James Conlon

Siegfried at LA Opera

LA Opera's Siegfried, Photo by: Monika Rittershaus/LA Opera * Notes * 
Siegfried was performed yesterday as part of Los Angeles Opera's Ring Festival. James Conlon kept the orchestra sounding fairly restrained, the brass continued to have rough patches, but the singing and playing was more synchronized than in the first two operas. Stacey Tappan shimmered as the Waldvogel, her fluttery voice is suited to the role. Jill Grove sounded rather nice as Erda, earthy but not overly pretty. Eric Halfvarson's Fafner was remarkably sympathetic, especially in his death scene. Graham Clark likewise was fine as Mime, his voice is bright, his acting was clear and strong.

Again, both Richard Paul Fink (Alberich) and Vitalij Kowaljow (Wotan) continued to impress, embodying their roles with vigor. The two leads fared less well, though both were maddening in that sometimes their voices were extraordinarily lovely. Linda Watson could sound harsh as Brünnhilde, but her "Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!" was splendidly beautiful. John Treleaven also could sound brilliant and sweet, but more often he was just getting through this very difficult music, and was still standing at the end, at least.

Achim Freyer's production is consistent in its absurdity. The dragon was especially hilarious, it looked like a tiny puppet on wires, and had plumes of red lights attached to its mouth. One imagines that we are seeing Fafner from Siegfried's fearless point of view here. Siegfried is a clowns around, and his buffoonery is on full display. Though flawed, he somehow did not seem very human, so it was a bit hard to relate to him. Also, the way Fafner's wounding was staged was somewhat confusing if one has not read the libretto, given that the beast we see is so small.

* Tattling * 
The talking was at a minimum for Act I, though a cellular phone rang during the overture. More electronic noise followed in the middle act, a watch alarm rang at least 20 times. There was much speaking from the audience in Act II, and the person next to me in Row H of the orchestra had to implore the woman and girl behind him to be silent. They apologized during the second intermission, and were silent the rest of the opera. Unfortunately this was not the case for the German-speaking couple closer to the middle of Row J, they spoke openly without the slightest bit of embarrassment.

There was a press reception that I had the pleasure of attending. Evidently Quentin Tarantino was also present.

Die Walküre at LA Opera

LA Opera's Walkuere, photo by Monika Rittershaus/LA Opera * Notes * 
Los Angeles Opera's Ring cycle continued with Die Walküre yesterday evening. The orchestra sounded fairly good under James Conlon, though at times they did play gingerly, carefully hitting each note. The cello solo in the beginning of Act I Scene 1 was lovely, but the brass did not sound clean for Hunding's Leitmotiv. There was a painful brass mistake as Siegmund sang in Act I Scene 3, but otherwise only a few stray sour notes and haziness. The playing was mournful and together for the end. The singing was gorgeous, particularly in Act I, with Eric Halfvarson (Hunding), Michelle DeYoung (Sieglinde), and Plácido Domingo (Siegmund). All three have such beautiful voices, with enough heft to be heard over the orchestra. DeYoung sounded silvery and young, rather different than her role as Fricka the previous evening. Domingo did admirably, considering he had surgery for colon cancer just in March. At times it was difficult to discern exactly what words he was singing, but the prettiness of his voice came through. Ekaterina Semenchuk was strong as Fricka, very rich and stirring. Linda Watson fared less well as Brünnhilde, sounding shrill in Act II, but did have some tender moments in Act III. Her sister Walküren sounded hale and hearty, they even managed their choreography convincingly and no one fell. Vitalij Kowaljow was believable as Wotan, especially during Wotans Abschied von Brünnhilde und Feuerzauber.

The production, from Achim Freyer, is a stylized riot of color and movement, including clown makeup, light sabers, contortionists, dancing, spinning horse/bicycle hybrids, and the like. Sieglinde and Siegmund do spend a lot of their time in Act I singing from across the stage from each other, and it was a palpable relief to see them actually in contact with one another in Act II. The staging is novel, the end of Act II was especially stunning, and the Walküren scene (Act III Scene 1) was amusing.

* Tattling * 
The audience was embarrassingly ill-behaved, talking even during the singing. Watches were heard not only at the hour, but one went off for 10-12 rings as an alarm during Act II. One person's cellular phone rang on at least 3 occasions, once before the watch alarm and twice afterward, and there was yet another phone heard at the end of the act. Cough drops in cellophane seemed to be unwrapped at every quiet moment. On the orchestra level, a certain visitor from New York made her own announcement before Act II about this, and thus managed to enjoy some respite from the crinkling for the rest of the opera.

Das Rheingold at LA Opera

Rheingold-la-opera * Notes * 
Los Angeles Opera's first Ring cycle began with Das Rheingold last night. James Conlon had the orchestra sounding cohesive and supportive, though the musicians and singers were not always perfectly together. There were a few sour notes from the brass, but for the most part the playing was not bad. The voices of Stacey Tappan (Woglinde), Lauren McNeese (Wellgunde), and Ronnita Nicole Miller (Floßhilde) were pretty set against each other. Tappan was particularly fluttery in Scene 1, one could immediately imagine her as the Waldvogel in Siegfried. The three Rheintöchter sounded mournful and beautiful at the end of the opera. Jill Grove has improved as Erda, the role still does not seem easy for her, but she did hit her notes. Ellie Dehn was especially brilliant as Freia, and I am curious to hear her as the Countess in San Francisco Opera's Le Nozze di Figaro later the year. Michelle DeYoung's Fricka was appropriately shrewish and almost biting at first, but her pleasantly metallic voice is beautiful. Morris Robinson had the volume for Fasolt, but lacked the full resonance of Eric Halfvarson (Fafner). Beau Gibson and Wayne Tigges spent much of their time far upstage as Froh and Donner, respectively. It was difficult to gage the weight and heft of their voices. Richard Paul Fink continues to be a convincing Alberich, he snarls and acts even through his mask. Arnold Bezuyen (Loge) was caustic at times, but also could sound sycophantic or even unctuously caressing. As Wotan, Vitalij Kowaljow, sounded authoritative and displayed his great command of his low range.

Achim Freyer's production has an entertaining circus element to it, as far as costumes and effects. It also is a strange cross of Star Wars, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels. There really were light sabers in the production, for instance. The steep rake was a challenge, Richard Paul Fink fell after Scene 1, and the other singers had similar problems. All of the scenes were quite arresting, much was going on, but for the most part it all made some sort of internal sense. However, the very last part, when the Gods are to go to Valhalla, a nondescript object suspended from wires swept across the stage. The audience in Balcony B clearly could not discern what this was meant to represent and many people started talking at this point.

* Tattling * 
There was no applause during the music, but there was a lot of talking during the overture and the transitions. At least two watch alarms were heard at 8pm and 9pm. My seat in Balcony B was ideally situated on the aisle, but in the middle section and in the front, so I was glad that the Wagner Society of Northern California pulled through for me in this case. The person next to me either took a nap during parts of Scenes 2 and 3, or was meditating on the music with great concentration. His regular breathing was quiet but noticeable.

Die Gezeichneten at LA Opera

Stigmatized-la-opera * Notes *
Franz Schreker's Die Gezeichneten opened last night as part of LA Opera's Recovered Voices series. The music is rather voluptuous, yet oddly shimmery as well, and certainly is very beautiful. For the most part, the orchestra held together under James Conlon. The sound, while at times quite robust, did not overwhelm the principal singers. The brass had some blurry edges, particularly in an exposed moment near the end of the opera. The chorus, however, sounded lovely in the last act and entirely together.

Despite the obsurity of the opera, there were many familiar faces to be seen in this production. On stage were former Merolini Matthew Moore and Ben Wager, as well as former Adlers Kenneth Kellogg and Eugene Brancoveanu. Beau Gibson, who was in Salome and Otello this season in San Francisco, sang Menaldo very prettily. Another stand out in the smaller roles was Keith Jameson, who was deliciously evil has Pietro.

The three lead roles were sung admirably. Baritone Martin Gantner was a brazen Count Tamare, he swaggered and suited the part. His voice is strong, and has a nice warmth. The tenor, Robert Brubaker, had a fine debut as Alviano. His sound had a surprising heft to it, although he was not exceptionally loud. He was sympathetic, and he delivered the last lines of the opera with poignancy. Anja Kampe showed great flexibility as Carlotta, she acted convincingly and her voice is tremendous. Her duets with Brubaker in Act II and Gantner in Act III were both impressive.

Ian Judge's production was busy and cluttered, despite having rather little in the way of props. The projections, designed by Wendall K. Harrington, covered a scrim in front of the stage, the upstage background, and the raked floor. Perhaps my perspective was off, given that I was all the way at the top of the house, and I was not experiencing all these visuals in their appropriate context. At times I felt relieved that I could not see the upstage projections, as the ones I could see were dizzying enough. There were spectacular moments, but the rape scene near the end was brutal. One would have liked, perhaps, to have been warned about this beforehand. Unlike the rather tame and boring bacchanal from Tannhäuser a few years back, this "orgy," though appropriate to the circumstances of the plot, was intensely disturbing.

* Tattling * 
Balcony B had rows of empty seats, so it was not difficult to find a seat away from other audience members. However, both talking and snoring were heard during the performance.

La Scala's 2009-2010 Season

December 7-23 2009: Carmen
January 15- February 5 2010: Rigoletto
January 30- February 14 2010: Don Giovanni
February 28- March 16 2010: From the House of the Dead
March 17- April 2 2010: Tannhäuser
April 6-30 2010: Lulu
April 16- May 7 2010: Simon Boccanegra
May 13-29 2010: Das Rheingold
June 18- July 5 2010: Faust
July 9-24 2010: Il barbiere di Siviglia
September 18- October 7 2010: L'occasione fa il ladro
October 2-27 2010: L'elisir d'amore
October 29- November 18 2010: Carmen

Barenboim and Dudamel conduct Carmen, the former also conducts Simon Boccanegra and Das Rheingold. James Conlon conducts Rigoletto, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts From the House of the Dead.

Official Site | 2009-2010 Season

The Birds at LA Opera

Dievoegel * Notes *
Walter Braunfels' Die Vögel opened at LA Opera last night. Unfortunately, the production did not cohere. Good Hope and Loyal Friend were dressed in a nondescript early twentieth century manner, they looked more American than Athenian. The Birds, on the other hand, were garishly dressed, some were adorned with Isis Wings, invoking Vegas showgirls. The set involved a steep rake shaped like a cloud with several cut-out clouds atop it. It was not clear where the earth was in this scenario, or how exactly the Athenians made it up to the clouds. The choreography fit the singers and dancers, nothing looked terribly uncomfortable, though the incline was clearly something to contend with. During the ballet, it looked like one of the dancers skinned her right knee. The lighting, for the most part, held together. The various flower projections in the Act II love scene were campy, but the bird-shaped ones that appeared a few times were appealing.

The musicians of the orchestra sounded as if they were still trying to get their bearings. James Conlon did get a lush, pleasing quality out of them, but they were often not with the singers and the brass was hazy. The singers fared better, for one thing, the chorus was delightful. Désirée Rancatore had some lovely moments as the Nightingale, her bright voice is especially beautiful in her lower range, though her higher notes feel a bit precarious. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich certainly was loud as Good Hope, but thankfully his voice is tempered with warmth. James Johnson (Loyal Friend) had less volume than Jovanovich, but he did well in his comedic role. Baritone Martin Gantner's voice has a certain heft and richness, he was also quite amusing as the Hoopoe. The other baritone, Brian Mulligan, turned out a fine performance as Prometheus. His commanding presence and luminous voice were the highlight of the evening.

* Tattling * 
In the pre-opera interview of James Conlon, he spoke about the story of Procne and Tereus, saying that the former was turned into a nightingale, and the latter into a hoopoe. I felt very confused, as I thought it was Philomela, Procne's sister, that was turned into a nightingale, as retribution for having her tongue cut out by Tereus. Evidently, it is Procne that is turned into a nightingale in Aristophanes, but in Ovid, she is turned into a swallow.

The Loge looked rather empty, and the people around me were rather good during the first half. Naturally, after the intermission, a rather annoying couple sat behind me in D 10 and 11. They unwrapped candies, ate them noisily and unceasingly, spoke aloud a few times, and kicked my seat. At least it was just them, and they were easily ignored.

After the performance, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Brian of Out West Arts. At Kendall's Brasserie we were seated right next to many of the dancers and the production crew, who seemed to be having a jolly time.

James Conlon at SFS

* Notes *
James Conlon conducted San Francisco Symphony in a performance of Berlioz, Liszt, and Shostakovich yesterday evening. The horn timing seemed somewhat off in Berlioz's Le Corsaire Overture, though I do not know the piece, so certainly I cannot say this definitively. The flutes played very deftly, and the brass did sound quite clear near the end of the piece. Jean-Yves Thibaudet was the soloist for Liszt's second piano concerto. The work is lush and pretty, and Thibaudet had a contrasting blunt vehemence at times, though he certainly played well. The part with only cello and piano was particularly lovely, and Thibaudet's arpeggios sounded remarkably harp-like.

Conlon spoke on the themes of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and the orchestra gave the various musical examples. Conlon's arrangement of Shostakovich's opera into a suite is engaging and the orchestra played with a great intensity. There were moments that were almost unbearably loud. With the exception of occasional raggedness from the horns, the musicians were in fine form.

* Tattling *
The audience was well-behaved, only a bit of coughing and one watch alarm were heard during the music.

James Conlon at WSNC

* Notes *
James Conlon, the Music Director of Los Angeles Opera, and Dr. Katherine Syer gave talks at the Wagner Society of Northern California today in San Francisco. Conlon spoke on how he came to love classical music and Wagner, and how he decided to become a conductor a young age. We heard that the two conditions of accepting the position in LA was contingent upon being able to conduct both music by Wagner and composers suppressed by the Nazis. He also assured the audience that unless the Dorothy Chandler falls apart, the Ring Cycle will take place in Los Angeles. Much of his talk emphasized the primacy of music in opera, and how the ascendancy of the stage director can put this in jeopardy.

Syer spoke on the many Ring Cycles that have been put on in the last decade. She discussed the use of masks and puppets, then turned our attention to uses of advanced technology, such as live camera feeds and the like. She showed clips of a production staged in Mexico City, in which almost all the singers wore masks. The performance took place behind a scrim, which had the image of a ring on it to frame the action. The other production that was focused on came from Vlaamse Opera, which uses video cameras and many television screens.

* Tattling *
James Conlon has sense of humor, he was amused by the introduction he was given, and denied that he likes oreos, as the Wikipedia article on him has claimed. He had a rather difficult time leaving, as many people stopped to talk to him on his way to the door.

The people giggled at a particular staging shown and described to us by Dr. Syer. She jokingly admonished that it was "a very serious moment," and someone in the audience muttered that she was "going to become a Verdi fan."

The WSNC seems rife with bloggers, no less than three were spotted in the audience. It was rather sad to not be harrassed by Ruth Jacobs at the door. I had finally convinced her that I was, in fact, a member of the Wagner Society when we shared a box for Simon Boccanegra last September.

Il Trittico at LA Opera

Suor-angelica * Notes *
There has been much ado about Woody Allen directing his first opera, one third of Puccini's Il Trittico, with William Friedkin, famed director of The Exorcist, directing the other two thirds. One cannot help feeling a bit skeptical of Los Angeles Opera hiring three film directors for the opening performances of the season, as of course, the opera in repertory with Puccini is The Fly directed by David Cronenberg. It was a surprise then that Il Trittico is not only good but actually excellent.

Under James Conlon, the orchestra sounded together throughout the three operas, and more or less with the singers as well. The set designer, Santo Loquasto, did a fine job with the sets, they were traditional without being dull. Although each opera is in a different time and place, the look of each was not haphazard, one having absolutely nothing to do with another. Lighting designer Mark Jonathan also helped in this, light was used dramatically in each opera. I only have a minor quibble on the lighting, the effect of water reflecting on various surfaces in Il Tabarro was a bit overdone. It was almost as if the opera was set underwater. Sam Fleming's costumes for Il Tabarro were pretty, and the colors enhanced the painterly set. His costumes for Suor Angelica were perfectly appropriate. It seems Santo Loquasto had fun with the adorable 40s costumes for Gianni Schicchi.

William Friedkin's direction of Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica was a perfect balance of letting the music speak for itself but also motivating the drama without being gratuitous. All the details were pitch-perfect, one never felt that someone was entering without any reason, or was doing something just because the director had told them to. It was impressive that such an artificial form, that is, opera, was rendered in a highly naturalistic manner. Some of the credit goes to the singers themselves, they were all fine actors, even rather minor characters like the drunken Tinca (Matthew O'Neill) of Il Tabarro or Sister Osmina (Angel Blue) with the roses hidden in her sleeves in Suor Angelica, were wonderful.

The principal singers of Il Tabarro were first-rate. Anja Kampe was a vunerable Giorgetta, her light delicate voice had good volume. Salvatore Licitra's warm, round voice suited Luigi, his resonant tones could be heard very well indeed. Mark Delavan had command over the role of Michele, his wrath was palpable, as was his heartbreak. In the smaller roles, Tichina Vaughn stood out as Frugola and Robert MacNeil as a Song Vendor.

The most impressive performance came from Sondra Radvanovsky in the title-role of Suor Angelica. Her voice is simply beautiful and her control is astounding. She conveyed the various emotions of the part deftly, from calm piety to utter despair. The supporting cast was fine, Jennifer Black (Sister Genovieffa) sang about longing to just see a lamb again with great charm and Larissa Diadkova embodied haughty disdain as the Angelica's aunt, the Princess.

Woody Allen held his own in Gianni Schicchi, beginning his production with some false title-credits, complete with silly Italian puns, as if the opera was a movie. The comedy was a bit over-the-top, Buoso Donati's will is found in a pot of spaghetti and Lauretta wields a knife she keeps tucked in a garter. However, it was funny, and the singers were all very good actors, especially Thomas Allen in the title-role. The singing was not as good as in the previous two operas, for one thing, Allen is a bit quiet. Though Jennifer Black made a fine effort as Lauretta, replacing Laura Tatulescu, and sang "O mio babbino caro" tunefully and prettily, she came up somewhat short. Only Andrea Silvestrelli (Simone) was extraordinary, this was worlds away from his recent Fasolt in Das Rheingold, but still wonderful.

* Tattling * 
Los Angeles Opera occasionally will play famous themes from the opera on a vibraphone to signal that it is time to go into the hall. For Il Trittico they used "O mio babbino caro," as it is the most famous aria from the three operas. I overheard the most amusing argument about what it was, one knew it was from one of the three operas, but another insisted it was from a more famous Puccini opera. The first person simply said that Puccini just stole from himself so much that all his arias were alike anyway.

A woman in Balcony Row B Seat 69 talked during the overture of Il Tabarro and was roundly hushed from all sides. Instead of being ashamed, she simply muttered "Shush, shush, shush, why don't you shush yourselves." She was quiet for most of the opera, but unfortunately spoke at the most dramatic moment, right at the end. Thankfully she was silent for Suor Angelica, and even cried. The rest of the audience was fairly quiet, though there was whispering during the music and several watch alarms at each hour.

At the end of Suor Angelica I had been quite moved, and then the Virgin Mary appeared suspended from the ceiling, as a dea ex machina to set everything right. Normally I would find this device effective, but it briefly reminded me of Precious Auntie in The Bonesetter's Daughter, and I nearly had a giggling fit.