Disturbing things are happening in Long Beach.
Michael Milenski’s brave little opera company has earned international applause, and suffered financial strain, while daring to be small and adventurous. Since 1981, the Long Beach Opera has concentrated, for the most part, on progressive theatrical experiments applied to an eclectic repertory that ran the gamut from Monteverdi to McGurty.
A champion of opera as accessible, intimate drama, Milenski usually played in the 800-seat Center Theater and insisted that texts be sung in the language of his audience. Convention be damned.
One didn’t have to like every avant-gardish innovation in order to applaud Milenski’s enterprise. Long Beach was filling a void.
That, alas, may be changing. To open his 13th season, Milenski unearthed Jules Massenet’s “La Navarraise,” a Gallic imitation of Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” dating back to 1894, and paired it with the ever-popular “Cavalleria” itself.
The idea behind the verismo combo was intriguing. The execution was disastrous.
For this not-so-gala occasion, Milenski moved his forces back into the wide, open spaces of the Terrace Theater, which seats 3,000. He performed “Cavalleria” in bad Italian, “La Navarraise” in bad French. He eschewed supertitles which, in a program note, he called a “device from hell.”
Most alarming, he entrusted the staging and designing duties to Hugo de Ana, the Argentine guest who last season had cheapened Puccini’s “La Rondine” with chic gimmickry. This time, De Ana took a double slice of mellifluous life and wrapped it in operatic banality.
In a curious if not defeatist “welcome” to his audience, Milenski mused on the current regressions. “Expecting to fill the (Terrace) Theater is not a realistic goal,” he wrote, “particularly when we find it difficult to fill even our small theater.” Nevertheless, he expressed hope that management and public “can adjust to half-filled houses without diminishing enthusiasm for newly found artistic riches.”
The artistic riches turned out to be scarce on Wednesday. Both operas looked silly and sounded rough.
De Ana devised an awkward, ugly unit set that employed the same vista of mud flats and rotting brick to represent the pleasant Sicilian square of “Cavalleria” and its war-scarred Basque counterpart in “La Navarraise.” He left the pipes that hold the cyclorama exposed, but the viewer could not be sure if this was a matter of monetary expediency or intentional Brechtian anti-illusion.
In any case, he directed traffic--and created traffic jams--clumsily within this semi-abstract milieu, juggling quasi-realistic action with quasi-stylized inaction, and often resorting to risible cliches. He also updated both operas to something approaching modern times, thus making ridiculous the crucial references to the Carlist Wars of “La Navarraise.”
Michael Recchiuti, the conductor, had relatively little success keeping a scrappy orchestra and a wayward chorus together. Under the circumstances, one could not expect music-making of much subtlety or pathos, let alone a distinction between the essentially gutsy Italian style and the fundamentally suave French idiom.
One had to be grateful for small favors. The most important of these was the opportunity to see “La Navarraise” at all.
The opera is no masterpiece. At best it is an interesting period piece. Still, it deserves occasional liberation from the history books.
Remarkably similar to “Cavalleria” in structure and narrative manner, it is slick, pretty in spite of its explosive convictions and tacky in its appeal to push-button emotions. This tight little saga of war, murder, thwarted love and ultimate madness serves primarily as a vehicle for a charismatic singing-actress.
At the time of its creation, many pundits called it “Cavalleria Espanola.” The real wits, however, called it “ Calve lleria Espanola,” in honor of Emma Calve, the flamboyant diva for whom it was created.
Over the decades, the title role attracted the attention of Mary Garden and, less successfully, Geraldine Farrar. In recent times, it has been recorded by such disparate divas as Marilyn Horne and Lucia Popp.
The generally routine cast in Long Beach was dominated by Kathryn Day (a.k.a. Bouleyn), who tried desperately to sustain expressive intensity and artistic integrity as the hapless heroine of “Cavalleria” as well. Ignoring the shoddy activity around her, she acted with canny restraint and stressed muted pathos in both operas. Her burnished spinto soprano sounded poised and radiant in Massenet’s lyrical flights, properly urgent if a bit breathy when confronting Mascagni’s earthy passions.
Her chief associates in “La Navarraise” included Kirk Redmann, ardent if somewhat constricted and prone to pitch problems as her fatally suspicious lover; Louis Lebherz, sonorous but bland and badly costumed as his haughty father, and Roy Stevens, suitably tough and raw as the vengeful royalist general. The chorus--required to execute battle maneuvers in tight quarters, sidestep explosives and extinguish unintended fires--seemed understandably befuddled.
In “Cavalleria,” Stevens barked heartily as Alfio, Paula Rasmussen confused the seductive Lola with a Junior League matron and Lisa Turetsky wrung her hands earnestly as old Mamma Lucia. As Turiddu, a newcomer named Arturo Spinetti resembled a caricature of a bawling tenor.
Local authorities touted him, incidentally, as “a protege of the legendary Mario del Monaco.” Since Del Monaco died in 1982, one must wonder where Spinetti has been all this time.
The Long Beach Opera returns to business as unusual with Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande” in English at the tiny Center Theater in April. Not a moment too soon.