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Dust Bowl

Photo by Marcia Lieberman

The week began with Madama Butterfly, not my favorite opera. Four days later came Mussorgsky’s 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 Philharmonic’s players after their month’s vacation. The orchestral work was mostly blaaah, despite Carolyn Hove’s elegant English-horn solo in Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture and Donald Green’s ditto trumpet work in Copland’s 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 Levee’s solo clarinet providing the evening’s 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?) Slatkin’s much-advertised forte is his attention to American music; how could he, then, allow his two soloists to turn five of Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs into an exercise in terminal cutes? Yes, Ramey had his moments, especially in the diabolical “Ecco il mondo” from Boïto’s Mefistofele, and von Stade’s encore, Stephen Sondheim’s “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 Mussorgsky’s Pictures, not in Maurice Ravel’s familiar and perfectly adequate orchestration from 1922, but as a pastiche: the 16 pieces in the hands of nine different orchestrators, from Mikhail Tushmalov’s first version in 1891 to Vladimir Ashkenazy’s 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 Mussorgsky’s piano originals. All told, however, it was an exercise in futility; whatever individuality one arranger’s version might have over another — Ravel’s saxophone vs. the trumpet of Sergei Gorchakov’s take on “The Old Castle,” for example — was nullified by the Bowl’s amplification system, adequate of its kind but hardly an appropriate medium for examining orchestrational subtleties. If the Pictures deserve a conductor’s 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. Wood’s “Oxcart.”) Where were Emerson, Lake and Palmer when we needed them?

Korea’s Han-Na Chang, all of 17, got through Tchaikovsky’s “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, I’m afraid I’m developing an allergy to teenage string players from either side of the Pacific (Hilary Hahn alone excepted). Slatkin’s program began with a suite from Shostakovich’s satiric Age of Gold music. The audience, which applauded loudly after the long and dreary first movement, didn’t 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 night’s 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 Wagner’s Valkyries once swooped and whooped in outdoor opera’s 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. Mexico’s 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 Puccini’s 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.