To Hell With Perfection

Don Carlo is Verdi’s Everest, its peak shrouded, unattainable, magnificent. The Los Angeles Opera’s current version, at the Music Center through October 1, handily measures the company’s emergence as a major performing force since its previous stab at the work (April 1990, a quick, pathetic replacement for a scheduled Pique Dame), ranking, by the same token, as its best Verdi since . . . well, since ever. The gorgeous physical production, dark as nobly shed blood, looks the way the music sounds. Philip II of Spain sings of the gloomy “stone vaults under the Escorial,” and John Gunter’s designs set those vaults to a dismal dance on their own that is just right. When the King collapses back into the folds of his throne, his royal presence diminished to a meager wisp in the strangulation of the Grand Inquisitor’s menacing tones, can any of us out front in the cavernous theater not share the chill, the sudden emptying of humanness that comes with the music, the bleakness forming a vacuum that drains us all? What is there in opera to match that moment? What more ardently proves the power of that kind of music to hold every listener by the knots in the spine and manipulate our willing bones beyond the power — beyond the need, even — to resist?

Whatever the magic, James Conlon and his orchestra achieved exactly that result at their opening Don Carlo, and if I had my way, I would post their achievement — which included the stupendous King Philip of Ferruccio Furlanetto and the Inquisitor of Eric Halvarson (like a pair of haggling contrabassoons), along with the chilling Eboli of Dolora Zajick, a couple of octaves higher, and the not-bad Carlo of Salvatore Licitra, much improved from his over-promoted days as Pavarotti redux — as the standard to which any and all modern opera companies might strive. This being Verdi’s longest and most crag-strewn opera, the perfect performance exists only in the sternest musicologist’s dreams, and the deviations between this or any contemporary staging and Verdi’s original intent add up to quite a list. The language — not French but Italian — is wrong. One whole act is missing. A ballet has been omitted (thank heaven), and a number of smaller cuts, more or less important, have been observed. If you let these things bother you, you’ll probably never witness even a halfway-satisfactory Don Carlo (which this one is, and more), and thereby you will miss one of opera’s greatest treasures.

Down Costa Mesa Way

The champagne — pink, mostly — flowed freely; the Orange County damsels pushed their hors d’oeuvres, doing their best not to trip over miles of video and light cables that turned the plaza into Sargasso. Like an elderly relative dolled up for the party but seated on the sidelines, the “old” Segerstrom Hall (a mere 19, actually) dangled a few strings of neon like last year’s costume jewelry. Attention, of course, was focused on the parvenu across the way, the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, the $200 million worth of glass bubble that opened its doors last Friday night for the first of an oddly situated set of events that will turn this Segerstrom real estate into more of a cultural center, needed or not. The best of the celebratory concerts, actually, will take place in the old hall. It’s just that operas and ballets are more celebratory than mere symphony concerts, and the new hall, like Disney, has no place for a pit.

And so the fanciest wingdings go on somewhere else: in the older Segerstrom, with its grandiose but wacko seating plan. Normally, bigtime concert halls go with bigtime symphony orchestras offering bigtime concert schedules (e.g., Disney Hall). The Orange County Pacific Symphony plays a far smaller schedule despite its dreams-of-glory gestures (e.g., last season’s European trip). Even beyond the small disaster near the end of last week’s inaugural concert, an electronic glitch whose origin is still under debate as I write, the orchestra’s performance of the Mahler First under Carl St. Clair was strictly small-scale: a bad horn night, for starters. The Pacific Symphony Board does a pretty good job of pretending like big time: lots of commissioning of “safe” composers. Everyone is careful not to mention St. Clair’s predecessor, Keith Clark, although his performance of Schönberg’s Gurrelieder was one of the area’s most famous fiascoes.

The new hall is pleasantly small, welcoming about 2,000 on seats of light-colored maple and bright-red fabric. The sound of the Mahler was clean and dry; I heard everything with proper clarity, but St. Clair’s performances are hard to remain awake for even at best. The new work, a set of García Lorca texts composed by William Bolcom for Plácido Domingo, was very much wide-awake, however: passionate music with humorous asides, set down with the consideration a superior composer can muster for what a great but aging singer can produce. Quite frankly, I expected something far kindlier; these are strong, gorgeous pieces, and I can only hope that Plácido has the generosity to pass them on into the repertory.

Sitting It Out

My attendance record at the Hollywood Bowl being no cause for shame most of the season, I allowed myself the indulgence of denying my company to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, which ended the “classical” portion of the season that final Thursday. The night had turned cold; the gin had run low; there are few works I despise more thoroughly, and for a greater number of reasons. Just the thought of this bespectacled, small-minded pedant amusing his Führer by constructing this lurid travesty, assuming the small fragments out of ancient German songbooks and twisting them into beer-hall jabberings as if to reinvent a new musical language, is offensive enough. The ugliness of this vulgar work would offend me even if the text were pure, serene and biblical; it is none of these. Listen to the exquisite original medieval “Burana” songs on disc and grieve for the fate of German art.

Earlier on, the program was the young Jefferson Friedman’s tone poem constructed in honor of the famous sculptural grouping at the Smithsonian The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, the visionary creation by handyman William Hampton. Young (32) Friedman was on hand; he plans to incorporate his shiny, charming piece into a musical triptych honoring “outsider” artists and their inspirational, shimmering artworks. This one certainly does.?

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