Los Angeles Opera has yet to make its mark with new opera. The two operas it has premiered -- Aulis Sallinen’s “Kullervo” in 1992 and Tobias Picker’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” in 1998 -- were forgettable and quickly forgotten. The one masterpiece the company co-commissioned, John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer,” it has never dared mount for fear of controversy.
Nevertheless, as general director of the company, Placido Domingo has demonstrated an unwavering determination to make Los Angeles a center for major new opera. Partly, it’s personal. The 62-year-old tenor is eager to use his extraordinary clout to create a legacy of new roles in the few good years he probably has left on stage.
With the premiere of Deborah Drattell’s “Nicholas and Alexandra” on Sunday night, Domingo went all out. For him: the juicy role of the lascivious mystic Rasputin. In the pit: the most celebrated Russian musician of our time, Mstislav Rostropovich. The large cast included such fine singers as baritone Rodney Gilfry as the last Russian czar and soprano Nancy Gustafson as his wife. The production was assigned to an innovative theater director, Anne Bogart, who brought along members of her stunning company, SITI, for good measure. A celebrity writer, Nicholas von Hoffman, provided the libretto. The stage was turned over to the excellent set designer Robert Israel.
And, of course, what a story! How could it go wrong?
That’s got to be the question everyone is now asking.
The most obvious answer is: Because of Drattell’s thin score, which drones on for what feels like a very long time (2 1/2hours by the clock). But then, everything about “Nicholas and Alexandra” is disappointing. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration. The SITI actors, who strike weird poses in the background, are kind of interesting.
We might as well begin with the lumbering libretto, because words come first in the creation of opera. Von Hoffman’s talent for celebrity dish should have given his labored text some flair. Instead, he has provided prosaic history, plot without the lyric reflection or the exploration of inner lives that is the heart of opera.
The text begins and ends with the czar and his family as prisoners in 1918, just before their murders. It then flashes back to isolated scenes of this oft-told tale. An insecure Nicholas confronts his destiny at his father’s death; an insecure Alexandra faces her authoritarian mother-in-law. There is the obligatory crisis scene surrounding young czarevitch Alexis’ hemophilia, the obligatory love music for Nicholas and Alexandra, the obligatory crowd scene of revolutionary unrest in the streets. Rasputin is the strongest character, but he, like the rest, is ultimately one-dimensional as he mesmerizes Alexandra, fondles the ladies in the court or flops around on the floor during his death scene -- the opera’s big moment.
Drattell has experience on the opera stage. She was once composer in residence at New York City Opera. She has written two operas with playwright Wendy Wasserstein. She is also drawn to Russian subjects, having composed an opera about the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva. But what she offers in her panoramic approach to “Nicholas and Alexandra” is little more than monotonous flow.
The opera is framed by choral chanting, which has a blandly Russian feel to it. Otherwise, the wordy text is declaimed to music without evidence, at least on first hearing, of personality. Almost any character’s could be interchanged with any other’s. The most interesting is in the orchestra, but that, too, soon feels all the same, one brass chorale like another, the winds always trilling or tootling up and down the scale, the harps stuck in the glissando mode. Not even a few unconventional (though not that unconventional) instrumental effects and a great deal of percussion manage to spruce the sound up very up much. Drattell favors modal harmonies and whole-tone scales; their pungency is mild.
Perhaps if the stage picture and performances were livelier, the score would wear better. But despite the wealth of talent involved, no artist appears to be working at his or her best. Israel’s set is an uninspired large ballroom with a few movable inner walls. The costumes merely capture the time, with Domingo so made-up to look like Rasputin that the tenor is unrecognizable. From my vantage point, which wasn’t close to the stage, Gilfry and Gustafson appeared to be good stand-ins for the historical Nicholas and Alexandra.
Bogart’s direction is stiff. Rostropovich, whose experience with the great Russian historical operas is second to none, conducted Sunday without his characteristic flair, and the orchestra sounded as shaky as I have heard it in a long while. The chorus brought very little depth or soul to its chants. An orgy scene, with court ladies all in red beckoning Rasputin, was tame and sexless to the point of foolishness.
The cast is enormous; 39 singers are listed in the program along with the mute members of Bogart’s SITI company. Gilfry and Gustafson sounded strong, but both seemed to be sleepwalking.
Domingo, whose role is the only one in which the heat is turned up from low to medium, gave his usual forceful performance. All of it, however, including and especially his death scene, came out of the opera stockpile.
It was announced after intermission that Domingo was suffering from tracheitis but that he would continue against doctor’s orders, and he didn’t hold back. One has to admire his commitment. After all, a new work was at stake. But he should have listened to his doctor. There was really nothing he could do to save the operatic patient.
‘Nicholas and Alexandra’
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.
When: Wednesday, Sept. 23 and 26, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, 2 p.m.
Contact: (213) 972-8001