So who's on the opera conductor pantheon -- which includes the likes of Carlos Kleiber, Leonard Bernstein, James Levine? Now it's time to add Gustavo Dudamel. Even though this news, for a podium personality who has already achieved rock-star status, may not be enough to stop the presses.
But hold on. Before an audience of 10,300-plus at Hollywood Bowl our resident maestro and his LA Philharmonic once again took up the lyric muse -- previously they did the same at Disney Hall with the Mozart-DaPonte trilogy and in other summers other operas at Cahuenga Pass. This season it was the double bill, commonly known as "Cav-Pag," those verismo potboilers that give over-ripe melodrama a whole new name.
Holy Moly! Did he and the band ever give their composers, Mascagni ("Cavalleria Rusticana") and Leoncavallo ("Pagliacci") a workout. Not only that, he urged the singers to ever-more passionate engagement. And while the event was not staged -- the cast stood before music stands reading from scores and wore concert dress -- its impact was next to earth-shaking.
Sometimes, given over-amplification, too earth-shaking. With voices not yet warmed up for "Cavalleria," Nancy Maultsby let out some painfully wide wobbles as Mama Lucia and poor Christopher Maltman, at the end of Alfio's whip-snapping entry aria, even elicited a loud, perfectly-timed double boo from someone sitting fairly close. Michelle de Young, as the wronged Santuzza, belted her anguish with an open-throat and Stuart Neill, in a white jacket that emphasized his mountainous look, used his stentorian tenor to effect as the vengeful Turiddu.
Only Tamara Mumford, as a silvery-toned Lola who slinked seductively onstage in a red gown, gave an inkling of physical characterization.
No early infelicities seemed to faze Dudamel, who coaxed the cast to stabilize as things went on. Despite a mis-adjustment here or there he led the singers to galvanizing climaxes, irrefutable attacks and, of course, drew out the orchestra to luxuriate in those long, lush, sweeping themes that a guy like Mantovani could only dream of.
"Pagliacci" drew a sharp contrast to the opening one-act opera. For one thing Leoncavallo's score has far greater compositional interest, not to mention its "La Strada"-like drama of a poor little commedia dell'arte troupe traveling from one small Italian town to another, run by the jealous chief clown who is married to the prettiest girl around.
Julianna di Giacomo gave us that girl, Nedda, in a shining personification -- she needed nothing more than her dramatic vocal expression, through rhythmically inflected phrasing and sweet purity of tone, to catch the moment's ardor, which flowed unhaltingly from her. A Dudamel find.
And thank goodness for Lucas Meachem, whose refined singing made for a thinking man's Silvio, her lover. The others doubled with the "Cav" cast, but Neill as Canio had the biggest cry at the end or, shall we say, laugh. His line,"commedia è finita" was a howling closer.
A week earlier Dudamel reunited with the Philharmonic for a Beethoven program -- which I heard in its second performance, when the sound engineers veered off the mark. For the Triple Concerto, with the Capucon brothers playing violin (Renaud) and cello (Gautier) and Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the piano, the dial was so badly adjusted that poor Thibaudet's playing at the bass end turned to mud.
Otherwise, this was happily buoyant chamber music, the irrepressibly melodic lines sweetly merging, the themes bouncing back and forth, the orchestral backup adding thrust and heft.
Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which followed intermission and saw Dudamel changed from tie and jacket to his looser black shirt and pants, on that sweltering night, had all the thrilling momentousness of its original inspiration. Nothing ever seems too familiar, as this piece is, to dim his connection to the mobilizing musical force.
Whenever the jumbotron cameras fixed on him -- and often they wrongly landed on the two French horn players, whose parts could not be heard (singled out) from the high-decibel tuttis -- he clearly showed a cutback in his physicality, say 70% from those early, all-out podium kinetics that bespoke the very music to audience and players alike.
It was inevitable, then, this restraint against body wear-and-tear. No one can keep up such physical extravagance over a long career without harming himself. To be sure, the hair is also shorter and it flies around less picturesquely these days.
But that does not mean he holds back when it comes to being an inveterate mime with an audience, to wit: telegraphing for the cameras how hot he was -- flicking his shirt-front back and forth like a fan to show folks why he changed from the up-to-the-neck uniform to a blousy garment.
And there were other observations to make when Joshua Bell opened the Bowl season with a pops-leaning program. Namely, HD screens that put enhancing light on subjects -- who included the violinist's friends: Glenn Close, who sang a few songs gamely, and virtuosic musicians who travel other non-classical paths; and an improved sound system that kept good acoustic balance.
Man-for-all-summer-seasons Bramwell Tovey led the Philharmonic bookending the program with Stravinsky's cantankerously sparkling "Fireworks" and "Firebird" Suite No. 2. But Bell, who arguably performs more and in a wider spectrum than any other violinist today, gave us his "Eleanor Rigby" fantasy -- an elegiac and deeply soulful excavation of the Beatles tune that was nothing short of a wonder.
National Ballet of Canada
But if the National Ballet of Canada -- which put in an appearance at the Music Center Pavilion with Alexei Ratmansky's "Romeo and Juliet" -- turned out to be less than a wonder, it could be blamed on the high-water marks set by several previous versions and performances.
I can say that in this outing Shakespeare's star-cross'd lovers danced with élan, though. Guillaume Coté was a Romeo who curved gloriously into the arc and sweep of Prokofiev's sublime music, thanks to choreographer Ratmansky. And Elena Lobsanova made aptly quicksilver stuff of Juliet.
Best of all, and this might be a small point, it was a relief to see her at the tragic end with feet gone limp, not arched, as all other dead ballerinas tend to make them. And the rest of their naturalistic last meeting was also deeply moving.
But the choreographer missed the ecstasy that Kenneth MacMillan's version created in the couple's balcony scene -- who could forget Alessandra Ferri's beyond-extravagant backbends, with arms flung low in her partner's arms as he lifted and swirled her in their passionate duet.
Ratmansky also missed Prokofiev's plangent cues for regal grandeur in the ballroom drama and more. Sometimes trying to outdo what's already marvelous becomes a fool's errand.