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OPERA REVIEW

Soprano shines as Anne Frank

Ani Maldjian comes into her own in the solo work -- staged in a garage, no less.

April 19, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

OF the many horrors of war, claustrophobia may seem like a lesser torment. But confinement takes its toll.

Anne Frank's diary -- left behind by a young Jewish girl who hid from the Nazis for two years in an Amsterdam attic -- attracted enormous attention upon its publication in 1947. Not only an early mass-media revelation of the Holocaust, it also served as an inspirational story of coming of age under awful circumstances.

A play and a film followed. And in 1969, a Russian composer, Grigori Frid, made excerpts from Anne's text the basis for a one-woman opera, which Long Beach Opera presented Tuesday night at Sinai Temple in Westwood. In its parking garage!

Such structures are places most of us want to get out of as quickly as possible. And that was exactly the point of presenting this opera in one, the company's general and artistic director, Andreas Mitisek, said in a pre-performance talk.

Not that patrons had it all that bad. The seats weren't uncomfortable, despite difficult sightlines. Coffee and cookies were served beforehand. The air was breathable, at least for the 75 minutes of the performance. And the intimacy and surprisingly good acoustics added significantly to the effect.

Still, I doubt many felt inclined to linger afterward.

Frid's opera is competent and clearly heartfelt. As a monodrama for Anne, it focuses on her inner life in 21 short sections. The composer's musical style is not strongly Russian, although there are hints of Shostakovich along with others of Weill and Hindemith. The score -- a chamber version was used -- is effectively illustrative in its suggestions of sour marches, somber waltzes and moody folk songs. The vocal writing fits the words closely and offers a technical and emotional tour de force for a game soprano.

Mitisek, who conducted as well as conceived and directed the production, found just that soprano in Ani Maldjian, who is 24 and last appeared with the company in the chorus. She is involved in the young artist programs of Seattle Opera and San Francisco Opera. Tuesday at 8 p.m., one might have said she was an emerging artist in the earliest stages of a career. By 9:30, she had emerged. And she is surely the first in opera history to have done so from a car park.

The stage, designed by Alan E. Muraoka, consisted of a platform strewn with a few props. Clotheslines served as places for Anne to clip a few photos, but the space was basically raw, and Maldjian dominated it. Mitisek added a little spoken text from the diaries to help set some of the scenes, and the soprano proved a lively, engagingly girlish actor. Her singing was commanding and brilliant, fresh and strong from beginning to end.

Frid's music may not fully convey the profound changes that took place in Anne as she grew from a childish 13-year-old to a wise 15-year-old, but it provided enough basic material for Maldjian to fill in. Mitisek's direction was a fairly typical application of the expressionist theatrical techniques common in contemporary German and Austrian stagings. But it worked.

I don't know how many times a soprano has held a light to her face and sung of deep pain (Heather Carson designed the appropriately harsh lighting). But when Maldjian did so during the Nazi roundup sequence, her voice shining brighter than the light while the strings created an eerie backdrop, the collective blood pressure in the garage must have risen dangerously.

Mitisek's use of spoken text was smart. But he wanted more, and he invited Laura Hillman -- an author, poet and Holocaust survivor -- to periodically read from her own writings. Born in 1923, six years before Anne, she was like Anne today, had Anne survived. Hillman's is eloquent testimony, but I think she might have served better appearing separate from the drama. Her bitter reminder of the fate of 6 million Jews added a weight that Anne only partly understood when she wrote, lived and loved.

The Holocaust is, perhaps, too easy a card to play, given the emotions it evokes whether an artwork is good or not. But discovering talent like Maldjian's is no easy feat.

And this production functioned on an authentically high level. Mitisek conducted with complete authority, and his nine-piece ensemble was exceptional.

mark.swed@latimes.com

*

`The Diary of Anne Frank'

Where: Long Beach Opera, Sinai Temple Parking Structure, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., West L.A.

When: 8 tonight

Also

Where: Lincoln Park Parking Garage, entry between Pacific and Cedar avenues, Long Beach

When: 4 p.m. Saturday

Price: $60 and $70

Contact: (562) 432-5934 or

www.longbeachopera.org

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