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Mozart Off the Tracks

Photo courtesy Opera Pacific

THE FLIMSIER THE PLOT, SO IT seems, the greater the urge to meddle. Mozart's Abduction From the Seraglio, his first real operatic smash, plays on one of the hoariest of opera plots: maiden, captured by tyrant, rescued by heroic truelove. Left to its own devices, it can add up to an enchanted evening; a Los Angeles Opera production, not so long ago, stands as proof. The perpetrators of Opera Pacific's production, which steamed — yes, steamed — into Orange County's Performing Arts Center last month, obviously believed otherwise.

This version originated last year at Houston's Cullen Theater; by an interesting coincidence, that small Houston theater was inaugurated in 1987 by the same opera. It was set that time on a Hollywood sound stage during the filming of — you guessed it — something called Abduction From the Seraglio. This time, however, the action took place on a couple of cars of the Orient Express (!!), legendary conveyance of spies, murderers, and a horny Pasha and his desirable but highly resistant latest harem captive. The production was underwritten by a round robin of American opera companies; Kansas City, Denver and Minneapolis are its next stops, an itinerary the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Express Européens might deem exotique.

Allen Moyer's art-deco set was quite handsome, even if it did require squeezing the action onto a shallow stage, a problem that Sharyn Pirtle's direction only partially solved. Through the train windows a moving cloudscape was visible on the back wall, giving the impression that the train was actually flying — probably a necessary step, since the act curtain's mockup of an Orient Express railway map showed no trackage within miles of Paris, the announced destination. (Andrew Porter's fluent English translation was obliged to absorb a carload of uncredited train references.)

To what end, this meddling? Gottlieb Stephanie's libretto is no literary masterpiece, but it doesn't burden the opera-goer with a tangled mass of inconsistencies and anachronisms; it reads, even in an honorable translation, the way Mozart's music sounds. Mozart's music did, indeed, sound quite splendid this time, thanks to the presence on the podium of Britain's Jane Glover in her Opera Pacific debut and the company's first-ever woman conductor. A known authority on baroque and classical style, she made her hand immediately felt as the familiar overture bubbled enchantingly. So did the entire score, in fact, with Mozart's wind scoring blended into string tone like some idealized chamber music writ large. It was a level of Mozart orchestral performance rarely heard in oversize opera venues, even less often heard from a freelance pit band famously underrehearsed. Trains and operas do, after all, share the need for skilled conductors.

Jan Grissom was the Konstanze, bright and forthright until a few tired moments at the end of "Martern aller Arten"; Anna Christy was the Blondchen, animated sometimes to the point of chirpiness. Shawn Mathey was the clear-voiced if not exactly ardent Belmonte; American basso Kurt Link, in his company debut, was the thunderous, scene-stealing Osmin. Jeffrey Lentz, the Pedrillo, arrived on opening night weighed down with laryngitis; Chad Berlinghieri sang his music from the pit to Lentz's miming.

AT UCLA'S SCHOENBERG HALL A FEW nights later, there was an operatic production of more modest ambitions, successfully fulfilled. I often hesitate about commenting on school opera, and then I am often surprised. I wouldn't have automatically thought that student renditions of Maurice Ravel's two fabulously beautiful one-act operas, L'Enfant et les Sortilèges and L'Heure Espagnole, could challenge memories of professional performances — David Hockney's L'Enfant at the Met, for one — and, indeed, they didn't. Yet these modest and immensely skillful recitals, staged by Vera Calábria and conducted by the L.A. Opera's William Vendice, made for a delightful evening. The student orchestra nicely managed the rustlings of nature and the moonlight's gleamings in L'Enfant, the tricky, hard-edged rhythms in L'Heure Espagnole. Laura Fine's multilevel set served both operas' needs perfectly; Ela Jo Erwin's costumes, including a menagerie of considerable extent for L'Enfant, was endlessly inventive. Both performances were sung in clear, exceptionally well-trained French. Of the two casts, I saw the first; while it may be early in the lives of these young singers to predict happy futures, I would be happy to re-examine the comedic and vocal gifts of Jamie Chamberlin, who sang the Clockmaker's mischievous wife in L'Heure Espagnole, anytime she passes my way.

Alberto Colla's Le Rovine di Palmira (The Ruins of Palmyra), the 12-minute tone poem that began last week's Philharmonic program conducted by Roberto Abbado, is the kind of piece I hoped had gone out of style by now: the short, innocuous curtain raiser that enables an orchestra to add to statistics for its noble service to contemporary music but which is gone from the memory by intermission. The sense of the piece — if that doesn't already constitute excessive praise — is a depiction of Antar, the legendary Arabian hermit who is also celebrated in the Rimsky-Korsakov symphony that bears that name. Colla, Italian-born (1968), even includes a quote from the Rimsky work as if to legitimize his own empty-headed piece of noise pollution. He made a big point, in his pre-concert talk, about the true Arab spirit in his work, the use of exotic scales and the like. All I heard in the work was an updated hoochy-kooch, with a few wrong notes thrown in.

Better by several light-years was the afternoon's concerto, the Mozart "Coronation," with the young (born 1979) Italian pianist Gianluca Cascioli as soloist. Here, for once, is a new musician of genuine quality and, therefore, genuine promise. Serious of mien and of countenance, he did not flirt with the music or with the audience. He made the music as beautiful as it was meant to be, and did so with a genuine sense of what Mozart might have been about in this, the next to last of his miraculous run of piano concertos. He supplied his own cadenzas; these, too, were full of invention but never beyond the limits of Mozart's own harmonic language. The give and take between his piano and Abbado's properly cut-down orchestra was — as I was saying about Jane Glover's Seraglio back there — another fine example of chamber music writ large. I note with interest but some despair that Signor Cascioli is currently studying electronic music at the Milan Conservatory. Mozart, too, needs his touch.

"CHERISH THE HYBRIDS," LOU Harrison once told me in a radio interview. "They're all we've got." The most benevolent of all hybrid composers, Lou, 85, left us last weekend — mere days before Bill Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and Experience, a hybrid masterpiece if ever one was, gets its first local hearing. Strange how things work out. More next week.