Easy Week

Opera premieres abound
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Published February 21, 2008

Three pieces, new to the Southland, afford audiences a variety of melody and drama

“The Broken Jug,” “The Dwarf,” and “Orpheus & Euridice”

Last Sunday – here, write this down, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2008 – was a memorable day for opera, beginning with an afternoon performance of Viktor Ullmann’s “The Broken Jug” (Der Zerbrochene Krug) and Alexander Zemlinsky’s “The Dwarf” (Der Zwerg) at LA Opera and picking up that evening with Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Orpheus & Euridice” presented by Long Beach Opera – in the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool.

Two years ago, LA Opera announced an ambitious series called “Recovered Voices,” zestfully pushed by then-newly arrived conductor James Conlon. His purpose: to present works suppressed by the Nazis during the 1930s and ‘40s. Obviously many of these composers were Jewish, although – as we noted last week with regards to Herr Schultz in “Cabaret” – they tended to see themselves as German, and working in the hallowed tradition of Bach and Beethoven. This reviewer was concerned that quality might take a back seat to sentiment, but the endeavor has translated into a rare opportunity to hear brilliant and nearly lost music.

“The Broken Jug” (1941/42) is based on a play by the early 19th century writer Heinrich von Kleist. Ullmann is better known for his opera “The Kaiser of Atlantis” (1943/44), although we’ve yet to see it locally. “The Broken Jug” was performed for the first time in 1996, and this is its U.S. premiere. Ullmann was sent to Auschwitz in 1944.

Short and humorous, with lots of vocal parts, “The Broken Jug” centers on just that – an irreparably damaged family heirloom – a victim of a midnight melee, apparently after someone entered the room of Frau Marthe Rull’s daughter, Eve (sung, respectively, by Elizabeth Bishop and Melody Moore). One might correctly deduce that there’s a sexual metaphor at the heart of all this. Although the intruder was chased away, the man lost his wig, and it turns out to belong to the judge who is presiding over the case seeking reparations for the damaged treasure.

The best part of the work, taking place during the overture, is the pantomime in silhouette within the large framed outline of a jug. Credit for this probably goes to set designer Ralph Funicello and director Darko Tresnjak, and the set itself, once the curtain goes up, isn’t so shabby either: the pinkish-orange stepped facades of northern European medieval buildings. In this case, the story takes place in a Dutch village near Utrecht, and the combined result is light and charming, more appetizer than meal.

Zemlinsky’s “The Dwarf” is also a one-act opera, based on Oscar Wilde’s “The Birthday of the Infanta,” with a somewhat florid libretto by Georg C. Klaren. It was composed in 1921, first performed in 1922, and apparently this is the first time it’s being staged on the West Coast. There’s an old saying that there aren’t any undiscovered musical masterpieces, but James Conlon – who last year conducted Zemlinsky’s “A Florentine Tragedy” – is proving that there may be exceptions.

This is the tale of a dwarf who is given, among other extravagant gifts, to the Spanish infanta on the occasion of her 18th birthday. He’s never seen himself in a mirror; all he knows is that he brings a smile to people’s faces when they see him, and clearly this means that he cheers them up and they enjoy his company. Naturally, he falls in love with the young lady, who seems to humor him. But of course she only regards him as a plaything, to be discarded when she grows bored. After the dwarf sees himself in a mirror he realizes the sad truth, and dies of a broken heart.

The composer was likely inspired by his failed love affair with the legendary Alma Schindler, who went on to enthrall Gustav Mahler, Oskar Kokoschka, and others. But director Tresnjak has taken his visual cue from the famous painting by Velasquez called “Las Meninas,” and when the curtain goes up there’s an image of such elegant force that it will be imprinted in your brain forever. Imagine a grand palatial hall, chandeliers, high round windows, black onyx pilasters with gold-leaf capitals, and then a bevy of young maidens in their extravagant bell-shaped dresses.

Rodrick Dixon as the dwarf is the man of the hour. He made a strong impression when he performed in last year’s “Recovered Voices” program. Mary Dunleavy is Donna Clara, Infanta of Spain, and Susan B. Anthony, in a non-coinage role, sings Ghita, the infanta’s personal maid. It’s something of an old fashioned Romantic opera in some ways, with lush, full music that deftly characterizes the Infanta, the court, and the hapless dwarf.

What’s particularly welcome about these works as presented under the umbrella of “Recovered Voices” is that they are given respectful, serious, even somber treatment rather than flashy or contemporary renditions, as for example in the company’s recent Vegas-like “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.” It’s a cool, soothing balm for the eyes and ears. Next season LA Opera presents Walter Braunfels’ “Die Vögel” (The Birds), and after that, hopefully, Franz Schreker’s “Die Gezeichneten” (The Stigmatized). May the list continue to grow.

The Broken Jug and The Dwarf are on stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Performances, this Saturday at 2 p.m., plus Saturday, March 1 and March 8, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $20 to $238. Call (213) 972-8001or go to laopera.com.

Orpheus & Euridice
This new chamber opera by Ricky Ian Gordon – it’s more of a song cycle, newly orchestrated by the composer – will get fewer words than it deserves, in part because the work was on view only three days (Sunday through Tuesday), and in part because, quite simply, you had to have been there. It’s easy enough to imagine something on stage, but in the fluid environment of a large swimming pool, well, that’s another matter.

It’s a familiar, classic myth: Orpheus and Euridice are married in the morning, but after his bride steps on a poisonous snake, Orpheus is widowed by nightfall. Still considered by a few holdouts as the finest musician of all time, better even than Paganini, Orpheus is overcome by grief and then winds his way ever downward into the Underworld, where he charms the denizens of the deep. He is permitted to bring Euridice back to the surface on the condition that he not look back until they are both safely in the open air. Alas, he’s quick on the trigger, so to speak, and Euridice fades into the darkness.

The story has served composers as diverse as Monteverdi, Gluck, and Offenbach, and Long Beach Opera’s production of Jacopo Peri’s “Euridice” a few years back at the Getty was about as memorable as they come (although now it has competition).

In Gordon’s version, noted soprano Elizabeth Futral sang Euridice and clarinetist Todd Palmer, who initially commissioned the piece, played Orpheus. The rest of the music was provided by the Denali Quartet with pianist Michelle Schumann. Although hers was the only voice, Futral was splendid, and the acoustics of the pool house were such that the sound was only slightly but appealingly diffused, giving everything a warm aural glow.

Unfortunately, it took some effort to abandon oneself to the performance, because the audience had to sit on very cramped bleachers. The company was equally thoughtless when they presented Thomas Adès’ “Powder Her Face.”

For much of the piece, Orpheus and/or Euridice sat or stood in a dinghy that drifted or was pushed around the pool. They were dressed in contemporary garb, as were various other figures that appeared in pantomime roles, including a more physical Orpheus 2 and Euridice 2, performed by Dylan Kenin and Lauren Mace. Statuary set up on the bleachers across from the audience were reflected in the pool and provided some ambience, which was enhanced by John F. Flynn’s videography and Dan Weingarten’s lighting design.

A costume designer is listed in the program, but apart from Futral’s yellow gown, as such, everyone else in the cast looked as if they’d just walked in from the beach. There’s no magic in that. Perhaps Ricky Gordon doesn’t see this as a costume drama, but it would have been helpful if the players had appeared enigmatic, especially the figures in the pool.

Palmer put his heart into his clarinet, and Futral, in such an odd and yet somewhat intimate setting, was a pleasure. Overall, the piece was stunning and yet a little bland, more lulling than truly dramatic, but no one can say it lacked for originality.

Next up, the company gives us Michael York in a double bill that combines “Enoch Arden,” by Richard Strauss, with “Frankenstein,” by HK Gruber. This takes place March 14 to 16 at the Center Theater in Long Beach. As they say, expect the unexpected. (562) 432-5934 or go to longbeachopera.org. ER