First, there was none (back when the sniffy cognoscenti called Los Angeles a cultural wasteland). Then the LA Opera finally took root, fed by the celebrity mega-seed of Plácido Domingo. And now Disney Hall, courtesy of Gustavo Dudamel and his LA Philharmonic, has jumped into the operatic garden.
But wait, in a single weekend we just saw three — count 'em, three — rings of action: LA Opera's "Tosca" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, "Dulce Rosa," a world premiere by Lee Holdridge, inaugurating the company's Off Grand wing at Santa Monica's Broad Stage, and, most stunningly sophisticated of all, Christopher Alden's staging of "Le nozze di Figaro" with Dudamel helming his Mozart-sized band in a makeshift semi-pit at Disney.
Talk about brilliant. This time — in a second outing as purveyor of opera — the Phil found just the right way to incorporate its wonderful self into the milieu of the lyric muse. After all, Disney has no proscenium arch, no wings, no way to hang scenery or place side lights. It's designed to showcase a symphony orchestra.
I suspect it took a whole creative team to figure out the balance between "stage" and "pit." The solution, certainly with Pritzker Prize architect Jean Nouvel's input, along with his prop-based designs, boasted a wrap-around effect.
Sometimes Figaro or the Count or Cherubino would stroll to the front of the orchestra, and maybe even jokingly (when appropriate) jump onto the podium with the maestro. And yes, although music stand lights were low and the instrumentalists wore black shirts and trousers, we could see them — as background. But the big bonus came in seeing a very discreet but eminently follow-able Dudamel — his every small but emphatic gesture and cue and phrase-embrace, as it flowed through his dancerly body to his fingertips, to the band ("see the music"), and to the singers.
And, given that Alden kept the action on his raked stage limited we had equal value music-making and theatrics, with young, astute singing actors who could both understand and mean what they did onstage. Away with the stock operatic lurch-and-lunge stances or the mock exaggerations of comedy. As with his "Don Giovanni" last year and now this "Marriage of Figaro" — it pre-dates "Downton Abbey" by several centuries and is all about large incestuous households filled with nobles and servants — the innovative director strips things down to their essentials.
Forget the routiniers and their shenanigans. Not here.
Figaro, the darkly rich baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer, makes his words sardonic, bordering on angry, when his scene with fiancée Susanna opens — it's all about a bed here, and not an ample one, but the spartan thing that denotes servanthood. We didn't know Mozart-DaPonte could be read as down-in the-mouth but now we do.
And then there are simple touches that signal everything. The Countess, for instance, sung by the splendid Dorothea Röschmann, spins out her "Porgi amor" while fingering Susanna's bridal veil — left on the bed in Figaro's room — as a sad reminder of her faithless husband's designs on the servant girl.
Others in the excellent cast included Rachel Frenkel, who made an un-silly but still intense adolescent in love with love and even lavished some nice flourishes on "Voi che sapete"; Christopher Maltman, a suave and lively and hip Count Almaviva; Malin Christensson, a soberly shrewd Susanna.
Haute-couturier Azzedine Alaïa, who flew the cast to his Paris atelier for fittings, costumed the singers in casual chic for their everyday doings and glorious runway numbers for their fancy occasion. The whole thing had to cost a bundle, but in the realm of corporate arts, and a special event like this, who's counting?
Back in the real world, though, where next day's dinner must be accounted for, LA Opera came up with a "Tosca" production that might better have been left off the table. John Caird's staging, borrowed from Houston, does everything to afflict an opera company that is charged with offering ever-new takes on bread-and-butter repertory. And although this director boasts a long list of notable credits his tack here is to deal with external add-ons, simply frame the piece in an idea that doesn't fit and ignore the essentials of motivated, interpersonal drama — or, at least, not help his cast do much that is convincing.
So we saw Puccini's musically keyed drama blunted, step by step. Floria Tosca, who is supposed to be Rome's celebrated diva, enters a dark, bombed out church, dressed like a peasant girl and acting like one. Where's the grand flourish to match the composer's notated description? Where's the bright daylight that accompanies her sunny appearance?
Worst of all, when the music tells us that she's running with triumphant news to her lover's jail, the director instead has her gawking at corpses hanging down from the prison ceiling. Not to mention the cartoonish blood-letting scenes where Tosca stabs her nemesis so effortlessly and so often she seems to be plunging her knife through jello and, for good measure, slits the guy's throat, his up-raised hand jabbing the air.
But there is one exceptional treasure in this "Tosca." Sondra Radvanovsky. Just to hear her voice blooming throughout — with its plummy tone, rich dimension, ease at the top, fullness everywhere on the scale — is a boon. And, of course, her "Vissi d'arte" brought the wildest stamping and hollering heard in a long while. Too bad the director couldn't help her find the role's meaty drama.
Nor did the two opposing forces in this Tosca's life fare better. Both Marco Berti as Cavaradossi and Lado Ataneli as Scarpia could easily be mistaken for bank tellers rather than deadly foes, notwithstanding decent vocal strengths. Especially unhelpful were Bunny Christie's designs: Baron Scarpia, the elegantly fearsome Roman chief of police, was gotten up as a low-level criminal ordering his slovenly thugs about in what looked like a garage full of art booty, not the luxe quarters befitting his stature.
Luckily, there was Domingo conducting — a powerhouse when he used to sing Cavaradossi, and one who now could guide the work with needed sensitivity. But that wasn't all. In something of a marathon he also presided over rehearsals and performances of "Dulce Rosa," racing back and forth between downtown and Santa Monica.
That work, based on a story by Isabel Allende concerning civil war in a generic South American country with all the expected martyrs and heroes, good guys and bad guys, devotion and treachery. It finally builds to a rousing climax via a love triangle.
Holdridge is a facile composer who can score anything called for in the book, be it conflict or romantic tenderness. By the second act he found his stride. The narrative had an urgent musical flow, with Domingo eliciting dark power from the orchestra, although prior to that "Dulce Rosa" had seemed like a Hallmark card of an opera -- especially so Richard Sparks' libretto.
The cast was strong. In the title role soprano Maria Antunez transformed herself from innocent, devoted daughter to heroic champion of her father's cause. Others, also excellent, included Greg Fedderly, Benjamin Bliss and Alfredo Daza.
Of all that went into the physical production it was Jenny Okun's projection designs that dominated and lent atmosphere.
But if you don't want to miss the most intense experience, get to Philippe Beziat's film, "Becoming Traviata," now at the Royal. The brilliant Natalie Dessay, with her director and conductor, take you behind the scenes through the real agonies and ecstasies of creating her character. It's like no other.
Tosca and Dulce Rosa photos: Robert Millard