At last, a "Flying Dutchman" without irrelevant whimsy or silly symbolism or egotistical re-writing. And not even one tomato thrown (yes, an audience member threw a tomato — at previous director Julie Taymor — for her staging of Wagner's mythic work, mounted nearly 20 years ago by LA Opera.)
This time the company let Wagner be Wagner. It borrowed Nikolaus Lehnhoff's darkly ominous production from Chicago. And through it we could see the composer's roiling conflicts so wildly illustrated in his score, a thing of irresistibly stormy outbursts.
What can I say? But that it's wonderful — even with a last-minute indisposition of the central soprano and her replacement by Julie Makerov, who met the challenge handsomely, despite a few patches of vocal grief, but many more of glory, thanks to her stentorian high notes and thrilling ascents.
Between conductor James Conlon's all-in approach to heroic orchestral calls like this one and the spectral visions defining the protagonist, you really are swept into the drama and not distracted from it. Here is an ideal mix of stylization and theatrical impact, by the eminent German team of Lehnhoff, Raimund Bauer and Andrea Schmidt-Futterer. It conjures up an ornate Bauhaus ship emerging out of smoky sea depths, with a Wotan-like Dutchman, all in black, hat brim pulled down, framed in an angle of light. The images are striking.
As the title character, that accursed, storm-weary ghost of a captain, Tómas Tómasson gives off the morbid aura of his endless journey and sings in a commandingly dark voice. Makerov, as Senta, the woman who can bring him salvation through her purity of purpose, made a believable heroine. James Creswell, in his best role yet with LA Opera, was her mercenary father, Daland, his rolling black basso used with nuance. And tenor Matthew Plenk, as the Steersman, also sang with idiomatic refinement.
Not least in this Wagnerian cosmos of doom to redemption was the marvelous roaring chorus.
But then there's the current world beckoning. And if you're Gustavo Dudamel leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic, you answer the invitation.
After all, the New York Times has just declared our resident band and its starry maestro pre-eminent among orchestras — for commissioning a vast number of new works. Even to the point of tacitly down-grading its own New York Phil. And so lustily does that paper herald LAPO's upcoming tour to Lincoln Center and also Europe, that we're getting to feel like a try-out stop.
Before it played that touring bill-of-fare (Debussy, Stravinsky, Adams), though, we trotted down to Disney Hall to hear Dudamel rouse his confreres to ground-rumbling, deliberative depths in "Siegfried's Death and Funeral Music" from Wagner's Götterdämmerung — a short tease of things to come, we hope.
But in a curious juxtaposition to the Wagner, Gil Shaham was on hand for Brahms' Violin Concerto — such as I've never heard it played. Imagine. If Giacometti were a composer he might turn out the piece this way: remarkably deconstructed, with minimal vibrato, lacking any big, juicy flourishes, played with the slenderest, most refined tone including a cadenza that was nothing if not lean, linear and veering to modern.
And while achieving it all, the tall, thin violinist lurched about on the stage like a Giacometti come rhythmically to life — taking small, staccato steps right up to the conductor's podium, back-stepping to the concert-master's stand. Never in doubt was his intense physical connection to fellow players.
What a contrast beside him, though, when Dudamel & Co. finally had their chance to revel in the concerto's gutsy Hungarian finale, so full of stretched chords and plangent heavings.
More contrast came with guest conductor Charles Dutoit, who asserted uncommon control over the orchestra's outpourings, with an added notch up in refinement. The 76-year-old Swiss is a pro — there's something to be said for age, wedded to talent. Here, in the Mozart 29th Symphony, we could hear him allow plenty of leeway between the margins but always return to that over-arching net that holds the whole thing together. It's called integrity. It's not so readily found.
Then, for heroic imagery, Dutoit and the Phil turned to Strauss's "Don Quixote" — where we heard cellist Gautier Capucon "impersonate" the knightly character as gruffly tormented at the start, daringly soft and soulful at the end, along with violist Carrie Dennis as a Sancho Panza who seemed to dance around the hall in gorgeously robust animation.
But if you're in search of salon splendor — as opposed to downtown's Disney — look no further than Jacaranda, the new-music enterprise in Santa Monica that incorporates the bold and the beautiful — with informed taste, imagination and a polish now brought to a peak of excellence, after a gestation of nine years.
The source of all this wonderment is Patrick Scott — you may remember him from his erstwhile identity: Patrick Marca Registrada (yes, that jokey moniker), the founder of Eyes Wide Open, a performance art group back in the '80s. Together with conductor Mark Alan Hilt he sees to every detail of their small, smart operation here. It's located in one of the premier spots for acoustics and ambience, believe it or not, the First Presbyterian Church on Second St. And it has a following these days of Westside intelligentsia/older hippy types that sells to the walls.
Newly designed, it's spare but warm and light, with a pleasing balance of scale and suggesting a kind of architectural humanity. The only sign of churchiness is in the stark simple, modern cross above the stage, draped with a maroon sash.
Jacaranda's recent concert, a thoroughly designed and thought-out affair, was "Thresholds: The Scandals of 1912-1913," that era in new music where audiences took noisy umbrage at the experimentalism of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg who comprised the Second Viennese School.
So naturally Scott found plenty to theatricalize. For Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire," ably led by Hilt, he had the men in white tie/tuxes and flute/piccolo player Pamela Vliek Martchev in a chic cocktail dress and hat of the period. They all turned in stellar performances, even if Julia Migenes, no longer in good singing form, resorted to shtick instead of capturing the eerie fantasy of the character, a mocking specter who both scorns and feels menaced by the world.
The small pieces by Webern and Berg were striking in their distilled expression and played with scintillating purity. The evening was capped by duo pianists Danny Holt and Steven Vanhauwaerts, whose "Sacre du Printemps" yielded that same overwhelming pagan force as Stravinsky's full orchestration.
Photos from "Flying Dutchman" by Robert Millard/LA Opera