Sunday, February 18, 2007

Reason Number One Why Los Angeles Needs A New Opera House!

1. The Dorothy Chandler Pavillion is just too damn big.

Sin City: Morally Bankrupt, but Musical

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 16 — “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” first presented in Leipzig, Germany, in 1930, is the most ambitious product of the brief but dynamic collaboration between Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. It is also the hardest of their works to pull off in production.

The creators called this bitterly satirical indictment of capitalism an opera. Yet Weill’s complex score draws from jazz and cabaret even as it seethes with pungent contemporary harmony, intricate counterpoint and operatic intensity. So, do you present it as an opera, a musical-theater piece or some kind of hybrid?

In 1979 the Metropolitan Opera introduced a landmark production directed by John Dexter and conducted by James Levine that simply treated the work as a major opera. Teresa Stratas was haunting as the cagey prostitute Jenny, a role long identified with Lotte Lenya. Richard Cassilly, a powerhouse Tristan and Otello, gave what many considered the performance of his career as Jimmy Mahoney, the gullible lumberjack who falls for Jenny. With the robust Met chorus and the inspired orchestra, “Mahagonny” emerged as a work that held up, almost alone, the other pole of early-20th-century German opera, opposite Berg’s “Wozzeck” and “Lulu” and Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron.”

For its new production of “Mahagonny,” which openedFeb. 10, the Los Angeles Opera has opted for the hybrid approach. There is risk in combining performers from different stylistic traditions, but the sheer talent assembled for this production should have overcome that risk.

The director, John Doyle, acclaimed for his daringly innovative productions of “Sweeney Todd” and “Company” on Broadway, has given operagoers here a grimly spare yet fanciful staging, with sets by Mark Bailey and costumes by Ann Hould-Ward. The production uses a very free English translation by Michael Feingold. In the opening scene Brecht and Weill’s three fugitives from justice — Trinity Moses, a boorish boxer; Fatty the Bookkeeper; and Leocadia Begbick, a widow and the ringleader of the group — arrive in a rattling, sputtering canvas-topped van.

They decide to remain in the no-man’s land they have chanced on and establish a city devoted to pleasure. There is more gold to be gotten from men than from rivers, Begbick says. Before long Mahagonny arises, a place of garish neon signs, cheap bars, fast-food joints and willing prostitutes.

Patti LuPone, fresh from her triumphant turn as Mrs. Lovett in Mr. Doyle’s “Sweeney Todd,” makes a jaded and bluntly direct Begbick and handles the high tessitura of the role with surprising agility. Audra McDonald, alluring in a beaded leotard and gaudy furs, is a rich-voiced and coolly manipulative Jenny. These musical-theater stars are joined by a roster of opera singers who hold their own dramatically, including the tenor Anthony Dean Griffey as Jimmy and the baritone Donnie Ray Albert as Trinity Moses.

Yet on Wednesday night, for all its rich elements and vitality, the production seemed curiously flat. For me the problem stemmed from the decision to use amplification, given the participation of musical-theater prima donnas who depend on it, and the size of the opera company’s home, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which seats 3,000.

The amplification by the sound designer Dan Moses Schreier is subtle and individualized. Each voice is boosted according to its needs. Mr. Albert, for example, who has performed the heavy-duty role of Wagner’s Wotan, needed little help. About half the 20 male choristers are amplified.

But what results is an overall sound that, though audible, seems flattened, creating a distancing effect that is not exactly what Brecht intended when he espoused the theater of alienation. If an opera company is going to overturn the genre’s historic commitment to natural sound to make words clear and give singers an electronic boost in a musical-theater production, then it should do a better job of it.

A revealing moment came in the scene in which Jimmy is put on trial for failing to pay his debts. Onlookers arrive with video cameras. Close-ups of the defendant and his accusers are projected in grainy images on a screen as they sing. Suddenly the flattened amplified voices match the flat images on the screen, and the sound design seems appropriate, as if we were at the movies.

The musical-theater world has had to make peace with amplification. But its questionable impact on traditional opera singers was clear from the way it inhibited Mr. Griffey, an impressive young artist with an unusual tenor voice that boasts heroic heft and lyrical sweetness. As Jimmy the husky Mr. Griffey was volatile, pitiable, awkwardly endearing in his love scenes with Ms. McDonald and painfully clueless as Jimmy was put to death.

Yet Mr. Griffey seemed to be holding back vocally, trying not to overwhelm his microphone. His singing had clarity and vigor, but it lacked visceral presence and danger, qualities Mr. Griffey easily conveys in an opera house with natural acoustics.

I will never forget the chilling power of the final scene in the Met production when the chorus delivered the bleak final sentiments of the work, that Jimmy is dead and nothing will help him or us or you now. But here the partially amplified choral singing was curiously weak.

Still, I was moved by many of the performances, especially those of Mel Ulrich as Bill, Steven Humes as Joe and John Easterlin as Jack, Jimmy’s three sidekicks from seven years of mining and struggle in Alaska; and Robert W├Ârle as Fatty. And Brecht’s prescient and gloomy take on capitalism, especially the American kind, came through with timeless impact.

When Jimmy is put on trial as an accessory to Joe’s death in a boxing match, the jury overlooks this charge. But being too broke to pay his debts, a capital offense in Mahagonny, he is sentenced to death. As Begbick explains, “In the whole human race there is no greater criminal than a man without money.”

Opera composers today of course have the right to use any sound technologies they choose in new works. But in mounting this 1930 classic I wish the Los Angeles Opera had been able to present a production in a smaller theater. Then, instead of asking the opera singers to accommodate to amplification, they could have asked Ms. LuPone and Ms. McDonald to do without it. Ms. McDonald has performed in concert without amplification, and both artists could probably have thrived without electronic help in the right space.

But that would have been financially prohibitive. And as “Mahagonny” makes clear, money rules.

Additional performances of “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” take place at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Thursday and March 1 at 7:30 p.m., and on Sunday and March 4 at 2 p.m.; (213) 972-8001.


Anonymous said...

It's not that the Chandler is too big, because the Metropolitan opera house is bigger. Yet the critic from the NYT doesn't complain about problems with amplification in that theater. The main problem is that the Dorothy Chandler needs better acoustics, which isn't necessarily a factor of size. After all, there are quite a few smaller theaters than the Chandler Pavilion throughout the world whose sound really isn't any better.

Brady Westwater said...

A very valid point. More than just the size, the acoustics and the backstage facilities are not what we need in an opera house.

But a little smaller with better sight lines wouldn't hurt, either.