Esa-Pekka Salonen’s return to the Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl began a week of cultural overload such that you’d ordinarily expect in mid-January. Yet here we were in summer’s waning days. Well, for starters, it wasn’t just any old week at the Bowl; it was the kind of challenging, provocative week that the place deserves at least once every summer – or more. There was even – would you believe – opera with the video screens used not just for mug shots of second clarinetists but actually for a purpose: to carry the translation of the text, just as in a real opera house. When did you ever see that before at the Bowl? (Ans.: never.) Someone in the Philharmonic’s video department has finally awakened to the reason those screens belong up there.
I have long admired Diavolo, Jacques Heim’s company of airborne dancers, athletes and, for all I know, masters of the game of Quidditch, who interact in bodily conversation with each other and with inanimate structures to create a language of dramatic movement beyond easy definition. On a warm Tuesday at the Bowl, cheered to the skies by a large and warm-hearted audience, the operative word was “interaction,” and the result was thrilling.
The music was Salonen’s 2001 Foreign Bodies, “fiery masses of sound,” says the composer. Out of Tina Trefethen’s large cube – placed center stage, pierced with several holes – arms, legs and then whole bodies twisted their way into view, matched by the music’s twisting, furious undulations. As the 10-member dance company re-formed downstage and continued their interactions, the cube behind them broke apart into large pie-shaped segments of lustrous metal and plastic on which the dancers zoomed up, down and around, propelled by the music’s built-in urgency. Lights onstage and overhead picked out spots on the structures, which then reflected back to surfaces along the Bowl’s walls and ceiling. The whole spectacle was an interlock of moving dancers and structures uncannily matched by Salonen’s marvelous score. I can’t remember ever seeing the Bowl’s performing space turned into something quite this sensually alive – oh, maybe when Gustavo Dudamel conducted the incandescent music of Revueltas at his debut there two years ago. When else?
Eventually, the parts of the cube pushed back into their original shape and the music wound down – it lasts some 20 minutes, and you can hear it on the same Deutsche Grammophon disc with Salonen’s Wing on Wing. I wonder at the future of this remarkable piece of performance art. It’s a masterpiece in Diavolo’s repertory and a gorgeous illumination of the Salonen work as well. It belongs with Salonen and the Phlharmonic, not to be danced with some creaky ballet orchestra and not with a recording. It needs to be on a stage as part of a concert, in the same place as a featured soloist in a concerto. Somehow or other, it belongs in a repertory, even if that repertory has yet to be invented.
Mahler’s First Symphony, by Salonen and the Philharmonic alone, filled out the program, with the called-for offstage trumpets at the start really far offstage – a trick that always makes you think that Mahler actually composed with the Bowl in mind. It was a grand, broad performance, properly vulgar where such seemed to be called for, properly heaven-storming at the end.
No Sex, Please
Two nights later, there was Boris Godunov, not the one with the familiar Polonaise and the Love Duet but Mussorgsky’s original, no-frills creation: austere, somewhat dry in orchestral sound, its rhythms and melodic shapes deeply rooted in its composer’s naive national identities before his “rescue” by his more sophisticated colleagues. This is the version that Valery Gergiev brought to Orange County earlier this season with his Kirov company and his trunkfuls of seedy scenery, the worthwhile part of their misbegotten “Ring-around.” Mikhail Kit, who was the Wotan in some of the Ring performances, was also the Boris in one of their two performances of that opera and, as he was at the Bowl, an aging but eloquent singing actor. It would be good to see him for once on a properly designed and directed stage set. One assumes that for Salonen this Boris project must be something of a trial run for some project as yet unannounced. Los Angeles’ local companies have yet to produce a Boris Godunov in any version.
Nobody will ever agree on the proper Boris. Unquestionably, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff’s reorchestration of the opening scenes, including the “Coronation” choruses, makes a swell but wrong noise. Mussorgsky’s dark, edgy original, with its irregular rhythms, peers behind Rimsky’s finery to reveal a more troubled Russia with its impoverished masses, and endows the ascent of Boris with the right cynical coloration. The Polonaise and all the love-duet stuff were Mussorgsky’s own inferior capitulation to spicing up the action; leave them out and you’ve got more than three hours of almost continuous men’s voices. Most performances of Boris are some kind of conflation of Mussorgsky’s own two versions, with scenes left in or out: a scene at St. Basil’s Cathedral from the first version, a scene in Kromy Forest from the second. Since both scenes end with a Holy Idiot bewailing the fate of Russia, you can’t have both, and at the Bowl we got St. Basil’s. Salonen’s performance, with Mr. Kit heading a capable cast of visitors, most of them from the Maryinsky Academy of Young Soloists and the massed but sometimes wobbly forces of the Pacific Chorale, followed the pure Mussorgsky original. Judging from wisps of overheard conversations from prematurely exiting Bowl-goers, it did not fulfill everyone’s idea of a swell night of opera at the Bowl. At the very end, as if on cue, there were coyotes in ardent conversation above the parking lot. They knew something that the rest of us must guess.
Fidelio is back, to start the L.A. Opera’s 21st season, with music director James Conlon and his orchestra getting – and meriting – the evening’s biggest applause. The opening scenes with the country lovemakers are no less silly than ever; the opera doesn’t really start until they’re gotten rid of. But that’s Beethoven’s problem, not ours; Fidelio is must-see and must-hear, and this production is an honorable dispatch of this problematic but supreme opera. It is the work of Italian director-designer Pierluigi Pier’Alli, brought over from the Queen Sofia Palace of the Arts in Valencia. His stage is full of menacing verticals , and some strange mechanical images that make it look as if the hapless Florestan is imprisoned in some sort of huge factory. On the other hand, the staging at the moment of rescue, one of operadom’s sublime 60 seconds, is thrilling indeed.
Best of all, this is a Fidelio that sounds as it’s supposed to, and that’s rare. Rather than the usual beefy Wagnerian tenor, there is the youthful and young-sounding Klaus Florian Vogt; his first “Gott!!!” ringing out of the darkness seemed to herald a new era in Fidelio tenors, and all for the better. The Leonore/Fidelio, similarly, is the youthful Anja Kampe, with a rich, true voice that could cut right through all those horns in her first big aria and a figure that could pass for a lad in the Rocco household . That, by the way, is presided over by the magnificent basso Matti Salminen, and it’s a great casting choice to see him towering, a couple of feet taller, over the Pizarro of Eike Wilm Schulte. Good over evil; that’s what opera is all about, after all.
Verdi’s Requiem, concert music in operatic language, ensued on the same stage a few hours later. Great singers were on hand; the work demands no less. One, the phenomenal German bass Rene Pape, was making his long-overdue debut: Tall and handsome, with a voice of similar qualities, he is the Marke, the Sarastro, the Gurnemanz of everyone’s dreams; we here must continue to dream. Arturo Chacón-Cruz was a last-minute fill-in, the latest in a line of baby-faced Mexic
an tenors and excellent of
the breed; soprano Adrienne Pieczonka and mezzo Stephanie Blythe completed the vocal quartet. All performed handsomely.
From Plácido Domingo’s conducting I heard nothing but cues correctly obeyed, little from the L.A. Opera’s orchestra or chorus that told me of Verdi’s wonderful lyric lines, the “Lachrymosa” that sweeps across the heavens, the “Hostias et preces tibi” at which no listener should be able to sit dry-eyed. You do not shape a Verdian lyric line by simply waving a stick at a stageful of performers. The performance, I suppose I have to add, was sold out, at a $250 top. Go figure.
Where She Danced
Götz Friedrich’s television production of Richard Strauss’ Salome is finally available on DVD, from Deutsche Grammophon. In 1974, it defined what opera could accomplish on a television screen; it does so again. Watched on a screen of any size, it vaporizes physical dimensions and hangs suspended as a breathtaking painting of its time – the masterpiece that Gustave Moreau, say, strove toward – in which the personages of the Strauss and the Oscar Wilde drama live their fetid existence and stride to its loathsome climax. Everything about color and sound and location seems exactly in place; above all, there is no awareness of camera and microphone. On my many shelves of DVD’d opera, there is nothing like this one. It doesn’t even matter that I have been known not to care for Salome very much; I can’t stop watching this one-of-a-kind masterwork.
Teresa Stratas is the Salome, her head imprisoned in a jeweled skullcap so that there is nothing but face, on which the full motivation of this willful, vengeful, poisonous child plays out. It is an amazing performance, to watch and to hear; she was 36 or thereabouts, and it is a full capturing of the adolescent monster of the Strauss score. Better yet, she is perfectly matched against her mother of the play, the Herodias of Astrid Varnay – she who once broke hearts with her Sieglinde and her Brünnhilde, here delivering the fiendish cackle that defines and fulfills the bloodlines of her unspeakable daughter.
But everything works here, from the slobber of Hans Beirer’s Herod to the helplessness of Hanna Schwarz, as the doe-eyed Page who must watch as her beloved Narraboth kills himself in helpless adoration of the unattainable Prinzessin. Karl Böhm, who has supped often at the Strauss table, does so yet again as conductor; with the Vienna Philharmonic to do his bidding, who could ask for anything more?
The Fat Man Sang
Luciano Pavarotti figured little in Los Angeles’ operatic life – one La Bohème at the Bowl in his early (a.k.a. serious artist) years – but he did give his time and talent generously in pension-fund concerts at the Chandler Pavilion and elsewhere. About the “Greatest Star” headlines that have flashed across the skies in recent days I have been digesting second thoughts, while reliving the pleasures in the artistry of some of his authentic “greatest hits” – the tender, enveloping warmth of his L’Amico Fritz for one of many. More next week.