OPERA REVIEW : A 3-Part ‘Death by Opera’ at Outdoor Ford Amphitheatre
Long Beach Opera triumphed over the odds against the disjunctive “Death by Opera” program Saturday at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre. Two bleeding hunks of serious works--Act III of Puccini’s “Tosca” and the Antonia act of Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann"--each were prefaced by an act of a little-known 18th-Century comic intermezzo, Pergolesi’s “Livietta and Tracollo.”
This was all billed surprisingly as a “pops concert production.” But even beyond the strange mix of buffo and tragic outcomes, some in the audience (certainly the kids) seemed discomfortable. With little concession to pop accessibility, the Puccini and Offenbach works were sung in the original languages, Italian and French, respectively, with no supertitles. The Pergolesi piece, at least, was sung in a clear English translation by “Richard Cordova, et al. “
“Et al.” may be a distant cousin of “anon. “
Still, Michael Milenski, the ever-enterprising LBO general director, assembled strong casts, a sensitive conductor and a resourceful director.
Best known for his LATC productions (including Marlene Meyer’s “King Fish” and Tom Babe’s “Demon Wine”) and most recently Lisa Loomer’s “The Waiting Room” for the Mark Taper Forum, director David Schweizer imposed few wayward ideas, and those he did were most emphatically imposed in “Hoffmann.”
Schweizer had Dr. Miracle direct all the action. Miracle waved his hand, and the orchestra sounded the ominous introductory chords. Another wave, and the characters stepped forward, one by one. Miracle was constantly on the scene, and to the extent that his stage-managing rendered the characters puppet-like, sympathy for them declined. But the singing actors were generally powerful enough to overcome this not entirely oppressive nor illuminating conceit.
More provocatively, Schweizer made Miracle a neurasthenic devotee of the voice, whose hovering around Antonia and savoring of her singing verged on the orgasmic. Hoffmann too became a senseless silly at the sound. Death by opera appeared a small price to pay for such pleasures.
Among the principals, Donald Sherrill brought a grainy baritone and a strong presence to Miracle. Joan Gibbons sang Antonia with mellifluous sympathy. James Schwisow was an appealing if pale-voiced Hoffmann.
Donald Chistensen made a dark-toned, finely focused Crespel. Beau Palmer capitalized on comic finesse as Frantz. Michelle Sarkesian sang Nicklausse’s “C’est une chanson d’amour” with arresting commitment.
Gibbons was less persuasive as Floria Tosca, vocally smooth but turning squally under pressure. Schwisow caressed his vocal lines, but his “E lucevan le stelle” was greeted by dead silence.
Patricia Prunty and John Atkins drew on effective comic resources for the slight masquerades of “Livietta and Tracollo.”
Laurence Gilgore conducted all three works with attention and style.
Schweizer--or Milenski--made smart use of the amphitheater. Downstage right provided a suitably large singing-acting area, with the continuo (string quartet and harpsichord, with Gilgore leading from the keyboard) for the 18th-Century opera at stage left. Perched on the mid-level behind this was the main orchestra (about 40 players) for Puccini and Offenbach. Singers and orchestra were miked. Supernumeraries, some dressed by Eugenie Krager in presumably post-modern tuxedos and red gloves, helped manage Adam Silverman’s dramatic lighting design in “Tosca” and participated elsewhere in the action.
Prunty sang the Shepherd’s song in “Tosca” from the grassy upper terraces at the back of the stage. From the same heights descended the firing squad, carrying lit tapers and, for some reason, sporting MP helmets. The tapers were also the rifles, and in a reversal of expectations, their lights were extinguished at the moment of firing.
Despite the seeming availability of imposing turrets flanking both sides of the Ford stage, Tosca did not shout her final “O Scarpia, avanti a dio” from either one. She merely ran offstage. It was a tad anticlimactic.