Showcases for Baryshnikov and Von Stade: Meeting the measure or not

Frederica von Stade

So what do starry eminences decide when the time comes to hang it up? Leave the stage? Not Flicka. Not Misha.

For these two, Frederica von Stade and Mikhail Baryshnikov, we must understand just how ingrained the love of performance is -- she, the lyric mezzo with the tender tear in her voice, the Cherubino who trembled with pubescent fervor and tickled us as the tipsy PĂ©richole or melted our hearts with her "Pretty Little Horses"; he, the dancer who leaped in the air with laughing ease, defied gravity, devoured space, aped Jimmy Cagney moves with jaw-dropping accuracy and put his bravura technique to the service of powerful grief as Albrecht.

There's a reason the world calls them by their nicknames: And it's not because she was America's sweetheart soprano or because he acted in "Sex and the City" cameos.

They don't want to give up the stage and we don't want to let them go.

Take von Stade, for instance. At the Beverly Hills Wallis, which couldn't be a more inviting space for her in the Ricky Ian Gordon/Leonard Foglia one-act opera "Coffin in Egypt," the still-alluring star exuded the same genuineness she's known for. True, the white-haired-matron role adds too many years to an appearance that is otherwise much younger. And her jaunty spirit has been compromised by the requirements of this character -- an old lady looking back on her life with recriminations, regrets and grievances galore.

As such she also had to embrace the vintage vanity of upper-class southern whites, with typically racist references abounding as well as pre-feminist notions of women as second-class citizens -- none of which is too appetizing.

But if only the material had not been so hackneyed. And if Gordon had found some better musical means for the character to express the great dissatisfaction with her life at 90, waiting to die in a miserable Texas town named Egypt. And if Foglia had not resorted to so much repetition in his text, taken from a Horton Foote play.

Luckily, there was some respite from the ungrateful vocal writing -- high and shrieky -- with moments when von Stade could seize on a melodic wisp remindful of "Oklahoma" ("Oh, What a Beautiful Morning") or when she could wax softly nostalgic or be vocally resplendent in red. Losing the amplification installed at the Houston premiere, and here, would have helped considerably, also with the gospel chorus. Others in the cast had well-enacted speaking parts only and conductor Kathleen Kelly led the nine-member chamber ensemble ably.

But the pickings were better for Baryshnikov, what with two of Chekhov's stories within grasp. And although "Man in a Case," his third outing at the Broad Stage, was another instance of the star's cart before the horse -- the producers made a hash out of the Russian writer's first tale, "Case" -- Misha finally gained the upper hand in the second and shorter one, "About Love."

Tymberly Canale and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Here he was at his affecting best: a man in love with a married woman as she suffers a severe depression because of their prohibited union. When he describes kissing her face and arms and hands that are wet with the taste of tears, his voice is deep and burnished, his Latvian-tinged speech earthy. It is Misha, the actor he could ideally be, never better revealed than at this moment.

But "Case's" depiction bore all the signs of unresolved trial and error -- despite the big-name team he surrounded himself with, one that gladly produced this pastiche for the still-luminous luminary. (After all, would there be a draw with a lesser name?)

The set was plain and simple, especially compared to his previous artfully sophisticated ventures at the Broad. As the lead character, Belikov, at first he seemed like a displaced person with a thick Russian accent trying to tell an ol' boy story in the American vernacular to macho jokesters. It definitely misfires -- no matter the add-ons of projections and screens, or the Ukrainian folk dancers and musicians/singers as part of the story, or his signature fillip of a few r&b steps.

As the incoherent format changes, our hero appears in a long black coat, dramatic and stylish, again as he was "In Paris" -- the outsider, the stoic loner beset with proprietary concerns. But the patched-together show did not jell. Too much false construction.

For an object lesson in artistry we had only to see Peter Brook's touring production of "The Suit" at UCLA. Unburdened with having to make a star vehicle, the 89-year-old theatrical wizard put together a marvelous realization of a South African story that reached poetic heights -- in speech, symbolism, music, stagecraft -- all of which had integral meaning, carried along by superb actor/musicians in tidbits from meticulously chosen Miriam Makeba to Schubert to Billie Holiday. Count yourself unlucky if you missed it.

But if you chugged downtown to a weekend of the Paul Taylor Dance Company there was predictable excellence. And the choreographer's signal motifs found their way to such golden oldies as "Airs," his Baroque ode to Handel, with its piety and joy intact, followed by two newer pieces.

In all three we could see his single, slyly humorous i.d. tag -- you know, the "shazam" arms, those sudden angular bolts of lightning in vintage comic books that are akin to the Nina letters in Al Hirschfeld cartoons. They last only nanoseconds and are unmistakably a Taylor emblem.

Otherwise, he gave us "Banquet of Vultures," a brilliantly organized complex of society's vanquishment by a dictator set to dark Morton Feldman music and its delightfully frivolous antidote, "Gossamer Gallants," which makes the inescapable point that sexual politics animates even winged creatures: females flirt and seduce, males gape and grasp, only to be ensnared and browbeaten.

Also downtown, at Disney Hall, and everywhere around the city, we had the Minimalist Jukebox celebration, a humongous event. One heart-wrenching entry was David Lang's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Little Match Girl Passion," performed by the LA Master Chorale under Grant Gershon.

There's a reason this music is universally beloved. It deals in barest simplicity, but the Hans Christian Andersen parable of a child's suffering -- as a beggar hungering in the frigid outdoors, to hallucinating of sumptuous suppers and longed-for grandmothers, to death -- is shot through with stark emotion.

Lang's "Passion," with Gershon and singers as his champion, emerged with a plaintive gorgeousness, its pathos rising from fugal lines sung in clipped phrases that spoke of icy deprivation -- only at the end of which came relief.

Quite a month it was.

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