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Gala more profitable than artful

April 21, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

By all appearances, Los Angeles Opera's 20th Anniversary Gala on Wednesday night did what it was supposed to do. A red carpet was available for celebrities, the wealthy and pretty much any brazen wannabe who wanted to slip in. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion looked full, and many in attendance wore black tie, which meant they had probably forked over $1,500 for the dinner and a close-up glimpse of Placido Domingo afterward.

Like opera companies the world over, L.A. Opera is ever strapped for cash. Like no other major company in America and not many elsewhere, it is growing, often putting admirable artistic ambitions above the budget (and just as often getting in trouble for it). Not everyone yet agrees that L.A., so unrooted in opera, has become the unlikely home to the country's most important opera company after the Metropolitan Opera, but the argument is not likely to continue much longer. If a lackluster gala, thrown together in no time and on the cheap, is what it takes to help pay nagging bills the morning after, so be it.

Frankly, I have no idea what to make of this affair, which consisted of fly-by-night stagings of the emotionally harrowing last act of Verdi's "Otello," featuring Domingo and Patricia Racette, and the giddy party scene from "Die Fledermaus" with a 45-minute set of surprise guests. For "Fledermaus," Domingo conducted, except when he came onstage in his tails to sing once more.

In many ways, Domingo is Los Angeles Opera. He helped found it. He was the riveting star in its opening production of "Otello." And throughout all the company's ups and downs, one thing was always certain: He would be onstage or in the pit every season. He now runs the company, and he remains its biggest draw. Certainly it was he who filled the house Wednesday.

Until very recently, the 65-year-old tenor seemed destined to sing forever. When he sang Parsifal here in November, his voice was still vibrant, if dark, and he brought a stunning profundity to the role. But he dropped out of the last two performances of the run when he caught a virus, and since then he has canceled more performances than he has appeared in.

On Wednesday, he got through the "Otello" act relatively unscathed. There is no sweet singing wanted here, just murderous rage and devastating remorse, and Domingo was as effectively intense as ever. He sounded rough, but he also made you believe that he intended to sound rough. His voice broke once.

But apart from Domingo's performance, the gala had little to say about L.A. Opera. Opposite him, Patricia Racette was a dramatically focused if not heartbreaking Desdemona, but she made her company debut (in "Madame Butterfly") only this year.

In the pit, Eugene Kohn, a young conductor who had never appeared with the company, proved a respectable accompanist. To open the program, he also led a decent account of the overture to Verdi's "I Vespri Siciliani," reminding us just how important departing music director Kent Nagano was in improving the orchestra.

Staging was minimal. A set of a bed and a dressing table, obviously found lying around the prop shop, looked like something you might have seen on "The Bell Telephone Hour," which sometimes televised opera scenes in the 1960s. The director credited for the evening was Stanley M. Garner; he oversaw the most recent revival of Herbert Ross' production of "La Boheme" for the company.

The "Fledermaus" act was a pointless, barely amusing romp that had little to do with the company or its history. Lucy Schaufer, as Prince Orlofsky, was the evening's most alluring singer. Rod Gilfry was a dashing Eisenstein. Cynthia Lawrence, whose L.A. Opera claim to fame was singing with Luciano Pavarotti at Staples Center, was an inexplicable choice for Rosalinde.

The starry surprises were a wash. They included Ruth Ann Swenson (wrong for her number from "Kismet"), Charles Castronovo (who sang several small roles with the company in the '90s), Veronica Villarroel (in a Spanish song), Mark Delavan (who's never appeared with the company and sang the "Soliloquy" from "Carousel" as if from three or four states away). Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu brought a whiff of celebrity, he in an Italian song, she in a Romanian one. Gheorghiu and Domingo sang a "Merry Widow" duet and waltzed together nicely.

The women in the chorus all wore the same version of the frilly gowns in the company's "The Grand Duchess," which opened the season. For Los Angeles, that, I guess, is history.

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