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The Wife's Old Tales

Photo by Robert Millard

"THIS PERFORMING VERSION, conceived by Marta Domingo," reads a program note for the Los Angeles Opera's current Tales of Hoffmann, "is based on Michael Kaye's variorum edition of the opera." That may be so, in Mama Domingo's creative imagination. But when Michael Kaye's new version of Offenbach's enduring fantasy opera was staged by the L.A. Opera in 1988, the amendments to the traditional, inauthentic Hoffmann included the restoration of a long episode that ended the Giulietta scene in something of a bloodbath. From earlier in that scene, too, Kaye had eliminated the "Diamond" aria and the sextet-plus-chorus, since they were the work of other hands, stuck onto the opera after Offenbach's death. Kaye replaced the spurious sung recitatives with the original spoken dialogue. He restored Offenbach's pristine ordering of the events, with the Giulietta scene following, not preceding, the Antonia scene. Not one of these new editorial findings is observed in the Hoffmann currently on view (through December 21).

In 1988 there was Frank Corsaro's lively staging of the Kaye edition, with Papa Domingo in the title role, Rodney Gilfry as the four villains and Julia Migenes as the four great loves of Hoffmann's thwarted quests. It made of Hoffmann a creation far stronger — both dramatically and musically — than the familiar versions then in circulation. You can check this out for yourself in the Philips recording of the Michael Kaye edition, conducted by Jeffrey Tate, although Neil Shicoff's pallid Hoffmann is not exactly an enhancement. Since the Los Angeles Opera has already proved the superiority of the Kaye edition, it seems incomprehensible that Mrs. Domingo would take it upon herself to lead the opera back to its bad old ways.

Otherwise — and that's a pretty big "otherwise" — the current Hoffmann has its modest attractions. Marcus Haddock is the Hoffmann: a Neil Shicoff plus brains, you might say, capable of a nice lyric line delivered in a voice reedy but not unpleasant. Samuel Ramey does the villains as if to the manner born, splendidly ghastly as the evil Dr. Miracle pursuing the hapless Antonia with his armload of charms. Sumi Jo's grossly overdirected Olympia brings down the house with her big laff numbers; the Giulietta, Milena Kitic, is barely there. The Antonia of Andrea Rost is, by some distance, the most artistically conscientious work of the evening. Emmanuel Villaume is the conductor; Giovanni Agostinucci, the designer; three days after seeing the opera, I cannot remember a single feature of their work.

THERE WAS ONCE AN AIRLINE — NOW defunct, I think — that advertised its service on the strength of sexier apparel for its attendants; the Philharmonic's "casual Fridays" reminds me of this. The gimmick is that the players get to dress like people rather than penguins, and make themselves available afterward for close encounters downstairs at Otto's. The programs on those nights are also shorter, which tells me something about management's attitude toward musical content that I'd rather not think about.

On a recent Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, at least half the players wore dark-blue shirts (as did I) so that the dress (or undress) code was merely a matter of substituting one uniform for another. The other concerts that weekend listed two Respighi "Roman" tone poems; on Friday we were allotted only one, which would have been a mercy even if we had all shown up in togas. (Roman Festivals is my choice of the week for world's worst music, barely edging out John Williams' Harry Potter score.) Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the Philharmonic's immensely talented associate conductor, began the program with Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, with each of the four concertos performed by a different member of the orchestra's string section, an amusing and workable notion. Each of the four soloists — Michele Bovyer, Akiko Tarumoto, Stacy Wetzel and Jonathan Wei — played with a different take on what Baroque fiddling is supposed to sound like 300 years after the fact. If I had to hand out a prize, it would go to Mr. Wei, who turned the final concerto into a wild — if not very Vivaldian — winter carnival.

Last week at the Philharmonic there was more spellbinding, this time by the barely-out-of-his-teens pianistic whiz Lang Lang, who dealt with Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto exactly as the music deserved. I have long, long been of the opinion that Nicholas Rubinstein's famous condemnation of the work at first hearing only came about because Tchaikovsky had played it for him straight. In merely correct performances the music is as bad as Rubinstein proclaimed — shapeless, clumsy and dull. Played as it was by the angel-faced Lang — his visage turned skyward as if receiving supernal dictation from Above, his 40 or so fingers clattering through those absurd cascading octaves like some interplanetary juggernaut, with the looks of blank astonishment as conductor Zubin Mehta struggled to keep up not always successfully — the work simply eludes capture by rational criticism. It is what it is. And as long as crowds leap to their collective feet and roar their collective approval, it probably doesn't matter all that much that the Tchaikovsky Concerto is, at heart, a gruesome betrayal of the high art that Tchaikovsky unmistakably aspired to — and often achieved elsewhere in his legacy.

So far Lang Lang has ridden skyward on the glitter-junk repertory: this concerto and Rach 3, Mussorgsky's Pictures and Lang's own socko version of "Stars and Stripes Forever," which he played as his second encore. His first encore, the Liszt transcription of Schumann's Widmung, was distorted almost all the way to parody. At his pre-concert talk last week he trotted out all the clichés that press agents compose for their clients. (Am I alone in having my teeth ache at the sound of "very very" — even from Lang Lang?) If this is where his career is taking him, I suppose he deserves congratulation for all the gold that lies ahead. It's still sad, however, to think of all those fingers going to waste.

Funny . . . as I write this I also start thinking about Zubin Mehta, for whom the crowds also roared far too early in his career, with results audible in last week's threadbare reading of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra and Orpheus, one of Liszt's less significant symphonic poems. Mehta takes his bow these days with a kind of insolent glower; on the podium he looks half asleep; surely this was the cause of the poor balances and muffed entrances in the Bartók, one of the canniest pieces of orchestral writing the repertory possesses. I see he's down for the Beethoven Ninth at Disney Hall next season; it's probably not too early to head for the hills.

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