'Macbeth' to the death but Lenny (Bernstein) lives

ekaterina-semenchuk-macbeth.jpgEkaterina Semenchuk as Lady MacBeth.

What do women want? Power. That's what Shakespeare said. And Verdi echoed it in his passionate re-creation of "Macbeth" as music-drama -- which opened LA Opera's new season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

And no one can say the subject is not timely. After all, the first woman running to be U.S. President, has been called power-hungry, driven by ambition (and isn't that a component for men, too?)

But this new production by Darko Tresnjak takes Verdi at his word and makes the underworldly witches an even more demonic force than the corruptible royals, Macbeth and his Lady. In effect, the human figures who connive for the throne with a murdering aptitude are puppet-like, pre-determined by evil spirits working their mischief.

And these spirits, or witches, are beguiling throughout -- toil and trouble aside. We can't keep our eyes off them. Fashioned as Boschian creatures in unitards with thwacking tails and wild hair, they slither around the stage, weave in and out of the action, clamber up a back wall, splay themselves against it decoratively and then seem to manipulate circumstances by sheer wiliness.

Still, the music ruled, with James Conlon leading an impassioned performance, defining Verdi's irresistible motifs, coaxing his orchestra to the heights of dramatic intensity, along with a luxuriant chorus (courtesy of Grant Gershon) that thundered mightily.

Plácido Domingo in the title role -- looking pounds thinner, smooth-faced and younger -- sang with a vitality sometimes unavailable to him as a baritone. As the company's music director and starry eminence he continues to astonish the world with his vocal longevity, not to mention his defiance, at 75, of his vast, international performing schedule.

What's more, his voice had that old thrilling ring in the last-act aria that Verdi later wrote for this combination of original and revised editions. As his partner in crime (specifically regicide), Ekaterina Semenchuk was a stunning Lady Macbeth, vocally.

You could start shuddering with her entrance aria -- just its stentorian power, richness of tone and amplitude -- made the role hers. Even in the sleep-walking scene, when haunted by her dark deeds and an attempt to rub imaginary blood "out, out, damned spot," she suddenly expressed a frightful vulnerability via the light side of her voice.
As one of the victims, Roberto Tagliavini gave a measure of stoic dignity to Banquo. But it was Arturo Chacón-Cruz, singing Macduff's aria with extraordinarily sweet and gorgeous tone, who won the bel canto sweepstakes.

What went drastically missing (often, with LA Opera) was any sense of hands-on directing for the principals. Tresnjak left them to their own devices -- outside of his traffic-cop guidelines marking entrances and exits, occasional poses and stage positions. So Semenchuk, in what should be her guilt-ridden, eerily haunted sleep-walking, goes about stooped over like an old woman. And Domingo relies on his signature demeanor of a defeated man.

Neither did the physical production, which laid out a standard period-antique look, suggest any particular idea or framework to offset the directing deficit.

But LA Opera isn't the only company to ignore the dictum: who does what, where and how determines artistic success or failure.

Take the Hollywood Bowl, for example. Its stage width is vast, too vast for any mise-en-scène coherence. The orchestra sits within its giant shell. So a dance presentation is, ipso facto, anti-theatrical. And the musicians, seated behind the performers, cannot even follow them -- you've got two simultaneous, independent acts going on, not a collaboration.

The worst offender, in "L.A. Dance" at the Bowl, was Body Traffic. Its single piece to Adam Schoenberg's playful "Bounce" had orchestra players and dancers all thrown onstage together -- with no lighting to differentiate the 100 white-jacketed musicians from the dancers cavorting in front of them.

Ate9's "Play" to Daniel Wohl's "Replicate" fared much better, by darkening the orchestra and side-lighting the dancers. LA Dance Project, to Salonen's conflict-driven"Helix," boasted choeographer Justin Peck's Forsythe-like complexity and let its duets show up on the big screen.

body-traffic-dp.jpgate9-dp.jpgBody Traffic, left, and Ate9

Only on the basis that something is better than nothing, and that exposing dance to those who wouldn't ordinarily see it, can the Bowl count as a viable venue for this most visual art form.

A viable venue for most things theatrical? Try the Wallis. It just hosted "Maestro" by Hershey Felder. He's the bio-dramatist-musician who brings composers like Gershwin and Beethoven to life on stage. This time it was Leonard Bernstein. And that one-man show met all standards.

Just to do a facsimile of the charismatic Lenny is an achievement -- who could forget his "Young People's Concerts," the 1960s TV series that made him explainer-in-chief of classical music to America's millions, or, towards the end of his life, the craggy-faced maestro stepping out of his limo and into a concert hall in a formal black cape with red satin lining, or at the end of a concert engaging all 100 players in a smooch-fest.

Even here when he led a conductors' institute at UCLA that turned into an open master class, Lenny drew hordes of spectators and, as an inveterate exhibitionist, he could often be spotted at a Westwood movie theater, standing down front, talking to someone til the lights dimmed.

How he came to be is all brilliantly encapsulated by biographer-pianist Felder. We heard about his Massachusetts upbringing -- with a Russian immigrant father who pooh-poohed the son's early musical genius, denigrating him with Yiddishisms but affectionately calling him "Leonardshka." And after attending Harvard, we got Lenny's cultured Boston accent and his burnished baritone speaking voice. On to the famous conductors who mentored him -- Mitropoulis, Koussevitzky -- and Felder's capture of their various European accents, including more endearing "Leonardshkas."

We even could hear Felder do demo/talks at the piano à la Lenny, marking his layout of compositional linkage to Beethoven and Mahler. And then the telling of marriage to Felicia, their three kids, the breakup over a gay relationship, his remorse for it and subsequent reunion with his cancer-ridden wife.

The only false note in this extravaganza was the finale -- a film clip of Lenny conducting the Liebestod (Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde"), quite wonderful on its own, but in Felder's overwrought, sentimentalized narrative, wrongly pointing to a supposed schism between his gay and straight paths.

Otherwise, Felder's singing/playing of songs ("Westside Story" "Candide") was simply compelling. "Maestro" is a show that deserves a long life -- Bernstein, called America's "monarch of music," is there to last.

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