Mozart opera closes the gap and Schnittke sounds an alarm

seraglio-robinson-park.jpgMorris Robinson as Osmin and So Young Park as Blonde in "The Abduction from the Seraglio." Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera.

Off-putting? Distant? Of another world? If that's what you think about so-called formal music -- especially if it's centuries old or even of recent vintage -- I say balderdash.

And if you were lucky enough to hear Schnittke's 1985 "Not a Summer Night's Dream," courtesy of the LA Philharmonic, led dazzlingly by Gustavo Dudamel, it had to grab you by the lapels -- no matter what style jacket you wear.

Just 10 miraculous minutes long, the Russian composer's show-off piece alerted both minds and ears with one high-craft diversion and surprise after another, the kind that makes you grin at its sheer brazen-ness, before decamping back briefly to guileless classical phrases, so simple, so endearing, so upright. It's then that we realize he's committing a little musical larceny here, exploding the whole thing into a massive, virtuosic splintering apart of the full orchestra -- all delivered with shiny clarity.
Talk about seduction. And heady potions...

Schnittke, a favorite of such connoisseurs as Gidon Kremer, even managed here to lift a theme fragment from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," which Dudamel cleverly programmed as a concert-closing suite. (More on that, and violinist Lisa Batiashvili, later.)

But across the street from Disney Hall at the Music Center Pavilion we witnessed an up-closer-and-personal event with LA Opera's current offering, Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio."

No more the 16th-century tale of Ottoman pirates, a pasha and his harem of kidnapees, this much-traveled James Robinson production, first seen in 2002, updates the little but long Singspiel (a sit-com with music) to a time we can still feel connected to -- the 1920s.

And, ah, that connection counts for much. Especially in so cozy an environment as the Orient Express (this one, without murder.) Yes, it features several elegant connecting cars with sliding doors, a hero in natty blazer, borsalino and white slacks, one who carries a tennis racket and sports a cigarette case; and a Pasha, not the mustachioed villain, but every inch an urbane aristocrat in double-breasted suit, hoping to woo the latest captive on his harem-loaded train.

But what makes the whole thing engaging is that it's no longer a comic fairy tale but a sophisticated negotiation between a beauty queen and her abductor.

To be sure, there are breakaways from situational tricks to heartfelt arias, with their outpourings of despair -- after all, Mozart 's stock in narrative trade lies in notions of fidelity versus worldly temptations, not to mention the struggle between those two poles: goodness, honor and sacrifice up against vengefulness and false-pride. (What, you say, we're in the midst of such oppressive forces today?)

Happily, the cast lived up to the given physical characterizations. All were young and extremely good-looking, dapper in their stylish duds.

But Mozart hardly ever seems concerned with how singable some of his music would be for human larynxes, what with the surfeit of required breath control, agility and range extensions. And so poor Sally Matthews, the Konstanze of everyone's desire, nearly came to grief in her raging arias, those high-wire coloratura rants imposed on her. Still, she reveled wherever long-lined sorrows streamed out in her highest vocal glory.

Sally Matthews as Konstanze and Joel Prieto as Belmonte in "The Abduction from the Seraglio." Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera.

Joel Prieto, though, had the whole thing in hand with his pure and sturdy Mozartean tenor, wonderfully placed in this music. As Konstanze's fiancé, Belmonte, he took a fast track -- cunning and, at turns, antic -- to rescue his helpless lover.

Another virtuosa was So Young Park, a Blonde who encountered not the slightest obstacle in her rapid-fire vocal assault on Osmin, the boss's burly gatekeeper, sung by Morris Robinson. Too bad he could barely sound out the role's notorious low notes.

Neither did the small, wiry tenor of Brenton Ryan embody the melodic line but he lent himself to some hilarious bouncings-around as a puny Pedrillo.

James Conlon enforced generally lithe, blithe Mozartean spirit in the pit and kept an energetic coordination with the stage.

What's more, we heard a positively whiz-bang performance with Dudamel et al and Batiashvili in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. When it comes to that special kind of heartbeat togetherness between a soloist and orchestra our resident podium meister knows how to get into a galloping synchrony, that exhilarating team rush to the final cadence.There's just nothing like it.

lisa-batshavili.jpgBatiashvili, a prodigious Georgian with a pile of honors, took the lead, commanding a fat, thewy tone in the lower register and silken slivers of sound high on the string. She put passion and her whole being into the performance, almost inviting us to hear the individual parts she's detailed. But after her sizzling first movement she found a more desirable integration throughout the rest.

Dudamel and Co. next turned to a concert suite of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," perhaps the best ballet score ever written. And if you thought the choreography went missing, then you've never seen this maestro dance before his players -- wonderfully enacting all the movements and gestures the music outlines.

Who needed to see Juliet run up the steps to her balcony when the music graphs that fleet-footed rapture, so airily pictured by the orchestra? Only the physical complement of a ballet performance would have bettered the takeaway.

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