I have seen the operatic future — part of it, anyhow — and it makes me nervous. I view the L.A. Opera under the Domingo dynasty as a grandiose mom ‘n’ pop operation. Pop Placido nurses his aging voice, transposing the arias downward when necessary, and keeps his right arm in shape with a little stick-waving that might pass for conducting if you don‘t listen too carefully. Mom Marta, whose career as a professional stage director only goes back to 1991, makes up for lost time by rewriting and then restaging the repertory classics, tacking happy endings onto the tragedies and death scenes onto the comedies.
We have ample chance to sample the perfectly adequate ordinariness of Placido’s conducting over the years; it fits into the pattern of podium mediocrity that has haunted the company from the start. (His announced Aida next fall looks from here like more of the same.) Right now it‘s the diminutive Marta who looms large, in the colossally misguided version of Puccini’s three-legged puppy of an almost-operetta, La Rondine, currently sullying the air at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, that she not only directs but has also extensively revised in the name of correcting faults that she (and she alone) has detected in the standard version.
Puccini himself had his troubles with La Rondine. In one early version, never performed and later disowned, the reformed prostitute Magda, denounced by tenor Ruggero as he learns The Truth, faces the wreckage of her one true love ”alone and abandoned“ at the final curtain. It‘s not hard to understand why the final version, with the parting of the mismatched lovers both wistful and inevitable — as in Der Rosenkavalier, which Puccini admired — harmonizes far better with the rest of the work. Marta Domingo, however, has chosen to impose her own gloss onto the rejected version; her Magda, more Joan Crawford than Strauss’ Marschallin, walks out into a handy nearby ocean and sinks out of sight. Designer Michael Scott has provided a terrific tidal wave.
Marta‘s editorial hand falls elsewhere as well. Like a fond momma scattering tchotchkes, she has littered Puccini’s perfectly respectable score with useless bits: a scrap of text from Godknowswhere stuck onto an orchestral passage, a newly contrived add-on to a duet for Magda and her sugar daddy there. From another Puccini reject she has exhumed a first-act tenor aria, with a gut-busting high some-note-or-other at the end on which tenor Marcus Haddock foundered most ignobly. One should be polite about people unfortunately named, but Mr. Haddock‘s Ruggero was decidedly cold fish. And so was the Magda of Carol Vaness — wreathed in whore-frost, you might say — as a soprano still admirable in the classic repertory tries once again (as in her previous Violetta and Tosca here) to remake herself as an Italian romantic. Greg Fedderly and Sari Gruber managed the juvenile roles with charm and ease; newcomer conductor Emmanuel Villaume did some furious arm-waving that was fun to watch without significantly mitigating the overall gloom, the unshakable sense that none of this should really be allowed to happen — least of all at a $146 top ticket.
On this matter of wrong-head-edness, you might want to rummage around in your imagination’s darkest reaches in search of other deplorable musical ideas. A rewrite of Aida with a new score by Elton John? A parcel of Bob Dylan lyrics newly set to the typically shiny, slick, faceless music of John Corigliano? Neck and neck for wrong-headedness, wouldn‘t you say?
Well, the new-fangled Aida is doing okay, if not great, on Broadway, and the much-admired American soprano Sylvia McNair is traipsin’ the countryside with Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan, its attraction not at all impeded by its composer‘s recent Oscar (for more of the same typically shiny etc. music for The Red Violin). The crowd at McNair’s recent Dorothy Chandler Pavilion recital was on the paltry side, smaller than the splendor of McNair‘s proven artistry deserves, larger than the prospect of the evening’s major work held forth. Word does, after all, get around.
Corigliano‘s program note has it that he hadn’t heard a note of Dylan‘s songs until the Carnegie Hall commission (awarded to McNair for a song cycle, who then chose the composer) came his way; that, for a red-blooded American born in 1938, getting his own name around New York in the very time of Dylan’s glory days there, takes some doing. Whether from ignorance or malice, he has been keenly successful in circumventing the Dylan essence, the gritty insinuation that goes out from all the great lyrics to shape an inescapable, elementary kind of melody, simplistic but insistent. He has chosen his texts well: ”Mr. Tambourine Man,“ ”Blowin‘ in the Wind,“ ”All Along the Watchtower,“ all faves, and stifled them all under a suffocating blanket of Art.
The earth didn’t move very far under the Japan America Theater during the most recent Green Umbrella concert, but it quivered agreeably in place even so. Donald Crockett led his USC Contemporary Music Ensemble in a nicely varied program that included intricate, responsible music by Crockett himself and his faculty colleague Stephen Hartke. There was, as well, a nicely designed, exceptionally attractive work called Labyrinth by another academic not yet known here but obviously deserving: Indiana University‘s David Dzubay; remember the name. At the end came Randall Woolf’s Motown-tinged Shakedown, the kind of easygoing modernness you put at the end of a new-music program to reassure audiences that they haven‘t been witnessing the end of the world. The three major music compositional outlooks hereabouts are easily distinguishable: UCLA for its marketable blandness, CalArts for its winnowing of art forms out of chaos and the avoidance of marketable blandness at any cost, USC for its academic solidity. Taken together, they offer fair reassurance that music will be around for a while.