This was the week of Los Angeles’ annual identity crisis. On Tuesday and Thursday, in shorts and T-shirt, I loaded the picnic basket and made it to the Hollywood Bowl. On Wednesday I fished out my matching socks and headed downtown to the Music Center, where the Los Angeles Opera began its season with the usual opening-night gala. The intermingling takes getting used to, all the more so since the musical level of Camille Saint-Saens‘ Samson et Dalila, which kicked off the opera season, is a lot closer to the typical Bowl fare than is Ravel’s subtle Sheherazade, which Dawn Upshaw had sung enchantingly at the Bowl the night before.
Samson marked the start of the L.A. Opera‘s 14th season, the last for outgoing founder and general director Peter Hemmings; it served as well to trumpet the presence, however brief, of incoming artistic director Placido Domingo (with the rest of the new administrative team as yet unannounced). In a sense, the Samson also celebrated the sweep of history within the company. Lawrence Foster, who conducted the inaugural Otello (with Domingo) in October 1986, was again on the podium, as he has often been in the intervening years. Domingo was the Samson; he has sung opening-night leads in nine of 14 seasons, and conducted two others. Two singers in lesser roles, Richard Bernstein as the Abimelech and Louis Lebherz as the Old Hebrew, are alumni of the company’s training program and well along in world-class careers.
Tattered baggage though it be, Samson et Dalila maintains its place in the repertory on the strength of its glittering surface. Sure, it has only one tune worth remembering. Its ballet is the ancestor of all operatic hootchy-kootch. Given a fair serving of charismatic lung power in its two name roles, however, and a stage setting evocative of the Loew‘s Babylon lobby of everybody’s imagining — all of which it got at the Music Center on Wednesday — it can still dupe an undemanding audience into believing itself some kind of masterpiece.
Credit composer Saint-Saens as the opera‘s adept string-puller; his hand here, as in all his voluminous legacy, is more shrewd than inspired. Samson is a role fashioned in tenor heaven, from his first lurching onstage with his mighty battle cry to his heart-rending laments in Philistine captivity. Does it matter that neither of these musical commodities nor most of what Samson gets to sing in between these two big numbers remains in the memory? No; what remains is the sound, if not the shape, of Placido Domingo’s white-hot outbursts: opera at its most elemental. (After this weekend, however, Domingo hands off his lion skin and curls to replacement tenor Gary Lakes, and heads east to serenade the sequins and tiaras on opening night at the Metropolitan Opera.)
Dalila is fashioned out of friendlier stuff. She has the opera‘s one Tune, in the Act 2 lovehate duet, but it’s a long time in coming. Denyce Graves, apparently put on Earth to take over and inflame all of opera‘s bad-girl mezzo-soprano roles (of which there are many), with flashing eyes that could seduce any tenor within miles to abandon home, hearth and hairdo, was sensational, lavishly endowed in voice and in everything else as well. (She even tried a few dance steps during the Bacchanale, a welcome contrast to choreographer Daniel Pelzig’s Muscle Beach stuff.) Gregory Yurisich sang the High Priest‘s music without vocal color or dramatic sense: his third major role with the company, his third fizzle.
Douglas Schmidt’s production from the San Francisco Opera 1981 neatly matched the music‘s garish ponderosity: a heavy impasto of burnished color, as from watching 10 Gustave Moreau paintings at once, and for the final temple scene a jumble of pseudo-Oriental statuary lacking only a popcorn stand. Nicolas Joel’s staging, tidy and unremarkable, at least nicely accomplished the final catastrophe that everyone eagerly awaits; it brought down the house.
Donizetti‘s L’Elisir d‘Amore, three nights later, proved a lot easier to love, in a lively and flexible reading under newcomer John Keenan’s baton. Ramon Vargas was again the smooth, immensely likable Nemorino that he was when Stephen Lawless‘ production first came here in April 1996; Thomas Allen, now a “Sir,” repeated his Dulcamara: loud and somewhat bluff, without much of the endearing vocal biz others have brought to the role. (Anyone else remember Salvatore Baccaloni?) As the philandering Belcore, Rodney Gilfry brought his own neat comic gestures, with voice to match. The final 15 or so minutes — Nemorino’s “Una furtiva lagrima” and Adina‘s answering aria that evoked my own furtive tears — were as beautiful as anything you could want to hear in an opera. The Adina, Ruth Ann Swenson in her first role with the company, sang the music out full, with none of the chirping that lesser singers have imposed on bel canto comedy, her voice radiant, pure and immensely winning. Lawless’ staging, as before, suffered from an excess of fidgets: too many doors opening and closing, too much busywork among furniture movers and grain-bag schleppers. Again, however, what remains in the memory is the staging of that final scene, in a vacant field lit by a full moon and by those two wonderful voices.
A final Bowl echo for the season: My negative note on the intrusive video projections of the concerts onto a screen overhead — simulcast in reverse, you might say — has brought on the accusation of spoilsport, which perish forfend. A second try last week worked somewhat better; there were no roving camerafolk onstage, and the solo shots were better coordinated to actual performances. It was ravishing to watch Dawn Upshaw close-up, her face lit as much by the radiance of her music as by the spotlights. But the big screen still imposes itself on the attention; I would prefer smaller screens to the sides, affording the choice of whether to watch a concert live or canned. I would also hope for even better coordination: picking up on a solo player not a couple of beats into the solo but in the few seconds before it starts, as the link between conductor and performer is forged, and the beauty of the live performance takes shape.