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OPERA : Tales of the Unnatural : Christopher Alden is a maverick director who embraces opera because it's not a realistic art form. His latest surprise is . . . tradition. He's returning to the original version of Mussorgsky's 'Boris Godunov'

March 27, 1994|CHRIS PASLES | Chris Pasles is a staff writer for The Times' Orange County edition

Before Wunderkind Peter Sellars became a Los Angeles household name . . . before there was a Music Center Opera of Los Angeles . . .

Before high-visibility opera directors visited the City of the Angels on a regular basis, stage director Christopher Alden was helping Long Beach Opera make its reputation for innovative opera stagings.

His first production for Long Beach was Puccini's "La Boheme" in 1982, and since then the 44-year-old Alden has turned out a memorable series of productions, although not all were critically acclaimed.

* Offenbach's "Parisian Life" as a Marxist screed, sung in the Backlot Theater at Studio One in Hollywood of all places.

* Offenbach's "Bluebeard" as a fleet, stylish comedy of sexual drive, presented both in Long Beach and at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in Cahuenga Pass.

* Britten's "The Rape of Lucretia" as an attack on tyranny.

* Monteverdi's "The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland" with the titular hero as a Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair.

For other companies, Alden has set Puccini's "Turandot" in the Fascist era it was written in, Beethoven's "Fidelio" in Nicaragua, Bizet's "Carmen" in a big city in the '20s.

He also staged the premiere of Anthony Davis' "Tania" for the American Music Theater Festival and the American premiere of Henze's "Das Verratene Meer" for the San Francisco Opera.

The list could go on.

Now the self-described "maverick" director turns to Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov," going back to the original, rarely performed version for a new Long Beach Opera staging on Wednesday and Saturday.

Expect the provocative and imaginative.

"I basically think of opera as the most unnatural of all the art forms, and I embrace it in that kind of way," New York-based Alden said as he picked over a light breakfast recently at his Long Beach hotel.

"One of the reasons I turned out to be an opera director rather than a theater director is that the American theater was mired to such a degree in a sort of naturalism or realism, and that's never been something that's interested me that much.

"I've always been interested in theater as a more poetic, expressionistic, subconscious kind of art form, and opera seems to play into that in the strongest kind of way."

*

Alden, his twin brother, David ("I'm six minutes older," Christopher said), who is also an opera director, and their sister Jennifer, now 38, were born in New York and grew up in a theater family. Their father, Jerome Alden, is a television and theater writer, and their mother danced on Broadway under the stage name of Barbara Gaye.

"There was never any question for both my brother and myself," Alden said. "We were hooked on theater, music and the arts from a very early age.

"I started to focus in on opera by the time I was in high school. I started listening to opera recordings, and me and my brother, we were just hit by opera very quickly.

"It seemed to be a sort of revelation to be confronted by these great artworks that combined these different artistic styles--music and theater."

He began going to the opera "sort of fanatically, sort of immediately.

"When I first went to the opera, I was just absorbing the whole medium and falling in love with it and falling in love with the great singers. It took a while before I started to focus in on the more revisionist aspects of production, and there was very little example of that in New York at that time."

But Alden had begun to think about directing while studying English at the University of Pennsylvania. Still, it wasn't until after graduating, when he went to Europe, that he encountered the work of directors who were working in new ways.

"That opened up a lot of windows for me about the direction one can take theater and opera in," he said.

*

The man who made the biggest impression on him was stage director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, for whom he served as an assistant, working with him from 1978 to 1982 in Houston, Salzburg and Paris, among other places.

"Ponnelle was a great sort of person in freeing opera up from its naturalistic 19th-Century style," he said.

"I learned from him to think of opera as a dream, functioning in a totally irrational way and talking on completely dream levels."

The "dream level" concept will surface in his production of "Boris."

"In a way, I'm playing this whole thing out like fantasies in Boris' own head," Alden said.

"He never leaves the stage and he sits and works through the paper piled up on his desk and goes laboriously, sitting there for the whole opera, through all of the papers that have piled up and trying to deal with the endless bureaucracy of his country.

"All these events swirl around him: his guilt about what he did to achieve power and his paranoia about the man who is going to replace him.

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