28 November 2009
After the immense disappointment of NOT being seated for the Los Angeles Opera production of Handel’s Tamerlano with Placido Domingo – ever seeking new operatic challenges – taking the role of the defeated Turkish sultan Bajazet, and the reportedly (at least from the buzz we’ve heard to date) amazing counter-tenor Bejun Mehta (as well as the very talented soprano Sarah Coburn as Asteria), Opera Buddy and I trekked out to console ourselves over sweet potato fries, spinach, tapas and a velvety Malbec at Kate Mantillini’s – accompanied by college football highlights on ESPN (one of our new favorite things) – then walked across the street to the Laemmle Music Hall to see Frederick Wiseman’s documentary film on the Paris Opera Ballet, La Danse – which is also a valentine to the lush monument to French opera, dance, spectacle and sheer grandeur that is the Palais Garnier itself. Wiseman takes us literally from its deepest foundations where carp and minnows swim in shallow canals, to the cupola with its lyre-screened windows that light the company’s rehearsal studios and audition rooms. La Danse is above all a portrait of the company – a kaleidoscope of its many seemingly randomly arrayed facets which, taken as a whole, assume an organic unity – the cultural institution as a living organism, and its symbiotic habitation in the Palais Garnier. I never knew that there was a fully operational apiary atop the Palais – a fascinating detail – but maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Wiseman shows us the Palais as an intense hive of activity – choreographers (including Mats Ek and Wayne McGregor) constructing their ballets by all means necessary, intently shaping, pacing, and articulating their supremely capable principals; soloists rehearsing difficult step sequences, dramatic pantomime; dance masters rigorously, passionately training their budding stars and whipping their corps de ballet into shape – as well as the many workshops – art, costumes, hair and make-up – that support the theatrical production; and the kitchens that fuel this army. The viewer could almost be forgiven for assuming that Brigitte Lefèvre, the company’s formidable Director and Administrator, is the queen of this hive – her receptive but willful and sure-footed guiding spirit seems omnipresent – but the real queen here is always, as the title plainly states, the dance, the finished work, as well as the institution itself. Opera Buddy ducked out early – the unrelenting French (which of course I can’t get enough of) was getting to her; and it has to be said, in spite of the drama and polish of some of the finished production scenes (including a graphically bloody Medea), the last 45 minutes of the film flag somewhat. Still, I found it almost inexhaustibly absorbing and – jettisoning half that last 45 minutes – would have gladly sat down for a second helping. L.A. may not be the cultural desert it was 30 years ago; but we still starve for dance in this town; and, even the slender smorgasbord of Ek, McGregor, Nureyev, Balanchine and Pina Bausch on view in Wiseman’s film can be richly satisfying after a long fast.
For a fan of Handel opera (and, really, all Baroque opera) like me, it really hurts to miss something like the L.A. Opera Tamerlano. I take some consolation in the fact that the production (by Chas Rader-Shieber, with art direction by David Zinn) sounds absolutely dreadful – blackshirts, black suits, and a proto-Nazi scheme (with the exception of Bazajet and Asteria, who are inexplicably done up in period costume) against a stark staging. What could be more clichéd, more tedious? Ugh. Obviously, the singing is all that redeems it.
As usual, I’m going on – this isn’t even what I sat down to blog about – or not the only thing anyway – and now I have to jump. [While I've been writing this, I’ve been listening to the NPR news – the week-end program hosted by – speaking of tedious – Scott Simon; and wanted to throw in a few comments on that endless blather while he and a couple of interview subjects were chattering on – not unrelated to a couple of my other items; but it will have to wait. (Thank goddess for Daniel Shorr.)] It’s a bit off-topic, anyway, and – just to forewarn the itinerant blog-reader – political. Well. Hey – and while everyone’s going nuts over the State dinner gate-crashers at this past week, let’s just be happy that the Obamas have restored a bit of luster to the after-hours White House. (How glamourous Michelle looked – that’s something I think everyone, regardless of partisanship, can agree on.)