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More Trills Than Thrills : Michael Aspinall: The Diva Is A Drag

July 12, 1985|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

Wednesday was a pretty good night for diva-watchers, if not necessarily for diva-listeners.

Hollywood Bowl provided a massive showcase for an electronically boosted recital by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, who sings regularly at royal weddings and royal opera houses. Daniel Cariaga reports nearby.

Meanwhile, amid the decadent neo-deco splendors of the Wiltern Theatre, an even more flamboyant prima donna was humbly attempting to serve the loftiest of muses. Actually, it was a prima quasi -donna: Michael Aspinall.

The Los Angeles Opera Theater, which was sponsoring Aspinall's belated West Coast debut, billed the recitalist as "The Surprising Soprano." That seems fair.

A British semi-baritone with a deliriously extended falsetto range and an even more deliriously extended imagination, Aspinall has been plying, and dragging, his special trade since 1970, when he first sang the Mad Scene of Lucia di Lammermoor in Rome.

Perhaps it should have been arrivederci Roma then and there. But it wasn't. A star, of sorts, had been cloned.

This star, it soon was breathlessly reported in operatic Stehplaetze everywhere, could execute amazing roulades. This star could trill and delineate rapid scale passages with easy elegance. This star could pluck high notes out of the stratosphere with uncanny accuracy. What's more, this star was something of a historical scholar who could invoke the styles and the foibles--physical as well as vocal--of great divas of bygone decades. And centuries.

Soon L'Aspinall enjoyed an international under-the-counter-and-behind-the-bushes cult following. London recorded his/her greatest hits. Dame Joan Sutherland and her mightyspouse commanded a private performance at the Teatro Parnaso. Montserrat Caballe enlisted the surprising soprano's aid in concocting cadenzas.

When Aspinall descended upon the Wiltern stage Wednesday, the descent took place atop the demi-classical set currently in use for "Don Giovanni." There could be little question that this diva was at home. The details rang true.

The audience (a rather modest and baffled audience) instantly recognized the universally haughty manner, the air of justified self-congratulation, the palpable panic preceding climactic ascents, the heroic throat-clearing, the stately strut, the conspicuously consumed and joyously jewelled finery, the ever-so-grand-yet-tacky manner, the clutch at the heart or throat, the uncanny facial acrobatics.

Aspinall talked like a man, knowledgeably. Aspinall sang like a woman, sometimes interestingly.

The ambitious agenda included salon songs. "There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden" was nice.

There were art songs. "Der Erlkoenig," complete with four different voices and four different personages, proved particularly engrossing.

There were operatic exhumations such as a scene from Rossini's "Otello," and operatic burials such as "Sempre libera" from "Il Traviato." There were operetta flirtations, the most memorable of which, "Kiss Me Again," emerged as an erotic duet with a giant plumed fan.

Aspinall shared the stage, all too generously, with an amiable, voiceless baritone (Andrew Lord Miller), a poker-faced, sort-of bona fide mini-mezzo-soprano with a superb fake-British accent (Karen Christenfeld) and a pretty stoic pianist (Bo Price). Still, for better or worse--probably worse--the evening belonged to the dauntless singer with the most outrageous wardrobe and the highest voice.

The highest voice in question may be small for a 2,200-seat house, and it may be suffering the ravages of time. It is a brave voice, however, a voice that dares awaken the ghosts of Adelina Patti, Pauline Viardot Garcia, Maria Malibran, Jenny Lind, Amelita Galli-Curci, Fritzi Scheff, Conchita Supervia, Maria Callas and Luisa Tetrazzini.

The inherent vocal mission is impossible; also chronically, if not terminally, laudable.

Unfortunately, Aspinall often conjures up unintended images: Olga Tchikaboumskaya, Olive Middleton, Florence Foster Jenkins, Beatrice Lillie, Clara Cluck, Charles Ludlam, Bert Lahr, Mae West, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch and Chicken Tetrazzini.

It is painful to have to say so, but there are some troubles in Aspinall's demented aspic. The aesthetic offering just isn't clever enough to sustain delirious comic flight for long, and it isn't serious enough to sustain much intellectual stimulation.

A recital like this could be amusing at midnight in someone's ornate living room, after the assembled opera queens have imbibed one or two pink squirrels too many. The Wiltern, alas, is no one's living room. And they don't serve pink squirrels in the lobby.

Ars brevis...

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