The management has changed, but not the balls. The Long Beach Opera was back in business with the usual offering of repertory no other company would dream of taking on, and with the usual daredevil production values that endear this off-the-wall enterprise to the hardy, come-what-may crowd that came close to selling out Cal State Long Beach’s Carpenter Auditorium for four performances over two weekends midmonth. Nobody will pretend that our operatic lives were immeasurably enriched by the discovery of Richard Strauss’ The Silent Woman or of Astor Piazzolla’s Maria of Buenos Aires; in the first of these instances, I might argue just the opposite, in fact. But the total phenomenon of dedicated, inventive work lavished on repertory off the beaten path, of manners of performance within shoestring circumstances with something new and important to tell us – even occasionally about a work we think we already know – that’s what Michael Milenski gave us in the 25 years of his Long Beach Opera, and what Andreas Mitisek seems poised to carry forward in his new leadership.
Mitisek has been the company’s principal conductor for the past several years; he also founded and led a small company in Vienna apparently similar to Long Beach. That background probably accounts for the Strauss in his bloodstream; he led a creditable Elektra here a few years ago. Die schweigsame Frau, however, is decidedly lower-rung Strauss, a tired, overextended attempt that reworks the old farce-comedy routine of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale et al. at twice the length. Ben Jonson’s Epicene, from which Stefan Zweig drew his libretto, has the old bachelor duped into marrying a “silent woman” who then turns out to be a boy; there is no such gender crossover, therefore no such fun, in the Zweig-Strauss. Back in its carefree days, Long Beach might have better known how to deal with such matters. The opera is seldom done, and with good reason. A meticulously rehearsed performance, its ensembles controlled with Mozartian precision, might put it over; that would take months to prepare, and not even the most ardent Straussian – which I am ardently not – could claim it worth the while. This version, for all the valiant staging creativity of Isabel Milenski and John Collins’ clever breakaway scenery, clearly radiated the usual Long Beach make-do philosophy.
Piazzolla’s sad little portrait of loveless street life in Argentina’s capital, throbbing with his sour rhythms and with Horacio Ferrer’s sordid verses, was decidedly worth the while, but was somewhat undervalued in John Lloyd Davies’ production, which prized stage trickery (dancing chairs) over forthright musical power. The onstage orchestra, with Mitisek at the piano, seemed underpowered; perhaps a few more bandoneons would have helped. With all my respect for preserving a composer’s original visions, I have to assert that the Gidon Kremer re-orchestration of the piece, on the Teldec recording, comes a lot closer to the steamy essence of the music – with the decided further advantage of the great Ferrer to read his own verses. In Long Beach, at least, Noelia Moncada’s Maria had a bewitching intensity; at the moments when she commanded an observer’s eyes and ears, you knew what was right, unique and endearing about this one-of-a-kind opera company.
“With all my respect,” as I was saying, I have to confess that the Boston Baroque’s clean, “authentic” performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro Della Beata Vergine that ended Disney Hall’s Baroque Variations series a couple of weeks ago aroused a certain nostalgia for those terrible old recordings that were just as wrong as wrong could be. You know the ones: the Harvard and Radcliffe glee clubs, maybe 300 strong; the whole brass contingent of the Boston Symphony; E. Power Biggs on the mighty organ; and the Bellini painting of those massed forces whooping it up in the Piazza San Marco. That would have made the two hours pass fleetingly by, as Martin Pearlman’s musicologically trained forces did not.
A pileup of scheduling earlier in the month at both ends of the Music Center made it impossible to get up to Ojai for most of this year’s festival, which was interesting and varied under Thomas Morris’ new leadership. Next year’s programs – the Cleveland Orchestra in residence, with the splendid composer/conductor Oliver Knussen in charge – are scheduled for later in June and are, thus, easier of access. I heard this year’s final concert: Kent Nagano leading his Los Angeles Opera Orchestra in a supple and tidy jaunt through the Beethoven Fourth Symphony – music that I love for all kinds of new reasons at every hearing – and a couple of novelties. One was Arnold Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden, a brief prayer for peace to words by Conrad Meyer in the intense, pre-atonal style of the First Chamber Symphony, compellingly sung by a small chorus as a quick segue after the Beethoven. (Earlier on the program, an orchestral version of the same music had been less successful.) The other was snagS Snarls, five small and not very revealing bits, cutely sung by Margaret Thompson, from an Alice in Wonderland opera-in-progress by the extraordinary Korean composer Unsuk Chin, a lot of whose recent music has the world abuzz. The opera is due here in the L.A. Opera’s ’05-’06 season; Chin’s spellbinding Violin Concerto, which pulled down a $200,000 Grawemeyer award last year, is scheduled at Nagano’s Berkeley Symphony this coming September.
Suddenly, there is no more Leonard Stein to lend his beaming, lanky presence to the most enterprising of our concerts, to punctuate the events with the pithy commentary whose fortissimo delivery he could not have controlled even if he had so wished. He left us quickly, in a series of seizures at age 87 last weekend, just in time to miss a dinner party to celebrate one of the latest of his good deeds, the 10th birthday of the Piano Spheres concert series, in which five remarkable pianists (himself included until last year) assumed the absolute right to explore music most meaningful to them without regard to commercial program building. Before that series there had been the leadership of the Schoenberg Institute, maintained and then dumped by USC, the model of a research-plus-performance facility too precious for a growth-obsessed university to understand. Before that there had been the service to Schoenberg himself, as teaching assistant, good right hand, and editor of writings and compositions. It will be a long time, therefore, before our musical life shakes free of his influence – or just the echo of that voice.