PREVIEW: L.A. Opera’s “Salome” marks a revival of an historically important production

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Tomas Tomasson as John the Baptist and Patricia Racette as Salome in LA Opera’s historic production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” which opens tomorrow night in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo by Ken Howard/LA Opera
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The story is legendary in the opera world; even those who weren’t in attendance (as I was) remember it. 1986 — the inaugural opening night for Los Angeles Opera: the curtain rising on the opening act of Verdi’s Otello pauses partway up before continuing its ascent a few seconds later. It was a “heart-in-the-throat” moment for those in attendance (particularly for those in company management, one suspects). It also provided a ready-made, humorous lead for critics (including me), leaning forward in anticipation.

That opening production was an exciting time for all concerned, but fewer people remember the third opera in that inaugural season.

Otello was followed by a very conventional presentation of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, starring — somewhat implausibly — Leona Mitchell as Cio-Cio San.

However, it was the third offering — a new production of Richard Strauss’ Salome — that in retrospect, put the company on the international opera map. It’s also the only production from that original season that remains in the LAO repertoire, 31 years later. The Met still has Franco Zeferelli’s iconic Madama Butterfly in its rep; Sir Peter Hall’s Salome is LAO’s equivalent.

Tomorrow night LAO revives that Salome production in the first of six performances, running through March 19. The big news has been that superstar American soprano Patricia Racette is portraying the title heroine; both Michelle Mills in our SCNG papers (LINK) and Catherine Womack in the Los Angeles Times (LINK) have focused on that story.

Yet, it’s not too big a stretch to say that without that 1986 production of Salome, there might be no LA Opera (as the company now calls itself). Thus the historical aspect of this opera deserves to be remembered.

That seems strange in retrospect because Salome wasn’t an easy sell in a city where opera was still working to establish a beachhead.

For one thing, LAO’s production of Salome was created by Sir Peter Hall, who was far better known for his work in the theatre than in the opera world, although, with conductor Georg Solti, he did direct Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 1983 at Bayreuth for the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death.

Second, the opera (written by Strauss at the beginning of the 20th century using a libretto that he adapted from an infamous Oscar Wilde play) runs in a single act that lasts an hour and 40 minutes without intermission — although for those who don’t like long nights at the opera house, that’s a plus.

Another issue is that the character originates in synoptic Biblical gospels of Matthew and Mark, although in those accounts she is unnamed. Wilde’s and Strauss’ “scandalous” treatment of a Biblical character always caused ruffled feathers among conservative Christian folk.

A final (and related) problem was the opera’s most famous moment: Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils,” where she writhes before Herod in an erotic dance and where each of the veils are removed until she stands naked before the king. The scene so scandalized the performers and audiences that in earlier productions a dancer performed, and, later, singers used a body stocking for the dance. Even today the nude scene features prominently in almost any article, include those noted above.

Sir Peter would make no offering to modesty, in part because the Salome in that 1986 production — his wife, Maria Ewing — was good looking and was willing to end the dance naked. In addition, the production was notable because the performers were both compelling as singers and actors. It was, particularly, a hard role for Ewing, who was a mezzo-soprano rather than a sopranos, but she carried off the singing handsomely and her acting was riveting.

One other aspect of that LAO Salome premiere was the size of the orchestra: 92 players (much larger than either of the first two offerings), bulging the Pavilion pit and led by Henry Lewis. Hearing this luscious score played this by the now top-flight LAO Orchestra, conducted by James Conlon, should be one of the prizes of this year’s production.

Reports are that Sir Peter’s production has been refurbished for this run — not surprising given that it has been lent to companies around the world (a nice money-maker for the company). Sir Peter (who reportedly suffers from dementia) will not be on hand, although he continues to be listed for his production. Instead, David Paul makes his company debut as director and Duane Schuler will handle the crucial lighting details.

Like all productions of Salome, there’s a great deal of complexity and intrigue that will surround this revival. But there is also a great deal of history, which should not be forgotten. The L.A. Times Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, Martin Bernheimer — not known for throwing around accolades lightly — wrote of that 1986 production: “This is what opera should be about.”

Information: www.laopera.org
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: Free tickets available for LA Opera’s “Jonah and the Whale”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Free tickets still remain for Los Angeles Opera’s world premiere of Jonah and the Whale, the latest installment in its community opera, which presents family-oriented opera at the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angeles in downtown Los Angeles. This production will be presented March 21 and 22 at 7:30 p.m.

Jonah and the Whale was composed by Jack Perla to a libretto by Velina Hasu Houston. LAO Music Director James Conlon will conduct and the opera and will be directed by Eli Villanueva.

Tickets are free, although there’s a $1.00 service charge. They usually go fast for these presentations. Information: www.laopera.com
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEW: LA Opera’s production of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” sets sail Saturday in Los Angeles

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
This article was first published today in the above papers.
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Los Angeles Opera
Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman

Opening night: Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
Other performances: March 21, 27 and 30 at 7:30 p.m. March 17 and 24 at 2 p.m.
(Best seating availability: March 9, 17 and 27)
Preconcert lecture by James Conlon one hour before each performance.
Tickets: $19-$287
Information: www.laopera.com
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To say that Los Angeles Opera’s decision to present Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman was the result of a perfect storm would be to use a perhaps-too-obvious metaphor. Nonetheless, the legendary captain and his ghost ship — doomed to sail the seas endlessly until a curse is lifted by a woman’s love — drop anchor Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the first of six performances.

James Conlon, who recently extended his contract as LA Opera’s music director through the 2017-2018 season, will conduct the production, which comes to Los Angeles via Lyric Opera Chicago and San Francisco Opera, where it was created by noted German director Nikolaus Lehnhoff. Daniel Dooner will direct this offering with sets by Raimud Bauer and costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer (all three are making their company debuts).

Icelandic baritone Tómas Tómasson (pictured) will make his LAO debut in the title role. Portuguese soprano Elisabete Matos will also appear with the company for the first time as Senta, the young woman whose devotion offers the Dutchman a hope for salvation. Tenor Corey Blix will portray Erik; he replaces Jay Hunter Morris, who had to pull out due to illness.

Given Conlon’s often-expressed desire to make LA Opera a Wagner mecca and the fact that 2013 marks the bicentennial of Wagner’s birth,The Flying Dutchman (Der fliegende Holländer to be more accurate, since the work will be sung in German with English supertitles) was one of the obvious candidates to present this year.Dutchman will be the eighth Wagner opera that Conlon has conducted at LAO; the only missing link of the composer’s major works from LAO’s repertory isDie Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

MountingDutchman in 2013 also continues a company policy of presenting major works approximately every 10 years, explains Christopher Koelsch, LAO’s president and chief executive officer.

When LA Opera first presentedDutchman in 1993, Julie Taymor (in the days before she gained fame for her production ofThe Lion King) created a unique, albeit controversial production that the company revived a decade later.

This time around, says Koelsch, the opportunity to present Lenhoff’s production was too good to pass up. “I saw the original production in Chicago,” recalls Koelsch. “It was a powerful, moving experience. With this production, we continue a trend this year of presenting masters of the directing craft to our audiences, artists of great intellect and heft.”

Last fall, LAO eschewed a respectable homegrown production ofDon Giovanni to introduce director German Peter Stein to local audiences. Later this month when the company presents Rossini’sCinderella, it will lay aside its own colorful, playful production of a decade ago for an entirely new creative team (to local audiences, at any rate) headed by Director Joan Funt that will re-create what was originally a co-production of Houston Grand Opera and the Gran Teatre del Liceu of Barcelona.

Flying Dutchman marked a turning point in Wagner’s life when it debuted in 1843 in Dresden. Many of elements that would permeate his later operas first appeared inDutchman, including the use ofleitmotifsleading motives that allowed Wagner to delve deeply into psychological aspects of his characters and audiences with what amounted tosignature tunes.

Thoseleitmotifs show up immediately in the work’s overture, one of the great musical depictions of a storm at sea. Woven throughout the storm are motives for the Dutchman, Senta (the woman who can break the curse) and, finally redemption itself. This ability to weave motives into an extended orchestral writing would appear often in Wagner’s later operas.

Dutchman was revolutionary in another way. Although it contains three acts, Wagner’s concept was that all three should be performed as a single unit, and although some companies do insert one or two intermissions, LAO will honor the composer’s instructions by playing the entire work — two hours and 20 minutes — without a break.

The subject matter itself proved to be a prelude to themes that would emerge in Wagner’s later operas. Musicologist Thomas May writes, “Wagner discovered in the Dutchman the first of his mythic figures, ambivalent in nature, who have the flexibility to accommodate multiple meanings. His (unnamed) hero acquires the resonance of an archetype or myth as timeless as the wandering Odysseus and that, according to the composer, expresses ‘the longing for peace from the storms of life.’ “

In his official memoirs, Wagner wrote that the inspiration forDutchman came from a storm-tossed sea trip he made from Riga to Paris in 1838. However, the legend of the wandering, doomed sea captain was quite popular in the 19th century including an account by German poet Heinrich Heine who, like Wagner, was exiled from his homeland to Paris.

While Heine set his tale in Scotland, Wagner transplanted the locale to Norway. However, the essential elements of the myth — in particular, the concept of man’s redemption through love — would makeThe Flying Dutchman a major success for Wagner and point the way to his later operas, includingTristan und Isolde,Parsifal and, especially, his massive four-opera cycle,Der Ring des Nibelungen.
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• James Conlon’s commentary in the printed program is HERE.
* Thomas May’s article in the printed program is HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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Five-Spot: What caught my eye on February 23, 2012

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

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Each Thursday, I list five events that pique my interest,
including (ideally) at least one with free admission (or, at a minimum, inexpensive
tickets). Here’s today’s grouping:

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Tonight at 8 p.m., Tomorrow
at 11 a.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Charles Dutoit, conductor

We’ll soon find out whether the Los Angeles Philharmonic has
jet lag after returning from Caracas following a very hectic week playing in
the Venezuelan portion of “The Mahler Project.” The Phil returns to be led by a
familiar guest conductor, Charles Duoit (currently finishing up his tenure as
chief conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and for 25 years music director
of the Montreal Symphony). This weekend’s program is mostly familiar Dutoit
fare: Stravinsky’s Symphony of Wind
Instruments,
Debussy’s La Mer, and
a suite from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.
Information: www.laphil.com

 

Tonight at 8 p.m.
at Valley Performing Arts Center (Cal State Northridge)

Wroclaw Philharmonic
Orchestra; Garrick Ohlsson, piano

Artistic Director Jacek Kaspszyk leads The National Forum of
Music Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra (to give the ensemble its formal name) at
VPAC on tour with a program that includes Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 and Chopin’s
Piano Concerto No. 2, with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist. Information: www.valleyperformingartscenter.org

 

Saturday at 7:30
p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

Los Angeles Opera: Albert Herring

Los Angeles Opera brings this “coming of age” work by
Benjamin Britten, using a production from Santa Fe Opera that will be conducted
by James Conlon, who will also deliver a lecture one hour before each
performance. Tenor Alex Shrader makes his Los Angeles debut in the title role.
Brian in “Out West Arts” has one of his familiar “10 Questions” profile with
Shrader HERE. David Mermelstein previews the opera in his Los Angeles Times article HERE. Information: www.losangelesopera.com

 

Saturday at 8 p.m.
at Ambassador Auditorium

Los Angeles Chamber
Orchestra; Jeffrey Kahane, conductor

For the past several years in what he calls the “Discover
Series,” Music Director Jeffrey Kahane has picked a single piece to first
discuss and then perform. The choice Saturday night is one of the landmarks of
choral repertoire: Bach’s Magnificat,
with a text drawn from the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke.

 

Joining Kahane and LACO are The University of Southern California
Thornton Chamber Singers, directed by Jo-Michael Scheibe; and five soloists:
Charlotte Dobbs, soprano, Zanaida Robles, soprano, Janelle DeStefano, mezzo
soprano, Ben Bliss, tenor, and Daniel Armstrong, baritone.

 

Information: www.laco.org

 

Two of the other
offerings are opera holdovers:

San Diego Opera’s production of Moby-Dick wraps up its
run on Friday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the San Diego Civic Theatre. My
review is HERE. Information: www.sdopera.com

 

LA Opera’s production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra plays Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Dorothy
Chandler Pavilion. My review is HERE. Information:
www.laopera.com

 

Also, the “encore performance” of the Los Angeles
Philharmonic’s Mahler 8 concert in
Caracas earlier this month will be shown Wednesday at 7 p.m. (local time) in
four Los Angeles-area theaters along with a couple in Orange County. Information: www.laphil.com

 

And the weekend’s
“free admission” program …

 

Tuesday at 7:30
p.m. at Pasadena Presbyterian Church

Vor Frue Kirkes
Drenge-Mandskor and Vanse Guttekor-Deo Gloria

Two internationally renowned boys’ choirs appear as part of
a Southland tour with a selection of Norwegian, Danish and American music
concluding with Jonah — a Liturgical
Drama.
Information: www.ppc.net

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(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS AND LINKS: LA Opera offers new ticket deal for “Albert Herring”

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

 

Give LA Opera an “A” for effort when it comes to drumming up
interest for its upcoming production of Albert
Herring
by Benjamin Britten, which opens Saturday night at the Dorothy
Chandler Pavilion.

 

The company is offering tickets at $25 for those who have
already purchased tickets for the production or are going to do so. The offer
aimed at encouraging patron to invite someone who has never attended an opera
before (“opera virgins,” in LAO parlance, a play on the title character).

 

The offer — which runs for three days only (Wednesday
through Friday) is good for five of the six performances (Feb. 25, March 3,
March 8, March 14 and March 17), but not for the March 11 performance.
Tickets can be purchased at the box office, online, or via phone
(213/972-8001). There’s a limit of two $25 tickets per order and you can’t cash
in previously bought tickets to take advantage of the offer.

 

Why “opera virgins”? Albert
Herring
is about a country village trying to crown a May queen and needing
a virgin to qualify. Turns out the only virgin in the village is a meek mama’s
boy named Albert Herring, who will have a night he won’t forget (to quote the
LAO publicity). Tenor Alek Shrader makes his company debut in the title role
and James Conlon conducts the production, which comes by way of Santa Fe Opera.

 

Get details on the ticket offer HERE. Opera information: www.laopera.com

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(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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