'Tosca' glitters, Calleja swoons, Abraham and Taylor dance

sondra-r.jpgSondra Radvanovsky


Finding a nugget of gold just may be worth a whole, long dig. But trust me, it wasn't easy to spot in the case of LA Opera's "Tosca" -- which nearly covered up Puccini's musical pointers and even distracted all eyes from the composer's dramatic focus.

So often I found myself peering at the first-act set: a scaffold holding the heroic artist's painting, a Madonna face with each section arranged on different landings, and wondering how he and his diva could climb up and down the steep, spiral staircase while trying to act out their romantic exchanges -- she wrongly in peasant dress, not as a grande dame of stage, he looking and acting like a pudgy accountant.

None of this, in the John Caird/Bunny Christie revival at the Music Center Pavilion, James Conlon conducting, served Sondra Radvanovsky well in the title role, as surroundings go. But with her, we hit gold. Shine she did -- like no other in memory, barring Maria Callas and Leontyne Price. Especially in the hit tune, "Vissi d'arte," where her voice's thrilling power at the top, its plush and plummy tone, its fullness everywhere on the scale was also what it needed to be: an anguished call to the heavens for mercy.
And the audience knew it had witnessed something extraordinary, even beyond the instant applause-getting result, jumping from their seats in explosively long, loud ovations.

Still, this Tosca and her Mario, Russell Thomas, a sterling-voiced tenor, behaved more like sister and brother than as inseparable lovers. And in the second act we had Scarpia, the villainous chief of police, operating from a bombed-out warehouse crammed with giant sculptures, art booty atop packing crates -- and not from an elegant apartment at the Palazzo Farnese. Ah, but the veteran Ambrogio Maestri, as that bullying, lecherous monster, asserted his authority vocally and dramatically and sure looked like today's known power-abuser, Roger Ailes, in his lusty pursuit of Tosca.

Often, though, and at any event, just the music and its stellar performers can sweep you away. That's what happened at the Broad Stage's Joseph Calleja concert the other night when a woman nearby whispered, "To hear a singer like this in an intimate hall with a blazing orchestra simply knocks me out." Understood.

And so it was that benefactor Jamie Rigler, an heir to the Lloyd Rigler-Lawrence Deutsch Foundation, made it possible once again, as he's been doing all season. Calleja, the man from Malta, gloried in his evening, with a greatly spirited pickup orchestra led by Jader Bignamini -- what with the audience glorying in him and the whole output, justifiably.

The first time I heard Calleja, roughly a decade ago on my car radio, sent me searching -- because his was the type of singing not common today: a genuine bel canto style with a light vibrato that he called upon as easily as his glide up to soft head tones, a warmth and intimacy and also the ringing Italianate sound. Now his lyric voice is bigger but equally terrific. He sang a standard program --typical arias and "Three Tenors" songs, some grandly robust Spanish numbers, and even found that perfectly gorgeous French timbre for the "Flower Song" from "Carmen."

After the formal program came encores, and the affectionate back-and-forth gemütlichkeit between him and his ultra-gratified fans. First, he sang the Chopin étude, here in German, that was turned into a popular song by '50s paragon Jo Stafford et al -- "No Other Love" -- as a request by Rigler in the front-row. Then in a burst of appreciation Calleja waltzed offstage and came down to serenade his sponsor up close with "La Vie en Rose,"moving along the aisle to include everyone.

Strange contrasts to all this personalization came with the LA Philharmonic's recent program of Wagner's "Ring" highlights, played magnificently by the band under Philippe Jordan, director of Opéra National de Paris. Why strange? Because without the opera cycle's mythic stage trappings and character enactments -- and heard on Disney Hall's brightly lit stage, not as emanations from the pit -- it brought back the words of former LA Phil maestro Carlo Maria Giulini who once explained that "the composer's universe of übermenschen and üntermenschen does not show our humanity." A thought to consider when hearing that unadorned Germanic triumphalism.

But if you travel a world away from such a sensibility you just might catch our contemporary dance scene. It takes place on the street, that is, the choreography reflects an actual population just as it is. And it springs from the mind of Kyle Abraham, the famously awarded former hip-hop dancer -- deeply thoughtful and schooled -- who now creates a whole array of pieces for his company, A.I.M (Abraham in Motion).

abrahaminmotion.jpgAbraham in Motion. Photo: Steven Schreiber

At the Broad we got to see his mind-set, which turns away from the face-front entertainment that has long dominated dance. Others try this inward tack as well. But Abraham does it compellingly, especially in ensemble pieces like "A Quiet Dance." Its performers seem to find inner voices that animate their idiosyncratic movements, original and quite powerful expressions that are subtle but lock your eyes to the stage. There's very little dance out there I can say that about.

Even when he applies specifics, like the policing tragedies that spawned "Hands Up," "I Can't Breathe" and "Black Lives Matter" it is with a sense of abstraction, of limning the inhumanity in our culture, not its full-out depiction. Here, those catastrophes are almost unidentifiable even while telegraphing their essence.

But it's the big mingle with Abraham that is virtuosic, his way of absorbing all the elements of various dance vocabularies, not patching them in as often seen, but fusing them to create a semi-narrative shadow of personal interior resonances. He uses flight, stillness, velocity in his creations and mirrors the gestures and postures of the sub-culture he observes with such arresting accuracy.

Abraham is what's new. Paul Taylor has been making dances since the '50s and his still-active company, which houses a mere 146 works, stopped off at the Wallis to deliver several little gems from earlier decades. Each was a specimen of his rich imaginings on the human condition: how insect behavior mirrors our own in sexual domination theory ("Syzygy") and how the socio-political landscape also speaks to power struggles.

In "The Word" we see a picture of evangelist authority, served by a slavish group (in uniforms of shirts, ties, suspenders, short pants) and marching in a terrifying "sieg heil" manner. Midway through, a pagan figure appears, competing for their loyalty and signaled by David Israel's intimations of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."

Taylor, as always, reminds us that the art of dance at its highest level has a story or a moral to tell.

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