Living la Muerte de Lorca
[Ainadamar, Long Beach Opera]

Ainadamar

I am not generally one for sports metaphors, but if an opera company could be compared to a major league slugger, Long Beach Opera has been on a successful hitting streak since at least the start of its 2009 season. Not a home run every time, but a surprisingly high number of them, and always at least a double or a triple. To put it another way: One of these nights, LBO is finally going to disappoint me again, but Sunday night was not that night as the company sent Osvaldo Golijov's Ainadamar lofting toward the wall.

The subject at hand in Ainadamar is the death of the great Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, "Ainadamar" being the centuries old Arabic name ["fountain of tears"] for the Fuente Grande ("large fountain") in the town of Alcafar some miles outside of the city of Granada. It is generally accepted that García Lorca died there, executed by Nationalist militia elements loyal to Francisco Franco at the outset of the Spanish Civil War in August, 1936. The poet's remains have never been found, although the search has continued as recently as the past decade.

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Golijov and librettist David Henry Hwang frame one death with another: the opera is a memory piece, unfolding in the final hours of the actress Margarita Xirgu in Montevideo in 1969. Xirgu had been a favorite of García Lorca's, playing principal roles in the original productions of most of his plays during his lifetime. She had urged him to seek safety by joining her in [pre-Revolutionary] Havana, but he remained in Spain. (Only two weeks ago, the Guardian purported to reveal the identity of the lover for whom the poet fatally lingered.) Following his murder, and during a time when his works were banned in his homeland, Xirgu became the keeper of the García Lorca flame in the Americas. In Ainadamar, she speaks of the poet a last time to one of her students, Nuria, while the events she describes play out around them. Ainadamar is postured more or less explicitly as a secular Passion, with García Lorca as sacrifice and redeemer of Spanish art and the Spanish soul.

The three central roles in Ainadamar, including that of García Lorca, are written for women, and Long Beach Opera is fortunate to have an ongoing relationship with three exceptional singing actors to fill those roles. Suzan Hanson, who sings Margarita Xirgu, has associations with LBO since 1995. Ani Maldjian (Nuria) joined the company in 2008, while Peabody Southwell (García Lorca) first appeared in 2009—as the Fox to Ms. Maldjian's Cunning Little Vixen in the production that for me marks the start of that string of hits to which we earlier alluded. All three singers appeared in last season's Medea, but their roles there were largely separate. Here, they combine to ravishing effect, as Golijov has provided not one but two extended trio passages of great richness. Between the three of them, Ainadamar is something of a survey course in What Sopranos Do. The student Nuria is the least developed character, but her high ornamental music is perfectly suited to Ani Maldjian. Suzan Hanson brings gravitas, passion and a refined exaltation to the dying Margarita. Peabody Southwell as the poet is riveting, a combination of Cocteau's Orpheus with the young and unstoppable Chaplin, ambiguous, desired, unattainable and, in death, a transfigured intermediary with the sacred. This is, incidentally, the second time this season that Ms. Southwell has been brutally killed by Spanish-speaking Fascists: she suffered a similar fate in Piazzola's Maria de Buenos Aires

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Long Beach Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek has long been trying to mount a production of Ainadamar. It was announced for the 2007-2008 season, but canceled due to fiscal constraints. This season, the opera was to have been staged in the now empty Long Beach Tribune building, but that plan was scuppered by a construction project even as rehearsals were beginning. Forced to relocate and completely reconfigure the production, the performances were transferred to the Terrace Theater at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center.

As revised, the large proscenium stage of the Terrace is draped in white fabric through most of the performance, the better to display the partially improvised "real time" video projections of Frieder Weiss. At the center, a small playing area contains a chair where Margarita Xirgu speaks of the poet one last time. The 8-woman chorus rises and falls, Rhinemaidenlike, from the pit. (The large orchestra, conducted by Stephen Osgood, is secreted at the rear of the stage, unseen until time for curtain calls.) García Lorca's final days play out around the remaining stage space.

Weiss's projections dominated (for better or worse) last season's LBO staging of Akhnaten. In Ainadamar, they are deployed with a more ambient organic subtlety, lending atmosphere and supporting the drama without constantly gesturing for our attention. Fine as the projections are, the most striking image comes when they subside: in the closing minutes, as Xirgu leaves the material world behind, the dead poet pulls down the the fabric at the rear of the playing area to reveal a Paradisal vista of gently glowing chandeliers.

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So, then: another high yield, stimulating at-bat for Long Beach Opera. One inning performance remains - this coming Saturday, May 26 at 8:00 p.m. The Terrace is a big house, so tickets are likely still available. 

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Photos (except top) by Keith Ian Polakoff; all photos used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

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Surrealism or Bust
[Tears of a Knife and Breasts of Tiresias,
Long Beach Opera]

In programming an opera season there are ideas that, if they are not pursued by Long Beach Opera, are just not going to be pursued in southern California, or perhaps at all.

A double bill of Surrealist one-act operas would be one such idea.

In practice, it is not a perfect idea but, beginning in fear and unease and ending in a hearty belly laugh, it proves—like certain waistcoated white rabbits—to be more worth pursuing than not.

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Sunday afternoon, LBO offered up the first of two performances of its pairing of Poulenc's The Breasts of Tiresias [Les mamelles de Tirésias] with Martinů's Tears of a Knife [Les larmes du couteau or Slzy noze]. Tiresias is the main event, with Knife as a curtain raiser, and one would not want to see this program the other way round.

Knife is the more purely (unrepentantly?) Surrealist of these two pieces. Written in 1928, its libretto is the work of Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, an authentic Dadaist. (A 1920 exhibition of Ribemont-Dessaignes's visual work came with a catalog essay by M. Dada himself, Tristan Tzara.) A distant ancestor of mid-century theatrical eviscerations of domestic life, Tears of a Knife introduces us to young Eleonore who has fallen in love with and wishes to wed the corpse of a recently hanged man. Her highly conventional mother is appalled, preferring a match with their neighbor, "Mr. Saturn." Eleonora goes ahead with her marriage to the hanged man, but he is unresponsive to her. She attempts to inflame him with jealousy, only to find that the faux rival she sets up is actually Mr. Saturn. Ultimately, she kills herself and discovers that not only was her dead beloved really Mr. Saturn all along, "Mr. Saturn" is only a pseudonym for ... Satan!

Tears of a Knife is brief, under 30 minutes, but few would wish it longer. Martinů's music is well-crafted and frequently interesting in the angular, jazz-inflected mode of the early 20th century, but the Ribemonte-Dessaignes text often reduces itself to willfully obscure post-Symbolist poetic fragments, likely no more dramatically potent in French than they are in English translation.

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After that bitter medicine, however, we are treated to the spoonful of sugar that is The Breasts of Tiresias. Poulenc's 1944 opera is a setting of the 1917 play by Guillaume Apollinaire, who coined the term "surrealist" to describe it. Alongside Jarry's Ubu Roi, Apollinaire's play is commonly identified as the fons et origo of the skewed and rude approach to drama that flowered after World War II as the "Theater of the Absurd" of Genet, Beckett and, particularly, Ionesco. It embraces not only the illogical logic of dreams, but a vigorous wackiness that makes its lampooning of convention far more palatable than the acrid cocktail that precedes it on the Long Beach program. Poulenc filled it with music that is both high-spirited and elegant, ornamenting and elevating the relentless silliness of the plot. It is an explosive bit of operatic patisserie, a lovably ludicrous bombe surprise.

The catalyst for Apollinaire's plot lies in the feminist yearnings of the housewife Thérèse who, having grown tired of the domestic life with her nameless Husband, liberates herself by transforming in to a man: Tiresias. In the play's most famous image, her breasts fly away as helium balloons. She embarks on a life of manly adventure, ultimately becoming a military ruler who decrees there shall be no more births in her domain. The abandoned Husband, meanwhile, dons women's clothing and embarks on a career of spontaneous generation, production tens of thousands of infants in a single night by force of will. In the end, Thérèse returns to her Husband and her original form, and the assembled cast urges the members of the audience to go home and immediately make as many babies as they can.

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Both operas are mounted in Long Beach under the direction of Ken Roht, who previously oversaw the company's 2010 production of Good Soldier Schweik. As with that production, Rota manages the trick in Tiresias of producing something surprisingly affecting within a raucous, circus-like atmosphere. If he is somewhat less successful with Knife—and he is—the fault lies in the material and not in Roht's conception or in the performers. Roht is aided significantly by the video projections of John J. Flynn: a long, Viola-slow sequence of decaying roses that runs under Knife and a series of risible (and risque) images poking puckishly at Tiresias.

Soprano Ani Maldjian has established herself as a superb singer and skilled actress as LBO's cunning Vixen and a ruthless Madame Mao, among others, and she again brings those qualities to bear on the instability of Eleonore and the aspirations and triumphs of Thérèse/Tiresias. Poulenc gifted his heroine with some exquisitely complex and gorgeous music, which Maldjian negotiates with heartening ease. As Saturn/Satan and the put-upon (and fertile!) Husband, Robin Buck is similarly impressive, especially in the extended sequence in which he must raise his new found brood whilst fending off the inquiries of the press and the amorous intentions of the local gendarme.

The aforesaid gendarme, in a truly terrible wig, is Roberto Perlas Gomez—for once, not playing a king in Long Beach—who also introduces the gender-bending proceedings as the Theater Director and serves silently as a version of Eleonore's deathly beloved. Suzan Hanson (Medea, etc., etc.) fills an abundance of supportive roles—Eleonora's mother, a terpsichorean Announcer of News—with focus and aplomb. Benito Galindo and Doug Jones are Messrs. Presto and Lacouf, a sort of macabre Abbott & Costello (or Tweedles, Dee et Dum) who lose everything to one another at the casino, then slaughter one another in a duel. The chorus and two dancers serve as symbols, shadows, babies, citizens, supernumeraries and what have you, moving everything along as needed.

On balance, when all is said, this may not be the most probing examination of the Surrealist impulse, but it is a varied and ultimately entertaining exploration of a much obscured bit of musical territory, from the only company in the region with the, shall we say, helium balloons to attempt it.

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Photos: by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

The surrealist double-bill repeats on Saturday, March 17, at 8:00 p.m., in the Long Beach Center Theater, and at least a few tickets remain available at this writing.

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We're So Sorry, Uncool Albert
[Albert Herring, Los Angeles Opera]

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Puritanism, prudery and their ilk are always with us. The aging scold, wielding morality as a cudgel to control the lives of others, glowers down at us across the centuries. This past week in American politics, oddly enough, has been marked by wave upon cresting wave of self-aggrandizing thuggery in the name of All That is Pure and Good. And so it was that Saturday night during the intermission of Los Angeles Opera's performance of Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring, I was moved to launch this remark to Twitter:

Leaving the snoots and the horse's patoots to their own devices for a time, let's say what should be said: Albert Herring is above all a terrific comedy, seemingly all sunshine and innocence at first but, like the glass of spiked lemonade that is its fulcrum, carrying a hidden kick. It would be hard to better musically or dramatically the production now running at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which has to stand as the sleeper highlight of the 2011-2012 LA Opera season.

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The plot of Albert Herring is simplicity itself. The English village of Loxford lives, in relative content, under the eye and thumb of the censorious Lady Billows. With the aid of her trusty housekeeper Florence Pike, Lady Billows attempts to know all that goes on in the town, and has a particular devotion to the sniffing out and eradication of anything that may even imply the sin of unchastity. Each year, the most chaste and worthy of the Loxford village girls is selected and honored as May Queen. Alas, this year—the year is 1900, but this production is shifted forward to ca. 1947—the selection committee comprised of the mayor, the vicar, the schoolmistress, and the superintendent of police, find that none of their suggested nominees will satisfy Lady Billows' standard. At a loss, Superintendent Budd proposes they select instead a May King, specifically Albert Herring, working with his widowed mother to run the family greengrocery, universally known as quiet, inoffensive and perhaps not all that bright. Lady Billows is persuaded, and volunteers an honorarium of 25 pounds, seemingly on the theory that money can't buy love but may persuade the recipient not to go looking for it. 

Albert's reluctance is overcome, with the aid of some threats from his mum, and May Day arrives. Sid, the butcher's assistant—Albert's contemporary, not at all a bad chap, really, but has a way with the ladies and is ready for a lark when he can find one—spikes the May King's lemonade with a hefty ration of rum. A ration of hilarity ensues. Albert determines to find more to life than has been his lot, and disappears into the night. Finding he has gone missing, all assume the worst. But, no: as his mother and others in authority bewail his untimely death, Albert returns with three pounds spent and quite a tale to tell. Lady Billows and company are scandalized, the balance of power between Albert and his mother is equalized somewhat, and everyone lives uncertainly ever after.

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So then: this production comes to Los Angeles by way of Santa Fe, under the direction of Paul Curran. It is, physically, smaller than what typically fills the expanses of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The effect, thanks to particulary clever use of perspective, is not so much that of a small production in a big space as it is of a really fine bit of letterboxing in high definition. A great deal could be said in praise of the scenic design of Kevin Knight and, particularly, the flat out brilliant lighting scheme from Rick Fisher.

Albert Herring is a true ensemble piece, each character being of near equal importance to the whole. The performers here are laudable across the board. As Albert, Alek Schrader is immediately likable, and only grows more so as he reveals what runs deep beneath the still waters of the underestimated greengrocer. Janis Kelly's Lady Billows is formidably unpleasant, while navigating the high flying ornament Britten assigned to his "elderly autocrat." The opera is full of allusions to other composers and other operas, and both Lady Billows and the headmistress Miss Wordsworth (Stacy Tappan) are called upon to emulate Mozart's Queen of the Night, and do so with seeming ease. Ronnita Nicole Miller, as the redoubtable housekeeper Florence Pike, is a particular pleasure, entirely supportive of her Ladyship while always watchful for the chance to relax with a cigarette and movie magazine. Liam Bonner as Sid and Daniela Mack as his best girl Nancy, from the bakery, are the very model of healthy youthful sensuality, for which Lady Billows would surely pillory them if she could. 

Britten's score, for a chamber orchestra of thirteen musicians, operates almost as a handheld documentary camera, moving in around and through the action, focusing attention on first this detail, then that, and providing a running commentary. The necessary musical forces are small enough that conductor James Conlon was able to bring the entire orchestra on stage at evening's end, to receive the warm adulation it deserved. 

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Ultimately, Albert Herring speaks to anyone who is, or who ever was, young and alive and ready to light out for the territory of their own self and to return more fully human. That is a valuable thing, and that this production is continually and genuinely funny is a bonus not to be sniffed at.

Four performances remain through March 17. Christine Brewer, who sang the role in Santa Fe (and who was this blogger's first Isolde, *sigh*) will be Lady Billows in the final two. You really should go, if you can.

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Photos by Robert Millard, used by kind permission of Los Angeles Opera.

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The Genoan Article
[Simon Boccanegra, Los Angeles Opera]

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The famous natural philosopher and super genius, Wile E. Coyote, demonstrated convincingly that one can accomplish absurd and impossible things, such as running at speed on the thin air above absymal chasms, so long as (and only so long as) one does not Become Conscious of the absurdity and impossibility of one's position.

Italian opera works in much the same way. A performance with the necessary conviction and skill can persuade an audience that the events portrayed upon the stage make sense even when those events, upon reflection, are revealed as errant nonsense. Los Angeles Opera's current production of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra has more than sufficient stores of conviction and skill on stage and in the pit to carry the day. While it lasts, it is possible to disregard, and even to be moved by, an implausible and profoundly overelaborate plot that runs something like this:

In 14th century Genoa, the People and the Powerful are not getting on well. Boccanegra, a populist sort, loves Maria, the daughter of Fiesco, a man of Power. Maria has already borne Boccanegra a daughter who, having been left in the safekeeping of the usual now-deceased old woman in Pisa, has disappeared. Boccanegra, returned from a Genoan seafaring venture, arrives at the house of Fiesco seeking to wed Maria at last, only to learn that she has died that very night. At just that inopportune moment, the ambitious Paolo Albiani arranges it that Boccanegra should be unwillingly elected Doge of Genoa.

And that's just the Prologue.

The main action picks up 25 years later, with Boccanegra still in power as Doge and with the dueling factions still at one another's throats. By the end of Act I, Boccanegra has discovered his missing daughter, who was found in infancy by nuns and proactively substituted by them for Amelia, the young heiress of the Grimaldi family. As Amelia, she now lives under the care of Fiesco, who was banished but who has returned to Genoa under an alias. Fiesco has no idea that "Amelia" is his long lost granddaughter Maria because she has not shared with him the portrait of her mother (Fiesco's daughter, also Maria) that she carries with her. She does share it with Boccanegra, who propitiously carries with him an identical portrait. He thus finds his daughter at last, while never noticing that her guardian, who has altered his name but not his appearance, is his sworn enemy Fiesco.

And so on.

The Genoa of Simon Boccanegra is the sort of place where abduction and poison are the preferred methods of statecraft. Citizens shift from howling for the death of the Doge to declaring their eternal devotion to him from one minute to, literally, the next. Slow-acting poisons here are so slow-acting that a single draught at the start of Act II is completely effective in the long term, but takes until the end of Act III to do its foul work, leaving ample time for the rise and defeat of (yet another) armed insurrection, the arrest and execution of various villains (particularly supporter-turned-nemesis Paolo Albiani), and a lengthy and exposition-filled final soliloquy in which Boccanegra explains all and brings about at least temporary reconciliation among the fractious surviving citizenry before singing his last. 

It is all so persuasive, so long as you don't pause for even a moment to question it.

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This particular production of Boccanegra exists principally for the sake of showcasing Placido Domingo's ongoing migration from the tenor to the baritone repertoire, but it is not a traditional "star vehicle." As Verdi wrote it, the opera can only hope to work if the other four principal parts are as strongly portrayed as the title role. The cast here in Los Angeles rises to the needs of the piece across the board.

Placido Domingo's skills as an actor are at this stage largely on a par with his long-settled gifts as a vocalist, and his shift into his lower register in this role pays off primarily by permitting him the opportunity to explore and lay open the conflicted but honorable character of Boccanegra. His baritone voice is not so dark or burly as some, allowing him to make effective use of subtleties of vocal coloration where others might rely on raw power. As Amelia Grimaldi/Maria Boccanegra, Ana Maria Martinez is appropriately warm and noble, with a scintillant clarity at the high end that compels one to forgive Verdi for the gratuitous bits of crowd-pleasing ornament he slipped in to the part. Amelia/Maria's beloved, Gabriele Adorno, is performed by tenor Steffano Secco in vibrant heroic young tenor style, forthright and true.

Vitalij Kowaljow, who was Wotan throughout the LA Ring cycle and returned earlier this season as Friar Lawrence, brings abundant nobility and gravitas to the part of Fiesco, a worthy lifelong enemy who declines the low road to vengeance. Paolo Gavanelli (the put-upon Don Geronio in last year's Turk in Italy) exudes appropriate amorality as the manipulative and casually villainous Paolo Albiani, Boccanegra's maker and murderer.

Each of these principals has been provided an aria or two in which to shine individually, but the particular virtue of this cast lies in the duos, trios and other character combinations in which the intermingling of voices is nearly flawless, to distractingly rapturous effect.

The strength of the LA Opera orchestra when conducted by James Conlon is such an expected quality now that a blogger might almost forget to mention it. That would be wrong. Fine as the singers are, they would be nowhere without the thrills of Verdi's score, and Maestro Conlon and company deliver it with fervor, point and potent intelligence. 

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Simon Boccanegra continues at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with four performances remaining through March 4.

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Incidental NoteBoccanegra was last seen in southern California 20 years ago, in a Long Beach Opera production under the direction of the late Reza Abdoh (1963-1995). Then-Los Angeles Times critical eminence Martin Bernheimer disdained what he called a "pretentious, high-tech-zombie production". The two things I recall about it are (1) I spotted Peter Sellars in the audience, and (2) it is the only truly boring production I ever recall seeing from Long Beach Opera. Los Angeles Opera more than amply overcomes the risk of boredom.  

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Photos: Robert Millard, courtesy Los Angeles Opera.

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Digging in the Dirt
[Maria de Buenos Aires, Long Beach Opera]

Tyrannies do not come in ones or twos; tyrannies come in battalions.... It does not matter what the party motto is, what flag flies, what history pretends to teach, what rewards will be yours, what hurt feelings will follow; we need to be free to choose our own errors, our own myths, to furnish our souls as we see fit.
 — William H. Gass 
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Long Beach Opera began its 2012 season on Sunday afternoon in the dark deco spaces of the Warner Grand Theater in San Pedro exploring the dark indecorous spaces of authoritarian cruelty with a revised edition of Astor Piazzola and Horacio Ferrer's 1968 "Tango Operita," Maria de Buenos Aires. Jettisoning the plot and supernatural trappings of the original, and shifting the action in time, Andreas Mitisek's production lays open Argentina's "Dirty War" of 1976-1983 in which the military junta of the time "disappeared" tens of thousands of its own citizens. It is a potent and harrowing look into the abyss, a sort of anti-Evita in which Argentina cries not for celebrity but for justice and human dignity. 

In Piazzola and Ferrer's original conception, the figure of Maria represents the "spirit of the Tango." She rises from the slums and enters a life of prostitution, only to be killed by a conspiracy of thieves and brothel keepers; her shade lives on, however, wandering Buenos Aires, ultimately achieving a sort of rebirth and immortality. Maria sings, as does her male counterpart El Duende, who in turn is also portrayed by a non-singing narrator. Dance, naturally, is involved, and there are longer stretches without singing than with. None of the characters is fleshed out at all realistically: Ferrer's text is a long, highly poetic meditation on Maria, her mysterious nature, and El Duende's devotion to the ultimately unattainable essence she embodies. 

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If Maria is the spirit of the Tango, and the Tango is the spirit of Argentina, then artistic logic dictates that Maria can be transplanted to the late 1970's and can serve as a surrogate for the suffering of the Argentine people. In Mitisek's revision, Maria is a creature of flesh and blood and El Duende, now the younger (singing) and older (speaking) Payador, is as well, the latter narrating from the present day, wracked by his loss and perhaps by survivor's guilt. In his recollection, he and Maria meet and marry; he is taken in by the junta without explanation; Maria seeks him out on the sordid fringes of the military's goon squads, only to fall herself in to their clutches. She is raped, imprisoned, briefly reconnects with her lover in song, and then is killed in her cell. We last see Maria as her body is removed in a tableau reminiscent of Caravaggio.

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As LBO's General and Artistic Director, Andreas Mitisek is in full auteur mode with this production, responsible not only for the revisions of text and score, but also for the production concept and much of its design. He deserves at this point to be acknowledged as one of the most consistently interesting theatrical minds currently at work in southern California. That he is a skilled and fluid conductor is almost secondary, though his leadership of the small pit ensemble contributed a valuable momentum and scope to Piazzola's twisty, expansive music.

The action unfolds behind a scrim, which serves as a screen for impressionistic film montagesconceived by Mitisek, executed by Adam Flemmingevoking Buenos Aires, picturing some fraction of the actual Disappeared, and advancing and commenting on the action. The older Payador speaks and remembers, the projections lending a dream quality to transitions as the scene moves from barroom to bedroom to interrogation chamber to cell. (The soundlessness with which the large erector-set prison was somehow brought on stage is a credit to the tech crew.) 

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Mitisek's Maria is Peabody Southwell, in a performance that is fearsomely committed and painfully exposed in every sense. Followers of this blog will know that I am a confessed fan boy when it comes to Ms. Southwell's work in Long Beach, dating to her debut in 2009. This, I think, is easily her strongest performance yet with the company, abetted by her willingness to hold nothing back as an actor while sacrificing none of her considerable gifts as a singer. Her richly burnished mezzo runs a thread of fatalism and sorrow through Maria's tale as she is crushed inexorably beneath the heel of the state. 

As the younger, singing Payador, tenor Gregorio Gonzalez is mostly called upon to look dashing and to sing handsomely, which he does. His older self is portrayed by Gregorio Luke, expert and lecturer on Latin American arts and culture and former director of the Museum of Latin American Art. whose sonorous speaking voice seems well suited to Ferrer's verse, albeit tending to veer toward the unnecessarily shouty at the most dramatic moments.

LBO's utility non-singer Mark Bringelson, memorable as the disappearing landowner and the investigating magistrate in last season's Difficulty of Crossing a Field, takes the silent, freshly invented role of Marco. First seen as a slightly goofy barfly being snubbed by the ladies, Maria among them, Marco falls in with the military, the ordinary citizen willing to turn on his fellows. In that capacity, he directs the abduction of Maria's lover, and is personally responsible for Maria's torture and death. Bringelson is appropriately cold and economical as the human face of an inhuman regime.

As reimagined here, Maria de Buenos Aires is fierce and gripping music drama of undeniable power. It does not explain. It will not excuse. It offers no comfort. It does what it can, bearing witness to a great wrong and demanding that we not look away from either the evil that has been done or the thousands of unique, invaluable lives that evil destroyed. 

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Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used with kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

One performance of Maria de Buenos Aires remains, at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday, February 4. Tickets are available here.

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Dead Bride Story
[Roméo et Juliette, Los Angeles Opera]

John Adams was not the first to compose an opera based on news reports and current events. Charles Gounod, to take an earlier example, is generally believed to have drawn inspiration for his Roméo et Juliette from an article he read in a discarded copy of La Cronaca di Verona newspaper that the wind blew beneath his café table on a Parisian spring afternoon in 1865. Here is a translated excerpt:

Teen Tomb Twosome Spark Calls for Reform

Demands for action are growing as activists, experts and ordinary citizens cite ready access to poisons and daggers as a major contributor to last night's double suicide of Juliet Capulet-Montague, 16, and Romeo Montague, 16, in the family mausoleum of the Capulets.

"Poisons and daggers are not toys," says Professore Fabrizzio Sforza del Destino, spokesperson for the Citizens League for the Public Safety of the Public. "There can only be trouble when at-risk youth can find poisons and daggers discarded and laying about on any given piece of furniture around the house. Parents need to consider the messages they are sending, and to clean up after themselves more regularly."

The Professore called again for the immediate adoption of emergency regulatory and registration provisions that have been proposed by the League repeatedly over the past four years. The draft legislation includes a new provision—"Juliet's Law"—imposing fines or imprisonment for failure to report the presence of either poisons or daggers within 100 feet of an unaccompanied minor.

Authorities continue to seek answers to the many questions raised by this latest tragedy. Investigators indicate that Ms. Capulet and Mr. Montague had recently met at a so-called "ball," in an upper echelon neighborhood of the city. Having nothing better to do on a Saturday night, and finding poisons and daggers readily to hand, the couple embarked on a whirlwind 24 hours of spumante-fueled cuddling, traditional marriage, random violence, and eventual death. The Coroner's preliminary report indicates the presence of poisons and daggers at the death scene. 

In a potentially related development, Church officials have acknowledged that popular local youth counselor Friar Lawrence has been placed on paid administrative leave. The Capulet-Montague tragedy is the third such incident in the past six months. All of the dead teens are believed have frequented Friar Lawrence's popular "Second Story" mentoring program.

Sources close to the investigation have suggested that Lawrence is a person of interest in connection with a suspected dagger and poisons distribution ring. The Church has declined comment on those suggestions, citing the existence of an "ongoing investigation."

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Roméo et Juliette (1867) is just the sort of opera that I generally shun. It may be sung in French, but for all intents and purposes it is an old-fashioned Italian bel canto piece, blithely ignoring the musical and dramatic advances that had already been achieved by the like of Wagner and Verdi. Its plot is no more than an excuse for a bit of spectacle and a series of showy arias, all surface and sentiment. (West Side Story, which good as it is is still just a Broadway musical, is a vastly more sophisticated take on this material than Gounod cared to attempt.) The characters are paper thin, no more than names and stock types. The music is there to be pretty and to push the expected emotional buttons. It is the operatic stuff that actually sells tickets, rather than the stuff of depth, thought and drama. And much though it chafes at my pretentious core to say it, at what it tries to do it largely succeeds. 

Los Angeles Opera is currently reviving its 2005 production, directed by Ian Judge. That premiere run featured Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon as the lovers, and they were received as a hubba-hubba sensation. Here, Vittorio Grigolo and Nino Machaidze assume the title roles.

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Ms. Machaidze is lovely to look at, possessed of abundant charm, and sings Juliet's high-flying arias as well as one could ask, but she has an innate quality of sultry sophistication that is almost too adult for the part. The quality that is an obstacle here was used to far greater advantage in last season's Turk in Italy, in which she was an entire delight.

Vittorio Grigolo, on the other hand, has no difficulty whatever with the unbound adolescent swagger of Romeo. This is his show, in the end. He, too, has every vocal skill the part requires in abundance, his tenor enveloping some real power in a tone smooth as butter. For those to whom such things are important, he gets his shirt off on several occasions and looks great doing it, which is to say that he looks like the Teen Adonis that Romeo should ought to be. He is a big, dangerous puppy of a Romeo, meaning well but unable to contain his more irresponsible urges.

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Director Judge keeps the story moving briskly. He has probably directed more productions at Los Angeles Opera than anyone else over the past two decades, and one of his hallmarks is to keep things as interesting around the edges as in the foreground. Something is always going on, or some telling detail or attractive aesthetic touch is being rolled out. The fight sequences have real speed and snap, and a sense of actual danger unusual in an opera house. Judge's fondness for gratuitous nudity is not, in this case, on display.

The production is immeasurably helped by John Gunter's set design. The action is set in Gounod's era, rather than the Renaissance, and the city of Verona has been recreated as in effect a giant 3-dimensional blueprint: lines, uprights, arches, towers, innumerable staircases, but no walls. The pieces are immense, but easily moved into new configurations, speeding the transition from scene to scene. It is even nicer to look at than the principals, which is saying something.

There is strength in the supporting cast as well. I don't often single out the Chorus at LA Opera, because I tend to take for granted that they will be reliable when called on. (Also, my little sister is a long time chorus member.) I do not recall when they have sounded better than they do in this production: rich, supple, with admirable clarity over the full range of volumes.

Standout individual supporting players include Museop Kim as Mercutio, particularly in the paean to Queen Mab; Vitalij Kowaljow, formerly LA Opera's Wotan, as Friar Lawrence (from Freyer to friar!); and Vladimir Chernov as old Capulet, a spritely fellow who would really prefer to forget family rivalries for the sake of a good party.

Three performances remain through November 26.

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Photos by Robert Millard, used by kind permission of Los Angeles Opera.

~~~


There is Nothing Like a Dame
[Così fan tutte, Los Angeles Opera]

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Listen: do you want to know secret about Los Angeles Opera? I won't even make you promise not to tell. Shhh.... Ready?

When LA Opera Music Director James Conlon is conducting, it is at least an even money bet that he will receive the loudest applause at the end of the evening.

Now, I happen to believe there is nothing wrong with that arrangement. Conlon is deeply knowledgeable in the repertoire, technically gifted, and an unstoppable enthusiast for the works he presents. He is, as I have probably written before, the best Talker About Music that I have heard since the golden age of Leonard Bernstein. His pre-performance talks draw full houses in their own right. Los Angeles is fortunate to have him (at least until 2013). 

That Conlon should draw the loudest curtain call response for this season's Eugene Onegin is perhaps unsurprising: there are some fine performances on stage in that production, particularly among the women, but the the work of Conlon and the orchestra is what ultimately carries the night. What is more surprising is that Conlon should still win out, if only by a hair, in the applause sweepstakes when it comes to the company's concurrent production of Mozart's Così fan tutte, in which all six of the principal singers shine with exceeding brightness.

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To review, Così fan tutte is the last of the three operas Mozart devised in collaboration with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. It is often said that because the women in their first two projects (Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni) had been portrayed in such a favorable light, the poet and the composer felt the need to redress the balance of the sexes by telling a tale of female duplicity. I don't believe their hearts were really in it in that respect.

I cannot speak to da Ponte's relations with women, but Mozart was certainly no misogynist. Two of the relationships most central to his life, and most cherished by him, were with his sister and his wife. While no more of a feminist than his era allowed, Mozart seems to have had no difficulty accepting women as something more than a lesser form of life.

The dashing Neapolitan heroes of the tale, Ferrando and Guglielmo, are the fastest of friends and have become engaged to two beautiful sisters, Dorabella and Fiordiligi. As we join them, the friends are praising their beloveds to their older companion, Don Alfonso. Alfonso assures them that all women, even these the friends so prize, will prove unfaithful given the opportunity. He proposes a wager: if they will follow his every instruction, he will prove that his faith in women's infidelity is well founded. The friends agree, and Alfonso promptly arranges that they will appear to be conscripted and sent off to to the front. The lovers part tearfully, the men march martially away, and in no time Don Alfonso is introducing the sisters to two Albanian gentlemen of his acquaintance. The "Albanians" are, of course, Ferrando and Guglielmo, now disguised (in this production) as Orlando Bloom and Inigo Montoya, respectively. Each sets to wooing the other's fiancee, at first with no success. Rebuffed, the men demonstrate the sincerity of their petition by "taking poison," nearly dieing before the eyes of the horrified sisters before they are miraculously saved by a passing practitioner of magnetic healing (the sisters' servant Despina, also in disguise). Their hearts softened by the Fauxbanians' suicidal ardor—and persuaded by Despina that they are unlikely to be found out—each sister eventually succumbs and agrees to marry the other's beau. The men are most unhappy with the lesson that the wily Don Alfonso has taught them: that indeed "così fan tutte", "all women are alike". As the new marital arrangements are about to be formalized, the friends reappear as themselves, confront the women and . . . all ends in tentative reconciliation in the light of Don Alfonso's second lesson: that we should all be guided by Reason because, lord! what fools all we mortals be, man and woman alike.

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This production is an import from Glyndeborne, where it was originally devised and directed by Nicholas Hytner. It is pleasant to look at and provides a comfortable setting for the work of six seriously fine singing actors making the most of what Mozart and da Ponte have given them, singly and in combination. 

First among near equals are Aleksandra Kurzak and Ildebrando D'Arcangelo as Fiordiligi and Guglielmo. As the more level-headed and sophisticated of the sisters, Kurzak is the most reluctant to give in to temptation and gets the best arias in the piece, which she sings with gorgeous range and sensitivity. She also shows a gift for the "grace under pressure" style of comedy, with a few big-eyed Lucille Ball faces for good measure. D'Arcangelo's baritone is a burnished and resonant thing, which he places exactly where he wants it to go. For those to whom such things are important, he is quite the smolderingly handsome fellow. He, too, has a talent for comedy, of a more earthy and physical turn. It is reported that he will be back to Los Angeles next year to portray Don Giovanni, and his performance here makes that a production to begin anticipating now.

Ruxandra Donose was last seen here, frequently in lingerie, as the female lead in the horror show that was The Fly. It was not her fault, and she managed to maintain her dignity under extremely trying circumstances. As Dorabella, the marginally more flighty and slightly more open to possibilities than Fiordiligi, she charms completely. The two sisters frequently sing at the same time and in those passages the combination of Kurzak's and Donose's voices is a luxuriant pleasure. Saimir Pirgu, an actual Albanian playing a pretend-Albanian, brings matinee idol style, a winning grin and a clear and shiny tenor voice to the role of Ferrando. Roxana Constantinescu is appropriately sharp-eyed and bawdy as Despina, especially when advising her mistresses to do as they will, since what the men don't know won't hurt them.

Don Alfonso is in some ways a more grounded and responsible Pangloss, out to teach his young friends the ways of the world and the errors in their assumptions about it. Lorenzo Regazzo gives us a younger than usual Alfonso, his devotion to reason derived from experience rather than years. He combines a lounge lizard's insouciance with some of the out of plumb, possibly inebriate aura of Christopher Lloyd, even occasionally breaking the fourth wall for the audience's benefit. He is our generous host, the off-center center of the piece, and he brings an embracing humanistic warmth to his final lessons for the younger lovers.

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Così fan tutte is a comedy, an opera buffa, and it bears emphasizing that this production is just plain funny. The jokes work, and for the most part they have not been imposed by the production team, but grow organically from the loam of character and situation. This Così is smart, funny and beautiful. Would that they could all be like that.

Photos: Robert Millard, used by kind permission of Los Angeles Opera.

~~~ 


Don't Cry for Me, Tatiana
[Eugene Onegin, Los Angeles Opera]

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Most "national" poems are bloodthirsty affairs. The Iliad? Wholesale slaughter. The Aeneid? Survivors of the preceding wholesale slaughter book a cruise and launch some slaughter of their own. The Chanson du Roland? Slaughter, with a big climactic horn solo. Beowulf? Monsters; mead; more slaughter. But ah! the Russians! Bless them, the Russians' national poem is Pushkin's Eugene Onegina rambling, episodic, Byronic tragicomedy of manners with only one pointless death in it.

Los Angeles Opera has opened its 2011-2012 season with a production of Tchaikovsky's adaptation of Onegin in which the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the orchestra and chorus are well above average. 

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Tchaikovsky co-wrote his own libretto for Onegin, jettisoning much of Pushkin's wit and a good deal of subsidiary structure in order to focus on the four key sequences in the plot. In Act I, we meet the Larina sisters living on their family's estate in the Russian countryside: Olga the lovely flighty one and Tatiana the lovely pensive-romantic one. Olga's suitor/beloved, the poet Lensky, introduces them to his great good friend, and their new country neighbor, Eugene Onegin. Tatiana is pierced to the quick with love for the brooding new fellow in town and rashly pours out her heart to him in a letter. He spurns her more or less politely, but with cold firmness. In Act II, Onegin attends a great party on the estate for Tatiana's name day. To soothe his ennui, Onegin compounds his callous lack of concern for Tatiana by intermeddling between Olga and Lensky, ultimately driving Lensky to demand satisfaction and a duel. The two friends meet in the snowy woods the following morning and Onegin shoots the poet dead. Wracked with guilt and still utterly bored with most everything, Onegin spends the interval between acts II and III traveling abroad. He returns after several years to St. Petersburg where, at yet another ball, he espies the beautiful and inspiring young wife of his relative Prince Gremin. Surprise! It's Tatiana. The scales fall from Onegin's jaded eyes and he sees what he has missed. He declares his love and begs Tatiana to forgive and reciprocate. Although she confesses that she still loves him, Tatiana too is firm: she will be true to her husband and the life she has found with him, even if it is a life of routine. Onegin must go and never trouble her again. She leaves him as do we: alone and miserable, and likely still bored to tears.

Strong emotion rules the day in Tchaikovsky's Onegin, and nowhere is that more true than in the orchestral writing. It gushes, it mopes, it rollicks, it yearns, it simmers, it despairs. The LA Opera orchestra under James Conlon goes wherever the composer takes it, lavishly but never goopily.

Among the principals, this production is dominated by the two sisters, particularly Oksana Dyka as Tatiana. Dyka sings thrillingly, particularly in her extended monologue as she crafts her fatal letter to Onegin. She is a model of noble self-abnegation as she sends Onegin packing, rounding off a performance that is enough in itself to justify the evening. As the more bubbly and unfettered Olga, Ekaterina Smenchuk sparkles and beams. It is a pity that neither Pushkin nor Tchaikovsky returns to Olga after Lensky issues his ill considered challenge.

The character of Onegin is slightly more sympathetic and three-dimensional in Pushkin than he is in Tchaikovsky. Until he blooms in his misery in his final meeting with Tatiana, Tchaikovsky's Onegin spends nearly all of his time sulking and declaring how tedious it all is. While he comes to life in earnest as the opera concludes, through most of this production Dalibor Jenis is only called upon to stalk about with the posture and demeanor (and apparently the tailor and hairstylist) of Disney's Beast. He makes all that he can of what Tchaikovsky gives him, but one senses the composer preferred almost every other character to his protagonist. 

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This production is an import originally mounted at Covent Garden, and comes with its share of eccentric design choices. Midway upstage, a shallow waterway runs from one side to the other, to be crossed by wading or on small bridges. In Act I, splashing about in it is how Olga and Tatiana remind us that they are Young and Full of Life. In Act III, it freezes and becomes a pathway for skaters. On several occasions, it just gets in the way, particularly when the very large chorus joins the cast downstage for Tatiana's name day party.

Behind the water hazard, a rolling hillside beckons, green and lush in Act I, snowbound in th wintry second half. The entire scene is framed by, well, frames. On occasion, the characters are called upon to pause, or move very slowly, toward the rear where, with the help of a very supple lighting scheme, we are reminded of Millet or of Casper David Friedrich.

Onegin is not a perfect opera, but its weaknesses are not great and are largely dramatic rather than musical. There are long stretches of unapologetically gorgeous Romanticism throughout the score, and the players and singers in this production make it all worth hearing. The abundant snow in this production is bracingly refreshing to gaze upon at the end of a hot, late summer day in Southern California.

Hop in the troika: three performances remain through October 9.

Photos: Robert Millard, used by kind permission of Los Angeles Opera.

~~~ 


There He Was, Gone!
[The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, Long Beach Opera]

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For those few who will have the opportunity to see it, Long Beach Opera’s southern California premiere staging of The Difficulty of Crossing a Field should stand, easily, as one of the most singularly compelling musical or dramatic productions to be offered in these parts this year.  Or perhaps I should say that it will stand uneasily, because unease and uncertainty, the unresolvable conjoined with the unmentionable, lie at its heart.

Difficulty hangs on the slimmest of narrative threads, a 750-word story by Ambrose Bierce in which Mr. Williamson, a plantation owner in 1854 near Selma, Alabama, one day sets out to walk across one of his fields to deliver an instruction and, in plain view of witnesses, disappears.  The witnesses are astonished; Williamson’s wife loses her wits, either on the spot or shortly after.  There is an inquiry by the law.  Bierce gives the oddly redacted testimony of Williamson’s neighbor, Mr. Wren, and attorney readers in particular will appreciate Bierce’s way with the shaky reliability of eyewitnesses.  Bierce reports flatly in his final sentence that Williamson was declared dead, his property distributed according to law.  What has happened is never explained: “It is not the purpose of this narrative,” Bierce writes midway, “to answer that question.”

The stage version originated as a commission from San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, and premiered in a small alternative space in San Francisco in 2002.  The music is by David Lang, one third of New York's Bang on a Can and recent Pulitzer Prize winner for The Little Match Girl Passion.  The text is by playwright Mac Wellman.  Between them, Lang and Wellman collect the cryptic fragments of Mr. Williamson’s disappearance and spin them into something even more cryptic.  In a pre-performance talk Wednesday evening, David Lang noted that Wellman’s libretto includes at least once every word in Bierce’s original.  Wellman’s most critical contribution is to give voice to those whose testimony is pointedly not sought out or considered to be of interest in Bierce’s story: Williamson’s young daughter (a babe in arms in the tale, a soprano here), the now-disturbed Mrs. Williamson and, above all, Mr. Wren’s house slave Boy Sam and Mr. Williamson’s own field slaves.  Bierce, again:

Mrs. Williamson had lost her reason and the servants were, of course, not competent to testify. . . .  None of the field hands working in the field to which Williamson was going had seen him at all, and the most rigorous search of the entire plantation and adjoining country failed to supply a clew. The most monstrous and grotesque fictions [sic], originating with the blacks, were current in that part of the State for many years, and probably are to this day . . . .

(Emphasis added.)

David Lang scored the piece for string quartet, specifically the Kronos Quartet in the original production.  (In Long Beach, the score receives a highly capable and sympathetic treatment at the hands of the Lyris Quartet, conducted by Benjamin Makino.)  The music is rooted in contemporary minimalism, with discrete melodic shards repeating in shifting relation to one another.  Like that of Philip Glass, Lang's minimalist method is remarkably fluid, and able to shift instantly from jittery nervousness to chanting mysticism to lyrical melancholy.  It melds well with the parallel technique of Wellman's text, in which key phrases recur and recur, their seeming significance altered by the other phrases that move around them.  "We are constructing a nation," the field slaves sing early on; moments later, the phrase has become more ominous: "We are constructing an erasure."

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For once not wielding the conductor's baton, Long Beach Opera Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek has designed and directed a production that brings out all the ineffable mystery Difficulty carries about its person.  Again, as for Glass's Akhnaten, the company returns to the Long Beach's Terrace Theater. Instead of the usual arrangement, however, the audience is seated on the stage and the performance takes place on the segmented elevator in the orchestra pit, and within the dim and cavernous space beyond.  A long ramp, illuminated from below, runs out into the house, and it is along that ramp that Mr. Williamson disappears. The investigating magistrate, bat-like shadows behind him, presides over his inquiry from the upper balcony.  The rows of theater seats echo the rows of crops that are tended by the field slaves, who approach through mist out of the darkness to share their piece of the mystery.  Mitisek has made a habit of staging opera in unusual spaces, or of using the available space in unexpected ways; this may be his neatest scenic conceit yet.

The cast is uniformly impressive.  Suzan Hanson, who began the season as Medea, is mad again as Mrs. Williamson.  She is perched high atop a stool or ladder, rising and descending in the pit, her enormous skirts spreading out over the ground around her as she tries to grasp what has happened to all she once took for granted. Mrs. Williamson's music is the most "operatic" in the piece, and Hanson's rich and subtle soprano (and her rich and subtle dramatic chops) entrance as they disturb.  As the young Williamson girl, Valerie Vinzant spends her time on the floor drawing and recalling the last thing her father said to her—"What is the point of talking crap like that?"—in response to her Cassandra-like suggestion that the horses know something important and must be understood. Lang has given the character music as lovely as anything in the piece, and Vinzant sings it rivetingly.

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The field slaves are central to Difficulty and the eight-member ensemble gathered in Long Beach is a powerful one.  Dabney Ross Jones, as the slave known as Virginia Creeper, stands out particularly, as a leader with one eye on the infinite and the other on the earthly problem of what is to be done under indefensible conditions.  [Update: See also the comment of J C Johnson, below, which helpfully singles out the contribution of another ensemble member, bass Nicholas Shelton.]  As Mr. Wren's Boy Sam, Eric B. Anthony impresses with an eery high tenor, unsure what he has seen and whether he should share it (as if the whites would even listen if he did). 

 Robin Buck, a roguish villain in Moscow Cherry Town, returns in the mostly-speaking roles of Mr. Wren and of Williamson's brother/overseer, through whom we learn that Williamson favored the unyieldingly harsh philosophies of John C. Calhoun in the "management" of his slave population.  In separate scenes, each of Buck's characters provides testimony contradictory of the other, neither getting any grip on what may have occurred.

Mr. Williamson himself, and the investigating magistrate, both non-singing roles, are played by Long Beach stalwart Mark Bringelson.  Stern, humorless and puritanical as the magistrate, grotesque in the manner of little men with undeserved power as Williamson, Bringelson is a compelling pivot round whom the other characters' plans and reactions turn.  Moreover, he brings a surprising grace to his character's actual disappearance, giving away nothing while becoming nothing.

So what, we ask, has actually happened?  Did Mr. Williamson light out for the territory?  Was he swallowed by a particularly subtle and efficient sinkhole?  Beamed up by aliens?  Is he the Don Giovanni of Selma, Alabama, hauled away in a trice to pay for his sins?  None can say.  These are [among] the Mysteries of Selma, Alabama.

To return:  I am outspokenly pro-Long Beach Opera, and I have made no secret of my belief that the company has been on a remarkable streak of excellence over the past two seasons and more.  I was amazed, in the best sense, by the impact of this production, which I may well decide is the best thing I've seen, anywhere, in the past several years.  Difficulty lives up to its name, in the sense of being Not For Everybody and Certainly Not, Like, Puccini.  It is, for me, shudderingly fine, as a work and as a production.  I told several who were willing to listen after the performance that it had left me in a condition of awe-struck wonder.

The Difficulty of Crossing a Field is a capital-M Major work of contemporary music theater, and it deserves a much larger audience than it has received in its sporadic appearances over the past decade.  See it if you can, and pass it on.

Only two performances remain, both on Saturday, June 18.  The evening performance is apparently sold out, but there may still be tickets to be had for the 2:00 matinee.   

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 ~~~

 

Incidentally, Ambrose Bierce is in line for a collected edition of his work from the eminent Library of America in September.

~~~

A podcast of David Lang talking about Difficulty can be listened to here.  Nearby you can listen to a complete recording of the piece.  The origins of the recording are not stated: it may be taken from the original San Francisco staging of 2002, or it may be from somewhere else.  (Difficulty has not had a commercial recording released.)  I find it clearly inferior to the Long Beach version, largely because the performers in the recording have been called upon to speak and sing with too-heavy stage-Southern accents. That was a mistake, one not repeated in Andreas Mitisek's production.

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PhotosFor the sake of getting it online, this post initially went up without photos.  All photos above are by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.  

A good selection of additional photos accompanies Mark Swed's review of Difficulty in the Los Angeles Times.

~~~


Tragedy Tomorrow, Commissars Tonight!
[Shostakovich: Moscow, Cherry Town
Long Beach Opera]

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Pre-fab,
concrete slab,
totalitarian, uniform, drab,
Little more space than a hermit crab:
Mid-20th Century Soviet Man! 

    -- with apologies to King Crimson

~~~

Nothing says "lighthearted romantic romp" quite like Khrushchev-era Soviet housing policy, eh?  

As it happens, Moscow, Cherry Town [Moskva, Cheryomushki], which received its US West Coast premiere this past Sunday at Long Beach Opera, is that romp.  It is as entertaining as St. Petersburg's white nights are long, sure to unite the proletariat and bourgeoisie in the common cause of a raucously spirited entertainment.  

With a score by no less a luminary than Dmitri Shostakovich and a book by humorists Vladimir Mass and Mikhail Chervinsky (here in a salty translation by David Pountney), Moscow, Cherry Town premiered to great success in 1959, and spawned a 1961 film adaptation that for a time was to the USSR the sort of holiday television staple that "It's a Wonderful Life" is to the USA.  It is an operetta rather than an opera, and aims first to entertain. As a case of a Serious Composer working within an ostensibly Popular framework, it is a logical entry in a tradition that can trace itself backward through Weill's Threepenny Opera to Mozart's little music-hall confection, The Magic Flute.  There is, unsurprisingly, more of Weill than of Wolfie in Shostakovitch's score, which mashes hummable choruses with raucous jazzy outbursts and pastiches on any number of other styles and composers. Shostakovich's particular trick is to produce an enjoyable, jovial musical surface beneath which some part of the orchestra is constantly grinning, pointing and rolling its eyes. 

With the death of Stalin and the rise of Khrushchev, Shostakovich had to some extent been brought in from the cultural cold by the time he composed Moscow, Cherry Town.  While still a ruthless bunch, the Khrushchev regime was less bluntly murderous than its predecessor, and allowed for Shostakovich's "rehabilitation" and an accompanying modicum of creative range.  At the same time, Khrushchev launched a major housing initiative in Moscow, seeking to replace existing collective housing with slightly less collective individual family apartments.  The new buildings were resolutely uniform, typically five stories tall, built on largely identical plans with largely identical prefabricated concrete components.  The slapdash construction and tiny size of the units somewhat offset the otherwise welcome gains in privacy and semi-personal space.

That tension between promise and reality, between the Workers' Paradise of the public relations apparatchiks and the mundane grubbiness of daily life, is a running theme in Moscow, Cherry Town.  To present that theme, Mass and Chervinsky crafted a plot founded on that most eternal of comic tropes: power and greed brought low by cleverness, honesty and, of course, true love.

We meet Sasha and Masha, newly married but still obliged to live apart in gender-segregated State dormitories, dreaming of a place of their own so they can stop sneaking about the town to rendezvous.  Sasha is a guide at the Museum of Moscow's Future, showing off Soviet living standards that are as grand as they are imaginary.  His fellow guide, Lidochka—a musical heroine of the "Lovely, Smart, and Lonely" School—lives with her aging father in an aging hovel whose aging roof has just collapsed.  Meanwhile, noble female construction worker Liusia, hard at work constructing the new housing units, is losing patience with her on again/off again beau, Sergei, who works as a chauffeur for local Party bosses.  Rounding out the side of good is Boris, freshly returned from a State-mandated sojourn tending cattle in Siberia, now employed as a demolitionist, blowing up Moscow's aging buildings to make way for more "Khrushchev slums."  As the story begins, Sasha and Masha and Lidochka and her father have received the news that they have been awarded coveted flats in the new Cheryomushki buildings.  Boris, smitten with Lidochka, comes along to "help."

But the path to People's Housing ne'er did run smooth: the assigned Cheryomushki building is under the control of the corrupt manager Barabashkin, whose sole interest lies in currying favor and connections with the Party, or in getting a little something extra from prospective tenants.  As it happens, Barabashkin has leagued himself with local party operative Drebednev, who is looking to impress his new arm-candy wife Vava by delivering her an extra-large apartment, to be created by knocking out the wall between his own unit and its neighbor.  To that end, with a flick of the pencil Barabashkin declares that the unit assigned to Lidochka and her father "does not exist" and that, so far as he is concerned, neither do they.

In the end, of course, it all works out through good will, pluck, and the deus ex machina of a Magic Garden Bench—I'm not making this up, you know—sitting upon which one can only speak the truth.  The right couples are joined in the right combinations, living for the Glorious Future in their respective flats, while Barabashkin and Drebednev are disciplined by the fickle Party and reduced to sweeping the courtyard. 

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Satire is what closes on Saturday night, and Moscow, Cherry Town would presumably have met that fate if it weren't so flat out entertaining.  Every musical comedy trick in the book is trotted out, with songs for all the necessary beats.  The chorus and characters sing of "Cheryomushki!" as if it were Oklahoma!  Lidochka has an "I want" song, as every good ingenue role should, while her father sings nostalgically of his happy days in the hovel on Tyipyoli Lane.  Liusia has really had enough of being stood up by Sergei, and complains that her love "means nothing."  The villains revel in their villainy.  There is even a dream-ballet (featuring those villains in pink tutus).

Although the story remains set in the late 1950's, LBO's production takes its visual cues from the Russian Constructivism of the earlier part of the century.  A crane-like contraption dominates the stage, paying tribute to the likes of Tatlin and Rodchenko while holding aloft a Dziga Vertov-inspired eye.  Is it the eye of the State, or a projection of the Audience?  In the end, the eye becomes a magic clock, according to which Sergei is never ever late for his meetings with his forgiving sweetheart Liusia.

Under the inventive and energetic direction of Isabel Milenski, Long Beach Opera's cast of singing actors plays it all for all it is worth.  As a musical comedy, Cherry Town gives each of its characters, and a chorus of their Moscow comrades, at least one moment to shine.  Of the story's central couples, Boris and Lidochka receive the most attention.  John Atkins' Boris is a raffish charmer, his eye out for the main chance, but sincerely smitten with Valerie Vinzant's Lidochka—as who would not be?  Ms. Vinzant is at home with comic physicality, implying hidden depths beneath her character's straight-laced exterior: Lidochka never actually tosses aside her glasses and shakes out her hair, but she seems on the verge of doing so at any moment.  That calculated gawkiness combined with a strong and beautiful singing voice is extremely winning, and reminds me again why Ms. Vinzant made a practically perfect Papagena in Los Angeles Opera's most recent Magic Flute.

Among the bad guys, Robin Buck's Barabashkin is the highlight, snarling with relish as he stands in the way of all those decent, hopeful Muscovites who only want the keys to their new homes. He is a cross between Snidely Whiplash and some Russian Mafia variant on a character out of Damon Runyon.  Also, he manages to keep a straight face in a tutu.

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Whether at the hands of Peters, Politburos, plutocrats or Putins, Russians have been put upon for centuries, and they have often concluded that the best response is a resigned, sardonic joke. Moscow, Cherry Town springs from that impulse.  Moscow, Cherry Town may not set you free—for that, you need the truth, possibly with the help of a magic bench—but it is practically guaranteed to raise a smile and highly likely to provide some giggles, snorts and guffaws.  Thanks are due (again) to Long Beach Opera for bringing an unsuspected musical gem out of obscurity.

There are two remaining performances, coming to a theater near you: Wednesday, May 18 at UC Irvine's Barclay Theater, and a matinee next Sunday, May 22, at Barnum Hall, Santa Monica. Details and tickets here.

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Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, reproduced by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

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