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Otello [Photo courtesy of Opera de Monte Carlo]
03 Mar 2008

Los Angeles Opera: March 1 & 2, 2008

James Conlon has become the artistic heart and soul of Los Angeles Opera in his second season as music director.

Recovered Voices, The Broken Jug; The Dwarf; Otello

Los Angeles Opera 1 & 2 March 2008

Above: Scene from Otello (Photo courtesy of Opera de Monte Carlo )


He almost unfailingly appears at the pre-lecture of every opera he conducts, to speak with keen intelligence and insight about the particular opera and its composer. As a conductor, although he may not have the most distinctive interpretative profile, he has the LAO orchestra unfailingly play for him with passion and precision.

For years Conlon has cherished a dream of staging some of the works of those composers whose careers - and often, lives - were devastated by the Nazi regime. Last season, the "Recovered Voices" series began with a concert of excerpts from several of these composers, as well as a semi-staged performance of Alexander Zemlinsky's A Florentine Tragedy. For 2007/08, LAO scheduled four performances of a double-bill: Viktor Ullman's The Broken Jug, a comic piece that runs for under 40 minutes, and Zemlinsky's The Dwarf, an adaptation of an Oscar Wilde short story. The third of four performances took place Saturday, March 1st.

The program notes highlight the tragic irony that Ullman wrote the comic The Broken Jug in a concentration camp, not too long before his death. At the pre-lecture Conlon's interviewer tried to suggest a deeper theme of the corruption of power in the story of a judge who turns out to be the culprit in the case of the shattered family heirloom of the title. The judge seems to have basically planned a sexual assault on a beautiful young girl, only fleeing the scene (and in the process breaking the jug and losing his powdered wig) when her burly fiance showed up. Although Ullman's music bubbles cheerfully, very little that is actually amusing occurs, and the story plays out like a pale copy of Chaucer. James Johnson tried to ham it up as the Judge; there just wasn't much for him to work with. In fact, the show was at its best in a clever dumbshow played out in silhouette during the overture.

At 80 minutes, Zemlinsky's The Dwarf would not have made for a full evening in a temporal sense, but artistically, it more than compensates for its relative brevity. Wilde's story echoes elements of his Salome. A beautiful, spoiled princess, accustomed to getting what she wants, ends up destroying the object she claims to cherish above any other. Instead of being crushed by the shields of Roman soldiers, the Princess of The Dwarf walks callously away from the body of the broken-hearted dwarf, a birthday gift from a Sultan. The dwarf has made it through life deluding himself about his misshapen appearance, believing the reflection he has caught glimpses of to be that of an evil nemesis. When the princess cruelly provides him with a mirror that denies him the refuge of his delusion, the dwarf, who has fallen in love with the princess, collapses in horror.

Ralph Funicello's gorgeous set stacked a tiered outer ring of gray and green marble, with gold gilt highlights, around a lower center platform. Staging the appearance of the dwarf makes for a tricky challenge for the director. For quite a while, Darko Tresnjak kept Rodrick Dixon, a man of typical tenor stature, crouched in the silver crate that serves as his gift box. Eventually Dixon emerges, but by then he has established his character through his singing, and the other performers can takes their places on the higher levels of the tiers surrounding the lower center stage. Zemlinky's incredibly rich, imaginative scoring sometimes proved too heavy in texture for Dixon, especially when the singing line dropped into his weaker low range. But Dixon's top notes were solid and powerful, and as an actor he surmounted the role's challenge of blending the audience's predisposition for sympathy toward the character with the sharp depiction of the dwarf's warped self-perception. Simply put, Dixon triumphed.

Mary Dunleavy sang with the appropriately bright, superficial beauty of her role: a shallow, pretty princess. As her favorite maid, Susan B. Anthony etched a strong character in just a few moments, a woman who knows the defects of her mistress and sees the tragedy coming, while being helpless to prevent it. The audience rewarded her performance with a very warm reception at final curtain. But the biggest hand went to Conlon, who appeared not from the wings but from the rear of the set, a choice that highlighted his "starring" role in the show. Though not melodically memorable, Zemlinsky's score meets every challenge of the drama, with orchestral color and drama. One acts are notoriously difficult to program, but Zemlinky's The Dwarf surely should be staged more often. Though it would make for a longish evening, a pairing with Straass's Salome would surely make an amazing evening.

The next afternoon Conlon returned to conduct Verdi and Boito's Otello, using a Johan Engels staging borrowed from Monte Carlo and Parma, directed by John Cox. Conlon started the storm music with brash volume, and unfortunately, no subtlety followed in the performance that followed. Engels's set suggests the bowl-shaped floor of a ship, with two concrete culverts on either side for entrances and exits. The basic set gets dressed up for each scene change but remained static and uncommunicative, though not without a decorative visual appeal.

Anyone who has seen video clips of Ian Storey in the recent La Scala Tristan und Isolde, under the direction of Patrice Chereau, knows that the man can be an potent actor, although his capable vocal instrument lacks any interesting colors. However, Cox did not find a way to bring out Storey's best. A large man, Storey never seemed imposing, and from the beginning his Otello proved to be no match for Mark Delavan's malevolent, brutal Iago. Even Cristina Gallardo-Domas, a couple feet shorter than Storey, had more presence. The resulting imbalance drained much drama from the afternoon, with that deadly "going through the motions" feeling settling in. Despite some impressive notes here and there, Storey could not deliver with consistency. While effective as an actress, Gallardo-Domas's voice too easily slipped into a dismaying vibrato. Delavan powered his way through Iago's music, effectively if unsubtly.

In a program note, Conlon writes that "despite all the possible dramatic misadventures or vocal inadequacies, [Otello] cannot fail because it is so perfectly conceived..." So if this LAO Otello cannot be called a failure by those terms, at least it has to be called a disappointment.

But The Dwarf made the weekend at the Dorothy Chandler worthwhile. In next year's Recovered Voices program, Conlon conducts Walter Braunfel's The Birds. Anticipation builds from this moment.

Chris Mullins

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