Australians bring a feather-free 'Swan Lake,' plus Mahler's Fifth

Australian Ballet, photo by Lisa Tomasetti

There it was: Tchaikovsky's wondrous score, "Swan Lake," its familiar strains being played impressively by hand-picked local members of the pit orchestra and led by Nicolette Fraillon.

But what was that onstage at the Music Center Pavilion, courtesy of the Australian Ballet? Surely not the full-length masterwork that goes by the same name. Not the fairy tale kingdom that pre-supposes the moon-drenched mythic fantasy to come. Surely not the tragedy of a prince's quest for idealized love, only to get tripped up by human frailty.

No, choreographer Graeme Murphy has re-fashioned the story and re-ordered the music. It's now an everyday domestic drama, sort of a sordid soap opera with a sexualized prologue (bare-chested man and femme fatale in an acrobatic clinch.) But it did advertise itself truthfully, promising ticket-buyers a chance to see "the Jilted Princess" and "the Philandering Royal."

Along the way we get a mad scene with the heroine straight out of "Giselle" and later as Blanche when the asylum doctor and his attendants carry her off à la "Streetcar Named Desire" and even plunk her in a tub for some hydrotherapy ("Snakepit"?)

Now understand I'm not one to scream "defilement!" at all passing re-creations of a classic. Remember, there was Matthew Bourne's flinty opus, a "Swan Lake" steeped in rip-snorting socio-political satire. But his characters' epic conflicts were equal to those of the original narrative.

With the Australians we get plenty of entertainment -- the opening act was afloat in Kristian Fredrikson's deliciously cream-colored Edwardian costumes, all parasols and cutaway coats, suffused in warm lighting, and Murphy's winning choreography that supported the look. Strangely, though, he dropped the motif, as if its value was purely for pretty décor (and the chance to invoke Tudor's freeze-frame from "Jardin aux Lilas.") In the third act men wore contemporary tuxedoes.

But the "white" scenes -- those moonlit lakesides with a massed swan-corps spectacle -- were not so white. Also, they had no otherworldly aura, no ephemeral mystique. Short tutus were abandoned for knee-length shaggy skirts, which pulled the shade on leggy choreographic expression.

And nothing remained of the Act 2 pathos, that yearning-filled pas de deux, accompanied by a sorrowful violin solo and set up in Petipa's perfect steps -- they reveal the wounded bird Odette, who yearns, in her partner's arms, for the curse to lift so she could become a woman again. Arguably, there's no more intimate or classically gorgeous duet than this collaboration between the original choreographer and composer.

You will not see it here. But you can at Royce Hall this weekend with Los Angeles Ballet's most honorable and pristine "Swan Lake."

The Australians do boast a terrific company, though. Not only in Madeleine Eastoe as an Odette who carried out every role aspect assigned to her, and danced with alacrity, point and precision, along with Lana Jones, the character here named Baroness von Rothbart, who personified the seductive villain.

Poor Kevin Jackson, though, as Siegfried, was left to writhe in expressionistic torment throughout his two long solos, torn between dedication to his bride Odette and the evil temptress, with an awkward pas de trois thrown in for good measure.

Luckily, across the street we had the LA Philharmonic playing Mahler -- with deep love. Gustavo Dudamel loves Mahler, too, and began his career winning a big conductor's prize addressing the symphonic hero of our time. All this is known.

But few knew just how fabulous the outcome would be when our resident podium chief and his band feasted on the Fifth for their first concert this fall in Disney Hall.

I, for one, was gobsmacked by the performance. It seemed to lift off from the planet, because of who was doing what how. Understand, we're talking about Mahler, who could landscape both the 20th century's edge of social decay and its unshatterable joy, skirt the manic and the depressive with a musical quotient of genius, and who, according to Herbert Glass's astute program note, "composed emotion" while others might have "sublimated emotion."

The orchestra expressed all that Dudamel seemingly digested of Mahler. It delivered the haunted, nostalgic aftermath of crashing upheaval and the buoyant cheer so robust and gorgeous, and the waltzing ritards that led to combustion. There was no mistaking the depths of these sullied good times.

Especially, as the dancing-est maestro ever, Dudamel laid into other 3/4-time phrases with a washed-out drunken-ness -- one of them a darkly schmaltzy, world-wise theme with burnished low-note strings.

Gustavo-Dudamel-Hanauer.jpgThe brass, the best I've ever heard in the Phil, and led by trumpeter Thomas Hooten and hornist Andrew Bain, nailed their highly exposed passages dead on, strong, svelte and smooth-toned. And the whole orchestra, every section, locked together like one giant gyrating engine, all its components in mobile force, leaning inward, pumping to life, storming the heavens. To watch principal violist Carrie Dennis, alone, would have explained to a deaf person the music's vibrant thrust.

But there was another universe, to boot, occupying Disney Hall at the concert's start-- an unlikely one that seemed displaced, an ascetic one, courtesy of composer David Lang, with orchestra players dutifully plucking a single string from time to time. It shared not a shred of musical habitat with the Mahler that followed.

The piece, "man made," refers to various found instruments and was commissioned following Lang's justly deserved Pulitzer for his "little match girl passion," which has a theatrical framework. But when the soloists here, a quartet named So Percussion, sat up front snapping twigs while the Phil sat idly as a bystander, the whole thing seemed like a deprivation ritual.

A complete departure from ritual marked the joyous folkloric adventure of South Africa's Isango Ensemble, which touched down at the Broad Stage with its rendition of Mozart's "Magic Flute." Just for navigation purposes substitute the trumpet for the flute and you'll get the idea.

Which is, that Mozart, who adored improvisation, would likely have cheered on music arranger/conductor/instrumentalist Mandisi Dyantis in his trumpet riffs which made perfect sense of the composer's little singspiel and greatly added to the robust fun of it.

Now I can't use the word pristine, but this romp of a stagework, adapted by Mark Dornford-May, does light up the soul. Just to hear the overture's tunes and rhythms tapped out by the marimba band and and Wha Wha Mhlekazi's tenor voice singing Tamino with exactly the perfect timbre was pleasure enough. And if Zamile Gantano, as a Zero Mostel of a Papageno, couldn't manage to sing a single measure on pitch, well, it didn't matter, so instantly lovable was he.

Kudos to the Broad, the most inviting theater west of Beverly Hills. Its stage, whether for dance or music, is ideal -- especially for voices not big enough to carry at a 4,000-seat Metropolitan Opera, for instance.

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