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Review: ‘Atlas’ needs no words to astonish as the L.A. Phil wraps its centennial season

Review: ‘Atlas’ needs no words to astonish as the L.A. Phil wraps its centennial season
The Los Angeles Philharmonic production of Meredith Monk's "Atlas," directed by Yuval Sharon and with production design by Es Devlin. (Mathew Imaging)

When given its world premiere by Houston Grand Opera in 1991, “Atlas” was a Meredith Monk opera.

In other words, an intrepid novelty for an opera house. This exploration of a woman’s spiritual journey, loosely based on the life of early 20th century Tibetan adventurer Alexandra David-Néel, had seemingly much of the quality of Monk’s work, in which movement, meaning and music — mostly in that order, in those days — were indivisible. Monk and her company’s singing style could be described as bodily, the voice an extension of limbs and emotions. Words were unwanted. They would only get in the way.

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Revived Tuesday night for the first time since that original production and as a coda to the Los Angeles Philharmonic centennial season, “Atlas” has now become an opera by Meredith Monk — meaning it now inhabits the universal jurisdiction of the lyric stage.

The bedazzling new production startlingly re-imagined by Yuval Sharon to climax his three-year residency as the L.A. Phil artist-collaborator seemingly changes everything. And not just because the giant sphere that engulfs the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage is such a spectacular spaceship Earth.

A main reason for the opera’s neglect was the lack of a fully fleshed-out written score, making “Atlas” unstageable, unsingable and unplayable by any company but Monk’s own. But with her collaboration, Sharon and crew have produced a performance score. His production, moreover, is an astonishment. “Atlas” here achieves a new glory, and the day cannot be very far way when it will seduce everyone from music students in Saskatchewan to opera stars in Salzburg.

Then again, maybe the new “Atlas” doesn’t really change all that much. The neglect has been overstated. The opera was recorded in 1993, and the music has over the years become well known. The L.A. Phil along with the Los Angeles Master Chorale offered excerpts from the opera during the orchestra’s first Minimalist Jukebox festival in 2006, serving as an unmistakable “Atlas” wake-up call.

Mainly, though, “Atlas” had already changed Monk. For the first time in her work, music came first. The cozy Houston production, modest enough to travel to Philadelphia and New York, had its charms, some endearingly goofy. But suddenly Monk, at 48, had become a significant composer. What she accomplished musically in “Atlas” directly led to her becoming, as she is today, an icon of American music.

The structure of “Atlas” is 25 scenic vignettes, ranging from one to 15 minutes, and divided into three unequal parts. In the first, Alexandra, a young teen in her bedroom dreams of exploring the world at large. Eventually she finds companions and heads out.

The much longer second part, “Night Travel,” is like an extended dream full of adventure and danger from the realms of humans, nature and the spirit world. Ice demons haunt the troupe. A sage’s lessons are learned the hard way in forest and desert and at an otherworldly Arctic bar.

There are pauses for out-of-body musing throughout, but the short third part, “Invisible Light,” is where Alexandra’s illumined soul and the weary soles of her feet become one. We see her at the end as a wise woman of 60 whose looking back is capable of moving us observers to tears of transcendence.

Through this journey, few words are spoken and fewer sung. Rather, Monk’s elaborate style of vocalization, be it squeaks and grunts or crystalline song, express what words only hint at. Her mastery of rhythmic pulse, of natural melody that sounds less composed than plucked from the air, and imaginative vocal and instrumental character from the chamber orchestra provide a remarkable degree of communicability.

Even so, Monk’s elaborate narrative was initially more implied than revealed. Sharon’s eye-popping production, designed by Es Devlin, does just the opposite, giving it cinematic glamour. That giant sphere is a contrivance for Luke Halls’ fanciful video images of Earth and the universe. While a platform onstage can be used for Alexandra’s girlhood home and other needs, a horizontal section of the sphere opens up as an additional aerial stage; with the help of projections, it turns into an airplane, train and all manner of exotic and psychic locales.

The "Atlas" set, with projections by Luke Halls
The "Atlas" set, with projections by Luke Halls (Mathew Imaging)

Danielle Agami’s apt choreography pays homage to Monk’s, but the movement is now modern and more focused on psychological storytelling. The whimsy too is Agami’s and Sharon’s, as are the more aggressive scenes, particularly the desert tango in which dancers become like a mob of dangerous amphibians or giant locusts or something.

Still, the glory and grandeur belong to the music. Sharon has assembled an animated cast of 19 singers capable of bringing dozens of characters to life. There are three Alexandras, with Milena Manocchia as the spirited teen, Joanna Lynn-Jacobs the resolute seeker and, in ideal luxury casting, the multidisciplinary Ann Carlson embodying enlightenment.

Around these Alexandras worlds arise, and we know them best through the sounds made in response by different personalities. Spiritual journeys require mindfulness that is both inner and outer. A cast that can capture that in song is to be, as this one is, celebrated.

Sonic luxury was to found in the pit from the L.A. Phil New Music Group, eloquently conducted by Paolo Bortolameolli. That’s right, the pit. Sharon took out the first four rows of seats to create a makeshift pit. It, like everything else, worked.

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During his tenure at the L.A. Phil, Sharon has developed an international reputation working on opera here and abroad. But what he has done with the L.A. Phil, and particularly in reclaiming some of American opera’s most important but ignored works for the lyric stage — notably Lou Harrison’s “Young Caesar,” John Cage’s “Europeras 1 & 2” and, now, “Atlas” — has been arguably the most significant work of his career so far.

“Atlas,” which will be performed again Wednesday and Friday, is the most illuminating of all.

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‘Atlas’

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday

Tickets: $44-$164

Info: (213) 850-2000, laphil.com

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