MUSIC / DANCE REVIEW : Pasadena AIDS Benefit: A Gala Disaster With Good Intentions


The major music and dance organizations of Los Angeles, like comparable organizations everywhere, have been severely threatened by the AIDS crisis.

For some reason, however, our performing-arts institutions have done little to help counteract that devastating threat. The Philharmonic, the Music Center Opera, the Joffrey Ballet, all seem to have looked the other way, leaving crucial fund-raising chores to the show-biz community.

Perhaps the myopic teams that manage our most glamorous music-makers and dancers are preoccupied with the challenge of filling their own precarious coffers. It is, they might rationalize, a matter of resident priorities. . . .

Under the circumstances, one wanted to applaud the so-called International Gala of Opera and Ballet ventured Sunday night at Pasadena Civic Auditorium by a committee called From the Heart. The beneficiary would be the AIDS Hospice Foundation.

The intentions were lofty. The concert, alas, teetered on the brink of artistic as well as financial disaster. Teetered is putting it kindly.

The event, produced by Alan Sievewright of London, was hastily assembled, oddly conceived, badly publicized, strangely cast, shoddily executed. It promised far more stars than it was able to deliver. It played to a heavily papered, determinedly enthusiastic, hardly full house.

The program was dominated by would-be s and has-been s. An air of desperate improvisation hovered about the pretentious proceedings.

An on-stage parade of awkward hosts, led by Sievewright and the actress Jane Seymour, interpolated puff and self-congratulation as well as redundant annotation. Only one speaker, the actress Morgan Fairchild, actually mentioned AIDS.

It was sad. It was embarrassing.

Still, it wasn't a total loss. Elizabeth Connell, the British soprano who saved a "Fidelio" in San Diego last year, sang Lady Macbeth's letter scene with sufficient sweep and passion to compensate for some smudged coloratura and a strained climax. Martina Arroyo, though past her prime at 54, sang arias from "Aida" and "Forza" with stylish authority.

In matters terpsichorean, there was the passing distraction of a competent ballerina on leave from the Bolshoi. Alla Khaniashvili-Artyushkina, who happens to be spending the year in Southern California, knows the Petipa tradition, knows how to sell the fouette marathon of the Black Swan, knows how to minimize the liability of a cumbersome caractere partner as the prince--her husband, Vitali Artyushkin.

Neither Artyushkin could do much with the vapid platitudes of the Crassus-Aegina duet from "Spartacus." For that, however, one might blame the choreographer, Yuri Grigorovich.

There was only one bona-fide superstar on the agenda: Maya Plisetskaya. Now 64, she traveled all the way from Madrid to approximate her 5-minute signature piece, "The Dying Swan," one more poetic time. The sinuous flutter of her apparently boneless arms continues to astound.

Otherwise, this was one of those nights. Kathryn Grayson, erstwhile diva of the Silver Screen (introduced as Kathleen Grayson), stumbled over her introduction of a nondescript baritone named Damen Rhodes. A replacement for one Dean Peterson who was to have replaced Gino Quilico, Rhodes struck unintentionally funny Toreador poses on behalf of Bizet.

Sylvia Sass, the Hungarian soprano who enjoyed brief renown in the mid-1970s before ruining a promising lyric instrument, came out of obscurity to yelp the final scene of Richard Strauss' "Salome." Her most notable achievement was to model a spangly bikini while ogling the severed head of John the Baptist.

The "Salome" episode, not incidentally, was subjected to amateurish low-camp staging. It came complete with a minimally involved Herod and Herodias, an incipiently headless Prophet, and a big, attentive, silent chorus of beefcake extras.

Although this was awful, worse was to come. The second half of the program opened with the first five minutes of the second act of Wagner's "Die Walkure." None less than David Hockney provided the scenery: bizarre, candy-striped mountains painted on flappy, ill-lit curtains.

Louis Lebherz (who later returned to cackle Mephisto's serenade) blustered Wotan's invocation. A local soprano named Veronica Diamond, replacing Marita Napier who was to have replaced Rita Hunter, reduced Brunnhilde's battle cry to shrill caricature.

When the formal part of the program drew to a merciful close--just when the cognoscenti thought Plisetskaya's terminal fowl was about to die a second time--the hosts cut off the ovation and returned for some clumsy valedictory speeches. These were followed by the ultimate anticlimax: a mass curtain call, adorned with balloons and accompanied, for reasons unfathomable, by "The Stars and Stripes Forever."

Frank Fetta and the Pasadena Symphony had begun the festivities with a listless performance of the "Aida" overture that Verdi discarded. They ended the evening with misplaced Sousa pomp under dubious circumstances.

Throughout the "gala," the orchestra sounded under-rehearsed, and the notorious acoustics of the Civic Auditorium muffled just about everything and everyone. Sometimes one can be grateful for muffling.

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