PREVIEW: “Walking the Plank” at “Billy Budd”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Los Angeles Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd
Feb. 22, March 5, 8 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. March 2 and 16 at 2 p.m.
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles
Tickets: $19-$311. Student and senior rush tickets, subject to availability.
Information: www.laopera.org

BillyBudd_5_4Web
LA Opera will use Francesca Zambello’s striking production when it presents Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd beginning Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo from Washington National Opera.
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As the clock ticks toward next Saturday, anticipation is beginning to mount as Los Angeles Opera prepares to present Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, the climax of the company’s nearly two-year-long “Britten 100/LA” celebration of the centennial of composer’s birth on November 22, 2013. Staging, lighting, orchestra and cast rehearsals are fusing into what the company hopes will be a seamless whole; dress rehearsals begin Sunday and the Feb. 22 opener will be the first of six presentations of an opera that many people consider Britten’s finest work, although it isn’t as well known as Peter Grimes.

This morning some media members and other guests got a backstage glimpse of the set for the production, which was created by a then-young New York City native named Francesca Zambello. Gary Murphy, LAO’s director of public relations wittily termed the morning “Walking the Plank.” As always, the perspective from the stage is radically different from the seats, although the morning began in the Founders Circle so that we could get front-facing perspective of a set that was still coming together.

This production debuted in Switzerland’s Grand Théâtre de Genève in 1994 and opened the next year at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It played in Los Angeles in 2000 and has become, says Rupert Hemmings, LAO’s senior director of production, “THE iconic production of this opera.” Plácido Domingo, LAO’s general director, believes this is the Zambello’s best work. In fact, it is so popular that there are two versions in existence, one based in London (which LAO is using) and the other housed in Paris.

Despite the fact that the opera is set entirely on a British man-of-warship in 1797, the HMS Indomitable, Zambello specified to set and costume designer Alison Chitty that the production couldn’t include a ship and the sailors couldn’t wear military uniforms.

Instead, Chitty created a raked, triangular wooden plank that stretches the width of the Pavilion stage and comes to a point looming over the orchestra pit to symbolize the ship’s deck (rigging and other paraphernalia in the background add verisimilitude to the effect). The front 2/3 of the plank tilts up sharply to reveal the cabin below where much of the second act takes place; from the seats, the effect resembles a geometric “Jaws-like” shark.

Several of us “rode the plank” as it tilted up and down; others climbed warily down the ultra-steep stairs from the deck to the cabin (with my bad foot, I elected not to risk my neck on that trip — the all-male cast that numbers about 25 clearly has to be in great shape to maneuver on this set; no “Falstaffs” here).

What the audience will see is exactly what Zambello created, although Julia Pevzner is credited as the director. “When a company rents a production, as we are doing with this one,” explained Hemmings, “you are contractually obligated to produce what was originally created. Moreover, if the original director isn’t in charge, he or she has to sign off on the director. This production clearly has Zambello’s imprint.”

Zambello — now general and artistic director of the Glimmerglass Festival in England and artistic director of Washington National Opera — has, in fact, been in L.A. for what Hemmings described as a week of “intense” rehearsals. Liam Bonner, who is portraying the title character for the first time, remembers Zambello telling him, “You already look like Billy Budd; you don’t have to jump around a lot. Stand still!”

For L.A. Opera Music Director James Conlon, who is conducting Billy Budd for the first time, this production continues a life-long love affair with Britten. “When I was growing up,” Conlon wrote in an Opera News article, “Benjamin Britten was a contemporary composer.” As a high school student, he heard Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, perform two recitals in New York City.

Nonetheless, for Conlon, the complexity of Billy Budd makes it unique. “A universe within the universe,” writes Conlon in the LA Opera program, “it touches upon Britten’s recurrent themes: outrage for the destruction — not just the loss — of innocence; the abdication by civil authorities of their moral authority to the detriment of the weak; and the importance of compassion and its lamentable absence in the affairs of men.”

Written in 1951 and revised nine years later, the opera uses a libretto by E.M. Forster (who write A Passage to India and A Room With a View, among other works) and Eric Crozier from a novella by Herman Melville. “It is the second of three operas, along with Peter Grimes and Death in Venice, that play out in or around the powerful influence of the sea,” notes Conlon. “It is [also] the biggest of his large-scale works.” The orchestra (the largest Britten used in an opera) has more than 70 musicians, the L.A. Opera Chorus numbers 46 and there are 10 boys from the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. Altogether, counting stagehands and lighting folks, more than 200 people will be involved in this production (“not counting ushers and ticket takers,” says Hemmings with a wry smile).
Bonner
In the title role, Bonner (right) — a 32-year-old Pittsburgh native — steps into the shoes of Southern California native Rod Gilfry who created the part in the London production and played it here 14 years ago. Although new to this role, Bonner has an extensive background in Britten’s music; he played the role of Sid in LAO’s production of Britten’s Albert Herring in 2012.

“Britten does such a wonderful job of writing for the voice,” says Bonner. “What I’ve learned is that to sing his music well I have to be true to myself. The challenges are mainly that you have to be very strict with the rhythms and keep moving forward. There’s always an energy, a current that seems to keep running through the music; it never seems to stops. And yet, there are moments of stillness — in fact, stillness is an important part of the action.”

Although it’s by coincidence given the lengthy schedule times for operas, the revival of this production and the unveiling of an acclaimed 2010 production from Glyndebourne Festival Opera, directed by Michael Grandage, now playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, (LINK) are especially timely because of the mounting of Charles Wuorinen’s operatic version of Brokeback Mountain, which opened recently at Teatro Real Madrid. “Without Britten having introduced the issue of homosexuality in Billy Budd,” says Hemmings, ”Brokeback Mountain as an opera doesn’t get written.”

Britten’s homosexuality certainly played a role in the writing of Billy Budd, although how much is open to debate. “The homoerotic aspects are certainly a driving force in this piece,” said Bonner in an interview with Chris Carpenter in Rage Monthly, “but they have more do with Claggart than with Billy. Billy is too innocent and naïve, I think, to even realize the way Claggart is drawn to him … Billy is so real and so sincere in his answers, always.” This morning, Bonner summarized Billy as “an innocent. He cannot see the bad in anything.”

One of the critical elements to the role is that Billy stutters; in fact, the opera’s tragedy revolves around this impediment. “What makes that particularly difficult,” says Bonner, “is that Britten writes the stuttering into the music and no two times are the same. You really have to stay on your toes.” Especially when walking the plank.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• The opera runs about three hours with one intermission. It is sung in English with English supertitles (it will be interesting to see how much those are necessary).
• Conlon will deliver a pre-performance lecture an hour before each performance.
• The are several excellent articles in the “Learn More” tab of the LAO Web site.
• The sets nearly didn’t make to L.A. in time. Bad weather in London and then New York pushed things to nearly the breaking point.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Make your holiday season a musical one

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.

Few things better symbolize the Christmas season than music and this year brings an unusually rich assortment of concerts and recitals, beginning with the world-renowned Los Angeles Children’s Chorus presents its midwinter concerts Dec. 7 and 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Pasadena Presbyterian Church. On Saturday, LACC’s Concert and Apprentice Choirs and its Young Men’s Ensemble will perform; the following evening, it’s the Concert and Intermediate Choirs and the Chamber Singers. Info: www.lachildrenschorus.org

The LACC also appears in several other concerts this season, including four performances of the orchestral score for The Nutcracker played by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Dec. 12-15 at Walt Disney Concert Hall. This is the first time that Dudamel has conducted the Phil in December concerts.

For those looking for something other than holiday music, the Phil has two offerings. Next weekend (Thursday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoon), Rafael Frubeck de Burgos returns to the Phil podium with two symphonies by Haydn and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Dudamel will lead the Phil in four concerts (Dec. 19-22) that will feature Yuja Wang as soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Stravinsky’s score for the ballet Petrushka and Blow bright, a world premiere by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason, are also on the program. Info on the Phil programs above: www.laphil.com

As usual, the Los Angeles Master Chorale will have an ultra-busy holiday season at Disney Hall beginning on Dec. 7 at 2 p.m. with its “Festival of Carols, with 115 singers and organ performing traditional holiday works. This program repeats Dec. 14 at 2 p.m., but as you will see below that’s a really jam-packed day so you might want to consider the first program instead. Info: www.lamc.org

Other LAMC holiday programs are
• “Rejoice! Ceremony of Carols” on Dec. 8 at 7 p.m., when Music Director Grant Gershon leads a program of music by Respighi, Vaughan Williams and Stephen Paulus, along with Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, performed as part of the Southland’s “Britten 100/LA” tribute to the centennial of Britten’s birth. Info: www.lamc.org
• Handel’s Messiah on Dec. 15 and 22 at 7 p.m. Gershon leads 48 singers, soloists and a chamber orchestra in this most familiar of Christmas oratorios. Info: www.lamc.org
• “Messiah Sing-Along” on Dec. 11 at 7:30 p.m. Grab your score (or buy one at the door) and join with the Master Chorale and other audience members in singing Handel’s memorable score. Info: www.lamc.org

As noted above, Dec. 14 will be one of those jam-packed evenings that cause concertgoers indigestion because they have so much from which to choose. In addition to the Master Chorale’s “Festival of Carols” listed above, consider:
• The Pasadena Symphony’s Holiday concerts on Dec. 14 at 4 and 7 p.m. at All Saints Church, Pasadena. Grant Cooper leads the program that will also feature vocalist Lisa Vroman, members of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, and the handbell choir, LA Bronze. Info: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
• The Pasadena Master Chorale will offer its Christmas concert of Vivaldi’s Gloria and Bach’s Magnificat at 7:30 p.m. at First Congregational Church, Pasadena. Info: www.pasadenamasterchorale.org
Pasadena Presbyterian Church will present the 69th annual rendition of its free-admission “Candlelight and Carols” program at 7:30 p.m. The concert will feature the church’s six choirs, two organists and an instrumental ensemble, and will include plenty of audience caroling. The featured work will be On Christmas Night by English composer Bob Chilcott. Info: www.ppcmusic.org
Angeles Chorale will present “Divine Joy: a Christmas Celebration in Music” at 7:30 p.m. at First United Methodist Church, Pasadena. Artistic Director John Sutton will conduct the program, which will feature the first part of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Info: www.angeleschorale.org

One organization that chose not to join the Dec. 14 clog is Pasadena Pro Musica, which continues its 50th season the following afternoon at 4 p.m. in Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church. Artistic Director Stephen Grimm leads a program of music by Benjamin Britten and Tomas Luis de Victoria. Info: www.pasadenapromusica.org

In addition to what’s listed above, Disney Hall offers a number of varied holiday programs; my favorite would be “A Chanticleer Christmas,” which features the renowned San Francisco-based all-male a cappella choral ensemble. Info: www.laphil.com

And this list doesn’t include the ongoing Los Angeles Opera’s ongoing production of Verdi’s Falstaff, which concludes its run today at 7 p.m., nor the company’s presentation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which runs through Dec. 15. My preview story on The Magic Flute is HERE and a followup article is HERE. Info the operas: www.laopera.org
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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FROM THE WEB: Kudos to LA Opera from an unusual source

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

Although the New York Times works hard to attract readers in Southern California, its arts critics rarely venture beyond the confines of the East Coast. Thus, it was notable that Music Critic Zachary Woolfe made the trip west for Los Angeles Opera’s presentation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which opened last Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Read his review HERE.

What made the review notable was that Woolfe’s focus was to laud the company for reacting quickly (in opera-world terms) after CEO Christopher Koelsch went to Berlin to see Komische Oper’s new, radical production of Mozart’s famous work (read my preview story HERE). After returning to L.A., Kolsche persuaded colleagues Plácido Domingo and James Conlon that LAO should substitute the Komische Opera production for the originally announced revival of LAO’s 20-year-old production by Sir Peter Hall and cartoonist Gerald Scarfe.

As Wolfe wrote: “The Los Angeles Opera’s late switch — this new ‘Flute’ was not officially announced until June — should be a positive example for the opera world, where artistic choices can be encased in amber up to five years in advance. Companies should be eagerly looking for new singers and stagings that can be presented in a matter of months rather than years. (O.K., I’d accept maybe a year or two.) This new ‘Flute’ shows that the results can be worth the rush and risk.”

Although I haven’t seen the LAO production, to judge from the critics the decision to change was more than worth the risk. Jim Farber’s review in the Los Angeles News Group papers (which include my papers listed above) is HERE. Mark Swed’s review in the Los Angeles Times is HERE. Timothy Mangan’s review in the Orange County Register is HERE.

What Woolfe didn’t say in his article was that Magic Flute was the first of two “last-minute” changes to the LA Opera 2013-2014 schedule. Six months after the season had been unveiled the company announced that it would add semi-staged concert performances of Andre Previn’s opera, A Streetcar Named Desire on May 18, 21 and 24, 2014. That omission was somewhat ironic, since Michael Cooper reported the story in the NY Times on Sept. 4.

Renée Fleming will reprise her starring role as Blanche DuBois from the original San Francisco Opera production. Patrick Summers will lead the LA Opera Orchestra. The production will be the semi-staged version that played at Carnegie Hall in New York City and at Lyric Opera Chicago. DETAILS.

Speaking of Mr. Woolfe, he posted quite an interesting article after attending nine — NINE! — performances of Bellini’s Norma at the Metropolitan Opera this fall. His premise was to evaluate how the Met sounds from nine different seat locations. Read the article HERE. Lisa Hirsch, in her “Iron Tongue of Midnight” Blog HERE, suggested he should have seen the Met’s production of Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten instead. To each his (or her) own.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEW: “Mozart, Buster Keaton and Nosferatu” — LA Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute opens Saturday

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.
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Los Angeles Opera: Mozart’s The Magic Flute
Nov. 23 and 30, Dec. 5, 11 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8 and 15 at 2 p.m.
Preconcert lecture one hour before each performance by James Conlon (except Dec. 13)
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; Los Angeles
Information: www.laopera.org
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Komische Oper Berlin "DIE ZAUBERFLOETE"
Black and white silent film images are a unique part of a Los Angeles Opera presentation of a Komische Oper Berlin production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” which makes its U.S. debut Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. (Photo from the Komische Oper Berlin by Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de)
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When Los Angeles Opera announced its 2013-2014 season earlier this year, one of the offerings was to be Mozart’s The Magic Flute, using a popular, 20-year-old production directed by Sir Peter Hall and designed with colorful cartoon-like sets by Gerald Scarfe that had been presented four times including its 1993 debut.

The Magic Flute is still on the agenda — it opens Saturday night in the first of seven performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, running through Dec. 15 — but not with the Hall/Scarfe production. Instead, LAO President and Chief Executive Officer Christopher Koelsch journeyed to Berlin and fell in love with a wacky production from Komische Oper Berlin that mixes, as the company says, Mozart, Buster Keaton and Nosferatu.” In a published interview, LAO Music Director James Conlon, who will conduct the local performances, called the concept “an extraordinary idea and an extraordinary execution of that idea. For L.A., the birthplace of movies, it’s a perfect fit.”

Created by the British theater group “1927” — led by director Suzanne Andrade and filmmaker Paul Barritt — in collaboration with Australian Barrie Kosky, artistic director of the Komische Oper in Berlin, the production will be making its U.S. debut. This will also mark Kosky’s American debut as an opera director.

The silent-film images come during the opera’s “singspiel” portions that are a unique part of The Magic Flute. Instead of the “song-speech,” the production projects minimalist texts above the Buster Keaton-style images. A review in “Bachtrtack” (a classical music Web site) states, “It might seem a gimmick, or an acknowledgement of the oft-stated opinion that Schikaneder’s spoken dialogue is long-winded and tiring, but it’s actually only the beginning. The technologically audacious, faux-naïve style of 1920s cinema proves an inspired lens (so to speak) for this work’s quirky tone.”

Kosky says, “The rhythm of the music and the text has an enormous influence on the animation. As we worked together on The Magic Flute, the timing always came from the music, even — especially — in the dialogues, which we condensed and transformed into silent film intertitles with piano accompaniment. It’s a silent film by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, so to speak!” Beyond the black-and-white aspects, the production also includes a number of colorful images, including flying pink elephants.

Conlon, who conducted the orchestra in the 2006 film version of The Magic Flute directed by Kenneth Branagh, will lead a cast that includes two Americans: soprano Janai Brugger, a LAO alumna, who will appear as Pamina, and tenor Lawrence Brownlee in his LAO debut as Tamino. Also making company debuts will be soprano Erika Miklósa as The Queen of the Night, bass Evan Boyer as Sarastro, and baritone Rodion Pogossov as Papageno.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• The Hall/Scarfe production of The Magic Flute (which LAO owns) hasn’t been abandoned, said Koelsch when this new production was announced. It will be retained for possible future use.
• Strong advance ticket sales encouraged the company to add the Dec. 8 presentation to the original slate of six presentations.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEW: L.A. Opera unveils new production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

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.

Los Angeles Opera: Verdi’s Falstaff
Nov. 13, 16 and 21 at 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 24 and Dec. 1 at 2 p.m.
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles
Information: www.laopera.com
Concert performance: Nov. 26 at 7:30 p.m.
Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa
Information: www.scfta.org

Falstaff Piano Dress _November 2, 2013 -
Roberto Frontali stars in a new production of Verdi’s “Falstaff,” which opened last night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
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One of the hardest jobs for any opera company is to retire a beloved production for a new one. One has only to look at recent events at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera to realize how fraught with peril such a change can be.

For its opening production in 2009, the Met retired a beloved (by most) 20-year-old Franco Zeffirelli production of Tosca that was a sumptuous, literal recreation of Puccini’s concept. In its place went a stark, symbolized rendering by Swiss director Luc Bondy. The headline for Alex Ross’ review in “The New Yorker” of that opening night summed up many people’s feelings: “Fiasco.” Time has softened attitudes only slightly.

Likewise, when the Met replaced its decades-old, literal production of Wagner’s Ring cycle with a quirky new one by Robert Lepage, the results were even more disastrous, to say nothing of far more expensive.

So it must be with a bit of baited breath that Los Angeles Opera introduced a new production of Verdi’s Falstaff last night in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the first of six performances with others occurring through Dec. 1. There will also be a concert performance on Nov. 26 at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.

The production of Verdi’s final opera — based on Shakespeare’s play, The Merry Wives of Windsor — is being directed by Lee Blakeley, with scenery and costumes designed by Adrian Linford; both are making their LA Opera debuts. Rick Fisher is the lighting designer and Nicola Bowie is the choreographer.

This replaces an historic production that originated not with LA Opera but with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1982. What made that production special was that the Phil’s Music Director, Carlo Maria Giulini, was conducting the opera, something that he had not done for 14 years.

Donal Henahan the New York Times music critic wrote of that night, “For one golden moment, at least, this opera-starved city has become the center of the opera universe.” LA Opera took over the production and revived it three over the succeeding decades.

However in this bicennial year of Verdi’s birth LAO General Director Plácido Domingo and Music Director James Conlon elected to mount an entirely new effort. Conlon will conduct all six Los Angeles performances and the concert performance in Orange County.

Italian baritone Roberto Frontali will appear in the title role as Falstaff, along with soprano Carmen Giannattasio as Alice Ford and Marco Caria as Ford. Other cast members are Ronnita Nicole Miller and Erica Brookhyser, alumnae of LA Opera’s young artist program, as Mistress Quickly and as Meg Page; tenor Robert Brubaker as Dr. Caius.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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