The on-again, off-again romance between the Los Angeles Opera and the other local industry — which sagged a while back as Hollywood’s Bruce Beresford turned Rigoletto into a lumpy hash — has now moved forward a couple of notches. William Friedkin‘s take on the double bill of one-acters currently at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion — running in repertory with Turandot, both offerings ending this weekend — may contain a trick or two too many, but the entertainment value overall is high. I had a good time there, and so should you.

It’s a strange pairing, Bartok‘s dark, restless psychodrama about the tormented Bluebeard and his latest wife, and Puccini’s delirious fleshing-out of Dante‘s mendacious rogue of a Gianni Schicchi. Friedkin has devised a hilarious sight gag to link the two. One of the ectoplasms of Bluebeard’s former wives — uninhabited airborne nighties right out of Disneyland‘s Haunted House — stays on past intermission as the dying Buoso Donati gives up the ghost at the start of Puccini’s opera. To end the Bartok, Friedkin has another marvelous device: As the bride Judith takes her place among the ghosts of the past, Bluebeard comes on the scene one more time with yet another bride. Life goes on, and so does death.

Gottfried Pilz‘s set for Duke Bluebeard’s Castle — a handsome spiral staircase and a collapsed chandelier that resembles a tarantula about to strike — serves the Gianni Schicchi as well, the staircase framing a view of Dante‘s Florence (with Giotto’s campanile still abuilding even though the costuming is more up-to-date) and the chandelier now properly hung. (Another built-in coincidence: The Bartok begins, and the Puccini ends, with spoken exhortations meant by each composer to be delivered in the language of the audience.)

Samuel Ramey‘s performances in the title roles of both operas greatly strengthen the coupling, as does Kent Nagano’s splendid musical leadership. Bartok‘s score grows in my own esteem; it has gradually made its way into the repertory, with recent performances hereabouts by the Long Beach Opera (set in a seedy urban tenement) and by Pierre Boulez and the Philharmonic in concert form. It is full of gorgeous musical events, even when its elements do not entirely fuse. By 1911 Bartok had come to share in the widespread (if not unanimous) adoration of Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande; the declamation in his own opera — particularly the way the very shape of the vocal lines defines the conflicting personalities of its two characters — confirms his debt to the nine-years-older work. There is Debussy, too, in the surging orchestration, mingled with Bartok‘s growing mastery over the harsh, bright colors of his own Eastern European background. Ramey and Nagano, each in his own way, seemed wonderfully at home in both the verbal and musical language of this extraordinary work; less so Denyce Graves, who made nice sounds as the doomed Judith but had a way of making the language itself both flat and harsh.

The Gianni Schicchi — Puccini for people who don’t like Puccini — might have done with fewer pratfalls. Against the cavorting, galumphing Rinuccio of Rolando Villazon — hardly worthy of the Lauretta (Danielle De Niese) who had sung ”O mio babbino caro“ so prettily — there was Ramey‘s comic, beautifully modulated Schicchi. The excessive biz aside, Friedkin did a fine job in welding together a delightful unit. Among them, as the dowager Zita, there was of all people the veteran Rosalind Elias, 50-plus years into her singing career and no less lively now than when I heard her at the Met in the 1950s. Life, indeed, goes on.

Since I had felt that the first principals in the company’s new Turandot had somewhat compromised the production, and especially Luciano Berio‘s much-touted new ending for Puccini’s unfinished score, I stopped by last weekend to see if the second team might have done better. Different, perhaps, but hardly better: not so much the lurch ‘n’ clutch of the first night‘s Audrey Stottler and Franco Farina; now the gasp ’n‘ gargle of Nina Warren and Ian De Nolfo. Lordy, what sheer out-of-focus vocal ugliness expended on such promising dramatic substance! Again the Liu, also new this time, stole the show: Svetla Vassileva, small and utterly winning. I begin to suspect that this one role, above all else in an imperfect but potentially stirring opera, has the show-stealing capacity built in.

Thus ended the first year of the L.A. Opera as conceived and planned by Placido Domingo. Beyond question, it has been a step forward in repertory: the company’s first Russian opera, its first truly distinguished Wagner, a timid but commendable handshake to Schoenberg, the present double bill. Even some of the mistakes had their noteworthy sides: The hideous staging of Bach‘s B-minor Mass at least brought the legendary Achim Freyer to town, and the blatantly misconceived and bloated Merry Widow had its blameless side in Rodney Gilfry’s Danilo. The new connection with Berio could be significant; it will prove more so if it brings us some of his own past operatic successes, most of all Il Re in Ascolto, one of the great, wise, truly beautiful stage works of the past half-century.

There are problems on the horizon. One worries that too much hope has been pinned to the deep pockets of superpatron Alberto Vilar, in view of his own famous capriciousness, not to mention the uncertainty of the market since 911. The promised Lucas-designed Ring, which sounded too good to be true when it was first announced for 2003, now appears to be just that; the announcement of its delay (to 2006, was it?) came with the kind of backing-and-filling double talk that always sows distrust. Marta Domingo continues to cast her diminutive shadow; she will stage next season‘s Tales of Hoffmann, which will, at least, use Michael Kaye’s interesting new edition last seen here in 1988. If I had to pinpoint the most horrible operatic experience from the past season, it would be Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari‘s Sly, which the Metropolitan Opera dug out for Domingo: depressingly low-grade music, stupidly staged (by Marta Domingo) without even the most rudimentary sense of blocking or dramatic design. Does it loom on our horizon? Our only safeguard is that the winds generally blow from west to east.

Still, the more immediate horizon has Monteverdi’s Poppea to offer (again, in a Berio reworking), and our first-ever look at Prokofiev‘s War and Peace, with Russian performing forces by the gazillion occupying the territory at First and Grand, financed by Vilar and marshaled under Valery Gergiev’s baton. To start off, there‘s more Puccini, his Girl of the Golden West too long away, with the very promising Simone Young on the podium and Domingo as ”Meester Johnson of Sacramento.“ It couldn’t be all bad.

LA Weekly