Closing out the year: Performing arts with cheer

guys-dolls-kevin-parry.jpg"Guys and Dolls" photo: Kevin Parry.

Last, but not least, as they say. The big-time events that closed out the year in the performing arts realm landed downtown and on the Westside, hitting every category and then some.

Opera? There was Bellini's "Norma." Classic American musical? Try "Guys and Dolls." Symphonic music mingled with ballet? Do not forget the LA Philharmonic and its Stravinsky-inspired Balanchine.

But if a Martian descended to Earth and inquired about these doings he/she would be perplexed by two competing Music Center scenes: one at Disney Hall, another at the Chandler Pavilion.

At the first venue there was our resident Philharmonic, led by its redoubtable maestro-in-chief Gustavo Dudamel, backing guest dancers that starred Roberto Bolle. Their main opus was Stravinsky's "Apollo," created in Paris for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes by George Balanchine back in 1928.

But hold on, this 2015 performance was not staged as originally envisioned. It hewed to a makeshift arrangement, one with a minimized theatrical perspective. Why? Because it had to encompass a double task: physically/visually showcasing the dancers and orchestra at once.

In the outcome neither had its due. Dudamel could not follow his unique, musical instincts since the dancers' needs interfered; it must have been like kneading dough with one hand. And for the audience it was like watching a movie with the house lights on, but somewhat dimmed.

At the Pavilion across the street, the scene -- quite different from the above -- was necessarily pretty staid (those on stage were not exactly movable objects since they added up to a collective avoirdupois many pounds beyond lithe). Here we had the LA Opera mounting of Bellini's "Norma," that singer's opera requiring bel canto expertise that only the most rigorous vocal technique can fulfill.

"Norma" photo by Ken Howard.

But what a relief it was to cast my eyes on that proscenium arch framing the production, with its tastefully designed linear set, lit to maximize the drama and its characters. Here was an honest-to-god venue, not a theater-in-the-round with no separation between pit and stage.

Then I knew, once and for all, that makeshift doesn't work. Let Dudamel be Dudamel. Let Balanchine be Balanchine. No even-steven for them.

Both events, though, had high merit. Where Dudamel and his band got terrifically into it came on either side of the Stravinsky -- first, with the Britten piece, "Young Apollo," given a jaunty, hyper-animated reading, underwritten by throbbing ostinatos and exulting in violist Carrie Dennis's performance. You've got to love her, especially knowing that even a deaf person would see how the music goes, just watching her every body-jolting accent and thrust. Besides the other principal string players featured here there was Joanne Pearce Martin with her rip-snorting piano riffs.

And by the time they got to Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, that hallmark of sardonic militarism, the ranks were fully charged. I don't know when I've heard such a great, heaving cry as in its largo, or the like of those perky little solos rampaging through their sudden spotlights or the nasal brazen-ness of the brass, not to mention a finale to blow your head off.

Nor did wonders cease with the gorgeous music that rolled out, courtesy of LA Opera's "Norma." For the first time in memory a highly-lauded cast from the Met reversed route and traveled to L.A. (Usually singers get noticed here and springboard to the Met, as in Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon.)

But here Angelea Meade gave us the the reason she wants to go on singing the title role, a be-all-end-all of coloratura challenges that demands an extraordinary dramatic range, not to mention vocal power that extends way beyond the high, agile soprano.

Sure every singer wants to attempt Norma, the druid priestess who lives among Roman legions occupying Gaul in 50 B.C. -- because Bellini wrote sumptuous melodies that entwine the voice with intricate filigree up to and including outpourings of scorn that take Wagnerian strength (and that hell has not fathomed). But only a few have mastered the role, notably Callas.

Meade has the instrument, enough to magnetize at least, if not to stun. And her terrific cohorts -- Jamie Barton, the devoted confidante Adalgisa who unknowingly shares the same man, and Russell Thomas as that man, Pollione, the stalwart Roman proconsul -- exploded in some knock-'em-dead duets.

Key to the performances was James Conlon, who led the cast and orchestra on a course of divine bel canto line, judicious but with enough leeway to be maximally expressive and musical.

But even more inspiring, in these days of having to prove that black lives matter, was the mixed race composition of those onstage. And aside from the egregious discrimination of Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson in bad old days the opera world has long shown its humanity by giving an equal pathway to non-white singers way before the movies dared to.

So did we see a black and white cast for Frank Loesser's delectable "Guys and Dolls" at the Wallis -- a positively joyous production that reminds us of the time Broadway musicals had chops (clever lyrics, sing-worthy songs, characters good-naturedly plucked from a back-end demographic). All of its cheek, its hilarity, sweetness and self-parody bounced across the footlights here in finest form.

The only casting debit came with Jeremy Peter Johnson who, as Sky Masterson, was far too straight and square and awkward to be the canny, louche gambler who could persuade a Salvation Army goody-goody girl, Sarah Brown, to fly with him to Cuba. Others inhabited their Damon Runyon roles with brio, energy and pizzazz. Luck will be a lady if the Wallis brings these Oregonians back.

But no one had to look far for Simone Porter, the local 19 year-old who pinch-hit for the scheduled violinist at LA Chamber Orchestra's most recent Royce Hall concert. She dazzled not only by sausaging herself into a slinky gold-lamé gown but in playing the Mendelssohn Concerto with big, luscious tone and energy to burn.

Even more dazzling, though, was the superbly played Bartók's Divertimento for Strings led by Peter Oundjian -- its jagged Magyar rhythms surging through the hall, lifting airily in its live and lovely acoustic, even filtering its lyricism here and there. Encore, please.

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