DOMINGO, BENACKOVA TRIUMPH : MUSIC CENTER IN OPERA (AGAIN) WITH 'OTELLO'

Times Music Critic

Don't believe what you read. The "Otello" that sometimes blazed and sometimes bumbled across the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Tuesday night was not the first opera staged by and for the Music Center.

Something called the Los Angeles Opera got there first, with Marilyn Horne and "The Italian Girl in Algiers," back in January, 1966. However, the repertory consisted only of that work, clumsily performed, and the company was virtually stillborn.

The intervening 20 years have seen opera come and go at our beloved cultural shopping center on the hill. Wonderful opera, good opera, bad opera, ridiculous opera. There also have been dry periods of no opera. Now, at too-long last, an optimistic curtain has gone up again on something we can call our own.

Ironically, after all the waiting, wishing, worrying and gnashing, the curtain almost didn't go up on Tuesday. Lawrence Foster, unapplauded by the dressy first-nighters, entered the pit and began the storm music. The curtain rose a few feet. The audience could see some billowing plastic-bag waves and the shoes of choristers and comprimarios. That was about all. The curtain refused to budge further, and disaster seemed to beckon.

Somehow, to any self-respecting resident pessimist, it had to bode ill.

Just in the nick of time, however, our trusty stagehands conquered the technical glitch. Verdi was saved. The Moor of Venice was saved. Honor was saved.

The curtain rose, haltingly. Relief. Applause.

It would not be an exaggeration to claim that this "Otello" got off to a shaky start. Some time passed before all concerned could regain their equilibrium. Complex openings of complex operas test the nerves even under the best of conditions. These obviously were not the best.

Still, the house erupted in ovations at the end of the first act--prematurely, as regards the exquisite postlude of Verdi's love duet. Some of the ovations were justified.

Placido Domingo, probably the leading Otello of his generation, had sung with ardor, with unflagging ease, with a clarion ring at the top, with care for the legato line and with ample tenderness in the lyric passages.

Gabriela Benackova, the Czech soprano who had sung Jenufa in San Francisco Sunday afternoon and flown here that night to begin instant rehearsals as an emergency replacement for the mysteriously absent Daniela Dessi, had sung gloriously.

She sang throughout, in fact, with rare purity of tone, with an exquisite pianissimo shimmer at the top, with an even scale, with plenty of power for the affecting climaxes in the massive ensembles, with the same natural sweetness and poignancy that distinguished her acting.

Remember her name. And--are any of the local radio and TV experts listening?--pronounce it Bain- yach -kova.

One would like, some day, to see Domingo and Benackova in a great production of Verdi's masterpiece. In the meantime, one must be grateful for the vitality, the ambition and the seriousness of this not-so-great one.

As conducted by Foster and directed by Goetz Friedrich of the West Berlin Opera, the Music Center "Otello" seemed to represent a network of well-intentioned compromises.

Foster enforced clarity and symphonic grandeur, but he slighted dramatic momentum, sometimes allowed coordination between stage and pit to falter and tended to ignore telling orchestral nuances. He also failed to coax genuinely cohesive playing from the expanded Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

Friedrich, staging the first "Otello" of his distinguished career, created compelling stage pictures, played knowingly with light and shade, kept the chorus (noisily) active, and motivated the action neatly.

He also introduced a few touches of Germanic non-subtlety: The evil Iago broke an hourglass and toyed with the sand while declaring that death means nothing; a cinematic spotlight illuminated Otello and Desdemona during a concertato treated as a freeze-frame; the hulking Venetian envoys looked suspiciously like storm troopers.

So far so interesting. But Friedrich also imposed a new concept on Domingo's Otello, making him weak and hysterical, even prone to epileptic fits, from the start. The logic behind this portrayal is eminently defensible. Unfortunately, it diminishes the protagonist's heroic stature, just as it precludes the pathos inherent in his gradual decline.

One doesn't know who deserves the blame for the amateurish and intrusive "ballet" during the "Fuoco di gioia" chorus, which, incidentally, was not sung with particular force by the remastered Master Chorale.

The greatest dramatic problem for all concerned involved the designs of Guenther Schneider-Siemssen. Resorting to the economical but time-dishonored cliche of the unit set, he played the whole opera in a fake-stone box. Sometimes it looked like a drafty, overcrowded nook beneath a bridge. Sometimes it looked like a clumsy fortress. Sometimes it looked like a prison with a fancy bed in it. Ah, symbolism.

The lighting and the ornamental hangings changed from scene to scene, but the cramped and oppressive ugliness didn't. Nor did the clashes between painterly realism and cheap abstraction. Nor, incidentally, did the hideous fore-curtain with its comic-book portrait of the tortured Moor.

There seemed to be only one obvious advantage in the scenic arrangement: It permitted the four acts to be performed with only one intermission.

Jan Skalicky's handsome, rugged period costumes enhanced dramatic impact, against the odds. That is more than could be said for Paul Moor's stilted and distracting supertitles, projected uncomfortably high above the proscenium.

If all had gone as hoped, the vocal honors would have been shared by the Iago. Unfortunately, the usually mighty Sherrill Milnes found himself in ragged voice. He battled pitch problems all night long, strained at the high climaxes (including one unsanctioned by the composer), and, in general, sounded unsteady even when he impressed with the bluff bravado of his acting.

The secondary roles were decently cast, for the most part with local talents. Jonathan Mack introduced a very lyrical, boyish Cassio. Stephen Plummer was the sympathetic, oddly bespectacled Roderigo. Alice Baker managed to be tasteful yet assertive as Emilia. Julien Robbins of the Met offered a surprisingly lightweight Lodovico, Michael Gallup a solid Montano.

Another beginning. . . .

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