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OPERA REVIEW : A Modernist Perversion


Say this for the adventurers who stage opera in Long Beach: They do not settle for easy solutions to difficult problems.

And say this: They do not hesitate to follow the broad and crooked path of modernism, no matter how preposterous the route and how perverse the destination.

Something is wrong here. While less ambitious, better endowed companies pass the same silly, sure-fire production of "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" from Chicago to Los Angeles to San Francisco to San Diego, little Long Beach takes chances.

The chances are always independent, often brave, occasionally illuminating. Sometimes, alas, they are self-defeating.

Place the new "Simon Boccanegra," which Michael Milenski and cohorts presented in the vast open spaces of the Terrace Theater on Sunday, in the self-defeating category.

The opera--not performed in Los Angeles since USC mustered a workshop reduction in 1961 (San Francisco exported a stellar version to the Shrine Auditorium in 1960)--is a darkly brooding masterpiece marred, perhaps, by a painfully convoluted quasi-historical libretto.

It demands five virtuosic singers equally adept at bel-canto grace and heroic fervor. It also requires a conductor who can unite potentially unwieldy forces with poise and urgency, as needed, and a theatrical framework that can clarify a tragic network of amorous, political and social intrigues in 14th-Century Genoa.

The Long Beach management managed to find a reasonably effective cast. Then it crippled the singers' most conscientious efforts by placing a less-than-sympathetic, less-than-idiomatic conductor in the pit, and, far worse, by entrusting the drama to a pair of alien Wunderkinder , who apparently value novelty for its own trendy sake.

Reza Abdoh, the stage director, functioned as the guiding spirit behind this project. It did not turn out to be a blithe spirit.

An enfant terrible of the angry avant-garde, he came to this, his first operatic challenge, with fascinatingly controversial credentials in the so-called legitimate theater. It was obvious to anyone who knew his name that he would not permit the usual lurch-and-clutch charades in quest of musico-dramatic truth.

It could not have been predicted, however, that he would turn Verdi's blood-guts-and-ecstasy melodrama into a bizarre concert-in-costume with comic overtones. Instead of clarifying the libretto, Abdoh simply ignored it. Instead of propelling the action, he merely froze it. Instead of listening to the music, he simply played over it.

The actors, both solo and choral, spent most of the long afternoon impersonating either singing statues or inept puppets. Even their faces remained immobile. Once in a while, someone broke recital rank to strike an artful Japanese pose. Ask not why.

One had to think of those patient dragoons who hold themselves like this and hold themselves like that. By hook and crook they try to look both angular and flat.

Changes of mood were achieved by primitive lighting effects, courtesy of Rand Ryan. Those in the audience who had not done their homework looked in vain to faint and flickering supertitles that translated perhaps one out of every 30 lines of text.

The most memorable images turned out to be the least helpful. Fiesco, the Genoese nobleman portrayed by Jerome Hines, looked just as old and mean in the prologue as he did in the first act, which takes place 24 years later. He changed neither makeup nor costume. And so the obfuscation went.

At the climax of the council-chamber concertato, Katherine Luna as Amelia floated her crucial pacifist benediction--culminating in a shimmering trill--in the dark, while a spotlight picked out the blank features of the wrong character: her father. During the most poignant moment at the end of the opera, Roy Stevens as the evil Paolo produced a lot of chuckles as his corpse was suddenly lowered, Halloween style, on a noose from the flies.

Abdoh's scenic accomplice was Y.Z. Kami, whose economical designs played loose with definitions of both time and place. He concentrated on painterly backdrops that changed style with each scene, fusing, it says in the advance blurb, "Persian and Parisian elegance with American boldness."

The piazza of the prologue consisted of a black-and-white wavy flat and a door. The Grimaldi Garden backdrop, more representational, resembled two jelly doughnuts opening on a seascape. A dizzying wall of cubes masqueraded as the Doge's apartment.

Ah, symbolism. Ah, stylization. Ah, abstraction.

Aw, claptrap.

Abdoh and Kami gave us a bizarre pageant in scrim heaven. Neither gentleman, if should be noted, took a curtain call at the end. A few malcontents in the audience mistook William Hall, the innocent and able chorusmaster, for a directorial villain and showered him with boos.

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