Given the geographic proximity of the Los Angeles Music Center to the region’s other major cultural industry, you’d expect a close working relationship between the Los Angeles Opera and the surviving shards of the film industry. You’d be wrong, however; in the company’s seventeen years of operation, memories only of Herbert Ross’ spunky La Bohème and Bruce Beresford’s lurid, Hollywood-ized Rigoletto celebrate what should be an ongoing performing-arts entente.
At season’s end the ranks were memorably joined by William Friedkin (of The Exorcist and The French Connection acclaim) in a oddly-coupled odd couple of one-act operas: Bartók’s moody, mysterious Bluebeard’s Castle and Puccini’s deliriously wise Gianni Schicchi. Odd though the coupling may seem, Friedkin and designer Gottfried Pilz even reached out to proclaim both works cut from the same cloth. Both, after all, had had their premieres in 1918; both include – the Bartók at the start, the Puccini at the close – a spoken exhortation meant to be delivered in the language of the audience.
Samuel Ramey sang both title roles, vividly and with great intelligence; Kent Nagano conducted both operas in like virtue. Ths stage sets, too, were of a piece, cleverly so. A chandelier in the Bartók, collapsed on the ground with arms outstretched like a tarantula about to strike, gleamed in its proper place during the Puccini. A spiral staircase, a seeming passage between heaven and hell in the Bartók, became a handsome frame for Dante’s Florence later on (with the Signoria tower still abuilding on the skyline, a pardonable anachronism to the modern dress onstage). One of the ghosts of Bluebeard’s wives – airborne, uninhabited nighties actually – stayed on after intermission to fly once again as the departing spirit of old Buoso Donati breathing his last.
Mixture though it was, it proved one of the company’s best evenings, stirring, provocative and delightful. Bartók’s phantoms were mostly handled by Paul Pyant’s brilliant lighting designs – a dazzling wash of blood-red and gold, a chilling whiteness as Judith looked upon a lake of tears, an almost palpable blackness at the end as Judith walks to her doom and – a nice Friedkin touch – Bluebeard returns to the scene with yet another wife. Life, as well as death, goes on. A thread of sorrow, or perhaps regret, lent added color to Ramey’s lines; as the doomed Judith Denyce Graves mingled her usually mellow tones with a rather tentative delivery of the Hungarian text.
Visual anachronisms aside, the Gianni Schicchi was a wonderful amalgam of Italian roughhouse comedy (think Big Deal on Madonna St.) and loving wisdom – the latter most of all in Ramey’s richly comic subtlety. Danielle de Niese sang to her “Babbino” most prettily; as her suitor Rinuccio Rolando Villazon contributed a fine array of acrobatics both physical and vocal; the Zita was, of all people, the veteran Rosalind Elias, well into her second half-century in opera and sounding very well indeed.
Sharing the company’s final weeks was its first-ever stab at Turandot – a premiere, in fact, in more ways than one. Dissatisfaction with the opera’s final moments – fashioned by Franco Alfano, at Arturo Toscanini’s urging, after Puccini’s death – have dogged the work since its 1926 premiere. Solutions over the years have ranged from grimly accepting Alfano as better than nothing, a pious obeisance to Puccini by ending where he had at the death of Liù, and various dodges in between.
Now, however, a rescue has been attempted by a more considerable force, the formidable, innovative composer Luciano Berio, whose new completion of Turandot received its first U.S. staging at these performances. In Berio’s estimate, based on certain inconsistencies in Puccini’s own notes as he struggled against terminal throat cancer to complete the score, Alfano’s ultimate error was to impose a kind of all-purpose grand-operatic cheesiness on both Puccini’s designs and those of his librettists, ending with the opera’s hit tune – the bit out of “Nessun dorma,” need you ask – blown up to Radio City-sized proportions.
While respecting the outlines of the Giuseppe Adami/Renato Simoni text, Berio has elected to lead the opera toward a subtler conclusion. Over a complex orchestral exegesis that includes brief memories of music previously heard, but moves them toward a complex orchestral summing-up comparable in place and purpose to the final interlude in Berg’s Wozzeck, the icy Princess melts and the Prince waxes warmer. The music deepens in tone; Calaf’s ultimate revelation of his real name becomes, for Turandot, a moment of epiphany full of wonderment. The opera ends, for once in Puccini – and, perhaps, as an envoi to the composer dead too soon – somberly, quietly, with the choral exultations off in the distance.
It could work; it didn’t in Los Angeles through no fault of Berio’s. Gian-Carlo del Monaco’s direction (of a work in which his father had once held the stage), was a thing of darkness and slithering choruses. Just the look of the final scene – in a murky palace chamber that could have been someone’s attic –was enough to compromise the new music. In the two sets of principals only the Liù – Hei-Kyung Hong at first, then Svetla Vassileva – showed any reaction to the beauty of the role. Neither pair of combatting lovers – Audrey Stottler and Franco Farina, Nina Warren and Ian de Nolfo – rose notably above the old-timey lurch’n’clutch yell’em down manner, seemingly unaware of the brave efforts of Kent Nagano’s out-shouted orchestra off in the distance.
Under the circumstances, judgment of Berio’s contribution to the stature of Turandot, an effort the world surely needs, should be deferred. – ALAN RICH