The Inner Music Silenced

Robert Wilson’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, as produced by the L.A. Opera two years ago, soared both on Puccini’s lyric urgency and on an inner music created out of Wilson’s own visions, his unique sense of stage movement and color, his repertory of gentle invention, to deepen — but not supplant — the dramatic sense of the work itself. Wilson’s art is serious and subtle; alas, like the Butterfly of the story, it languishes in his absence. It needs his guidance, in his famous painstaking rehearsal technique, to deal with matters of lighting, the positioning of hands, of exact body movement. As enhancement to Puccini’s all-too-famous tearjerker, Wilson drew upon our powers of recognition, for example, by his exact contrast between the hand positions of his Butterfly and the American Kate Pinkerton at their meeting, and it told worlds about the clash of their civilizations, adding a layer of information to an opera that can — and often should — just as easily be ignored as second-rate entertainment. He created a whole character out of Butterfly’s small boy, and gave him a lovely, appealing choreography to make us aware of the tragedy that will devastate his life after the opera’s final curtain.

Wilson hasn’t been here for the current Butterfly revival (through February 19), which is not badly performed on the whole, but is no longer the deeply haunting stage masterwork of two years ago. A small boy — Nathan Cruz on the night I went, one of two brothers alternating in the role — busied himself amusingly on the stage, but he was merely cute and not at all moving. I found no fault with Patricia Racette and Marcus Haddock as the leads; they looked and sounded like every Mr. & Mrs. Pinkerton you’d expect in a major-league opera house. Margaret Thompson’s Suzuki is familiar coinage hereabouts; Vladimir Chernov’s Sharpless fulfilled his modest demands — well, modestly. The young Israeli conductor Dan Ettinger, impressive in last season’s Aida, continues to impress.

No, there were no musical faults, and dozens of big-time houses would not be ashamed asking $205 for this night of opera. But this production rests on the memory of something far finer: haunting to the eye and the dramatic sense, with lighting beautifully controlled (not contaminated, as it is now, with follow spots), a dramatic cast whose body movements mesh with what words and music are struggling to proclaim, the overall sense that even this maligned Puccini potboiler can be made to matter. It did then; it doesn’t, quite, now.

The Presentable Past .?.?.

Concerts at the Getty Center come nicely planned but burdened with a problem. It’s a fine idea to immerse yourself in a current exhibition and then, a few feet away, experience music related in time and impulse to what you’ve just seen. On a recent Saturday, there was the beguilement of a small room hung with the awesome lavishness of Titian: two military portraits in full Renaissance panoply and a Magdalene, plus a showcase of small engravings of similar splendor; one left short of breath. At the Harold M. Williams Auditorium down the way, the five members of the Hilliard Ensemble sang wonderful music of that exact time, all the parts of a Mass by Nicolas Gombert (1495–1560 or thereabouts) and works of near-contemporaries including one gorgeously complex motet by Josquin Desprez, who may have been Gombert’s teacher.

To hear is to adore. Gombert’s earmarks are a certain wildness, a complexity in the way his lines of counterpoint push against one another, that gives his music a kind of momentum different from the serenity of Josquin. And the problem at the Getty is that the Williams Auditorium, the only performing space, is not a concert hall at all but a dry lecture room that sucks the sound out of performers (unless they’re an amplified rock group). You could feel singers straining to get the sound out, especially the higher voices, and the result was not pleasant. The whole of the Gombert Mass, plus other works, is out on a new ECM disc by the Hilliards, and the sound of the group at ECM’s wonderful small church, Austria’s Propstei St. Gerold, is to the Getty sound as choirs of angels are to your local boiler factory.

At Westwood’s United Methodist, I heard most of Musica Angelica’s “Splendor of Venice” concert before dashing over (along with several of the players) to the Chamber Orchestra’s Mozart program I exulted over last week. Italy’s Rinaldo Alessandrini was the guest conductor, but it’s the orchestra’s regular conductor, Martin Haselböck, who deserves a low bow for reshaping this into the really fine Baroque orchestra it has always tried to be. Their program — you know, Locatelli, Vivaldi, Albinoni, the usual — came off with spirit and a sense of discovery and even, in a bloodletting Geminiani concerto, the message that this music isn’t all the same after all. Angelica is back on a one-concert-per-month basis; Mozart on February 24 and 26. If you’d written them off, as I had for a while, it’s time to write them back on.

Pierre Without Fear

Pierre Boulez made his first entry into local awareness with his Le Marteau Sans Maître, whose score he had under his arm when he first arrived here. Every local musician who survived that first performance — ask Bill Kraft, for one — has his own nightmare story about that Monday Evening Concert, March 1957. Robert Craft, who was supposed to conduct, gave up; Boulez came to the rescue and rehearsed for 10 days. The program also included electronic Stockhausen. “If this is music,” fumed the Times’ Albert Goldberg, “it’s time to drop the H-bomb.”

Over the years, Le Marteau has subsisted as much on its bogeyman reputation as on its actual quality; this was the work in which the outlooks of the young (32) Boulez first crystallized into musical shape. Live performances remain rare. At the last Green Umbrella Concert, the Philharmonic’s young assistant conductor, Alexander Mickelthwate, led Le Marteau as what it now is: a contemporary work of great complexity, but also great beauty rising most of all from embedded melodic lines, sinuous and rapturous and no more threatening to the ear than beautiful, great music of any other time.

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