Joffrey does double duty downtown

joffrey-dp.jpgJoffrey Ballet. Photo: Cheryl Mann.

Just for starters, you've got to call two current shows at the Music Center a remarkable fusion. What else, when an antique opera (Gluck's) and a modern ballet (Prokofiev's) hold the same stage?

That would be thanks to the collaborative spirit of those handling affairs at the Chandler Pavilion, particularly Rachel Moore, the Center's President and CEO.

Yes, the Joffrey Ballet, our former resident dance company now based in Chicago, brought its "Romeo and Juliet" to the Pavilion on the first night of a week-long run, and 24 hours later performed in LA Opera's production of "Orpheus and Eurydice" running month-long.

How's that for scheduling ingenuity? The benefits were many. So were the common narratives.

Tragic loss, for instance. In Shakespeare's play of star-cross'd lovers and in the Greek myth of a lover put to a heart-breaking test, everyone loses -- but for a hopeful afterlife, spiritually.

So whatever the calamity's causation -- either an understandable chink in the hero's armor ("Orpheus) or a teen's struggle under her father's unbreakable edict ("Romeo") -- both tales take their human toll.

orpheus-dp.jpgDancers from the Joffrey Ballet in LA Opera's production of "Orpheus and Eurydice." Photo: Ken Howard.

The theme gets revisited all the time. In Mozart's "Magic Flute," for instance, Tamino must take an oath of silence and ignore Pamina's plea to acknowledge her. Heroically, he resists. The same happens when Eurydice, being brought back to life from the underworld by Orpheus, begs in vain for him to look at her, until he fatefully gives in.

There's something about glancing back and disobedience, it seems, even for Lot's wife, what with all that turning to salt.

No matter.

In Gluck's 244-year-old opera, staged here by John Neumeier, the choreographer opted for this long, Paris version with extra music in order to create his many dances. He also updated the setting. Now Orpheus figures as a ballet troupe director (shades of similarity to expat Neumeier who led the Hamburg Ballet for decades). And here, the eponymous hero is teaching company class -- with the marvelous Joffrey dancers going through their maneuvers -- when his angry ballerina wife breaks from the ranks, runs to the street and is killed by a car.

This sort of story-framing really doesn't alter the original plot or the ongoing cascade of pretty music, which includes the well-known "Dance of the Blessed Spirits." And only because there has to be space for the frequent ensemble dance episodes throughout, does Orpheus retreat for much of his singing time to a far-away park bench at stage-end (watch out for a stiff neck.)

Otherwise, Neumeier's production becomes a shimmering dream -- with its modernistic angularity marking the costume/set design and choreography, its stage flow a thing of considerable craft.

Maxim Mironov, as a blond Adonis of an Orpheus, sang the high tenor role with a warm, resonant, forward-placed voice and even negotiated an agreeable melisma in dense arias. Lisette Oropesa made a lovely and vulnerable Eurydice vocally but should not have been tasked with doing quick steps in unison with the dancers -- which proved awkward for her. Liv Redpath was a pert provocateur as Amour.

Reliably, James Conlon supported the whole enterprise with his orchestra unearthing the many beauties and the austere nobility of an opera that, at bottom, remains dramatically static.

Its opposite came in the Joffrey Ballet's "Romeo and Juliet" -- but no, not in the familiar John Cranko version formerly danced by the company. This time Polish choreographer Krzysztof Pastor cloaked its three acts in 20th century Italy's different political eras, starting with Mussolini. What happens, of course, is an uptick in relatable menace. We're no longer in the territory of palace intrigue, namely, the Montagues and the Capulets, but we're seeing the background of whole nations going to war and dictators enslaving citizenry.

Still, even this superimposition on the Prokofiev score, led ably by Scott Speck, does not dim its theatrical potency, at least not as far as the dance is concerned. The designs, though, take a toll. After all, there's only so far you can go with multi-media. And when giant movie images dwarf the stage and its human-size dancers there's certain dissolution of impact.

That's what's wrong with Pastor's ideas, as put into practice. His actual choreography, though, is utterly arresting. It's both original and character-oriented. You get to know the personalities and their points of conflict through gesture and expression, which he incorporates into the dance. The whole thing takes us light years ahead of classical mime.

So much so that I don't even mind the score's re-arrangements. But lately many choreographers ignore its graphic cues, for example the music that ends the balcony scene, where Juliet is supposed to run up the outer stairs to her bedroom. Here too the pitter-pat of steps Prokofiev designates musically are not to be found; instead she rides smoothly up in a glass elevator.

As a wondrous Juliet there is Christine Rocas, who embodies Pastor's choreography as though hand to glove. She moves in it physically through the sly energy of her perfectly turned-out, straight legs, supple arches and, of course, an upper body expressive of innocent ardor and those first moments of awakened sensuality.

Rory Hohenstein, however, comes across more as a slouching lover, rather than a virile Romeo in this ill-fated match, even while his technique is never in question. Others, though, raised temperatures to red-hot -- namely the powerful Fabrice Calmels whose huge, looming size as the authoritative Capulet overwhelmed all in his presence; and Yoshihisa Arai, a Mercutio who, in every moment, could taunt and tease a saint to murder.

Yes, character definition counts, in all of the performing arts. So now pardon me, for this musical detour to the Oscar-winning Chilean film "Fantastic Woman." Here the trans heroine escapes the scene of her sordid debasement by society and takes her rightful, elevated place -- onstage with a chamber orchestra -- singing in a countertenor voice "Ombra mai fu" from Handel's "Xerxes." It's a touching, poignant apotheosis, a brilliantly redemptive closer to a movie about how someone marked as "other" learns to value her highest ideals and mourn her lover's death at that same level.

Allied to it was a piece at the Broad Stage, "Betroffenheit," concerning the shock of loss. An existential mirage choreographed by Crystal Pite and written by Jonathon Young, it lurks in that certain territory -- theater of alienation flirting with the absurd. And it spills over in show-dance routines that tell us all the world is a vaudeville act just waiting for godot.

Back from the fringes I was surely fortified by hearing Beethoven in the hands of violinist Vilde Frang, soloist with the LA Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen. A young Norwegian who plays with an individuality that her physical presence also portrays, she captured that sense of intimacy that marks the concerto's deepest interpretation, especially in a prayerful cadenza and again in the slow movement.

It's as though the composer's very breathing was heard, the utterance of his innermost feelings -- so refined, so small-scaled, so unmuscular, so canny in its phrasing. To boot, Frang comported herself without any show-off antics. She looked like a fine piece of Dresden -- slender, long-limbed. An Ingres? A pale Modigliani?

And Salonen, typically sensitive to an aura like this, brought the orchestra to a shared state. Then, in a flash, they changed course -- going on to an absolutely robust and cheering overture to Mozart's "Impresario."

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