About an hour before the start of the Philharmonic’s subscription season on September 29, a friend and I were ushered into the empty Disney Concert Hall by an orchestra official. My friend had never seen the hall; I, of course, have made it my second home. Even so, I needed the reminder of that phenomenon, the extreme silence of the place at rest, the design triumph of architect Gehry and acoustician Toyota. The day before, there had been a nonsubscription “Gala” concert, which Esa-Pekka Salonen and the orchestra began with the delicacies of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, an exquisite seasonal statement that the time of Hollywood Bowl–quality sound had passed and the sound of real music had begun. That moment of silence the next night (which would soon be followed with the irresistible racketing of Mahler’s Third Symphony) filled out the message.
The “Gala” program included another treasure, one that had people wondering where it had been all our lives: Manuel de Falla’s Master Peter’s Puppet Show. The work sets an episode from Don Quixote, and calls for live performers and/or life-size puppets in a mix with a chamber orchestra, using an episode from the Cervantes comedy that ends, as most of them do, in Quixotic chaos. This staging, by puppeteer Basil Twist — acclaimed most recently for his underwater production of Berlioz’s “Fantastic” Symphony in New York but not yet here — used the Disney organ loft and surrounding space, and did so with high imagination.
In all its 80-plus years, the Philharmonic had never once performed Falla’s small masterwork; in that span, the Mahler Third had turned up heaven knows how many dozen times. That tells us nothing, of course, about good music versus bad; I’ve never heard anyone advance notions about the Mahler Third being a good work, as I might hear about the Ninth, or Das Lied von der Erde. It belongs in the special category I’ve concocted known as Fun-Bad Works, and I suppose I should work up that list one of these days. (Let’s see . . . we can start off perhaps with Porgy and Bess or Tannhäuser.)
I love all that masquerading in the Mahler Third: the fake blood that oozes constantly in the first movement while Mahler giggles up his sleeve, and the delicious pomposity at the end, where the crowd really ought to be forced to its feet singing patriotic verses as white doves are released. It’s all a great con; Esa-Pekka rode the work to his position of eminence, but now that he no longer needs it, it has become his albatross. He leads his orchestra and the kiddie chorus most eloquently though its fraudulent measures, and through the sincere ones as well. At one time the Third served to prove his worthiness; now it is no longer worthy of him. Fifteen minutes of Ravel’s shimmering suite of childhood fantasies the night before told us far more about our marvelous conductor and the orchestra he has made for us.
It has taken 20 years for the Los Angeles Opera to produce romantic French opera in a musical style recognizable, respectful and altogether endearing. Like a warm and loving French kiss so perfectly placed that you never want it to end, the Manon currently at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion speaks (and sings!) in accents so impeccably Russian and Mexican (among others) that they somehow result in the absolute French manner, the absolute enchantment of the blend of twinkling jewelry (even if sometimes costume) and twinkling lovespeak (even if sometimes fraudulent) that blends into French Romanticism at its most seductive. From the regally Russian Anna Netrebko and the slimily seductive Mexican Rolando Villazón comes authentic French lovemaking/hate-spinning that can send you up walls with its realness. Even the tentative baton of Plácido Domingo, this time around, sounds real. Still . . .
There remains about this production a sense of the French-opera-for-those-afraid-of-French-opera. Cuts abound; nearly an hour of music is missing, which begins to impinge on matters of responsibility. These matters are also engaged in the spirit of Vincent Paterson’s staging (he of Madonna, Michael Jackson and Kiss of the Spider Woman), in which onstage lighting equipment and cameras move in and around the crowd scenes, switching the sense of time and place from fin-de-siècle France to commencement-de-siècle Hollywood. Someone, you get the feeling, still hasn’t learned to trust Monsieur Massenet and his very pretty opera. That someone, I get the feeling, ought to unstuff his ears and listen to the treasures at hand.
Not having 2,000-year-old ears (in spite of those letters, folks), I cannot deliver an insider’s evaluation on the Suzhou Kun Opera Theater of China’s Jiangsu Province or its production of The Peony Pavilion at Royce Hall. It would be equally foolish, however, to seek refuge behind historic and cultural time and miss out on the enormous and infinitely accessible pleasures these people brought to our midst in three sold-out nights of intense musical drama. Clearly visible and audible at every moment were pride of ownership and the privilege of sharing. I wonder what an analogue might be: something so deeply embedded in a nationality that it can travel and be shared with such integrity. (If Porgy and Bess is your answer, we are truly beset.)
Pride and dedication drove the wonderful singers, who were not so much beautiful to hear as intense and amazingly clear. With the torrent of events these past weeks — not to mention Orange County’s Ring, which I’ll get around to next week — I was able to hear only the last of the three live performances; there is also on DVD, of course, an abridged version of another telling of the Peony Pavilion love legend. Nowhere in my memories of musical drama, live or recorded, is there anything so culturally distant from my own experience as this one live performance, yet so artistically close.?