As the pebbles start to roll downhill, picking up speed in the impending avalanche that will lead to the Impeachment of Donald J. Trump, I've been trying to look elsewhere, just occasionally ... to stay happy, optimistic, and productive.
The TG and I saw THREE good things lately -- an opera, a musical, and a concert – that temporarily distracted me from the unfolding disaster in the Oval Office:
THE OPERA – "LES CONTES D'HOFFMANN" at the Los Angeles Opera
Jacques Offenbach's LES CONTES D'HOFFMANN is one of my favorite French operas (I have six recordings), and the production by the LA Opera this season with rising Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo and the German soprano Diana Damrau is one of the highlights of the season. Generally speaking, LA Opera doesn't have the money to pay big opera stars anymore, so it was a real surprise to have TWO genuine international opera stars in this production.
Damrau was supposed to perform the superdiva feat of singing all three of Hoffmann's loves – the mechanical doll Olympia, the Venetian courtesan Giulietta, and the doomed Antonia – just as Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, and others have done. But she's been fighting bronchitis in the past few months and decided to sing only the Antonia role. (LA Opera brought in the young Korean soprano So Young Park who nailed her role as Olympia and the American Kate Aldrich as Giulietta who did not.)
In the same manner, Damrau's husband – bass-baritone Nicholas Teste – was supposed to play the Four Villains who torment the hero throughout the opera, HOFFMANN's other commonly performed, multi-casting opportunity. But right before the premiere, conductor Placido Domingo appeared onstage to announce that Teste had developed throat problems, too. In a pinch, the LA Opera found a singer – Wayne Tigges -- who could sing the part but did not know the staging. So the audience was treated to the interesting spectacle of having one singer in the orchestra pit singing the roles and another on-stage, lip-syncing and acting them.
I've heard about this happening before but have never seen it. It was, by turns, interesting, amusing, distracting, and finally irrelevant. In any case, the staging – by Marta Domingo, Domingo's wife – wasn't the highlight of the evening: the music was.
I'm not a fan of Domingo's conducting, but he wasn't too bad this night. Of course Domingo himself was a great Hoffmann onstage (I have two of his performances), so he knows how the music is supposed to sound. He did a decent enough job, keeping the music moving and leaving plenty of room for Grigolo and the rest of the singers to shine.
Damrau sang beautifully. The Antonia section is my favorite part of the opera. The TG and I saw Grigolo in recital last year and were eager to see him in this strenuous, bravura role.
It wasn't for nothing that Offenbach was called "The Mozart of the Boulevards." He wrote more than 100 operettas filled with audience-pleasing melodies including the famous "Can-Can." And HOFFMANN, his final work (actually left unfinished at his death), has some of the loveliest, most enjoyable music ever written.
I love the story of Offenbach, how even after all his success in light opera he yearned to write something of lasting greatness, a "serious" opera for the grand opera stage ... and he got his wish: HOFFMANN is now part of the standard opera repertory. In the most recent year recorded, it was the 31st most commonly staged opera in the world.
The Barcarolle from TALES OF HOFFMANN – with Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca – the most famous piece of music in the opera and one of the world's most famous melodies – used in countless movies and commercials
Even Elvis Presley covered The Barcarolle – "Tonight Is So Right For Love" from G.I. BLUES (1960)
Grigolo and Damrau in ROMEO ET JULIETTE at the Met
Diana Damrau as Olympia
Natalie Dessay as Olympia
Natalie Dessay as Olympia – singing outdoors, with a breeze blowing her skirt up
The Love Duet from the Antonia act – with Marcelo Alvarez and Angela Gheorghiu – from London, 2000 -- with subtitles
Offenbach's Infernal Gallop from his opera ORPHEUS AUX ENFERS a/k/a "the Can Can"
THE MUSICAL – FUN HOME at the Ahmanson Theatre
I was a big fan of Alison Bechdel's comic strip DYKES TO WATCH OUT FOR when it started running in the 1980s, so I was not entirely surprised that she's gone on to MacArthur Fellow fame-and-glory. I've never read her graphic novel FUN HOME but was delighted when it was turned into this very fine Broadway musical, winner of five Tony Awards in 2015.
FUN HOME played in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre, a theatre I revile. I've seen quite a few shows at the Ahmanson, and if they succeed, it's despite the theatre, not because of it. Its capacity of 2,000 seats with two large balconies virtually guarantees a lack of intimacy in the proceedings, especially for a small musical like FUN HOME (nine actors, seven musicians on a platform in the back). FUN HOME was developed on a small scale, played at the Public Theatre Off-Broadway and the Circle in the Square on Broadway (capacity 776), and was staged "in-the-round." The show had to be completely restaged for this national tour.
Surprisingly FUN HOME worked fairly well at the Ahmanson. First of all, they didn't sell seats in the second balcony, bringing things in closer for the actors. And I was smart: I got us seats in the second row to make sure that we could actually see what was going on onstage.
But the reason it worked is that FUN HOME is wonderful, heartfelt theatre. The autobiographical story of Alison's coming-out and her relationship with her family, especially her closeted gay father who commits suicide, is like all the best art: very specific, yet completely universal.
Alison is portrayed at three stages of her life by three different actors: present day, successful middle-aged cartoonist Alison ... ten-year-old Alison ... and first year of college Alison. The way the creators weave the story of all three Alisons together – more than the actual music -- makes the piece work on a high emotional level. It was quite funny, quite moving, and I'm glad the TG made us go.
FUN HOME – at the Tony Awards – including the charming "Ring Of Keys"
FUN HOME – "Come to the Fun Home" – more cute kids
FUN HOME – "Changing My Major" – one of the best numbers in LA
FUN HOME – the "Flying Away" finale – when all three Alisons get together – you can hear the sobs in the audience
FUN HOME – a "Theater Talk" interview with creators Alison Bechdel, Jeanine Tesori, and Lisa Kron by Michael Riedel and my old Sarah Lawrence buddy Susan Haskins – (she was "Susie" back then)
FUN HOME – a full "Democracy Now!" special with the great Amy Goodman
THE CONCERT – MIRGA GRAZINYTE-TYLA conducting the LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC at the Walt Disney Concert Hall
Our Saturday night concert series gave us "Mirga Conducts." As if that was all that needed saying.
We've seen Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla – newly promoted Associate Conductor of the the LA Philharmonic and newly named Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – conduct several times before, and she is always a delight. Just turned 30, Lithuanian-born Mirga is one of the rising stars of the music world, and for good reason: she is a natural. Raised in a family of musicians, she was discovered as a conducting prodigy in her early twenties and is now in demand by all the leading orchestras.
She recently landed the prestigious Birmingham post, and with virtual certainty, I can predict that she will be the first woman to become Music Director at one of the major symphony orchestras. She'll probably follow in the steps of former Birmingham Symphony timebeater Sir Simon Rattle and someday become Music Director for the Berlin Philharmonic, the most prestigious conducting post in the world.
This program was a nice split of what we often get in our series: mostly mainstream repertory, with something modern thrown in.
The mainstream works were Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491 and Hadyn's Symphony No. 31 in D major, the "Hornsignal" symphony. Horns were one of the themes of the evening because the new work was the U.S. premiere of a work co-commissioned by the LA Philharmonic: Georg Fredrich Haas' Concerto Grosso for 4 Alphorns and Orchestra.
Yes, 4 alphorns.
Born in 1953, Haas is from Austria and uses these traditional instruments (unwieldy, long wooden horns without holes) not for their folklore value, but for their ability to create the microtones that Haas loves to experiment with. We listened to Haas at the pre-concert lecture – yes, we do that kind of thing – and he was very charming if kind of hard to understand. I wonder how his music composition students at my almost-alma-mater Columbia understand him. (But I love that he said that moving to New York was the best thing he ever did in his life.) It was interesting to watch the four alphorns being played, but I don't think I'll be listening to Mr. Haas' music much in the future.
The soloist for the Mozart piano concerto was the venerable American pianist Stephen Kovacevich. This is one of my favorite Mozart concertos, and I'm afraid the 76 year-old pianist, ten years recovered from a stroke, did just an adequate job. I think he was nervous; in fact, he hit a clinker on his first arpeggio. When I got back home, I listened to my Murray Perahia.
But Mirga's work in the Mozart and the Hadyn was wonderful: the orchestra sounded bright and clear, with many nice details in the music brought out. As the pre-concert lecturer said, watching Mirga conduct is like watching the music being created, right in front of your eyes.
She has the gift of communicating feeling to the musicians and the audience. It doesn't hurt that she's very pretty and graceful. She's like Tinkerbell, sprinkling musical fairy dust on everything and everybody.
Mirga on conducting in Los Angeles
Mirga meets the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus for the first time
Mirga makes her debut as Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
BBC News covers Mirga's CBSO debut
Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in C-minor, K. 491 – Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein's version
Murray Perahia's version
Vladimir Ashkenazy's version
Evgeny Kissin's version
Compare and contrast.
And stay, happy, optimistic, and productive.
DESPAIR IS NOT AN OPTION!!
NOVEMBER 6, 2018 – REMEMBER THAT DATE!!