Though skillfully assembled and, in its Southern California premiere performance, tastefully presented, Gordon Getty's "Plump Jack," a work the composer calls "a concert opera," resembles nothing so much as a vanilla cookie: innocuous and undistinctive.
But its first local performance, given by forces of Los Angeles Music Center Opera in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center on Wednesday night, proved fascinating nonetheless.
One began by wondering: Who are all these people--many of them stylishly dressed and in festive mood--gathered at the intermission bars, promenading the lobbies, greeting each other gleefully? Loyal supporters of the opera company? The curious, come together for yet another first performance of the millionaire composer's setting of Shakespeare (several such first performances have taken place around the country in the last five years)? Friends of the composer? Connoisseurs of Falstaff-inspired opera?
But then, why did this otherwise receptive audience, which seemed to get much pleasure from the two extended interpolations in the operatic portion of scenes performed by actors Tony Church and Paul Whitworth, applaud only politely, and not at length, when the evening was over? A puzzlement.
The inconclusiveness of the work itself--four scenes from the life and death of Falstaff, with Shakespeare's texts adapted by the composer, totaling merely 58 minutes of music--may explain its odd reception. This is no "Falstaff"; neither is it an opera. It is, rather, a mosaic, not yet focused, without a central point.
Composer Getty, a longtime arts patron and amateur singer, has been writing music for many years. His song-cycles have been published and performed. He is clearly not without talent nor without sensitivity and sophistication.
His settings of these Falstaffian texts often emerge graceful, musical, canny and comprehensible. Though the six singers in this concert performance showed particular skills at delivering the words, the composer had already made their work grateful.
But no totality grows out of these disjunct and apparently non-continuous scenes. No vision emerges. The musical line remains unarched. Characterizations are not developed, dramatic climaxes unachieved.
Getty's pastel, eclectic modern style--he himself acknowledges his debt to models by Richard Strauss and Verdi--deals competently in recitative. There are no distinctive tunes (other than purposefully borrowed ones, as in the quotations at the top of Scene 3) and no arias; neither lightning nor inspiration ever strikes.
The performance, enlisting Music Center Opera ensembles--Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the "Mikado" chorus), moved along amiably under the assured conducting of Andrew Massey, who conducted the world premiere last June. The orchestra, enlarged to 68 players, played incisively; the chorus gave the texts their due, and sang handsomely.
As Falstaff, John del Carlo, who created the role at the premiere, combined an attractive Italian sound with a subtle savoring of the words. Jonathan Mack, his Prince Hal, made a similar integration, while indicating nuances of thought and mood. As Hostess, Stephanie Vlahos' clear mezzo-soprano added the much-needed treble color in this otherwise all-male ensemble; Michael Gallup sang mellifluously as Pistol. Greg Fedderly and Robin Buck excelled in their varied assignments.
Before Scene 1, and between Scenes 3 and 4, Church and Whitworth, two Royal Shakespeare Co. veterans, performed excerpts from "Henry IV, Part I," "Henry IV, Part 2" and "Henry V."