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OPERA REVIEW

War's toll is clear in Handel's 'Judas'

L.A. Opera performs the work at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

January 28, 2008|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

Many go to war, but few return. That was the striking image in the Los Angeles Opera production of Handel's "Judas Maccabaeus" on a rainy Saturday night at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

It was the company's second free, hourlong community outreach production at the cathedral. The Opera presented Benjamin Britten's "Noye's Fludde" ("Noah's Flood") on another rainy January evening last year, as music director James Conlon noted in introductory remarks from the front of the stage.

But whereas "Noye's Fludde" is a one-act chamber opera, "Judas Maccabaeus" is a three-act oratorio that tells the story of a succession of wars the Israelites fought to gain religious freedom. It was trimmed and re-conceived by Conlon and stage director Elkhanah Pulitzer, who, among other changes, gave Judas a wife and family resembling the British royals.

Handel wrote the work in 1746 as an opportunistic celebration of the duke of Cumberland's victory over rebellious Scots at the Battle of Culloden. In the libretto of the oratorio -- which was second in popularity during the composer's day only to "Messiah" -- Handel addressed him in the guise of Judas as "a leader bold, and brave . . . born to save." The Scots called him "the bloody butcher of Culloden."

Conlon and Pulitzer were too savvy to go along with simplistic jingoistic sentiments. They knew that the Los Angeles Philharmonic was performing Britten's bitter antiwar "War Requiem" over the weekend just around the block at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Moreover, one of Conlon's passions is the resurrection of works suppressed by the Nazi regime. So it wasn't surprising that the Israelites in the oratorio were dressed by Elisabeth A. Scott in costumes of the '30s and '40s befitting Hans Krasa's concentration-camp opera, "Brundibar."

Nor that endless rows and rows of tombstones were projected on the back of the cathedral wall when Judas was crowned king.

Conlon led a splendid ensemble made up of the L.A. Opera Orchestra and members of the Hamilton High School Academy of Music Orchestra. The chorus consisted of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels Choir, the St. Paul the Apostle Schola Cantorum, the St. Cyril of Jerusalem Choir and the Paulist Choristers of California.

Conlon conducted with vigor and commitment (and this the night before an afternoon performance of Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde").

Unfortunately, the words and lines of the chorus were muddled in the cavernous acoustic of the cathedral, although its sound was rich and deep.

All the soloists were miked, so judgments about their voices have to be tentative. Michele Angelini made a heroic Judas. Brian Mulligan was a strong Simon (Judas' brother). Hanan Alattar and Blythe Gaissert seemed fine as Judas' Wife and General, respectively. (In the original, their roles are designated as Israelitish Woman and Israelitish Man.)

A non-singing "movement chorus" of 20 adult teachers from the company's Opera for Educators program and 20 children effectively made up the army and the civilians.

Not that it was needed, but an audience singalong of the "Hallelujah!" Chorus completed the evening.

Still, the image that remained in the mind was of the many soldiers who had marched out to fight the last battle -- and only the handful that came back.

--

chris.pasles@latimes.com

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