Chaplin-esque opera, LA Phil party, a strange swan

Nadezhda-Batoeva&-Kimin-Kim.jpgNadezhda Batoeva and Kimin Kim in "Rubies." Photo by Natasha Razina/State Academic Mariinsky Theatre. Below, Stephanie Berger.

So there's just one question: Did you miss Mozart's merry "Magic Flute"? You know, that special one directed by Barrie Kosky, the one that first came here from Berlin six years ago?

Well, the obvious answer is here's another chance, possibly the last time for a while. It's playing now courtesy of LA Opera at the Music Center Pavilion.

But don't wait to decide whether you're an opera buff (it doesn't matter) or if you like Mozart. Because what's onstage there until mid-December is a crafty little show, an escape to unimagined worlds, a shamelessly clever amalgam with silent-film savvy, comic-book villains like Nosferatu and Cruella De Vil and wide-spectrum appeals to any current CGI maven who never learned the old-timey characterizations.

Mostly-Mozart-Festival.jpgYes, the divine music is intact. The singers in top form. The conductor, James Conlon, infusing the score with zesty love. There are cats, too -- drawn in black, their antique forms whimsically clambering across the screen, posing silent questions in bemused style. Did Mozart and his librettist Schikaneder even think of them? Assuredly not. But they fit the tone, the scheme.

And the central figures -- Tamino, Pamina, Papageno, Papagena -- seem like outtakes of 1920's urbanites, cavorting on little "Laugh-In" pop-out platforms in irresistibly stylish dress, aided by GIF motion.

The whole thing is a sophisticated collaboration -- thanks to animation specialists Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt; and set/costume designer Esther Bialas, easily in sync with each other. You'll come to love Tamino in his mustardy yellow street-corner, casual-guy suit and off-handed matching hat. Somehow all the visuals are endearing. We know these characters -- their plight, their desires, their challenges, their innocence -- made so relatable in Mozart's little Singspiel.

The narrative, a fairy tale about good and evil, love and hate, becomes a repurposed tickler with explanatory intertitles on a black screen (just like in the 20s' movie houses). They happily replace the burdensome German dialogue. And they benefit from the accompanying Mozart piano excerpts (C-minor and F-minor Fantasies), further enhancing the affect of the story line. Just brilliant.

So much for Berlin and Kosky's Komische Oper -- it followed visitors from other parts of the world, namely: St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Ballet and Dublin's Teac Damsa.

Unlikely as it may seem these two companies both basked in the imagery of "Swan Lake" on their trips here. One of them, the Mariinsky, in true Russian Imperial style, of course, offered us Balanchine's "Jewels" at the Music Center Pavilion. And, remember, that nearly every time the born-and-bred St. Petersburger has turned to tiara-and-tutu classicism at his New York City Ballet we could see how haunted we was by those powerful signatures.

Especially so in the "Diamonds" episode. This Odette's movements -- a raised arm twining round her head, neck leaning over shoulder, her contained anguish, her yearning for freedom, a fluttering away in despair, the Tchaikovsky symphonic excerpt, -- all spelled out the original characterization. And Maria Khoreva, tall, thin and almost still-pubescent, made a gorgeous Swan Queen (by the way, this 19-year-old has an alarmingly active online publicity campaign.)

But as a curiosity there was Yana Selina, billed only among the lower ranks, who danced a small "Emeralds" solo, one that simply dazzled with her performance's subtleties. Keep in mind, though, this is conductor/impresario Valery Gergiev's province -- he runs the whole show. And politics, in Russia, is the mightiest indicator of what performance perks a dancer gets -- or does not get. Luckily, without any hullabaloo, we got the chance to see her.

In a brief few bars elsewhere in "Emeralds" Selina also triggered a mind-flash when she took those big but precise steps out on stage -- maybe you know the quote from 19th century ballerina Marie Taglioni who famously said "I shall not bend a blade of grass (when I dance), Papa." Had there been a lawn neither would have Selina. That's if you can imagine dancing of such deliberation and delicacy.

But don't even ask what the Irishman (not Robert De Niro) Michael Keegan-Dolan brought to UCLA's Royce Hall with his "Swan Lake" (or in Gaeilge "Loch Na Heala"). Just know that it was a riveting sight, an ever-changing spectacle with a humorous edge, a post-modern melodrama, an antidote to all the sober, self-serious sameness of much dance today.

This so-called "Swan" did keep us hopping, though. A half-naked sooth-sayer groaning and tethered to a circle of cement soon gets released by men who then bathe and dress him as several women installed on high aluminum ladders watch, each with a big, white swan wing draped on a rung.

There is a prince figure, you see, a stringbean of a disheveled guy (the marvelous Alex Leonhartsberger), wearing dark sweats and a beanie pulled over his head. He sleeps a lot, stays isolated and depressed, except for listening to his mother's incantations.

Like Siegfried (here he's called Jimmy), he longs for a girl, but all attempts to touch any who swoop down from their ladders are repelled. Instead they resort to gestural dance -- a kind of Amish Martha Graham with a separate male contingent added. Fiddlers seated upstage play Irish country tunes. Ingenious, but simple stagecraft, carries the piece forward. The whole thing a rare treat.

And if you call any 100th anniversary party a rare treat, so it was on that actual date for the LA Philharmonic. Yes, a confetti-festooned event at Disney Hall where the orchestra's trio of living music directors (current and former) assembled, each conducting something of his respective specialties and with documentary clips through the years highlighting the occasion.

It was quite a sight. Three generations of maestros. The thirty-something Gustavo Dudamel, the 60-ish Esa-Pekka Salonen. The 83-year-old Zubin Mehta, who holds forth on a stool and walks with a cane, but hails the band with his old razzamatazz.

This festive nod to history did not slight the Phil's status as No. 1 commissioner of new music, though. To wit: a pièce d'occasion, Daniel Bjarnason's "From Space I Saw the Earth" and a commission from 1993, Lutoslawski's Fourth Symphony, led by Salonen for all its supreme clarity of line, sharp outbursts and lyric sumptuousness.

Sorry to say, though, that the "Space-Earth" work seemed far less than that; because it called for three divided ensembles on stage, each led by one conductor, all trying to stay in sync, heads looking over shoulders. You had to call it something of a stunt. A single leader, choose one, would easily have sufficed. Better, even.

But all the rest -- Mehta's "La Valse" and "Meistersinger" prelude, Dudamel's "Firebird" -- made for a celebratory night.

So has the opening season of LA Chamber Orchestra, under its new maestro, Jaime Martin been a cause to celebrate. The band is once more energized, giving off a positively electric frisson. Their Ravel was sweetness personified and with Stravinsky's "Pulcinella" Suite we heard an outright joyous performance.

Handing the LACO off to conductor Nicholas McGegan for a program was also salutary. You had to wonder, though, while listening to Schubert's 6th Symphony delivered in all its playful spirit, what deep pleasures this composer felt in his short life. They were inscribed here. For our own pleasure.

But what about pianist Jeremy Denk's Mozart Concerto in F-major, No. 19 on the same bill? It seemed barely contained, almost clamorous, on a runaway track. Could this brilliant musician/writer have gotten bored?

Perish the thought. But an eccentricity -- turning his head abruptly to the audience at phrase endings, as if to say, "Did you hear that?" -- really piques our curiosity.

So did his most peculiar (perverse?) encore: Wagner's overture to "Tannhäuser," done as syncopated ragtime and banged out with abandon. Call it a stage of life.

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