A bedazzling "Billy Budd" and Dudamel does Tchaikovsky. And more

Gustavo Dudamel does Tchaikovsky.

A soul-crushing dilemma that leads to actual suspense -- thought by thought, moment by moment, note by note, measure by measure. Would this be the stuff occupying an opera stage?

Bet on it. Because our local importers of Benjamin Britten works have brought back the composer's full-scale, grand opus, "Billy Budd" in this last, extraordinary centennial gesture to the composer. And rejoice that you can still rush downtown to LA Opera's acclaimed production by Francesca Zambello, borrowed again from Covent Garden (through March 16.)

We all know the easy pathos of Puccini, the soaring song of Verdi -- to name a few bread-and-butter box office faves. But Britten's adaptation of the Herman Melville novella stands as a monument to interior battles of a psycho-social kind, wrapped around anti-war, anti-class rhetoric. And not incidentally it marks the revolution we see today: from the Brits' branding of gays as criminal until 1967, to open declaration of sexual identity -- whatever it may be -- in much of the civilized world. (Hallelujah!)

What's more, the team in charge this time at the Music Center handles it all -- the miraculous score, the full-stage complement with chorus and visuals, the direction of each character's enactment, the orchestra and its various soloists -- superbly.

BillyBudd2014.jpgNo composer better than Britten evokes the sense of mortal aloneness at sea. And here, as in the deadly, grim waters of "Peter Grimes," we get two characters experiencing it -- Billy, the innocent whose goodness doesn't allow him to feel the evil around him; and the Captain, who sees but can't change destiny. Throughout we hear masterly poetic strains in murmuring strings, a plaintive saxophone, a soft rustling of tympani.

And the singers, each an expert in delivering melismatic filigree, ride above all this. The slave-like sailors are actual characters, a thrilling chorus, and at the taking down of Billy they huddle low and grunt out a menacing fugue that can't help but scare an audience.

Alison Chitty's simple yet striking set features a raked platform as ship's deck -- it rises up to reveal the huddled crew below. Atop is a cross-mast suggesting the martyr's "crucifixion" to come. The stage picture, with critical dimension lent by Alan Burrett's lighting, is an integrated whole, ever-changing to reflect the musical mood.

The main triad in this all-male cast carves out the dramatic poles, without any need for female voices. There's Richard Croft, a compelling Captain Vere whose silvery tenor masters that helpless cry of remorse arching smoothly upward in the musical line, and Liam Bonner a brave, tall-standing Billy with a sturdy baritone whose stutter, and background as a foundling, do not hinder the inherent goodness in him. The third is Greer Grimsley, the villainous Claggart, whose animated basso highlights his homophobic hysteria over Billy, whom he is intolerably drawn to and calls "beauty" and, in the end, must see killed -- which he does, unwittingly.

James Conlon, presides passionately over the orchestra and stage, lending all the nuances Britten scores so ingeniously.

dudamel-300.jpgThe other major music event right now is across the street at Disney Hall: it's Gustavo Dudamel, back in town charging up the soundwaves via an ambitious take-your-breath-away Tchaikovsky Festival -- and not just with his LA Philharmonic, but also his fellow-Venezuelans, the mighty Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra as well.

It took only the two names, Dudamel and Tchaikovsky, to sell the Philharmonic to the walls at 11a.m last Friday. Yes, 11 in the morning on a week day! True, that audience looked a bit like the cane-and-conveyance brigade. But never mind, there was everything to warrant a mob scene, especially in the way the band and its leader went at the composer's final symphony, his 6th, the famous "Pathetique," where yes, as Britten often did metaphorically, Tchaikovsky laid bare his anguish over his sexuality in the last movement.

As with some of this score's great readings Dudamel drew out those wrenching strings, which swept all into the vortex of lament with shuddering intensity. Each solo -- with flute and horns in seamless balance -- and each motif became a vital animation of character, all of it pretty damned gorgeous. Even the march exploded into a unison frenzy the likes of which could match what Ken Russell himself would conjure.

At the conclusion Dudamel took 34 seconds to bring down his hand and allow applause, as the musicians sat at absolute attention. He's right, of course, to let the last tones dissipate before any sound intrusion -- even if there's a question about how long that may take...

No one seemed to be looking for signals though at downtown's brand new Ace Hotel, in days of old the United Artists Theatre at Broadway and 9th. At least not from French-born Benjamin Millepied's L.A. Dance Project which staged its first event there in this petite Pantages, an ornately gaudy relic of 1927 now refurbished to a shine, with dribble-castle-like stalactites hanging from the enormous domed ceiling.

Instead the chi-chi crowd seemed intent on enjoying a big mingle, which pushed the curtain to 40 minutes beyond starting time, but allowed all the beautiful trend-makers and followers to be amply seen.

And considering Millepied's career trajectory that milieu makes sense. After all, he went from dancing with the New York City Ballet, graduated to choreographer, then to cast member of Darren Aronofsky's Oscar-winning film "Black Swan," to marrying its lead Natalie Portman to being named LA Dance Project director and, quickly following that, to the Paris Opera Ballet directorship. All the stars are in alignment. Each day seems to bring him a new title all over the world. Minutes ago he was named artistic advisor of the just-formed Colburn School Dance Academy diagonally across from Disney Hall. Now you can call him a Sponsor Magnet, the name that brings donors from Hollywood, and yes, from everywhere. Watch them roll in.

If he stops long enough in any one place chances are we'll see something worthwhile -- remember he did bring us William Forsythe's unforgettable "Quintett" last year and the year before a whole program of his own choreography. But the Ace show -- despite a commission by Van Cleef & Arpels, a piano score by Pulitzer Prize winner David Lang, played by the eminent Gloria Cheng, and even some clever electronic hi-jinks -- registered weakly if at all.

Not so the sold-out run of "Love, Noël" at Beverly Hills' Wallis studio theater, which got converted to table-and-chair seating for this cabaret event. It's gone now but L.A. needs to bring it back and soon -- because once New Yorkers get a whiff, say at the Carlyle Hotel café, they won't let it go. Noël Coward's songs and letters in the hands of John Glover and Judy Kuhn, with master pianist David O accompanying them, are deliciously enticing. "Mad About the Boy," for instance, is but one of the literary wit-composer-playwright's brilliant ballads, delivered powerfully by Kuhn.

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