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A moving tribute to neglected `Voices'

March 09, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

For his first season as music director of Los Angeles Opera, James Conlon has conducted four productions, three of them new. But that has hardly been enough for him. He also initiated a special staging of Benjamin Britten's miracle play, "Noye's Fludde," at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. And Wednesday night he put together a special introduction to what he plans as the company's multi-year look at operas by composers the Nazis considered "degenerate" artists and wanted silenced. That project is called "Recovered Voices," and it is a passion for Conlon.

And so, it already appears, is L.A. Opera, where Conlon has taken to showing up to speak enthusiastically at the pre-performance lectures on nights he conducts. On Wednesday, however, he addressed the full audience from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage before conducting. He wanted to make sure everyone knew how much this music by nearly forgotten composers matters to him.

On a human-interest level, the semi-staged program couldn't help but fascinate. It included excerpts from works by Viktor Ullmann and Erwin Schulhoff, both of whom died in concentration camps. Erich Korngold, who was represented by two arias from "The Dead City," came to Hollywood and became the father of the symphonic soundtrack in the 1930s.

Ernst Krenek, composer of the jazz opera "Johnny Tunes Up," ended up in Palm Springs, a respected if neglected experimental electronic and 12-tone composer. Alexander Zemlinsky, whose hourlong one-act "A Florentine Tragedy" concluded the evening, didn't long survive his escape from occupied Vienna and died in New York in 1942.

History has in recent years warmed to Wednesday's persecuted composers. All the works on the program have been recorded, some in multiple versions. Ullmann's "The Emperor of Atlantis," written in the Nazi show camp Terezin, has an important place in the canon of Holocaust art. Franz Schrecker's "The Stigmatized" received a celebrated staging at the Salzburg Festival two summers ago.

A highlight of Chicago's Ravinia Festival this summer will be a survey of Zemlinsky's chamber, orchestral and operatic works. Conlon serves as the festival's music director.

Although Wednesday's presentation was awkward, the works hold the stage well and Conlon's evangelical zeal from the pit paid off. For the first half, he tied together operatic excerpts, beginning with the lush overture to "The Stigmatized" and winding up with Korngold's Romanticized slush. In between were a coloratura aria from Walter Braunfels' "The Birds," a glitzy bit of "Johnny Tunes Up," the emperor's heartbreaking farewell from Ullmann's opera, and an aria from Schulhoff's "Flames."

The styles were different, but all the composers, even Krenek with his gimmicky jazz, clung to the Old World. That clinging is what makes them moving to us today, once we see how political forces thwarted them. But it may also explain why they were so quickly neglected after World War II. None had quite the personality to be remembered in the crush of the postwar new.

Now nostalgia takes over. "A Florentine Tragedy," premiered in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1917, finds musical inspiration in Richard Strauss, Mahler and maybe very early Schoenberg (Zemlinsky was Schoenberg's mentor). Stylistically, it was already slightly dated, but the score is strong and symphonically steamy.

The obstacle is the libretto, a wickedly malicious Oscar Wilde play. The text is talky, and Zemlinsky didn't write particularly memorably for voice. The real action is in the pit. But there is amusement in the subject matter, which concerns a salesman who strangles his wife's lover, a Florentine prince. A grisly murder, in Wilde's world, is all it takes to rekindle sexual attraction.

Stagings, credited to Thor Steingraber, were ad hoc. Costumed singers stiffly stood in front of blandly tasteful slide projections by Maiko Nezu. For arias in the first half, that was not a problem. For "Florentine Tragedy," with the singers at their music stands, it was.

The baritone Donnie Ray Albert -- who sang the "Emperor's Farewell" and who was the husband, Simone, in "Florentine Tragedy" -- had the most to do, and he was impressive. But he would have been more impressive had Zemlinsky's opera been staged. Tatiana Pavlovskaya's dusky soprano and imposing posture made her a striking wife in Zemlinsky's opera. Anthony Dean Griffey took the small part of the Prince. Stacy Tappan was the attractive-voiced soprano in arias by Braunfels and Krenek. Tenor Rodrick Dixon, baritone Martin Gantner and pianist Mark Robson also contributed nicely to the evening.

Still, the orchestra should have been the star. It had the most interesting music, and Conlon conducted with fervor. But buried in the pit, it accompanied.


`Recovered Voices'

Where: Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Price: $15 to $125

Contact: (213) 972-8001;

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