Everything that is splendid about the Los Angeles Opera’s Damnation of Faust — about which I rhapsodized at our last get-together — is imponderably awful in Deborah Drattell’s Nicholas and Alexandra, the season’s second offering and the company’s first full-scale commission, given here its world premiere. For three excruciating hours, the sad fate of Russia’s dysfunctional Romanovs and their demons oozes across the Pavilion stage; at the end, Deborah Drattell’s woefully inept score has revealed nothing more about the characters — 39 separate singing roles! — than we gleaned from the printed program. Preparing for this event, I ran the 1971 Franklin Schaffner film of the Robert K. Massie book of the same title, and came away convinced that nobody could produce a drearier hunk of music than its Richard Rodney Bennett score. Boy, was I mistaken!
For the Brooklyn-born Drattell, 47 and the happy mother of four, a history of less-than-rapturous reviews of her previous work — the opera Lilith, which the New York City Opera produced in November 2001, and one of the three one-acters that made up the City Opera’s Central Park trilogy a couple of years before — doesn’t seem to have dampened her creative ardor. She talks a good interview, all about her long-held dreams of writing this opera, and especially of writing it for Plácido Domingo. Her librettist is Nicholas von Hoffman, whose previous credentials include a biography of Roy Cohn and who, she wants us to know, comes from a Russian background. (So do I, if anyone cares.)
Dreams and bloodlines do not always spell out great operas, and the inadequacies of Nicholas and Alexandra are numerous and painful. Nothing in Drattell’s dense, tuneless, pseudo-high-Russian-romantic smog of a score serves to identify her characters: Russia’s bumbling, kindhearted, ineffective last ruler; his loving but put-upon empress; the conniving self-proclaimed monk who holds the royal family in his thrall; the plotters and subplotters who bring about their nation’s downfall. Who are these people? Do they love one another, or pity, or loathe? We expect music in an opera to answer these questions — at least from a composer whose instincts are basically the urge to please a crowd with music that the old folks at home might groove to. When two leading characters join voices in one of their rare happy moments, we expect something like a love duet — not La Traviata, perhaps, but at least music that suggests that these people are listening to each other. But no.
Rodney Gilfry is the Nicholas, Nancy Gustafson the Alexandra; both are commendable singers capable of shaping attractive, memorable melodic lines; Drattell’s score offers them none. As the hemophilia-racked Tsarevich Alexis, the opera’s one sympathetic character, young Jonathan Price gets to wail “Mama!” a few times, little more. Plácido Domingo is the Rasputin; Drattell, no fool she, has handed him the longest role, the loudest and the juiciest — enough to throw the dramatic structure seriously off balance. (Why, in fact, didn’t she just call the thing Rasputin, or Plácido?)
It could be, of course, that all the PR gobbledygook around Domingo’s taking on his first-ever villainous role bears a semblance of truth; maybe he heard something in the music beyond the comprehension of us mere mortals. Even so, his Rasputin is a mistake, a masterpiece of miscasting, a misplanned stunt, a failure within a failure. The rich plangency of Domingo’s Siegmund shines through and defeats that overtone of evil that Drattell has written into the part. On opening night, despite an announced tracheal inflammation, Domingo sang out loud and clear, a hero but not a demon. Tradition regards Rasputin as a basso, preferably profundo. There might be a tenor sound that could work for that character — the weasely sound of, say, a Shuisky in Boris Godunov. That such a sound is beyond Domingo’s reach can be taken as a compliment.
Anne Bogart, a practiced Drattell hand, directs; with her comes SITI, a company of 10 dancer/athletes whose job is to mix in on the already crowded stage and push around the sliding panels of Robert Israel’s monochrome stage designs. (Interesting coincidence: The Achim Freyer Ensemble, also comprising 10 dancer/athletes, served a similar purpose in the Faust.) On the podium is Russian supercellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, whose qualifications include ownership of a cache of Rasputin documents acquired at a Russian auction. That, however, doesn’t get him through the turgidities of the score, and its obsession with small rhythmic figures that eventually turn into nagging. Upstage, behind a scrim, the chorus groan out some Slavic harmonies; toward the end, one of their melodic lines gestures passionately in the direction of a Bach chorale but doesn’t quite make it.
Nothing, in fact, does.
This is the time of year when our local seasonlessness makes for interesting segues: one night at the Hollywood Bowl, then an opera, then more Bowl. On the final Philharmonic Tuesday came one of the summer’s best programs: Michele Zukovsky’s sublime performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and the Mahler First. Yasuo Shinozaki conducted the bejesus out of the Mahler: a huge performance, raucous and unruly in the very best ways, with the eight horns at the end standing up and commanding the heavens to open.
On Thursday, Esa-Pekka Salonen did his usual number on the Beethoven Ninth: neat and crisp, the Scherzo repeats properly respected, the slow movement a bit on the juiceless side. Preceding the Ninth, and rendering that work pale by comparison, came a curious revenant from bygone musical enthusiasms, Ariel Ramírez’s Misa Criolla. An alluring pastiche, it blends the text of the Latin Mass — parts of it, anyhow — into a background of maracas, guitars and anything noisy available. There were lots of these pieces around at one time; I remember clerking at the Art Music Co. in Berkeley, with the listening booths fairly vibrating to their beat. Perhaps the Vatican’s 1963 legitimizing of vernacular liturgy had something to do with it. Hearing it live at the Bowl, in a performance by Huayucaltia and Opus 7, was like opening an old and forgotten closet. There isn’t much music in the work; the tunes are right out of an old provincial hymnbook. But then the percussion takes over, you can’t resist, and you don’t really want to.
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