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MUSIC REVIEW : A Choral Night at the Opera

October 24, 1995|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The Los Angeles Master Chorale opened its 32nd season Sunday night with a sprawling array of opera excerpts at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. With the redoubtable Paul Salamunovich manning the podium and the so-called Sinfonia Orchestra attending to the instrumental impulses, the menu sampled just about everything from "Carmen" soup to "Faust" chestnuts.

Programs like this aren't usually notable for stylistic cohesion or aesthetic profundity. And choral specialists aren't invariably the most idiomatic guardians of the operatic muse. This concert wasn't designed to stimulate the intellect or uplift the soul.

Never mind. A lot of listeners had a good time.

The large crowd laughed at Salamunovich's rambling anecdotes. Many hummed along with Wagner's bridal procession. They mouthed their own naughty school-kid texts while marching in spirit with Goundod's racky-tack soldiers. They tapped their programs in sympathetic accord as Verdi's gypsy-pipsies struck their anvils. It was that sort of a night.

This listener found that generous portions of hum-along ensembles from popular operas tend to produce diminishing returns when taken out of context. Still, there was no denying the pleasure of hearing potentially tawdry music performed with unflagging sensitivity and reasonable opulence.

Salamunovich chose a survey of 14 operas. A little Wagner here, a little Verdi there, some Mozart and Mascagni and Puccini and Handel in between. There seemed to be minimal method in his programmatic madness. The maestro was careful to intersperse introspective pieces with the shameless gut-thumpers, however, and he knew he had to end each half of the concert with a communal bang.

Ironically, the contemplative moments turned out to be more effective than the heroic climaxes. For all his technical skill and devotion to the cause, Salamunovich has trouble being a vulgarian. He doesn't deal all that well with bombast. He doesn't really slow down, build and let go as cataclysms beckon. When all is said and flexed, he remains, first and foremost, a musician of taste and restraint.

Under the circumstances, he brought welcome suavity to the Voyagers' Chorus from Mozart's "Idomeneo," elevated elegance to "Va, pensiero" from Verdi's "Nabucco" (do I hear a waltz?), ethereal pathos to the Pilgrims' Chorus from Wagner's "Tannhauser" and languid sensuality to the smoking orgy from Bizet's "Carmen."

*

On the other hand, Salamunovich enforced finesse literally beyond the call when it came to the lusty cries of the oh-so-German huntsmen in "Der Freischutz." When it came to the blood-and-guts religiosity of "Cavalleria Rusticana," he seemed a bit embarrassed by the inherent verismo passion, and when it finally came time to rattle the roof with the massive ensemble from "Aida," he steadfastly held back the pizazz. Some fellows just don't like to show off.

The Master Chorale rose nobly--also resonantly, brightly, accurately and warmly--to every challenge, the men called upon to work a little harder than the women. The Sinfonia Orchestra responded crisply to Salamunovich's sometimes sprightly, sometimes sluggish cues.

Incidental solos in the "Idomeneo" and "Cavalleria" numbers were assigned to Virenia Lind and Lesley Leighton, members of the Chorale enjoying temporary promotions. Kimball Wheeler was imported from the outside world to sing seductive arias from "Carmen" and "Samson et Dalila," and did so blandly.

Incidental intelligence:

* For reasons unfathomable, Salamunovich tacked the exquisite kitsch of the Humming Chorus from Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" onto the Bridal Chorus from "Lohengrin," without pause. It was as if the hefty Wagnerians were honeymooning in Nagasaki. It also turned out to be the most jolting annexation we have heard since Keith Clark grafted Schoenberg's "Survivor From Warsaw" onto Beethoven's Ninth in Glendale the night before.

* Translations of the choral texts were projected, we are told, on a screen atop the proscenium. From a seat at the side of Row J, downstairs, the supertitles were illegible as well as unnecessary.

* The program magazine included lots of handsome, irrelevant photos. Although it was nice to see Maria Callas pictured as Leonora in "Il Trovatore," the illustration left aficionados wondering what this artist and this character had to do with the Anvil Chorus.

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