Southern California used to be an operatic wasteland. Sophisticates enjoyed pointing out that plastic La-La Land boasted swimming pools where other cities had culture. The world laughed--with justification, alas--at our pretensions.
The scoffers aren't quite so noisy anymore. Not, at least, when it comes to what Henry Fothergill Chorley called the most irrational of art forms. (Now the out-of-town elitists just put us down--with continuing justification, alas--for ignoring ballet.)
This season, discerning followers of the lyric muse visited Southern California to see David Hockney's sets for "Die Frau ohne Schatten," to experience the rarity of Placido Domingo in an authentic zarzuela, to make the acquaintance of an unheralded world-class Brunnhilde from London, to witness the original "Boris Godunov" in a stark modern-dress staging, and to savor the impact of a contemporary music-drama from Mexico.
We must be doing a few things right. Opera is now flourishing, after a limited fashion, from conservative but feisty San Diego to glamorous Los Angeles, with cautious but lavish Costa Mesa and adventurous but poverty-stricken Long Beach active in between.
It isn't perfect, of course. Compared to the mighty Met, which coexists with the less-mighty New York City Opera next door at Lincoln Center, the seasons here are short. Compared to San Francisco and Chicago, the seasons are sporadic.
But we do have opera seasons. Where there's money, there's hope.
It isn't over, they say, until the calorically challenged woman sings. Never mind that Bartlett cites the original politically incorrect bromide about the fat lady in connection with church, not opera. And, while you're at it, never mind that most sopranos aren't overweight these days or that very few of them outside Orange County still wear the breastplates and winged helmets cartooned by tradition. Some cliches die hard.
No fewer than three sopranos--all slender--signaled the final operatic cadence for 1993-94 in Los Angeles. That happened just a Sunday ago when the curtain fell on the last performance of "Der Rosenkavalier" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. If the preceding offerings had been as successful as this updated version of Richard Strauss' bittersweet comedy, one could claim without fear of contradiction that opera is alive \o7 and\f7 well in L.A.
As the immortal Vito Sportivo would have noted, however, it ain't necessarily so. The operatic work here isn't always uplifting. Sometimes, despite the energetic hustle of local cheerleaders, it's pretty grim.
The Music Center Opera season began shakily in September with an overdressed, distractingly overstressed, fussily superficial production of "La Boheme," the company's second. We used to think Puccini's sentimental indulgence was fool-proof. We were wrong.
Peter Hemmings, the resident impresario, entrusted the staging to a misplaced movie director, the conducting to a misplaced tenor (guess who), and the stage to an ensemble of misplaced lightweights.
The decors looked too realistic and too ponderous for their own good. Too expensive, too.
At least they were new. For "Un Ballo in Maschera," which followed, Hemmings borrowed tattered sets from Covent Garden in faraway London. The trans-Atlantic trip hardly seemed necessary. Compounding the inherent problems, two different casts left vocal standards erratic.
One searched in vain for a unifying dramatic perspective amid isolated virtues. And one longed for expressive vitality. This was rote Verdi, routine Verdi.
Matters improved in October with "Die Frau ohne Schatten," the first of two Strauss operas in a badly balanced seven-opera season. Hockney's whimsical dream-color designs magnetized attention even when they contradicted the sobriety of the libretto as well as the profundity of the score. Luckily, with Ellen Shade, Gwyneth Jones, Jane Henschel and Franz Grundheber in central roles, much of the singing held its own against the scenery.
Randall Behr, resident maestro for all seasons and sometimes dubious reasons, confounded the skeptics (this one included) who would have preferred a high-powered bona fide specialist in the pit for Strauss' heroic convolutions. Sometimes phlegmatic, obviously intelligent and, at the very least, reliable, he had been scheduled to return in January for the first major production in America of Manuel Penella's "El Gato Montes." For some reason, however, the baton passed to Miguel Roa of the Teatro Lirico Nacional in Madrid. Authenticity was thus ensured.
At a time when companies everywhere can afford few financial risks, the exhumation of Penella's minor opus, written in 1916, didn't exactly seem imperative. Many a more important 20th-Century opera still languishes in neglect. No matter. Whatever Placido wants, Placido gets.