Promise them anything but give 'em "Lucia." No one, after all, can resist the Bride of Lammermoor, loony Lucey, who goes mad after being obliged to marry -- not the one she loves, but a noble who can save her brother's Scottish castle -- and stabs that husband to death in their wedding bed.
So when the opening night crowd cheered, whistled and hollered for LA Opera's new production of the Donizetti favorite, based on Sir Walter Scott's novel, it came as no surprise. All those delectable tunes and a savvy soprano, Albina Shagimuratova, who could luxuriate in them -- what else could anyone ask for?
Well, a few things. Better coaching for the lead tenor, Saimir Pirgu, for starters. Then this Edgardo might have entered the stage without comic exaggeration of anger, his arms flying awkwardly in false force and barking his music instead of singing it. (What is it with so many tenors who come here in hard-sell mode and have either forgotten or never learned that bel canto means beautiful singing, albeit somewhat agitated at times?)
He did tone it down as the night progressed and went on to deliver his final farewell fervently, if less than heart-crushingly (as Neil Shicoff did here some years ago).
And couldn't director Elkhanah Pulitzer help James Creswell manage a bit more than the standard stolid priest figure as Raimondo -- so that his mellifluous basso could have a real live character inside it? And what about those stage lapses between narrative and music where the drama nearly falls apart?
Luckily, the big moments came across well enough, even though the orchestra, under James Conlon, occasionally disconnected from the singers. Designs by Carolina Angulo and Christine Crook set an aptly dark atmosphere to what looks like modern gothic.
But Shagimuratova, a Lucia who knows her way around the stage, could cower like a gullible girl manipulated by a tricky brother and give a well-choreographed version of her big scene: the bride turned bloody. Most important, she has the coloratura chops -- agile and bouncy with a wonderful pulse to those rapid notes. What's more, she's not one of those chirpy canaries, but very Russian, up to being a little metallic on top.
All others in the cast did well, especially Vladimir Dmitruk, an extremely fine tenor.
But it's hard to forget the then-slim and gorgeous Anna Netrebko, who sang Lucia here a decade ago -- how she twirled and swooned and danced while pouring out bell tones and all manner of intricate, nuanced coloratura.
So much for the 19th century. Onto to the present. And hardly any enterprise speaks to that tectonic shift better than the Kronos Quartet. Because four decades after violinist David Harrington founded this iconic string ensemble there is arguably no other that has ventured so far into the realm of theater while pushing the cross-cutural/political boundaries of esoteric new music even beyond the recognized avant-garde.
Just imagine, for instance, its 40th anniversary celebration at UCLA's Royce Hall: in one piece the four musicians performed under strobe lights to suggest the work's title, "Spectre" by John Oswald; in Penderecki's "Quartetto per archi" they stood with their backs to the audience, while reading/playing a huge projection of that composition; elsewhere they intermittently put aside the instruments they play so pristinely to crush and crumple paper on cue.
So I guess you could say that if the music on this bill didn't make a great impact in itself, then at least its dramatization posed a curiosity. But Philip Glass's "Orion," which featured the sensuous lyricism of pipa player Wu Man, certainly needed no physical enactments, nor did Alter Karniol's souful "Sim Sholom," with the cantorial solo played exquisitely by cellist Sunny Yang, a new Kronos member. And to hear Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" prelude reduced from its grand orchestral plushness and slivered into four string instruments was revelatory, like strolling among harmonic skeletons.
Above all, there was the spirit of Harrington permeating the hall, his warmth and deep appreciation of fellow musicians and all the composers he's brought to his platform over the years, the passion with which he embraces them, not to mention a certain gemütlichkeit you will find anywhere Kronos performs.
A similar spirit spread through the largely subscription audience at Royce Hall for LA Chamber Orchestra concerts. Last week the birthday announcement of its long-standing principal oboist drew cheers and whistles from the massed crowd. So did the whole evening's performances merit the same. The music-making, under the rising young guest conductor James Feddeck, was impressive throughout -- at every turn he coaxed expressive pliancy from the players and found shape and form to all the works.
Little wonder, with the added impetus of another rising star, Jennifer Koh, and her eminent mentor Jaime Laredo -- violinists who netted big roles in the program.
First they played as a duo in Anna Clyne's "Prince of Clouds," a wondrous new piece for string ensemble. It hinted of Britten with its far-off wistfulness sounding in long lines -- only to churn with agitation later and contrast with the orchestra's splintering harmonies, before turning meditative.
Second they played Bach's D-minor Concerto for two violins -- she with the richer, fatter, duskier tone and he the lighter and more agile. Their vigor and intensity in the outer movements, their sheer tenderness in the slow one, their vital interchanging of roles, created pure magic.
Last, Feddeck and the orchestra took up Schubert's early Symphony No. 3, its touching innocence and blithe spirit intact. All told, it was one of those perfect nights.
Not so LA Ballet's mixed bill at Royce, which, in one serious miscalculation, showed a lapse in taste and judgment that I've never seen before from directors Thor Christensen and Colleen Neary. More on that later.
What was marvelous was the staging of Jiri Kylian's "Return to a Strange Land" (1975), an homage to Stuttgart Ballet's John Cranko who had suddenly died back then. It not only sets a matchless choreographic standard but proved that the company can carry out the artistic high level required by a work so sensitive to tone and expressive subtlety.
There were images of singular beauty and strikingly ethereal hints of sorrow carried on the strains of Janacek's music, with an exquisitely timed release here, a sense of ecstatic quietude there.
And even Christopher Stowell's "Cipher" shows the choreographer's astute attention to Balanchine study, along with Noah Agruss's piquant score that suggests a knowledge of Stravinsky. Alynne Noel defined the pert and picturesque signature movements with great charm.
But don't even ask about Sonya Tayeh's "Beneath One's Dignity," which can't decide whether to reveal Victoria's Secret Fantasies or hi-jack some misbegotten modernisms of doom and gloom. Dignity, above or beneath, was never in supply here.
Middle: Albina Shagimuratova as Lucia. by Robert Millard; Bottom, LA Ballet Photocomposition by Reed Hutchinson and Catherine Kanner.