Nobody has ever suggested that running an opera company – let alone two companies the width of a continent apart – might be for Plácido Domingo an easygoing diversion. Nobody need be all that startled, therefore, at the few dark rumblings around the edges of the glory at the start of the Domingo era at the Los Angeles Opera. True, the two operas that inaugurated that era – the company’s first-ever Pique Dame on September 4 and Lohengrin eleven days later – did indeed rank as spectacular achievements, as fine as anything in recent memory on the Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage. Yet, there were rumblings.
On September 9 the London Sunday Times ran a doom’n’gloom article on the company’s financial woes, specifically on the enormous outlay – some $45 million, it was intimated – it would take to realize Domingo’s dream project, the George Lucas-designed Ring slated for the 2003/04 season. The company’s directors, the article claimed, were up in arms, a not unfamiliar stance by the famously conservative Board. “Nonsense,” responded a company spokesman in a protesting letter, but three days later another bomb was dropped, the resignation of executive director Ian White-Thomson after only a year on the job. Against this background, the New York tragedy and its aftermath had cast a further shadow, obliging the company to shuffle and reschedule. The first Lohengrin, scheduled for a black-tie premiere on September 12, was pushed forward to a dress-Californian matinee on the 15th.
Even so, the shape of the company’s triumphant rebirth was easy to discern. In the fifteen years of Peter Hemmings’ leadership there had been no Russian-language opera. (A Pique Dame had been announced for 1990 but dropped.) Aside from a Tristan memorable more for the David Hockney designs than on musical grounds and Julie Taymor’s gimmicky Dutchman, Wagner had been given short shrift. Several of Hemmings’ bravest ventures had been undercut by impoverished leadership from the podium. Here, then, was a new beginning in which three previous major deficiencies were dramatically erased. The best news of all was that the two conductors involved – Valery Gergiev and Kent Nagano – now have long-term commitments to the company: Gergiev for an annual visit, Nagano in the newly created post of Principal Conductor.
Domingo’s madman-hero was familiar coin from the Met’s Pique Dame of 1999; so was Gergiev’s urgent, fiery leadership. (Gegam Gregorian – the Gherman on the Gergiev-led video of the opera — assumed the role in later performances; Gianandrea Noseda took over the podium.) On opening night Domingo’s 60-year-old pipes were still in remarkable condition, his stage presence the woolly-bear galumphing that passes for acting throughout his vast repertory. Galina Gorchakova was his Lisa as at the Met, impassioned if somewhat soft of voice. Sergei Leiferkus was the robust Tomsky; Vladimir Chernov, the Yeletzky; Susanna Poretzky, winner of one of Domingo’s recent “Operalia” competitions, had her few lustrous moments as Pauline. The evening’s loudest cheers, however, rang for the 64-year-old Elena Obraztsova as the Countess; in the role in all opera with the fewest notes and the most powerful impact, just the sound of her dropped cane in the silence surrounding her death haunts the memory.
German designer/director Gottfried Pilz dispensed with Tchaikovskys scenic suggestions and devised instead a single performing space, a huge room raked left to right serving as park, ballroom, bedroom and gaming house, with a dark space down front that served as a kind of limbo for the madman-hero to contemplate his demons. Everything moved, often feverishly; more than once a chorus burst into the scene like a flood from a broken dam. More than once, also, another kind of deluge – the insistent onrush of dark resonance from the orchestra under Gergiev – left little chance to catch one’s breath, on stage or out front.
A closer rapport with the neighboring movie industry is also on Domingo’s promised agenda; to that end the grand old Maximilian Schell came on to stage the company’s first Lohengrin. With set designs based on paintings that the late Yevgeny Lysyk had originally created for the Mariinsky – including an extraordinary Act Two backdrop like a dozen Cologne Cathedrals interwoven – Schell came up with a conception timeless in the best sense. A huge sculpture, a kind of winged obelisk, served as both Swan and Tree of Wisdom, wondrously lit by Alan Burrett’s stark searchlights at the end as the lost prince Gottfried emerged from its folds. Dirk Hofacker’s costumes were of no time and all time: soldiers’ helmets out of World War I, swords and shields out of Van Eyck, Elsa in a nightie worthy of Dior. The opera was given virtually uncut, minus one short scene for Elsa near the end. The splendor and shimmer of Kent Nagano’s orchestra and the sturdy rightness of his pacing made the minutes whiz past.
Sweden’s Gösta Winbergh was the Lohengrin, his tone steely and commanding at first, softening down to a most appealing tenderness later on. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka was the endearing Elsa, again spanning a wonderful range from the dreamy “Euch, Luften” to her insistent cajoling in the Bridal Chamber scene that brings on her downfall. Tom Fox’s Telramund exuded his usual masterful menace. Eva Marton’s Ortrud was the one major disappointment, not the stipulated mezzo-soprano with her death-dealing tones of darkness and thrust, but an aging soprano scooping her way toward pitches she can no longer command. Lucinda Childs – Einstein on the Beach, remember? — was credited with the “choreography”: not so much “ballet” as an imaginative stylization of slow moving, especially among Elsa’s entourage. This was one more remarkable aspect in an over-all conception that generated marvelous refreshment for the eye and the ear. Mark it, then, as a giant step upward for opera in Los Angeles… something beyond price-tag.