March at Walt Disney Concert Hall opened Friday night with a big-thinking Los Angeles Philharmonic extravaganza: Andrew Norman’s first opera, “A Trip to the Moon,” as staged by the L.A. Phil’s inventive artist-collaborator Yuval Sharon.
But then again, February also started out big, when the orchestra presented Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” staged by Elkhanah Pulitzer. So will April, when Sharon returns to stage Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde.” We could get used to this.
“A Trip to the Moon” had its world premiere in Berlin in June, followed by a performance at the Barbican in London in July. Since then, Norman has been rewriting and trimming the piece. The Berlin performance reportedly lasted 70 minutes; the L.A version clocked in at 51 ½ minutes. So while the L.A. Phil billed the performance as a U.S. premiere, it really was the world premiere of the current version, and Norman says he’s not through revising it.
That may not be necessary. “A Trip to the Moon” was delightfully entertaining as is, combining today’s technology with the antique look of the Georges Méliès 1902 science fiction silent film of the same name that partly inspired the piece. A strong colorful score that trusts listeners young and old to go wherever it roams — even into avant-garde territory with sliding strings and dissonances — and often achieves an ecstatic frenzy.
The story involves astronomers from Jules Verne’s time who blast off for the moon, are stranded there for a while, encounter strange yet ultimately lovable humanoid moon residents and learn to coexist with them before heading back to Earth. Méliès appears, sung by tenor Peter Tantsits, as one of the visiting Earthlings.
The astronomers’ lines are all spoken, and the moon people sing in “Moonish,” an all-vowels language that Norman invented. I get the feeling that Norman is deliberately poking fun at opera in general for the unintelligible diction that often goes with the form.
Sharon’s whiz-bang production projected the lunar landscape on a scrim with the live-action cast to the screen’s left and right superimposed upon the landscape in real time.
About 250 professional and amateur performers — including the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, Hoover Street Elementary School Chorus and members of the L.A. Phil’s Youth Orchestra Los Angeles — were situated all over the hall, many wielding Boomwhackers (tuned percussion tubes). Some of the moon folk twirled whirly tubes — Peter Schickele (a.k.a. PDQ Bach) called it the “lasso d’amore” — which made ethereal whining sounds that coalesced harmoniously with the music.
Not the least of all of this was the impressive L.A. Phil subscription season debut of Teddy Abrams, the enterprising 30-year-old music director of the Louisville and Britt Festival orchestras, who worked up a sweat conducting with wide swinging gestures.
He tirelessly followed Norman’s opera with an excellent, well-paced rendition of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” which had the expected Abrams energy but also a properly slow, brooding “Saturn” passage and a “Neptune” with just the right long choral fade at the close. Watch this guy; he’s going places.
Although there were only two performances of “A Trip to the Moon” for the adults, next week the L.A. Phil is staging four performances for 7,000 third-, fourth- and fifth- graders.