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At Long Beach, Unusual Biz As Usual

Photo by Kenneth Ian PolakoffSITE NON-SPECIFICTrust the Long Beach Opera as time-and-place travelers. Not so long ago the company asked us to accept a transplant of Richard Strauss’ blood-drenched Elektra from sun-swept Grecian isles to the doom-haunted shores of Malibu. For its latest venture into anachronism, revealed two weeks ago in the Carpenter Center at Cal State Long Beach, the opera in question was Handel’s Semele — high-flying sex games among the crowd on Mount Olympus’ sacred slopes — and the curtain rose on an exact replica of the set for that further-down-to-earth epic of recent memory known as Dallas. Jupiter’s courtship of the nymph Semele went on at real-life Texas-style barbecues, and moved on a few scenes later to a motel complete with neon signage surrounded with a veritable fleet of cut-out cars of late-’70s vintage. And, to the surprise of nobody among us innumerable Long Beach Opera well-wishers, it all somehow worked. Isabel Milenski, daughter of the company’s founder, contributed another of her strong, imaginative productions — daring in outline, never beyond good sense. What mattered most, the preservation of Handelian musical values, came through beautifully projected in the strength of Andreas Mitisek’s musical leadership and the almost (if not entirely) crystalline clarity of the supporting Musica Angelica instrumental ensemble. Caroline Worra, the Semele, managed her couple of killer arias very nicely; Cynthia Jansen, the best-known name in the cast, was the bitch-goddess Juno and set the stage aflame in her well-known manner. Darcy Scanlin’s scenery for Semele used dozens of fake cars to good effect. The Threepenny Opera, Long Beach’s other June offering, had one genuine police car onstage, to no effect. Christopher Alden, directorial stalwart (along with his brother David) at Long Beach since the company’s founding, came up this time with a lame-brained staging of the Weill-Brecht masterpiece, empty in sight and sound. There were extensive cuts, and songs were assigned to the wrong characters (beginning with the “Mack the Knife” song sung by Macheath himself!) so as to undercut — dramatically and musically — much of the work’s glorious bite. The right instruments were in the pit, and Mitisek was successful in drawing from them the sounds and rhythms to honor Weill’s 1928 idea of down-and-dirty jazz. But not many people on the stage seemed capable of carrying that concept forward: only Constance Hauman as a blowzy Mrs. Peachum; Suzan Hanson, who delivered Polly’s two great songs; and Mark Bringelson as a deliciously corruptible Tiger Brown. But there was no swash and even less buckle in Hans Tester’s Macheath; the notion of enlisting a male singer (John Altieri) as Jenny (Lotte Lenya’s role in the original) was a touch of imposed cuteness whose benefits escaped me. CARLO MARIA GIULINI (1914–2005) It was a sight nobody can forget: the noble figure out of some grand seicento painting, approaching the Philharmonic’s podium proudly yet humbly. The music Giulini made during his time with us was the personification of that image: aristocratic and eloquent above all. I had the supreme good fortune of spending a week watching him rehearse the Beethoven Fifth in 1981: a warhorse, to be sure, but a work he hadn’t conducted in 16 years. His performance back then had displeased him; he had taken the time off to rethink his own attitude toward the score. Part of this process had been to re-study the hen-scratches that constituted Beethoven’s original manuscript, to puzzle over tiny details that might have eluded him 16 years before — and that might have eluded many other conductors as well. Sure enough, I went home and checked some of those details he showed me with other recordings on my shelves, including a couple of legendary Toscanini versions. Giulini had made some discoveries — not world-shaking, perhaps, but significant. This tells me much about Giulini not as a man of musicology, but as a man of conscience; that’s the memory I cherish. His Deutsche Grammophon recording of the Fifth, from those 1981 sessions, abides. His repertory was small, and it was limited to the music that lay within the realm of his own great spirit. At our first meeting — at a brief interview in Chicago, when he was still principal guest conductor of that city’s orchestra — he explained his difficulty with the music of Richard Strauss. “He comes toward me so strongly,” he explained, “that he leaves no room for me to come to him.” Later that day, Giulini conducted Chicago’s musical forces in Mozart’s Requiem at Orchestra Hall, and the first notes of that performance, the deep, sorrowing woodwinds, shared those sorrows with me in a way that I can still remember. I talked to longtime Philharmonic cellist Dan Rothmuller the other day, collecting Giulini reminiscences. “There’s a murderous passage in the Beethoven Ninth, one of many,” Dan recalled. “It has the strings playing in sextuplets building up to a crescendo. I remember once when Kurt Sanderling was guest-conducting, that stern East German with a passion for detail. ‘Gentlemen,’ he shouted to the orchestra, ‘that passage is supposed to be the Apocalypse.’ Giulini came, and a couple of years later we played the Ninth with him, and we came to the same passage. ‘Gentlemen,’ he told us, ‘this passage is the music of God and the lights of the Firmament.’” Last year, on Giulini’s 90th birthday, Tim Mangan of the Orange County Register got through to him by phone and published their conversation: sad, moving and somehow deeply tinged with the Giulini we want to remember. Download it here, and while you read it, listen to the Giulini recording that remains my absolute favorite, the Dvorák Seventh Symphony with the London Philharmonic that comes (or used to) on a two-disc EMI set with Nos. 8 and 9. Next week I’ll list a few more essential Giulini recordings. Obiter dictum: A quest for pure pleasure drew me back for a second viewing of the Los Angeles Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier at its next-to-last performance. Margaret Thompson replaced the ailing Alice Coote as Octavian; Suzanna Guzmán replaced Thompson as Annina. Both were wonderful.


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