Adventurous, exasperating, illuminating and just plain off-the-wall: the 21-year saga of the Long Beach Opera has been all of these and more. Its operation is strictly shoestring; its stagings over the years have included a “Boris Godunov” done in street clothes around a large bureaucratic desk, and a “Death in Venice” whose only scenery was a television monitor. The bravery of its founder/general director Michael Milenski has earned it a cult following in the Los Angeles area, eager to deplore and forgive, cherish and forget.
This year’s two offerings, produced last weekend in the 1100-seat Carpenter Arts Center on the Long Beach campus of California State University spanned a vast difference in music and style. One wasn’t an opera at all: the Molière comedy-ballet “The Imaginary Invalid,” with the play done complete including the danced interludes to music by Marc’Antoine Charpentier; the other was a small (but very large) operatic masterpiece, Béla Bartók’s one-act “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.”
Long Beach and the Baroque repertory have long been a fruitful marriage; the company can boast acclaimed stagings of all three of Monteverdi’s surviving operas; last year Purcell’s “Indian Queen” was blown up into an incongruous but irresistible Mexican fiesta. Purists who complained last year may have been placated by this season’s treatment accorded the Molière/Charpentier parlay: both play and music done straight and, alas, uncut, cantilevering far, far into the night.
Matthew Maguire’s staging, on the clean designs of Craig Hodgetts’  futuristic set, leaned heavily on laff content. Susan Mosakowski’s choreography, lightly honoring the manner of seventeenth-century French court dance and backed by the delectable playing of the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, provided the only fresh air during a long and otherwise stifling evening.
No such problems afflicted Bartók’s intense, gorgeously orchestrated 50-minute setting of Béla Balász’ symbol-laden gloss on the ancient legend of the amorous but uxoricidal Bluebeard – sung in Long Beach in Chester Kallman’s elegant translation. Marsha Ginsberg’s stage setting – wall-size panels seemingly ripped from wrecked buildings, a few spotlights cleverly deployed, an onstage movie projector sending forth psychological designs – exactly complimented the Bluebeard (Pavlo Hunka), in a modern business suit and his Judith (Kathleen Broderick) in plain black sheath.
Hunka, a tremendous young bass in his American debut, may have more resembled Henry Kissinger than the renowned ladykiller, but his singing, throbbing from the intensity of both poem and music, became a part of Bartók’s dark psychodrama. Broderick’s Judith also captured the other-worldliness of the lovelorn woman who deserts her marital bed for the life (and death) of Bluebeard’s love-slave; her diction, however, showed a few patches of incomprehensibility. A further hero of both performances was conductor Andreas Mitisek, who presided at the harpsichord in the Molière, and drew the full color spectrum from a freelance orchestra in the Bartók. More than any of the excellent participants, it was Mitisek’s inspired leadership that, once again, put the Long Beach Opera on a sound basis.
Alan Rich

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