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A Night for the Music, Not Star Glitz

L.A. Opera's gala for retiring founder Hemmings has dashes of class and a Domingo prelude.


The opera gala, as practiced in New York, San Francisco or Chicago, is a star-studded event. It makes little or no artistic sense, and doesn't want to. It is instead a variety show of big personalities, often competitive. Its success is usually measured by the glitter factor, by excesses, by flamboyant tossing out of taste, by surprises and by the very cachet of the event. See and be seen.

Just the thing, you might think, for Los Angeles. But not just the thing for Los Angeles Opera, the company begun 14 years ago by British impresario Peter Hemmings, who was honored Monday night in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with a celebration concert and gala, on the eve of his retirement next month. In the final part of the long program, Mayor Richard Riordan presented the first Los Angeles Opera Medal to Hemmings and called him "the classiest act that any city in the world has ever known."

That is a hard distinction to live up to, but the Hemmings celebration did have an unusual touch of class about it. It is downright ungala-like to have so many ensemble numbers, and so few star turns. It is certainly more classy British than brash American gala to include Vaughan Williams' serenely heartwarming, and not exactly operatic, "Serenade to Music" for 16 vocal soloists.

But where were the stars, the glitz? Placido Domingo, the company's stalwart who also becomes its artistic director in six weeks, was of course on hand. Carol Vaness was the other large light. Jennifer Larmore had promised to appear but came down with laryngitis. The rest were resident artists or longtime regulars with the company.

Instead, it was more of a celebration of the company itself and a night as much about Domingo as it was about Hemmings.

Michael York, the concert's host who read from his cue cards as if rehearsing a commercial, recalled that first night 14 years ago when the curtain stuck during the opening storm scene of Verdi's "Otello" and reminded us that it couldn't happen again, because there was no curtain.

But it did. After Lawrence Foster, who had also been conductor on that fateful opening night, whipped up orchestra and chorus in the storm, Domingo strode triumphantly on stage and sang a weak, barely audible "esultate." But he immediately found his voice and the finding of it was its own kind of operatic thrill. Neither Domingo nor Vaness were exactly touching in Otello's great love duet with Desdemona, which followed--she has become too regal a singer for that--but the two of them held the stage with a powerful majesty. They were a hard act to follow.

What did follow was a succession of numbers by singers very familiar to local audiences. Baritone Rodney Gilfry, who worked up through the ranks to international success, sang duets with bass-baritone Richard Bernstein (from Bellini's "I Puritani") and tenor Greg Fedderly (from Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers"), two more of the company's successfully emerging singers, and he sang the "Toreador Song" from "Carmen." But without the opera stage's theatrical trappings, there was little projection of vocal personality.

Mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzman is another singer nurtured by Hemmings, and it was she who filled in for Larmore as Carmen in "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle." Guzman may not have the money voice of Larmore, but she makes every phrase count dramatically, and she has a flair for the role that eluded Larmore when she sang it here last season. This was mostly a stiff evening with bits of forced, formal acting. Guzman, however, was a delight, doing what a gala singer should do, which is have a bit of fun. Domingo conducted, and Guzman, parading back and forth barefoot on stage, made him the amusing object of her seduction. It was one of the few performances all evening that brought the house down.

The Domingo dynamic was intriguing. The orchestra and chorus were not consistently impressive. There was a sense of not much rehearsal. But when Domingo, appearing for the 100th time with the company Monday, was onstage, everything was better. The "Carmen" excerpts were the most polished of the evening. Possibly it was Domingo's charisma, but surely it escaped no one onstage that this is a new boss, and jobs are on the line. The chorus was challenged in the opening of Saint-Saens' "Samson et Dalila," but it improved noticeably the second Domingo walked onstage to join in.

Other than Domingo, Foster was the one conductor who was able to suggest a sense of theatrical urgency. Gilfry and Bernstein, however, labored under the lax Richard Buckley in their "Puritani" duet. Buckley did little to enliven the situation for Gwendolyn Bradley in Musetta's vivacious song "Quando me'n vo" from "La Boheme" and stirred the soup under Bradley and Guzman in the Lakme duet, "Viens Mallika. . . ."

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