Opera on Grand

Photo by Robert MillardSacred
Richard Wagner’s Parsifal stands as one of opera’s unassailable peaks; full credit is due to any company for attempting the work at all – and, I suppose, to any audience willing to undergo its five-hour dimensions. Further credit, then, redounds to our local company for assuming the difficulties of an already famous production that compounds those hazards with a personal stamp involving a certain denial of elements that might ease the lengthy journey. Robert Wilson’s Parsifal does not add up to a jolly evening at Mrs. Chandler’s opera pavilion, but it is a stirring and unforgettable experience nevertheless. A week of performances remains, and I urge you to join me in taking advantage.There are, of course, other ways of dealing with this “consecrational festival drama” than the superlative deployment of empty space out of which Wilson’s conception is largely built. It can be made very beautiful, very “Wagnerian” if you will, with forests and cathedral-like spaces and gorgeous gardens of ravishing flower-maidens. If memory serves, the Metropolitan Opera’s Parsifal looks like this, or used to. There is a wonderful film version, available on DVD, by the German director Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, which links an excellent musical performance to a huge array of symbolic paraphernalia in which the Knights of the Grail morph into Nazi storm troopers, Parsifal undergoes a gender change (visually, not vocally) after enduring Kundry’s kiss, and the stage itself turns into Wagner’s death mask.If you know Wilson’s work – his Madama Butterfly here two seasons ago, which is scheduled to return next month, or the Gluck operas available on DVD – you know that his stage ideal embraces none of the above. Or – let me put this another way – his stage ideal is to respect his audience’s imagination to create this kind of drama for ourselves. He has claimed that his Parsifal – which, by the way, I first saw and admired in Houston some 15 years ago – has been purged of its religious element. This I don’t quite believe; he has, however, relieved us of churchgoing, turned the Hall of the Grail into a vast, brightly lit space in which Wagner and we are free to interact. Space in Wilson – around the dancing numerals in Einstein on the Beach, around the solo dancing of the young boy at the end of Butterfly, or now in Parsifal – is rendered sacred by the music that is allowed to expand within it. It consists of great distances, which we are then entrusted to fill in.And this is the overriding value of this marvelous production now on view. If Plácido Domingo has no business bending his aging tones to the sounds of the youthful Parsifal on his journey of self-discovery, that’s the price one pays in the opera racket. As recompense, there is the rich solemnity of Matti Salminen’s Gurnemanz and the quite decent eloquence of Kent Nagano’s orchestra.
Profane
There are no distances to resolve in Puccini’s Tosca; the whole thing is like a lap dance. Ian Judge’s production was new in 1989 and ugly then, but there is a great Grand Guignol moment in Act 2, when Cavaradossi is being tortured offstage and the lights and shadows at the back of Scarpia’s ugly, ugly room do a dance on the walls.There’s a new Tosca, Violeta Urmana, and she’s great: tall and loud and domineering. Two years ago, she was the Kundry when Pierre Boulez did Act 2 of Parsifal with the Philharmonic, and I kept thinking of her during Linda Watson’s just-okay performance this time. Salvatore Licitra is the Cavaradossi; he’s the one who stepped in for Pavarotti’s so-called farewell appearance at the Met, with zillion-dollar seats and worldwide media. It would be nice to carry that story forward, but this is Los Angeles, not Hollywood, and Signor Licitra is, I fear, cut from ordinary cloth. Samuel Ramey’s Scarpia and Kent Nagano’s conducting are as expected.
Afloat
Down the street at REDCAT last weekend, there was Wet, the fourth opera by Anne LeBaron of the CalArts faculty, to a text by Terese Svoboda. Water is the matter at hand; not Katrina this time but pollution, scarcity and the rain forests. Evil Hal and his corporation chop down trees to free up water, which he bottles and sells worldwide. “Water is the new oil,” someone sings. Hal also finds time to impregnate most of the local girls. Eventually the world turns dry and sandy. Everybody, or almost everybody, ends up in heaven.There is plenty of attractive plotline here; as near as I could tell, LeBaron has fashioned it into strong and varied vocal stuff. I have to insert the qualifier, however, because the room at REDCAT, for all its adaptability as a performance space, is pretty much a flop as a musical theater with orchestra pit. Groans and whines from tuba, didgeridoo and pedal steel effectively overrode the sounds of lighter instruments and, worse, most of the words as well. I kept glancing upward in hopes of supertitles; none were there. (Have I become so spoiled in my old age?)LeBaron is an interesting composer; her 95-minute score has some delightful moments, some charming razzmatazz, and some strong vocal writing as well. Marc Lowenstein was the conductor, Nataki Garrett the stage director. The indestructible Jonathan Mack was the evil Hal, and a charming soprano named Ani Maldjian had a killer aria near the end. I’d like to hear the whole enterprise gathered up bodily and implanted somewhere else where I could hear what it was all about. I suspect there’s some real quality there.