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LA Opera's doubleheader, plus Dance Project and more

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Paula Murrihy and Liam Bonner in the title roles of "Dido and Aeneas." Craig Mathew/LA Opera

"Bluebeard's Castle," based on the grizzly Perrault fairy tale, doubled with "Dido and Aeneas," the Greco-Roman myth -- together, they're asizzle onstage at the Music Center Pavilion, courtesy of director Barrie Kosky, the current crown jewel at LA Opera.

Both works are about love ending badly. What else, in music drama?

It was last year that the celebrated theater man brought us his 1920's Chaplin-esque animations aka "The Magic Flute" from Berlin's Komische Oper -- replete with silent-film savvy, stylized cleverness and out-of-the-box imagination -- underscoring his U.S. allegiance to Los Angeles.

And now we've got Kosky's kit and kaboodle -- a pairing of modernist Bartok's only opera, explosively fraught, and Purcell's exercise in baroque mannerism, a piece of Hogarthian flamboyance in this scrumptious staging that you cannot take your eyes off of.

One-act each, they make a study in contrasts (And, by the way, tickets come as low as $17...)

Just imagine "Dido" in a neo-classically pure frame, costumes in sherbet colors suffused with a warm footlights glow, its characters seated on a white cross-stage bench, singing and mugging sad or happy, some of them adding absurdly comic dimension at times and ignoring proscenium convention while looking very post-modern.

To wit, the correctly small pit orchestra (including early performance instruments) is raised nearly to stage level and has the chorus clambering in and out of it. We can sense the whole thing as a unit. The music actually joins the action and lets the audience feel eminently connected.

Lively? You bet, even if Purcell is not exactly a composer who can exert forward momentum. What Kosky has wrought is a working definition of "opulent minimalism," as he calls it.

What's more, the cast doesn't let him down -- especially not mezzo Paula Murrihy as a long-suffering Dido who sings with lyric finesse, Liam Bonner (remember him as Billy Budd?), an ardent yet whimsical Aeneas who can take no for an answer. Conductor Steven Sloane kept balances unerringly on the mark. So did Grant Gershon find just the right integration with his chorus. Go before you lose the chance.

And after a single intermission you just might be blown away by its opposite: Kosky's black and white expressionist "Bluebeard," a nightmarish encounter between the man who's murdered many wives and their still-live successor who seeks to get inside his mind and memory, to bring light and cheer to him.

Now be prepared. Kosky is no William Friedkin, who gave us an eerily suggestive "Bluebeard" (2002), nor a Robert Wilson, that specialist in trance-like characters who act in semaphores. Actually, he's the opposite. So the couple's abstract but very physical struggle has lots of clinching and clutching, it's rugged and ragged -- he, a broken man given to seizures in response to her entreaties; she, the activist, the aggressor. Ah, but it ain't so, in their final pact: she does fatalistically become his eighth dead wife -- only as understood, though, not represented onstage.

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Robert Hayward as Bluebeard and Claudia Mahnke as Judith. Craig Mathew / LA Opera

Robert Hayward, as a reactive Bluebeard, sang with dark vigor and Claudia Mahnke, summoned Judith's geschries with imperious urgency. Bartok's orchestral music is powerful and, with the full band at his command, Sloane enforced its somber ferocity, its lush subversiveness.

Get there -- by Nov. 15.

These days the city is also afloat in dance performances. Celebrity Benjamin Millepied (of "Black Swan" movie fame and subsequently named director of Paris Opera Ballet among other important posts) mounted his second program of LA Dance Project at the Ace Hotel theater downtown, again drawing a trendy crowd of revelers.

Smartly, he brought back William Forsythe's masterwork, "Quintett," this time with different dancers than those seen two years ago at Disney Hall. But if not quite as breath-catchingly intense they were also able, as couples, to unearth an incidental intimacy, striking deeply familiar nuggets almost too rare to find in all the copious choreographic flailings before us.

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Aaron Carr and Julia Eichten in "Quintett."

Gavin Byars' score, a profound stimulus to the work, wraps itself around a weary vagrant's voice softly rasping "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet" -- emotionally powerful enough to make you cry. And Forsythe, we've learned, seemingly vented on his young wife's impending death as he made this dance. The pity here, is that the Ace's sound system practically blitzed -- hearing the words was impossible.

But what comes across loud and clear is Forsythe's singular separation from a host of current choreographers who embrace an ethos of body mechanics parading as dance. (More on that later.)

Millepied's own piece on the bill, "Untitled," as generic as its title, took Philip Glass' typically energetic, driving music as its basis -- and was much in the vein of Twyla Tharp's "In the Upper Room," also to upbeat Glass. These coordinates are great audience-pleasers and the crowd went predictably wild.

But Emanuel Gat's "Morgan's Last Chug" tried harder to be substantive, even describing it in hyper-intellectual gobbledygook-ese as "a study on layered temporality." And, my god, his collage score included a monologue from "Krapp's Last Tape" (which we couldn't hear), excerpts from a Purcell opera and Glenn Gould playing Bach.

Happily, the Israeli choreo is more earnest than showy. Along the way, with dancers pulled into body knots intermingled with spasmodic circles and angles, Gat even quotes a José Limón gesture from "The Moor's Pavane." Nice to know all dance-makers were not born yesterday.

And then there was Batsheva, part of a curious Israeli influx here this season. Stopping on a 50th anniversary tour, the Tel Aviv company touched down at Royce Hall and gave us a prime example of choreographic currency -- namely director Ohad Naharin's "Sahed21," a 75-minute series of vignettes that mainly display body contortions.

What saved the work from an interminable display of Naharin's "gaga" exercises -- one dancer after another demonstrating self-styled, pretzel-like articulations, then sloppily padding offstage, bad posture and all ("naturalness," folks) -- was the male chorus line that reflected a poetic personal-ness.

Oh, yes, there were sexy moments, too, when gorgeous young things did some virtuosic maneuvers in their skimpy little tank suits. But all was lost when we got a solo of vocal autism, a tall skinny man standing alone and croaking unintelligible gibberish at the top of his lungs.

To think that Batsheva began all those decades ago with a Martha Graham imprimatur, went on to a ballet sensibility, and now entertains Human Detachment as a focus is mind-boggling. It's as though we have gone from dance as an artistic expression to its mere physicalization.


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