Photo by Robert Millard

THE RIGHT SOUND

“Extraordinary, how potent cheap music can be,” muses
one of Noel Coward’s most perceptive characters, and there is La Bohème
to prove his point. Nobody will claim high artistic stature for Puccini’s
assault on the lachrymal glands currently in its welcome return run at the Music
Center. But there is no vaccine yet legally marketed to render those glands
immune to that moment in the final act when the dying heroine falls into the
arms of her adoring . . . I’m sorry, I can’t go on. (I never could.)

Whatever this opera’s place along the spectrum of artistic purity,
everything about it truly works. The orchestral sense is astounding; more than
in any other of Puccini’s operas, the music rising from the pit — sinuous, seductive,
insistent — becomes a participant in the drama. Take, as one instance, the brassy
tune in parallel fifths that brings up the curtain in the second act; then hear
that same music rendered soft and wintry to start Act 3. Take another instance,
the hollow desolation — violins and cellos two octaves apart — at the end of
the men’s duet in Act 4. This is a real Puccini sound; I’ve never heard its
like from any other composer. (The small pit orchestra in the Baz Luhrmann production
at the Ahmanson a few months ago, amplified, couldn’t come close to these sounds.
Lawrence Foster’s L.A. Opera Orchestra provides the real thing.)

Of all Puccini operas — and, for that matter, of all the misguided
attempts by other composers after Verdi (including Samuel Barber, whom I’ll
come to in a minute) to keep the genre of Italian opera alive — La Bohème
exerts its hold with the greatest ease. It moves with sure dramatic sense;
if this be cheap, I find it no more so than Carmen. It lends itself to
all kinds of extra-Puccinian treatments, mostly absurd. On Broadway there is
Rent, which is not absurd at all, but builds with great spirit upon a
loving attempt to wonder what those people might be up to today. I found this
far less a violation than the last Metropolitan Opera production of the actual
opera, which was Franco Zeffirelli’s virtuoso attempt to load the entire population
of Paris onto the stage, with the intimate actions and reactions of the principals
pushed several miles back from the footlights.

In Los Angeles we have the late Herbert Ross’ 1993 production,
fresh, intelligent and, with a few tatters, exactly right. He, too, surrounded
the play with a sense of neighborhood and a small amount of extraneous action
— amusing byplay for the landlord and wife in Act 1, for example. Stanley M.
Garner’s restaging adds a few more details, including a chamber pot in Act 4
that — alas! — actually gets used. The anachronisms in Gerald Howland’s stage
designs are a hoot: an unfinished Eiffel Tower (actually completed in 1889)
in the background although the action is identified on supertitles as 1898;
Musetta arriving in a fancy touring car from at least 1915. Marco Berti and
Ana Maria Martinez were the okay first pair of lovers; they are to be replaced
later this month by the celebrity duo Mr. & Mrs. Alagna. (Stay tuned.) A
young Mexican baritone named Alfredo Daza is the Marcello, quickly rising through
the company ranks. He deserved, and got, the biggest hand.

NOTHING FOR A DAME

Why dig up Vanessa? Samuel Barber’s gloom-infused heart-throbber
— text by Gian-Carlo Menotti after Isak Dinesen, apathetically received at the
Met in 1958, later revised — seems best described as unnecessary. Its music,
little beholden to the quiet elegance of the composer’s songs or his enchanting
Knoxville cantata, offers nothing in the way of profile. As an “easy”
piece for an aging soprano to hold the stage a few years after the high C’s
begin to fade, it may have some currency. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa has currently
taken possession of the title role; she comes to us with it after stopping off
in Washington and Monte Carlo, and her performance last Saturday night suggests
that she has no need yet to fall back on such easeful repertory. It’s a little
like asking Kobe Bryant to function in a wheelchair.

Menotti’s libretto reduced the plot outline of one of Dinesen’s
Gothic Tales to the texture of a very high-class soap opera. Three generations
of dowagers past, present or future, who either don’t speak to one another or
drown one another in verbiage, are all three variously driven gaga (or in one
case impregnated) at the arrival of a dashing stranger. The setting is somewhere
in a mysterious Northland where blizzards howl just beyond the meager plastic
walls of Paul Brown’s fragile set, whose glitzy curved staircase tells me more
of Rodeo Drive boutique than wintry terrain.

Such is the uncertainty that permeates the work and renders it
ultimately unsatisfactory. So much good flowed from Barber’s pen; a new evaluation
would not be out of place. Even the overworked Adagio for Strings — better
heard in the original quartet version, of course — has a noble, elegiac flow
that cannot be ignored; the first of the Essays for Orchestra is such
a well-made piece that you regret his being pushed into creating two inferior
sequels. The other opera, Antony and Cleopatra, was an even more monumental
failure but with some monumentally thrilling scenes that ought to be rescued
somehow. And then there is Knoxville, Summer of 1915; you cannot refuse
the highest honors to a composer who has so tenderly and endearingly evoked
the essence of being young, alive and loved.

Against all of this, Vanessa is a mess. Stylistically,
its music is all over the place, a thin gruel brewed from respectable but unmatched
sources. It sings well, of course. Barber himself, a fine singer from recorded
evidence, at least knew how to create good roles; not Vanessa but the ingénue
Erika, well sung here by Lucy Schaufer, stands as a first-class operatic creation.
A nice touch: Schaufer’s big scene is with Rosalind Elias, who was the Erika
at the opera’s premiere in 1958 and again at the revise in 1965, and who now
sings the Old Baroness. I hope she doesn’t remember what I wrote (for the New
York Herald-Tribune
) in 1965, because she sounded terrific the other night.