An Even Poorer Butterfly
Over the past few years I have occasionally been moved to deliver unhappy words about this or that production by our local opera company. Following these occasions, I have often been summoned to lunch by Peter Hemmings, the company's general director, and invited to eat my words (along with more palatable fare). This season, however, I have yet to be summoned, which suggests that even Hemmings himself has begun to acknowledge that his company has fallen on bad times and, specifically, that the five of eight productions so far this season do scant credit to an organization that aspires to present world-class opera at world-class ticket prices -- $137 for the current muddle of a Madama Butterfly revival.
I am not ready, however, to lay the company's gloomy string of near failures and not-quite successes entirely on Hemmings' leadership. An opera company, the most glamorous and expensive of any city's cultural amenities, is run by its board of directors, chosen above all for their proximity to Money; they hire the artistic lead- ership and monitor its ability to keep Money happy. Traditionally, Money is happiest when confronted by stars and by familiar, easy listening. There's a famous story, probably true, that one of the founding dowagers of the Metropolitan Opera demanded that the company move the Act 1 tenor aria in Aida to later in the opera, since she wasn't in the habit of arriving on time. In that instance management told Mrs. Moneybags to go climb a tree; I wonder if they'd be so brave today.
Hemmings came to Los Angeles with distinguished credentials: brave operatic explorations -- along with the inevitable confrontations with boards -- in England, Scotland and Australia. His first seasons here continued in that vein; even the failures -- the Berlioz Les Troyens, for one -- were at least interesting. Now the company is beset; the Domingo appointment as Hemmings' successor surprised nobody but still shocked everybody; the talk around town is that that blame lies not with Hemmings but with the descendants of Mrs. Moneybags on the board. Valuable and capable staff members have come but quickly gone: most recently publicist Elizabeth Connell, marketing director Joan Cumming and, at season's end, executive director Pat Mitchell. It takes little imagination to envision the current morale among company members -- singers and staff alike -- still clinging to hopes for the distinctive and adventurous opera company that Los Angeles deserves and, not so long ago, actually had.
The current Madama Butterfly -- four times around for this production (as its tatters now clearly show), five times for the opera itself, counting the first year's attempt -- should be gladdening to the Moneybags crowd, if a happy box-office response has any meaning. As the 15-year-old Butterfly, we have the clearly overripe diva (Yoko Watanabe) whose publicity unabashedly cites over 400 previous performances as Puccini's hapless heroine; her dream-hero is the comparably well-worn utility tenor (Richard Leech) whose career has afforded him mastery of every shade of fortissimo singing but little else. They move (no, make that stumble) to a clumsy and seemingly directionless restaging by Christopher Harlan. These are the ingredients for the clipped-wing cadaver the company is currently passing off as $137 worth of grand opera.
Mitigating factors? They include the decently well-paced podium leadership of Marco Guidarini -- better than that of any previous conductor of the work here -- and the usual strong work in supporting roles by the company's homegrown current or recent "associate artists": mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzmán as the servant Suzuki; baritone John Atkins as the well-intentioned Consul Sharpless; and, despite a ludicrous and ill-fitting bald headpiece, Louis Lebherz in a terrific few moments as the implacable Bonze.
Five times, and they still haven't gotten it right; whatever happened to shame?
There was far better Puccini, and greater pleasure all told, at UCLA this past weekend, as the school's newly resurgent opera program produced two delicious short comedies: the Gianni Schicchi that rounds off Puccini's triptych of beautifully crafted one-acters, and Francis Poulenc's giddy farce Les Mamelles de Tirésias. The Puccini, as Johnny Schicchi, was translated into English and, at no serious loss, set among studio lowlifes and hangers-on in Hollywood circa 1935. The Poulenc, which adorns a surrealist text by Guillaume Apollinaire whose overlay of puns and other wordplay defies translation, was wisely left as is. An attempt was made to link the two works dramatically through some pantomime at the start and a few explanatory lines in the program book: harmless but needless gadgetry.
Bravo all around. This was the third production I'd seen -- after The Rake's Progress and Falstaff -- since UCLA revived its opera program with some wise funding from the Maxwell H. Gluck Foundation. William Vendice is its artistic director, certainly the best of the "occasional regular" conductors on Peter Hemmings' roster; his conducting of both works, in the cramped and acoustically tricky space of the school's Schoenberg Hall, was both lively and considerate. Dorothy-Jean Lloyd directed the Poulenc as her doctoral project, and led an exceptional young cast through a remarkably close re-creation of the work's multilevel delirium. Her mentor, Frans Boerlage, formerly at USC, directed the Puccini and created the updated text. The singing in both works -- and, above all, the ensemble work -- was nicely trained and obviously loving.
There have been times in Los Angeles history when the strongest and most interesting operatic activity took place at schools: Jan Popper at UCLA, Walter Ducloux at USC, later Natalie Limonick and Frans Boerlage. With the gloom 'n' doom I sense at the Music Center -- and believe me, I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong in that regard -- the current level of activity at both schools could be the final refuge for those who cling to the notion of opera as a serious artistic commodity.
Bravo, too, for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's concert last week at Royce Hall. Jeffrey Kahane came up with a couple of small-scale 1940s rarities very much worth attention: Samuel Barber's prickly Capricorn Concerto -- Stravinsky stirred into Bach -- and Richard Strauss' world-weary but pretty Duet-Concertino, one of his sunset works. A parade of orchestra members served as the exceptionally fluent soloists: oboist Allan Vogel, flutist David Shostac and trumpeter David Washburn in the Barber, clarinetist Gary Gray and bassoonist Kenneth Munday in the Strauss, reminders that LACO -- as a whole or in its parts -- is one of our most valued resources.
At the end there was Ivan Moravec as soloist in Mozart's D-minor Piano Concerto, wonderfully in tune with the work's astounding quotient of anger and dark passion, and locked as well into Kahane's own enlightened view of the work. Over the years I have recoiled at the hype Moravec's record company, the Connoisseur Society, poured over his career; yet, for the duration of that Mozart concerto last Friday, he very well could have been, as the ads once proclaimed, the world's greatest pianist.
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