Let’s Hear It for Luigi

Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff

Luigi Dallapiccola has emerged from the shadows, for the moment at least. The Long Beach Opera mounted his one-act opera Night Flight two weeks ago, and I heard people in the Carpenter Center at Cal State Long Beach wondering at the genius who could have composed so strong and gripping an unfamiliar work. Earlier this year, Marino Formenti performed Dallapiccola’s Quaderno Musicale di Annalibera at one of his County Museum piano recitals, and that, too, had people wishing they knew more about this music. In New York in the 1960s, when as fifth man on the Times’ music staff I was assigned most of the low-budget new-music concerts on Saturday afternoons in Carnegie Recital Hall, I heard a lot of Dallapiccola: chamber music, song cycles, piano works, a school performance of Night Flight. Many of his former students, including Donald Martino and Sal Martirano, were active on the New York scene, doing all they could to keep .his music alive. He taught for a while at Tanglewood and at UC Berkeley, but his heart — and his music — belonged to Florence, and he died there, in 1975, in his apartment across from the Pitti Palace.

I never met him; I was shy in those days. He had that look about him — Carlo Maria Giulini has it, too — of the serene and wise patrician, both humanist and humanitarian. Many of the texts he chose to set to music were about people under oppression: the poetry of great captives in his Songs of Imprisonment; the people touched by the power-mad airline director in Night Flight (from the Saint-Exupéry novel); Dallapiccola’s own words for the tortured hero of The Prisoner. He embraced the principles of the Schoenbergian atonalists; his composition classes consisted largely of intense analyses of the works of Webern. But his vocal settings, hot and glowing with what must have been his own passion for deeply emotional poetry, are closer in style to the most “romantic” of the 12-tone Viennese, Alban Berg. They break out from what in lesser hands might have been technical confinements, and aim for the heart. His final opera, Ulisse — which I dream of hearing someday — deals less with Homer’s adventure yarn and more with Ulysses’ struggles of conscience and his final reconciliation with his own vision of God. You have to go back, far beyond the 12-tone guys, to the early baroque, to the wrenching harmonies of Gesualdo and Monteverdi, to discover the roots of Dallapiccola’s lapidary genius for transforming human outcry into music.

Night Flight (Volo di Notte) is also about outcry, some of it silent: the inner strug...gle of its protagonist, the airline director Rivière, to balance his quest for power with the condemnation from colleagues that his decisions inspire, as when, at a 1930 South American airport, he risks pilots’ lives to get the mail plane out on time. The music captures the conflicts inside this trapped, solitary figure; it churns through the orchestra, dark and at times explosive. The Long Beach production captured this essence, in Andreas Mitisek’s flawless orchestra and in Julian Webber’s deployment of the action on Dick Bird’s set. Carpenter’s seating, arena-style with no blind spots, allowed a striking verticality in the action, with the airline controllers and the management office deployed high up near the top of the proscenium and the human tragedies played out down below — with a pretty good simulation. ..of a plane’s landing at the end. Victor Ledbetter, who sang Rivière, didn’t quite get all the words out in the performance I heard (the first of two), but made the passions of this troubled character clearly audible. Susan Bullock delivered a harrowing portrayal as the wife of a doomed pilot; that was already the second of her triumphs that afternoon. The performance was listed as the American professional premiere; any lingering doubts of the enterprise, and the value, of this brave operatic venture can now be laid to rest.

The first of Bullock’s good deeds was as the lovelorn Giorgetta in Puccini’s Il Tabarro, which shared the bill — and the glories — with the Dallapiccola. If you don’t know this one-act opera (the first in a set of three, late Puccini, dating from 1918), I have to tell you that it’s a better work than you may be ready to believe: a beautifully formed, taut, dark melodrama surrounded by a virtual tone-poem depiction of a Paris riverbank at night. Dick Bird’s waterfront stage, a veritable Erector Set of dangerous but authentic-looking scaffolding, served Puccini’s purpose and then got reassembled for the Dallapiccola. Brent Ellis was the hulking, murderous Michele; Matthew Kirchner, the goodhearted, slightly muddle-headed Luigi.

I miss the antic, fascinating rewrites that the directorial Alden brothers, Christopher and David, imposed on repertory operas earlier in the Long Beach Opera’s history. But with the new team of Julian Webber’s stagings and Andreas Mitisek’s conducting — both of them now Long Beach veterans — honcho Michael Milenski has contributed a powerful resource to the operatic rebirth that seems to be taking place all along this stretch of the California coast.

Voices of California is a not-inconsiderable part of that rebirth: a three-year outreach project administered by the Los Angeles Opera to encourage community creation and participation in a series of multicultural projects, with help when needed from the parent company. On Gold Mountain, which was performed at the Japan America Theater and the Irvine Barclay earlier this month, is the first fruit. Lisa See, the opera’s librettist, drew on her novel of that name, set among Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles; Nathan Wang composed the score; Andrew Tsao staged the production; and Leland Sun conducted.

Nobody would mistake On Gold Mountain for Turandot. In itself, however, the music ranged from agreeable to downright pretty, with plenty of dash in the orchestration (and an array of native Chi- ...........n..ese instruments over on the side). Tenor Ge-Qun Wang, who sang the lead, studied at the Shanghai Conservatory and is now active in Philadelphia’s operatic scene. The sets of Karen TenEyck and Joyce Kim Lee’s costumes were, in a word, nifty. I’m not sure that encouraging this kind of simplistic easy-listening theater is going to lead performers or audiences toward the more serious stuff, and maybe that doesn’t matter. I was part of the sellout crowd at the On Gold Mountain premiere, and I can at least report that everybody had a helluva good time. Myself included.