Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
The Villagers it Takes
November 30, 2011
Charlayne Woodard is no relation to Alfre Woodard. But ironically the former Ms. Woodard’s solo show, The Night Watcher, which recently opened at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City, begins with an unexpected phone call from her more famous namesake. Charlayne Woodard, as she describes herself in this largely autobiographical work, is a “blue collar actor” living and working in Los Angeles. The phone call is a surprise solicitation from Alfre for Charlayne and her husband to adopt a baby that is about to be born in a nearby hospital to a young mother who will be unable to care for it. Charlayne contemplates the offer briefly, but then turns it down after reflecting on the real responsibilities of raising a child. In the following two hours with intermission, Ms. Woodard repeats related scenarios in a number of variations. While she and her husband remain willfully and happily childless themselves, she is repeatedly drawn into numerous relationships with other young people as a godparent, family friend, or “auntie”. She becomes a parent by proxy as one of the key villagers involved in raising these particular children.
The vignettes that make up The Night Watcher, which had a New York run in fall of 2009, revolve around the often traumatic and always emotional stories of these children and Ms. Woodard’s attempts to help guide them in moments of poor behavior or severe crisis. The material can be tough at times, but not graphic. And it is often touching, outright tear-jerking material. I'll defer from saying much more since the stories have the most power when they're fresh. But let it be said that abuse and social ills lurk around most bends in the road.
Ms. Woodard is excellent in this. She shows mastery of the essential skills needed to pull off a solo show. She is engaging and an expert storyteller. She manages multiple characters simultaneously with ease. But the material, as heartbreaking as it is, doesn't always make for great theater. The vignettes take similar courses and by the time the audience arrives at the last one. the resolution of it can be easily predicted. The stories of the children in Ms. Woodard's life often work much better than the larger narrative about her own life choices and psychological make up. Although the material that proceeds the final story of Ms. Woodard's confrontation with an African man on the New York subway attempts to answer questions of her motivation that have been strangely absent earlier in the work, the final explanation comes off as defensive and ironically unnecessary. But there is beautiful storytelling here and spending two hours in Charlayne Woodard's warm, glowing and captivating presence is far from unpleasant.
There is something undeniably cool about Anonymous 4. The four women who comprise this vocal ensemble committed primarily to medieval polyphony and chant have been nothing less than musical trailblazers for the last quarter century. Their performances, which have been seen all over the world, are based on a unique combination of historical research and musical acumen, that make for a unique contemporary experience. Their visits are ones to treasure, and the four vocalists currently in the ensemble - Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, will soon return to Southern California. Theses two programs at UC Riverside (on Dec 2) and Santa Monica’s Jacaranda music series (on Dec 3) will feature favorites of their lengthy recording career and, perhaps surprisingly to some, a world premiere from composer David Lang, the wood and the vine. All of this also takes place following the release of their most recent Harmonia Mundi recording Secret Voices. The release marks the return of the group to the Codex Las Huelgas, a 13th-century manuscript with chant and polyphony used in a Cistercian convent. It's absolutely lovely. But before those highly recommended performances, one of the Anonymous 4’s great scholars and artists, Susan Hellauer, took a moment to sit down for the Out West Arts 10 Questions.
You’ve been a part of Anonymous 4 throughout the group’s rise as one of the world’s premiere early music ensembles. What’s it like being America’s rock stars of medieval polyphony?
We definitely have gotten recognition — hard work and sheer persistence can pay off! I think it's the same as it is for most people who receive recognition in their chosen fields. It's not so much "that's nice!" but more "what's next? how do I top that?" We're always looking for something that is new and different for us but that lets us remain true to who we are. There's so much behind-the-scenes work on repertoire, research and rehearsal that there's not much time left over to sit on one's laurels, so to speak. AND we try not to read too much of our press, for better or worse. We just keep marching forward.
One of the things I’ve always loved about Anonymous 4 is the medieval music research and scholarship that has gone into the group’s performances and recording. How much is being a musical detective part of being in the group?
It's a large part of it, and constitutes my dream job. I have degrees in musicology, but I knew early on and very well that normal musicology was not in the cards for me. So having the knowledge about the period and the repertoire that has survived has made it easier for me to put programs together. BUT, I do consult full-time musicologists about repertoires that are more obscure, controversial in some way, or survive in notation that is difficult or ambiguous to decipher. Musicologists now are much much more willing to share their work and their insights than their ancestors were, say 30 years ago and more. It's really a new world of cooperation and collaboration between musicologists and performers now.
What do you enjoy most about performing together on the road?
The audiences. It's our privilege and honor to bring our programs to them, especially when young singers are out there. To walk out to a full house in a great venue, with people of all ages and stages of life sitting out there . . . there's really nothing better. There's an episcopal hymn that has the words " . . . mystic sweet communion" in it -- that's how it feels.
What’s the biggest surprise for you about the public’s enthusiastic reception of Anonymous 4?
It has to be something I just alluded to above -- the great range of ages of our fans, from young to old. This never ceases to amaze me, especially as the audience for classical chamber music seems to be greying… BUT BUT BUT… there are fabulous young chamber music ensembles coming up and on the scene who are completely revamping ideals and aims of chamber music. The Kronos Quartet was out in front, but there's a whole wave of new groups who will surpass us all.
You’ll be making two appearances in Southern California in early December at UC Riverside and the Jacaranda music series in Santa Monica featuring a new work from David Lang, the wood and the vine. What’s the best part about working with a living composer?
It's that collaboration on creating a new work of art. We were thinking about him, then he started thinking about us, then he wrote a piece and we sang it for him. He tweaked it a little bit, he let us know the affect that he was after, modifying our sound and approach a little bit . . . all of us with the same goal. Very satisfying!
How does singing early music inform your performance of contemporary compositions?
Our ensemble sense, our "unity of intent" informs our early music singing — and it's just what we do for all music we sing. The sum is greater than the parts, and we do NOT alter the individual sounds of our voices, which are VERY different from each other. We determine the goal, direction and shape of each line, the weight of the words and the music, and then we agree on all those things expressively, and the voices come together. It's really no different in any repertoire.
Anonymous 4’s most recent Harmonia Mundi Release Secret Voices returns the group to music of the 13th and 14th centuries. What’s so special to the group about music from this period in particular?
The early years of polyphonic composition (as opposed to improvisation, which was going on for centuries in western music before it was written down) did not observe the now-common "SATB" range designations. The lines overlap, crisscross, in a polyphonic tapestry. We find this sort of writing very compatible with our almost-equal ranges, and it sounds (in our opinion) fabulous in higher voices, where the patterns of overlap and crisscross are a little more discernible to the ear than they would be in lower voices.
When should I clap?
Ha ha — very funny! But a good question. Most medieval pieces are quite short — a minute or three — and it's one of our biggest challenges to create a cohesive, flowing program out of these little miniatures. We once attended a concert at a European festival presented by a very famous medieval music vocal ensemble. They were singing 13th-century motets (VERY beautifully) but there was a full stop and applause after each tiny piece, which made it hard to get an overall impression of the "show." So we group pieces together and hope that our audience will clap where they see the breaks in the program. But, really, we're not all that fussy.
A tempestuous tenor destroys your iPod. What music on it will you miss most?
Actually, I don't really listen to an iPod. I think that the earbuds are very harmful to hearing, and I already have some hearing loss in my right ear. AND I think that constantly listening to music destroys its specialness. Silence is important — without it music is meaningless — go ahead and jog around the lake or the park just listening to the environment. Then go home and treat yourself to a Beethoven symphony, The Beatles, the Mozart or Brahms clarinet quintet, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Schumann's Dichterliebe, anything by Josquin des Pres, Bruce Molsky, with his inimitable fiddle, guitar, banjo and voice. OR EVEN BETTER: pick up that uke, that banjo, that guitar, the concertina, the recorder, the harmonica, a couple of spoons, and MAKE SOME MUSIC YOU GUYS! It doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to be your own.
What’s the next big thing we should be looking for from Anonymous 4?
We'll be working on a full-length work by David Lang, called love fail — of which the wood and the vine is the first section. We'll be creating a new program called Marie & Marion — 13th century music again — just can't stay away — for 2013. We're thinking about one more Hildegard program, and one more American traditional program…we think and then we sing; that's pretty much what we do.
Don’t kid yourself. Nobody really wants two front teeth or romance for Christmas. They want what they can’t have, and in lieu of that, they’ll take meaningless stuff that dulls the pain in the meantime. So to help you with this, I’ve put together my own little holiday gift guide. So if you’re one of those who feels compelled to participate in the orgiastic consumerism that is Christmas shopping in the U.S. (and trust me I’ve been there) here’s a collection of things I know I’d be pretty frigging thrilled to unwrap on the big day. I think they'd make great gifts for any classical music and/or opera lover you may know as well.
1. Let's start with the recent Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. Evelino Pidó conducts the Vienna State Opera in this performance filmed for Deutsche Grammophon starring Anna Netrebko and Elena Garanca in 2011. If you saw the Metropolitan Opera’s production of this bel canto sizzler, do yourself a favor and take a look at how its really done.
3. One of the most exciting U.S. operatic debuts this year by my ear was Lucy Crowe’s appearance in Handel’s Hercules in Chicago last spring. She’s also kicked off a series of recordings on Harmonia Mundi with Il caro Sassone, “The Dear Saxon”, a collection of works composed by Handel during his time in Italy. One of my favorite vocal performance collections of the year with the help of Harry Bicket and The English Concert.
4. For something a bit more historical and instrumental, the Canadian Broadcasting Company has recently reissued the entire series of documentaries and specials that Glenn Gould made for them between 1954 and 1977 on DVD. The set includes a wide range of material in the original uncut format for over 19 hours of viewing.
5. Nothing beats live opera though, and surely one of the hottest tickets in L.A. next year will be tenor Placido Domingo singing the baritone title role in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra with Los Angeles Opera starting February 11th. The cast includes Ana Maria Martinez, Vitalij Kowaljow, Paolo Gavanelli (!!), and Stefano Secco under conductor James Conlon. Domingo’s performance in this role have been hailed around the world and it’s a great chance to see him onstage right here in town.
7. If your looking for something a little lest oriented toward classical music, you can’t go wrong with a pair of tickets to see the touring production of Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones’ musical Fela! which will appear at the Ahmanson theater in Los Angeles starting December 14 for a six week run. The show was a high-energy barn burner with a red hot live band in New York and London and will surely make anyone on your list with an interest in world music thrilled.
10. And just in case you want a gift that doesn’t involve sitting in the dark and watching someone else perform, how about Evelyn Rillé and Johannes Ifkovits' The Opera Cooks which is available in English through the Metropolitan Opera gift shop online. This cook book collects some of the favorite dishes from the world’s biggest vocal stars with some highly amusing photography. A certain pleaser for any opera fan.
On Saturday I headed over to Pasadena to see the new kid in town. Although already 20 years old, A Noise Within, is changing the theater landscape in L.A. again by transitioning from being Glendale’s premiere repertory theater company to being Pasadena’s with their move to the historic Stuart Pharmaceuticals building on Foothill Blvd. The powers that be in Glendale, unable to realize when they are about to lose a good thing, dropped the ball allowing A Noise Within to make a move from a dilapidated and cramped space on Brand Boulevard into a new, more permanent home that is the theatrical equivalent of winning the lottery. That’s not to say the company didn’t work incredibly hard to make this move happen, having raised million of dollars in the most inhospitable economic climate to make this dream a reality. They and their many supporters have worked long and hard for this move and the contrast between the new and former sites is immense.
Remember those cramped miniscule restrooms? Gone. Recall climbing those flights of stairs or waiting for the unpredictable elevator? No more. How about the uncomfortable, tiny seats? The new space has double the capacity with modern, comfortable and closer seating all around the thrust stage. The new location also boasts Edward Durell Stone’s mid-century modern façade complete with its fountain and beautiful clean lines while vastly increasing the space for virtually everything the company could want to do from storage and dressing rooms to ample space for audience services. If you’ve attended ANW performances in Glendale in the past, your jaw may well drop at the transformation, which makes the company seem less like a scrappy start-up and more like the seasoned troupe and educational powerhouse they are.
But A Noise Within is still a theater company and they kicked off their season at the end of last month with a new production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It’s an exuberant and joyful comedy that comes as a celebration for the company and its future. Director Julia-Rodriguez Elliott has moved the action of the play from Illyria to an imagined mid-century Cuba at Carnival time. It’s bright, colorful and filled with dancing. But like any organization that has undergone a major transition, this Twelfth Night is a reminder that A Noise Within will also have to take some time to artistically adjust to the new space as well. The Glendale site may have been cramped, but it provided for, an albeit forced, intimacy. The Pasadena auditorium is by comparison cavernous and drawing an audience in may not involve or require all of the tricks it did previously.
Rodriguez-Elliott’s direction and her cast were on emotional overdrive on Saturday with everything pitched just a few levels higher than necessary at times. The energy sometimes overwhelmed the poetry and natural humor of the text. The anachronisms set up by the change of setting were mostly handled well. While it was somewhat odd watching sword fights replaced with machete battles, the voodoo ritual complete with (fake) dead chicken in Act IV when Sir Topas taunts the imprisoned Malvolio, played by the company’s co artistic-direct Geoff Elliott, was priceless. There were some lovely performances from Deborah Strang as Maria and Anthony Mark Barrow as Feste among others. So much bodes well for A Noise Within in their new space. The company has great talent resources and has proven over the years that it can come up with inventive and creative solutions under tight constraints. It's certain that they'll continue to excel now that they have much more room to maneuver.
Esa-Pekka Salonen is back with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend and all is right with the world. In fact on Friday night, you might be able for an instant to forget the last three or so years had ever happened given the combination of artistic forces assembled for this week’s show. Salonen led two works by Beethoven, the Leonore Overture No. 2 and the Second Piano Concerto along with the world premiere of a major new work for orchestra and chorus by Swedish composer, Anders Hillborg. The soloists for the pieces were long-time Salonen collaborators – Emanuel Ax on piano and in the Hillborg work, vocalists Anne Sofie von Otter and Hila Plitmann. And while the show sounded a little rough and tumble at moments, the evening on a whole was a big success for the nearly capacity and very enthusiastic crowd.
The Beethoven sounded like quintessential Salonen: clean and not overworked. Ax is perhaps the ideal piano soloist for Salonen with this particular concerto. He gives a warm, polished performance that is nether drenched with Romantic embellishment nor unassuming reserve. His approach is clean and straightforward providing a compliment to Salonen’s orchestral approach. The Leonora Overture No. 2 that preceded this very familiar concerto was a bit more of an oddity. More dramatic and severe than the music that finally made it into Beethoven’s only opera, the Leonora Overture No. 2 has numerous stops and starts that play perfectly to Salonen's strengths. But the best was yet to come.
The Hillborg world premiere that followed, Sirens, was a surprisingly large one for orchestra, two female soloists, and a 32-member chorus. Of the four world and U.S. premieres presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic this season, this was by far the most ambitious and satisfyingly executed. As the title suggests, the 30-minute, single movement orchestral work is based on the famous story from Homer's Odyssey. The English language text, adapted and added to by the composer, concerns Ulysses' (Odysseus' Roman name as used in Sirens) encounter with the mythological creatures who lure sailors to their deaths on a rocky shoal by seducing them with their beautiful voices. In the Odyssey, Ulysses outwits the sirens by ordering his men to block their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast of the ship, promising not to release him no matter how he threatens or pleads until they have arrived to safety. Hillborg's Sirens is not an oratorio or narrative of these events as much as a representation of what Ulysses might have heard floating in the sea.
The work calls for a large orchestra, which is often more restrained than thundering. The music for the most part involves several lengthy discordant tones held and passed back and forth between various sections of the orchestra like sea tides. The beauty and underlying horror of the sirens is reflected from the very beginning in these slowly shifting chords. About 10 minutes into the work, these chords are joined at times by sequences of rapid repeating single notes taking a page directly from the handbook of American minimalism. Atop this ocean of sound are soloists Anne Sofie von Otter, Hila Plitmann, and 32 male and female members of the Los Angles Master Chorale. They alternately plead and seduce with promises of joyous release and entry into another world. The choral music is quite beautiful and really the heart of the entire work. Plitmann and von Otter sounded great here. Plitmann managed recurrent sets of very high tones and von Otter came off much better than in her last L.A. Phil outings with a tessitura much better suited for her. The chorus, which used both men's and women's voices, provided a much richer sense of the sirens voices than simple seductive sea vixens.
Though Sirens is lovely and the L.A. Philharmonic had gone to lengths to give the work theatrical lighting, the work does suffer a bit from the lack of dramatic development. There is no sense of Ulysses or his crew's presence, nor is there a sense of real resolution to the piece as if the sailors have finally passed the sirens or that the creatures have any reaction to the fact that their deadly songs have been escaped for the first time. Initially Sirens does employ some whispering and finger-snapping from the chorus to suggest that the deadly creatures are just out of ear-shot before coming into view. But I never got the sense once they had arrived that there was anywhere else to go. There are also a couple of weak spots in the text as well, with the sirens promising at one point to "turn you on" and imploring Odysseus to "come fly" with them. But these moments are few and could be easily addressed if Hillborg was so inclined. And Sirens and Salonen couldn't have been more warmly received by the crowd on Friday. It was a lovely program and great evening from the L.A. Philharmonic's much missed maestro. The show repeats on Saturday and Sunday.
The singer Morrissey has managed to maintain a significant career in popular music longer than many of his contemporaries. Thirty years on, he manages to fill concert halls with ease and has been a regular fixture in Southern California where he maintains an enthusiastic following long after his days leading the landmark 80s band, The Smiths. On Wednesday, after an originally scheduled appearance on The Jimmy Kimmel Show fell through, Morrissey and his current band were scheduled for an extra performance in Hollywood at The Music Box prior to an appearance this coming Saturday at The Shrine Auditorium. And while a Morrissey concert in Los Angeles is not unusual, and the material in the show was mostly from his most recent recordings, there was an unusual serendipity to the evening.
First off, the show at The Music Box took place directly across the street from The Pantages Theater where another 80s alternative music icon, Robert Smith and The Cure were wrapping up the third night of concerts featuring the band’s first three recordings reproduced live in their entirety. Morrissey and The Cure have a longstanding, though largely manufactured, rivalry and the singer on Wednesday couldn’t avoid taking a shot at the band on Wednesday ironically welcoming the audience to “the sunny side of the street”. But as unusual a coincidence the logistics of these two shows were, there was another, more poignant shadow cast across the performance, that of Shelagh Delaney. Delaney, the famous British playwright and author of 1958’s A Taste of Honey, has been a prominent figure as a muse or point of reference for Morrissey’s work throughout his entire career. Her neo-realist drama and frank treatment of British working class life and homosexuality fit perfectly into the cosmology of symbols that have preoccupied the intentionally ambiguous lyrics of Morrissey; and his muse even got her image placed on the cover of The Smiths’ Louder Than Bombs in 1987.
Delaney died at the age of 72 just 3 days before the performance, and although Morrissey did not mention this fact from the stage, her image haunted the entire evening. Before the vocalist and the young men who make up his current band arrived on stage, a filmed interview with a young Delaney played. Her picture remained on a screen behind the performers throughout most of the remainder of the 100-minute show. Which provided another sort of contrast. The Morrissey who appeared on Wednesday is not the effete waif many remember from the 80s but the boxer/tough man who graces the covers of his most recent recordings including Years of Refusal. The set list was taken largely from these last few recordings, and while there were some upbeat moments early on, the last third of the show was populated with a more somber, downbeat mood. After a graphic and Thanksgiving-tinged “Meat is Murder”, he moved through “Satellite”, “Scandinavia”, and “Speedway” before the encore “Still Ill”. There were no tears shed on stage. Morrissey appeared to toy with the audience at times, leering at those whose hands he’d just shaken.
In the end it was a well-played rock show. And Morrissey played every-bit the rock star even into his 50s. He tore off his shirt at the end of the evening tossing it into the audience and exposing his chest. Which might have been slightly more exciting than the life-size naked cut out (with a 45 covering his genitals) on sale at the merchandise counter in the lobby. But all the swagger and sexuality couldn’t replace the feeling of time passing for all of us. Our heroes pass on. We grow older. We hate it when our friends become successful. These themes, not unusual in Morrissey’s work, seemed more present than normal on Wednesday for a show that ended up being less about nostalgia and more about what we lose along the way.
Please tell me that if you’ve been able to get to the Lyric Opera Chicago’s production of Boris Godunov you’ve done so. It’s a smashing one. While in Chicago over the weekend, I also got a chance to see Sir Andrew Davis lead this rich and well embellished performance with the best non-native Russian speaking cast I’ve yet heard in this opera. Of course, casting in Chicago is some of the most impeccable in the whole country and all of the principals prove as engaging as actors as they are vocalists. The title role goes to Ferruccio Furlanetto who does kings who are losing their grip like nobody else. If you’ve seen his Philip II you know what I mean. His is not a very Russian sound, of course, but the smoothness and power of his voice make up for it. He made Boris’ death one of the most engrossing I remember.
Then there’s Stefan Margita as Shuisky. I am more and more in thrall of this performer with each viewing. His performances of Loge in San Francisco were unforgettable and he should be the perfect addition to the Metropolitan Opera’s Das Rheingold cast next spring. Given how well he handled one of the most duplicitous characters in opera, it’s no surprise that his scheming, turn-coated Shuisky should radiate so much heat. Of course, this is a production, originally for San Francisco Opera under the direction of Stein Winge, that is mostly interested in the political machinations contained within the story. Thus Shuisky rises in his importance as a mastermind behind Boris’ eventual downfall. An added twist in the final stage image puts the point on this that might look somewhat overworked in lesser hands. But Margita’s ability to portray an icy manipulator with a Cheshire smile makes it work exceedingly well. (I don’t remember this gesture from the most recent revival of Winge’s production in San Francisco and the director of Chicago’s revival, Julia Pevzner, may have reinserted or re-emphasized it.)
There are many other fine performances here. The always enjoyable and big voiced Andrea Silvestrelli sang a Pimen that was as pious as Shuisky was evil. Raymond Aceto was notable as Varlaam and Erik Nelson Werner made much out of his two scenes as the pretender Grigori. Another familiar voice I was glad to hear was David Cangelosi’s as the comical Missail.
All this excellent casting does make a big difference. Winge’s production can be a bit dry at times. In an opera about pageantry with big chorus numbers, the sparse raked wooden stage that curves up into the flyspace upstage can be wanting visually. But it is also unobtrusive in the way it provides for good vocal projection and easy entrances and exits for the large chorus. There are several openings in the set's curved wall upstage and panels with Russian church iconography appear during key scenes. Still the performances here are so strong that the set and surrounding seem to vanish from focus. The interaction between these characters is the real joy of this performance. Lyric Opera has managed to put together a show that is much more than the sum of its parts with a sharp eye to casting and a strong hand in the pit. There are three more performances in the coming week.
How much worse can classical music criticism get in the Los Angeles Times? In particular, I'm referring to the increasingly poor quality of what the organization's lead classical music critic, Mark Swed, has been producing. It has gotten to the point that one wonders if our region's largest news organization isn't asking itself if this is the best coverage it can provide of one of the key components of L.A.'s cultural life. This year Swed has managed to attack the use of most online social networking for classical music as “technological fascism” and to blithely use the Japanese tsunami in March as a framing device to describe the powers of Gustavo Dudamel (which he and his publisher later retracted, although the copy lives on in news aggregation sites and screen captures). He continues to offer Los Angeles readers little besides blind boosterism for their local orchestra. And now he’s rekindled one of his other favorite pastimes - picking fights with young East Coast composers.
Uniting pop with new music is not new. Everyone does it. In happening arts centers such as Brooklyn, virtuous young musicians insist that Minimalism and anything that iTunes happens to be promoting that week must get along. Wired urbanites making nice is always nice. But soupy Radiohead arrangements are another matter.
(Note the obligatory Radiohead reference to establish street cred. But I digress.) I assume this intro, which has almost nothing to do with the rest of the review that follows, had its intended effect – pissing off New York-based critics and musicians alike. All kinds of drama broke loose on Twitter when The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross kicked things off with this:
Which soon led to a flurry of responses from many corners including composers Judd Greenstein, Nico Muhly, and critics like Daniel Stephen Johnson and Alan Kozin to name a few. Some of the best of these 140 character tidbits are as follows:
Now I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with Mr. Swed expressing unpopular opinions or opinions that I or anyone else do or don’t agree with. But I am unclear how this particular statement, in this particular piece provides any added benefit to anyone. Is it telling us more about the wildUp performance or how it fits into the greater scheme of things? Does it provide real insight into the local or national music scene? It certainly does a disservice both to the New York based artists he alludes to as well as the West Coast-based artists he is writing about in the article. At best, this Tupac/Biggie Smalls approach to arts writing is lazy journalism. Swed’s writing is increasingly cranky and out-of-touch with what's going on in the music world and what is unfamiliar within his frame of reference is often met with off-hand derision. When it comes right down to it, Los Angeles, the Times, and the local music scene deserve much better writing and much better criticism than what Swed is providing at this point.
Post-script: Although this post is not about me, I think I should say one more thing. I’m not arguing here that I am free of any of the vices I’ve mentioned here with regards to Mr. Swed. Nor is Out West Arts meant as a substitute for music writing in the Los Angeles Times. I am certainly unfair at times and have plenty of weaknesses as a writer and sometimes amateur critic. However, I am also not paid to write music criticism and OWA is not a comparable platform to the region's largest news organization. We all should expect more of Mark Swed and certainly more of the Los Angeles Times.
I can’t shake the feeling there’s a changing of the guard underway on the stages of American opera houses. I suppose that is always true with various careers either taking flight or cooling off. And there is certainly always the next big thing waiting in the wings. But it is also true that a number of young American singers have been given notable high profile assignments lately commensurate with the heat surrounding their performances in smaller roles or on smaller stages. The Metropolitan Opera and New York critics are currently in the process of anointing Angela Meade as the next bel canto star without the requisite reality TV series such titles usually require these days. Meanwhile at the Lyric Opera of Chicago where superstar soprano Renée Fleming is taking her first steps in the role of administrator, the house has been integral in thrusting one of its own Ryan Opera Center alumna, Amber Wagner, into the spotlight. Wagner is making a splash in the Wagner/Strauss corner of the soprano repertory. She was slotted into a few performances as Elsa in last season’s Lohengrin that got her very good notices. And on Saturday she stepped into the headlining spot in a revival of Ariadne auf Naxos when the originally scheduled Deborah Voigt dropped out several months ago deciding instead to concentrate on her own Brünnhilde performances in New York.
It’s a good casting decision, and a deserved step up for a singer who made a far lower profile Met Opera debut this fall as Anna in Verdi's Nabucco. And from the sound of Saturday night’s opening Ariadne performance under music director Andrew Davis, there is no reason to believe that she couldn’t be the next Wagnerian superstar. She has a big, beautiful voice with ample warmth and that requisite ability to cut through a massive orchestra. Her acting appears to be developing by leaps and bounds as well. She was much more assured this time than previously. The top part of her range still didn’t strike me as completely opened up, but there was no shouting or strain and she held the stage well against a large ensemble cast. She may not have been a marquee name going into this run, but these performances will undoubtedly bring her one step closer to that point.
To complement Wagner, the company cast an array of young Americans in most of the major roles. Brandon Jovanovich sang Bacchus. He seems to pop up in just about anything these days, and though he an interesting singer, as with his turn as Siegmund in San Francisco last summer, he sounded a little thin for this particular role. Anna Christy, a Chicago favorite, sang Zerbinetta with a lot of flair and solid coloratura technique. However, she sounded rushed in her extended Act II aria with Davis granting her little extra space for flourishes other singers milk with abandon. René Barbera and Matthew Worth were also included in the cast as Brighella and Harlekin respectively. There were outliers in this cast of young Americans including Eike Wilm Shulte as the Music Master who was quite good opposite the other big name in the cast, Alice Coote as the Composer. Coote also has a knack for a wide variety of roles in most corners of the mezzo repertory. Her composer had the requisite power and musicality but not quite the lyrical brightness I’ve seen her muster before in Baroque roles or as Massenet’s Charlotte in Werther. She too seemed hampered somewhat by Davis’ rather restrained conducting that lacked a greater dynamic range and lushness.
But really all of these minor issues could be less noticeable if it wasn’t for the staid and uninspired staging from John Cox who was greeted with cool applause during the curtain call. The opera is set in the 18th century and Cox uses the stage-within-a-stage conceit for the production. And while all of this is certainly within the letter of the libretto, the look is tired and predictable. Act I is inexplicably dominated by a large wheel used to raise the curtain and scenery on the back stage of the set while Act II has all the pretty costumes and stand and deliver singing you could ask for. Cox has a better take on the comic elements of the story, and when Zerbinetta and her boys show up to deface the set or merrily prank Ariadne, the show is at its best. Cox seems unsure about what to do with von Hofmannsthal’s more serious moments. He sometimes covers them up with concurrent visual gags either about the set or the characters, which is preferable to when he just elects to ignore them and let them pass. But for many in the cast including Wagner, there are surely many other notable productions of this and other operas that lie ahead. And now is the time to enjoy hearing the career of a major vocalist unfold here in Chicago where Ariadne auf Naxos runs through December 11.
From Freud to Foucault to Prince, the song remains the same: there’s joy (and plenty of other things) in repetition. Such was the case on Friday when L.A.’s most exciting and relevant group of young musicians, wildUp, gathered at Beyond Baroque in Venice for the latest in their increasingly frequent concert series. The exuberance of artistic director Christopher Rountree and his chamber orchestra of all trades underwent a veritable sublimation; their pure energy threatening to change physical states without notice. Friday’s broad, adventurous program had a large agenda covering everything from the mechanistic production of music à la Conlon Nancarrow and George Antheil to the sly, spirited arrangements of pop and punk rock songs that were the centerpiece of the evening. All of it played with more heart than you’re likely to see elsewhere.
The first half of the show began with an exploration of the mechanistic production of sound. Richard Valitutto (who like the entire orchestra was so impressive playing the music of Sofia Gubaidulina at REDCAT this spring) played two contemporary “piano rags" – gleefully bastardized versions of the American originals - from William Albright and William Bolcom. Building on this, he was joined by violinist Andrew Tholl for Nancarrow’s Toccata for violin and player piano with Tholl playing alongside the prerecorded and decidedly superhuman pianola. Tholl, as he did at several points in the evening, amazed with his rapid-fire playing. A movement from George Antheil’s First Sonatas for Violin and piano was next. It was introduced, fairly I think, as a musical precursor of punk rock, a point punctuated by Valitutto's ferocious attack on the score that brought out the mechanistic qualities of the music. But this was all prelude to works from composer Clarence Barlow who joined the faculty of UCSB a few years ago and was present at theperofrmance. Both works performed here by an ensemble of strings, percussion, keyboard, trumpet and clarinet started from an atonal base that soon gave way to references to popular songs. The Beatles' "Michelle" mysteriously arose from Sachets des ciseaux Insatiables with a riff from Bizet’s Habanera to wrap things up. Which was almost as deliriously amusing as the rhythmic layering used to disguise Prince’s “Sexy MF” within Septima de facto. The freewheeling excitement of both of Barlow's pieces couldn't have been better suited for the polymorphously effervescent wildUp players.
But the goal here was more than cover band idolatry, and Rountree insisted, going into the second half of the evening that these performances were meant to reflect wildUp’s own spirit and approach to music. What followed were varied, sometimes witty, and often attractive arrangements by Tholl, Chris Kallmyer, and others of seminal punk rock songs from Fear, Black Flag, The Misfits, and X-Ray Spex among others. The players remained the same with additional drums and electric guitar from sound artist Kallmyer. The sound was fierce and sizable in its own way complete with amplified bassoon riffs (courtesy of Archie Carey) that would not have sounded out of place on the original versions of any the songs of the aforementioned artists. And while things didn't quite get as loud as the available ear plugs at the door might have suggested, it was a unique version of the original punk sound. Most of the vocal lines were left intact with various players taking turns including bass player Maggie Hasspacher who lead on X-Ray Spex' "Oh Bondage! Up Yours!" and made a unique addition to The Misfits' "Where Eagles Dare". Even Rountree himself turned to face the audience at one point during a rearrangement of Dirty Projectors' arrangement of Black Flag’s “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie” to sing-shout along. And while it may not have achieved the same decibels it was decidedly a punk rock moment all its own and true to Rountree's promise it was an arrangement and performance uniquely wildUp's own. The evening was heartfelt and organic with the kind of passionate music making and energy you don’t need a marketing campaign to convince you of. The show repeats again on Saturday, and you can check out the rest of their plans for the season on the website.
Emmanuelle Haïm burst onto the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage Thursday night for the first of three concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend. She stood out in just about every way you could imagine. The only woman scheduled to conduct any of the regular subscription Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts this season, Haïm is a Baroque music specialist and this was an all-Händel program. She carries an impressive mane of reddish-brown hair and she placed herself in a sidesaddle position on the end of the bench she would occasionally use while conducting from the harpsichord in a Tori Amos-like fashion. Händel’s music is filled with 18th-century dance rhythms, and she would often follow along with her own jerky dance-like movements throughout the evening. But perhaps the most unexpected thing about her appearance this weekend is how she managed to extract such an exciting Baroque sound out of the players of a contemporary American orchestra. And while the Los Angeles Philharmonic is no stranger to Baroque music, this performance was something special with a leaner, crisper sound more akin to a period practice ensemble than a major American orchestra whose 19th and 20th Century repertoire is its bread and butter.
Haïm, like many other Baroque specialists, has made her name over the last decade by playing primarily with her own period-practice ensemble, Le Concert d’Astrée. She’s appeared with many other orchestras as well with varying success and periodic controversy as with her last minute departure from an assignment at the Paris Opera in 2010 reportedly over rehearsal time to perfect a period-practice sound. But if there were any such issues on Thursday, one wouldn’t have known it from the performance. The show began with Händel’s Concerto Grosso in G major paired with two of the Water Music Suites. The sound was kept to scale with the thirty musicians on stage including two harpsichords and an occasional recorder. But the playing was never overly polished. Haïm managed to preserve the feel of the dance rhythms indicated in the score while maintaining a beautiful singing quality to the sound as well. It was both bracing and frequently surprising.
After the break was a performance of Il delirio amoroso, Händel's pastoral cantata that was sung by soprano Sonya Yoncheva. Again the orchestra sounded superb with a particularly nice contributions from principal oboe Ariana Ghez. Yoncheva showed reasonable coloratura technique with her rather dark hued voice. She could overpower everyone on the upper end of her range, and I sometimes wished for a bit more shading and clearer diction from her. But she was a spirited actor with a dominating physical presence and was clearly committed to the performance. In fact her rather saucy approach to the text made the pastoral goings-on seem a little less staid and a bit more delirious. But the triumph in the end was Haïm's who proved that the schism over how Baroque music is played between historically-informed specialist ensembles, and larger more general orchestral ensembles, need not be so large. There are beautiful interpretations to be made by any set of forces and this weekend in Los Angeles, local audiences have a chance to hear the best of both worlds.
I’m a sucker for symmetry. Give me a program arranged with an eye to mathematical balance or structural parallels and there is a part of me that can’t resist. Sunday’s Los Angeles Master Chorale program was just one of those shows where the interwoven structure of the program was something to admire in itself. The evening was built around two contemporary compositions, each a take on a traditional religious musical form, and paired it with a Bach motet. Both of the contemporary works, James Newton’s Mass and David Lang’s the little match girl passion were expansions of earlier versions composed for four soloists with musical accompaniment. And I would argue both pieces involved a rhythmic complexity that put Music Director Grant Gershon and his excellent singers to the test. It was the kind of program that sets the LA Master Chorale apart from their peers, and it was heartening to see such a large, interested and committed audience at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The first half of the evening started out with Bach’s Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied paired with Newton’s Mass. The Bach was full-bodied and musical overall, though perhaps in need of a bit more precision overall. Newton’s treatment of the Mass was receiving its U.S. Premiere. It had its own internal balance to admire with the outer sets of movements paired in their own musical structure and tone, the Kyrie with the Agnus Dei and the Gloria with the Sanctus. Newton is perhaps best known for his work with jazz musicians and ensembles, and the same rhythmic influences could be felt here, although it was subtle. The music had many clear connections with an American academic modernism that was rigorously produced if not always emotionally connected. The center piece of the Mass was the Credo, a quieter passage sung by the Master Chorale’s own barihunk-in-residence, Abdiel Gonzalez. He deftly maneuvered some tricky passages here adding another noteworthy solo turn with the LAMC.
After the break and Bach’s Fürchte dich nicht, came the showpiece of the evening, Lang’s setting of Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the Little Match Girl which won the composer a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize in 2007. This is sad material. And I mean Dancer in the Dark sad. Lang’s direct and understated use of text heightens this effect creating in increasing emotional punch over fifteen movements where bursts of recitative are interspersed with some of the most powerful vocal passages he’s written. The work was originally written for a vocal quartet with percussion and it was this version that Grant Gershon himself performed in last January as part of the Jacaranda music series in Santa Monica. The difference between that version and this one with a full chorus is striking on a number of levels. The chorus softens some of the stark edges and halting musical passages that are filled with frequent starts and stops. But at the same time the chorus gives the “commentary” passages, those where the chorus is reflecting on the emotional content of the action as opposed to moving the story forward, an additional weight they were missing in the smaller version. The effect can be devastatingly sad and the crowd was enthralled through the very end when Lang appeared to a huge ovation. This was one of those great LA Master Chorale moments where the superb singers that make up the group got a chance to shine in difficult music they are well suited for. And it was a performance to remember.
Perhaps most striking about Shakepeare’s Globe is how physically little it takes to get it right. This point was driven home after seeing the elaborate reconstruction of the Globe Theater at The Park Avenue Armory this summer under the auspices of a residency from The Royal Shakespeare Company. A huge edifice, big casts, and elaborate sets rarely amounted to good theater there. But the Globe players, who are often traveling light, manage to impress with their focus on the best parts of Shakespeare – the language and desire to connect with the audience. The Comedy of Errors was directed by Rebecca Gatward and with its simplicity creates the deception that the show might be some summertime backyard lark. The set consists of little more than a large wooden pallet set upon the stage with a canvas-covered shack just behind it. Some chairs and a handful of props complete the physical stuff of the performance outside of the eight members of the ensemble and their costumes. It’s not Elizabethan dress per se, but evokes a 20th-century Turkish look with fezzes and sandals.
And yet the production feels large with its outsized comic performances. A single actor is cast for each pair of identically-named and unwittingly separated twin brothers. Antipholus is played here by the debonaire Bill Buckhurst and the servants Dromio are embodied by Fergal McElherron. This is not an unusual strategy given that there are only two scenes (one being the finale) that involve both twins in the same scene at the same time. Of course, having a single actor dash back in forth in those moments adds to the hilarity, and true to form, the Act III confrontation where one pair of Antipholus and Dromio are barred from entering their own home by the other pair, is particularly well done as the actors dash back and forth to either side of a free-standing door deftly donning and removing the few props—like a pair of glasses—used to communicate their different identities to the audience. But Gatward ups the ante in this production by having almost all of the rest of the cast take on multiple roles as well. Emma Pallant plays both the Abbess and the Courtesan in a particularly artful twist further muddling the social relationships Shakespeare is parodying. The Globe company and Gatward also strike just the right note with the numerous slapstick and low-brow elements of the play. The cast provides their own sound effects with slide whistles and drums for the pratfalls. But the whole thing is done with such a keen eye for the text and language that it never feels cynical. There is no effort to update or transform references using modern cultural ones. But there is an expansive sense of the stage and surroundings with the cast often entering, exiting, and delivering dialog from various points in the Broad Stage’s intimate space.
The show, which runs through the 27th, is perfect for older kids and just about everyone. It’s also another big success for Shakespeare’s Globe and The Broad Stage here in Los Angeles, which leaves one wanting more. So how about a two month residency sometime with the company here in Los Angeles at The Broad with five or six plays running in repertory. We could show New York how it’s done (again) and we wouldn’t even need to build a replica of the Globe Theater inside.
Los Angeles loves pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque. Or at least Los Angeles Philharmonic audiences do. They’re fixtures with the orchestra in both new repertory and old and have made three appearances with the orchestra already this year alone. In April they played Stravinsky under Thomas Adès and in September gave a lovely performance of Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Piano’s under Juanjo Mena. Now it’s November and the sisters returned with a world premiere and new commission from Swiss composer Richard Dubugnon. The Labèques have had major successes with new compositions here before, including Louis Andriessen’s double piano concerto, The Hague Hacking, which they played in 2009 with then music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen. This time around the L.A. Philharmonic's music director was nowhere to be found for the premiere, which was instead trusted to visiting conductor Semyon Bychkov. Dubugnon’s double piano concerto was inspired by the 15th-century Battle of San Romano as depicted by Paolo Uccelo (The second of the three paintings in this set is shown above). Of course one of the most omnipresent metaphors for concertos in general is the struggle between orchestra and soloist regardless of the instruments in question, so the inspiration of Medieval warfare wouldn’t seem too out of place. But Dubugnon has a number of layers and twists on the typical musical struggles. Rather than place soloists and orchestra on opposite sides of the struggle, he divides the players along other arbitrary lines. This “Battlefield” concerto pits the two pianos against one another each with their own contingent of orchestra players who are physically divided into two camps on stage as well.
The music moves through several uninterrupted movements representing stages of the conflict from a call to arms to a Funeral and Triumphant March. There are two off-stage trumpets that call players to the fray periodically on either side. Dubugnon notes that part of the musical inspiration for the piece was to avoid what he saw as the historic tendency to have both soloists in double concertos play more or less complementary parts often making it difficult to separate out the two instruments. Here the Labèques parried and thrusted back and fort throughout the length of the work. And while they did not play in unison, it is probably more accurate to say that their passages tended to mirror one another in terms of both musical tone and structure. These were solo parts that were not at all oblivious to one another, but engaged in an intimate if purportedly combative embrace. All this being said, I can’t say I was overwhelmed by the piece. There were some big dramatic moments, but the content overall seemed programmatic and didactic in the least interesting way. And despite the shifts in the battle, things tended not to vary much from section to section creating more of an exhausted sensation than a cathartic one at the end. Still, the work was more compelling than Enrico Chapela's recent concerto for electric cello, MAGNETAR, which premiered here several weeks ago. Dubugnon largely avoids the kind of endless references to popular music genres that are the hallmark of so much contemporary classical composition these days. There is an electric bass used intermittently in the "Battlefield" concerto and a few rhythmic touches here and there, but not the wholesale incorporation of jazz and blues riffs heard in recent works here by the likes of Chapela and John Adams.
Dubugnon’s concerto was paired with two quintessential Romantic pieces. First was Ravel’s Rhapsodie espagnole in the two piano version. The Labèques excel with this kind of material and the detailed wash of the sound was beautiful. After the intermission and the concerto was Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. Bychkov led a warm and adequately muscular performance from the orchestra. The strings sounded great with the bigger, more robust sound they’ve developed over the last couple of seasons. This is not the most compelling music, however. The good news is that it is not Rachmaninoff’s piano music. But the Symphonic Dances especially when held up against the work of Ravel, can sound under-orchestrated and surprisingly banal. But Bychkov and the orchestra gave a top-drawer take on what there was to play. Which I suppose was a nice break after all the musical conflict that preceded it. The show repeats Saturday and Sunday.
On the theater side, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater will return to the Broad Stage starting on the 12th with a production of The Comedy of Errors while A Noise Within will continue the celebration around their new Pasadena home with a production of O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms on the 19th, which will run concurrently with their new production of Twelth Night. Center Theater Group will host the premiere of the new competitive cheerleading musical, Bring It On while the Taper continues their run of the dark comedy Vigil with Olympia Dukakis. In Culver City, the Kirk Douglas Theater will bring Charlayne Woodard‘s The Night Watcher starting on the 17th. All this and you’re still going to have to find time to start that Christmas shopping so get started and we’ll see you around town.
One last New York note: I and King Lear stopped by the Public Theater on Sunday. It was Lear’s third major appearance in New York this year following the Donmar Warehouse production with Derek Jacobi at BAM in May and the RSC offering in July as part of their residency at the Park Avenue Armory. In response, the Public Theater and director James Macdonald offered a well-cast, contemporary production that promised something unique in this Lear-heavy landscape. And given how dull the RSC showing at least had been, one would think it wouldn’t have been hard to muster something with a little more spark. But Macdonald and his excellent cast haven’t come much closer to cracking the notoriously prickly King Lear than most.
The production is set in a vacant, white-walled space with a dirt floor. There are few props and the set is mostly marked by a stage-width curtain made of chains. It's a Lear that could just a easily be a Godot with a few cast changes. That curtain slowly creeps downstage through the first two acts until the storm breaks and Lear is thrown out of his daughters’ houses into the wild. By that point, the space is so constricted by the curtain that the actors stand single file at the foot of the stage. With the lightning, the curtain recedes and soon the chains are dropped in a cascading sequence in the center of the stage imitating rain. But while this like the rest of the production is attractive, it doesn’t add much to the show in terms of meaning or insight. Sam Watterston plays Lear with an unexpected uniformity. Instead of portraying the kng as a man slowly sinking into madness, Watterston’s Lear comes out crazily shouting from the first entrance resolving the issue of the his unclear motivations for prematurely dividing his estate at the start of the play. This is a constraining maneuver as well, leaving the play with relatively few places to go.
There are some surprising choices in the casting. Michael McKean is a youngish Gloucester and Bill Irwin is Lear’s fool complete with his trademark ukulele. Irwin’s performance is particularly interesting with his own clowning dovetailing nicely into the fool’s sing-song approach to speech. Kelli O’Hara gives an intriguing and multifaceted performance as Reagan. She does well to build some sympathy for the character, before her inevitable downfall. Another nice surprise in the cast was Arian Moayed. After his success in Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo it was interesting to see him as the heroic Edgar. But despite these individually satisfying performances, I never felt that they added up to some larger whole. The typically painful scene where the blind Gloucester is reunited with his now mad king rang hollow and flat. And so it went for much of the evening with so many other unfulfilled promises and a King Lear failing to outshine its most recent competitors.
When Ian Judge’s production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette first appeared at Los Angeles Opera in the winter of 2005, I saw it five times. It was a very special occasion and one of the high-water marks in the company’s history to date. There were several reasons, but primary among those was the starring duo of Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon, who were just reaching a pinnacle in their period of recurrent collaborations on the operatic stage. Times are different now, of course, and LAO’s revival of this particular production might seem to tempt fate by asking for the miraculous to happen twice. And incredibly, the show comes closer than you might expect to that level of success by again relying on two stars in the title roles who appear to be on the verge of very big careers – soprano Nino Machaidze and tenor Vittorio Grigolo. I’m not going to compare either of them to their predecessors because I think it’s a pointless exercise. What I will say is that they deliver two very exciting performances that alongside Judge’s tight, visually interesting production ensure that no one in the audience will be going home disappointed.
Machaidze is well known in Los Angles having performed in bel canto roles here on twoprior occasions. Juliette is a different, and much more lyrical assignment for her, although it is also her breakout role, having stepped into it at the Salzburg festival in 2008. (Ironically for a pregnant Netrebko opposite Villazon.) She manages fine detail with ease and has adequate power. There’s a darker hue to her voice overall, and despite a few sharp moments, she was very convincing and pleasing to listen to. Then there is her Romeo, Vittorio Grigolo. Grigolo is only making his third U.S. appearance in Los Angeles this month and he’s had a massive wave of excitement preceding him based on numerous European performances and his track record as a cross-over recording star. He’s got formidable chops, and his Romeo was strong, athletic, and full of character. His voice has that Italianate fragility common in some of the greatest tenors of the last half century, and it’s a sound that immediately sends your mind racing to all of the other roles you would be eager to hear him perform. He’s a young man and his acting can still tend toward too overstated, but he’s simply gorgeous. And I mean more than “opera hot.” He can and does spend nearly all of the Act IV love duet shirtless and has apparently been hitting the gym like some Twilight extra wannabe. (You can get a sample of what I'm talking about at 1:27 above)
Judge gives Grigolo quite a bit of physical stuff to do on his three-story erector-set inspired stage design. He climbs ladders, and barrels through gates. The costumes are mid-19th century, but Judge is able to insert just the right amount of glamor to make the whole thing pop. It may not necessarily be lush, but it is undoubtedly sexy and romantic looking. Best of all, the scene changes are all managed quickly with no down curtain time which keeps the pacing fleet. There are a number of excellent performers in the supporting cast. Ronnita Nicole Miller sings the part of Juliette's nurse, and Renée Rapier makes the most of Stephano's aria in Act III. LA Opera general director Placido Domingo is in the pit for these performances, and he gave his usual generous and measured approach in full support of the vocal artists. On the down side that means that things can get a bit muddy and featureless along the way. But it's not enough to overwhelm the many positives of the performance, and an opportunity to see these two stars working together on a local stage should not be passed by. The show runs through November 26.
Broadway is lousy with writers this fall. That might seem a perpetual condition, but I’m referring to writers in the sense of those serving as characters on stage. They populate two new plays that are running just two doors down from one another on 45th street. And while superb actors portray all of them, the plays themselves that these writers inhabit are not always so successful. Let’s start with Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Jon Robin Baitz’ Other Desert Cities, which was resurrected from its Off-Broadway run two years ago and is now again seeing the bright sun of a California Christmas Eve. It’s not a happy holiday, though, for Brooke Wyeth, played with a beautiful ferocity by Rachel Griffiths. After a multi-year slump following her first celebrated novel that was punctuated with some time on suicide watch in a psychiatric hospital, she has returned to her parents’ Palm Springs home to share her latest book, a memoir, before it is published. She is anxious that her parents, a former ambassador Lyman (Stacy Keach) and his wife Polly (Stockard Channing), may react negatively to the book. In contrast to Brooke and her siblings, the senior Wyeths have a high profile reputation as right-wing Reagan Republicans and the memoir promises to drag family skeletons before the public. Brooke it turns out has good reasons to bring up some of these issues including the suicide of her older brother when she was still in school. And she is not alone in her conflicts as both her younger brother Trip (Thomas Sadoski) and her just-back-on-the-wagon maternal aunt Silda (Judith Light) are there to participate in the verbal sparing that careens back and forth between hysterical and scalding.
Baitz’ play goes for fairly big fish in a story that indirectly shadows real life figures including the Reagans and their one-time dissident author/daughter Patti Davis. The Wyeths are friends with the Reagans in the play and direct references to the parents’ right-wing connections are made repeatedly without being heavy-handed. But Polly and Lyman aren’t caricatures, and the story is as much about reconciling a family’s personal tragedy as it is how an increasingly politically fractured American population finds a common ground. The Wyeths have a deeply held commonality, but it is one steeped in a painful history and what they share won't be rekindled through simple platitudes. There are numerous searing, passionate speeches in this play, and Baitz couldn’t ask for a better ensemble. Audiences who know Light only from television may be shocked by the guts in this performance and Broadway royalty like Keach and Channing leave no doubt to how they achieved such status. Director Joe Mantello contributes a masterful feel for this particular California Desert community.
But strangely, I couldn’t help feeling somewhat disconnected from Other Desert Cities. The Wyeths are certainly filled with entertaining histories and ideas, but all of it can feel esoteric as well in a family of ambassadors, TV producers, screenwriters, and famous authors. These are American lives to be sure, but ones that are more familiar through constant exposure to television and other media than through most peoples' lived experiences. Baitz is not opposed to the melodramatic either, and some of his more glossy moments are rescued by actors who could make just about any dialog sound great.
Theresa Rebeck is not afraid of sentimentality either and her latest comedy, Seminar, is currently in previews before opening later this month. Rebeck recently gave a very funny and satisfying new play to CTG in Los Angeles, Poor Behavior, and the characters in Seminar are not much better behaved. This time there are four young authors who’ve paid a famous author and editor Leonard, played by Alan Rickman, to guide them in a ten session weekly creative writing seminar. The young authors played by Lily Rabe, Jerry O’ Connell, Hamish Linklater, and Hettienne Park (all but Rabe making their Broadway debuts) have had various levels of success so far in their careers including Douglas (O’Connell) who is about to appear in The New Yorker and has another famous writer for an uncle. Rickman is the bad boy character who dispenses terse, bitingly funny advice that is more likely to produce tears than calm reflection. Though he can be cruel, his roasts of the young writers’ own pretensions are easy to identify with. Soon the focus of the play hones in on Martin (Linklater), the wallflower and perhaps most talented member of the group. His own blossoming raises questions for everyone during this tight single act under director Sam Gold.
And like Other Desert Cities, Seminar has a melodramatic streak in it that comes to the fore in its largely comic surroundings. Rebeck is also interested in the life of the writer’s mind and the play uses the artistic process as a source of both comedy and pathos. Again excellent performances from the entire cast, especially Rabe, Rickman and Linklater, make more pedestrian moments believable. But again there’s a certain distancing going on that makes Seminar feel like it is, in fact, what it is, a play. Take for instance the many times characters read sections of text to themselves instantly and then claim they are either signs of genius or disaster. This will probably not be recognizable to many people from their own experiences reading and writing, though its likely unavoidable in a play about the writing process. Baitz gives his readers a comparatively generous scene change, and an afternoon, to get through Brooke's lengthy memoir. On the bright side, Seminar and Other Desert Cities would almost convince you that America is still a nation of serious readers, especially of fiction. Although as Leonard points out to his students, the tragedy of being a great writer is realizing that all the art you make is, in the end, made for a public that may not be up to appreciating it. Which may be the opposite problem that Rebeck and Baitz have with their own plays, which are imminently likable despite significant contrivances and a conventional theatricality.