'Passion and Poetry' Concert, Los Angeles Opera, January 2003

A pastiche of passion, poetry, Los Angeles Times, 13 January 2003
L.A. Opera transcends trouble with 'Passion',Orange County Register, 13 January 2003
Power of 'Otello' prevailed, Press-Enterprise, 13 January 2003
L.A. Opera triumphs over setbacks, San Bernardino Sun, 14 January 2003
Los Angeles Opera Gala Concert, Classical Voice, May 2003 [external link]
A pastiche of passion, poetry
Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times, 13 January 2003

Love and death are the themes in an inventive L.A. Opera offering.

If a stranger, an opera fan from afar, happened into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday afternoon, he or she would certainly have thought things very odd. First of all, it was not easy to get to the Music Center for a peculiar triple bill by Los Angeles Opera. With a few thousand demonstrators downtown voicing their opposition to war, the police went into full battle mode, shutting freeway exits.

Once inside, the antiwar theme continued with not opera but an unstaged Monteverdi madrigal of war, "Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda" (The Battle Between Tancredi and Clorinda), in an arrangement that Luciano Berio made in the late '60s for a performance at the Juilliard School that was meant as a Vietnam War protest. The 25-minute early Baroque masterpiece is a scene of frightful combat between two heavily armored knights. The crusader, Tancredi, discovers only as Clorinda is dying that he has slaughtered his love, a Saracen maiden disguised as a warrior.
Image: Roberto Alagna as Otello. Los Angeles Opera, January 2003. Photo by B. Millard
Alagna as Otello. Photo by B. Millard
The handful of string players and three singers left the stage, but the
harpsichord remained as a prop for what followed -- a minimally staged
performance of the third and fourth acts of "Werther," Massenet's opera
about the poet who kills himself because his love marries another. After
intermission, with again rudimentary staging, came the last act of Verdi's
"Otello," one of the most moving death scenes in all opera.

Our stranger would have been further amazed that such desultory programming
boasted considerable star power. Frederica von Stade and Roberto Alagna were
Charlotte and Werther. Alagna sang the "Otello" act for the first time
anywhere. In a bit of luxury casting, Vladimir Chernov had walk-on parts as
Albert in "Werther" and Iago in "Otello." An important emerging singer,
Isabel Bayrakdarian, was Clorinda. Kent Nagano conducted Monteverdi and
Massenet. Plácido Domingo conducted Verdi. The audience gave all involved a
standing ovation.

There was, as most local opera-goers know, an explanation for this
curiosity, which the company called "A Concert of Passion & Poetry," but
which might also be considered a short treatise on three ways to kill your

The opera was to have been the premiere of Monteverdi's "The Coronation of
Poppea" in a new version by Berio created for Von Stade and Domingo. When an
auto accident two summers ago forced the Italian composer to push the
deadline up to the last minute, the company decided to go ahead with a
concert performance. In October, Berio, said to be gravely ill, announced
that the opera would have to be postponed. With little time, the company
came up with its solution, the Berio/Monteverdi madrigal being the only
possible nod to the original concept.

But that was not the end of it. Domingo, who was to sing the roles of
Werther and Otello, developed a severe bronchial infection late in December
and twisted Alagna's arm to step in and save the day, creating new
adventures since the popular French tenor didn't have a current visa to work
in this country.

As the curtain raiser, "Il Combattimento," a battle narration with a few
touching interjections from the combatants, made an extraordinary, if
offbeat, effect. Monteverdi revolutionized musical style in 1624 to
dramatize the anger and violence in the text taken from Torquato Tasso's
16th century epic, "Jerusalem Delivered." Berio's version did no additional
violence to the work, faithfully adapting it to modern string instruments.

As Testo, the narrator, riveting tenor Kresimir Spicer brought the battle
scene to shocking life in the listener's imagination. Alfredo Daza was a
strong Tancredi, and Bayrakdarian invested her few dying words with
devastating emotion. Vera Calabriá, the director, offered a striking touch
at the end, opening panels at the back of the stage to reveal a wall of
Italian names suggestive of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington.

Coming into "Werther," mid-opera, was not an easy transition. With the
characters having already turned somewhat sour, we had no reason to
sympathize with them. Massenet's music sounded heavy-handed after
Monteverdi. Lisa Hashimoto's makeshift "scenic elements," and the hammy
acting, reminded me of opera on "The Bell Telephone Hour," a television
program from the '50s. Monica Kilkus appeared to have rummaged through the
costume shop for her "costume elements."

Von Stade and Alagna proved perfectly acceptable, considering that they were given no opportunity to develop their characters. Both are inherently light singers whose voices have turned heavier with age, but they still suit the Massenet style. Alagna tends to push his high notes for effect, but he still has them, so he gets what he wants. Chernov, in his few lines, made a
deliciously sarcastic Albert; Maki Mori, a pleasing Sophie. Nagano -- ever elegant, dramatic and compelling -- made as much sense of the Monteverdi/Massenet pairing as possible.

Alagna proved a quick study as Otello. It is not a role suited to his lyric
tenor, and he has acknowledged that he was initially hesitant to attempt it.
But if he has neither the ideal dramatic or vocal heft yet to dig deeply
into Otello's tortured psyche, he looked good in his tight black costume and offered a reasonable facsimile of jealous rage. And he knew the notes. With two weeks' notice, and a couple days of rehearsal, that is impressive.

Most impressive, however, was Carmen Giannattasio, especially the startling,
breath-stopping intensity she brought to Desdemona's "Ave Maria."
Little-known outside Italy and a winner in Domingo's Operalia contest in
Paris last year, she is a find. With Domingo solidly supportive in the pit,
and excellent contributions from Milena Kitic's Emelia and Chernov's Iago,
it was almost possible to overlook just how haphazard the whole enterprise
had been.

L.A. Opera transcends trouble with 'Passion'
Timothy Mangan, The Orange County Register, 13 January 2003

Coming together at the last moment, the company's 'Concert of Passion & Poetry' steers clear of disaster.

Given the fiasco of misfortunes that have plagued the planning stages of Los Angeles Opera's so-called "Concert of Passion & Poetry," one half expected one of the singers to burst into flame right there on stage Saturday afternoon at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

If you've heard this, skip ahead. It all began once upon a time, with a proposed fully staged production of Monteverdi's "Coronation of Poppea," as realized by Luciano Berio, who promptly got into a car accident and couldn't finish it. A concert version was then planned, but just last month Berio informed the company that a serious illness would keep him from finishing it, so something different had to be put together, and fast.

Using the artists already engaged for the Monteverdi/Berio, the company decided (Little Rascals-like) to put on a show, which they called "A Concert of Passion & Poetry," comprised of Acts Three and Four of Massenet's "Werther," starring artistic director Plácido Domingo and Frederica von Stade, Act Four of Verdi's "Otello," starring Domingo, and the entirety of an earlier Berio realization of Monteverdi's brief "Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda," presumably starring whoever showed up that day. Kent Nagano would conduct.

With rehearsals already under way, Domingo came down with a severe bronchial infection and withdrew. An international manhunt in search of a tenor who could replace him in both "Werther" and "Otello" ensued and eventually alighted on Domingo pal Roberto Alagna in Paris, who, as Murphy would have it, didn't have his passport or visa in order. Long story short: He arrived at LAX in the wee hours Thursday morning. So as not to be left out of the party altogether, Domingo would now conduct the "Otello" excerpt.

Disaster loomed, then, Saturday afternoon. But nothing so colorful occurred. In the event, these mismatched operatic snippets came off with hardly a hitch. If they made no comprehensive sense as a group, they served as a pleasant enough way to spend a few hours. If the singers didn't reach the heights of artistry and conviction, they dispatched their jobs with unflagging professionalism. No one caught fire.

As it turned out, the "Werther" and "Otello" excerpts were semi-staged, performed in costume, with a few pieces of period furniture scattered about, and the singers acting them out. The Monteverdi/Berio was given in concert dress, with the small orchestra on stage.

For this listener, Nagano's work was the highlight of the afternoon. He is a conductor who combines meticulousness and sensitivity in equal parts, outlining the musical narrative without exaggeration, in pastels. In the "Werther" excerpt and the Monteverdi, he seems to have not only polished the instrumental ensemble to a high gloss, but also the expression. There were no gaps in it, no bubbles. He found pungent colors in the Massenet and jeweled surfaces in the Monteverdi, and his pacing was just so.

All ears and eyes were on Alagna though, who, as matinee idol coming to the rescue, was making his debut with the company. His lyric tenor swam smoothly and suavely through "Werther," some variances in tone notwithstanding. Out of his accustomed repertoire in the "Otello" excerpt, Alagna trumpeted brightly and held the stage confidently. Domingo coaxed dark hues in the pit and followed his replacement diligently.

Past her prime, von Stade proved in good voice as Charlotte in "Werther." She limned long phrases and shaded them subtly. If she couldn't quite muster a resplendent forte, she never pushed her voice beyond beauty. Maki Mori provided a plush and flexibly voiced Sophie.

Carmen Giannattasio offered a Desdemona of considerable self-possession, her opulent voice used for high contrasts. Vladimir Chernov briefly guested as Albert and Iago. Milena Kitic made the most of Emilia.

Berio's realization of "Il Combattimento" was a straightforward, if lovely, transcription for modern strings and continuo, not a reworking in his own voice (as in his "Turandot" ending). Monteverdi's illustrative impulses came through compellingly. Kresimir Spicer took on the narrative role of Testo with expressive gusto and generally eloquent voice. Isabel Bayrakdarian (who will sing a recital in Orange County later this season) was the silvery Clorinda and Alfredo Daza her caramely Tancredi.

Power of 'Otello' prevailed
Sherli Leonard, Press-Enterprise, 13 January 2003

The Los Angeles Opera company used minimal sets to put the focus on the performance.

The special teams saved the Los Angeles Opera as a substitute program and a substitute tenor charged up the audience at the "Concert for Poetry & Passion" which opened Saturday.

"Nothing should distract from the drama," pre-concert lecturer Michael Hackett explained about Verdi's thinking in writing "Otello." The Los Angeles Opera company took the advice to heart, using minimal sets and lighting and no curtains in all three of the concert's components -- Monteverdi's mini-opera "Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda," Acts III and IV of Massenet's "Werther," and Act IV of Verdi's "Otello."

It worked. The power of the drama prevailed and the company delivered a provocative program that informed and entertained the full house of opera lovers.

The Monteverdi opera, described by Hackett as the "birth of opera," was performed in concert style with three singers and a stellar instrumental ensemble conducted by Principal Conductor Kent Nagano.

Considered to be as important to Renaissance music as Shakespeare was to literature, Monteverdi used the instrumental music to express the drama, a technique evident in this opera which had been re-edited in 1966 by Luciano Berio.

It was Berio's illness that forced the opera to substitute "Concert for Poetry & Passion" for the composer's new orchestration of Monteverdi's "The Coronation of Popopea."

Multiple prize-winning tenor Kresimir Spicer sang the lead role of Testo, the narrator, beautifully rendering the difficult high, light and highly ornamented music in true Renaissance style.

Illness forced another substitution, as the infected golden throat of legendary tenor Placido Domingo caused him to bow out of his roles in "Werther" and "Otello." Roberto Alagna, sometimes called "The Fourth Tenor," came to the rescue. With two weeks notice, he reprised the "Werther" role he had sung six years ago and learned the role of "Otello" which he had never sung.

His Domingo-like (albeit lighter) voice, when coupled with his warm and passionate French and lithe, handsome demeanor, gave Werther a youthful, tragic quality. Werther tended to sing slightly under pitch even before he began to "die" on the floor of the stage.

With the Italian of "Otello," Alagna's voice gave the character a powerful, dangerous persona, and it soared through the hall, clean, clear and accurate.

With passion in reserve, world renowned Frederica von Stade gave a sensational performance as the conflicted Charlotte, the object of Werther's affection. She enchanted the audience with a total mastery of every acting and singing element of her craft and with a silky, glossy mercury-like voice.

The staging used the orchestra risers, perhaps to give depth and texture to the otherwise bare stage. But the risers seemed to hinder von Stade's smooth movement to the extent that I worried for her safety.

Even without sets, Act IV of "Otello" packed the stage with power. Soprano Carmen Giannattasio as Desdemona sang with a rich and riveting, controlled and deliberate voice, although she lacked focus and prayerful intent for the work's "Ave Maria." Verdi's music, immensely huge in its spareness for this act, creates and holds suspense, foreboding and anguish.

The Los Angeles Opera challenged the audience to be flexible and imaginative. The audience seemed to relish the challenge, standing for two resounding ovations.

L.A. Opera triumphs over setbacks
Rick Mortensen, San Bernardino Sun, 14 January 2003

With its glorious ''Concert of Passion and Poetry,'' L.A. Opera proved its ability to triumph over adversity and present a moving, high-quality program.
The cast members, most of whom were originally scheduled to perform in the canceled production of ''Coronation of Poppea,'' gave superlative efforts in the concert thrown together as its substitute, earning standing ovations from the slightly below capacity crowd at Saturday's opening matinee.

Tenor Roberto Alagna was recruited two weeks before the opening performance to substitute for Placido Domingo, who was sidelined with a bronchial infection, and he threw himself into both of his roles.

The concert featured Alagna as the title characters in Acts III and IV of Massenet's ''Werther'' and Act IV of Verdi's ''Otello,'' both of which feature passionate, lingering deaths. The concert's other offering, Monteverdi's ''Battle Between Tancredi and Clorinda,'' featured a less lingering but just as poignant death, and it began the concert on a high note.

The canceled ''Poppea,'' also by Monteverdi, was to feature orchestrations by Luciano Berio, who specializes in re-orchestrating the 17th-century composer's work, but Berio's failing health prevented him from finishing it in time. The concert's ''Tancredi and Clorinda'' featured Berio's orchestrations as a consolation.

A string quintet and harpsichord took center stage, the narrator Testo stood stage right and the two protagonists stood at stage left, all three wearing black tuxedos.
The sparse stage and lack of costumes allowed the audience to focus on the sublime music and Testo's descriptive story of a crusading knight who mistakenly kills the woman he loves in a gruesome duel. It was sung in Italian, but the supertitles featured descriptive lines like ''he plunged his blade into her fair breast where it penetrated and avidly drank her blood.'' With his rich, mellow voice and sensitive phrasing, Kresimir Spicer's Testo leant depth, emotion and wisdom to the tale. Isabel Bayrakdarian's clear, pure soprano made Clorinda sound like a saint, while Alfredo Daza gave Tancredi a tragic passion.

The ''Werther'' excerpt was staged with a minimal set, and it featured the incomparable Frederica von Stade as the female lead, Charlotte. While she hadn't played the role for 20 years, von Stade immediately drew the audience into her character's dilemma of loving the poet Werther while remaining duty-bound to her husband, Albert.

Her full, unaffected mezzo soprano voice underscored her character's distress with clear phrasing and just the right amount of vocal inflection. As Charlotte's sister Sophie, Maki Mori's fluttery soprano and bouncy bearing provided a perfect foil.
As Werther, Alagna's voice rang with passion, but he didn't seem fully committed to his character until the final scene, in which Werther shoots himself and Charlotte tries to revive him with kisses.

Alagna was more convincing as the menacing Otello, and his scene with Carmen Giannattasio as Desdemona was electrifying. With poignant renditions of Desdemona's lament and evening prayers, Giannattasio set the stage for the tragedy that was to follow.

While he couldn't join the cast on stage, Domingo's voice was still part of Otello as the conductor of the orchestra. From the moody woodwind prelude through the scene's climax, his phrasing was exquisite, and his love for the work he has performed so many times permeated the scene.


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