A haunting look back at the Weimar Republic

weimar-art.jpgPhoto: Benjamin Suomela

Love in the time of Coronavirus. Love in the time of Presidential elections. That's all we hear about these days.

Reminders of the world's current authoritarian trend-lines, though, were not absent from the Weimar Republic Festival put on by conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen with the LA Philharmonic. That spirit of Germany's impending trauma of 1918-1933, a movement reflected by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht et al, came to Disney Hall in a brilliant production by the brothers Simon and Gerard McBurney.

Can you revel in a stage artist's magical creation of a decadent time? A time of raging capitalism? Of social chaos and political passions? Of rotting morality? All as the lead-in to Fascism? Forgetting that it came with great artistic and cultural freedom?

But of course. Just look around.

Especially at the recent Weimar Festival, where Disney Hall's square interior, with audience arranged on all four sides of the stage and no proscenium arch, I saw its best treatment so far since the acclaimed concert venue opened. A superb effort. Its credits belong to Anna Fleischele, along with Simon McBurney as a designer-architect-engineer-artist team in their handling of and inhabiting the space.

To surround the music (Paul Hindemith, Weill) they created an aura of dark Bauhausian sculptural panels in naturally-placed upstage divisions with chorus members housed in between them. The whole thing had an artistic balance -- an integration -- I've never seen before at Disney.

And its impact -- together with the darkened stage, the grainy black-and-white video clips of street life, Nazi soldiers at the Brandenburg Gate, etc. as background for Weill's "Berlin Requiem " -- was stunning. So too the stark music, splendidly played to its dramatic perfection, along with Grant Gershon's mighty chorus.

The Hindemith work, "Murderer, Hope of Women," had less theatrical advantage, but Salonen and the orchestra let its collective power sweep us into a racing, soaring torrent with voices slashing cross-wise through it.

And, finally, Weill-Brecht's "The Seven Deadly Sins" had a compelling treatment. More videos, this time of the Roaring Twenties in various American cities named in the text. As Anna I (the singer), Nora Fischer made a spunky, no-nonsense adventurer and as Anna II (the dancer), her doppelganger, Gabriella Schmidt embodied the wanton street-girl.

But just in case the name Weimar still does not ring bells, think, for starters, of movieland's émigrés from the early '30s: Fritz Lang, Marlene Dietrich ("The Blue Angel," where she strolled around a restaurant in a top hat and tux singing and kissing women at tables) -- not to mention "Cabaret" (Kander/Ebb), based on Christopher Isherwood's "Goodbye to Berlin."

What's more, the company across the street, LA Opera, was busy -- with two productions on the Chandler Pavilion stage, one that ranged into existential territory: the premiere of Matthew Aucoin's "Eurydice," yet another notch in the mythical subject composers have been obsessed with through history.

eurydice-dp.jpgFrom "Eurydice." Photo: Cory Weaver

Aucoin turned to Sara Ruhl who wrote its libretto based on her acclaimed play. It grapples with lots of reality issues embedded in the text: "Am I here, or there? Dead or alive?"And it captures lots of identity insights. "All he cares about is his music," Eurydice complains, of her composer husband Orpheus.

Even with Dan Ostling's provocatively post-modernish designs, though, and Mary Zimmerman's astute direction, it's Aucoin's music that shines through.

His skill is widely evident. The orchestral score -- a glittery frame that boasts a full arsenal of styles from Wagner to Glass -- artfully moves the narrative forward. What's more his innate kinship to the voice produces lines of glorious shape, so sing-able that I would imagine future cast hopefuls galore. Danielle de Niese, as the title character, luxuriated in those soaring lines, as Joshua Hopkins (Orpheus) and Rod Gilfry (the father) excelled in theirs.

But LA Opera's next entry, Donizetti's "Roberto Devereux," tumbled into an opening night jinx, no fault of conductor Eun Sun Kim, who capably held things together. Its scheduled soprano fell ill and canceled. A replacement, Angela Meade, who had sung the fairly treacherous role of Queen Elizabeth I elsewhere, stepped in -- but only by standing at the side curtain, since she had just several days notice and no time to rehearse.

Bad mistake.

Better to be onstage -- even with her music stand -- because the actual animation of singing and being there gives life to the physical interactions of the other cast members, rather than making the supposed drama a drowsy charade. And besides, this simple-minded Canadian production requires little more than face-this-way, exit-that-way-cues, as directed by Stephen Lawless.

To think that Beverly Sills gave hit status to "Devereux" when, in 1970, she sang it with New York City Opera and made history with Donizetti's Tudor Trilogy, featuring those three doomed lives, the first two by the hand of Henry the Eighth (his wives Mary Stuart and Anne Boleyn, besides Devereux).

Even though Meade had the rich lower range to denote the Queen's malice toward her faithless lover, Devereux, -- sung nicely by Ramon Vargas -- that wasn't enough. Sills, of lighter voice, fell short there. But her theatrical power as the almost elderly monarch, stalking around the stage in 55 pounds of upholstered velvet with a heavily chalked visage, commanded everyone's attention. Ditto her charged coloratura, of course.

Here, so did the lovely singing of Ashley Dixon, as Devereux's lover Sara, constitute LA Opera's best feature.

More words and music and, this time, dance, descended at UCLA' Royce Hall:

Pam Tanowitz, among the most sought-after and brainiest choreographers around, knows where to furnish her creative instincts.

How about T.S. Eliot's famous poetry cycle "Four Quartets," ("At the still point of the turning world..."), in a masterly recitation by Kathleen Chalfant, intertwined with the Knights exceptional playing of nuanced interludes?

Yes, you can collect an arts potpourri. But then you must get a Tanowitz to pull it together with movement that is not arbitrary -- which is what makes her stand at the top of the heap.

With this work she shows you what core impetus is. Her response -- abstract, as in Merce Cunningham, as opposed to narrative as in Martha Graham -- to Eliot's deeply questioning words about existence, about life in the midst of so much death (World War II), is revelatory. I marveled throughout the 75 minutes that no moment had an undetectable stimulus, even in the subtlest terms.

But music, alone, was all we needed when Gustavo Dudamel took charge of his LA Philharmonic with a festive survey of Dvorak and Charles Ives, among our country's most spirited musical minds. A true original, he studied his craft deeply and came out an expert -- as well as the open-hearted Connecticut Yankee who so loved our tunes, our marches, our parks' band concerts, our hymns and holidays that he uproariously splintered them together in his best known works. Who could not smile listening to their wit, their cleverness, their experimental adventure?

The surprise, for many, came in Ives' rarely heard 1st Symphony, a part of which sounded like something from mitteleuropa WW I -- gently lilting, tender, luscious. Dudamel and the Phil found those qualities and brought them to loving perfection.

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