The Grim Weeper

Joseph Kerman, whose “Opera as Drama” contains the immortal phrase “’Tosca,’ that shabby little shocker,” comes down somewhat more gentl y on  “Madama Butterfly.”  Taking careful note of the opera’s “coarseness of sensitivity,”he concedes brownie points to the one truly poignant scene, in Act Two, as the Consul Sharpless  vainly attempts to read  Pinkerton’s letter to Butterfly and thus convince her  that her romantic fantasies  must end. It is, indeed, a beautifully written scene; with Robert Wilson’s staging, all light and shadow and soft whisperings from James Conlon’s orchestra. The action  is confined to minimal gestures and  it works very beautifully at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
This is the third time around for “Butterfly,” in only five seasons; our company’s service to Puccini – at the expense of Verdi, among others – becomes an obsession.  I love Wilson’s staging,  especially when he is actually present at rehearsals  to supervise the infinite subtleties of his lighting plan – as he is this time around, and was not the last time. His staging is all about light: the subtle shifting in background color, the delicate play of light on a character’s outstretched hand. (I’ve watched him rehearse just this kind of effect, sometimes for hours, to get it right.)  One beautiful moment: as Butterfly and her “replacement” Kate meet in the final act, the American woman extends a  hearty handshake,   Butterfly a confused trembling; just that contrast sums up the essence of the tragedy.
The stage is practically empty:  no “fiorito asil” of a honeymoon cottage, no  charming tea  ceremony,  the most basic costumes, Kabuki-inspired.  Wilson’s Butterfly this time is Liping Zhang, who has worked with him before. In sight and sound she is perfect in the role, a voice both sweet and strong, a compelling, handsome presence.. As right as she is in her role, so is her Pinkerton totally wrong: burly, screeching Franco Farina.
Wilson’s one major addition to the opera’s plan of action is the presence of the small boy – named “Trouble” in the libretto,  but left unnamed  here – who frolicks  unknowing  on the stage as his mother’s world collapses.  No such action is called for in the libretto; the child might as well be a load of bread.  But Wilson’s emendation immeasurably strengthens the focus of the drama; the boy who must now endure  the collision,  of East against West in his new American home.  Eleven-year-old  Sean Eaton was the child  on opening night and,  of course, stole the show and the hearts of us all.

Measure by measure, note by note, the new season begins. Saturday night  the old season ended at the Bowl, which drew some fifteen thousand of us, chilled and exasperated after some of the season’s worst traffic, to an evening of  poetry and music inspired y Rumi- – “the Sights and Sounds of Mystic Persia.” (Robert Wilson  was involved in my last encounter with Rumi’s poetry, a multi-media affair at Royce Hall with Philip Glass’s music, “Monsters of Grace,” best forgotten. ) The dancing was marvelous: two different Dervish groups  in their whirling, twirling dance movement  s. There was a remarkable vocalist, Hamid Reza Nourbakhsh. At the end came Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble, playing a long new piece whose name I didn’t catch, whose  basic harmony seemed to undulate  between two chords (One-to-flat- Two, for you harmony students, or think “Malaguena”) for a very long time. At the side of the stage a calligrapher , OstadYadollah  Kaboli, worked steadily to create an intricate and handsome manuscript, and I have to admit that I found his work the evening’s most transfixing segment. Many years ago, when American graffiti was seeking acceptance as an art form, I saw a dance company – Twyla Tharpe’s,  if memory serves – in a ballet with Beach Boys’ music and some graffiti artists working on a huge scroll behind the dancers  that kept  rising as the artists filled the space. That was my first experience with dancers-plus-calligraphy, and I remember it still.

PianoSpheres clocked in three nights later and, despite the Jewish holiday conflict,  came close to filling Zipper Hall. Most of Gloria Cheng’s program duplicated her recent (and splendid) TelArc disc: Esa-Pekka  Salonen’s “Dichotomie” best of all. This is a dazzling piece; I love the whimsy in Salonen’s own descripton,  that he planned a short encore piece for Gloria, which then got out of hand. It starts off huge and ferocious  (and stunningly scored, as if its creator was some kind of all-knowing piano virtuoso, which we know  he isn’t.) Fifteen-or-so minutes later it has subsided, charmingly. Can you think of a finer  brand-new  large-scale piano work since, perhaps, Carter’s “Night Fantasies”? I can’t.
Witold Lutoslawski’s early Piano Sonata, also on the disc, filled out the first half of the program: interesting in its reflection of the very young composer’s obvious  fixation on Ravel and other French late romantics,  but not much of a piece otherwise.

At Royce Hall just last night the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra began its (!) 40th season to a large crowd, many of whom stood when Jeff Kahane polled the audience for 40-year subscribers.  Well and good, but LACO’s spirit is youthful and adventurous, and  that spirit also deserves to be matched with some new blood out front. (From the traffic jam of walkers, pushing up the aisle at intermission, you’d almost think you were back on             I-405. ) It was an interesting program: Frank Martin’s big, dryly humorous Concerto for Solo Winds and Orchestra,  Dick Todd in one of the Mozart Horn Concertos and, at the end, Kahane’s surging, vital reading of the Mozart 39th, most elegantly scored of all the Symphonies –- those clarinets!!

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