Verona in Waltz Time

Photo by Robert MillardMUD AND SUGAR If there must be Gounod — a point I will argue — let it be thus. The mud and sugar of his Roméo et Juliette do not entirely disappear behind the splendor of the L.A. Opera’s performance, but that night at the opera is, indeed, a dream happenstance. If you come away more oppressed by humidity than by heat, the fault resides in the opera’s original formulators, not in the team currently at work at the Music Center. They have done their work well. Anna Netrebko sings the Juliet, and what comes out — most of all in her Waltz number, which is the only tune anyone remembers from this very long opera — is the stuff of moonbeams. Rolando Villazón, the Romeo, is a dreamboat who sings like an angel while climbing ladders onto balconies and into hearts. There’s a scene in bed, with paired bare abs and pecs all agleam in dawn’s early light; yum. Marc Barrard sings of Queen Mab, trippingly and with high delight; Suzanna Guzman is a delightfully crusty Nurse in the few lines the creators have left her; Anna-Maria Panzarella steals a small scene in the song for Stephano (Balthasar in Shakespeare). John Gunter designed the sets, a cluster of multilevel, movable scaffold units that create interesting crowd spaces for showing off Tim Goodchild’s opulent period costumes. Director Ian Judge, an L.A. Opera stalwart, moves people around with fine intelligence; I particularly admire the way he lets the Act 3 fight gradually emerge out of the crowd. Conductor Frédéric Chaslin, new to the company, is French; that means, I suppose, that he has mastered the art of conducting without embarrassment the astonishingly large repertory of bad romantic music by his countrymen, to which Gounod supplied a fair amount. And yet I read, in the words of authors I admire, words like exquisite in writings about Roméo et Juliette — though never, of course, about Gounod’s Faust, toward which even the most optimistic have abandoned hope. Re Faust, however, I do admire Joseph Kerman’s “pastel timidities,” and I think that the “timidity” problem, in whatever color intensity, underlies this later opera as well. Nothing soars; the ecstasy, the urgency behind Romeo’s “Ah, lève-toi, soleil” at the start of the Balcony Scene, is clipped as the tune itself falters. (Even Tony’s “Maria,” in the comparable spot in West Side Story, flies higher.) And that is the start of Gounod’s sad catalog. In New York I used to get letters from a “Society To Prevent Cruelty to Gounod,” which I think was formed solely to do me battle. I wonder if it’s still around. SMALLER PLEASURES Chamber music, most of it homegrown, flourished especially well during January. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, conductorless for once, wasted 10 or so minutes of everybody’s time with Joel McNeely’s Two Portraits, composed by Mr. McNeely — a proficient creator of film scores, I’m told — for his wife, the LACO’s first violinist, Margaret Batjer. I haven’t seen any McNeely films — which include Holes and Ghosts of the Abyss — but I can guess that he has developed a fair expertise at his craft, and another fair expertise at tearing off swatches of his musical wallpaper and passing them off as serious music when the urge is upon him. The evening’s high point, and it was very high, was an elegant performance of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, in its original scoring for 13 players, sweetly led by Ms. Batjer from the first violinist’s chair and gorgeously lit by the solo oboe of Allan Vogel and the clarinet of Gary Gray. At such times, LACO remains unsurpassable. Earlier in the month, Santa Monica’s Jacaranda concerts came up with yet another of their exceptionally rewarding, brainy events, a Latino affair culminating in all four of the string quartets by the troubled and still grossly undervalued Silvestre Revueltas: 45 minutes of music composed in a grand whoosh (around 1930-31) and probably demanding to be performed that way. There are sags; the throb of a life colored by alcohol and political conscience pulls the music this way and that. The final music, full of fiesta sounds and yet tragic, is thrilling. The splendid young Denali Quartet, who have had to reconstruct, even re-imagine, the music from incomplete published sources, made it their own at the end of a knockout program that also included a percussion segment, with Varèse’s Ionisation gloriously blasting against the walls of Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian. Very much like Jacaranda — in fact, sharing some of its performers — is Mládí, which has been going now for four years but which I only discovered last weekend. The name is Bohemian for “Youth”; the aim, once again, is to develop a chamber-music awareness in Los Angeles, with the widest possible repertory and with a generation of devoted young players who, above all, seek an alternative to the inevitable New York destiny. Most concerts are in the acoustically spectacular lobby of the famous old Los Altos Apartments on Wilshire, where Patty Hearst’s apartment is now a museum. The room seats about 100. Residents occasionally walk through, some with dogs; a fire crackles; there is wine and coffee. It’s a real chamber-music venue, in other words. Last week’s program included Bernard Herrmann’s garrulous Souvenirs du Voyage and Darius Milhaud’s elegant wind quintet about King René’s chimney. Mládí’s next concert is March 26. The new work was Alex Shapiro’s Current Events, which was receiving its second performance hereabouts and deserves circulation. Her title, by the way, refers to her hobby, which has something to do with “communing with the sea life at tide pools.” It’s music exceptionally well made if fairly low on surprises; I found it most attractive, especially in a long, beautifully unfolding slow movement. In her pre-performance talk she kept invoking the ghost of Brahms, but I think she sold herself short on that count; her string scoring had little of the thickness with which the good Doktor was often given to burying his best thoughts. I wonder if he ever caught the romance of a tide pool. Obiter Dictum: I suppose I am expected to say something about Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony and the Mahler Ninth, just to stop being cornered. I found it to be a performance of MTT performing the Mahler Ninth. Far into the next night I listened to Bruno Walter’s performance with the Vienna Philharmonic (which has just been reissued by EMI), re-read Lewis Thomas’ Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, and eventually felt both worse and better.