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New Directions for LA Opera: What’s Op, Doc?

Ed Rampell: LA Opera’s edgy double feature takes this august art form in other directions and shows the possibilities of different modes of expression for the operatic medium.
Dido and Aeneas

Paula Murrihy and Liam Bonner

Dido & Aeneas/Bluebeard's Castle Opera Review

LA Opera’s edgy double feature takes this august art form in other directions and shows the possibilities of different modes of expression for the operatic medium. Both one act works are directed by Australian Barrie Kosky of Berlin’s Komische Oper, whose production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, replete with silent cinema references, proved to be very popular last season with L.A. auds, as they take opera on aesthetic roads less traveled. Neither of the current works onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is being produced in the mode of tried and true traditional operas -- don’t expect to see a warbling Brünnhilde onstage in metallic breastplates.

Indeed, there is even a bare-breasted performer in Dido & Aeneas, which is first up to bat on LA Opera’s current doubleheader. Dido & Aeneas is a tragic romance (although performed here with lots of humor) derived from Virgil’s ancient Latin epic poem Aeneid, written shortly before the birth of Christ. According to Greco-Roman mythology Dido (Irish mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy) was the queen of Carthage, while Aeneas (Pennsylvanian baritone Liam Bonner, who previously starred in LA Opera’s Albert Herring and Billy Budd, both composed by that other Brit, Benjamin Britten) was a Trojan prince who helped found Rome. British Baroque master Henry Purcell composed Dido & Aeneas with a libretto in English by Nahum Tate, and it was originally a three act opera first presented circa 1689, whilst Tate was England’s Poet Laureate.

The staging of this Greco-Roman legend called to mind the Getty Villa’s productions of those Greek dramas of antiquity, such as last summer’s The Persians, in that the theatrical techniques deployed appear to be so primitive that they are now avant-garde. The sets wrought by German scenery designer Katrina Lea Tag, making her LA Opera debut, are minimalist; indeed, in Dido it consists largely of a long white bench in front of a wall. Tag’s costuming are more reminiscent of 17th century England than ancient Greece, except for a male/female couple who are clad only in g-strings, feathery haberdashery and, like classical mimes, painted white.

Dido and Aeneas

With much comic panache a trio of cross-dressing Black witches steal the show. The crowd pleasing Sorceress John Holiday, First Witch G. Thomas Allen and Second Witch Darryl Taylor are being ballyhooed as opera’s first time ever threesome of African American countertenors. Funnier than Ernie Kovacs’ Nairobi Trio, with their slapstick and a Vaudevillian flair, this bewitching ménage à trois of transvestites cast a merry spell upon the audience. Even more hilarious is the thought of how poor Messieurs Purcell and Tate would have reacted to their scene stealing silliness being injected into what was intended as a tragedy, first performed at a school for elite young ladies in the 17th century. But they, in turn, took liberties with Virgil’s Aeneid, so all’s fair in love, war and opera.

Purcell’s music goes for Baroque, with versatile Elliot Graham Figg tickling the ivories on both an organ and a mellifluous harpsichord. A pair of theorbos -- long necked string instruments from 16th century Italy that can be glimpsed in the orchestra pit and look like lutes or mandolins on steroids -- are plucked with aplomb by Richard Savino and Hideki Yamaya, enhancing the bass. The musicians of the 21 or so piece LA Opera Orchestra mostly played woodwinds join with stringed instruments, conducted by Steven Sloane. Grant Gershon directed the LA Opera Chorus. At various points the large cast seems to spill offstage and into the aisles.

Dido and Aeneas
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As Dido & Aeneas is drawn from Greek and Roman sources of antiquity, there is much musing upon “empire growing” and the gods -namely Jupiter -- intervene. And of course, this dealing with the founding of Rome, if not of Western civilization, imperialism and duty come before love. [PLOT SPOILER ALERT:] In the grand finale, Dido, having stripped down to her slip, prepares to slip off her mortal coil with prolonged death throes. Or are those moans of orgasmic pleasure? Audiences can take their pick.

Dido and Aeneas

Robert Hayward and Claudia Mahnke

But after intermission, 20th century Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s sole stab at opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, is even more decidedly downbeat and is minus any comic relief. The libretto is by Hungarian Jewish leftist Béla Balázs, who also wrote the classic Theory of the Film, Character and Growth of a New Art in the 1940s. It’s interesting that a serial wife killer (here portrayed by British bass-baritone Robert Hayward in his LA Opera debut) also attracted Charlie Chaplin, who used a similar character to lampoon society’s real mass murderers -- militaristic leaders of genocidal regimes and wars -- in his 1947 classic Monsieur Verdoux.

Although there are imaginative special effects in Bluebeard’s Castle, which premiered in 1918 at Budapest, it does not come across as a black comedy in this production, which is presented on a tilted circular rotating platform with spare sets by the same creative crew as Dido’s. In Bluebeard’s the title character’s (latest) bride, Judith (German mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke also making her LA Opera debut), explores her new digs at the eponymous castle, where she encounters seven locked doors. Having heard ominous rumors about her husband, the zaftig Judith demands seven keys in order to open each locked portal and allow the sunshine in. As to what happens next, let’s just say that this is “Exhibit A” of beware of what you wish for -- because you just might get what you asked for. Newlyweds living happily ever after need not apply. Especially in this house of horrors, which makes Bartók’s nightmarish tale -- with its sinister-tinged music and recurring “blood motif” -- ideal for the Halloween spooky season.

Whereas Mister Purcell relied upon Greek myths for his inspiration, Bartók partakes of European folklore, with a much smaller cast. Both are sagas about love gone terribly wrong, presented with innovative stagecraft and an experimental sensibility. One might mistakenly believe he/she is across the street and down the block from Disney Concert Hall at REDCAT. But no; with both of these hour-or-so long pieces, LA Opera is taking chances and artistically opening things up, proving once again, as it did a few years ago with its cutting edge Ring, that this opera house can present customary, conventional fare, as well as risk taking, formally challenging works along with the best of ’em. Leave your metal breastplates at home.

Dido & Aeneas and Bluebeard’s Castle are being performed Thursday Nov. 6, Wednesday Nov. 12 and Saturday Nov. 15 at 7:30 p.m. and on Sundays Nov. 2 and Nov. 9 at 2:00 p.m. at LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: (213)972-8001; www.laopera.com.

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The new book co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell is "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book" (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).