Why two theatrical extravaganzas bode well for the state of opera in L.A.

The Los Angeles Opera is hosting “Aida” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion through June 12.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)
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With Memorial Day past, May gray history, night blooming jasmine losing its fragrance and the 2021-22 performance arts season winding up, opera in our little corner of the operaverse is now, for whatever reason, vibrantly in full bloom. As is Omicron BA.2.

Is it time to take stock? Probably not just yet.

This is hardly the late spring we hoped for. Mask-wearing and other precautions appear to be going nowhere soon. BA.2.12.1 has arrived; B4 waits in the wings. Yet opera thrives on risk, inviting excess on stage and off. So, here we go, no matter what.

The third Saturday of May, Los Angeles Opera mounted the last production of its first full season since the pandemic had closed up shop by hosting Verdi’s “Aida” in all its grand-opera glory at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and drew a large crowd in festive attire. Continuing through June 12 and including free video relays Saturday night on the Santa Monica Pier, in Newhall Park and at the Pomona Fairplex, this is an “Aida” with a modern look but that’s otherwise reassuring. Old-school powerhouse voices and a plush production aim to thrill.

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The same night as the “Aida” opening, the ever-intrepid Long Beach Opera began its first post-pandemic season with a refashioned Handel rarity, “Giustino,” at the Museum of Latin American Art. Given that the first two of the season’s four scheduled productions were canceled when three Black members of the company summarily resigned, citing “racial tokenism” and “a culture of misogyny” that have yet to be publicly specified, the company’s future has been in question. But at the sold-out second performance, the mood was especially celebratory. Rather than a company seemingly in tatters, LBO offered much of the best of what it is known for — thought-provoking, hyper-relevant (if occasionally off-the-rails) and engagingly performed music theater that takes, either by intent or modest necessity, little for granted.

Elsewhere, smaller-scaled opera is popping up all over. Numi Opera — named for Aida’s aria, “Numi pieta,” an invocation of divine spirits — offered a program of excerpts from operas by composers suppressed by the Nazis at the Broad Stage last Sunday. The first weekend of June promises the premieres of two new operas by local composers — Vera Ivanov’s “The Double” and Ian Dicke’s “Roman” — at Boston Court in Pasadena. The ensemble Salastina ends its season with performances at Caltech, the Colburn School and the Broad Stage of “OC fan Tutte,” Vid Guerrerio’s reimagining of Mozart’s “Così fan Tutte” through the lens of Orange County culture wars. This is a follow-up of the director’s earlier remake of “The Marriage of Figaro” as “Figaro 90210" in which he brilliantly confronted the circumstances of undocumented immigrants in L.A.

Next up, June 7, the relentless Los Angeles Philharmonic once more gets into the operatic act at Walt Disney Concert Hall by staging Ted Hearne’s opera/oratorio about gentrification, “Place,” with a libretto by Hearne and Saul Williams. The Ojai Festival follows, June 9 through 12, this year unveiling a range of experimental operatic actions by AMOC (American Modern Opera Company). Formed by composer, poet, conductor and former L.A. Opera artist in residence Matthew Aucoin, AMOC boasts three of the most compelling singers on the lyric stage — Julia Bullock, Davóne Tines and Anthony Roth Costanzo — as well as director Zack Winokur.

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Just like old times and then some, we might be tempted to think. But health officials continue to release a daily litany of warnings about gatherings. The Music Center retains its vaccination and mask requirement, as do many other indoor venues. “Giustino” was outdoors.

Even so, there is that old issue of opera and risk. This is an art form, nourished by emotional extremes, that also relishes wearing its heart on its sleeve and takes the most pleasure in being as outrageous as possible. While a careless modernization of “King Lear” may undermine Shakespeare, as my colleague Charles McNulty has revealed, in opera getting away with murder can be the point.

Not surprisingly, then, opera has throughout its history inspired unruly audiences. Where else, outside of a political rally, do you find so much booing — gleeful as well as angry? It is then unsurprising that opera audiences can be somewhat cavalier about mask-wearing.

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I witnessed “Aida” from three perspectives in the Chandler. I started in the fancy Founders, where the sight and the sound have the best balance, seating is luxuriant and masking lax. I moved upstairs to the last row of the loge, far from the stage for the big triumphal scene in Act 2. The more intimate third and fourth acts found me downstairs, close to the stage in highly favored seats.

The production by Francesca Zambello, first mounted in San Francisco six seasons ago, has a contemporary appeal. Hieroglyphic graffiti by the L.A. artist Retna covers the stage. The ancient Egyptians are dressed like a colonial army. The attacking Ethiopians are dressed in more colorful garb. But the updating is thin disguise.

Aida, the captured Ethiopian princess, and her lover, Radames, the leader of the victorious Egyptian army, are readily recognizable as Verdi’s ill-fated couple. The triumphal scene may lack elephants, but it does have flashy dance choreographed by Jessica Lang and glitter.

That scene in the loge gained its grandeur from wrap-around sonics (sound rises pleasingly in the Chandler). The big voices of Russell Thomas (an incisive Radames), Latonia Moore (an overwrought Aida), Morris Robinson (a frighteningly forceful priest, Ramfis), Melody Moore (gripping as Amneris, the Egyptian princess and Aida’s rival) soared over magnificent chorus and orchestra. James Conlon let it all gloriously ring. One could see the stage perfectly well in relief, and imagination filled in visual details. It all became amazingly believable.

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Close up, blemishes stood out. Long her signature role, Moore’s Aida has a certain well-practiced calculation. She retains money notes, but not all of them all the time. The real theater came from Thomas, who has the making of an impressive Radames in whom humanity rises above ambition, and Moore’s vulnerable Amneris.

Long Beach Opera’s “Giustino” proved opera as opposite of this “Aida.” It was staged by the company’s new artistic director, James Darrah, in the MOLAA courtyard with the audience in bleachers surrounding three sides of a long stage.

With masks neither required outdoors nor in fashion, I found a perch away from the bleachers and behind a cactus. I could see some things better than others. There were video projections in some scenes and amplification was used. Although I couldn’t always tell what was going on, I’m not sure others could either. Again, a powerful performance and a little imagination proved unusually satisfying.

As with “Aida,” “Giustino” is a theatrical extravaganza set in ancient times. The plans of a widowed Constantinople empress, Arianna, to marry and thus crown a new emperor, Anastasio, are interrupted by an invading rebel army led by Arianna’s jilted lover, the nasty Vitaliano. There are any number of devious plot complications that involve a sea monster, help from the gods and the heroic ministrations of a ploughboy, Giustino.

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Darrah attempted to create something resembling an operatic William Burroughs cut-up by eliminating and rearranging arias, moving the action to the Mojave Desert and injecting contemporary sex, violence and gender into Baroque opera convention. Arianna takes a wife for the new emperor, which tracks musically since Handel wrote Anastasio for a castrato voice that well suits a women. The composer Shelley Washington refashioned parts of Handel’s score here and there, adding backbeats and the like.

Messing with Shakespeare is one thing, messing with Handel another. Baroque operas were seldom repeated, and when they were they were always newly adapted for singers and the occasion. Like today’s movie and theater audiences, Handel’s audiences wanted new.

Darrah’s dallying with cowboys, desert rats and glitter queens around a seedy motel isn’t, itself, altogether new to modern opera stagings, but it felt fresh and right for this little-known score. The cast came from different vocal traditions, which, while occasionally jarring, kept the Handelian flow of arias exciting. Anna Schubert’s radiantly pure-sounding Arianna and Marlaina Owens’ more modulated Anastasio, for instance, made them a theatrically intriguing couple. Luke Elmer, a dazzling countertenor from Texas, reinvented Giustino as an aw-shucks adolescent who grows up fast, helped by Amanda Lynn Bottoms as his lover, Leocasta. Orson Van Gay and Dante Mireles, Vitaliano and Polidarte, respectively, supplied riveting and exceptionally nasty villainy, while Sharon Chohi Kim offered a La Fortuna with a punk flair.

If Washington’s judiciously injected drum sets, electric bass and a saxophone solo could also be fun — that sort of thing was all rage in the 1960s — it is also a little dated. She was most effective when she risked injudiciously interrupting Handel with electronic explosions, the louder the better.

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For his part, conductor Christopher Rountree, the company’s new music director, led a performance that was dexterously alive to every twist, be it Handel’s, Darrah’s, Washington’s or the very individual singers’.

“Giustino” is the success LBO desperately needed, but the company does not yet appear out of hot water just yet. The final opera of the curtailed season, a revival of Anthony Davis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Central Park Five,“ will no longer be staged, only given in concert form later this month. But at the last performance of “Giustino” the company demonstrated an encouraging, resilient pluck.

When a lead singer caught COVID-19, LBO’s general director and CEO, Jennifer Rivera, and Darrah filled in at the last minute. A former singer, Rivera sang the role of Leocasta seated offstage with the orchestra, while Darrah donned a skirt and acted the part on stage. Any company with the resources to pull off that kind of exceptional risk, however, shouldn’t have any further need to be, as it has been, soliciting cryptocurrency — not only a dodgy fundraising risk but an altogether unacceptable environmental and societal one. That’s murder opera has no business getting away with.

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