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Czar-struck opera

Placido Domingo positions L.A. Opera for ascent, commissioning a Russian tale of fate and playing Rasputin.

September 07, 2003|Jan Breslauer | Special to The Times

Onstage in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, towering green walls and chandeliers evoke the inner sanctum of a palace in Imperial Russia. A man in black enters, followed by a retinue of beautiful noblewomen wearing vibrant shades of red. Restless and discomfited by the man's presence, the women begin to slowly lose control. One countess stands apart and confesses her feelings, caught in the fervor. "I cannot contain my desire.... I crave sin. Vile thoughts fill me."

Giving succor to a supplicant, the dark monk Rasputin responds. "I go sleepless. I fast. I take water only. I do these things for you. I am the circle of pilgrim wanderers sent to take the sins off of you and put them on myself."

The voice is unmistakably that of Placido Domingo. But Domingo is not onstage. Instead, a young stagehand wearing jeans and a headset is standing in for the tenor, who sings from the orchestra pit. Unlike the others, he's in only his second day of rehearsal.

As the stagehand moves through the blocking and Domingo's mesmerizing voice, at once prayerful and seductive, rises from below, Rasputin comes alive. Such is the numinous power of opera. The moment is one of great intensity, fraught with sexual tension and religious rapture dangerously intertwined.

Rasputin is the enigma, the mysterious element in the tragic tale of Russia's last czar, Nicholas II, and his beloved wife, Alexandra. The royal couple became entangled with the darkly charismatic monk, contributing to their undoing and, eventually, to their brutal deaths at the hands of revolutionaries in 1918.

It is a story of operatic destiny, and a tale that seemed destined to become an opera. And now it has. The world premiere of "Nicholas and Alexandra," with music by Deborah Drattell and a libretto by Nicholas von Hoffman, will take place next Sunday at Los Angeles Opera. Conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich and directed by Anne Bogart, it will star Los Angeles Opera general director Domingo as Rasputin and Rodney Gilfry and Nancy Gustafson as Nicholas and Alexandra.

A love story set against a backdrop of historical upheaval, the saga of Russia's last czar and czarina has long held a place in the American imagination. "I had thought about the idea of writing an opera on the story of Nicholas and Alexandra for about 15 years," says Drattell, who was initially inspired by the Robert K. Massie book of the same name. "I felt it had all the ingredients: a love story, a villain, intrigue, the family and the execution. It's a story that, at least in our culture, has never died."

Nor is Drattell alone in seeing the subject's appeal. Coincidentally, there are two operas on the subject premiering this fall. In mid-September, the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki will present Einojuhani Rautavaara's "Rasputin," with bass Matti Salminen in the title role and Jorma Hynninen and Lilli Paasikivi as the czar and czarina.

The Los Angeles Opera "Nicholas and Alexandra" has been in the works for several years. It is one of a number of operas commissioned by Domingo since he officially took over the company in July 2000 and the first to reach the stage.

It arrives at the beginning of the first season in which the company will be the primary tenant in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The change is enabling L.A. Opera to grow, with more performances scheduled this year and other expansions in the works. And any new production, but especially a world premiere, serves as a calling card for a company, particularly a newly ascendant one.

"This represents our efforts to produce new work for Los Angeles Opera," says artistic director Edgar Baitzel. "We want to present various styles to our audience. Deborah Drattell is one, and others will follow."

For her part, Drattell has found bringing her work from page to stage a heady process. "It's totally surreal," she says. "It feels like somebody else has written this work, like somebody else is in Los Angeles. Normally, I'm a mother with four children, and my day is filled with giving everybody breakfast, driving them to camp, going to the orthodontist and everything else. And here I'm totally submerged in this other world. It feels like an out-of-body experience."


It is mid-August, and Day 2 of orchestra rehearsals is underway. Seated on the podium in a black swivel chair cranked to full height and wearing the kind of red-and-white checked shirt typically seen at a 1950s company picnic is maestro Rostropovich. The celebrated Russian cellist and conductor, who has been the muse for an array of the 20th century's most important composers, has score open and baton in hand, as he leads a stop-and-start exploration of Act 3, Scene 1.

Seated at a table behind Rostropovich with her score open is Drattell, dressed in black shirt, skirt and heels. Only the pink-flowered Louis Vuitton handbag on her chair suggests a less staid taste. When the orchestra pauses, the diminutive composer rises to give a note. "Excuse me, maestro ..."

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