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Footloose and Footless

There is no ballet in Verdi’s Il Trovatore as composed in 1853; one was added, to accord with the demands of Parisian taste, for Le Trouvère in 1857, its music an anonymous hodgepodge of garish re-orchestrations of parts of the Gypsy-camp music from a previous scene. For reasons beyond fathoming, the Los Angeles Opera’s 1998 production was burdened with a restoration of a pared-down version of this ballet, and it has been allowed to remain in the current revival. How insane this decision has been should become clear when I relate the action of Andrew George’s choreography, in which a group of the Count di Luna’s armored soldiers chase down, corner and gang-rape a bevy of prisoners (read “detainees”). Where was Michael Moore when we needed him?

Stephen Lawless’ production, never a thing of beauty for the eye, has at least been drastically bettered for the ear. The American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky — in her 30s and with some history in workshops here at UCLA and USC but only now coming into her own — has the ideal voice for the put-upon Verdi heroine. She has the dark throb that evokes the sounds of the magical past — of Leontyne, of Maria, of Zinka on her good nights, and their power to draw tears from a turn of phrase (most of all in the magical sequence of arias at the start of Act 4). Beyond all of that she also commands, or did on opening night, an ease of coloratura only sporadically vouchsafed to those goddesses of the past; she is, in other words, a Find.

That was enough to elevate the Trovatore this time around over the previous run, drab scenery, pseudo-symbolic staging and all. But there was also more: the dazzling, headlong Azucena of Dolora Zajick, without whose firebrand tonsils no company should consider producing this opera nowadays. There was the decent Manrico of Franco Farina, clean and spirited and blessedly free of the tenorial self-indulgences that encrust the role. There was the workaday Count di Luna of Roberto Frontali and, in the pit, the leadership of Lawrence Foster: neither disgraceful, neither memorable.

Above any of these varied pleasures, however, there was one truly memorable event when sight and sound did come together. It happened during what is my favorite moment in the opera, when Verdi spins a sublime counterpoint out of the mutterings of the foiled Count on one part of the stage, his soldiers echoing his frustrations over on the other and, in between but offstage, a chorus of nuns singing of matters celestial. At this juncture, by accident or design, the panels of Benoît Dugardyn’s ugly stage separated to create a visual triptych that exactly mirrored the music. One moment here, the next moment gone, but it’s what I remember most from the whole up-and-down evening.

 

Last week’s Master Chorale concert at Disney offered fair evidence of Grant Gershon’s enterprise in building his ensemble into a significant part of our musical life, offering concerts for the thinking listener as well as the pleasure-seeking. This program was decidedly aimed at the former: Only a small portion of the chorus was involved; seekers after the thunderous Alleluia were doomed to disillusion. Three major works, historically as well as musically important, made up the program; they spanned some 900 chronological years and yet bore strong relationships across that time span.

Much is made in your Music 101 of the Pérotin Viderunt Omnes as the music in which counterpoint was invented (in the 12th century), and of Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass as the music in which counterpoint was rescued (in the 16th). That’s rather pat, of course, although the survival strengths of both works do provide valuable samplings of their time — if not, of course, of their respective place, which was something other than an acoustically excellent concert hall. The smooth, elegant, jig-time rhythms of the Master Chorale’s take on Pérotin might surely have offended the pious Magister of Notre Dame, but possibly tickled the good scholar who reported on such matters (and whose non-name survives as Anonymous Four). Of the Palestrina Mass, the legend — counterpoint on the brink of churchly condemnation, Palestrina’s pretty music saving the day — is the stuff of greater romance, and has been turned into at least one actual opera (by Pfitzner, and don’t ask). The problem here is that the music is so harmonically correct and therefore bland that it becomes unlistenable. Give me Gesualdo and a few parallel fifths any day.

At the end there was the fresh air of our own time — fresh, bracing and swept along under clouds of gray in the Te Deum of Arvo Pärt. Not for him the exuberant jiggety-jog of Pérotin or the sweet welcomings of Palestrina; if anything, the dark elegies on Pärt’s bleak landscape seem to extend back to the start of time. With small groups of singers spread through the hall, his music seems to define space — not as Berlioz will with his massive forces in the Requiem, but in small points of sound echoing across emptiness. On tape there were other sounds, gusts of winds recorded on the Norway coast. The harmonies clash; at a distance their mingling resembles a favorite Pärt sound, the ringing of bells. This is music from 1984, revised in 1992; it seems at once the newest music on the program and the oldest.

One aspect of Arvo Pärt’s music I value most highly is his ability to outline space with the most modest means: a few

performing groups, or simply solos widely spaced, or a few musicians performing together but in harmonies marvelously spaced. Composers are not always so successful. Liza Lim’s Ecstatic Architecture, which Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonic performed last week, was commissioned as part of the orchestra’s “Building Music” festival now going on. It purports, or so the Australian composer would have us believe, to celebrate the hall and its architect. On the stage is a kind of design concept: cellos down front, horns off to the sides, brass with woodwind mouthpieces, ecstatic — no, I mean exotic — percussion, all setting up a momentous racket for 25 minutes. Whether the result is more Disney Hall than, say, Grand Central Station I am not enough of an architect to say. I have liked some of Lim’s music, including The Heart’s Ear, a chamber piece at a recent Green Umbrella concert, but this piece, at least on first hearing, I found most unattractive and also — when matched against her pre-concert statements, which smacked of flack-talk at its most arrogant — something of a leg-pull. At my advanced age, I prefer my legs under me.