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Present At the Creation

The most beautiful sound I have yet heard at Disney Hall was the dark-blue/violet invocation from James Rotter’s alto saxophone that began Darius Milhaud’s La création du monde at last week’s Philharmonic program: throbbing, mysterious, hall-filling yet seeming to rise from far reaches. The ugliest sound came just before: last-minute arrivals pounding their way to their seats across drumlike floor spaces in a percussive sequence that has become the hall’s most noticeable defect — and a considerable one. Last week’s conductor, David Robertson, was obliged to remark (quite audibly, of course) on the intrusion, as had Keith Jarrett at the start of his jazz concert two nights before. The defect is reparable — in the structure of the hall itself, by an extensive program of audience intimidation or by both — but no purpose is served by pretending it doesn’t exist.

Historically and artistically, Milhaud’s 80-year-old score is a remarkable work; it is hard to believe that this was its first complete Philharmonic performance. I would have thought that Otto Klemperer, who plunged deeply into the rising tide of jazz awareness, would have championed it during his time here. In 1923, Milhaud had returned to Paris with armloads of records purchased at Harlem shops, infatuated with the new jazz consciousness and the companionate passion for African-inspired cubism in painting and sculpture. Cubism’s Fernand Léger designed the sets for his new jazz ballet; it told the Creation story through African eyes and African movements. To a Paris rattled by the comparable primitivism of Stravinsky’s Sacre, still echoing a mere 10 years later, La création provided a glorious aftershock.

Under the remarkable Robertson’s leadership the other night, its solo colors so vividly put forward in these new surroundings, La création had nothing of the relic quality it can easily display. Sure, some of its cadence-formulas are pure Mickey Mouse, the same way Hamlet can be full of old quotations if you let it be. What I heard from this performance, however, was the picture of a composer just past 30, caught up in the discovery of a new musical language and full of delight as he twists this resource one way and another, coming up with a wonderfully weird, fresh, one-of-a-kind masterpiece.

Robertson, Santa Monica born, is an appealing, considerably talented conductor who needs to be kept in mind when matters of podium succession come under discussion. A protégé of Pierre Boulez for several years, he chose Bartók’s The Wooden Prince to fill out his program here — worth noting, since Boulez had conducted it with the Philharmonic in 1987. I remember that performance as small-scale, even dull; this one was neither. (Can such things be?) One major difference was the presence, this time, of running supertitles to detail the complications of Béla Balázs’ folktale plot for the original ballet, which, in true mittel-Europäisch fashion, has its principals dying, resurrecting, falling in and out of love, cutting off and restoring their own hair, while the forests around them surge and wither — all over nearly an hour’s time span. You can see why a supertitle or two might come in handy.

This is early Bartók. Its dates are 1914–17, but the shadows that fall across it are more of Strauss than Stravinsky. Its orchestra is huge, and managed with great facility; however, though you can hear an occasional wisp of a folk tune, it is difficult to glean the outline of the later Bartók — even of the startling Miraculous Mandarin of only two years later — from this brightcolored but heavy-lying score.

Midway in this energized program, Emanuel Ax played one of the greatest of Mozart’s late piano concertos, the C-major K. 503 — wise in content (with that magical F-major moment in the finale that I’ve sputtered over many times) and wise in the execution. Oddly, he performed in black tie, with the orchestra, as usual, in white. I asked him about this afterward. “I’ve given up performing in tails,” he said. “Mazel tov,” I answered.

 

The prospect of yet another Madama Butterfly exerted, at best, a feeble spell, and the recent go-around at Costa Mesa’s Opera Pacific, of a production well-traveled since its debut (at the Houston Grand Opera) in 1998, drew me with halting steps. More’s the surprise, therefore, to report on a powerful — no, make that thrilling, perhaps even enlightening — evening in which Puccini’s saga of hearts athrob achieved its devastating purpose this once, leaving me shaken and convinced against all wisdom that the damn opera is, indeed, some kind of masterpiece.

Francesca Zambello, as is her custom, has raised a certain havoc with the Giacosa/Illica plotline, and some of her conceptions — preserved in Garnett Bruce’s restaging — required looking the other way here and there to blot out certain inconsistencies. The action took place not in a pretty cottage up the hill, but in the office of Consul Sharpless, with scrim walls that vanished at times, and with an American flag (44 stars) and a Pledge of Allegiance (no “under God”). A hubbub at the start (a nice match to the music of the prelude) filled the place with bustling Japanese trying to conduct business, bustling secretaries trying to cope, and bustling flunkies trying to conduct a marriage
of convenience that none of them cares much about.

The tragedy of deep love betrayed by noncommittal game playing emerged from this human mass; even Butterfly’s heart-rending “Un bel dì” surfaced on a crowded stage, the suffering solo figure surrounded by uncaring life. A brilliant, frazzled Chinese soprano, Xiu Wei Sun, wound her long, unruly hair around her distress; at her suicide, with the bare stage suddenly flooded in blood-red fabric, the whole of Segerstrom Hall seemed to recoil at the shock. John DeMain conducted; on opening night his orchestra achieved no prodigies of accuracy, but its way of wrapping itself into the human tragedy was something you — meaning I — could strongly share.

Word is out: Opera Pacific, along with many other of our noblest musical institutions, is up against financial distress; its latest deficit report runs to seven figures. The Butterfly was not a lavish production; its almost-bare stage was covered not with expensive scenery, but with people making interesting movements in attractive, naturalistic costumes.

The whole thing, in fact, looked and sounded like the kind of opera that made it easy to believe, to be moved, to weep along.


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