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Piercing the Gloom

The June gloom settled over Ojai for most of the Festival weekend; the skies remained gray, the air downright chilly. What light and heat there was came from the stage, in the usual admirable abundance. Have I ever not had a good time at the Ojai Music Festival? Unimaginable!

This was the 55th running of this festival-like-no-other. The current brave and enterprising honcho, Ernest Fleischmann, expanded the agenda from the customary three days to four, Thursday through Sunday -- or five, if you include Dawn Upshaw‘s master class in Santa Barbara the preceding Wednesday. The theme, on the handouts at least, was iden-tified as ”Music of and About the Americas,“ but if that strikes you as any kind of limitation, you don’t know Fleischmann‘s unique gift for stretching definitions beyond reality. France’s Olivier Messiaen figured among the un-Americans crammed into this year‘s rubric, as did Japan’s Toru Takemitsu and, in a brief encore piece, England‘s Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Still, the major energy was generated along the north-south axis. Osvaldo Golijov (GO-lee-ov) was on hand, an ingratiating young chap, Argentine by birth, Jewish by descent, Bostonian by residence. A year ago he set the world abuzz with his Saint Mark Passion, one in a series of settings of passion texts commissioned by the International Bach Academy, performed in Stuttgart and later in Boston, a dazzling, sizzling piece -- someone snuck me a tape -- mingling baroque and Latino elements. (A recording, on the Hanssler label, is imminent.) At Ojai the Cuarteto Latino Americano played Golijov’s Yiddishbuk, a tense, compact 12 minutes honoring past upholders of the faith, not only with Hebraic laments but with an international tragic outcry, brief and spellbinding; Dawn Upshaw sang an aria from his Saint Mark, to which the same applies. Keep an eye -- and an ear -- on this Golijov.

The Messaien, if not of America, was at least about: From the Canyons to the Stars, a travelogue piece (with, of course, Messiaen‘s usual gatherings of birds) depicting Utah’s scenic wonders. It‘s basic Messiaen, with heavenly voices grappling for our souls through polytonal pileups while a hearer’s posterior is sorely tried over some 100 minutes on Ojai‘s unforgiving benches. British pianist Paul Crossley made his contribution to the general clatter, as did Esa-Pekka Salonen and his hardy band. But Salonen’s real lollapalooza came a night later, a romp through Silvestre Revueltas‘ La Noche de las Mayas to speed the homeward-bound exhilarated in spirit if rattled in every bone.

Upshaw’s all-American song recital included familiar fare (John Harbison‘s Mirabai Songs, which she virtually owns), a nice sampling of new songs by younger composers (Michael Torke, John Musto, etc.) and two extraordinary pieces by Ruth Crawford Seeger, who moves ever so slowly toward deserved acclaim as one of her country’s great composers at midcentury. On the orchestral concert, Upshaw sang the Golijov, a harrowing aria from John Adams‘ El Niño and a haunting short prayer by Cuba’s Tania Leon. Her command of vocal color, from one occasion to the other, is one of her great skills: her girlish, slangy delivery of a Charles Ives conceit in her recital one night, her horror-stricken account of innocents massacred (in Bethlehem, in Mexico City) in the Adams excerpt two nights later.

The Sunday-morning pop or jazz concerts, abandoned in recent years, were reinstated. First I thought of not going to this ”Tribute to Antonio Carlos Jobim,“ then I thought of not wanting it to end. The great guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves was the star, surrounded by a small combo that included an enchanting wisp of a singer, Gretchen Parlato, and a wonderful in-your-face violinist, Karen Briggs. The music rolled, rollicked and exulted; ”The Girl From Ipanema“ was notable only in its absence. A power failure midway through the program (eventually mended) would surely have elicited boos and ill will at a symphony concert or opera; this time it generated a jovial social event. Such was the power of this music.

At the Los Angeles Opera‘s Tosca I prayed for a power failure; the evening was beset by failures equally drastic. Four times now this befuddlement of a production -- John Gunter’s claustrophobic and wobbly sets, Liz da Costa‘s costumes that update the action by a century despite textual references to historic events -- has been sprung on a hapless public. Ian Judge, who created the production in 1989, has returned to restage it, and delivers a couple of pretty good wrestling matches -- Tosca and Cavaradossi in the first act, Tosca and Scarpia in the second. Maria Ewing had been the Tosca the first two times out; Placido Domingo was her Cavaradossi in 1992; they are missed. Neither the Tosca of Carol Vaness (in 1996) nor that of Catherine Malfitano (currently) gives off anything like the trapped, desperate lyricism that can make the role work. Both Malfitano, who at least looks terrific, and Richard Leech, who doesn’t (a sad comedown from Domingo), labor under the delusion that loud equals passionate, which is not quite true. Tom Fox, the current Scarpia, projects none of the penny-dreadful malice that I remember from Justino Diaz, even with his aging voice, in 1996; Fox, more than anyone, is betrayed by the bland suavity of his Edwardian costume. Everything, furthermore, rides on Richard Buckley‘s drab, murky musical leadership, and the ride is -- shall we say -- bumpy.

Over last weekend the center of operatic gravity shifted south to Long Beach, with a brave but lamebrained double bill by the newly formed Downtown Opera at the tiny Edison Theater, followed two days later by the L.B. Opera’s Elektra -- better than you‘re prepared to believe, not to be missed -- at the Carpenter Center. (More on that in our next visit.) Martin Herman conducted both short operas at the Edison and composed one of them; you may remember, probably with a shudder, his The Scarlet Letter at Carpenter some years ago. Orlando, his latest, is similarly insipid, trick-laden -- Virginia Woolf’s characters tromping around shooting off Polaroid cameras -- and marginally appealing for the singing of Jacqueline Bobak in the title role. Sharing the bill -- which, like Elektra, runs through this weekend -- is William Houston‘s Consumer’s Paradise, five minutes‘ worth of skit about brand-name hang-ups and the passion to possess, unconscionably stretched to an hour’s agony, with music that sounds as if squeezed from a toothpaste tube. Near the end the cast joins in a litany, ”vacuity, perpetuity“; this could be the first-ever opera to include its own review.


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