|Photo by Marcia Lieberman|
The week began with Madama Butterfly, not my favorite opera. Four days later came Mussorgskys Pictures at an Exhibition, which I had successfully avoided for several years. In between, on the Tuesday-night concert that, two weeks into the season, is always billed as the official opening night at the Hollywood Bowl meaning, actually, the night on which the press gets bought off for the summer with free food and drink, and on which the Philharmonic returns to take up its residence at this home-not-very-far-away-from-home Frederica von Stade came out onstage and persuaded an elegant, seductive Offenbach aria to nestle in that honey-textured voice of hers. For those few minutes I knew, or thought I knew, that the Bowl could do no wrong.
There were, alas, only a few such minutes in the first classical week at the Bowl. Leonard Slatkin, a local boy now making good worldwide head of the National Symphony Orchestra, son of two founding members of the Hollywood String Quartet of glowing memory seemed unable, or at least unwilling, to energize the Philharmonics players after their months vacation. The orchestral work was mostly blaaah, despite Carolyn Hoves elegant English-horn solo in Berliozs Roman Carnival Overture and Donald Greens ditto trumpet work in Coplands An Outdoor Overture. Better than either of these was the four-minute span of Walking the Dog, which George Gershwin fashioned from his score to the Astaire-Rogers Shall We Dance, with Lorin Levees solo clarinet providing the evenings best solo singing by some distance.
Flicka von Stade and Sam Ramey sang; I have admired them both, sometimes to distraction, for years, but years was the operative word this night. They sang Là, ci darem la mano, the seduction duet from Don Giovanni, as what they were: two middle-aged singers fulfilling an assignment, and trying without success to keep time with the orchestra. (Did they rehearse this? Does such tired, slack work deserve airing before a 7,102-member audience in seats costing up to $83?) Slatkins much-advertised forte is his attention to American music; how could he, then, allow his two soloists to turn five of Aaron Coplands Old American Songs into an exercise in terminal cutes? Yes, Ramey had his moments, especially in the diabolical Ecco il mondo from Boïtos Mefistofele, and von Stades encore, Stephen Sondheims Send in the Clowns, brought something like tears. (But that song does it for me every time, anyhow.)
Two nights later, Slatkin perpetrated something even more bizarre: a traversal of Mussorgskys Pictures, not in Maurice Ravels familiar and perfectly adequate orchestration from 1922, but as a pastiche: the 16 pieces in the hands of nine different orchestrators, from Mikhail Tushmalovs first version in 1891 to Vladimir Ashkenazys extraneous effort from the 1970s. Slatkin prefaced his bland if efficient performance with a congenial chat, orchestra members demonstrating the fine points of the various embellishments imposed onto Mussorgskys piano originals. All told, however, it was an exercise in futility; whatever individuality one arrangers version might have over another Ravels saxophone vs. the trumpet of Sergei Gorchakovs take on The Old Castle, for example was nullified by the Bowls amplification system, adequate of its kind but hardly an appropriate medium for examining orchestrational subtleties. If the Pictures deserve a conductors attention at all, which I will dispute, why not at least preserve the integrity of a single orchestrator? The Ravel version, brought in for the final two sections, including the Great Gate at Kiev, rose far above everything that had come before. (I did, however, like the cowbells in Sir Henry J. Woods Oxcart.) Where were Emerson, Lake and Palmer when we needed them?
Koreas Han-Na Chang, all of 17, got through Tchaikovskys Rococo Variations okay, all the notes in place but the music somewhere else, proving nothing except that she can play the cello. In any case, Im afraid Im developing an allergy to teenage string players from either side of the Pacific (Hilary Hahn alone excepted). Slatkins program began with a suite from Shostakovichs satiric Age of Gold music. The audience, which applauded loudly after the long and dreary first movement, didnt crack so much as a yuk at the antics in the Polka, something I ascribe not to the music (which is genuinely funny), but to the sleepy way it was performed.
Before all this, and better than any of it, came Sunday nights Butterfly, a happy return for John Mauceri as an opera conductor after the fiasco of the Turandot cancellation two years ago. There was no scenery, and no real attempt to simulate a visual performance (except for the fancy stage lighting, which did a nice sunrise to begin the last scene, followed by a blood-red finale). The hills around the Bowl, down which Wagners Valkyries once swooped and whooped in outdoor operas happier days, are now taken up with condos.
Never mind. Russian soprano Natalia Dercho, the Butterfly, sang with rich, powerful tone better suited to a Tosca, perhaps, but nicely reflective of the passion if not the girlish innocence in this Puccini weeper as well. Mexicos Alfredo Portilla, the Pinkerton, squalled some and sang some; Louis Otey was the sturdy Consul Sharpless, and Zheng Cao, the Suzuki, gets better all the time at scene-stealing. The real hero, however, was the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, whose presence on the stage (rather than in an orchestra pit) gave Puccinis orchestral effects the tinkling small bells, the whiplash percussion outbursts, the tendency of strings to wrap themselves sexily around the vocal lines a considerable profile. If there must be Butterfly which, again, I will dispute let it be like this.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.