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Of blood and sensual beauty

November 08, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

In Jean-Luc Godard's peculiar 1982 film "Passion," a manic-depressive Polish director vaguely attempts to make an uninspired film with characters poised, at one point, to look like they stepped out of a painting by Goya. The director, a pawn to businessmen and easily distracted by making love to the likes of Isabelle Huppert and Hanna Schygulla, keeps objecting to the need for a story. Every now and then bits of Faure's Requiem show up on the soundtrack to prove him right. Shockingly sensual beauty is enough.

Several filmmakers since have turned to the Faure Requiem as solace for various horrors, be they war ("The Thin Red Line") or pandemic ("48 Days Later"). This scenario oddly played itself out anew at the Los Angeles Master Chorale concert Sunday night in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

On the first half of the program came an extended suite from "Rio de Sangre" (River of Blood), an opera-in-progress by Don Davis, best known as the composer for the three "Matrix" films. In the opera, an ineffectual leader takes over a Latin American country only to get swept up by nasty events he can't control. It ends badly.

Then came Faure's Requiem and a glimpse of heaven.

Although Davis' career centers on Hollywood, he keeps a foot in new music waters. He is a member of both Pierre Boulez's and John Adams' opposing camps, a sophisticate and populist at once. That means that his music can, in its meeting of opposites, sometimes lack a strong voice. But it also means that his expressive palate is unusually and usefully wide.

What exactly "Rio de Sangre" will be like as an opera wasn't easy to tell from Sunday's preview, although it included more than an hour's worth of music fashioned into something closer to an oratorio than a suite. When Davis was approached by Grant Gershon, the Master Chorale music director, for a new work, the composer had just begun the opera and wanted to continue.

The result is this curious hybrid. The opera libretto by Kate Gale, written in English and translated into Spanish by Alicia Partnoy, is as melodramatically plot-driven as a verismo opera. Some of the language is poetic but more for its imagery than insight or depth. The oratorio, however, is narratively free flowing, and significant choral parts are added to comment on the characters.

Those characters don't rise much beyond Shakespearean stereotypes. In hopes of saving his Latin American country, a weak, Macbeth-like leader, Christian Delacruz, overthrows one dictator only to become yet another. He is always a step behind his strong wife, Antonia. His son and daughter (and her lover) become victims of social unrest he can't control. Delacruz's advisor, Guajardo, is his Iago. At the end of the opera, Guajardo leads a riot and has Delacruz and Antonia shot. The cycle begins all over again with Guajardo as the new leader.

The suite or oratorio or whatever it is gives a strong flavor of the music but not the opera. The style might be called lyric spectacular. Davis has a Straussian flair for soprano voices. Antonia, sung with sultry glamour by Kerry Walsh, is all dark rapture. Delacruz's daughter, Blanca, had Elissa Johnston to brighten up the skies. The writing for both of them surged enthusiastically over a multicolored, compellingly ominous, rarely predictable orchestral accompaniment.

The men -- Christopher Campbell (Guajardo), Jonathan Mack (Igneo, Blanca's lover) and the ineffectual bass baritone Hector Vasquez -- couldn't compete dramatically or against the orchestra. The chorus sang its comments with determination and rioted forcefully. Davis knows how to unleash power when he needs it.

As an oratorio, "Rio de Sangre" lacked definition and flowed on too long, and the text (though sung in Spanish, only one out of 100 words came through) lacked enough poetry. As an advertisement for an opera, its strong, soaring music piqued interest.

"Rio de Sangre" came on strong Sunday. So did Faure's Requiem. My ears would have liked the composer's earlier version of the score for chamber forces, good for small churches. But Gershon opted for the big concert hall setting with large chorus. In this case, he had a very large and very well disciplined chorus.

And he admirably refused to go the sappy Hollywood route. A swift, clear-headed performance was correctly French. Still this Requiem sounded as though it needed to stand up to the Davis rather than just exist in its own irrelevant spiritual space, the way Godard allows the score to do.

The soloists were Johnston and Vasquez. They were, as in the Davis -- one strong, the other weak.

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