LAST FRIDAY WAS WALPURGIS EVE, when witches ride and ballerinas glide, a festivity that provides the only justification I can think of for producing Charles Gounod's Faust. Bill di Donato's Bel Canto Opera did its usual patch-'n'-paste job, in the auditorium at Culver City High. (One thing about being a Bel Canto fan: You get to know all the school auditoriums on the Westside.) I like the company, even when they overreach, as they did with Aida at the John Anson Ford last summer; our more expensive company, after all, has become increasingly famous for its underreach.
The opera was given with the traditional cuts: Marguerite at the spinning wheel, her duet with Siebel -- no loss. The agonizingly insipid Walpurgis ballet, alas, was left in and given complete, with dancers bumping one another, dropping bits of costumes, acting out a choreography on the brink of drag parody. The chorus sang the final apotheosis from behind a heavy curtain, and could not be heard. Kay Otani, a company regular, led the undersize but eager orchestra, working in an improvised pit space where the lamps on the players' music stands shone out into the hall and where Otani himself, not exactly a sylph, blocked the audience's view from many of the best seats. There was a creditable Faust, Cuban tenor Gabriel Reoyo-Pazos, and a sweet-voiced, extremely pretty Marguerite, Kristin Hammar, both also Bel Canto veterans. There was a voiceless, last-minute-replacement Valentine, a squeaky Siebel, and a Mephisto who sang loud but out of tune. You don't need to know their names.
The Bel Canto gives the impression of putting on opera for sheer pleasure, and its loyal following has become something of a family over the years. They turned out in pretty good numbers for the Faust, although those numbers did dwindle as the evening wore on. "Wore on," come to think of it, is exactly the right description for Faust. Never mind; I stayed to the end, and was happy to share in the crowd's good time.
DOMINICK ARGENTO'S POSTCARD FROM Morocco runs less than half the length of Faust, and delights at least twice as much, as it did at USC a couple of weekends ago. In 1972, when Postcard was first performed -- by the Center Opera of Minnesota, which commissioned it -- it occasioned huzzahs as an American work, bright, clean, clever and mysterious, full of musical and verbal puns and half-meanings, opera for the folks who do the New York Times Sunday crosswords.
Argento's 90-minute one-act piece, to John Donahue's quirky text, escorts a pileup of contrasting characters, assembled in what is described as a "train station in Morocco" but can be anywhere you want, through a layering of musical and verbal gibberish: tunes and quotations from here and there, a smattering of 12-tone, a quick quote from Wagner to test whether you're still awake. The plot may or may not deal with everyone's expressed need to see what's inside everyone else's luggage. I can't think of another opera that must be as much fun to stage or perform.
That's what came over, above all, in David Pfeiffer's bustling, breathlessly inventive staging in the modest confines of USC's Bing Theater, as the opera workshop at USC's Thornton School of Music untangled the knots quite delightfully. The stage was a glorious clutter to match the score; only a few misplaced slide projections seemed lost in the turmoil. A student cast sang well under Timothy Lindberg's musical direction; what came across best of all, however, was the interplay, the way people were tuned in to one another as they sang Argento's sometimes-beautiful, sometimes-nonsensical, always-clever music. After the Workshop's Marriage of Figaro last season, I promised myself never to miss their work in the future, and the resolve still holds.
THREE OPERAS, THREE BRAVE BUT TOtally unalike attempts to define the beast; you cannot fault Tod Machover for trying. His first opera was an electronic fantasy based on the Philip K. Dick sci-fi classic Valis; his second, Brain Opera, enlisted interaction between the listener and computer gadgetry. Now comes Resurrection, a setting of Leo Tolstoy's dense, speculative novel on the redemption of souls, calling for -- and receiving with remarkable success -- musical treatment along traditional Romantic operatic lines. Commissioned and produced by the Houston Grand Opera -- its 24th world premiere in the 28 years of David Gockley's enlightened leadership -- the opera almost mitigated Houston's junglelike climate when I looked in on it last week. "Almost," I said.
Tolstoy is said to have detested opera as an encumbrance to his words; previous treatments of Resurrection, including a lurid misrepresentation by Franco Alfano that reduces Tolstoy's moralizings to soap opera, justify his distaste. For the 45-year-old, New Yorkborn Machover, librettists Laura Harrington and Braham Murray have provided a more honorable, literate treatment of Tolstoy's basically actionless probing of guilt and salvation. Machover, in turn, has given their words a richly intelligent setting, gritty at times but soaring and intensely lyrical at others, faltering only in some rather gooey final moments as Prince Dmitry Unpronounceable, "resurrected" from his profligate existence, sees Katerina, the woman he had once wronged, achieving her own "resurrection" in a Siberian prison, and walks off alone over Simon Higlett's eye-dazzling snowscape into lighting designer Chris Parry's boudoir-pink sunset.
Up to now, Machover's fame has been fashioned from his electronic inventions as head of musical matters at MIT's media laboratory -- including the interactive "cyber-cello" he built for Yo-Yo Ma. Perhaps his creation of a full-scale opera on a Tolstoy novel -- scored for traditional orchestra, with only a smidge of electronic touchup here and there, managing with sure musical insights the novel's tense, dark emotions -- may strike his cutting-edge confreres as a backsliding. Whatever, it's a work of genuine originality, remarkably skillful in the vocal writing, its music imaginatively tinged with a light wash of Mussorgsky here and Prokofiev there. It adds to the paltry store of worthwhile new operas a work of great attractiveness and power.
Houston has again polished its laurels as a dynamic force in the treacherous realm of modern opera. Peopled largely with good young singers drawn from the company's extensive apprenticeship program -- including baritone Scott Hendricks and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as the "resurrected" pair, both splendid and promising young singers -- under the strong baton of the company's newly appointed music director Patrick Summers, Resurrection sounds the convincing note of belief that opera just might have a future.
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