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High Notes, and Low

Photo by Ken Howard
More or Less

Offenbach at the L.A. Opera in the hands of Garry Marshall . . . need I go on? Doom descends even before a note is sounded, when a smarmy character, gotten up to impersonate composer Jacques Offenbach in the flesh, pops up on the podium and tries to wrestle the baton away from conductor Emmanuel Villaume. Throughout the evening’s long and exasperating attempt to present Offenbach’s La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein on the Chandler Pavilion’s uncomplaining stage, this obnoxious individual — played by the same Jason Graae who made such a pest of himself in the Merry Widow fiasco a few seasons back — skitters in and out of the production to inform us out front as to what’s going on (which we out front have been mostly, actually, trying to ignore).

I suppose I might as well give up on hope of experiencing Offenbach in the true colors of delight — the wit, the elegance, the sheer ravishment of the tenderness in a tune like the Duchess’ “Dites-lui.” Instead we have the raucous cutes of a Garry Marshall rewrite, secure in the assurance that somewhere along the line there will be a matzo joke and a joke about weapons of mass destruction. There was a time when Frederica von Stade could manage the curve of an Offenbach lyric line so as to seduce any beating heart in an audience of any size; that she could no longer do so with the music of the title character, at least on opening night, was the evening’s major sadness. (Where was Susan Graham when we needed her?)

What we got, therefore, was not Offenbach in any stylistic sense, but an oversized, overstaged laff riot with some well-conducted, gorgeous music in the background, some above-competent singing (Constance Hauman, Rod Gilfry, Paul Groves) and, overall, the sorry spectacle — not the first in L.A. Opera history — of a representative from an alien industry taking on an artistic product, not to create something innovative and interesting, but merely to insult.

The next night’s Pagliacci, first seen here in 1996, offered similar over- and underkill. The Franco Zeffirelli production seemingly involves the entire population of several Sicilian villages — although that doesn’t mitigate the fact that a whole evening of that one short opera here constitutes half of a double-bill anywhere else (at ticket prices that have now broken through the $200 mark). The Zeffirelli whoop-de-do has been restaged by Marco Gandini, still with TV sets and motorbikes mingled with antique theatrical flourishes to give a sense of no time and all time. The evening’s tragedy is the Canio of Roberto Alagna, which is utterly without tone. Nicola Luisotti’s orchestra screams its “Ridi, Pagliaccio” at the climactic moment, but over it Alagna’s pale, colorless tenor shows no emotion or motivation. His Mrs., Angela Gheorghiu, does her baby-doll Nedda quite prettily, and rises to some expression at the end, but in a lost cause.

Isolde Gets Her Man

Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is variously titled in popular parlance. It is most often spoken of simply as Tristan. Among dedicated discophiles, however, it is further identified by its female star: the “Flagstad Tristan” or, in more recent times, the “Nilsson Tristan.” Its identity might also relate to the podium; the Flagstad Tristan is no less the “Furtwängler Tristan,” with good cause. There is also a “Kleiber Tristan,” deservedly named for the remarkable performance that the legendary Carlos drew from a quite ordinary singing cast.

Now there is the much-anticipated “Domingo Tristan,” a three-CD set on EMI, which at least corrects the gender mismatch. The album notes also cite an eminently justifiable dedication to the memory of Kleiber. The image-makers have let it be rumored — although not yet officially confirmed — that this will be the last-ever operatic recording produced in a studio. Given the current state of classical recording, this is a little like announcing the end of the manufacture of dial telephones. Operatic recording, taken from live stage performances, rather than studio setup with the dramatic effects and distances artificially produced, has advanced to fair estate nowadays; if the record companies prefer to give over their Abbey Road studio time to sentimental ballad collections by the Alagnas or violin tidbits by the next doe-eyed subteen to come down the pike, theirs be the privilege.

Given access to technology that doesn’t yet exist, but may be upon us by the time these words see print, my desert-isle Tristan und Isolde would be an electronic montage assembled from individual excellences already on hand: conducted by Kleiber, with Furtwängler’s Philharmonia Orchestra playing with the eloquence it possessed in 1951. The Tristan would be Jon Vickers, with the heroism and the beauty of tone he brought to a recording led by Herbert von Karajan in the 1960s; the Isolde would, of course, be Furtwängler’s Kirsten Flagstad, still ardent and aflame in spirit in 1951 though vocally somewhat past her prime.

Lacking the means as yet to create that singular superperformance, I have no problem according shelf space to this new EMI version, to the surge and eloquence of the Royal Opera House Orchestra under Antonio Pappano, and to the abiding intelligence toward word meaning and phrase shape that has allowed the astonishing Plácido Domingo, at 63, to operate so freely and so movingly in a musical realm that he has, after all, only recently come to conquer. The Isolde is the Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, who has also taken on this killer role just recently. For now, I suppose, she will be thought of as Domingo’s Isolde, but she is also Wagner’s: a singer of genuine power and personality, clearly embarked on a career out from anybody’s shadow. Mihoko Fujimura is the Brangaene, René Pape the King Marke; Olaf Bär manages a Kurvenal a shade less boring than anyone else you’ve ever heard in the role. The profligate casting even includes top-rank lyric tenors in walk-on roles: Ian Bostridge as the Shepherd and Rolando Villazón as the Sailor. Along with the three CDs of the complete Tristan comes a bonus, a DVD that contains the entire audio performance on – get this! — a single disc in surround sound which also shows the running text in German and a translation in your choice of English or French. O brave new gadgetry!

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