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Donnie Ray Albert as Simone and Tatiana Pavlovskaya as Bianca in Alexander Zemlinsky's Eine florentinische Tragödie (A Florentine Tragedy) Photo by: Robert Millard
13 Mar 2007

LA Opera “Recovered Voices”

Just about halfway though his first season as music director of Los Angeles Opera, James Conlon has already made himself an endearing and appreciated figure.

Above: Donnie Ray Albert as Simone and Tatiana Pavlovskaya as Bianca in Alexander Zemlinsky's Eine florentinische Tragödie (A Florentine Tragedy)
Photo by: Robert Millard


He likes to speak to early-comers to the Dorothy Chandler as part of the “lecture” events, and his work with the orchestra so far, and their response to him, indicates a solid relationship being established.

He has also brought with him a passion for the music of a particular set of the composers who were exiled, banned, or killed by the Nazi regime. He expressed his happiness at having Brecht and Weill’s Mahagonny as part of this season, and he also helped find the support (primarily from Marilyn Ziering and the Ziering Family Foundation) for two concert evenings called “Recovered Voices.” At the second performance, March 10th, he appeared before both halves of the program to speak with enthusiasm and erudition about the composers and their works. The evening, it seems, is a preview of repertoire that Conlon intends to bring to the regular LAO season schedule. In fact, next season he makes a start, with a double-bill evening of Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg and Ullman’s Der Zerbrochene Krug.

The first half consisted of a sort of suite that Conlon devised from the music of six composers. The conductor asked the audience to hold its applause until the end of the final segment, and they dutifully did so. First came the dark swirl of textures in Franz Schreker’s prelude to Die Gezeichneten. Somewhat ironically, this opera recently appeared on DVD in a performance conducted by Kent Nagano, Conlon’s predecessor at LAO.

Stacy Tappan, a soprano who has specialized in high-lying roles so far (she sang the Dew Fairy in LAO’s recent Hansel und Gretel), appeared first on the bare stage, with a screen for projections behind her. Maiko Nezu designed the tasteful images that evoked the moods if not always the settings of the various selections. Ms. Tappan sang a charming aria from Walter Braunfels’ Die Vogel, left and then reappeared with a pianist (uncredited in the program) for a number from Ernest Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf. A huge hit in its day, even in this short excerpt one could hear why the opera has become a curiosity today - the jazz elements not very well incorporated into a timidly modernistic fabric.

Donnie Ray Albert (the father in that same Hansel und Gretel) sang “The Emperor’s farewell” from Viktor Ullamn’s The Emperor of Atlantis. Out of context, the aria still managed to create a mood of wistful resignation, an amazing achievement for a man writing in a concentration camp, and too soon to die there.

Tenor Roderick Dixon took on an aria from Erwin Schulhoff’s Flammen, a discursive affair that gave a more prominent role to orchestral texture rather than to the vocal line.

All of this music boasted to one degree or another a power and sweep to the orchestration, but rather less in the way of memorable thematic material. That cannot be said of the final segment, from Erich Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. Unlike the other operas represented, Korngold’s has managed to keep a precarious hold on a place on the fringes of the standard repertory. It helps that the opera features two smashing arias. First Tatiana Pavlovskaya sang “Marietta’s lied,” with Mr. Dixon joining her. Although her top grew a little wild, Ms. Pavlovskaya had the warm sensuality needed for Korngold’s exquisite tune. Then the fine baritone Martin Gantner, currently singing Wolfram in the new Tannhäuser at LAO, sang a poignant “Pierrot’s Tanzlied.”

After intermission came a one-act opera from Alexander Zemlinsky, with only minimal direction for the singers and a few chairs as props, while the projections became a bit more literal in an attempt to convey the essence of Oscar Wilde’s A Florentine Tragedy. Speaking before the audience, Conlon detailed Zemlinsky’s unhappy love affair with Gustav Mahler’s future wife Alma, and suggested that Zemlinsky at least took that pain as a form of creative inspiration. Basically a psychological battle of wills between a gruff merchant and a young nobleman over the merchant’s wife, the piece ends with the sort of “twist” which smacks a bit too much of a Freudian-era Twilight Zone episode. Never short on drama and formal invention, the score would probably be better known if it had more memorable melodies. And that was true of most of the evening’s fare. Albert, Pavlovskaya, and Anthony Dean Griffey as the nobleman had to work against the minimal staging and the story’s claustrophobic nature, and all managed to deserve the audience’s respect for their efforts.

Much of this repertory was written in the first third of the last century, and in an opera world eager for fresh material, it seems unlikely that an undiscovered masterpiece lies among the works of these composers. The works must stand on their own, regardless of the tragic fate of their composers. Conlon’s passion, however, makes him a brilliant advocate, and Los Angeles Opera audiences will at least know that a steady diet of Traviata and Bohème will be interspersed with the dark, sometimes acerbic work of these composers over the coming seasons.

Chris Mullins

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