'Don Carlo' speaks to today, as does Los Angeles Philharmonic at 100

WDCH-Refik-by-DD-0058.jpgWalt Disney Concert Hall illuminated by Refik Anadol. Photos: Dustin Downing.


Take it from Verdi. These lines -- uttered by a court confidante speaking to the king who demands exclusive loyalty of those around him -- seem eerily familiar today:

"Sir, half the world submits to your rule but you cannot rule yourself."

Yes, the words jump out at you -- if, that is, you read about tweets and leaks in our nation's ongoing political imbroglios and also if you are lucky enough to snare tickets for LA Opera's season opener, "Don Carlo" at the Music Center Pavilion, which is the roaring success championed by our perpetual world wonder, Plácido Domingo.

That's not all. The great composer who, in 1867, allied himself to great thinkers and writers of historical tragedies penned these words, too, for the king's advisor, based on Schiller's play:

"Sir, may you never be likened to Nero."

But here it's all wrapped in the powerful music drama, the haunting arias with their mind-bait melodies, the dark grandeur and daunting atmosphere of political treachery. What's more, you can see it unfold: a monarchy that falls into craven collusion with the church (executive and senate?); power grabs that pass between the two like a traded football.

Verdi, great anti-cleric that he was, laid it out with polished zeal. He even included a love triangle with father and son connected to the same woman, as per Schiller.

don-carlo-dp.jpgMorris Robinson as the Grand Inquisitor and Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip II in LA Opera's 2018 production of "Don Carlo." Photo: Cory Weaver.

Fortunately, for this 2006 production's revival, the values still carry the day -- if not Ian Judge's original, finely gauged, illuminating details now smudged by a successor who inserts some clunky/junky effects. It's the cast's individual enactments and singing, though, that shine most brightly. Especially, the stunning presence of Domingo, a slim, relatively youthful 78 -- yes, 78 -- an unheard of age for any singer boasting sturdy vocal cords and resonant tones, however lowered his top notes.

In fact, the audience did not recognize him as he came onstage. No clapping. For this once, a star entrance went unacknowledged.

Yet here was Rodrigo, trying to gain favor with the court for his beloved friend Don Carlo, trying to rescue him from doom for opposing his father King Philip. Although not a big-time baritone, the erstwhile tenor still has his distinctive, ringing sound and that gave him away, regardless of how he looked or even comported himself.

As the title character, Ramon Vargas sang fervently, although hardly anyone could displace the memory of Luis Lima -- the Argentine tenor seldom seen these days on U.S. stages -- who once etched this crown prince with depths of gripping despair.

But Ana Maria Martinez was a stricken Elisabetta, her gorgeous, soft high notes and unflagging legato a thing of purity, her entreaties compelling. A dozen years since he first appeared here as Philip, Ferruccio Furlanetto still is that regal yet fearsome monarch who could sit slumped in sorrow as he sang "Ella gemmai m'amo" confessing to himself that his Elisabetta never loved him. Also, Anna Smirnova brought burning rage to Eboli, with her robust mezzo. And Morris Robinson's Grand Inquistor issued volumes of hot basso brimstone.

Powering the whole thing from the pit was James Conlon who got his orchestra to thunder out Verdi's dramatic declamations in a taut, urgent reading. Get there while you can (through Oct. 14).

But with downtown in mind, don't forget (how could you?) that the LA Philharmonic is embarking on perhaps the grandest season of its Grand Avenue occupancy. The orchestra counts 100 years since it began, back in Philharmonic Auditorium across from the Biltmore, before there was ever a Music Center, and way before there was a Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Yes, that's some kind of milestone. And centennial celebrations are vibrating around the city. In fact, ever since the New York Times critics have recently declared the LA Phil this country's most innovative and most important, it's been pandemonium. (You do remember that years ago LA and all it encompassed, including its orchestra -- the one excluded from "The Big Five," which identified as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Boston -- was deemed a cultural desert, disparaged non-stop by eastern seaboard artistic arbiters, no?)

Well, well, well. Here we are. And the Philharmonic meisters are suggesting their 21st century-ness by invoking new design/program efforts of "deep neural networks, machine intelligence...data made beautiful."

And nothing could have illuminated that better than a gala 100th birthday celebration concert that exploded on the steel skin of Frank Gehry's Disney Hall, its remarkable exterior panels visualizing Refik Anadol's electronic kaleidoscope of Philharmonic moments (nightly through Oct. 6 and on video.

What can be gleaned from all this, as if we couldn't already guess, is that the days of unadorned, theatrically bare, unvisualized, non-enhanced music-making -- just the music, ma'am -- are nearly over.

But for one gala night that tipped its hat to an audience of city VIPs and club-going Angelenos the celebrating orchestra turned to what its director Gustavo Dudamel called art without borders. (Ah, we like the idea of no borders!) And what that boiled down to was stellar pieces by John Adams, that contemporary icon, and lots of popular stuff, with singers Chris Martin and Corinne Bailey Rae, drummer John Densmore et al -- all of it presupposing that pop entertainment belongs under the aegis of art.

With "California Soul" the byword, this gala pointed to the state's composers: André Previn (via Berlin), Frank Zappa, Adams (a "native" for decades), Julia Adolphe (a new "native" at USC for now) with a beguiling showpiece, aptly titled for the occasion, "Underneath the Sheen" revealing its long-lined mournful mysteries.

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Martin and Dudamel. Photo: Craig T. Mathew


But the pure blow-away moments came in Adams' "Wild Nights" from "Harmonium." It was here that we understood the meaning of the Philharmonic's hundred virtuosos, why there would be a celebration mounted anyway, but for the monumental thrill of their collective playing -- this piece, this way, under this conductor, with this brilliant chorus (LA Master Chorale). The rest is...lots of clap your hands, rock your body, etc.

None of that folderol filled the air space at the orchestra's last classical Bowl concert, led by the gifted Karina Canellakis, with a centerpiece nod to that other centenary celebrant Leonard Bernstein -- whose "Age of Anxiety" featured its foremost champion, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (decked out in an eggplant metallic suit for the occasion).

Motifs and styles easily came to mind in this terrific performance, especially that of Beethoven, oddly enough. For in a very slow solo part, Thibaudet suggested the same utter alone-ness, the searching single-note reflections so insistent in Beethoven's piano sonatas. The more we hear Bernstein the more defined his profile and the more appealing is he in this present day.

With any luck, so will there be more to see of the very talented choreographer Seda Aybay, an Istanbul import whose local troupe Kybele Dance Theater came to the Broad Stage.

While so many follow a single trend -- lately it's been a focus on staged body mechanics -- Aybay has a distinct sense of dance as total theater. She uses all its facets, a camera-lens-format opening, for example in "Sun Rises From The East" that encloses a figure in black vertical frame. It confines what we can know. It creates suspense in its black-ness and limitation. It says something. And then that figure, the exceptional Alan L. Perez, starts to resemble a moving sculpture, under a cloak, to slowly reveal a woman winding her way around his body. Finally they become two separate people standing upright in an abstracted marriage.

Turning to satire, Aybay's "Noir" employs black-and-white film with Carl Owens' script narrated as a voice-over. It uses as background music Bernard Herrmann's "Vertigo," brilliantly, along with Pat Guillem's chic period costumes and Rully Akbar's cleverly noirish on-screen illustrations to great effect. To think this relatively unknown company, packing so much talent, now exists here is a boon to us all.

And, as a bonus, the Broad Stage now hosts Santa Monica College faculty discussions with this first event and others to come.

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