Music Center season begins with a busy calendar

Domingo and Poplavskaya during "I Due Foscari"

One week before Carmageddon II the whole city seemed to converge downtown - luckily, the Music Center opened its various doors to the new season before freeways posted their Closed signs.

There was dance at Disney, opera at the Pavilion, premieres of everything, much hullaballoo all around.

But some of it stood out indelibly.

Take Plácido Domingo, for instance, our all-time music magnate who directs companies, sponsors competitions, conducts and oh, yes, has been singing to world acclaim for nearly half a century over a span of 140 roles.

Well, note this: He gave his first absolute powerhouse performance as a baritone. I say - first - having heard him sing these lower-voiced roles before. But never with the vocal fullness and expressive impact that he managed here, in LA Opera's premiere of Verdi's "I Due Foscari," an undeservedly ignored and splendid early work .

At 71, the celebrated tenor has arguably begun a new career.

And instead of finding him again as a dreary old Doge (Simon Boccanegra was the last such role he took on for the company), as another white-bearded paterfamilias type in long robes, we saw and heard the viscerally anguished father whose only living son was falsely convicted of murder by a wicked political rival. Oh, did our Plácido sing the role -- with that same brightly burning tone of his erstwhile tenor peak, only darker and deeper. And oh, did he act it, with the same immediate ferocity of his golden days.

Nor was he alone in this relatively compact and altogether stage-worthy opera based on a Lord Byron play.

Marina Poplavskaya, a strong presence as Foscari's daughter-in-law Lucrezia, matched him as more than an aggrieved wife but also a determined foe of her husband's torturers and corrupt judges. Their scenes together were electric, and shades of Sutherland could be heard in her lustrous, ample soprano with its all-encompassing bloom. Tenor Francesco Meli sang Jacopo, the younger Foscari, to good effect, although he blew his big opening aria - while descending picturesquely onto the stage in a prisoner's cage - by yelling full blast instead of detailing its bel canto shadings.

But Thaddeus Strassberger's aptly formalized staging, with its phalanxes of 15th-century Venetian councils parading in geometric patterns and adorned in the usual red-black-white scheme, hit the mark. Even the final scene, a carnival with a colorful angel hovering in space and dispensing confetti, showed a savvy artistic hand at work. Conductor James Conlon ably commandeered the whole thing from the pit.

Not so enterprising was the burned-out looking, much-traveled, now-crude "Don Giovanni" production originally directed by the innovative German dramaturg Peter Stein, but here entrusted to the American rookie who gave us a connect-the-dots "Bohème" revival last season. Whatever special insights the staging may have had, none remained.

Don Giovanni scene

Instead we had a perfectly pleasant generic model of Mozart's masterpiece. That meant traffic-cop direction, with singers depending mainly on whatever various devices they could dredge up. And it left Ildebrando D'Arcangelo to float about as a mousy little man with long payes (sidelocks), hardly the notorious womanizer of lore. No matter his velvety burnished basso, this Don was not grand or sly or elegant or charismatic - he did not command or maneuver or outsmart or even hint at having any powers, much less seductive ones.

The others went through their little routines less calamitously and sang well - David Bizic made a blustery, comic sidekick as Leporello, Juliana di Giacomo a sturdily accurate Donna Anna (except for a grievous ending to "Non mi dir"), Soile Isokoski a mock-vamp as Donna Elvira, Andrej Dunaev a supplicating Don Ottavio, Roxana Constantinescu a playful Zerlina and Joshua Bloom an easily pacified Masetto. Conlon led all with authority.

But what a sad decline from the work's previous standards here - LA Opera stagings that boasted distinct directorial points of view and casts that included, several times, the dynamic Erwin Schrott and the inspired Thomas Allen. And we won't even mention the LA Philharmonic's deconstructed "Don Giovanni" - across the street at Disney just months ago - with its high-end creative team including Rodarte costume design. I guess we know where the money is.

Sure enough. The brand new, highly endowed, Glorya Kaufman-blessed LA Dance Project is headed by leading light Benjamin Millepied - you remember him, the emerging choreographer/dancer from New York City Ballet, who played Natalie Portman's partner in "Black Swan," then married her in real life and continued his career as a bold face name.

Well, he staged his first full LADP event at Disney and, indeed, his own new piece, "Moving Parts," also listed celeb costumer Rodarte, the well-known painter Christopher Wool's tri-panel installation that did some moving around and composer Nico Muhly's attractive commissioned score. Big budget all around. Little to remember.

But curiously (or not so curiously), it wasn't the Millepied work that marked the moment. Nor was it a revisitation of Merce Cunningham's 1964 "Winterbranch," seen a few decades back at Royce Hall (at Disney it was an unbearably painful earful neither worth the endurance nor the potential hearing loss.)

No, it was the 1993 "Quintett" by William Forsythe, the brilliant American expat lured away years ago by the Frankfurt Opera Ballet. If Millepied does nothing else but bring us a rare extraordinary work like this - the kind that makes us think that most other choreographers might as well hang it up - he'll have earned his investment dollars.

And this is not said lightly. When all the other decorative choreography-by-the-yard filling our stages pales by comparison and goes to instantly forgettable, it's a wake-up call.

So here's what I saw in "Quintett": a dynamic of life, reposeful to frenzied, internally and organically motivated movement, the dancerly whole of it pristine and spare and sumptuous, a fractional ballet breakdown, a puncturing of space by singles, duos, etc. with each dancer motored by an inner centrifuge that results in a swirl, a twist, a connection - all of it reactive to some ongoing stimulus.

I think that stimulus was Gavin Bryars' famous archival song-find of the worn and weary vagrant's voice lifted up by its innocence, softly rasping "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet," and the composer's string complement slowly building around it.

'Moving Parts.' Photo by Eric Politzer

The whole serene thing aches in a sublime way. You sit there riveted. This is dancer definition that's thrilling. (Forsythe sent three ballet masters from Frankfurt to set the piece on LADP's marvelous contingent of six, the same ones who were anonymous in "Moving Parts.") A special wonder was Frances Chiaverini, who showed how a long-limbed figure in a gauzy tunic with a long sheet of hair that flies loose can reveal the movement's power and her own power within it.

We hear that Millepied is bringing Forsythe to Los Angeles. There's reason to cheer.

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