Dog Days in Los Angeles

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David T. Little's opera, Dog Days, which premiered at Peak Performances in New Jersey in 2012 to significant acclaim, made its west coast premiere last night under the auspices of Los Angeles Opera in its new collaborative initiative with New York's Beth Morrison Projects. I attended the performance, and I have written about it in the fool musical annex:

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the End Times

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Mnemonic Tricks and Devices

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The Los Angeles Philharmonic's Next on Grand series continued Friday evening with three  ensembles—the Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel, Ensemble Signal led by Brad Lubman, and members of wildUp with conductor Christopher Rountree—performing, respectively, a world premiere from Steven Mackey, a revival of a turn of [this] century collaborative piece by Steve Reich and video artist Beryl Korot, and a previously unannounced al fresco percussion intervention. 

Steven Mackey's "Mnemosyne's Pool" is a five part, 45-minute whats-it (something of symphony? a touch of tone poem?) for the full orchestra, and brims with cunning musical goodness. It is not literally about the Titan Mnemosyne—a goddess of memory, lover of Zeus, mother of the Muses—nor is it about a pool, but its processes toy about with the pliable, labile, multivalent twitch and flicker of memory, and much of its musical material can be heard as waterborne and maritime. The composer's detailed program notes notwithstanding, the intricacies of the structural innards of the piece were not instantly fathomable by the ear on first listen, but the larger arcs and complementary variety of the components delivered satisfactions aplenty.

In five sections, "Pool" begins with a tolling chime and funereal chords, even a whiff of dies irae, but soon spreads into the first of its more liquid segments, turbid and glinting under threatening skies. The second section was vaguely Russian or Baltic, spiky and sprightly in the vein of early Stravinsky (think Petrushka, perhaps filtered through a mesh of Carl Nielsen strings and winds). The third and fourth segments are played without break, the former harking to American urbanism, the latter transiting from stately elegy to spartan threnody. The fifth and final section returns to watery thoughts, breeze driven under a cloudless heaven, before terracing upward to an extended boom and burst of an ending.    

WildUp drums up businessThe physical arrangements for the two halves of the concert were radically different—the full orchestral setup for the Philharmonic needed to be broken down and carted off, to be replaced by Signal's string quartet at the front, double pianos and extensive percussion at the rear, separated by a U-shaped platform for five roving singers—compelling an extra-long intermission. Enter wildUp. With the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, the ever-enterprising ensemble took to the broad empty space in front of Walt Disney Concert Hall (as well as positions across the street) to perform William Albright's 1972 "Take That" for Philharmonic attendees and passersby.

As written, "Take That" calls for four drummers managing sixteen drums. wildUp and company doubled the players and expanded the percussion battery to forty drums of all sizes, including a full dozen bass drums. With the musicians scattered over four stations around the plaza and intersection at 1st Street and Grand Avenue and a shortage of reflective surfaces, much of the sound escaped unheard up into the evening air. Still, a fine rolling and thundering was made before concertgoers returned to their places.

Steve Reich's "Three Tales" is a 2001 collaboration with video artist Beryl Korot, and falls into the category of Reich's works that are driven by the pitches and rhythms of human speech. When that technique works for Reich, as in "Different Trains," it produces profound and compelling music. When it does not work, however, the music loses its savor and interest under the dead weight of the words it tries to carry. "Three Tales," unfortunately, although performed rigorously and well by Ensemble Signal, ultimately outstayed its welcome by a fair margin, descending in its last two-thirds into a dulling and ponderous didacticism.

"Three Tales" draws on history and science, and meditates on humans, their technology, and how the two change or are changed by one another. The three events on offer are the 1937 explosion and crash of the German airship Hindenburg, the U.S. military's nuclear test detonations at Bikini Atoll in 1946, and the 1996 advent of Dolly the sheep, the world's first cloned adult mammal. The Hindenburg segment is actually successful for the most part, and Beryl Korot's video constructions are particularly well-tuned as they cross-reference the vastness of the made object and the comparative smallness of its makers.

The other two "tales" succumb to self-seriousness, particularly once passages from the creation narrative in the book of Genesis begin to be interpolated, flashing on screen in follow-the-bouncing-ball sing-along fashion. Dolly appears only briefly in her concluding segment, which is more interested in trotting out interviews with now-familiar Deep Thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Marvin Minsky, and a disturbing baby robot named Kismet, to opine on the cybernetic, code-based nature of all earthly life. While the live singers and players were clear and well-balanced, the recorded voices of the interviewees tended to fly straight into the Disney Hall's notorious hostility to over-amplification. By that point, the video accompaniment had become little more than what Alfred Hitchcock famously disdained as "photographs of people talking." Better they should have left it at one tale.

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Ensemble Signal, by the way, recently released a new recording of Steve Reich's Music for Eighteen Musicians, a piece that stands as a permanent and unequivocal success. The Signal version is at least as worthy of a listener's time as Reich's own original recording of the piece. Recommended, both.

Next on Grand continues tonight and Sunday afternoon; "Mnemosyne's Pool" repeats on the Sunday program, on which Ensemble Signal will return to perform David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe's 2005 "Shelter".

Photos by the blogger.

Cross-posted from Genre, I'm Only Dancing.


John Adams and the New Power Generation

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Before debarking each summer to the poptoned jumbotronic precincts of the Hollywood Bowl, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has become partial to ending its downtown Walt Disney Concert Hall seasons with a themed festival of some kind, typically focusing on music of the post-war Twentieth Century or the endless-war Twenty-First. Last year at this time, it was a deep deep plunge in to the Minimalist Jukebox; the previous year honed in on the music of [mostly] contemporary Brooklyn and environs. Now, to conclude its 2014-2015 season, the Phil offers up "Next on Grand: Contemporary Americans." Over the course of this week, the Phil is rolling out no fewer than seven world premieres, several West Coast premieres, and a handful of other still-new, and all-American, compositions. The programming still skews East, and it still skews male—more so than one would expect: the Phil is better than most at commissioning new works by women—but it is new, new, new and, based on the opening night, promises much.

The launch of Next on Grand fell officially to the orchestra's Green Umbrella series on Tuesday evening, with the subset of musicians within the orchestra who are committed to doing the contemporary repertoire, and to doing it well: the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group. Under the direction of composer-conductor John Adams, Tuesday's concert featured three brand new works, and one nearly new piece, all  from composers at or under 35. It was a rich and satisfying evening. This blogger ate it up, and it has left him thinking about ... many things, which he hopes to take up in another post shortly. For the moment, though, a report on the Tuesday evening groaning board of musical excellences:

First up, Dylan Mattingly's "Seasickness and Being (in love)". Berkeley-born in 1991, Mattingly has made his early reputation through his work at Bard College, particularly with the ensemble Contemporaneous, which has recorded a collection of his prior work, Stream of Stars. His emerging voice as a composer grows out of the elaborately accelerating verve of John Adams, but is rapidly asserting itself in its own directions If we apply the test of wanting to hear it again, "S&B(il)" is a plain success. It builds on something of a trick—a second piano in the ensemble, detuned a quarter tone lower than standard—and then makes that trick itself disappear almost immediately into the weft and weave of the piece, anchoring its patterns. It subdivides, in retrospect, into three distinct segments: an opening driven by kinetic momentum, a middle marked by chordal washes moving about from player to player, and a final extended pointillist settling down to silence. I am hopeful that someone will record it, because the piece is worth wandering about and getting lost in.

The setting of text is a difficult matter. Christopher Cerrone has demonstrated a particular talent for it, with his opera Invisible Cities, well received here in Los Angeles—not least by this blogger—in 2013. "The Things That Fall to Earth" is a song cycle for sopran0—Hila Plitmann, last seen here altogether unrestrained and commanding in Zappa's "'200 Motels'"—drawn from seven poems by Kay Ryan, sung through as an uninterrupted series. Rich, fluid, always clear of line and supportive of the plain expression of the verse while maintaining surprise, Cerrone's music alludes in passing to the likes of Copland and Ravel, and to Debussy in its vaporous support of the text, but the tenor and flow of it is ultimately his own. It passes the lean-forward test: one presses in, wanting to hear each new sound plainly so as not to miss its import. A beautiful bit of work beautifully played and sung, first among equals for the night in my estimation.

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Jacob Cooper's "Alla stagione dei fior" opened the second half and stood out as completely different from the works around it. For one thing, no live orchestra was involved. "Alla stagione dei fior" is a video piece and its sights and sounds all derive from preexisting material. The title phrase comes from La bohème: with the certain knowledge that Mimi is dying, she and Rodolfo nevertheless resolve to stay together through the winter, "until the season of flowers." Cooper combines two brief snippets from an existing video of the opera, slowed and extended almost to the point of immobility. The principal image is the tableau at Mimi's bedside at the moment of her death, the focus moving closer and closer by the tiniest of increments until not the lovers' faces but the space between those faces fills the screen. In that space, Cooper sub-imposes the moment of the title phrase from the previous act, complete with flickering subtitle, broken into sections microseconds long and jerkily reblended. The soundtrack is taken from the existing video, but is digitally stretched to a long, resonant drone. The concentration and visual near-stasis, coming to a point in Mimi's expiration, recalls Bill Viola; the drone score reinforces that concentrated attention, extending it toward endlessness. (Jacob Cooper's song cycle, Silver Threads, with Mellissa Hughes is also based in drones, albeit far warmer and more changeable. Released by Nonesuch last year, it did not receive nearly the attention it deserves, in my view. It was my second-favorite recording of 2014, and I unequivocally recommend it.)

Sean Friar's "Finding Time", with which the evening ended, could as well have been titled "now ... this", as it bounded from musical idea to idea to idea without obvious connection or transition betwixt them, like a flipbook with its images disarranged. Each fleeting thought had something to recommend it, but each tended to leave the scene before the first-time listener had an opportunity to grip it. Beginning with bursts of jazz-inflected fragments, it ranged every which way, before stopping with a sort of hiccup. I was particularly taken with a passage toward the center, in which the players settled into what emerged as a Tristan-like mystic chord as though sinking into a beanbag chair, before bounding tangentially away. Again, a piece that would be worth a repeat listen, or several, if only to begin to sort its sparkly shards. 

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Next on Grand continues through the weekend with, among other things, world premieres from Steven Mackey, Philip Glass, Bryce Dessner, and Andrew Norman. 

Photos: by the blogger.

Cross-posted to Genre, I'm Only Dancing.

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Starlets and Bible Black
[Gavin Bryars: Marilyn Forever, Long Beach Opera]

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Marilyn Forever, composed by Gavin Bryars on a libretto by Marilyn Bowering, received its U.S. premiere last Saturday evening via Long Beach Opera. Whether the world in fact needed another artful meditation on the life and death of Marilyn Monroe is open to debate. It has in any case been given one. Marilyn Forever must be judged a success on its own terms, and the production that has been devised by LBO artistic director Andreas Mitisek shows it to greatest advantage, with richness and detail to burn. 

Bowering has based her libretto on her 1987 poetry collection, Anyone Can See I Love You, so its methods are those of a free-form song cycle more so than of dramatic narrative. The poems frame a multiplane view of the figure of Marilyn Monroe as she contemplates or re-dreams her life at the time of her death. The well-known beats are revisited: her lonesome childhood as Norma Jean Mortenson, stardom and sex appeal, the marriages to Joe DiMaggio and (particularly) Arthur Miller, singing "Happy Birthday" to the President, her fatal embrace of drugs and alcohol, and so on. Through those reflections, Bowering searches for the woman within the archetype, and reintroduces us to her as one (to paraphrase The Smiths) who was human and who needed to be loved, just as anybody else does.

Bryars' score is for two small groups: an onstage trio of piano, saxophone and bass, and an eight-piece pit ensemble of low strings, winds and percussion. The composer himself played the bass part at Saturday's performance. The primary musical line slips with agility between the two groups of players, the trio deploying a 1950s-styled mix of jazz (saxophone solo included) and popular song styles and the pit orchestra swimming in broad and darksome minor harmonies, riverine and unresolved, melodic by allusion rather than by declaration. It is not difficult to imagine that only modest retooling would be needed to remove the singers—although Bryars has established himself as a gifted writer for human voices—and to reveal an evocative and intriguing instrumental piece.

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Marilyn Forever premiered in Victoria, British Columbia, in 2013, and has since been performed in Australia as part of a recent Bryars survey/tribute at the Adelaide Festival. The Long Beach production for this U.S. premiere is entirely new.

As written the opera calls for a cast of four: Marilyn Monroe herself and the "Rehearsal Director," who also serves to represent some of the men (and the role of men generally) in her life, plus a two-man chorus referred to as The Tritones. Director Mitisek's innovation is to divide the role of Marilyn between two singers, one for the brightly hued public star and one for the vexed and troubled private woman. 

Mitisek splits the stage as well. A lighted makeup table serves as divider, the public life playing out largely stage right (in front of the jazz trio) while stage left alludes to the guest house bedroom in which Monroe's body was found. Public Marilyn begins the opera in her bedroom, before quickly passing over into the world. Private Marilyn emerges, rather unexpectedly, from beneath the rumpled bedclothes, and never leaves her room with its scattering of old photos and the company of a motley assortment of  flasks and bottles. At the opera's end, the two personae rejoin, seated on the bed, still alone but alone together.

Set walls and scrims serve as well as projection screens, bearing posed and candid photos of incidents from Monroe's life as well as live video from the stage. The video originates with several fixed positions, plus handheld cameras operated by the two Tritones. The video overlay is immersive and potent, especially when capturing small details from the stage and juxtaposing them to add point to a larger line or gesture.

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Jamie Chamberlin and Danielle Marcelle Bond are, between them, Marilyn Monroe. The division of the part between two singers works so well in this production that it came as a surprise to many in the audience that the role is not in fact written that way. Both performers initially learned the entire role, working out the final apportionment of lines and sequences through exploration in rehearsal. Chamberlin's public star sings in a high register, evoking an enriched and variegated version of Monroe's own singing voice. Portions, at least, of the vocal line assigned to Bond's private Marilyn seem to have been transposed slightly downward toward a darker mezzo range. Each of the singers fully commits to her assigned facets of the character, and each can be said to be First Marilyn Among Equals.

[Update: I have it on excellent authority - Facebook comments from the singers - that in fact nothing was transposed or altered in the score. The role of Marilyn is written such as to encompass both soprano and mezzo: the way in which the part was divided for dramatic purposes served, by happy coincidence, to play to the strengths of the two performers.]

Lee Gregory (the Captain in last season's Death of Klinghoffer) brings admirable clarity to distinguish among the half-dozen (or more) men he is called upon to symbolize, including the gruff but supportive Rehearsal Director, bespectacled and beloved Arthur Miller, and the occasional unsavory Hollywood casting couch type. The Tritones (Robert Norman, Adrian Rosales) ably provide such choral support as the score requires, and they are indispensable to the seamless workings of the video schema. 

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Opera often concerns itself with retelling old stories and Marilyn Forever—an unfortunate title, really, that makes a serious minded and affecting chamber opera sound like a feel-good jukebox musical—does not hold itself out as offering any new and shattering insight into its subject. That may be for the best: even before her death, and certainly in the fifty-three years since, Marilyn Monroe has been appropriated, claimed, and retooled by so many hands with so many agendas of their own that offering her up as no more than a human woman alone with herself is less a reduction than it is a show of respect. 

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Marilyn Forever receives a final performance at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro (albeit without the composer as a player) on Sunday, March 29, 2015, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets available here.

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

[As ever with Long Beach Opera, the blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.]  

Cross-posted at Genre, I'm Only Dancing.

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A bonus photo: the actual Marilyn, in a smoky nightclub situation in the company of Donald O'Connor and Cole Porter, at the Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel, January 1953.

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Antoinette of the Spirits, or, The Beaumarchais Strategem
[The Ghosts of Versailles, Los Angeles Opera]

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A magpie's trove in a hall of mirrors, its shiny borrowings gleaned across space and time and worlds natural and supernatural: John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles is now on offer as part of Los Angeles Opera's sprawling "Figaro Unbound" initiative, with two performances remaining. It is a rewarding thing to commune with these spirits.

New York's Metropolitan Opera commissioned Ghosts to be premiered in 1983, for the company's 100th Anniversary. In light of the occasion, it was to serve not only as an opera in its own right, but also as a gala opportunity to showcase a number of the Met's then-reigning and rising stars. The enormity of the resulting piece was such that the Met itself has yet to revisit it—a planned 2010 revival was scrapped when the U.S. economy went reeling downward—and such other productions as have been attempted (in Chicago and St. Louis) have been of reduced or chamber versions. The current production in Los Angeles is the first to take on the complete version since its premiere.

The institutional neglect of these Ghosts is unfortunate because Corigliano, with a meticulous tightrope-walk of a libretto by William M. Hoffman, devised a piece that can stand solidly as an opera, as a love letter to all opera, as a spectacle, and as emotionally resonant theater. Ghost story, opera buffa, love story, melodrama, pageant and more: Ghosts is a bumblebee, a creature that should not fly but does, an edifice that should collapse of its own weight and yet floats off to the Empyrean when all's said, as lightly as a Montgolfier balloon (the concluding image in this production).

The plot? It's complicated, even by 18th century opera standards:

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The audience in the material world is made privy to events in the spirit world, possibly going on at this moment. The ghosts of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and others of the French court, executed by the Revolution, languish and are bored. With them is the ghost of the equally dead, but not beheaded, Beaumarchais, the author of the Figaro plays, the two most popular of which—The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro—served Rossini and Mozart as fodder for equally popular operas, which will themselves be returning to the L.A. Opera stage in short order.

For the love of the mournful Marie Antoinette, Beaumarchais grandly proposes an entertainment, a new recounting of further adventures of the beloved Figaro and company.  By this means, the poet announces, he will do more than merely amuse. He proposes in fact to Change the Course of History and to permit the Queen, whom he loves, to escape her rendezvous with the guillotine. The living audience watches the dead audience watching fictional characters tampering with actual history in an opera within the opera. 

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On the inner stage, it is some twenty years after Figaro's Marriage. Figaro, it seems, continues to serve Count Almaviva. The Count is engaged in a Pimpernel-like scheme in which a fabulous diamond necklace of the Queen's will be sold in secret to the English ambassador to Paris, during a reception at the Turkish embassy. The proceeds of the transaction will fund the Queen's rescue from imprisonment and her escape to the New World, specifically to Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Almaviva's trusted friend Begearss—in fact an unrepentant villain in the tradition of Iago—awaits his chance to betray the Count into the lethal hands of the Revolution. And, of course, there are marriages to be arranged or thwarted.

All goes as planned until Figaro, having snapped up the necklace during the  hubbub of the Turkish revels, rebels against his creator and refuses to use the jewels as intended to save the Queen. He will keep them for his own, to deal with his innumerable creditors. He has achieved Pirandellian self-awareness. He knows he is a beloved character—"Your Figaro!"—and that this is what his audience would expect of him and what he himself desires.

Outraged, Beaumarchais is obliged to invade his own fiction in an effort to reassert his authorial will. Ultimately, in an effort to persuade Figaro to return to course, Beaumarchais restages the trial of the Queen. Figaro relents, the dreadful Begearss receives his comeuppance, and all of the fictional characters are saved. The real/ghost Queen, however, elects not to change her own past. She finds that she is reconciled to history, and in the company of the loving Beaumarchais she achieves a sort of apotheosis.

Beaumarchais's proposition proves to be the same as Shakespeare's in the sonnets: that the love of a poet or artist may grant to the beloved, through art, a sort of immortality when life itself cannot. It is, perhaps, the only immortality there can be for such fleeting creatures as humans are.

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This new Los Angeles production is directed by Darko Tresnjak, whose previous work with Los Angeles Opera has been as part of the "Recovered Voices" project, including Alexander Zemlinsky's marvelous, heartbreaking The Dwarf.   To the larger world, he may be better known as the recent Tony Award winner for directing The Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. Tresnjak's management of stage traffic alone is an impressive thing, given the multiple stages, nesting plots and large-scale set pieces Ghosts requires. The sets are looming and luxuriant, the costumes sumptuous, the spectacle fully spectacular. Ghosts is a madly overstuffed thing, scintillant of surface but secreting resonant emotional depths. Its every corner packed with detail, it resembles in many ways Terry Gilliam's Baron Munchhausen, not least in its pitting of love and the spinning of upwardly yearning yarns against political calculation and callous destructiveness. (That, and they both feature heads floating about independent of their bodies. But I digress.)

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On a good night, the orchestra of the Los Angeles Opera is every bit the equal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, across the street. The Opera orchestra and conductor James Conlon are having very good nights with Ghosts, navigating a kaleidoscope of styles and moods effortlessly.

Among the singers, Robert Brubaker as the reprehensible Begearss is a highlight, earning a round of affectionate booing in his curtain call. In his company debut, Christopher Maltman brings dignity and scope to bear on behalf of Beaumarchais. Patricia Racette as Marie Antoinette, is noble and sad. The show-stopping cameo role of the Turkish singer Samira, written for Marilyn Horne, is taken up with infectious glee by Patti Lupone, her Broadway chops in full effect, ululating and schticking it up uproariously in the mad comic finale of Act I. 

The Ghosts of Versailles is not what Wagner had in mind when he imagined the "total work of art" [gesamtkunstwerk], but in this production it arguably qualifies: music, poetry, theatrical wizardry, all brought to bear in a consuming whole. Its satisfactions are many, and they linger—hauntingly—long after the curtain falls and the auditorium is emptied of the living.

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Incidental Twitter notes:

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The Ghosts of Versailles continues at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with performances February 26 and March 1.

Photos used by kind permission of Los Angeles Opera.

The blogger attended this performance as a Los Angeles Opera subscriber.

Cross-posted to Genre, I'm Only Dancing.

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Oui, elle regrette tout
[Thérèse Raquin, Long Beach Opera]

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Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin (1867) is lurid, unrepentantly tawdry, and a potboiler at its core, with all the lust, loathing, murder, desperation, and squalor that implies. It's trappings even include the visitations of an aggrieved and vengeful ghost. It would seem the sort of story destined from birth to find a place in the opera repertoire, and in 2001 composer Tobias Picker gave it one. Originally commissioned by Dallas Opera, and staged by San Diego Opera in 2008, on Saturday evening Picker's Thérèse Raquin opened the 2015 Long Beach Opera season. 

Zola offered his story as a realistic chronicle of squalid conditions and miserable lives in the Paris of his own moment. Director Ken Cazan maintains the Parisian locale, but moves the action forward some eighty years, to 1945-46 as the city, with the rest of Europe, struggles back to life from war and occupation. As conceit go it is a good conceit, and the mid-century look of the production also quietly evokes an American literary parallel: the novels of James M. Cain in which, as in Zola, characters are ground down by their own mistakes or, as commonly, by societal and family conditions they did not make, cannot control, and seem barely to understand.

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Zola's tale is pitiless: Thérèse was left at the age of three to be raised by her aunt, the widowed Madame Raquin, whose life is otherwise devoted to ruling over her sickly son, Thérèse's cousin, Camille. It is foreordained that the cousins should marry. They do, and continue to live in the Raquin flat, where Thursday dominoes with the neighbors are the only unvarying variance in a dismal routine. Thérèse falls in with Camille's raffish office mate, the aspiring "painter" Laurent. Camille, inevitably, is murdered by the lovers: drowned in a boating excursion on the Seine. Laurent and Thérèse, still living off of Madame Raquin's widow's pension, marry and fall swiftly into debilitating mutual loathing and regret. Camille's ghost—given here an unforeseen Act II entrance worthy of Freddie Krueger—perturbs them mightily. At length, just as they are inclining to kill one another, they instead kill themselves. Tres jolienon?

Gene Scheer is the librettist, and he has provided a clean, efficient tour through the necessary events of the tale. The libretto is structurally sound as can be, but Scheer has chosen, inexplicably and with surprising frequency, to set much of the dialogue as loose-limbed rhymed couplets. While Picker typically avoids lapsing into sing-song to accommodate the rhymes (except when some of the supporting characters are actually supposed to be singing wedding-night doggerel), the too-obvious rhyme frequently threatens to undercut the seriousness of the characters' situation.

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Picker's score is also a clean and efficient thing, amply allusive without lowering itself to pastiche. Act 1, in particular, revels in evocations of Debussy and Ravel—Laurent's seductive anecdote of being "persuaded" to include a comely young woman in one of his pictures is a veritable  après-midi d'un  flâneur. The second act, post-murder, grows more angular, highlighted by Camille's "ghost aria," which borrows effectively from the bottomless melancholy of Peter Quint in Britten's The Turn of the Screw. If it is not pioneering, the music is rarely less than an effective carrier of the drama.

The cast in this production, the majority in their first appearance with Long Beach Opera, are solid as can be. As a character, Thérèse poses the challenge of being far more acted upon than active; Mary Ann Stewart is amply sympathetic against the odds, grasping for a personal freedom she can barely imagine. As Camille, Matthew DiBattista effectively contrasts an ineffectual lumpishness against a bitter last fight against death and, finally, an urgent and physical grotesquerie from beyond the grave in the showpiece ghost aria. Ed Parks's Laurent is less clever than he imagines himself, casually unfeeling when he imagines he is being most sincere; not a bad man, but a man who makes very poor choices.

Suzan Hanson captures the misguided strictness of Madame Raquin, who never acknowledges her smothering effect on those around her. When her character falls silent, victim of a stroke induced by the discovery of Laurent and Thérèse's guilt (and a brutal confrontation with Laurent), she serves as silent foil to the guilty and to the oblivious as the drama snakes to its end.

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To their credit, Picker and Sheer have taken the supporting parts of the neighbors seriously, giving a fair portion of humanity to parts that could have been caricatures. Zeffin Quinn Hollis is the good natured gendarme Olivier, unable even to suspect the guilt of the killers, with Ani Maldjian as his touchingly rootless spouse. John Matthew Myers is the much-married, jovially clueless Monsieur Grivet.

All told Thérèse Raquin works well as an opera. If it's path through desperation and folly to death and confusion is not new, it is certainly well retold. As Bugs Bunny famously observed, "Whaddaya expect from an opera? A happy ending?" To which one can only reply in this case: Non, je ne regrette rien.

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Thérèse Raquin repeats at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro on Sunday, February 1, 2015, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets available here.

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

[As ever with Long Beach Opera, the blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.]

Cross-posted to Genre, I'm Dancing.

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A Midsummer Night's Temblor

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Timing is everything. On Saturday evening, Long Beach Opera staged the long-delayed Los Angeles premiere of John Adams' I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky, and the concatenation of that piece's concerns with contemporaneous events lent to it a weight and complexity that, frankly, it likely does not warrant on its own merits.

Ceiling/Sky, as it is often known, was created by Adams in collaboration with poet-activist June Jordan under the auspices of director Peter Sellars, which whom the composer had worked closely in the creation and staging of his earlier operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer (both of which Long Beach Opera has performed in recent years). As with the operas, the piece takes a current event as its starting point. Premiering in Berkeley in 1995, Ceiling/Sky turns on the Northridge earthquake that thundered beneath the Los Angeles area the previous year.

Ceiling/Sky is not actually about the earthquake, which does not even occur until nearly two thirds of the way through the piece. When the seismic shift finally puts in its appearance, it serves as little more than a random opportunity for personal growth on the part of the story's seven characters, who by that point are as intertwined as they are ill defined.

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The dramatic frame of Ceiling/Sky is one that is by now familiar from a certain type of very serious and earnest film and television drama: a group of characters, each defined principally by ethnicity or gender or political affiliation and otherwise bearing little in the way of individual personality, are brought together through the altogether random intersection of their life paths. Here, a "young black man" named Dewain, with a history of run-ins with law enforcement, shoplifts two bottles of beer while enroute to see Consuelo, the undocumented Salvadoran refugee with whom he has fathered a seven-month old child. Dewain is arrested by Mike, an LAPD officer on patrol in the company of Tiffany, a television journalist who takes more than professional interest in his person. Facing a "third strike" that will send him to prison for most of his life, Dewain is represented by public defender Rick, the U.S.-born son of Vietnamese refugees. Consuelo has been receiving birth control advice from community activist Leila, who in turn is romantically enmeshed with David, a charismatic, if philandering, inner city preacher. There is then an earthquake. Lives are changed, deep realizations are realized—Mike the cop acknowledges and embraces his gay identity, for example, and Consuelo elects to return to political engagement in El Salvador. The story ends with the characters' life paths re-forking in their separate new found directions.

Twenty years on, the details have changed but the political and societal concerns at play in Ceiling/Sky remain sadly unresolved. The fraught potential of encounters between white law enforcement and young black men has been driven home again by the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Young Central Americans continue to cross the U.S. border fleeing criminal or government violence in their homelands. Even the earthquake itself became suddenly topical again when the town of Napa and surounding wine country were struck with a 6.0 shock within hours after Saturday's performance.

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Relevance and progressive politics, however, do not in themselves create credible theater. Ceiling/Sky ultimately fails as persuasive drama because its characters are barely more than stick figures bearing their identities as placards. Politically informed drama is hard to pull off, the weight of symbolism and rhetorical point tending to pull away from the compelling portrayal of actual humans. June Jordan did not navigate those hazards with nearly the success that was achieved by Alice Goodman in her (imperfect, but nevertheless more successful) libretti for Nixon and Klinghoffer

John Adams' score, on the other hand, is peculiarly compelling. Adams calls the piece a "song play," which could be taken as a literal translation of the German singspiel, i.e., the mix of high and low music theater traditions that yielded up Magic Flute. The magic and spectacle of Mozart are not on display in Ceiling/Sky, but the coupling of music hall, dance hall, and concert hall traditions certainly is. The 20 songs that tell the story swing and shuffle, groove and grind, with neominimalist pulse and drone as their dates for the evening, a pleasingly heady and singspielische mix of street and nonstreet strains. The reliance on electronic keyboards is occasionally too period-specific, verging on the cheesy, but not to such an extent as to undercut the entirety of the score.

Long Beach Opera artistic director Andreas Mitisek conducted the ensemble with exemplary skill, and the ensemble responded with what seemed to be as compelling an account of the score as could be wished. The performances of musicians and singing actors were across the board entirely compelling: better, really, than the piece itself. In a world full of mediocre accounts of great works, it was refreshing to encounter a strong and committed account of a less-than-great one.

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I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky was a one-off performance, under the auspices of Los Angeles County's Ford Theatres. Which is to say, if you weren't there you won't be given another opportunity.

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

~~~


"Nebula of Angels"

Angels Flight and Ziggurat

If you had asked me six months ago when I would be making my debut at Walt Disney Concert Hall, I'd have chortled and wondered what in the name of the Muses you were on about.  But wait....

This weekend (Saturday July 19 at 8:00, Sunday July 20 at 3:00) it seems that I will be making my Disney Hall debut, as a piece for which I crafted up the text will be on offer as part of the massive 35th Anniversary Concert of the Gay Men's Chorus Los Angeles.

And you may ask myself: "Well, how did you get here?" And I may say to yourself: "Well, it was like this...."

In March, my previous collaborator/composer Garrett Shatzer dropped me a line with a potential referral to composer Dave Volpe. Dave, who is also a GMCLA member, had the opportunity to contribute a new and original piece for the 35th Anniversary and was in need of a text. A piece d'occasion was required, something evoking Los Angeles and 35 years' longevity and pride and aspiration and suchlike themes appropriate to the ensemble. The sort of assignment, in short, that lands more often on the desks of poets laureate than on the desk of a simple country lawyer in Pasadena. How could one, if one were this one, say no? One could not. Dave and I connected, chatted, more or less concurred on the scope of the thing, and I set to work.

There are two principal versions of the resulting text: the original "poem-poem" version and a version revised to be more workable, more settable and, above all, more memorizable, as the Men of the Chorus sing from memory without scores before them.

The underlying inspiration for me was visual, a sort of view that is particular to Los Angeles: a view across the basin at night, the lights below so bright that the light of the stars is subsumed and absorbed from beneath. Among others, I had in mind certain Julius Shulman photos, particularly the famous nighttime image of Case Study House #22.* Feeding in to that idea were variants on the notion of Los Angeles as the "City of Angels" and, because the idea of occluded stars was in it, memory dredged up an old slogan from the glory days of MGM.

The original version of the piece, with that studio slogan for its title, came out rather like this: 

Sky and line

More stars than there are in the heavens!

Two bowls inverted each on each

One bowl the earth
Another bowl the sky...

Amid the City’s blaze and burn,
Amid the City’s glare and hustle,
Amid the City’s noise and heat and roaring, stand!

Stand upon this earth
surrounded,
Stand upon this earth
All bathed in this great City’s lights

Stand and seek
And search a sky whose former lights for now are
    hidden.
 

Lift your eye to see and scan
An empty sky:
No stars above?
Standing on this earth, look up:
No stars above?

Step out,
step up,
climb up,
stand still,
look down:
Behold what’s spread before you, at your feet 

Step out,
step up,
climb up,
stand still,
look down:
From any hill behold a bowl of stars

A vast expansive basin full of stars
From mountains down the foothills to the sea 

And with each star, an angel
Light for light
And with each star, an angel
Life for life
And with each star, an angel
Love for Love 

More stars on earth              More angels
than as it were in heaven      More stars 

stars not fallen                    angels not fallen
stars and angels
RISING
RISING
RISING
to the ground and to the world 

For every eye a soul
For every soul a star
For every star an angel
in this city that’s a nebula of angels 

better angels
better natures
better living
better lives 

Rise up, step down, step out
Engage, expand, explode
and shine
 

~~~

There followed from this draft a quick bit of give and take in which the poem was compacted and reorganized along more verse-chorus-versical lines, and in which it gained a new name: Dave Volpe didn't much care for my loose baggy first title but expressed a liking for one of the phrases within the poem, so that phrase became the new and final title. While it is still a Los Angeles piece, it is now less explicitly so than when it started ... the sort of thing that the Chorus of Your Metropolis, Gay or Not, might perhaps embrace?

The piece is being set for orchestra and, I do believe, for both the main and youth choruses of GMCLA. I've not heard a note of it yet, as it has worked through the rehearsal process, and I am witless with anticipation. I had the chance to attend GMCLA's last major concert and I will attest these gentlemen can saaaainnggg. I'm pleased as can be to give them these words with which to work their magic, and extend to all at GMCLA my heartiest felicitations on the occasion of their 35th year.

This then, or something closely akin to it, is the version of the text that Dave has actually set and that will premiere on Saturday night (repeating Sunday). I canna' hardly wait. 

Sky and line noir

Nebula of Angels 

Step out, step up,
climb up, stand still,
look down:
Behold what’s spread before you, at your feet 

Amid the City’s blaze and burn,
Amid the City’s glare and hustle,
Amid the City’s noise and heat and roaring, stand!

Stand upon this earth
surrounded,
Stand upon this earth
All bathed in this great City’s lights 

Step out, step up,
climb up, stand still,
look up:
Behold what’s spread above you, in the heights 

Standing on this earth, look up:
No stars above?
These lights below so bright
Their shine outshines the skies.

From any hill behold a bowl of stars
From mountains down the foothills to the sea
A vast expansive basin full of stars
More stars on earth than once shone in the heavens 

Step out, step up,
climb up, stand still,
look round:
Behold what’s spread about you, on all sides 

And with each star, an angel
Light for light
And with each star, an angel
Life for life
And with each star, an angel
Love for Love

stars not fallen             angels not fallen
stars and angels RISING
to the ground and to the world 

For every eye a soul
For every soul a star
For every star an angel
in this city that’s a nebula of angels 

better angels
better natures
better living
better lives 

Rise up, step down, step out
Engage, expand, explode
and shine

Halle disney en bleu

~~~

* In a bit of happenstantial synchronicity, another fine example of the form appears as the cover image for Gabriel Kahane's The Ambassador. [See preceding post.] The Kahane photo was not released by his label until a week or two after my verses were essentially completed, but it is more or less exactly what I had been picturing as I wrote them.

"More Stars Than There Are in the Heavens!" and "Nebula of Angels" texts Copyright 2014 George M. Wallace.

Photos by the blogger.

~~~