A "Rigoletto" to revel in, plus Dudamel and Uchida

rigoletto-dp.jpgAmbrogio Maestri as Rigoletto and Adela Zaharia as Gilda in LA Opera's "Rigoletto." Photo: Karen Almond / LA Opera.

Just how many hats can an unencumbered contender wear? Ask Matthew Aucoin, for his answer.

This hot young composer/conductor who presides over LA Opera's "Rigoletto," and conducts his own opera, "Crossing," for the company's Off-Grand series of chamber works, boasts a whole rack of them.

But don't forget that the Harvard grad's mortarboard, along with a Juilliard tassle, is also a poet, an educator and has penned a passel of pieces that have landed him awards, high-powered posts and any number of commissions from A-circuit ensembles -- all by the age of 28.

Call him a wunderkind who fears no threshold. And, perhaps more important, is the fact that he can mesmerize, even "thrill," the heads of those very institutions that clamor for him, as well as some critics.

Or should we say: "Hats off, gentleman, a genius!" as Robert Schumann wrote, on the advent of Chopin?

Just picture the conductor at hand: very small in stature, slight, a bounder on the podium whose legs crank up and down constantly, with arms pumping in similar perpetual motion. What's more, if he didn't now sport a dark beard and mustache this man of the hour could pass for a high-schooler.

matthew-aucoin.jpgThat does not matter at all for one who leads the "Rigoletto" pit orchestra -- yet Aucoin (pronounced oh-coyn) made an instrumental shambles of the first act . (I hardly recognized these same musicians as those we regularly hear, the ones from whom James Conlon drew such sumptuous playing eight years ago in this production.)

Things improved for Aucoin after intermission where there was a cohesion, an orchestral urgency that finally jelled. Besides, it was what took place on stage that carried the day. This Mark Lamos edition of the Verdi favorite is a stunner (last performance at Music Center Pavilion June 3). More on it later.

But Aucoin, as LA Opera's first ever artist-in-residence, truly was the "kid in a candy store" he once claimed to be re: this post, and being on the Wallis podium for his "Crossing."

While it enjoyed a full staging in Boston and at BAM in New York, here we got a concert version -- male principals and chorus in black, plus a female cameo, all fronting the orchestra.

Aucoin's libretto, with Walt Whitman as the central figure, is based on the poet's texts. He is an Everyman -- alone in the world, suffering an infinite variety of self-doubts. During the Civil War he drifts to a shelter for wounded soldiers seeking answers to the other side of life. His own?Theirs? His longing for love? His homosexuality? His "crossing"? Finally comes his epiphany: "Where else would you find a hundred helpless boys" but at a fallen soldiers' hospital?

What he finds among them is a feeling of disaffection, deserters' guilt, cowardice, not even a sure sense of relief at the war's end.

And what Aucoin delivers is a rich, lively score with all kinds of arresting currents that tell of seething resentments, barely buried conflict, but also tender moments and jubilant choral outcries on nature's joys -- even some overblown passages toward the ending. Benjamin Britten's stylistic flourishes in a glorious opening are easily recognizable, as are snatches of John Adams, Philip Glass and Leonard Bernstein.

In this concert format the piece comes across more as oratorio than opera -- especially because so much of the singing is stentorian, with very little shading or nuance or expressive dynamic. I kept imagining that Sprechgesang, a manner of speech song, would go a long way to improving its dramatic value.

You could not ask for a more impassioned cast -- with Rod Gilfry (LA's own beloved baritone) as Whitman; Brenton Ryan, whose piercing tenor captured so well the deceptive deserter/victim Wormley; Davone Tines with the sensitively burnished tones and profound utterances of an escaped slave who wearily longs to go home to the South; and the simply gorgeous warbling of Liv Redpath who signals an end of battle.

So did Aucoin's cast of "Rigoletto" ring in at a high level. Especially Lisette Oropesa as a Gilda who actually finished off "Cara Nome" with the loveliest trill. Throughout, in fact, the soprano sang with open-throated presence, not as a tiny-toned canary, but pure in her passion and moment-to-moment expression. As the womanizing duke Arturo Chacon-Cruz matched her with his tenorial gold intact but could also turn mindlessly cruel while pursuing his next conquest.

The title character, though, who represents that split between fiercely protective, paternal love and his work as procurer-in-chief within the duke's court, was Juan Jesus Rodriguez. Sadly, even with a clear, sturdy baritone, he could not quite summon the anguish of a father watching the boss seduce his virginal daughter -- although Robert Wierzel's dramatic lighting of her death while cradled in his arms, gave us pathos galore.

What should not go unmentioned is Michael Yeargan's set designs -- leaning structures in dark reds and blues that suggest the surreal distortions of a decadent court . For that is the key to "Rigoletto": a play on power abuse and corruption, as in a Michael Cohen as procurer/fixer, underling to a philanderer-Trump in a Mafioso-like setting. But here, Verdi conjures an ironic tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

Otherwise, only joy was transmitted -- spectacularly -- during the LA Philharmonic's "Schumann Focus" at Disney Hall. A huge chunk of it animated by Gustavo Dudamel and Mitsuko Uchida. What was this we wondered. What connected our resident podium-meister to this revered pianist, one who has wedded music to her soul like few others. What was this new-found love fest? And on their very first outing together?


UchidaDec2011color.jpgMitsuko Uchida, photo by Chris Lee.


Well, something happened. Two hearts locked in a mutual appreciation that flowered in their music-making. It was the Schumann Piano Concerto, of course, that they communed in. Dudamel & Co. seemed to pick up her impulses and, as to be expected with Uchida, no musical statement is ever rote. Everything has an idea that stimulates its emotional response and her virtuosity goes without saying -- not as display in itself, but as illuminating function.

So tickled were they with their collaborative experience that they hugged and kissed and hugged and kissed all the way from stage to wings and back again -- spreading a contagion of cheer in the audience.

Even Schumann's 1st Symphony ("Spring") took off, although revealing its compositional drawback of perpetually short phrases. A few nights later while driving (and in an always curious state to check in on KUSC-FM) there was a recording of same. It turned out to be Simon Rattle leading the Berlin Phil and, big surprise, those short phrases sounded far less prominent, far more integrated.

Dudamel and Rattle, who once resided with the LA Phil as guest principal conductor, seem to be on a single wave length. Both recently did Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" -- Sir Simon at Lincoln Center with his new band, the London Philharmonic, in a unique performance that held the song cycle wonderfully together. And with their respective orchestras, they both chose to do Schumann's very rarely performed "Das Paradies und die Peri."

On another high point, let's hope that Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel," in a New York production that is some kind of miracle, comes on tour to Los Angeles.

While this superb show (its kind of music and lyrics simply do not get written anymore) loses out in Jack O'Brien's second act and doesn't really surpass Nicolas Hytner's historically stellar staging, the Billy Bigelow of Joshua Henry (the first black Billy) is a dynamo who is burning up the boards. He must be seen and heard. Otherwise you can't imagine his knockout portrayal and his electrifying baritone.


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