'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Ghosts of Versailles' plus more

alice-dp-mathew-imaging.jpgAlice photos: Mathew Imaging. Ghosts of Versailles: Craig Mathew.

They're at it again. The LA Philharmonic and LA Opera are going head to head with major contemporary works at the same time -- Unsuk Chin's "Alice in Wonderland" and John Corigliano's "Ghosts of Versailles."

But wait. These are not nods to operatic novelty done on the fly, they're extravagantly produced enterprises, the former one boasting joint forces (a children's chorus, et al.) -- so that our Grand Avenue high-culture purveyors could be seen taking a few steps hand in hand.

The star power of "Alice" couldn't be brighter. Besides composer Chin, a boldface name in the new-music hierarchy, there's librettist Henry David Hwang ("M. Butterfly"), who deftly underscored Lewis Carroll's wordplay with twisted little rhymes; designer/director Netia Jones, an LA Phil luminary hailed everywhere; literati's popular line-drawing illustrator Ralph Steadman; and notable conductor Susanna Mälkki, the tall, strict, no-nonsense Boulezian leading the orchestra in an exhilaratingly detailed layout of the score's quasi-tonal declarations and accents, in a kaleidoscope of styles.

alice2-dp-mathew-imaging.jpgVisually and verbally there are enough subversive undertones to satisfy deep readers of the Carroll classic -- what with its various surreal contretemps and characters -- even if the whole turned out to be more of an intellectual exercise than an entirely engrossing music drama. But the imaginings of fanciful creatures (White Rabbit, Dormouse, Queen of Hearts, et al) popping up on platforms in and around the orchestra players held our interest.

And in case you haven't noticed, it was the women who held forth -- as composer, conductor, director -- while the concert-hall glass ceiling shattered.

The cast was top-notch. Especially the Alice of soprano Rachele Gilmore, who sang her high lines with a sweet, child-like purity and exemplary beauty of tone. Oh, yes, there was another standout here, bass clarinetist David Howard's long, glorious solo, spotlight and all -- possibly the single-most exposure he's ever had in his many orchestral years.

Bottom line for me: There has never been an equal to David Del Tredici's utterly captivating 1976 "Final Alice," which the LA Phil played so brilliantly, with the sublime Barbara Hendricks singing (also as Nanetta here in the Giulini-led "Falstaff. ")

That all happened across the street from the merely 12-year-old Disney -- at the Music Center, first real home of the Phil.

Now LA Opera has its Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to itself. And so the other big-budget, from-scratch attraction, "Ghosts," took the proscenium stage there (while Disney does ad-hoc events in its theater-in-the-oblong.)

Count on it, though, prosceniums win out when cast members have to compete for the same space with orchestra players.

ghosts-of-versaille-dp.jpgTo pose a different question: Could a Mozart-Da Ponte opera be akin to "Downton Abbey"? And could American composer John Corigliano, with William H. Hoffman, have created a serio-comic pastiche on the whole class-collision thing, up to and including the French Revolution?

Well, you'll have to decide. But there's a hefty entertainment reward while you do, at LA Opera's lavish and intriguing venture, "Ghosts."

It seems to have something for everyone: A score that veers into the spectral netherworld of Marie Antoinette's upper stratospheric atonal laments and that also alternates with a shenanigan-loving Figaro's energetic, tuneful arias. Orchestrations that conjure the dire tumbrils of the soon-to-be-beheaded Queen of France with dissonant clusters and ominous wood block strikes and that also dance along in giddy rhythms. Even well-placed quotes from "Don Giovanni" et al.

Who knows? Maybe Corigliano was proving -- thanks to this 1991 commission from the Metropolitan Opera -- that he could write music tracing the classical style and join it to a current sensibility wherever the drama might lead him. Whatever the case, the result is immensely clever and skilled.

The host in this scenario is the real-life Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais -- yes, that one, the 18th century author of revolutionary plays who set Mozart and Rossini on their mark with more than a little socio-political stuff to gnaw on.

And that's what makes the premise of this opera within an opera so cunning -- here the author Beaumarchais tries to rectify the trouble he captured in those beloved "Figaro" operas. He even lets the characters realize some of their dreams; Cherubino, for instance, fathers a child with the Countess (as in "La mère coupable," his play.)

All of it takes place within designer Alexander Dodge's giant frame of a horseshoe-shaped baroque opera house, seen through a fish-eye lens that slightly skews the view. Four-stories high, it accommodates shifting central scenes on a stage within the stage. And the details, a painted ceiling included, are sumptuous, but even allow for a vaudevillian burlesque of a circus wherein Patti Lupone, riding a pink elephant, delivers her one-off comic aria.

A cast (of hundreds?) in Linda Cho's smart costumes carries out every nuance of director Darko Tresnjak's staging with apt characterizations.

As the "ghosts" who come back to life Patricia Racette is the soul of Marie Antoinette, regal but vulnerable, yearning and passionate, her soprano equal to the role's demands and Christopher Maltman, as Beaumarchais, elegantly pours out his love for her, while puppeteering the others' behavior.

Lucas Meachem makes a wily, full-throated Figaro, easily outsmarting his royal employers via his boisterous physicality. Robert Brubaker, as the villainous Bégearss, also captures major attention, while the others -- among them Lucy Schaufer, Joshua Guerrero, Guanqun Yu and Renée Rapier -- all rise to their various tasks.

Conductor James Conlon culls marvelous playing from the orchestra and enforces intense engagement with the stage.

Back at Disney there was the redoubtable Martha Argerich playing the Schumann Piano Concerto with the Philharmonic under Juraj Valcuha and teaching us again how the deeply internal heartbeat of a piece becomes its soul, its beauty. Few others can make this kind of sense or find the music's stimulus, then its response. She's something of a miracle to hear, when backed by her fabled technique.

The orchestral works, led distinctively by the Slovakian conductor, were also revealing. Did you know that "Storm," one of the Sea Interludes from Britten's "Peter Grimes" was lifted directly into Bernstein's "West Side Story" ("a boy like that who'd kill your brother")? Or that Richard Strauss, in his "Death and Transfiguration" shared with Wagner the Germanic notion of death and love and here wrote his own "Liebestod?"

Well, Valcuha and the Phil gave us all this fine food for thought.

And I'd love to say that the immensely talented tenor Vittorio Grigòlo also left a solid impression at the Broad Stage. (He sang lead roles several times with the LA Opera before.) But young opera singers, no matter how commanding in a staged production, often lack the artistic finesse or nuance of expression needed for a recital. After all, we're talking about a special kind of intimacy with an audience, not performing to the galleries in a four-thousand-seat house with a full cast and pit orchestra.

So this Italian hottie, as handsome as they come and a star at A-circuit companies including the Met, is still on the hunt for his recital chops. And while we can't discount his voice's ringing brightness or his ardor a whole evening of Italian ballads and arias where he ping-pongs back and forth from forte to head tones within a given song came to feel automated. Even his ultra-sensitive pianist, Vincenzo Scalera couldn't change that.

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