Tuesday, January 24, 2012

I Hear Voices

The cast of The Emperor of Atlantis with James Conlon and The Colburn School Orchestra Photo:mine
Remember the “Recovered Voices” project? It was the initiative spearheaded by Los Angeles Opera and music director James Conlon to present some of the music composed by artists adversely affected by Germany’s Third Reich and largely neglected in the history of 20th-century music. L.A. Opera kicked off the series with a concert in 2007 followed by full productions of Zemlinsy’s Der Zwerg, Braunfel’s Die Vögel, and Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten over the next few seasons. Unfortunately the state of the economy and the company’s budget have precluded any more fully stage productions along these lines since 2010. But neither the spirit nor the music itself has been forgotten, as evidenced by James Conlon’s appearance last weekend conducting members of The Colburn School Orchestra and L.A. Opera’s Domingo-Thornton Young Artists in a double bill of one act opera’s by two of those same composers featured in the “Recovered Voices” series.

The concert took place in Colburn’s Zipper Hall and while this may not have allowed for the largest space for these semi-staged productions, it was ideal considering the musical resources. The vocalists easily projected in the space over the chamber-sized orchestra without strain showing off their best attributes and allowing for some pointed and memorable performances. First on the bill was Ernst Krenek’s The Secret Kingdom. Krenek’s career covered a lot of 20th-century musical ground including the jazz-influenced 1926 opera Jonny spielt auf. The Secret Kingdom is more clearly situated in the dying days of late Romanticism with nods to the Second Viennese School. It also owes a lot at least thematically to Wagner. The story, which starts with narration from the court’s jester, tells of an unpopular king among his subjects and even his queen. The queen enlists her three ladies-in-waiting to cajole and seduce the king's jester into giving up the crown he is holding for the king in a clever reverse of the opening of Das Rheingold. She in turn attempts to use the crown to seduce a rebel leader with the promise of power and her affection but to no avail. The royals all escape the rebels and enter the forest where the queen turns into a tree. After the king contemplates suicide, the queen’s voice comforts him and the Jester returns the crown bringing the show to an end.

This sort of fairy tale material lends itself to any number of sociopolitical interpretations in its historical context. Director Gulu Monteiro and designer Swinda Reichelt, who contributed to both stagings, used the space and resources at hand to evoke German expressionism without overplaying either the political allusions or fantastic aspects of the story. Domingo-Thornton alumnus Daniel Armstrong sang the role of the jester and sunk his teeth into the playfulness of the part interacting with the audience. Baritone Museop Kim was the heartbroken king and he produced a warm even sound in his scenes with guest artist Stacey Tappan who was both commanding and lovely as a queen. Tappan has had a number of notable roles in California recently including singing roles in San Francisco’s recent Ring cycle such as Siegfried’s Woodbird. Her tree evoked Strauss’ Daphne for obvious reasons and her performance made me look forward to hearing her in bigger roles. The three Ladies in Waiting were Valentina Fleer, Renée Rapier and Tracy Cox who all performed with voices lovely enough to evoke the unavoidable allusions to Rheinmaidens.

The second half of the program was a reprisal of Viktor Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis, a piece written in Theresienstadt and a favorite of Conlon’s. He performed it in Los Angeles at the Wilshire Temple in 2004 with members of the LA. Philharmonic, and this staging rivaled the quality of that previous one. This war time allegory about death taking a holiday and refusing to end anyone’s life despite the king’s request he do so as part of an ongoing war campaign is dark, sardonic material. The sweet and brightly voiced Ben Bliss played Harlequin, the character who represents life and debates Death’s decision to renounce his usual duties. Bass Erik Anstine made for an ironic and rather comical death figure. Renée Rapier returned as the drummer-girl in her Weil-inspired stage presence. But perhaps most engaging was the lovely lyric duet performed by Alexey Sayapin and Janai Brugger who performed as a soldier and Bubikopf, combatants who become lovers in the absence of death. Perhaps most satisfying, though, was the robust and sizable performance given by the Colburn players, which sounded much bigger than their number might suggest on the stage. This is music with lots of rapid stylistic changes and can move between tense and gently lyrical with little notice. It made for a lovely afternoon and a promising showcase for some of the company's youngest talents.

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