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26 Apr 2009
Walter Braunfels’s Die Vögel at Los Angeles Opera
The Recovered Voices series at Los Angeles Opera, in its second season, springs from James Conlon’s fascination and love for the operas of composers whose lives and/or careers came to an end under the Nazi regime.
Thanks to the support of Marilyn Ziering and the Ziering Family Foundation, Los Angeles Opera can bring to the stage operas otherwise unlikely to receive a production at a major house, although at one time most of the operas featured so far or planned for the series had that distinction. In fact, Walter Braunfels’s Die Vögel (The Birds) apparently enjoyed a fair amount of success before WWII threw a shadow over both the opera and its composer. Seen on Saturday, April 18th, that initial success and subsequent obscurity both became understandable.
An allegory adapted from Aristophanes’s play of the same title, Die Vögel begins with Good Hope (Brandon Johanovich) and Loyal Friend (James Johnson) on a search for Hoopoe, leader of the birds. The humans want to join the birds, finding their own species increasingly repugnant (an important aspect undramatized by the libretto). The birds, initially suspect, eventually accept the men, who then motivate the birds to establish a “bird civilization” in the clouds, to rival that of man’s below. This somehow upsets Zeus, as Prometheus warns the birds, to no avail. Zeus strikes the bird civilization with thunderbolts, and the men, realizing their complicity in the disaster, leave. Good Hope exits with a broken heart, however, as he had fallen in love with the Nightingale. There’s too little of Aristophanes’s stinging wit or satire, and most of the opera comes across as a feeble Magic Flute-wannabe, with Good Hope as an ersatz Tamino.
The first act, the shorter of the two, starts with some quite lovely music, including a vocalise for the Nightingale. However, the narrative’s lack of conflict or conventional development means that Braunfel’s score always seems to be excited or passionate about events that don’t warrant the emotional outpouring. The second act picks up the pace somewhat, and the last 30 minutes or so of the opera soars with the birds, as the humans wish to do. The intervention of Prometheus makes no sense, and probably isn’t intended to, but Brian Mulligan sang his set piece with dark gusto. After Zeus’s dramatic attack on the bird city, the birds gather on stage for a gorgeous ensemble, and as the men leave, the Nightingale, a high-lying role for coloratura, reappears, to sing as Good Hope takes his sad leave.
Conlon directed a fine cast, with Désirée Ranactore managing the challenging music of the Nightingale skillfully enough to make understandable Good Hope’s obsession with her. Martin Gantner as Hoopoe and James Johnson as Loyal Friend sang their thinly characterized parts well, but the star of the men was last year’s Richard Tucker winner, tenor Brandon Johanovich. His is a big, masculine sound, with an easy top at this young stage of his career. The opera world will probably be looking to have him sing some of the bigger tenor assignments. He already has a Turiddu and Cavaradossi or two under his belt. Hopefully he won’t be tempted to even larger roles, as his talent, if carefully nourished, should produce a long and rewarding career.
Darko Tresnjak, of the San Diego Old Globe Theater, directed this silliness probably as well as just about anyone could. Scenery designer David P. Gordon’s set oddly combined palm trees and a series of six or seven luminous cloud shapes, set up in three rows. The transformation to the bird city probably would have made more sense if it had been more than some tiny Greek temples affixed to stilts. Linda Cho’s costumes designs also seemed to go for a sort of silky Ancient Greek tunic look, except for the fairly contemporary look of the humans. As not a lot of sense was being made on stage, nonsense designs couldn’t hurt.
Braunfels’s score certainly received all the attention and love from James Conlon any conductor could lavish upon it. Despite the fine singing and superior orchestral performance, this run of Die Vögel hasn’t revealed a lost masterpiece. The afternoon had some delights, however, so opera lovers a bit jaded with the usual repertory have to be thankful for the exposure to a work of such rarity. Next season, the Recovered Voices series continues with Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten.