powerful, resonant Papa Capulet, and Malcolm MacKenzie as the sympathetic Lorenzo (Shakespeare’s Friar Laurence, but here a doctor). Britain‘s Richard Hickox conducts, cleanly if with no prodigies of energy. (Hickox was also the admirable guest conductor of last weekend’s Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra concert, a superlative event that I‘ll try to discuss next week.)

In the month since the Hollywood Bowl season, the Philharmonic gave two concerts in Mexico and three in local neighborhoods; sent a bus-and-truck production of Peter Sellars’ madcap, messy version of Stravinsky‘s A Soldier’s Tale to three local parks; delivered a delightful benefit concert of Shakespeare-plus-Mendelssohn‘s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the likes of Peter Hemmings, Gordon Davidson and Rosie Perez in speaking roles and the aforementioned Laura Claycomb enchantingly singing of ”spotted snakes“; and donated a Beethoven‘s Ninth to the World Festival of Sacred Music jamboree at the Bowl. By Thursday night’s all-Mahler ”opening concert“ at the Music Center, therefore, the orchestra had already attained midseason form, as witnessed by the concert‘s first note, a soft blooper from the first horn, followed soon after by a beeper somewhere in the hall. Oh, well.

The important news, and it’s good, is that the hall‘s new acoustical adjustments seem to work. The stage floor has been raised somewhat, and extended out 16 feet; the setup is easily removed and replaced to free the pit for opera. Obviously the players need time to get used to the changes; some balances last Thursday were only approximately good. But the string tone had a greater sense of thrust out in the hall, and there seemed to be more air on the stage itself. The long, ethereal opening of the Mahler First seemed to hang in midair, and pizzicatos from cellos and basses sounded more than usually resonant. The new arrangement does create some seats with a limited view of the stage, a few of them in the posh Founders Circle. (The Philharmonic has allowed subscribers in the afflicted areas to change locations.) In all, the changes have reduced the total number of seats to 3,086 (from 3,200), with 378 ”obstructed“ and another 80 ”slightly obstructed“ -- a total of 2,628 unproblematic seats, some 400 more than are projected for Disney Hall.

The program began with the early Blumine, a little squeeze of syrup that Mahler had once wrapped into the First Symphony and later dropped. The five songs to Friedrich Ruckert texts came next, music from 18 years later, encapsulating the composer’s extraordinary growth in eloquence since early days, and made miraculous in the rich rhetoric of Jose van Dam‘s plangent, overwhelming delivery.

At the Bowl last summer I had found Salonen’s Mahler First both interesting and disturbing in the matter of excessive slowdowns and speedups -- even though some of this is lightly suggested in the score. (The Salonen recording of the Fourth is, similarly, rather rubato-ridden.) Has he, in only a month‘s time, rethought the work -- or have I? The momentum in Thursday’s performance was steady and staggering: a breathtaking, narrative sweep that stormed the heavens, a transfiguration of the young Mahler‘s wondrous, arrogant power, a prefiguration of the eloquence he would soon fully master. The hall sounded great, the Mahler sounded great. Wow!

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