“Recovered Voices” at the LA Opera

Recovered Voices

Recovering a Musical Heritage
The Music Suppressed by the Third Reich

LA Opera – James Conlon, Musical Director
March 7 (Première Performance)
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

Program
All selections: LA Opera / James Conlon cond
Franz Schreker: Die Gezeichneten / The stigmatized: Prelude
Walter Braunfels: Die Vögel / The birds: Prelude and “Liebwerte Freunde” (Nightingale’s aria)
Stacey Tappan S
Ernest Křenek: Jonny spielt auf / Johnny strikes up: Orchestral ntroduction to scene3 and “Als ich damals”
Stacey Tappan S
Viktor Ullmann: Der Kaiser von Atlantis / The emperor of Atlantis: “The emperor’s farewell”
Donnie Ray Albert Bar
Erwin Schulhoff: Flammen / Flames: “Conversation with the Sea”
Rodrick Dixon T
Erich Korngold: Die tote Stadt / The dead city: Prelude to Act Two; Mariettas Lied (Tatiana Pavlovskaya S); Pierrots Tanzlied (Martin Gantner Bar)

(The above played without interruption)

INTERMISSION

Alexander Zemlinsky: Eine florentinische Tragödie / A Florentine tragedy, opera in one act from a play by Oscar Wilde, tr. Max Meyerfield
Bianca: Tatiana Pavlovskaya S / Guido Bardi: Anthony Dean Griffey T / Simone: Donnie Ray Albert Bar

an account by KEN QUANDT

Conlon came onto the stage at the beginning and spoke for several minutes. Behind him was projected the image of a poster from the original production of Jonny spielt auf, featuring a dressed monkey looking like a black man playing a saxophone. He has a Star of David on his lapel that was later placed there by the Nazis. Conlon lectured us amicably and boyishly on the Moral, Historic, and Artistic value of recovering the seven artists whose works, condemned as degenerate by the Nazis, were featured in this concert. Except for a synopsis of the Florentine Tragedy, the Program gave biographies of the seven artists but nothing on the pieces themselves – a regrettable omission since many listeners had heard none of them.

I want to concentrate on the second half, the presentation of the Florentine Tragedy. Highlights of the first half were Tappan’s final note in the Birds piece continued by the oboe, the wonderful and also strikingly homogeneous music of the first five composers (indeed Conlon was able Conlon to present the several excepts as an uninterrupted suite), and the Prelude by Korngold, which reached Brucknerian and Sibelian dimensionality in just a few seconds. Of performances the best was the last, the powerful, well-rounded and in-tune performance of Martin Gantner who was the hero of the whole night and got most of the applause, alongside Pavlovskaya’s Marietta, which was ravishing. Gantner is concurrently singing Wolfram in the LA Tannhäuser, where again the audience has loved him.

The setting of the Florentine Tragedy after the intermission was not truly a performance “in its entirety” as advertised, except in the sense that all the notes were played. The stage is empty except for three music stands at the front, placed right, left and center. There are two or three chairs near the back. Onto the back wall pictures are being projected, one after the other, as in the first half of the concert. Those were black and white but these have some color. One of them shows hands playing chess and it occurs when the sung conversation between the husband, Simone, and the prince, his wife’s lover, becomes cagey. It recurs to indicate the recurrence of caginess but in truth the entire conversation is cagey. There is a varied version of this picture with a third, female hand reaching in to help one of the players’ hands. There is a large picture of a staid room that might be the scene of the whole thing. There is a picture of Simone’s wares which he proudly describes in order to bore the prince. There is a picture of a sword when Simone mentions his sword near the end. The pictures isolate more or less important themes in the action – itself largely a conversation – and leave them there for a while. The conversation moves on, so we ignore them until a new picture comes up that is relevant again. They are perfectly redundant.

The combination of pictures and simple staging might remind the Los Angeles audience of the Tristan Project (Salonen–Sellars–Viola) that debuted across the street here three winters ago and is about to be revived this spring in New York and Los Angeles. The Project is a presentation of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde sung concertante and accompanied by a huge and gorgeous video projected onto a screen hung behind the orchestra. Closer still to the Florentine presentation the modified version of the Project that Salonen, Sellars, and Viola presented operatically as Tristan und Isolde at the Bastille a few months later (April, 2005), and then again in the Fall of 2006. There, as here, the singers were placed on the stage, the stage itself was plain and black, and the video was projected onto the back wall, above and five times taller than the singers. There as here the stage direction was minimal.

Both the concertante and the operatic version of Tristan were successes. Despite its similarities to them this setting of the Florentine Tragedy is, unfortunately, a failure. Even though Bill Viola’s Tristan video was always irrelevant to the action except on some emotive level – it was a tantric stream of consciousness – at least it kept moving, while the Florentine still pictures were wooden, redundant in their reference, and immediately obsolete. The running watch that is always wrong is preferable to the broken watch that is right twice a day.

The stage direction here was of a piece with the projected images, namely, sporadically significant and feckless overall. What movements the singers are given, besides walking over to their music stands to sing, are designed to portray affect rather than to embody live response and interaction. Again a comparison with Sellars’s Tristan is instructive. At the Bastille, with a similarly exiguous supply of materials, he was brilliantly expressive, engaging, and dramatic. He was even able to bring in a totally gratuitous homosexual sub-theme and added a schtick about Tristan offering Isolde a little pocket knife to kill him with in Act One. At this Florentine, when Simone starts his long and tauntingly tedious declamation to the prince, the prince walks to the back and sits in one of the chairs, facing sideways, sort of facing Simone and sort of not. He is not singing, so he might as well take a rest. Simone has nothing to look at but his score on the music stand. He waves his arms some. We teeter into the Borge-zone. At one point Bianca finds herself at her music stand and turns the pages, so we know she won’t be singing for a while. Climactically the prince objects to Simone strangling him to death from a few feet away.

The characters keep becoming just singers and the singers are only sometimes in character. In between these frequent shifts the most appalling fact threatens to become evident and bring the whole thing down. They are actually just people. Somehow the concertante version worked last spring when Conlon brought this piece to the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall. That performance was stunningly dramatic, even though (and somehow because) the singers stayed behind their stands and had the orchestra behind them. Most memorable was the body language and facial expressions of James Johnson, who sang Simone.

Most tellingly missing in LA was a truly Jewish interpretation of Simone, such as Conlon had produced in San Francisco. Simone in the story was very willing to “act like a Jew,” and to fulfill the caricature. He was perfectly willing to take the prince’s overpayment, and would have except for the quintessentially un-Jewish act of killing him instead, in the face of which the dying prince’s invocation of his redeemer was clownish hypocrisy.

The new LA season was announced today, and it includes a continuation of the Recovered Voices project, made possible by a huge grant from Marilyn Ziering. Next year Conlon will perform Uhlmann’s Zerbrochene Krug and Zemlinsky’s Zwerg on the same program. Presumably these will be advertised as performances of the operas “in their entirety.” The LA Opera website today has pictures of the setting for the other operas they are doing (including for instance the Hockney setting for Tristan) but for the Recovered pair there is just a picture of Conlon. If they keep to the present kind of staging I will not be there.

The staging and sets suffered for being neither fish nor fowl. The concept of the Recovered Voices project also threatens to be too many things at once, with its triple goals moral, historical, and aesthetic. The Entartete Musik ranges from pretty good to great. Yes, it is worth remembering, but that doesn’t make it memorable. Toggling all the artists together does disservice to the best of them. If the project is at the Chandler rather than the Disney, operatics should be given greater stress than symphonics. We shall see – let’s wish for the best!