Opera showdown: Are women fickle, immoral and crazy?

Roxana Constantinescu and Miah Persson in 'Cosi.' Photo: Mathew Imaging.

What do women want, Freud once asked. More important, maybe, is why are men afraid of them? Opera composers, with their librettists, have always poked around for answers. And the spotlight stays on that mystery as the downtown music season ends.

Just consider "Così fan tutte," the last work of the Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy that Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic signed on to at Disney Hall -- it's translatable as "women are like that," in other words, they're fickle, unfaithful and can thus destroy men's esteem.

Well, the production ride this time focused sharply on that eternal question -- women as betrayers (but men as their enablers.) Also, as in "Don Giovanni" and "Figaro," the company stayed true to its goal: proving that opera stagings need not take place within a traditional proscenium and that they can also reach the ultimate hauteur in design/direction.

Oh, it can be tricky. But the Phil has done it again -- mounted a compelling "Così" that changes the atmospherics from rococo farce to today's social currency. For that, thank director Christopher Alden, who always drills down to the various characters' core, in moment-to-moment manner and comportment, just so we can relate to them. Do they slouch? Do they amble? Do they plaster themselves to the floor puzzling over a decision or awaiting an outcome?

And Zaha Hadid's molded white plastic set, a multi-level free-form affair where they do all this, sends them on their chic way, costumed in Hussein Chalayan's hip streetwear that keeps converting before our eyes. The result is no-holds-barred sophistication, carried out by a young, savvy cast that looks as good as it sounds.

Disney Hall certainly affords singers the most flattering acoustic. And Dudamel, with his orchestra only inches from them, kept the music stirring like the tenderest gentle breeze or ripping with a thunderclap but always breathing in sync with the voices. He even sang a line in perfect Italian in his beautiful baritone, with the surprised audience erupting into wild laughter and applause.

Rod Gilfry, as the schemer-in-chief Don Alfonso, stood out, with the able complement of Philippe Sly (Guglielmo), Benjamin Bliss (Ferrando), Miah Persson (Fiordiligi), Roxana Constantinescu (Dorabella) and Rosemary Joshua (Despina).

On to women as immoral: Of all Massenet's operas, "Thais" is the one most loaded with the French composer's deep-down conflict: a war between lust and God, between ways of the flesh and devotion to holiness -- as carried out by the title character and her reformer.

But we can be glad that when LA Opera went searching for a production of it for the company's mainstay star Plácido Domingo, now relegated to baritone roles after depleting his tenorial gold, it found the one from Gothenburg -- a far cry from what San Francisco put on back in 1976 for then-reigning diva Beverly Sills.

That one was a hoot. The courtesan splendor surrounding her spared no detail. A gigantic circular bed stood as her ungapatchked headquarters, with an enormous mirror suspended overhead. She pranced about in gilt belly-dancer garb. And nowhere could we find a trace of high-minded Anatole France in this perfumed hash.

But ah, LA Opera to the rescue -- that is, with the spiffy couture that designer Johan Engels made of fourth-century decadence in the city of Alexandria. The women paraded like pre-cursors of Ziegfield Girls, à la Cleopatra -- but with everything up-to-the-neck, no décolletage -- and the monk corps wore black shiny top hats, even while the sets seemed a poor fit for the Chandler Pavilion stage.

Nino Machaidze (remember her hilarious "Turk in Italy"?) carried off the title role splendidly -- polishing the high notes with pizzazz, if not getting into the teeth of French vocal intimacy -- and Domingo, as Athanaël, gave us a mad monk whose zeal was a mere cover for his fatal attraction to Thaïs, almost forging a growl in his passionate, near-grasp of her. Valentin Anikin's fine basso lent Palemon a persuasive note of caution to the unhappy hero, while Paul Groves was a less compelling Nicias.

But director Nicola Raab's flashpoint came at the end, after the obsessed holy man has dragged across the desert with his repentant party girl to deliver her to a convent. She re-appears there on a platform, totally committed now to a pious life -- it's a surreal scene surrounding her, with sand-dusted monks in their sand-dusted top hats and reclining sand-covered theater seats. As Athanaël looks up at her -- God's radiant bride standing in a gorgeous white gown with designer tiara (eat your heart out Vera Wang), wafting a gossamer scarf overhead and singing her ecstatic high notes to the heavens -- he rails lustfully from below. The two do not hear each other. Author France finally achieves his irony. This scene, a must-see.

Patrick Fournillier maximized Massenet's score coaxing passionate outpourings and even Wagnerian breadth from the orchestra.

But there's more. LA Opera brought us a special end-of-season bonus with "A Streetcar Named Desire," -- yes, Tennessee Williams' magnetic play, here scored by Andre Previn, libretto Philip Littell, and written for Renée Fleming.

On to women as crazy: Everything you loved about the original work (and later the movie starring Brando, Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter) is here. It's tantalizingly intimate -- in the way that so many contemporary operas are not. Previn is a musical couturier; his instrumentation can be eerily harrowing, suggest mad reverie and cut right to the alternating emotional undercurrent, while his vocal line is remarkable for staying true to every dramatic nuance of the text.

Fleming luxuriates in it. Her voice, with its impeccable colorations and its rounded tones high and pure, curves around the notes like a smile trying to hide pain. As Blanche Dubois, though, she is less fey than those who have portrayed the heroine desperately seeking to escape her shameful past, one who "depends on the kindness of strangers." Troubled, yes, but also cunning and glamorous, she comes across strongly. So, too, does Brad Dalton's staging make clear the atmospherics of this southern household drama.

A terrific cast included Ryan McKinny, shirt-less to show off his washboard abs and otherwise a convincing tough-guy as Stanley; Stacey Tappan, whose Stella is a natural as the hopeful sister and who sang with expressive depth and vocal beauty: Anthony Dean Griffey as Mitch, eager to be the gentleman for Blanche and even movingly sympathetic at her tragic end. Evan Rogister smartly led a small orchestra upstage behind the singers.

So too can musicians who don't sing make an operatic entrance. Take this one, for instance: A gifted pianist who arrives on the scene from a tiny Chinese province. He becomes an instant celebrity -- a paragon of the New China (after Mao Tse Tung), a magazine cover boy, a 60 Minutes feature -- what with his heroic story of rising from poverty to iconhood via a showmanship that exploits his powerful virtuosity.

Ten years later Lang Lang no longer exaggerates for the world-wide audience, no longer swoons at the keyboard like a silent screen star. Finally the tall, lean pianist has grown into his fabled talent.

And when he appeared with Gustavo Dudamel leading the LA Philharmonic in Prokofiev's Third Concerto everything coalesced. In a slim black suit with open-necked white shirt, a stylish but not extreme haircut, a long graceful body whose home is at the piano, and an ownership of both the instrument and music, he made it all come together like a miraculous whole.

Especially at the final cadence, when he and Dudamel struck thunder in a single electric flash, a depth charge of crackling intensity.

But that wasn't all. Our resident maestro proved once again he's the dancing-est fellow around -- squeezing his orchestra for the last juice of languor in Ravel's "La Valse" and "Valse nobles et sentimentales" and letting the three-quarter rhythms sweep into full plangency, all this inside the brilliant brass shatterings and assorted musical graphics. Ditto Paul Desenne's engaging "Sinfonia Burocratica," which got an irresistibly insistent dance treatment around and about its little sardonic asides.

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