Reviewing the opening weekend at the Bowl

dudamel-turandot.jpgAnother opening, another show. Last week the faithful trekked up to Cahuenga Pass, with their picnic baskets, to inaugurate the summer season at Hollywood Bowl -- both before and after our so-called Carmageddon put us in the national spotlight and had Angelenos quaking in their driving shoes.

Yes, it was splashy. Gustavo Dudamel's name on the marquee, alone, guarantees big notice. He could have programmed the Yellow Pages and, as always, caused a box-office bonanza. But our LA Philharmonic director didn't leave it at that. The celebrity conductor added the celebrity pianist Lang Lang to the first bill and put on a concert version of Puccini's last opera "Turandot" for the second.

Now everyone knows that the Bowl crowd feasts on familiar, hummable fare and that our Venezuelan man of the hour doesn't have an elitist bone in his lithe body - which make evenings at the mammoth showplace happy, easy-going affairs.

Especially so when, at last, we get an ear-opening account of Moussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" after having it served as pain quotidien every summer for as far back as I can remember. No surface contours alone -- the usual -- would do for Dudamel and his band.

Instead there was depth of characterization, with more seriousness and more mystery, so darkly vivid in the low strings that the big, heavy, striding chords seemed to shake the huge amphitheatre from the ground up. So immersed was our podium meister in getting what he wanted that once we even heard him explode in a grunt, forgetting the live mic, and that this was not a rehearsal where a conductor's audible urgings are commonplace.

And if full-out explosions are Dudamel's order of the day (they are), then it came as no surprise that Lang Lang -- in all-white attire sans neckwear, his black hair moussed high to perfection - provided the keyboard pyrotechnics. His launchpad was Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto (remember "The Competition" with Richard Dreyfus and Lee Remick? That concerto.)

Ordained for virtuosos with the chops for dense, raging octaves and the snap-and-spring for tinkling effervescence, it was a mere toy in his hands. Dreamy, ghostly effects emerged in the slow movement, with a growing sweep that spread through the orchestra, before arriving at the tumultuous, heart-stoppingly percussive climb to the finale.

The Chinese wonder played an encore: Liszt's Consolation No. 3. And we could see he was ready for his close-up. Cameras complied and took in his face -- eyes shut, head tilted back so as to capture the chiseled cheekbones, lips in open ecstasy. Yes, the showman lives.

But he was not the only guest force at work opening week at the Bowl. On Sunday Dudamel & Co. let it rip as they enlisted Christine Brewer, she of the powerhouse voice, as Princess Turandot. And while she made us wince deeply at some wayward high notes yelled out too close to the mic, not to mention at the strangest slurs down from the top, her soprano, when warmed up, cut through full-decibel orchestral tuttis and overwhelmed other voices - including Frank Porretta, as Calaf, who, in his best moments, could recall Franco Corelli; Hei-Kyung Hong, who sang a gorgeously wrenching Liù (after a dry-throated start) and the terrific LA Master Chorale and Children's Chorus.

Overall, though, this concert version was arbitrarily staged. Calaf turned, at the end, to give his X-sized Turandot a big smooch, but Liù did not gesture her knife-to-the-gut suicide, even with the music charting it.

Main afterthoughts: Puccini's opera, not grounded in the composer's skilled music drama, but overridden with grandiose, ceremonial Chinese motifs and bulked up here with the Bowl's amplification, never sounded so much like a score to fit the name Hollywood. All those triumphal climaxes, coming at key junctures, one after another, made me feel like a witness to the birth of overkill, movie-score glory. Did the composer know what he wrought?


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