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Ensemble

Recovered Voices

Two operas in Los Angeles over the Easter weekend,
enjoyed by MARIA NOCKIN

 

Los Angeles Opera Music Director James Conlon writes: 'Historically, our perspectives on twentieth century classical music are incomplete because of an enormous quantity of works that remain unperformed.' That is the raison d'être for his project: Recovered Voices.

Brandon Jovanovich as Good Hope in LA Opera's 'The Birds'. Photo © 2009 Robert Millard
Brandon Jovanovich as Good Hope in LA Opera's 'The Birds'. Photo © 2009 Robert Millard

This season's most important Los Angeles Opera recovery is The Birds ('Die Vögel') by the German neo-romantic composer, Walter Braunfels. It was the offering on Saturday evening, 11 April 2009, the beginning of a German Opera weekend that was to conclude with the second part of the company's new Der Ring des Nibelungen, Die Walküre.

Stacey Tappan as The Wren and James Johnson as Loyal Friend in LA Opera's 'The Birds'. Photo © 2009 Robert Millard
Stacey Tappan as The Wren and James Johnson as Loyal Friend in LA Opera's 'The Birds'. Photo © 2009 Robert Millard

Braunfels (1882-1954) took music lessons as a child and showed considerable talent, but when he began university studies in Kiel he opted for law and economics. A year later, he transferred to a university in Munich and became involved with that city's musical scene. There he became fascinated with Richard Wagner's music. In 1902, he moved to Vienna where he studied piano with Theodore Leschetizky. Soon, however, he returned to Munich to study composition with Felix Mottl. During the early years of the twentieth century Braunfels became known as a piano virtuoso and for many years he performed professionally on European concert stages and composed in his spare time.

Martin Gantner as The Hoopoe, James Johnson as Loyal Friend and, at the rear, Brandon Jovanovich as Good Hope in 'The Birds'. Photo © 2009 Robert Millard
Martin Gantner as The Hoopoe, James Johnson as Loyal Friend and, at the rear, Brandon Jovanovich as Good Hope in 'The Birds'. Photo © 2009 Robert Millard

His first two operas, La Fallada (1905) and Der golden Topf (1906) were not staged, but he made a major statement with Prinzessin Brambilla in (1909). Ulenspiegel (1913) and Die Vögel (1920) confirmed his position in the forefront of contemporary opera composers. In 1925, together with Hermann Abendroth, he founded the Cologne Academy of Music (Hochschule für Musik Köln) and he remained there until 1933 when he was removed because he was half Jewish. He resumed his post in 1945 and held it until 1950, but during the years of the Third Reich, his music was disallowed for two reasons: he was half Jewish and he had once refused to write an anthem for a Nazi group.

Désirée Rancatore as The Nightingale, Martin Gantner as The Hoopoe and Stacey Tappan as The Wren in 'The Birds'. Photo © 2009 Robert Millard
Désirée Rancatore as The Nightingale, Martin Gantner as The Hoopoe and Stacey Tappan as The Wren in 'The Birds'. Photo © 2009 Robert Millard

The Birds was well received in 1920, but after 1933 it was all but forgotten. Such a beautiful work in a style somewhat similar to that of Richard Strauss cries out to be heard, and on 11 April it was presented by LA Opera in a fanciful, quasi-realistic production by Darko Tresnjak. David P Gordon designed the functional scenery and the attractive, colorful, twenties-influenced costumes were by Linda Cho.

Désirée Rancatore as The Nightingale in 'The Birds'. Photo © 2009 Robert Millard
Désirée Rancatore as The Nightingale in 'The Birds'. Photo © 2009 Robert Millard

The star of the evening was tenor Brandon Jovanovich. He paced himself well and despite the length of this dramatic part, he never lost focus or beauty of tone. He is a fine actor with a ringing dramatic voice that he most certainly knows how to use. Italian soprano Désirée Rancatore had a somewhat smaller part as The Nightingale, but her graceful movements and her flawless, precise coloratura were positively enchanting. James Johnson was an unwavering, stentorian Loyal Friend and Martin Gantner was a delightfully amusing Hoopoe.

Brandon Jovanovich as Good Hope in 'The Birds'. Photo © 2009 Robert Millard
Brandon Jovanovich as Good Hope in 'The Birds'. Photo © 2009 Robert Millard

Silver voiced Stacey Tappan was a noticeably subservient Wren. Brian Mulligan was a dramatic Prometheus and Matthew Moore was impressive as the Eagle and commanding as Zeus. A good deal of this story about birds was fittingly told by dance. The choreography by Peggy Hickey and the solo dancing by Yvette Tucker and Seth Belliston added greatly to the value of this unusually interesting evening.

Martin Gantner as The Hoopoe and James Johnson as Loyal Friend in 'The Birds'. Photo © 2009 Robert Millard
Martin Gantner as The Hoopoe and James Johnson as Loyal Friend in 'The Birds'. Photo © 2009 Robert Millard

Indefatigable Music Director James Conlon conducted both this lovely rendition of the late romantic music of The Birds and the matinee performance of Wagner's Die Walküre the next day. He elicited exciting, sensual performances of each piece from the LA Opera Orchestra.

Anja Kampe as Sieglinde and Plácido Domingo as Siegmund in 'Die Walküre'. Photo © 2009 Monika Rittershaus
Anja Kampe as Sieglinde and Plácido Domingo as Siegmund in 'Die Walküre'. Photo © 2009 Monika Rittershaus

The performance of Die Walküre on 12 April was the second opera of the brand new Los Angeles Ring directed by Achim Freyer. In Das Rheingold he had kept several of the singers in stationary positions, but in Die Walküre there was considerably more action, and it followed the libretto closely.

Vitalij Kowaljow as Wotan, front left, and Michelle DeYoung as Fricka in 'Die Walküre'. Photo © 2009 Monika Rittershaus
Vitalij Kowaljow as Wotan, front left, and Michelle DeYoung as Fricka in 'Die Walküre'. Photo © 2009 Monika Rittershaus

Although Plácido Domingo has trod the stage for more years than we care to count, he is still a magnificent Siegmund. Even though his sword was a light stick, he made you believe he was the primeval hero, and his singing was an unwavering expanse of surging sound.

Plácido Domingo as Siegmund in 'Die Walküre'. Photo © 2009 Monika Rittershaus
Plácido Domingo as Siegmund in 'Die Walküre'. Photo © 2009 Monika Rittershaus

Soprano Anja Kampe was a passionate Sieglinde with a secure vocal production who cowered under the abuse of Eric Halfvarson's rough and energetic Hunding.

Plácido Domingo as Siegmund and Linda Watson as Brünnhilde in 'Die Walküre'. Photo © 2009 Monika Rittershaus
Plácido Domingo as Siegmund and Linda Watson as Brünnhilde in 'Die Walküre'. Photo © 2009 Monika Rittershaus

Still wearing the false arms that had dangled down to the hem of her skirt in Das Rheingold, Michelle DeYoung sang Fricka with opulent tones. As her wayward husband Wotan, Vitalij Kowaljow sang with considerably more resonance than he had the last time we heard him. His final scene with the fire music was a true joy to hear and watch.

Plácido Domingo as Siegmund and Eric Halfvarson as Hunding in 'Die Walküre'. Photo © 2009 Monika Rittershaus
Plácido Domingo as Siegmund and Eric Halfvarson as Hunding in 'Die Walküre'. Photo © 2009 Monika Rittershaus

Linda Watson combined Freyer's visual spectacle with her own dramatic coherence and made Brünnhilde an understandable character. Unfortunately, her vocal performance was not up to the same level due to some problems with intonation and tonal quality.

Linda Watson as Brünnhilde and Vitalij Kowaljow as Wotan in 'Die Walküre'. Photo © 2009 Monika Rittershaus
Linda Watson as Brünnhilde and Vitalij Kowaljow as Wotan in 'Die Walküre'. Photo © 2009 Monika Rittershaus

The other Valkyries, Ellie Dehn, Susan Foster, Erica Brookhyser, Ronnita Nicole Miller, Melissa Citro, Buffy Baggott, Jane Gilbert and Margaret Thompson, were all established soloists with flourishing careers who sang with stunning sonorities.

Linda Watson as Brünnhilde and Vitalij Kowaljow as Wotan in 'Die Walküre'. Photo © 2009 Monika Rittershaus
Linda Watson as Brünnhilde and Vitalij Kowaljow as Wotan in 'Die Walküre'. Photo © 2009 Monika Rittershaus

As with the earlier opera in this cycle, the music led by Music Director James Conlon was absolutely enthralling. There is no sound system that can imitate the aural excitement generated by a fine live performance of this opera. People agreed or disagreed with the staging, but no one could find fault with the performance of the LA Opera orchestra on this glorious Easter Sunday afternoon.

Copyright © 20 April 2009 Maria Nockin,
Arizona USA

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A 2007 LA OPERA RECOVERED VOICES REVIEW

LOS ANGELES OPERA

JAMES CONLON

DIE WALKUERE

RICHARD WAGNER

PLACIDO DOMINGO

ERIC HALFVARSON

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