Paradise Lost and Found
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Verdi’s Otello at the Music Center
“We are not the sole owners of our past,” wrote Jordi Savall, music's great and original spirit, in a note accompanying his marvelous appearance at Disney Hall last week. His concert, with his ensemble of singers and players upon lovely old instruments, was devoted to music from “Hesperia,” an ill-defined area between the Italian and Iberian peninsulas whose musical fascination lay in its having housed a number of diverse cultures — Arab and Jewish, for example — who were able to live in peace and thus develop fascinating, hybrid artistic existences. Out of this remarkable melange emerged, among notable figures, Christopher Columbus, who, for all his reputation as an opportunist in his dealings in commerce, was also a serious observer of culture who kept large and important notebooks. One notebook page cited by Savall, which I find particularly fascinating in its power to lie across certain notebook pages of my own, is a leaf from the writings of the Roman poet and politician Seneca — yes, the old guy whom Nero does in in The Coronation of Poppea — prophesying the existence of a New World, which Columbus obviously took to heart.
Savall's researches, which resulted in a marvelously diverse program of music relevant to the world around Columbus' explorations, have always been more than mere concerts. With Hesperion XXI, his own gathering of instruments, and the dedicated singing of his wife, Montserrat Figueras — whose voice seems to embody the spirits of the past even as its pure vocal elegance fades away — the serendipity of his concert programming always is about something. Even the impersonal setting of Disney Hall, with its austere electronic loudspeakers standing around, did not, this once, seem an intrusion. Something about Jordi Savall and his music making manages to conquer time. This recent program about Columbus-era music comes with a fat picture book: not inexpensive, but indispensable. The next project, glowingly reviewed in the latest Gramophone, is a book and a set of discs (on the group's own Alia Vox label, handled in the U.S. by Harmonia Mundi) inspired by St. Francis Xavier and his excruciating journeys around Africa to India to bring about massive Christian conversions and the music that happened along the way.
High C's on the High Seas
It could be that Shakespeare's Othello and his storied warriors were prowling other corners of the Mediterranean at about the same time as the Columbus gang; more important is that they showed up here last week more or less simultaneously with the Verdi version. Those of us with long memories cannot easily relinquish the L.A. Opera's very first night, an Otello of 1986, with the curtain stuck on that most precipitous of all operatic openings. The new production was not thusly plagued; the curtain rose promptly, but on a curiously proportioned crowd scene, rocking back and forth on designer Johan Engels' curved stage floor, which became an authentic visual plague as the opera wore on. (Example: the Cyprus Court Scene in Act 3, with the Governor's throne unsettled in center stage and again seeming to rock back and forth.) Two massive, square tunnel openings, leading to nowhere in particular, flanked the stage. Some ill-defined lighting upstage in Act 3 may, or may not, have served as a vista of distant skyscrapers.
Ian Storey, fresh from Britain, was also fresh and invigorated in the role of Otello; it took very few lines of opera, however, just the curled, jet-black tones of his address to Roderigo not far into Act 1, to recognize who was to own this performance: the venom-tinged, insidious Iago of the unmatchable Mark Delavan, in his long-overdue local debut and in his effortless full embodiment of operatic evil at its unfurled fullness. Soprano Cristina Gallardo-Domas, the scheduled Desdemona, fell ill two days before opening curtain; the way these things work in the contemporary, well-oiled operatic machine, the Met was able to spring Russian soprano Elena Evseeva, a well-practiced Desdemona, just in time and then some. Barring no more than a glitch or two, Mme. Evseeva fulfilled her duty and perhaps a bit more.
To add to the weekend's exhilaration, Falstaff, the other masterwork of Verdi's ripest genius, was triumphantly and delightfully mounted by the newly reconstituted Opera UCLA, not at cavernous Royce Hall but sensibly at Schoenberg. Peter Kazaras was the stage director; Neal Stulberg led the exuberant orchestra; the Falstaff, Jeffrey Madison from the University of Minnesota, was singing the role for the first time in his life. O brave new world, and then some!
It would be unfair to measure the success of James Conlon and the L.A. Opera's “Recovered Voices” program on the measure of masterpieces restored from obscurity. The good work of the program should rest, I think, on a leveling of the field by filling in a repertory undeservedly lost through political elimination, whereupon these restored works would then gain or lose their place on the basis of quality. On this level, I would suggest that half of the double bill restored to circulation at the L.A. Opera this week was eminently deserving of the superb production (including Conlon's musical leadership and the work of a superb cast) and half was not.
The deserving short opera was Alexander Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg (The Dwarf), which already has had some circulation in Europe but not in the Western U.S. Based on Oscar Wilde's “Birthday of the Infanta,” a taut, ironic, actually rather vicious and therefore delightful short story, it has been given a gorgeous setting here, worthy of the Velasquez painting that inspired it, a perfect gem of a production by Darko Tresnjak on a stage set up by Ralph Funicello and Linda Cho.
Sharing the evening is Victor Ullmann's The Broken Jug, another work — along with his Emperor From Atlantis — riding the deserved fame of its composer's concentration-camp history, but in need by now of facing the reality that life in a concentration camp does not automatically bestow the halo of genius.