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Galore If Not Gala

A week that offers both The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni is twice blessed; this happened last week not in Vienna or London, but right here. There were noticeable dissimilarities between the L.A. Opera’s Figaro at the Music Center and UCLA Opera‘s Big Game offering, but not so much as you might think, and certainly not so much as the difference in ticket price -- $148 vs. $25 -- might suggest.

This is the fourth time around for the L.A. Opera’s production, created by Sir Peter Hall, which the company shares with the Chicago Lyric and which runs here through February 3. Conductor Marco Guidarini delivered the score on opening night in a tidy, nicely balanced, fleet performance. Susanna and the Count and Countess -- Maria Bayo, Claudio Otelli and Pamela Armstrong -- are newcomers. Richard Bernstein‘s Figaro dates from the 1994 and 1997 revivals, and gets better every time, lithe and witty and remarkably responsive to both the anger and whimsy in the role; he pretty much ran the show on opening night. Bayo’s Susanna, with her big, clear and flexible voice welling up out of her tiny, beguiling presence, would have stolen the show from anyone else.

Armstrong‘s Countess was also a lovely presence, although her ”Porgi amor“ lacked the stab of pain that others have delivered. Otelli’s Count, awash in unpleasantly visible spittle, was something of a stick. The gawky but likable Cherubino was Megan Dey-Toth, who, like Bernstein, is a product of the L.A. Opera‘s apprentice program, one of the company’s most creditable operations. Jonathan Mack, Jamie Offenbach and Cynthia Jansen were their eminently trustworthy selves in minor roles; John Atkins, another company stalwart, takes over as the Count in the last two performances. The two makeweight fourth-act arias for Marcellina and Basilio, which had been included in previous company revivals, were dropped this time, at no loss.

I saw the first of UCLA‘s two Don Giovanni performances, nicely staged on Tom Giamario’s complex set, which included some nifty hellfire at the end. The program book proclaimed a lot of gobbledygook by director Frans Boerlage, to the effect that his production would seek to restore the comedic side of Mozart‘s imponderable masterwork and downplay the tragic. Fortunately, nobody in the cast seemed to have read this or, at least, to have taken it to heart. There was some tampering, however. Elvira’s big aria, ”Mi tradi,“ was moved from late in the opera, where it belongs, to right after Leporello‘s ”Catalogue“ aria, where it made no dramatic sense. (Yes, I know that librettist Lorenzo da Ponte sanctioned that move in his late years, but he was wrong, too.) Boerlage also saw fit to restore the inept comic duet for Leporello and Zerlina, ”Per queste tue manine,“ which Mozart had later tossed in to titillate the Viennese crowd, a blemish on his divinity.

Aside from a bit of horseplay in Act Two that could have taken place on the doorstep of Animal House, the young cast delivered a spirited performance, properly moving at times, well-paced under William Vendice’s musical leadership -- a step upward from his bloodless La Boheme at the Music Center last November. I usually hesitate at singling out individual members of student casts, but I will not be surprised to encounter the names of In Joon Jang, the Giovanni, or Duana Demus, the Anna, in future operagoing. My compliments also to Bong-won Kye, the Ottavio, who attempted to emulate John McCormack‘s legendary feat of delivering the cadenzas in ”Il mio tesoro“ in single breaths, and came pretty damn close.

Opera Pacific’s Macbeth, which came between the two Mozart treasures, served to open the Verdi centennial celebration, and did so with distinction, not quite perfect but good enough to pass.

Shakespeare was Verdi‘s dramatic idol and his passion; Macbeth, first created in 1847 and extensively revised 18 years later, was his first requiting of that passion. The extraordinary musical insights of his Otello and Falstaff were not yet at his command; the brassy oom-pahs of his early style take over now and then (notably in the cornball measures as Duncan and his retinue march to their doom, and the big choral numbers wherein Shakespeare’s mere three Witches become a stage-filling chorus). Both the 1847 and 1865 versions have their flaws, and wiser music directors concoct a kind of pastiche from both.

That was John DeMain‘s decision in his Macbeth for Costa Mesa; it wisely did away with the Witches’ ballet, the worst of their scenes, but retained the final music of Macbeth‘s defeat and death from the early version. As happens frequently at Opera Pacific since his accession as artistic director in 1998, DeMain was the evening’s true hero, laying out a spirited, richly colored performance to honor the exuberance of Verdi‘s art while maintaining respect for the composer’s honorable evocation of Shakespeare‘s tragic accents.

In a prevailingly young cast, Richard Paul Fink delivered a resonant portrait of Shakespeare’s doomed hero, although his dramatic baritone seemed occasionally awash in its own juiciness. Cynthia Lawrence had a few shrill moments as his Lady, but exited most appealingly on the famous high D-flat of her ”Sleepwalking“ aria. Eric Owens‘ Banquo and the ringing challenge of Andrew Richards’ Macduff figured among the evening‘s modest stock of genuine vocal treasures. Colin Graham’s production, created originally for Chile‘s Santiago Opera, moved smoothly amid the mobile big black blocks strewn with skeletal bones and other spookeries in Ramon Lopez’s stage designs. The luxuriant tatters of Joel Berlin‘s Witches’ costumes looked just off the boat from Hell, another positive enhancement.

My operatic inundation had actually begun the previous weekend. In San Francisco for John Adams‘ astonishing new El Niño, about which more in a couple of weeks, I also dropped in on the Lamplighters and their current The Gondoliers, sheer delight despite the unaccountable omission of the ”Spark of a swindle“ duet, a most farsighted takeoff on celebrity product endorsements. Tamperings or no, the Lamplighters -- now rounding out their 48th season -- offer the best Gilbert and Sullivan available in this country. Monroe Kanouse is their music director, whom I last knew half a century ago as a promising Berkeley undergrad; his Gondoliers had the ensemble elegance and clarity of Mozart. The crowd had the expected preponderance of aged-in-wood Savoyards, among whom I reckon myself; still, there were enough smooth young faces in attendance to suggest that this cherishable repertory has a few more years of life -- as do we all.


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