Long Reach

Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff
AS THE HEAVY-SPENDING LOS ANGELES Opera veers ever more sadly toward innocuous irrelevance, the threadbare neighbor down the road looks better all the time. Not that every venture by the Long Beach Opera -- the area's senior company, after all, 21 years to the local guys' 13 -- can count as opera-making par excellence. But interesting failures usually come about from interesting attempts, and what I have always found gratifying in the efforts of founder and general director Michael Milenski and his shoestring operation is a discernible richness in quality of mind. I defy anyone to identify that quality in, say, the Los Angeles Opera's recent Lucia di Lammermoor -- or much else during the company's recent years.

Adventurous, exasperating, illuminating and just plain off-the-wall: The saga of the Long Beach Opera has been all of these and more. Some memories stick in the craw: a Boris Godunov done in street clothes with only a bureaucratic desk as scenery; a lurid rewrite of Carmen. Others persist in glory: a Death in Venice with TV monitors as scenery; Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea set amid a motorcycle gang. Milenski's bravery has earned the company a cult following in the Los Angeles area, eager to deplore and cherish, forgive and forget.

This year's two offerings, produced in mid-June for two performances each in the 1,100-seat Carpenter Performing Arts Center on the Long Beach campus of California State University, called for a lot of the above. One -- the Molière comedy-ballet The Imaginary Invalid, with the play done complete, including the danced interludes to music composed by Marc Antoine Charpentier for the 1673 premiere -- wasn't an opera at all; the other was a small (but very large) operatic masterpiece, Béla Bartók's one-act Duke Bluebeard's Castle.

Long Beach and the baroque repertory have long been a fruitful marriage; the company
can boast acclaimed stagings of all three of Monteverdi's surviving operas; last year, Purcell's The Indian Queen was blown up into an incongruous but irresistible Mexican fiesta. Purists who complained may have been placated by the treatment accorded this season to the Molière/Charpentier parlay: both play and music done straight and, alas, uncut, cantilevering far, far into the night. Matthew Maguire's staging, on the clean designs of Craig Hodgetts' futuristic set, leaned heavily on laff content; his large cast, led by Victor Talmadge's Invalid, got out the words of Donald Frame's translation, but without the tripping-on-the-tongue that can make easy work of ancient artifice. Susan Mosakowski's choreography, lightly honoring the manner of 17th-century French court dance and backed by the delectable playing of the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, provided the only fresh air during a long and otherwise stifling evening.

No such problems afflicted Bartók's intense, gorgeously orchestrated 50-minute setting of Béla Balász's symbol-laden gloss on the ancient legend of the amorous but uxoricidal Bluebeard, sung in Long Beach in Chester Kallman's elegant translation. If a discernible "Long Beach Method" has been fashioned over the years, this was a prime example: a staging (by company stalwart Roy Rallo) that probed deep into the work's inner voices while
projecting them into a modern milieu (as with Monteverdi in leather, Britten on TV). Marsha Ginsberg's stage setting -- tattered wallpaper as if in an abandoned apartment building the day before the wrecking ball, a few spotlights cleverly deployed, an incongruous onstage movie projector sending forth psychological designs -- exactly complemented the Bluebeard (Pavlo Hunka) in a modern business suit and his Judith (Kathleen Broderick) in plain black sheath.

Hunka, a tremendous young bass in his American debut, may have more resembled Henry Kissinger than the Bluebeard of legend, but his singing, throbbing from the intensity of both poem and music, became a part of Bartók's dark psychodrama. Broderick's Judith captured the other worldliness of the lovelorn woman who deserts her marital bed for a life (and death) as Bluebeard's love-slave; her diction, however, showed a few patches of incomprehensibility. A further hero of both performances was conductor Andreas Mitisek, who presided at the harpsichord in the Molière, and drew the full-color spectrum from an undersized but alert freelance orchestra in
the Bartók. More than any of the excellent participants, it was Mitisek's inspired leadership that, once again, put the Long Beach Opera on a sound basis.

 

AT THE GETTY ON JUNE 18 THERE WAS more baroque opera: Handel's Orlando of 1733, arguably his masterpiece in the genre, its splendor nicely boiled down to fit a concert ensemble of two singers -- countertenor Jeffrey Gall as the love-crazed Orlando, soprano Sharon Baker as his loved-and-lost Angelica -- and an instrumental quintet. The work was given to buttress the Getty's "Scholar Year," dedicated to the representation of the Passions in the arts; Orlando, with its extensive playbill of deceptions, rejections, delusions, illusions -- plus a full-fledged mad scene for the hero -- was an elegant choice. Elegant goes as well for the production, with the splendid Elizabeth Blumenstock (of Philharmonia Baroque and Musica Angelica fame) as first violinist and the solid support of Mary Springfels' viola da gamba (she of Chicago's Newberry Consort), heroines of the best early-music performance anywhere these days. Arias for the other principals, including a magician named Zoroaster, were neatly made over into instrumental solos -- at some loss, of course. Still, enough remained of Handel's ravishing designs to honor the work's grandeur, and to whet the appetite for more of the same.

And if full-scale performances of Handel operas aren't easily come by, think of the even sadder fate of La Púrpura de la Rosa, the historic entertainment that recently lured me to Indiana for what was billed as its North American premiere: the first opera composed and performed in the New World, created in 1659, then lost, then re-created in 1701 in Lima to celebrate the birthday of the 17-year-old Spanish monarch Felipe V. The history of the work is muddled; the 1659 music to Pedro Calderón de la Barca's play has been lost, and the 1701 music is the work of Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco, chapelmaster of the Lima cathedral. This music, nicely staged by baroque-theater scholar James Middleton as the crown of this year's Bloomington Early Music Festival (known locally as BLEMF), was worth the trip. Calderón's story interprets the legend of Venus and Adonis, with later additions to wrench the plot toward a simpering obeisance to Spain's Felipe (who is symbolized in the plot as Mars, a belligerent ladykiller). The music, light-textured Spanish songs of the utmost charm, is lovely, well worth someone's further attention; the Bloomington production -- with gorgeous and authentically cut costumes on a cute but provincial stage -- bore out what everybody hears about Indiana University as a place for superb musicmaking. As with all of southern Indiana in springtime, I found the work irresistible.


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