The Dirty Old Men Meet the Critics

Photos by Robert MillardFADED NOBILITY The critics were all over town last week — dance, theater, music — convening with their self-importance in full array, convoking their endless panel discussions (I led one), checking out what Los Angeles had to offer that Dayton did not, allowing themselves grudging respect for local amenities. I hung out with a few of the saner members of the music crowd, who spoke with some awe about Chinatown and even more about Amoeba. After all, New York or Chicago could house some 500 high-rise apartment dwellers, all waiting in line for the elevator, on the land of that awe-inspiring emporium. Our local music makers were at their best. Esa-Pekka and the Philharmonic, with some help from the Pacific Chorale, filled Disney Hall with the audible rainbow that is Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë to end their season. Before had come John Adams’ Dharma at Big Sur — ear-catching in its billowing outbursts around Tracy Silverman’s electric violin but, for Adams, a curiously static piece. With the hall’s improved sound system, it didn’t antagonize the ear as it had during the inaugural concert in October 2003, but it remains a lesser work for Adams — which still places it on a high shelf. Across the street, the L.A. Opera ended splendidly, with two performances on levels unattained during an otherwise so-so season. No matter that both works — Verdi’s Falstaff and Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier — told basically the same tale in much the same way: dirty old man’s comeuppance at the hands of younger, cleverer connivers. Both resounded gloriously. They’re still on; for once, a top ticket price of $190 can be reckoned as “mere.” The Falstaff treads old ground. The sets date back to 1982, before there was an opera company, when the Philharmonic’s great Carlo Maria Giulini let himself be lured into opera. They were make-do then; look for the old laserdisc from when the production was new. But now there is Bryn Terfel’s Falstaff, which is sheer creative genius — not just the roisterer of the opera’s present day but the remnant of yesterday’s nobility. The comparison, actually, is worth attention: between the whole man — not the usual Falstaff stereotype — that Terfel creates in the final scenes of Verdi’s opera and the Baron Ochs embodied by Kurt Rydl in the Rosenkavalier as marvelously rethought by director Maximilian Schell. At the end, Ochs, too, in his most abject moment of discomfiture, must be reminded by the Marschallin that he, too, is a nobleman; in a quick, telling gesture he draws himself up accordingly. Many an Ochs I have seen has let this precious moment go by. Rydl did not. Kent Nagano conducts both operas: efficiently and nicely paced in the Falstaff; richly expressive and with the full range of authentic affection in the Rosenkavalier. The latter, indeed, is one of the company’s great triumphs, a visual rewrite of a work so encrusted in a much-observed tradition that you’d think the slightest new move might upset the balance. But no, from the opening in a bedroom furnished not in period fustian but in bare walls magically drenched in Alan Burrett’s saturated lighting, to the glorious overstatement of the look of the Baron himself, who seems costumed in neon, to the Marschallin’s final entrance, when the flush of her face seems to have drained into the unsexed blue of her gown, this is a story told in color and transformed — by the shaping skills of Max Schell’s direction and the design genius of Gottfried Helnwein — into a Rosenkavalier freshly renewed. The singing is every note as glorious as this enlightened production deserves: the clear yet melting sensibility of Adrianne Pieczonka’s Marschallin; the sturdy, unaffected Octavian of Alice Coote; the airborne shimmer of Elizabeth Futral’s Sophie — together in that final trio, which still floats in my ear like enchanted quicksilver. One further touch speaks for the evening’s high inventive level. Accompanying all three of the (admittedly long) act preludes are projected scenes from the 1926 silent film of Der Rosenkavalier, which was directed by Robert Wiene (of Caligari fame), and which now actually go very well with the noisy, trivial music. I’d love to see the film; both Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, insisted that it contain no action from the opera itself, and the cast did include the Marschallin’s husband (as the opera did not). We also get to see the young Octavian (played by the renowned Jacque Catelain) riding his horse to battle. Talk about filmic license! (Sudden flash: Could that misleading same-sex clinch on the Opera program book be a still from the film? I’ll bet!) NAGANO’S WEEK For his week’s third major accomplishment, Nagano delivered to a sold-out Royce Hall his Manzanar: An American Story — first developed with his Berkeley Symphony, performed at other California venues, and brought here on a wave of publicity, most of it deserved. To call the work an oratorio is to raise fears; the genre has absorbed much balderdash in recent years. Manzanar, however, rises far above expectations. Its music saves the day. Philip Kan Gotanda’s play details the Japanese presence in America, from the first arrivals to the forced internment in government camps after Pearl Harbor — with Manzanar, in Central California, singled out — to war’s end, the Vietnam era and the Reagan-engineered congressional “apology.” The text alternates between narration and drama, and was doled out this time among a distinguished cast that included Senator Daniel Inouye and noted actors Martin Sheen and Pat Suzuki. Nagano conducted the American Youth Symphony, which played this once far over its collective heads. The music is a collaborative affair, with bursts of pop-music pastiche by David Benoit to establish the American timeline and a rather pretty pastorale by Jean-Pascal Beintus underscoring the routine of life at Manzanar. By far the most, and the best, of the music is the work of Naomi Sekiya, Japanese-born, USC-educated. I heard her music first at Ojai a few years ago, where an excellent short orchestral work of hers won a young composer’s prize; I’ve encountered a few student works at USC, also with pleasure. None of this prepared me for the power of her Manzanar score, however, which is big, raw, muscular and truly eloquent. Remember the name, Naomi Sekiya; you’re going to hear it again.

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