Saturday, December 31, 2011

You Better Work

Jemima Rooper and James Corden in One Man, Two Guv'nors Photo: Johan Persson 2011
I dread seeing shows that I’ve read other people’s good reviews of or heard a lot of good word-of-mouth about. I dread it even more than seeing shows I’ve heard only negative things about. At least with the negative ones I know I won’t be disappointed, and if the show ends up better than I’ve heard, it’s a pleasant surprise. But with the hits, it’s easy for things to go sour in a million different ways. And it is this phenomenon that may explain why I was absolutely smitten with the National Theater’s production of One Man, Two Guvnors that ended up being my final theater experience of 2011. What a way to go.

The show is all that people have said about it and so much more. Only so often do comedies, and particularly physical comedies, turn sublime. But they do, and this is one of them. The story is a loose adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s Commedia dell’Arte classic The Servant of Two Masters. Guvnors’ writer, Richard Bean, and its director, Nicholas Hytner, have updated the action to a more contemporary setting, 1960s Britain, while trying to preserve the hallmarks of Commedia dell’Arte performance. To adapt Commedia for contemporary audience is not new, but I don’t recall ever seeing it done so well, and so honestly. Hytner and Bean have infused their source material with the unique perspective and elements of British humor. (Or at least those elements of uniquely British humor that fit well in the Commedia setting.) The Brighton of 1963 with its changing sexual mores, skinny ties, and broadening cultural influence is perfect right down to the four-man band, The Craze, that provides original period pop songs transitioning from skiffle to rock for scene changes. But this is no ersatz Austin Powers version of Britain’s swinging sixties. The show is far more loving and affectionate in its humor. And it is far more often precisely on the mark when it comes to big laugh-out-loud guffaws. It’s one thing to laugh in a show, it’s another when you are doing so much of it that you don’t even know it’s happening.

There isn’t a weak link in this superb cast. But it is also true that Hytner and Bean are fortunate in having James Corden in the Arlecchino role of Frances Henshall. Henshall is the clever servant despite his lack of book-smarts whose half-hearted commitment to two different masters is nothing compared to his boundless commitment to food and the promise of romance. Corden proves to be masterful in the kind of physical clowning around that makes legends. I’m not overstating the case when I saw names like Lewis and Tati come to mind in this show. There is a fair amount of audience participation in the show and Corden handles all of it with ease. On the matinee I saw, Corden also confronted a man filming part of the performance with his camera, mid-improvised monologue and managed to keep everyone in stitches while stopping the offending behavior without missing a beat. It’s a shame that he (or any performer for that matter) has to deal with this kind of thing, but his ability to deal with it in a way that didn’t disrupt the show or bring the audience down was in its own way a breathtaking example of his skills.

And yet, there is a real sense of community in this cast’s performance. Tom Edden has just as many great physical comedy moments in the story and Jemima Rooper’s cross-dressing gangster part is superbly done. Daniel Rigby’s lovelorn actor Alan Dangle is perfectly pitched as is Oliver Chris’ Stanley Stubbers. But some of the funniest moments in the show happen when things go slightly off the rails and one can tell that the cast is sometimes cracking each other up as much as the audience. There is danger in this to be sure with things disintegrating into chaos, but Hytner knows when to hold back and has kept everyone reined in so far. The show was almost instantly sold out when it moved out of the NT’s South Bank home into the West End for 16 weeks, and the show and Corden will come to New York this April. Given how quickly tickets disappear for this show, I'd recommend you move on them quickly when you can.

Friday, December 30, 2011

You Slay Me

Clive Rowe, Marcia Warren, Peter Capaldi and Ben Miller Photo: Alastair Muir 2011
The Ladykillers is a comedy with a longevity almost as unexpected as the comic crime-gone-awry caper it details. One of the most successful of the Ealing Studio comedies of the post-war period (the other American audiences would be most familiar with would be The Lavender Hill Mob), the 1955 original was written by Bill Rose. Rose, who was born in America, wrote several screenplays for Ealing during his many years in Britain after the war, but he would have his biggest success in Hollywood in the 60s penning It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and wining an Oscar for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? in 1967. The Ladykillers is a rather genteel comedy about a band of criminals who move into the home of an elderly woman while posing as a string quartet in order to plan their latest robbery. The elderly woman, Mrs. Wilberforce, unexpectedly gets pulled into the plot. Things eventually go awry and comedy ensues.

The Ladykillers has now made it onto the stage in London in an update by another well regarded comedy writer, Graham Linehan, the man behind Black Books and Father Ted. Linehan is a smart writer and he knows enough not to fill Rose’s original story with snide contemporary in-jokes or cynical references. And although the play is not adverse to slapstick, it's not simply about bungling incompetent crooks. The show is still genteel, especially compared with the kind of brazen gags that populate something like The Book of Mormon or any number of other successful contemporary U.S. stage comedies. But The Ladykillers is an absolute joy to watch even with a low shock value.

A big part of the success is Sean Foley’s direction of his excellent cast. Foley recognizes that this tale can handle a bit of broad acting, and he gives the cast just enough leeway to ham things up without it overpowering the show overall. No one is spitting out scenery, but it's broad enough to make the audience feel that everyone involved is having as much of a good time as they are. This great cast includes James Fleet, Peter Capaldi, Ben Miller, Clive Rowe, Stephen Wight and Marcia Warren as Mrs. Wilberforce. They revel in moments that provide arch commentary on the changing world of post-WW II Britain. One of my favorite such moments comes when the criminals are enlisted to perform a concert as the purported string quartet for a gathering of Mrs. Wilberforce's friends. It's an obvious ploy to be sure, but The Ladykillers is done so well and is so well meaning, it's impossible not to appreciate it. The show continues its run at the Gielgud Theater in London's West End into the New Year.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Mark Your Calendars

From Wunderbaum's Songs from the End of the World.
With only a handful of days left in 2011, it’s naturally a time to reflect and think about the coming year. And in 2012, there’s already a lot of very exciting things to consider and plan for on the preforming arts scene. So while I'm packing for London and before my January preview comes to light next week, I’ll leave you the following music, theater, and performance highlights for the year ahead. Let’s start with L.A.’s biggest classical music organization, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which will continue its current season with a wide variety of works from late 20th-century composers including Louis Andriessen, John Adams, Steve Reich and others. Probably the most important shows coming up for the L.A. Phil will be the world premiere of a new oratorio from Adams entitled The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which will be seen in late May/early June under Gustavo Dudamel, just weeks after Adams himself leads a program with the West Coast premiere of Glass’s latest Symphony No. 9 in April. And as for older music, the most enticing programs of the spring will be a string of recitals from Matthias Goerne accompanied by the L.A. Phil under Christoph Eschenbach and with the conductor alone on piano in works of Schubert the week of April 16. And don’t forget the long-awaited return of Simon Rattle in early May when he’ll lead Bruckner with our local orchestra as well.

And speaking of Adams, the other major living composer with that name, John Luther Adams will have his Inuksuit receive its West Coast premiere along with many other pieces at the 66th Ojai Music Festival starting June 7th. This year’s artistic director is Leif Ove Andsnes and he’s scheduled to appear alongside fellow pianist Marc-André Hamelin and clarinetist Martin Fröst over this first-rate weekend. Back in town, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra will be celebrating music director Jeffrey Kahane’s 15th anniversary with the group by performing a new commission from Brooklyn-based composer Timothy Andres on March 24 and 25 as well as one from Gabriel Kahane on April 21. LACO, along with the L.A. Philharmonic and both the Colburn and Thornton music school will also host the first Piatigorsky International Cello Festival in Los Angeles beginning on March 9 for 9 days of concerts, master classes and recitals with over 20 of the world’s best known cellists including Alisa Weilerstein, Miklós Perényi, Steven Isserlis, and Mischa Maisky. These performances take place in multiple venues with a variety of different music so be sure to check the schedule. Oh and done forget L.A.'s rebelious Wild Up collective that will present "a compendium of hipster music" from both East and West coast young composers on March 23 and 24.

On the opera front, the biggest thing to talk about in Los Angeles prior to the announcement of the 2012/2013 season for Los Angeles Opera next month will likely be Placido Domingo’s performance in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra starting February 11. Long Beach Opera, of course, has assembled another season of rarities from the likes of Poulenc, Martinu, Piazzola, and Osvaldo Golijov. Out of town the two most exciting things on the schedule are Karita Mattila taking another swing at Janacek’s The Makropulous Case at The Metropolitan Opera starting April 27 and Mariusz Kwiecien’s scheduled appearances in the title role of Szymanowski’s King Roger at Santa Fe Opera starting in July. (I’m also crossing my fingers that I may make it to London in late June for the Royal Opera House’s new production of Berlioz’ Les Troyens with Jonas Kaufmann, Eva-Maria Westbroek, and Anna Caterina Antonacci. Stay tuned.) There will be Ring cycles everywhere, of course, on this anniversary year including new stagings at both the Metropolitan Opera and in Munich to name just a few.

The theater offerings are no less interesting. Center Theater Group has planned major West Coast runs of the critically well-received recent New York productions of Sondheim’s Follies in May and Jon Robin Baitz’ Other Desert Cities before the end of 2012. But before all this, L.A.’s largest theater producer will bring concurrently running productions of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park to the Kirk Douglas and Mark Taper Forum stages respectively. The Broad Stage will bring Helen Hunt in Thornton Wilder's Our Town starting January 14. And then there's the exciting line-up at REDCAT which has too many interesting things to detail here but I would not skip the return of the Netherlands' Wunderbaum on April 28 and 29 with Songs at the End of the World. This just scratches the surface so stay tuned for the monthly performance previews and have a great New Year.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Many Nations Under A Groove

Sahr Ngaujah in the Broadway production of Fela! Photo: Monique Carboni/CTG 2011
Fela returned to Los Angeles earlier this month. Or more precisely, Fela! the musical that bears Fela Kuti’s name along with the requisite exclamation mark opened the Los Angeles leg of the show’s current national tour at the Ahmanson Theater. The show is a return of sort in that Fela Kuti, the person, spent some developmentally critical time in Los Angeles in 1969 where his exposure to activists in the Black Panther movement helped fuel his own political leanings and viewpoints. These events, including Kuti’s meeting with Sandra Iszadore, are depicted in the semi-autobiographical story line, which just as frequently veers off into exuberant dance, powerful live music, and a dash of magical realism thrown in for good measure. Which is good since the dance and musical numbers are frankly amazing and far more interesting in the end. There’s a musical education to be had in Fela! and the show is vitally compelling theater.

I first saw this show in January of 2010 in New York and thought very highly of it then and still. Choreographer Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis assembled the book with Kuti’s own music for a product that is far more idea-oriented than its average jukebox music brethren. The show has suffered its own share of slings and arrows as well, including Charles Isherwood’s charges of minstrelsy and the more general criticism that the overall image of Kuti constructed by the show glosses over some of the less-than-noble aspects of its subject's life and personality. But this is art, and most audiences have been sophisticated enough to appreciate that all art, and especially theater, is about making inherently unfair decisions to create something that is inextricably bound up in particular social and political perspectives. Jones and Lewis have created as valid an image of Fela Kuti as anyone might. It isn't the only possible one. If there is any crime in Fela!, it’s that American theater hasn’t provided for a dozen shows just like it on the same topic all from different perspectives. Maybe Fela! wouldn’t have to say so much to and for so many if other voices were given more opportunity and space to speak.

All that being said, this touring production of Fela! does suffer some unavoidable set-backs at the Ahmanson. The show critically relies on interaction between the audience and the ensemble members, often moving around the auditorium which in prior incarnations is highly decorated, blurring the line between stage and seats. The large, aisle-free Ahmanson refutes this, constraining the motion and activity to the stage and a series of call-and-response audience participation moments. This distance can take a big bite out of the finales of both acts where the intensity and actions of the ensemble seem far less encompassing and the political bite of Kuti's music is blunted.

One of the things I was most excited about in revisiting the show, though, was the strength of its cast, many of whom had appeared in the original production. Sahr Ngaujah, who appeared again in the title role in the show I saw, gives one of the most remarkable stage performances I’ve seen in the last few years and deserves far more recognition for this performance than he has sometimes received. He manages a character with very fine lines between humor and rage with real nuance. The show also preserves the thrill of having a red hot live band on stage. Fela! gets that a musical is about music, and having the flesh and blood players to make that sound on stage conquers the whole evening. It's a great show even in this somewhat lesser carbon-copy performance at the Ahmanson; and if you haven't seen it, you should before it ends on January 22.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Josh Young as Judas Iscariot Photo: David Hou
In the lead up to the opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of Gounod’s Faust, tongues wagged over the fact that the production’s director, Des McAnuff, has been jetting back and forth across the country during rehearsals. This was due to competing assignments in New York and La Jolla, California, where his production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar was simultaneously in rehearsals at the La Jolla Playhouse for its West Coast premiere. (The show, which originated at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is scheduled to arrive on Broadway in the Spring.) And while some commentators felt that the Met’s Faust may not have been getting all the attention it deserved, after seeing Superstar on a recent Sunday, I can tell you there’s little reason to believe this. On a basic level, the two productions are essentially the same in design. Apparently for today’s audience the distance between heaven and hell on stage is minimal.

McAnuff’s Jesus Christ Superstar incorporates a metal catwalk that runs along both sides and the back of the stage with stairs on either side. The rear of the stage is dominated by a large blind that is used for projections in what is otherwise a vacant space. Sound familiar? The only way you can tell the two shows from one another without a program on first glance would be the costumes. While McAnuff’s Faust is tastefully robed in the first half of the 20th century, Superstar has gone the way of a futuristic dystopia by way of Jerusalem. Actually, Weber’s music would probably give things away as well. It’s 70s rock licks sounded about as mannered as Gounod’s grand French operatic tradition. And whereas McAnuff’s Faust often suffers from too little stage business, Superstar periodically succumbs to too much. The energy level is high, no doubt, but the historical accuracy of the apostles tumbling moves when approaching the savior may be hotly contested by some of the faithful.

That’s not to say that the production isn’t effective at times. It builds on Webber and Rice’s initial idea of casting Christ as a modern-day rock star in retelling the events of the seven days leading up to his crucifixion. That sense is maintained especially in the all-out finale with its neon lit cross and Judas in dark blue skin-tight sequins. But there are just as many moments when the whole thing looks silly or even amateurish. For instance, most people have been to San Diego enough times to know there are plenty of hot guys there that could serve as leather clad go-go boys when Jesus comes to cleanse the temple. Jesus Christ Superstar takes itself very seriously and McAnuff isn’t afraid of building on Webber and Rice's broad strokes to differentiate between good and evil. McAnuff's vision steers perilously towards the farcical at times despite its good moments.

The pacing is very tight, however, and the evening races by at just around two hours even with an intermission. In the performance I attended, Jesus was played by Jeremy Kushnier with an appropriate serenity that bordered on ambivalence. Josh Young had the meatier Judas Iscariot part and at times seemed to be channeling Tim Curry’s Frank N. Furter. Chilina Kennedy’s Mary Magdalene was the evening’s most Broadway-ready performance and was vocally the most solid of anyone else on stage. Will the show fly when it arrives in New York? Maybe. But I think it probably needs to feel a bit less like Rhythm Nation: 1814 if it’s going to make it. Or they could just cast Janet Jackson.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Love, Christmas Style

Jason Danieley, Andrew Mueller, Jenni Barber and Michelle Duffy Photo: Henry DiRocco/Old Globe 2011
At Christmas time, stages are typically filled with either the most familiar entertainments or family-friendly fare. In San Diego, as one approaches the plaza outside of the two indoor stages of The Old Globe, there is a large tree decorated in various Dr. Seuss related items in conjunction with the company's production of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which is playing to big crowds. But there is another holiday treat going on right next door in the White Theater with a decidedly more adult attitude. It's a new musical called Some Lovers with book and lyrics from Spring Awakening's Steven Sater and music by Burt Bacharach. The single act has many things going for it, but primary among those is a reminder of what a potent songwriter Bacharach is. Of the songs that make up the score, there's not a dud in the bunch.

On the surface, the show is based on O. Henry's “The Gift of the Magi”. Some Lovers chronicles the ups and downs of a multi-decade love affair through a series of Christmas-time meetings between a couple that is preoccupied with Henry's classic tale. They often read or recite it to one another and, unsurprisingly, parallel some of the key events in the story. The couple is represented on stage by two pairs of performers: a younger version of Molly and Ben: Jenni Barber and Andrew Mueller; and an older and wiser pair played by Michelle Duffy and Jason Danieley. All four performers occupy the same physical space and at times interact with their past/future selves in imagined ways trying to undo the past or remake the future of this unfolding relationship.

But as much as the story owes to “Magi,” perhaps the more dominant archetype here is Sunday in the Park with George. Ben's career as a budding songwriter through its ups and downs is all-consuming, often leaving Molly feeling like a third wheel to Ben's relationship to his art. Of course, Ben's tendency to compose on the piano provides a perfect setting for Bacharach's songs of heartbreak and love gone wrong. The four performers are all given some big solo moments, but the show heats up most in the quartets where past and present intermingle freely. There were some intermittent pitch problems in these group moments and it sounded like Danieley had a worrisome widening vibrato at times. But overall the show's musical qualities are strong and the performances from Mueller and Duffy were first rate.

The show's a pleasure, even if it could probably use a little tightening. After the clouds begin to gather over the young couple's new love, there is a certain repetitiveness to Ben and Molly's conflicts. One argument begins to feel just like the next and a sense of the overall direction and movement of the show gets lost. But for an holiday show with this much lovely music that serves as a respite from family stressors and yet another Nutcracker and Messiah, Some Lovers has little competition. The show runs through December 31 in San Diego so take advantage of this break from the hectic holidays before its gone.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Remember When

Bernard Labadie Photo: Luc Delisle
The last week leading up to the holidays brought the most familiar of music to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, nearly all of it from the 18th Century. The final regular subscription shows for the year with the Los Angeles Philharmonic were all Mozart affairs with Symphony No. 41, a snippet from Idomeneo, and Piano Concert No. 27. The conductor was Bernard Labadie, a Baroque specialist, whose previous appearances here with or without his own ensemble, Les Violons du Roy, have been well liked by many including me. The show on Saturday, though, overall was not up to the quality of those prior appearances or at least my memories of them. Of course, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is not a period practice ensemble and to compare them to the smaller Baroque specialist outfit is unfair. However, they've produced excellent performances of 18th Century fare in the past under him, and just this season, the produced some amazing playing of Handel under the direction of Emmauelle Haïm, so a lively earlier sound is certainly possible under the right circumstances. The sound on Saturday was very big and very polished for Mozart, and while pleasant enough, not particularly exciting either. None of this was improved upon by the choice of soloist, Italian pianist Benedetto Lupo. He, too, was both professional and technically accurate in his playing. But it was also uninteresting without clear lines and could be rather unemotional. I found the tempi in the Symphony to drag a little as well.

Mozart is not the easiest of music to get right, and by that I mean played in a manner that incites excitement in the listener. Handel’s Messiah is probably even more so. That’s not necessarily due to technical issues as much as the piece’s omnipresence at this time of year. Any performance invites comparisons to others and my current gold standard is the superb version filmed in Vienna with Ensemble Matheus under Spinosi including a full staging directed by Claus Guth. My dream version at this point would be staged as well, this time by Achim Freyer who worked wonders in Los Angeles with with Bach's Mass in C Minor all those years ago. In Los Angeles this year, you have several Messiah options. The Los Angeles Philharmonic hosted Nicholas McGegan and the Bay Area's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra for two performances of Handel’s big oratorio last week. They availed themselves nicely with the assistance of their 24-member chorus and four soloists. The playing from the orchestra was up to its usual standards and McGegan led a well-paced performance with the expected cuts and plenty of character. The soloists were all fine, including countertenor Daniel Taylor, soprano Dominique Labelle, baritone Nathaniel Watson, and tenor Thomas Cooley. Cooley and Labelle stood out with ample power in the hall. Was it the best Messiah ever? No. But it was a good one by any standard and a welcome addition for a time of year that is often overrun with overly familiar music not always given the fairest shake.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Silent Treatment

Olympia Dukakis and Marco Barricelli Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2011
How many star vehicles for Olympia Dukakis can one theater-going year contain? Well this year I’ve seen two, and they were remarkably similar experiences. She is undeniably a fine actor and I understand the impulse to put her at the center of a show. Both times I’ve seen her on stage this year, I was impressed with her ability to communicate so immediately with her audience. Yet on both occasions, she was ultimately let down by odd or lackluster material that didn’t do her justice. In February, she starred in an Off-Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, a heavy-handed psychoanalytic tragedy about an artist-drifter who comes to act as a grim reaper for an elderly woman coming to the close of her days in a European villa. I didn’t write about this show at the time, but it was largely unsatisfying and provided a template for Dukakis recent stage appearances here in Los Angeles.

This weekend she wraps up a run in Morris Panych’s Vigil at the Mark Tape Forum downtown. It’s been one of the weakest season’s for the Taper in many years with five productions (one of which was actually on the Ahmanson stage) virtually all of which were either solo or small cast star-vehicles or half-baked revivals. (The exception was Theresa Rebeck’s world premiere Poor Behavior which gave the season its only real comic bite.) Panych’s odd-little dark comedy doesn’t change the season’s overall course. Vigil is a two-hander about a man, played by Marco Barricelli, who has come to see his dying aunt at her request. The aunt, played by Dukakis says almost nothing throughout the whole evening. Dukakis has a total of nearly 5 lines with the entire two hours taken up with a monologue delivered by the nephew. He’s a neurotic fellow whose relentless unanswered questions and stories end up telling us all about his own life and family. Dukakis, who has only one line in the entire first hour, meanwhile gives a wonderful, nuanced performance that is entirely about her body language. It’s a testament to her craft and it certainly the best part about the show.

Unfortunately, the play is fairly weak overall. Panych strings together short, staccato scenes punctuating them with morose punch lines often emphasizing the neurotic nephew’s desire for this whole episode to over and done with. There is an element of surreal absurdity to the play and the nephew’s unplanned visit soon stretches into months and months rather than days. His eagerness to see the aunt dead soon gives way to a sentimental story about loneliness and friendship in the face of death. Barricelli delivered Panych’s one liners with some zing, which one would hope for since Panych also severed as the director in this run. But I often felt the whole show was holding back, taking the easy way out of resolving what are some troubling scenarios and questions right down to those about suicide and our universal mortality. Panych is so wedded to the clever structural elements and turns of events that make up the story that the show feels forced and less funny than it might be otherwise. He fortunately has a very fine actor in Dukakis who can help carry the weaker parts of this material. But she deserves somehting a bit meatier than this outing.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

You're the Colosseum - Best of Music '11

Gerald Barry Photo: Betty Freeman
In 2011, I once again spent more hours sitting in the dark looking at other people on a stage than I care to admit. But as always, there are moments that take a nothing evening and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile. So, as is the annual Out West Arts tradition, here’s the list of the 10 best things I saw on a stage this year that involved music. (The 2011 theater list won’t appear until January given that I have a number of new shows I’ll be seeing right up to the end of the month so stay tuned.)

1. Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Thomas Adès. 4/11. It’s a crime Barry isn’t a bigger name in music and opera and his setting of Earnest is exhibit A. A riotously funny musical version of Wilde’s play even in this concert version outshone everything else with its smashing plates and a bass singing Aunt Augusta. This opera should be on every opera company’s to do list and was easily the most fun I had at any show all year.

Nina Stemme, Andrea Silvestrelli, Ian Storey, and cast Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2011
2. Wagnerian diamonds in the rough - James Levine conducting Die Walküre at The Metropolitan Opera on May 14th, 2011 and Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde at San Francisco Opera 6/11. Even in not-so-great Wagner productions this year there were some causes for celebration. Despite Robert Lepage’s underwhelming production of the Ring at The Metropolitan Opera, this single performance of Die Walküre, which was projected as part of the company’s Live in HD series around the world, was just about as thrilling as opera gets. On the closing day of the Met’s season, music director James Levine led a ferocious performance raging against everything awful in the world. The odds were against him from a set that delayed the start of the show by nearly half an hour to his own health problems, which had led to many cancellations earlier, and then later on, in the year. In what increasingly looks like it may have been Levine’s last appearance in the Met pit, the beautifully conducted and sung performance was thrilling for all the high-wire, risk-taking, do-or-die human fragility that makes opera as exciting an art form as it is. Francesca Zambello’s Ring production in San Francisco only faired moderately better with less sensational musical qualities, with one very big exception: Nina Stemme. In California, she proved herself to be the world’s reigning Brünnhilde in her first complete cycles. Watch out Munich.

The chorus in The Death of Klinghoffer Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2011
3. John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer at Opera Theater Saint Louis. 6/11. The best overall single opera performance I saw this year was Adams’ still controversial work about terrorism and humanism, which returned to the U.S. after an unusually lengthy hiatus. OTSL put together a production that caught all of the opera’s beauty including a phenomenal choral performance. There are few things more exciting than hearing music this beautiful come to life. It was a stirring and heart wrenching evening.

4. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Shostakovich’s Prologue to Orango and Symphony No. 4. 12/11. The best single orchestral performance I heard this year was a return appearance of Salonen to the orchestra he made famous with music that was funny, painful, tortured and insanely difficult in a way that communicates with the audience and holds together on an aesthetic level. Salonen has few rivals with this kind of program and his mastery that weekend made me ache over what has been lost in L.A. in his absence.

Robin T Buck and chorus Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff/LBO 2011
5. David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field at Long Beach Opera. 6/11. This single act from Lang with musical accompaniment from a string quartet was both emotionally stirring and intellectually challenging. A meditation on memory and the weights of history, Crossing a Field got the kind of bold, fascinating treatment one has come to expect from Andreas Mitisek and his Long Beach company who create so much out of such limited resources that it should put most American opera houses to shame.

6. Sofia Gubaidulina’s Offertorium performed by the CalArts Music ensemble and wild Up with soloist Mark Menzies at REDCAT. 5/11. Gubaidulina made a rare personal appearance in Southern California this May in conjunction with performances of several of her works including Glorious Percussion with the L.A. Philharmonic. The most impressive of those was her large scale violin concerto that got an unimaginably loving and enthusiastic performance from CalArts students and faculty. Joining them was conductor Christopher Rountree, the leading force behind L.A.’s biggest, boldest collaboration of young musicians, wild Up that had a banner year playing just about everything they or you, could think of. Watch their space for more.

David Lang and Grant Gershon with members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Photo: Ken Hively
7. David Lang’s the little match girl passion at Jacaranda Music. 1/11 and with the Los Angeles Master Chorale. 11/11. Lang had quite a year in Southern California and his multi-prize winning treatment of The Little Match Girl got a stunning four-voice chamber performance under the auspices of the Westside’s new(er) music leader, Jacaranda Music. Months later, one of the soloists from that performance, Grant Gershon, led his regular ensemble, the Los Angeles Master Chorale in a version for full chorus. The two performances were strikingly different and emotionally devastating in completely different ways, a testament to Lang's writing as well as the talents of the various performers.

Simone Alberghini, Maxim Mironov, Nino Machaidze, and Paolo Gavanelli in Il Turco in Italia Photo: Armin Bardel/LAO 2011
8. Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia at Los Angeles Opera. 2/11. LA Opera had a banner spring season including this masterful comedy with a superb cast including Nino Machaidze, Paolo Gavanelli, and Thomas Allen among others in a modern whimsical production from Christof Loy in one of his show’s first outings in the U.S. Once again LAO proved that taste is one of its biggest strengths in bringing a show that takes what is arguably a light entertainment and turns it into undoubtedly something far greater. You’d be just as well off on this item if you chose to substitute it for LA Opera’s production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw from 3/11, which was equally as good in a Jonathan Kent production with Patricia Racette.

9. San Francisco Symphony’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 under Michael Tilson Thomas. 10/11. MTT and his orchestra proved that hard work and perseverance can pay off with a world-class performance of Mahler’s Third. Profound and perfectly proportioned, it was Mahler to be envied and aspired to by those of us in Southern California.

Philippe Jaroussky Photo: Ana Bloom
10. Beautiful Baroque singing everywhere you turned, from Philippe Jaroussky (10/11), Andreas Scholl (10/11), Lucy Crowe (5/11), Iestyn Davies (11/11), and Vivica Genaux (10/11). Everywhere I went this year, it was was consistently vocalists who specialize in Baroque music that impressed me most for some reason, often jaw-droppingly so. The U.S. debut of the year either has to go to Lucy Crowe who dominated Handel’s Hercules at Lyric Opera of Chicago, or it could just as easily be Iestyn Davies who gave a fantastic performance in Rodelinda at The Metropolitan Opera. The world’s leading countertenor, Andreas Scholl was in that same Rodelinda but his appearance with The English Concert in works of Purcell in Los Angeles was no less awe-inspiring. And within just days of this appearance, Philippe Jaroussky sang alongside Apollo’s Fire Orchestra with glorious tone at UCLA while Vivica Genaux was heard with the Philharmonia Baroque orchestra giving the best performance of “Agitata Da Due Venti” I’ll ever likely hear.

Honorable Mention: There were a number of other shows that could just have easily made the top ten this year including Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Boris Godunov, the return of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha to The Metropolitan Opera complete with protestors, Berg’s Wozzeck in either Santa Fe or New York, "Monodramas" at New York City Opera, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande with Simon Rattle at The Metropolitan Opera, Mitsuko Uchida playing Schumann at Carnegie Hall, Gabriel Kahane’s Orinoco Sketches, which premiered on the L.A. Phil stage in the spring, wild Up playing punk rock and Barlow at Beyond Baroque, Thomas Adès conducting Stravinsky’s Les Noces with the L.A. Phil, Santa Fe Opera’s production of Vivaldi’s Griselda from the mind of Peter Sellars, and the glorious magnetic voice of Jonas Kaufmann be it in recital or as Siegmund.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

To Know Him is to Love Him

The cast of Godspell Photo: Jeremy Daniel 2011
Did I mention that I saw the current revival of Stephen Schwartz’ Godspell when I was in New York recently? It apparently had slipped my mind until someone asked me about it recently and truth be told, I did decide I was going to try and catch up with all the big late 20th-century Jesus musicals this month since I’ll be seeing Jesus Christ Superstar this weekend in La Jolla. Godspell, of course, is a different beast from Weber and Rice’s extravaganza. Schwartz took a much more obtuse, non-narrative approach to the same material with a show that even today functions more as a love-in than a conventional story-driven drama. And while there’s no real proselytizing in the show, the current revival comes at you with such an overabundance of good will and conviction that it has an air of desperation about it. The show is filled with New Testament parables from the Good Samaritan to Lazarus dutifully told by a rag-tag band of young theater performers who look like they wear only clothes they bought on Etsy. It’s all about making the material real to a contemporary audience, though, so the stories are peppered with jokes and allusions to just about everything you can think of to the recent Occupy protests to Republican presidential hopefuls. At times one wishes that the feeling wasn’t quite so up to the minute, but the jokes do tend to be reasonable ones even if the overall effect can be overwhelming. Just when you’re about to catch your breath, the cast members start passing around the hand-held confetti cannons.

That’s not to say there aren’t some really enjoyable performances here. The Jesus part goes to Hunter Parrish who manages to undercut his sharp good looks enough to seem inviting as a would be religious figure. Uzo Aduba stands out among the players as well vocally as does Wallace Smith. I was also taken with Telly Leung who gets to exhibit more range and skills here to those who may be familiar with him from the recent Star Trek movie. But even these talents can get mired in all the activity going on in this show. One wonders whether further distractions are needed here, but apparently the show’s promoters think that it might be warranted. In an odd case of life imitating…well…theater if not art, just as the ensemble enters the stage at the top of the show all with their heads buried in their individual smart phones, Godspell will reportedly get its own “Tweeting” section devoted to people who wish to use their mobile devices during the performance at some point in the future. Regardless of whether or not this bogeyman frightens you, the real question will be whether any of these would-be users will actually be able to get a signal in the depths of the Circle in the Square Theater. And if so, will they be communicating about the show, or will it be about something else?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Beyond God the Father

Monette Magrath (Abbie) and Jason Dechert (Eben) Photo: Craig Schwartz/ANW 2011
I caught up with A Noise Within’s second production of the Fall, their second in their new Pasadena home, Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms on Sunday. It’s a very good production of a 20th-century play that isn’t the kind of thing that most contemporary audiences quickly gravitate to. It’s filled with the kind of overt psychoanalytic thinking and references to Greek tragedy that can come off heavy-handed. Recent productions of Desire Under the Elms like the one Robert Falls recently took to New York, have dealt with this by running with the outlandish aspects of the story and doubling-down on them with surrealism. Perhaps the greatest achievement of director Dámaso Rodriguez in his staging for A Noise Within is his ability to keep the play relevant despite taking a far more naturalistic approach to the material.

Rodriguez also takes a traditional tack with the material, focusing heavily on the relationship between elderly Ephraim Cabot’s son, Eben, and Ephraim’s very young, brand-new wife, Abbie Putnam. Eben’s long standing desire to inherit the family farm is soon challenged by his new-stepmother’s plans until it is supplanted (and conflicted) by their desire for one another. Before you can say Oedipus, tragedy ensues. But this central relationship works with two young increasingly well known local faces, Monette Magrath as Abbie and Jason Dechert as Eben. Magrath strikes just the right tone of menace and desperation in Abbie while Dechert comes off as beautifully bruised in as believable a way as possible given the circumstances. William Dennis Hunt portrays an Ephraim more damaged than deadly here, but the combination of these three occupying the majority of the play’s action works quite well.

Better yet, the production itself suggested ANW’s continued adjustment to their new surroundings. John Lacovilli’s two story set, the Cabot family farm, expands to fill the available space more naturally than the concurrently running Twelfth Night. The overall feels was more relaxed and intimate, drawing the audience in from a greater distance into the thrust stage area. Sightlines at the Pasadena space are greatly improved and the cast is far more exposed from every angle demanding more from everyone. The cast and crew delivered all this on Sunday. Luckily, you’ve got two more chances to see Desire Under the Elms this weekend before it and Twelfth Night close for the holidays with the company returning in January with a short revival of their hugely successful production of Noises Off.