ALA, ZAMBELLO

Even before Francesca Zambello arrived at the appointed hour, expectations had been shaped by memories of another hugely talented, innovative, ferociously energetic operatic stage director of our time. You can’t help it.

It was Boston’s Sarah Caldwell, after all, who did the first American staging of Serge Prokofiev’s titanic “War and Peace” (which Zambello staged in Seattle last year). It was Caldwell who staged America’s first encounter with Hector Berlioz’s “The Trojans” (which Zambello will stage for the Los Angeles Music Center Opera this coming Saturday). After that, Zambello flies off to Geneva to stage yet another Berlioz opera, “Benvenuto Cellini.” Caldwell had put that opera on once, too.

Zambello arrived, and the resemblance was further confirmed. No, she hasn’t even come close to Caldwell’s famous girth that sometimes made for an unkind remark or two. But there’s a lot of Zambello even so, and when she speaks it’s with Caldwell’s forward-thrusting, dynamic, bronze-colored alto, and, of course, with the same sense that she knows exactly where she’s going and how to get there. If we’re lucky, history will repeat itself, Zambello in for Caldwell.

Born in New York to an American mother and an Italian father, both actor/singers, she got her degree (in philosophy) at Colgate University and launched her operatic career as assistant to yet another in the pantheon of innovative stage directors, the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, a man governed by the philosophy that anytime you don’t like what the composer tells you to do, do something else.

She’s come a long way; who, outside of Milwaukee, knew her name six years ago? That’s where she did her first important professional work, starting in her mid-20s as co-director of that city’s Skylight Opera Theater. Her partner there was Stephen Wadsworth, best known as the librettist for Leonard Bernstein’s unfortunate fling into grand opera known as “A Quiet Place.” They have now gone their separate ways, but Zambello pinpointed the Milwaukee experience as the best kind of training for a stage director with innovative ideas.

”It’s a small theater, 300 seats and only a chamber-orchestra pit,” she said. “But we accomplished a lot there, eight productions a year, 15 or 20 performances of each. It became a sort of laboratory, where you learned to focus on intimate performance details, on acting rather than just belting out high notes.

”Actually,” she continued, “I like to balance large and small productions, and sometimes they even intermix.” She talked about her now-famous production of Puccini’s “Tosca” in London last season, not at an opera house but in a sports arena at Earls Court, seating 10,000. “Sure, it had to be big. We put the production in the center of the arena, with a set that looked like the whole city of Rome, with 10 horses and 20 dogs. When the shepherd sang in the last act, instead of being offstage as the libretto demanded, he came on with a flock of sheep.”

Still, according to the star of that production, Los Angeles resident Julia Migenes, the great thing about Zambello’s concept was the intimacy it provided. “Instead of having to sing XI Love You’ to the second balcony,” Migenes remembered during a recent conversation, “the microphones made it possible to sing it to the tenor.”

Zambello also spoke with good feelings about her most recent gig, the American premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s “Oedipus” at the Santa Fe Opera, where she was working for the first time. Here was innovative opera at its most resolute, and it demanded innovative staging: singers on the opera house’s topmost towers (in, as it happened, howling rainstorms at all four performances), one onstage singer simulating (awesomely) suicide by hanging, all manner of amplification tricks. The critics (present company excepted) hated it; Zambello, she claimed, had a ball.

”That’s my kind of opera house: no stars, heavy emphasis on ensemble, 4 weeks of rehearsal. Sure, the critics jumped all over it, and that’s a real tragedy nowadays. We don’t have enough critics who love opera, really love it I mean.”

Will the critics love the 4-1/2-hour expanse of Berlioz’ “The Trojans”? Nobody is saying, yet; the least everybody is saying is that our local company is brave beyond belief in even attempting to cope with it. But that’s Peter Hemmings’ doing; after all, it was his Scottish Opera’s production in the 1960s that restored the long-neglected score in its full glory to world attention. When Hemmings took over the Los Angeles Music Center Opera six years ago, he made no secret of the fact that a revival of “The Trojans” was his fondest hope.

Zambello feels that the recent popularity of Richard Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung,” that 17-hour epic beside which any other opera (even “The Trojans”) is no longer than a sneeze, cuts through any resistance to modern full-length productions. This “Trojans,” she poined out with pride, is even longer than previous “complete” performances. “There’s an 8-minute scene, early on, where the Greek double agent Sinon tries to convince the Trojan King Priam to accept the Greeks’ gift of the famous Wooden Horse. Berlioz never finished the orchestration of that scene, so it’s never been done. Now it has been completed, by the Berlioz scholar Hugh MacDonald, and this will be its American premiere.

” XThe Trojans’ really is the French XRing,’ ” Zambello said. “It doesn’t only tell the story of the fall of Troy and the love of Dido and Aeneas; it frames all this, as Wagner framed his gods and goddesses, with a text of even higher significance. I’ve tried to bring this out in this production.

“As in Wagner, I have the ancient gods standing around the stage, overseeing the action of the mortals. I see Troy as a dead culture, its beaten warriors mourning that demise, the whole thing set in dark colors and black.

“But Carthage is different, and here we’ve brought the action up to Berlioz’ own time, and with lighter, brighter colors. After all, Carthage is only 7 years old when the Trojans land there. The city is still being built; there’s scaffolding all around. And it’s being built as a Utopian society, Marxist, Hegelian. But now Aeneas comes along and the whole plan goes up in flames. Human weaknesses win out over grand ideas.”

Pressed to describe the look of her production, Zambello hung back. “No, I’m not going to tell you what our Trojan Horse will look like,” she said with a conspiratorial wink. “Some things you have to find out for yourself.

“I promise you,” said Francesca Zambello, “you won’t be bored. Not for a minute.”