Wise books have been written about Mozart's last year, and two works of lyrical wonder from it — the 35-year-old composer's Clarinet Concerto and his opera "The Magic Flute" — have maintained a special hold on the popular imagination for more than two centuries. Yet it's still impossible to make sense of 1791. Although Mozart wasn't one to look back, the world has done little else when it comes to contending with an unintended late style.
Gustavo Dudamel chose to end the Los Angeles Philharmonic's brief survey of Mozart's 1791 this week in Walt Disney Concert Hall with that beloved concerto and opera. (The program runs through Sunday.) He also chose, wisely, to stop far short of making sense of that final year.
The Clarinet Concerto and "Magic Flute" are often linked as having been cast in similar sweetly idealistic molds, revealing as they do Mozart's love of life. The composer certainly loved the clarinet and was the first to turn it into the supreme extension of the larynx. No disarming machine — sorry, Siri — has ever sounded so ideally human as Mozart's clarinet. Even "Flute" is suffused with a clarinet aura lent to the orchestral winds in many of its magical passages, passages that help an opera of sheer idealism, however disguised in childlike fantasy, to prescribe a process for society to rise above pettiness.
Curiously enough, the two halves of the program somewhat turned things around. The harlequin-esque Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst, as is his wont (and a wont that has made him very popular), played and boogied his way through Mozart's concerto. The dancing is both physical and musical. He bops to the left and he bops to the right, back and forth, as he plays and even when he's not playing.
At the same time, Fröst's tongue bops with a liquidity the equal of which I've never encountered. The sheer mutability of his tonguing creates a seductive flow that is indeed the ideal of song. He finds the last drop of beauty in Mozart's concerto. The audience eats it up.
But you have to put up with a lot mannerism. Even though Fröst played a basset clarinet, the elongated early version of the instrument for which Mozart wrote his concerto, Fröst's style has an unsettling post-Mozart quality to it. He may be the epitome of the modern performer, stylish in dress and manner and showman through and through, but the dreamy character of his playing is like looking at Mozart through a misty pre-Raphaelite lens.
While keeping the orchestra more focused, Dudamel mostly deferred to Fröst, but the conductor then took charge of a dynamic 70 minutes' worth of "Flute," with a spectacular young cast who placed graphic drama over childlike fantasy. There was none of the dialogue, just musical numbers. A handful of major arias and ensemble numbers were eliminated and a couple of minor ones included. There was no attempt to tell the story of the "Flute."
Instead, Dudamel emphasized a raw dramatic intensity that too often gets buried under cartoon cuteness or Masonic exoticism. He followed the lead of Peter Sellars and Peter Brook — Sellars' Glyndebourne production that eliminated the dialogue and updated the libretto to the drug underworld of the modern-day Sunset Strip, and Brook's mysterious, multicultural ritual reductive version.
Maybe it was no coincidence then that soprano Julia Bullock, the stunning Pamina, got her professional start in Brooks' "Flute" and is a mainstay in Sellars' recent work. (She's starring in the premiere of the Sellars' production of John Adams' "Girls of the Golden West" at San Francisco Opera next month.) Indeed the L.A. Phil purloined much of the cast of "Golden West," including tenor Paul Appleby as Tamino and baritone Elliot Madore (as well as J'Nai Bridges, who last week joined Appleby in the first 1791 program).
That collegiality of the three "Flute" leads may also explain why what had been planned as a concert performance became theatrical. There was no director; the performers themselves took charge of an effective and unfussy semi-staging in which they used a platform behind the stage as well as the area in front of the orchestra.
There was humor in Madore's otherwise unusually virile and emotional Papageno. And when the three women (Gabriella Reyes de Ramirez, Emily D'Angelo and Sara Couden, all enticing), after padlocking Papageno's mouth for his dissembling, sang (as translated on the projected titles) "If all liars had such a lock to their lips," there were politically tinged titters in the audience.
But mainly this performance was a kind of pure distillation of the deep human emotions that usually lie buried at the heart of "Flute." Bullock projected a magnificent aura of implacable spiritual grace in the face of danger. Appleby provided the fervor. Only Jessica Pratt's Queen of the Night seemed studied. Jack Fagan, Brandon Takahashi and Enzo Grappone, the three boy sopranos, all won hearts.
Dudamel, for the most part, exchanged playfulness for passion. The orchestral playing was detailed, carefully colored and stirring. The high priest Sarastro and most of the Masonic business was left out. The fire and water trials of Pamina and Tamino were treated not as magical rites but trials of a deepening relationship. Dudamel ended with the duet between Papageno and Papagena (the lively Vanessa Becerra) as an apotheosis.
This all proved so illuminating you almost didn't want a complete "Flute," although Dudamel was clearly born to conduct one sooner or later. At the same time the approach proved satisfyingly unilluminating in its willingness to leave the meaning of Mozart's final year the eternal unanswered question it must, like all worthwhile spiritual pursuits, remain.
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‘Mozart 1791: Music From “The Magic Flute” ’
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Information: (213) 850-2000, www.laphil.com