CLASSCOL

N.B.: NEW HED THE CLASSICAL COLUMN Fairness demanded a second visit to the Music Center Opera’s “Madama
Butterfly” to check out the new tenor, Jorge Antonio Pita, who has replaced
Placido Domingo in the role of Lieut. B. F. Pinkerton in five of the six
performances. Fairness, however, has also turned out to be service beyond the
call. Pita, whose local debut this was, is 28, Cuban born with an impressive dossier
of performances with major European companies, including a Pinkerton six years
ago with the Vienna State Opera. He is tall, good looking, and reasonably
proficient in his stage presence, although his decision to smoke a cigarette
during his first long scene was rendered questionable by the way he held the
thing — as if it were his first ever. He sang the role badly, his thin vocal line disturbed by a tendency to sob on
the high notes. Did he really sing this way at the Vienna State Opera, with so
little thrust, so little projection of the many-sided characters in this role?
Granted, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion seats twice the capacity of the Vienna
House, and this discrepancy in size has brought singers to grief before. Chalk
up these latter “Butterfly” performances as the company’s first boo-boo of
the season. The Music Center Opera’s “The Trojans” has fared well, by and large, in the
national press. You’d think it might be high time, however, for visiting
reporters and critics to find another way of leading off a report from Los
Angeles than the usual invocation of smog and freeways. There are still lots
of slow learners, apparently, beyond the mountains. The accusation of “gimmickry” has been leveled on the production, however.
Upon a second visit — yes, all five hours — it is harder than ever to
substantiate this accusation. There are some egregious miscalculations, to be
sure. I would hope that both the director, Francesca Zambello, and the
choreographer, Susan Marshall, might someday weigh the relative importance of
the prestige of a note-for-note complete performance against the blatant
inferiority of the insanely protracted dance episode that simply delays the
sublime Love Duet in Act IV. Theatrically, this is the evening’s major
failure, but it is a partial failure on Berlioz’s part as well. Losing the
entire scene would be no loss. I had neglected to mention one other episode in the opera that represents a far
more illustrious choreographic achievement: the staging of the famous “Royal
Hunt and Storm” music. The few companies that have staged “The Trojans”
invariably come to grief at this episode. The Metropolitan Opera did it with
some dopey amateur movies when it first presented the work in 1973. In the
1983 revival they simply left the stage empty, in this most colorful and
action-packed orchestral episode. Zambello and Marshall have, at least, solved this one problem brilliantly, not
with hunting and storms, but with a splendid battle pantomime: Aeneas and his
Trojans vanquishing the enemies of Dido’s realm in some classy, stylized
balletic action. It works just fine. Two performances remain (this afternoon
and next Wednesday). Even if the production were less the brilliant near-
success that this one is, the chance to hear this rarely performed, wildly
ecstatic product of Berlioz’ superheated genius, set forth with comparable
genius under Charles Dutoit’s incomparable music direction, should be reason
enough to make tracks for the Music Center. LINE
The recent good news from the Baltic republics is a reminder of the remarkable
resurgence of that region in musical matters. Estonia’s Arvo Part (pronounced
PAIRT) fled his country in 1980, at the height of Soviet artistic repression
pre-glasnost; he now lives in Germany. The music he has created during his
years of exile has earned him regard as one of the most remarkable of
contemporary composers, and a new disc on the ECM label will surely add to his
renown. It contains two large vocal works, a Miserere for solo voices, small chorus and
instrumental ensemble, and a work entitled “Sarah Was 90 Years Old” for
voices, organ and percussion. In between comes “Festina Lente,” a brief work
for chamber orchestra. Paul Hillier, who has participated in many performances
of Part’s music in the past (including a concert here last season as part of
the “Historic Sites” series) conducts the voices; Dennis Russell Davies
leads the instrumental forces. The music on this disc is one of those
powerful, mysterious experiences that deserve to be regarded as essential.
Why this is so is not easy to explain. Like other works of Part on ECM, above
all his overwhelming, 70-minute setting of the St. John Passion which Hillier
also conducts, the surface of the music is a slow-moving, unruffled, austere
sequence of small events. Like ice crystals in a winter landscape, they
coalesce in the mind only gradually; you find yourself gripped by this music
almost before you know it. If you have seen, and are moved by, the films of
the great Soviet director Andrej Tarkovsky, you are on your way to
understanding the inexorable pace of Part’s music, the way it generates an
almost subliminal sense of exhilaration. On the subject of Soviet films, there is also an interesting two-disc set on
the Chant du Monde label (distributed in the U.S. by Harmonia Mundi of Los
Angeles): film and stage music familiar and rare by Serge Prokofiev, in vivid
if edgy performances by a vocal ensemble and the “Maly” Moscow Symphonic
Orchestra under Vladimir Ponkin. The familiar music is the delicious
“Lieutenant Kije” suite of 1933-34: music for a satiric film that was never
made, about a character who never existed. The remainder of the set is filled with rarer material also very much worth
while: music for a 1938 ballet version of Hamlet and a whole hour of
incidental music for a 1937 stage production of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin. The
“Onegin” also never actually materialized, but Prokokiev’s music did. He
cribbed some of it later for the opera “War and Peace” and the Eighth Piano
Sonata, but he also preserved his original sketches: orchestral music, songs
and vocal ensembles. The musicologist Elizaveta Dattel completed the
orchestration in 1973, and presented the world with an authentic Prokofiev
masterpiece that now, in its first recording, is the crown of this splendid
new release.