Two French operas back to back: mon dieu! Does this spell the end of the Puccini hegemony at the L.A. Opera? Not quite, I fear; despite a substantial sop to kick off the company's 13th season - and the ominous rumblings of a threatened Samson et Dalila not far down the road - there is some ground to cover before the considerable and precious French repertory can assume a rightful place against the murky torrent of Butterflys and Toscas at the Music Center.
One forward step would be to deal with the best-known work in that repertory in a manner mindful of its stature. Last week's Carmen was the company's second stab, but no step forward. The 1992 production, staged by Nuria Espert - with the promising (and, since then, acclaimed) Denyce Graves in the title role - was all high-concept revisionism, starting off with a death dance for Carmen during the overture. The new staging, by Ann-Margret Pettersson, is a Carmen by the book, but the book itself shows its tatters. Both productions dropped the spoken dialogue of Bizet's superior original score in favor of the sung recitatives by Ernest Guiraud inserted after Bizet's death that slow and muddy the pace and undermine the drama at the opera's climactic moments. Customary and wise practice these days is to revert to Bizet's pristine plan, which has been newly edited and published. The Los Angeles Opera apparently sees Carmen as a museum piece and last week performed it as such.
Jennifer Larmore's Carmen has been eagerly anticipated, and I still have hopes. Lovely of voice and of stage bearing, she is currently by just those attributes a failed Carmen, gorgeously engraved in the wrong colors. She lets you know, in the most exquisite, ladylike terms, that she would no more let loose with a dusky chest tone or a seductive portamento than sing the role in chain mail. This was her first stage Carmen, after last year's concert performance at the Hollywood Bowl; she may grow into the role. Considering the marvels in her Handel/Rossini bel canto performances, I almost wish she wouldn't, but Carmen, of course, is where the money lies.
Placido Domingo was the Don Jose in 1992, and sang it again last week, only slightly the worse for wear. He sings the role not as Jose but as Domingo, which, I guess, is what some people want for their $135 top ticket. Never mind, then, Domingo's unequal struggle with Bizet's prescribed pianissimo ending to the "Flower Song" in Act 2. Never mind, also, that the spectacle of the, let's say, portly Domingo coping with a ladder on Lennart Mork's two-level set - on his way to murder his sweetie in what is supposed to look like a jealous rage - is not one of opera's more endearing sights. Some day the company may unearth a Don Jose possessed of a pianissimo B flat and the looks to suggest a nice mama's boy love-smitten and driven to murder; meanwhile, there's Domingo. Local boy Richard Bernstein's rafter-rattling Escamillo was just fine; Carla Maria Izzo's wan, edgy-voiced Micaela, in something surely not French, somewhat less so. (She was well-along pregnant, which is a legitimate excuse for her vocal problems, but not for a company asking $135 for this level of work.)
There was nothing wrong (or radiantly right) with Bertrand de Billy's well-routined conducting, except for his acquiescence to using the wrong score. Pettersson's staging consisted of people, people, people, clutter, clutter, clutter. The cigarette girls in the Act 1 chorus looked as if holding their cigs for the first time ever. The Act 2 set, a name-the-picture rip-off of Sargent's El Jaleo, stole the show.
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The next night there was Werther, the company's long-overdue first dip into the mauve-and-lavender Massenet legacy and, in its modest way, a thoroughly respectable piece of work. In an attempt to drive copyeditors off their rockers, the performance enlists the services of the conductor Emmanuel Joel and the director Nicolas Joel; they are half brothers, but only Nicolas spells his name with the dieresis. Both they and the production itself are from the opera house at Toulouse, which, from this evidence, must be a fine place to visit. The simple, generic sets by Hubert Monloup look as if they could serve a company's entire repertory; anything more elaborate, however, would probably clash with this opera's modest proportions.
Nothing much happens in Werther, and it does so very prettily. Massenet's melancholy vapors form a fragrant fog around Johann Goethe's 1774 archetypal romantic weeper, which in its time lured generations of adolescents into suicidal frames of mind. The tenor in the title role learns in Act 1 that his beloved Charlotte is otherwise betrothed and wails, wails a little more in the next two acts, and, to nobody's surprise, shoots himself at the end and expires in Charlotte's arms as she, also unsurprisingly, confesses that she has loved him all along. Even the couple of hit arias along the way are patchwork affairs compared, say, to Carmen's outpourings or, for that matter, the tunes in Massenet's better-known Manon. The characters here are not bullfighters or philanderers but well-off provincials; in today's world they would own lava lamps and dine at Benihana. Massenet's bourgeois music captures their essence.
Excellent as it is in most respects, this first-ever venture by local forces into the dolorous languors of Massenet makes friends slowly; the opening-night crowd thinned noticeably after intermission. Compared to the one-two punches delivered by Carmen the night before, Werther moves at a placid pace. Even so, the beauties in the score are deep and genuine; at the Music Center they are nicely probed. The L.A. Opera has peopled its stage with a mostly young cast welded into a fine-tuned musical and dramatic ensemble: maybe not $135 worth of all-star talent or spectacular scenery, but at least that much worth of lyric intelligence. The Charlotte, Paula Rasmussen, is one of the company's homegrown stars, an intelligent and handsome young singer who began in small roles and now has an international career. The Werther, Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas, has exactly the light-textured, sleek vocal manner to mirror the monotone sadness of his music - and to steer the attention away from his somewhat clunky stage presence. Reminiscences of Italy's Tito Schipa would not be out of place.
The Joel/Joel contingent does itself proud. Director Nicolas moves his cast with no false moves. Conductor Emmanuel draws from the local orchestral forces the properly gossamer, wispy sounds, Chanel No. 5 made audible. It's all very, very French and, as they say over there, splendide.