Carmen joins Pearl Fishers as LA's orchestras soar

mirga-laphil.jpgConductor Mirga Grazynte-Tyla. LA Philharmonic.

Just in case you thought that we, in headline-exploding Hollywood, suffer a paucity of music performances, think again. All venues are up and running in this new season -- no one need hunger for more.

The LA Opera, for instance, gave us a tasty double dollop of Bizet, with a revived (but too-well-traveled) production of that grand perennial "Carmen" and a new-to-Los Angeles staging of the composer's lesser work, "The Pearl Fishers." To boot, both the LA Philharmonic and LA Chamber Orchestra have rocketed some extraordinary music into the cosmos.

You think they bumped some other less salutary news from the front page? It all depends...

Take "Les Pecheurs de Perles," for example (yes -- that's how we used to refer to this flawed pearl, in its original French). Nino Machaidze, who has delivered to us every type of role -- from her unforgettably sardonic comedienne in the hilariously inventive "Turk in Italy," to the fragile Juliet and now Leila, the girl of every fisherman's dreams -- does it again. Here the Georgian soprano reveals yet another gift: her most gorgeous French
vocalism -- think freshets of spring water trickling around a pure and light and agile coloratura; think revelation.

Well, that was one of the high points in an opera whose libretto dallies with shallow silliness via an impoverished Ceylonese community consoled by religiosity of a Hindu sort. After all, Bizet was a just a kid when he got the assignment to compose a score for it. He took another 12 years before his masterpiece, "Carmen," the existential music drama based on Prosper Mérimée's novella, came to the stage.

So say what you like about "The Pearl Fishers," its music is often glorious. And conductor Plácido Domingo traces every hemidemisemiquaver of its best parts in lucid, delicate lyricism, with his orchestra maximally up to the challenge. So, too, do the other cast members excel: Javier Camarena's bright, finely focused tenor (Nadir) and Alfredo Daza's sturdy baritone (Zurga); together they gave us the opera's hit tune duet, "Au fond du temple," swearing eternal brotherhood, until, that is, love for the same woman turns them to enemies.

Just know that director Penny Woolcock, who staged some of our era's most forward-looking contemporary productions, concocted a ramshackle, uncoordinated mess here.
The fishing village shacks, which do aptly suggest misery, make no sense with the next scene's modern office that has shelves of organized business folders and men's costumes that look like today's black jeans and t-shirts -- especially if you note the hootchy-kootchy, belly-dancer costume of Leila, a Hindu priestess until she turns femme fatale.

At any moment I was expecting Yvonne De Carlo to come out hip-switching -- what with Machaidze adazzle in her bare-navel drapery.

Just the opposite image -- no aliveness-- projected in "Carmen." This time, after many revivals of the Madrid-loaned production, we saw just its bare bones. Gone was the sun-drenched Seville street, in a lovely long vista with palm trees; now it's all dull and gray; the trees are missing, the lighting is dim and nowhere are Jesús del Pozo's summery pastels with men in borsalinos and berets.

Maybe these items got lost in transit?

And neither did we see a wholly alive cast interacting down to a hair's breadth, as last time, when directed by Trevore Ross; now Ron Daniels gives us an under-rehearsed, ill-considered show that lets performers merely trot out their routines, take center stage and sing, not to each other, but facing front.

But it helped that conductor James Conlon whipped up the score's searing drama and drew out its ravishing lyricism in the orchestra pit. What's more, Ana Maria Martinez, in the title role, sang with strong presence and solid vocal placement and greatly pleasing tone, even if she came across more like a CEO than the fatalistic gypsy bent on testing the limits of life and love. Too bad that Riccardo Massi, her Don José, often sang off-pitch, with strain, and barely gave definition to the hapless corporal Carmen tormented.

To get a livelier sense of character we crossed the street to Disney Hall where Gustavo Dudamel led the LA Philharmonic and a cast of resourceful singers in a concert version of "The Magic Flute." Ah, the musical joys. Even the dramatic joys, given the fact that there were no stage settings, just individual enactments. All shone as Mozarteans -- but let me single out Julia Bullock, whose purity of voice and heartfelt emotions rippling and nuancing through it, stay in our minds.

So do other encounters at Disney, where you can enter another world -- a special, sonic world far removed from the din of the day.

And sometimes you just want to sit back and let yourself be deluged by and wrapped up in the music. It can be that overwhelming -- in heightened, heart-touching tenderness, seraphic pleasure, compassion, un-nameable nostalgia.

I'm describing what happened when maestra Mirga (let's simply dispose of her last name for now) did Mahler Four with the Philharmonic. She let out all the stops, gave Mahler his head in each touchstone of the above and let the score dictate those emotionally graphic environments in full-out dimension.

Now understand the 30-year-old Lithuanian (full name: Mirga Grazynte-Tyla), who has taken over the Birmingham Symphony, is enormously talented -- not just based on various critical observations but, more important, on the elite professional company she keeps. But she's a new breed. The feminine breed. Not the masculine stereotype at all, although in these days of fluid gender -- the next Playmate of the Month is a transie! -- who's to say where the line gets drawn. (And while we're at it, there's hardly a male conductor -- not Bernstein, not Dudamel -- who has not used an expressly feminine gesture to cull an effect from players, proving that gender i.d. can be multi-faceted.)

So get this: In front of a huge orchestra playing Mahler, gargantuan music that often looms over the world, she remains a slight figure, as they say, a mere slip of a girl. When it storms she jumps up and down -- like a feather, not with power. She leads with her undulating arms, mostly bare arms (while all orchestra members and all conductors, even other women baton-wielders, are sleeved).

And because Mirga uses no shoulder engagement, the kind needed to lean in and down to embrace low strings and draw a sense of sweeping depth, the sound doesn't match the picture that players usually rely on. Instead, she resorts to fiercely gesticulating fingers, powerful facial animation and, in rhythmically geometric music, angular arm movements.
One observer wrote: "Mirga needs to find her inner man" -- for which he was roundly criticized.

But then the creative connoisseur Gidon Kremer, who knows best, has given Mirga a big nod -- so that pretty much takes care of that issue. He joined her and the orchestra for the Weinberg Violin Concerto and together they summoned up this grave, dense work so darkly gripping in the eastern European spirit of Shostakovich -- as Kremer's playing conjured distant, far-away cries in the night, aptly enervated.

Nor was he the only major violinist around town lately. The LA Chamber Orchestra opened its 50th season at Royce Hall, celebrating both its venerable history and Leonard Bernstein's centenary year with Joshua Bell finding the unremitting intensity and passion in the beloved composer's Serenade (a virtual violin concerto), led ably by Jaime Martin. It's no wonder we'll be hearing Serenade a lot this year based on its endearing Bernstein signatures -- they add up to a musical biography.

First, though, let me note that it's not everyday a 97-year-old founder gets to address onstage his orchestra's half-century mark; but Jim Arkatov -- a cellist who was brought by Fritz Reiner to the Chicago Symphony as the youngest orchestra player all those years ago -- did just that. With arms opened wide to the audience, he gestured a big embrace and warm thank-you for those sustaining the LACO as the greatly deserving little band that it is.

And no slouches, either, are its program directors who mix contemporary music and rarities of worth. A dazzling example came with Jennifer Koh, a violinist who has yet to find a thorny new score she doesn't play with life-or-death zeal. The vehicle, Lutoslawski's "Chain 2," (a concerto, really, although that genre name is passé), gave her that option and she took it with such striking ferocity that her bow's horse hairs ended in shreds.
The stellar Peter Oundjian led the ensemble -- he was an able cohort in that piece and opened the concert with the Pergolesi-based "Pulcinella," letting us hear Stravinsky laughing up his sleeve, all in jaunty fun, simple gracioso sweetness and swirling energy.

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