La Rondine at L.A. Opera

MAGDA DOES JOAN: “La Rondine” is with us again,  Puccini’s elegant snore, with Marta Domingo’s tinkerings in place to confuse what is already inadequate in the dramatic resolution and with Michael Scott’s Coney Island Merry-Go-Round of an Act-Two stage set to cheapen and vulgarize even further what is already wrong-headed and simply clumsy in Signora Domingo’s “conception and direction.” Speculations, however cynical,  as to why impresario Plácido tosses this directorial bone to his wife from time to time don’t work this time, since Plácido is also in town, conducting the last few performances of “Tosca.”  
  Marta’s most blatant tinkering is to allow her heroine — mere moments after her Ruggero, having discovered the seedy details of her past, throws a hissy fit  of the sort that any exuberant loverboy  might throw from time to time and recover from an hour later – to hook onto a passing tsunami and disappear,  Joan Crawford style, into the billowing wave. The dramatic timing is completely wrong; a suicide scene in any other Puccini opera – “Madama Butterfly” for one – takes up a fair proportion of the act; this one goes wham-o, with music Marta has dug up from somewhere. Granted, the opera’s ending as  composed (and laboriously revised) by Puccini is hardly thrilling: the heroine  Magda bathed in melancholy resignation; at least the timing is right. Marta Domingo’s evasive justification for the suicide, as printed in the program, is so much baloney. And that placid expanse of ocean in Michael Scott’s set design looks as capable of churning up a tsunami as my backyard fishpond.
  Is the current baggage at the Chandler Pavilion worth all this ink, or that $235 top ticket? No, not really. Patricia Racette is an okay hard-boiled heroine for contemporary opera, and a responsive Butterfly in Robert Wilson’s hands; here she’s a stick with a few pretty top notes. Marcus Haddock, the Ruggero here in 2000 and again now, looks a convincing goofy kid from the provinces and has a voice best described as utilitarian. [He’s also the Rodolfo in a new Telarc CD of “La Bohème,” conducted by Robert Spano, if anyone cares.] On the podium, but scarcely into the score, is a certain Keri-Lynn Wilson. She is the current spouse of Peter Gelb, who heads the Metropolitan Opera, a fact not mentioned in the program after a vita of her conducting history that includes practically every opera ever composed. There’s a lot to be said for family ties.
FANTASTIC! Gustavo Dudamel’s performance, with the Philharmonic, of Berlioz’ “Fantastic” Symphony can now be had on a download via iTunes, five “songs” (as they insist on calling every item) at 99 cents per. This isn’t merely a brash kid making everything louder and faster than the next guy’s performance; it is a deep and penetrating study of Berlioz’s amazing rewrite of the whole language of the orchestra: the way, for example, he will take a solo instrument from the ensemble to highlight just the end of a phrase to give it a special radiance.
   Don’t just listen to the spectacular sound-effects in the “March to the Scaffold”or the “Witches’ Sabbath,” where Dudamel carves fabulous sound-sculptures out of the massive percussion leading up to the strokes on the enormous bell. Listen also to the marvelous delicacy in the scoring for harps in the Ballroom Scene, which I’ve never heard so beautifully designed. This was Berlioz at 26, and now it’s Dudamel at the same age; there’s something to be said for that. Let’s see:Beethoven at 26, Mozart, Bach…there’s lots of good music there! The recording captures a fair amount of the sound of that performance in this great hall; at $4.95 it’s sinful not to have it.
BARGAINS  As with any enterprise on the brink of obsolescence, the record biz seems to be cleaning off its shelves on the cheap, and we the customers stand to benefit. A nice box from Teldec – do not confuse with Telarc, which I often do – came to the doorstep yesterday: all seven Prokofiev symphonies on four disks, conducted by Slava, a “Puccini Experience” (blah) on two disks, and, best of all, the complete Teldec Ligeti series, five disks. The price per disk: seven bucks, half the original asking.    
   The Ligeti series, you remember, was originally begun on Sony; Esa-Pekka was involved, and the series was underwritten by a financier Vincent Meyer. If you read the appendix in Paul Griffiths’ valuable Ligeti biography you’ll see the disk numbers assigned to the complete Sony series. It was only partially fulfilled, however; Ligeti  had wanted the Los Angeles Philharmonic involved; Sony had only come up with British bands of lesser quality. Meyer ended up in prison on a child-rape case. 
  Then Telarc undertook to complete the series, with the Berlin Philharmonic, the rising young British conductor Jonathan Nott, Reinbert de Leeuw and his Schoenberg Ensemble – all the right people. Between these five disks and the twelve on Sony, Ligeti’s heritage is well preserved. The Teldec set includes such gorgeous pieces as “Clocks and Clouds” (my favorite) and a performance of the Requiem  under Jonathan Nott almost as fine, as eerily bone-shaking, as the one Esa-Pekka led here not so long ago. Nothing can match that.
BOB: New York Magazine began in April, 1968, the phoenix risen from the ashes of the Herald-Tribune. By September of that year we  had acquired enough self-confidence (and subscribers) to start acquiring a style of our own, and, occasionally, even acting cute. At the start of the music season I composed some poetry – or, rather, some rhyming couplets in arrogant doggerel —  to hail the occasion. Maybe I’ll run them here some week when I’ve run out of real material, maybe I won’t. Bob Grossman was one of our best illustrators, and he did this one for my page of verse, with Lennie perched on the typewriter and  with teeth I no longer own. I wrote Bob recently asking how much he would charge if I used this cartoon for my blog, and he instead made me this new color version, free. Nice guy. bob@robertgrossman.com