It was only a matter of time. Inevitably, Gustavo Dudamel would cross the street from Disney Hall to the Music Center and oblige Plácido Domingo at his domain. The Numero Uno of maestros and the former Tenorissimo, genial leaders both, had everything to gain as celebrity confrères and Latinos to boot.
Unconfirmed word had it that the two invited each other to perform at their respective music establishments -- Plácido would sing with the LA Philharmonic if Gustavo would lead the LA Opera.
One half of the bargain had already happened in 2012 at Hollywood Bowl -- where the singer joined his buddy and the Phil. And last weekend saw Dudamel return the favor when he mounted the Pavilion podium for final performances of "La Bohème" -- with the crowd roaring in recognition of its special guest making his way to the pit.
And, as you can imagine, we heard Puccini's score in lustrous, layered details from the newly inspired opera orchestra. Not that the composer himself didn't etch his music in almost color-coded dramatic format to illustrate each step of the scenario. This early work, especially, is almost a do-it-by-numbers enterprise. But Dudamel polished all those motifs to shining gems and even enriched the built-in momentum.
The cast, too, mostly rose to the occasion. Mario Chang produced a honeyed and cultivated tenor as the lovelorn Rodolfo -- although director Peter Kazaras could have eased the chubby, less-than-agile singer's burden by reducing his physical hi-jinks. And Nino Machaidze had the dying heroine's blooming high notes, but Dudamel let her endlessly stretch out syllables in "Mi chiamano Mimi" without urging a more lyrical, Italianate style of phrasing. Janai Brugger, more awkwardly comic here than commandingly femme fatale, sang Musetta with a delicious, buttery soprano that was even, up and down the scale. Only Giorgio Caoduro, as Marcello, seemed weak in voice and character.
But maybe LA Opera could invest in a new production for Dudamel, instead of this 1993 "Bohème" rattletrap being trotted out for its seventh revival. Someday.
Meanwhile, there are those who argue there is a debt to pay. For several recent years the LA Phil had put on specialized operas at the non-proscenium Disney -- and that had to cause consternation for LA Opera, then in the midst of its own seasons. A bit of box office competition, you might say. But for now all seems forgiven.
And Dudamel/Phil ended their Disney season in a beguiling program that featured Carrie Dennis, the orchestra's principal viola. But this was not the de facto annual spotlight given some first chair players. No, it was an astonishment.
From the time she arrived here in 2008 (wanting to return to her homeland after a two-year stint at the Berlin Philharmonic) this gifted, young artist instantly put her new orchestra on notice, not intentionally, but by her very presence. Dennis played in the ensemble the way few others dare.
In concert after concert she stood out and stands out against the other 90-plus musicians who sit back more sedately in their chairs. Then and now, as her section enters, she dives down on an accent, thrusts into a passage with startling vigor, her head jerked to her knees, her elbow jutting in the air, her foot jumping from the simultaneous impetus.
Even if you were deaf you would know what the music is like.
But at this solo event, playing the Bartok Viola Concerto, Dennis also gave us a vertical image, an enlarged image -- a tall wraith of a woman, almost painfully shy, standing there next to the podium and Dudamel.
Her feet bare, she padded out from the wings in a black, floor-length shift, and made it clear that with shoes on she would not have had a way to grip the floor -- so physically intense was her body involvement.
The moment she launched into this knotty, ultra-demanding work, any sense of herself and all shyness disappeared. She became the music. She teased out its fine, dusky strains of mournfulness, leaped into the fast passage work of its raging intervals and, high on the string, found a gorgeous complement of flute and piccolo chirping brilliantly with her.
In fact, Dudamel and the band came into full union with her and she with them. Dennis is a star and they know it.
La Boheme. LA opera/Ken Howard.
So was the rest of their Hungarian bill a keepsake. All those juicy orchestral sweeps and swerves that characterize Kodaly's Dances of Galanta abounded -- you could see the czardas boots clicking and the Cossacks galloping amid gentle folkways. Similarly, Bartok's "Miraculous Mandarin" Suite struck those chords and Dudamel led his charges to one racing-pulse cadence, after another. There's hardly anything as rousing as this kind of music in their hands.
Music that compels also comes in Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet." And thank you, Los Angeles Ballet, for giving us one of your proudest offerings.
This time, though, it was not the well-known Kenneth MacMillan production but an earlier one by Sir Frederick Ashton (1955), staged to perfection by Peter Schaufuss, and delivering the moment-to-moment bond that is the best news for full-length ballets. Not just irresistible love scenes but the liveliest dueling feats, family and social conflicts, turns of fate and, of course innocent tragedy.
Always in this Prokofiev masterwork it's the score that nails you to Shakespeare's incandescent tale of star-cross'd lovers -- each turn in it a dynamic musical inspiration that guides a choreographer.
Here, Allyssa Bross was a sweet girl of a Juliet, disarmingly open-faced and joyous, with Kenta Shimizu, a passionate Romeo who could be more so if not so instilled with that certain classroom studied-ness he works to lose.
One thing MacMillan's staging offers, though, over this one, is a balcony for Juliet to reach from and steps for her to climb (programmed precisely in the score), and a more illustrative setting for the love scene -- rather than this, which is played out on a single level and without those delirious lifts.
Who could ever forget Alessandra Ferri in the balcony pas de deux, her arms twining over the railing like tendrils, her voluptuously supple spine, her dove-shaped arches all stretched to the max in rapturous explosion?
But others in the cast danced with full-out energy -- especially Magnus Christoffersen, a springy, boyish Benvolio with open, fly-away brashness. The directors' son, though, Erik Thordal-Christensen, looks like a better spot for him would be in the corps than dancing Paris, a leading role. (I even shudder to think how hard a fate it is to have your career choice ordained by birthright.)
And then there is the Barak Ballet, which had an evening at the Wallis, again showcasing works by its director Melissa Barak -- both of them unfailingly tasteful and pretty, if not especially memorable. What you see is a dedication to the idea that "everything is beautiful at the ballet." Indeed, it is: the form, the line, the extension of tapering, turned-out limbs in controlled balanced motion, evolving in ever-more lovely configurations.
But the lady is really a one-woman operation. A prodigious one. She knows how to network, to organize, to attract high-level dancers for her twice-a-year (but gradually expanding) performances. In addition to her own choreography she presents others, the last notable one by Pascal Rioult, whose marvelous "Wien" she intends to bring back.
One curiosity in the current roster is Allynne Noelle, formerly a principal with LAB, as was Barak herself a few years ago. But the most promising addition is Jessica Gadzinski, a dancer with a certain spunk and character that adds greatly.