Pick Dam

The Placido Domingo era at the Los Angeles Opera got off to a sensational start this week, and how! In press conference after press conference, the incoming artistic director/tenorissimo had promised that attention would be paid in areas where scant attention formerly existed. The opening-night “Pique Dame” marked the start of the fulfillment of those promises – in, as they say, spades.
It was, for one thing, the company’s first-ever dip into Russian opera. This has been accomplished now in high style, under the probing, propulsive baton of migratory Russian superconductor Valery Gergiev and with a mostly-Russian cast. The innovative German director/designer Gottfried Pilz has come on in both capacities, to design and execute a terrific piece of contemporary musical theater. All that bodes well for the future of opera in Los Angeles; neither strong conducting nor daring stagecraft had hitherto been the norm under Peter Hemmings’ cautious leadership.
And “daring” is, indeed, the word for the treatment accorded the work before a cheering full house on Tuesday. Gottfried Pilz dispenses with the libretto’s scenic suggestions (which are, by the way, nicely fulfilled in the video of the opera from the St. Petersburg Kirov, also under Gergiev). He has, instead, created a single performing space, a huge room raked from right to left, dominated overhead by a huge crystal chandelier. A dark area down front at stage level serves as a kind of limbo where the hero, a mere wraith in the darkness, contemplates his personal demons and eavesdrops on everyone else. The one main space serves as park, ballroom, the Countess’ bedroom and – with shadows eerily projected onto the rear wall — gaming house. Everything moves, usually at feverish pace; more than once a chorus bursts into the scene like a flood from a broken dam; the crowds literally dance to Gustavo Llano’s whirlwind choreography.
And so, in fact, does the opera itself, under Gergiev’s propulsive leadership, with the frazzled bedazzlement of Domingo’s 60-year-old pipes in near-pristine condition. Russian soprano Galina Gorchakova, her smallish voice nicely colored toward the dark side, was the touching Lisa; soprano Suzanna Poretzky, a recent winner in the Domingo-sponsored Operalia competition, offered a delightful take on her one big aria. The evening’s loudest, longest cheers, however, went to the veteran (64) Elena Obraztsova, who is allotted little actually to sing about in the opera  but whose silent enactment of her death scene – starkly punctuated in Pilz’s production by the fall of her cane onto the resonant floor – was one of the evening’s breath-stopping moments.
A brilliant beginning, therefore, and a promising one.The season continues with next week’s “Lohengrin” – again, healing the company’s previous short shrift accorded to Wagner – and moves onward through an admirable variety of offerings. The musical range is spectacular, from the seductive strains of Lehar’s evergreen “Merry Widow” to the twelve-tone asperities of Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron” to the curious phenomenon of a staged version of Bach’s churchly B-Minor Mass.  So far, so good.