Commentary: Why two theatrical extravaganzas bode well for the state of the opera in Los Angeles

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With Memorial Day past, the gray history of May, the night-blooming jasmine losing its fragrance, and the 2021-22 performing arts season winding down, opera in our little corner of the operaverse is now, for some reason, in full bloom. Just like Omicron BA.2.

Is it time to take stock? Probably not yet.

It’s not the end of spring we were hoping for. Mask-wearing and other precautions seem to be going nowhere soon. BA.2.12.1 has arrived; B4 is waiting backstage. Yet opera thrives on risk, inviting excess on and off stage. So here we go, no matter what.

On the third Saturday in May, Los Angeles Opera mounted the last production of its first full season since the pandemic closed shop as it hosted Verdi’s “Aida” in all its grand operatic glory at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and drew a large crowd in parties held. Continuing through June 12 and including free Saturday night video relays on the Santa Monica Pier, Newhall Park and the Pomona Fairplex, it’s an “Aida” with a modern look that’s otherwise reassuring. Powerful, old-school vocals and lavish production aim to rock.

The same night as the opening of “Aida,” the ever-intrepid Long Beach Opera began its first post-pandemic season with a revamped Handel rarity, “Giustino,” at the Museum of Latin American Art. Given that the first two of the season’s four scheduled productions were canceled when three black members of the company summarily quit, citing “racial symbolism” and “a culture of misogyny” that have yet to be publicly clarified, the future of the company was called into question. . But during the second sold-out performance, the atmosphere was particularly festive. Rather than a seemingly tattered enterprise, LBO has delivered much of the best of what it’s known for – thought-provoking, hyper-relevant (if at times derailed), engagingly performed musical theater that takes, whether intentionally or modestly little for granted.

Elsewhere, smaller-scale operas are popping up everywhere. Numi Opera – named after Aida’s aria, “Numi pieta”, an invocation of divine spirits – offered a program of excerpts from operas by Nazi-suppressed composers at the Broad Stage last Sunday. The first weekend in June promises the premieres of two new operas by local composers – “The Double” by Vera Ivanov and “Roman” by Ian Dicke – at Boston Court in Pasadena. The Salastina Ensemble ends its season with performances at Caltech, Colburn School and the Broad Stage of ‘OC fan Tutte’, Vid Guerrerio’s reimagining of Mozart’s ‘Così fan Tutte’ through the prism of the county’s culture wars of Orange. It’s a follow-up to the director’s previous remake of “The Marriage of Figaro” as “Figaro 90210” in which he brilliantly confronted the situation of undocumented immigrants in Los Angeles.

Then, on June 7, the relentless Los Angeles Philharmonic once again enters the opera act at the Walt Disney Concert Hall by staging Ted Hearne’s opera/oratorio on gentrification, “Place,” with a libretto by Hearne and Saul Williams. The Ojai Festival follows, from June 9 to 12, this year unveiling a range of experimental lyrical actions from the AMOC (American Modern Opera Company). Formed by composer, poet, bandleader and former LA Opera artist-in-residence Matthew Aucoin, AMOC features three of the opera scene’s most compelling vocalists – Julia Bullock, Davóne Tines and Anthony Roth Costanzo – along with director Zack Winokur.

Just like the good old days and more, might we be tempted to think. But health officials continue to issue a daily litany of gathering warnings. The Music Center retains its vaccination and mask requirement, as do many other indoor venues. “Giustino” was outside.

Even so, there is this old problem of opera and risk. It’s an art form, fueled by extreme emotions, that also likes to wear its heart on its sleeve and takes great pleasure in being as outrageous as possible. While a careless modernization of ‘King Lear’ can undermine Shakespeare, as my colleague Charles McNulty revealed in the opera, escaping murder may be the goal.

It is therefore not surprising that the opera has, throughout its history, inspired an unruly audience. Where else, outside of a political rally, do you find so many boos – happy and angry? It’s no surprise, then, that opera audiences can be somewhat cavalier about mask-wearing.

I saw “Aida” from three angles in the Chandler. I started in the swanky Founders, where sight and sound have the best balance, the seating is lush, and the mask lax. I went up to the back row of the box, away from the stage of the grand triumphal scene in Act 2. The more intimate third and fourth acts found me downstairs near the stage in highly favored seats.

Francesca Zambello’s production, first staged in San Francisco six seasons ago, has a contemporary appeal. Hieroglyphic graffiti by LA artist Retna covers the scene. The ancient Egyptians are dressed like a colonial army. The attacking Ethiopians are dressed in more colorful clothing. But the update is a thin disguise.

Aida, the captured Ethiopian princess, and her lover, Radames, the leader of the victorious Egyptian army, are easily recognizable as Verdi’s unhappy couple. The triumphant scene may lack elephants, but it does have a flashy dance choreographed by Jessica Lang and glitter.

This scene in the dressing room gained its grandeur thanks to the enveloping sounds (the sound rises pleasantly in the Chandler). The great voices of Russell Thomas (an incisive Radames), Latonia Moore (an overworked Aida), Morris Robinson (a terrifyingly strong priest, Ramfis), Melody Moore (striking as Amneris, the Egyptian princess and rival of Aida) soared on a magnificent choir and orchestra. James Conlon let it all resonate gloriously. We could clearly see the scene in relief, and the imagination filled with visual details. Everything became incredibly believable.

Up close, the imperfections stood out. Long her signature role, Moore’s Aida has some well-practiced calculus. She keeps banknotes, but not all of them all the time. The real drama came from Thomas, who has the makings of an impressive Radames in which humanity rises above ambition, and Moore’s vulnerable Amneris.

Long Beach Opera’s “Giustino” proved that opera was the opposite of this “Aida.” It was staged by the company’s new artistic director, James Darrah, in the courtyard of MOLAA with the audience in bleachers surrounding three sides of a long stage.

With masks neither mandatory outdoors nor fashionable, I found a perch away from the bleachers and behind a cactus. I saw some things better than others. There were video projections in some scenes and amplification was used. Although I couldn’t always tell what was going on, I’m not sure others can either. Again, powerful performance and a bit of imagination proved exceptionally satisfying.

Like “Aida”, “Giustino” is a theatrical extravaganza set in ancient times. The plans of a widowed Empress of Constantinople, Arianna, to marry and thus crown a new emperor, Anastasio, are interrupted by an invading rebel army led by Arianna’s abandoned lover, the villainous Vitaliano. There are a number of devious complications involving a sea monster, the help of the gods, and the heroic care of a plowman, Giustino.

Darrah attempted to create something resembling a cut of a William Burroughs opera by eliminating and rearranging the arias, moving the action to the Mojave Desert and injecting contemporary sex, violence and gender into the convention. of baroque opera. Arianna takes a wife for the new emperor, which follows musically since Handel wrote Anastasio for a castrato voice that suits a woman well. Composer Shelley Washington reshaped parts of Handel’s score here and there, adding backbeats and such.

Playing with Shakespeare is one thing, playing with Handel is another. Baroque operas were rarely rehearsed, and when they were, they were always suited to the singers and the occasion. Like moviegoers and theatergoers today, Handel’s audiences wanted something new.

Darrah’s stroll with cowboys, desert rats, and twinkling queens around a seedy motel isn’t in itself entirely new to modern opera stagings, but it felt fresh and fair. for this little-known score. The cast came from different vocal traditions, which, although sometimes discordant, kept the Handelian flow of arias thrilling. For example, Anna Schubert’s radiant, pure-sounding Arianna and Marlaina Owens’ more modulated Anastasio made for a theatrically intriguing couple. Luke Elmer, a dazzling countertenor from Texas, reimagined Giustino as an aw-shucks, fast-growing teenager aided by Amanda Lynn Bottoms as his lover, Leocasta. Orson Van Gay and Dante Mireles, Vitaliano and Polidarte, respectively, provided gripping and exceptionally wicked villainy, while Sharon Chohi Kim delivered La Fortuna with a punk twist.

While the wisely injected drums, electric bass and a Washington saxophone solo could also be fun – that sort of thing was all the rage in the 1960s – it’s also a bit dated. She was most effective when she risked thoughtlessly interrupting Handel with electronic blasts, the louder the better.

For his part, conductor Christopher Rountree, the company’s new musical director, led a performance that was deftly sensitive to every twist, whether it was Handel, Darrah, Washington or very vocal singers. individual.

“Giustino” is the hit the LBO desperately needed, but the company doesn’t seem to be out of hot water just yet. The final opera of the shortened season, a revival of Anthony Davis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Central Park Five,” will no longer be staged, but only given in concert form later this month. But in the final performance of “Giustino,” the company showed encouraging and resilient courage.

When a lead singer caught COVID-19, LBO Managing Director and CEO Jennifer Rivera and Darrah took over at the last minute. A former singer, Rivera sang the role of Leocasta while seated offstage with the orchestra, while Darrah donned a skirt and performed the role onstage. However, any business with the resources to deal with this kind of exceptional risk should no longer need to be, as has been the case, cryptocurrency solicitationy – not only a dubious fundraising risk, but an entirely unacceptable environmental and societal risk. It’s a killer opera that doesn’t have to get away with it.

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