'Elektra' goes global and Ezralow comes home to LA


It was the last show he would mount just months before his early death in 2013. It was hailed as a signature triumph in Europe, at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. But the only way to see Patrice Chereau's production of "Elektra," short of jumping on a plane for its Met premiere at Lincoln Center, was to attend a movie theater transmission of it, a simulcast in Los Angeles, and world wide, from that New York stage.

Well, you can believe the buzz. A sold-out AMC Century City screening revealed close-up drama in every hemidemisemiquaver of turmoil afflicting the palace family -- with Strauss's music stretching from stratospheric anguish to sublime lyricism and unearthing a myriad of introspective nuggets along the way.

As with all of Chereau's stagings and films you could forget about the stock operatic manner, its whole conceit of poses and stances designed to ease the vocal path of those golden throats and yet suggest a little generalized emotion.

Instead, he probed the human depths to be found in a given work. He lent his characters light and shade, full psychological dimension and moment-to-moment insight. He did not permit them to be singing statues, with a few off-handed gestures.

Remember his filmed "Madama Butterfly" with the dashingly youthful Plácido Domingo and the exquisite Mirella Freni? Or his Bayreuth "Ring?" that got repeat viewings on PBS (and caused me to stop dead in my tracks every time I bumped into it while flipping around the dial)?

You could always count on his casting artists with the chops to act the roles, not just sing them. And here, in "Elektra," he did no less.

On its own the drama rises to a Shakespearian level, similar to "Hamlet" but this time with a murdered king's deranged daughter seeking revenge. It ends in matricide -- with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal supplying its gleaming, highly personalized poetry taken from his play based on Sophocles.

Now the Greek tragedy that Richard Strauss turned into a one-act opera is no "Rosenkavalier," with all those deliriously ecstatic waltzes. The musical line here is charged, full of compact detail and Esa-Pekka Salonen's conducting took the augmented Met orchestra to extravagantly brilliant heights.

He and Chereau plotted Elektra's first outburst of "Agamemnon" to coincide with her flinging open the dungeon's door. It became a stark, momentous underlining of her singular outrage, absent from other productions.

In the title role Nina Stemme was fiercely compulsive, her rigid body movement seeming cut off from any physical ease, her vocal urgency relentless -- until that most intimate scene with Waltraud Meier, a Klytamnestra who, against type, was not portrayed as a grotesque witch but a troubled, searching mother who ached together with her momentarily vulnerable and needy daughter.

All of this on an opera stage, you say? Well, not just these two, but the marvelous others as well: Adrianne Pieczonka's emotionally wracked sister, Chrysothemis, and Eric Owens' heroic brother Orest, full of strength but compassion too.

Yes, this was a gripping epic. But it did not escape the electronic engineering that goes along with transmissions. Those volume-controlling fingers kept voices and orchestra artificially balanced, which is an altogether different experience from being engulfed in the natural acoustic you can thrill to sitting in-house.

None of those issues interfered with the Wallis show put on by Daniel Ezralow, though. Because the recorded music he chose already comes in neat little care-packages arranged to deliver a feel-good entertainment.

Remember Ezralow? He's the local dancer who made good on every conceivable path around -- choreographing Oscar shows, Broadway hits, opera productions, even directing/producing multi-media events for Lincoln Center and staging works around the world, at Olympics, on and on. Maybe the most eclectic fella around...

To boot, he lived as a child in Coldwater Canyon and recalls mailing letters at the Beverly Hills post office, the Italian Renaissance building now converted into a performing arts hotspot, the Wallis Annenberg Center.

Decades ago he popped up in Momix, an offshoot of Pilobolus, the antic collective that spawned a whole stage language of movement witticism and surprise. And then Ezralow went on to co-found ISO (I'm So Optimistic or Obscene, etc.), which occupied him for a while. But being remarkably porous and ever-enterprising he's picked up every style and mode of dance around. Whatever is out there he's seen it, ingested it and exudes it in an amazing array of combinations.

ezralow-dance.jpgTake the latest from his troupe, Ezralow Dance -- "Open," a touring piece he and his gifted graphic designer-wife Arabella made four years ago in Italy. It's a dazzler. And it wowed the Wallis crowd, understandably, because it's fail-proof. What else, when you earmark a hit-list of classical music excerpts -- everything from Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" ("La Gioconda") to Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata to Albinoni's Adagio to Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance" to a Bach "Brandenburg?"

Think back a few years ago, when record labels were hawking their albums of major themes from the classics as "music to relax by" via TV commercials. Well, there you have it: the spliced-together score of "Open," which, for all its commercialism, is exactly what you get: fun.

Why? Because most of its short kaleidoscopic numbers, crammed into a zip-along 70 minutes, are playfully engaging. The clever designs take equal importance. And one comic vignette -- a marriage followed by the couple's boxing-ring fight that doubles and triples in cast members -- is just terrific. So is Ezralow's find of Filippa Giordano's recording of the "Carmen" Habanera, with all her added interpolations. And, among the superb dancers, is one to note for her delectably high arches, Kelsey Landers.

Finally I could not overlook the joyful appreciation Ezralow takes in his dancers -- giving each a whiz-bang curtain call cross stage in an explosion of high spirits and virtuosity.

Explosive in wholly different way was Murray Perahia's recital program at Disney Hall. And that's not an adjective ordinarily attached to the 69-year-old pianist long admired for his reach into all that is poetic, contemplative and wistful.

Yes, there were those signal features, and more, in the program's first half -- Haydn, Mozart and Brahms. But the big news came with Beethoven's "Hammerklavier," a gargantuan sonata exhaustive in its technical demands. He undertook it for the first time on this tour.

No question that he met those demands in the 45-minute sonata -- even though its densely vehement passagework emerged at times somewhat blurred or muddy.

For whatever reason, though, once home I put on Alfred Brendel's recording of the "Hammerklavier." It came in at 50 minutes. The "Take Five" method of more time seemed to work because the playing had clarity throughout and allowed for interpretive rests with depth, along with Beethoven's above-the-note meanings.

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