The opera company that rose to distinction with Don Carlo, Poppea and Mahagonny during its excellent season lurched toward triviality at season’s end, first with last month’s overproduced, overstuffed Merry Widow and now with Luisa Fernanda. In a press briefing a week before the premiere, general director Plácido Domingo expressed the idea of founding a bicoastal troupe devoted to zarzuela, the endearing Hispanic musical theater studded with popular masterpieces, of which Federico Moreno Torroba’s Luisa Fernanda, out of his 80, is one. Domingo stopped short of proclaiming a glowing future for such a fragile, small, winsome entertainment adrift in a 3,000-plus-seat grand-opera house at $200-plus tickets; such a dream demands fulfillment in a setting smaller and friendlier to the art and its audience. However, since his personal history includes years in his parents’ zarzuela troupe in Spain and in Mexico, I suppose it was inevitable that he’d be impatient to share this chapter of his personal history, however inappropriate the venue. Hence the current Luisa Fernanda in Mrs. Chandler’s Pavilion, a small, pretty bird where elephants once trod.
Domingo has cast himself in a leading role, one of Luisa’s rival suitors, thus placing others in this unbalanced cast at a disadvantage — most of all his almost voiceless rival, tenor Antonio Gandía, who actually makes off with the girl at the end — but assuring capacity ticket sales for the seven-performance run. There is nothing in Torroba’s pretty score, which dates from 1932, that you haven’t heard in some of this city’s best restaurants. Domingo was in fair voice on opening night, and so was Yali-Marie Williams, a mettlesome, strong-voiced soprano who took over for the “indisposed” star in the title role. Some old friends — the splendid mezzo Suzanna Guzman for one, always a welcome sight and sound — appear in minor roles. The sets, by old-time zarzuela hand Emilio Sagi, who also stage-directs, have already made the rounds of Madrid’s Teatro Real (as you can see on an ArtHaus DVD) and Domingo’s Washington Opera. They are a curious mix: rooms furnished with rows of plain ladderback chairs, with faint shadows of dancers behind a scrim, and a huge tree at the end that is pretty but cramps the whole stage, some striking abstractions, some washed-out emptiness. I gather that the zarzuela tradition does not embrace fancy scenery.
What I Do and Why
The small annoyances pass while the darker clouds gather. The news about classical music is not good; let’s face it. For every successful programming adventure by orchestra managements here or in San Francisco, for every signing of a dazzling and promising new talent, there is news of record companies going under, of orchestras cutting back on projects. The perpetrators are in trouble, and so, now, are the judges, as though Mr. Bush had decided that we could get along with only four or five justices on the Supreme Court — or maybe none.
New York Magazine has just fired Peter Davis, one of its only two classical music critics since it began, as a Sunday supplement to the Herald Tribune, in 1963. (I was the other.) It can get along without a critic, says the editor. Okay, New York has others to look after its busy musical life, including The New Yorker’s Alex Ross, whom I aspire to be someday, but what about Atlanta and Minneapolis, whose major papers have lost or drastically cut back on coverage?
The loudest argument advanced by editors is that classical events usually occur only once or twice, so that they’re gone by the time the review appears (in a daily) or long gone (in the paper you hold). That puts yesterday’s Philharmonic concert in the same league with yesterday’s Dodgers game — and it doesn’t really work there either. The sun shines brighter when the Dodgers win than when they don’t. Classical music aerates a community; we’ve had explosive proof with Disney Hall. It comes cloaked in a certain air of mystery, which the critic is there to penetrate. Because it has a strong impact on emotions, it also generates a lot of nut cases who, these days, have access to the Internet, so that we have both not enough music criticism — or, let’s call it, “writing around music” — and too much in the form of blogs. Alex Ross’ blog, TheRestIsNoise.com, is, however, required daily reading, for its own wisdom, for its generosity in linking to many of those others out there, and for the photos of his gorgeous cats.
This goes nowhere toward addressing the growing problem. A community’s musical life needs a spokesperson — no, more than one, it needs a couple who can disagree, as I do with Mark Swed , who loves Luisa Fernanda — whose credentials have been checked to include some degree of musical education. It disturbs me greatly that Peter Davis in New York, Pierre Ruhe in Atlanta and Michael Anthony in Minneapolis — guys of exceptional musical intelligence — are having their wings trimmed or lopped off. What bothers me even more is the double talk from their former employers, to the effect that the musical life in their respective communities — at a time when the falling off of ticket sales, new-music creativity, school activity, and every other sign you can name of music’s need for strong, intelligent evangelism at the center of each and every community — can somehow survive without the words of serious critical leadership.
Being a critic at its best means, to me, becoming worked up over an experience and simply bursting to share it. The words often begin to come in the car on the way home. After Karel Husa’s Music for Prague, I knew by the time I passed the La Brea turnoff that I had to use the B word for the first time in my life. (The one other time was a quote.) But my favorite experience — perhaps ever — came last fall, when I got so angry over Chris Pasles’ ignorant putdown of the L.A. Opera’s Poppea that I circularized my mailing list imploring people to ignore it, spread the word and go. The opera company sold out the run, and I think I may have helped. That’s what critics do.