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Grimm and Ghastly

Photo by Ken Howard
BY RIGHTS, HANSEL UND GRETEL SHOULD have been cast onto the discard pile generations ago. The opera simply doesn't work. Some of the tunes by Engelbert Humperdinck (the First) are pretty enough to blend into shopping-mall Muzak; on the opera stage, however, they clash with the characters themselves, and clash more fatally with the fetid, Wagner-tinged orchestration. The opera survives on its presumed appeal -- open to question in this day and age -- as a work for children. Yet the custom, observed to ghastly extent in the current Los Angeles Opera production, is to weigh the work down with extraneous "adult" gimmickry, starting with the transmogrification of the Witch into a drag queen -- Judith Christin in the present version, Ragnar Ulfung the last time around at the Music Center, Anna Russell in a New York staging of fonder memory. A better idea, I should think, would be to hand the name roles over to singers of Wagnerian proportion -- the cast of the Met's current Tristan und Isolde, for example; then, at least, there could be some matchup between the characters and the orchestra.

At the Music Center -- oops, I forgot; it's now the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County, henceforth PACOLAC (take two at bedtime) -- the Grimm Brothers' forest is now New York's Central Park, in a pretty set like Citizen Kane's snow globe. The "14 angels" are done up like guests on their way to a Jay Gatsby lawn party; the homeless Sandman has so far eluded Mayor Giuliani's cops; the Witch's cottage could pass for the Dakota Apartments, with an oven Julia Child might envy.

Okay so far? It gets worse. Everybody converses in English, then lapses into German for the tunes, or at least so we are told. Aside from Paula Rasmussen's Hansel, who deserves better surroundings, the singing might as well be in middle-high Urdu. Are the kiddie audiences expected to crane their dear little necks to follow the supertitles, projected as they are high above the stage and difficult enough even for aging music critics? The company might be advised to install a few resident chiropractors for the rest of the run.

Enough; it's a lousy show, riddled with poor judgments, soggily staged and conducted, a disgrace at a $146 top ticket. A couple of days before, I had taken in some far superior operatic merchandise: the USC Opera Workshop's staging of Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus, charming, delightfully directed, nicely sung in a comprehensible English translation, admirably faithful to the sight, sound and comic spirit of the original work -- with tickets at a $10 top.

SCHUBERT LOOMED LARGE LAST WEEK: the String Quintet in a stupendous performance on Monday, and the little-known chamber chorus Gesang der Geister über den Wassern on Zubin Mehta's Philharmonic program on Thursday. The choral work, a setting of a Goethe poem lasting about 12 minutes and scored for eight male singers and a quintet of low strings, suffered from being triply inflated to fit the proportions of a symphonic program, and suffered even more as a group from the Master Chorale sang with the texture of a wet paper towel. Still, the remarkable shape of the music, with its chains of sideslipping key changes to mirror the dark chills of Goethe's poetry, was an interesting addition to an interesting program that I'll get back to in a minute.

The quintet, performed by four Philharmonic members, plus Lynn Harrell sitting in at first cello, was the week's -- or the month's, or the year's -- miracle. The impact of this work, as I realized more than ever this time, is from its scoring for the two cellos: the throb as they restate and enrich the opening theme, their fierce drive through the development until the first theme's return becomes an apocalypse, and the flashes of dusky flame as their pizzicatos surround the unstoppable flow of melody -- sorrow and ecstasy improbably melded -- that holds an audience breathless at the start of the slow movement. Harrell's playing -- and no less that of his partner, the young Ben Hong, whose every gesture mirrored his capture by his music, and of Martin Chalifour, Lyndon Johnston Taylor and Evan N. Wilson right alongside -- shaped the drama and the passion as completely as any reading I have ever heard or could conceive. And that, from someone who once sat enthralled as this music was set forth by the Hollywood Quartet, is no small tribute.

This was the first of the Philharmonic's new chamber-music series in the Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School of the Performing Arts, catty-corner to PACOLAC on Grand Avenue, which will alternate with the ongoing concerts at the University of Judaism's Gindi Auditorium. Zipper -- named after Herbert, the late, much-loved conductor and teacher -- seats about 400, the right size for a chamber hall. The surroundings are handsome if you don't look at all the busyness on the ceiling; more important, the sound is warm, friendly and clear, especially when they wheel out the school's gorgeously resonant Fazioli piano. A hall this size has been badly needed; there was originally one in the Disney Hall plans. It's good news that Zipper has already been heavily booked.

MEHTA'S PHILHARMONIC PROGRAM BEgan with the notes (but not much else) of Beethoven's Second Leonore Overture, went on to embrace the rich radiance of Anna Larsson's singing of some expendable Brahms (the Alto Rhapsody) and wound up with the heaven-storming whoopee of Sergei Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky cantata, again with Larsson's lovely delivery of the work's one solo movement. Nevsky, I realize more all the time, is a one-of-a-kind piece. Many movie scores over the years have been reshaped into concert pieces, among them William Walton's music for Sir Laurence Olivier's Henry V, clearly influenced by Prokofiev. But the genius of Sergei Eisenstein and Prokofiev produced in this one work a confluence like nothing else in film and very little else in music. Even if you don't know the film, the remarkable pictorialism embedded in the music becomes a multidimensional experience. Buy the video (laser disc, preferably) with the score newly reconstructed, and you'll derive even more from this remarkable interweaving, which transcends the poster propaganda of the film itself and creates an artistic entity unique unto itself.

I don't get to the movies nearly enough, but two recent films out of Hollywood caught my attention on musical grounds, a rare experience. One is American Beauty, with Thomas Newman's score uncommonly participatory in the twisted emotional fabric of the film. The other is The Insider, whose score moves in and out of cognizance in a remarkable way, involving an array of pop tunes from here and there, but also music that I've recently raved about, with the saxophonist Jan Garbarek in some of his brain-rattling improv and participating with singers in music by, among others, Arvo Pärt. Somebody out there has been working with cleaned-out ears, and it shows.

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