Conlon in Lala land
Cultural weekend II: So, after the Pops concert Friday night, I got up early Sat. morning to catch the non-stop to LA, to see the May Festival's James Conlon make his company debut as music director of the LA Opera.
Conlon was conducting back-to-back, star-studded Verdi operas: La Traviata Saturday night and Don Carlo on Sunday. It turned out, a contingent from Cincinnati Opera was also going – opera board members, CEO Patty Beggs and artistic director Evans Mirageas -- who arrived Sunday because he was busy with a Pasadena Pops gig on Sat.
We got a good rate at the Omni hotel, which was down the street from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, home of LA Opera, whose general director is celebrity tenor Placido Domingo. And right next door is Disney Hall, the new, $274 million home of the LA Philharmonic led by Esa-Pekka Salonen. More about that later.
We had time to visit one neighborhood before the opera started, and drove our rental car through Westside streets to the Farmer’s Market to get lunch at one of the many international booths there. Besides the colorful scene at the market – people of all ages eating at diner-like counters, and farmers selling their gorgeous veggies – you can stroll over to the new Grove shopping mall, which is sort of like San Jose’s Santana Row, and has a trolley running down the center. (Message to Cincinnati: Check this out if and when you finally develop the Banks.)
We barely made it to the 6 p.m. curtain, because of the throngs entering Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, all at once. For opening night, I have to admit I expected more of a "Red Carpet" crowd. According to the program, Michael Eisner was host at a table for the after-party, but the only star I saw was the actress who plays Raymond’s mother from "Everybody Loves Raymond." The sold-out crowd, which paid $35 to $500 per ticket, mixed elegant gowns with lots of cleavage (a large party was being set up outside the hall) and bluejeans.
It seems that Domingo might be aspiring to make LA Opera a kind of Metropolitan Opera West, given the big names in the two opening weekend productions. The company is in its 21st season, and just received a $6 million gift from the Broad Foundation to sponsor LA Opera's first ever Ring Cycle, a heady aspiration indeed.
And it was especially appropriate that here, where you can see the "Hollywood" sign in the distance, the leads singing La Traviata looked a lot like movie stars.
Renee Fleming was singing the tragic heroine Violetta, with Mexican heartthrob tenor Rolando Villazon as Alfredo and the wonderful Italian baritone Renato Bruson as Germont. Besides all of the gala festivities Saturday night, the company was filming this production to be released on DVD by Decca.
It was directed by Marta Domingo, spouse of Placido. But the evening was all about La Renee (who reportedly gets $75,000 to $100,000 per performance these days).
But first, Conlon, whom I was really here to hear. The overture was tender, beautifully phrased and detailed, and the orchestra sound was quite good and immediate in the immense hall. LA Opera's pit orchestra doesn't compare to the Cincinnati Symphony, though, and although the expressive quality was excellent both evenings, there were some ragged edges, particularly in the thin-sounding strings.
However, Conlon is the consummate musician, who supported the singers perfectly (the balance was good both evenings between stage and pit, I thought, and I sat in two different places) and whose tempos were well chosen. Only a few times were there shaky collaborations, mostly with the chorus, which also is not the caliber of Cincinnati's.
Conlon was given warm ovations from the Angelinos, who are getting to know him for the first time (there was quite of bit of press about Conlon before the opening). And here's something I really liked: at the end, for the final curtain, the entire orchestra had scrambled onstage with their instruments when the curtain opened, and stood to take bows. That was great!
Fleming turned in the most complete, exquisite performance of Violetta I have ever heard. Her sound was like strings of pearls, and her performance seemed deeply personal. Where she projected vulnerability in her opening scene, her "Sempre Libera" was a forceful show of defiance.
Villazon, on the other hand, seemed stiff in the first act, both in acting and voice, going sharp in the Brindisi. Even though there was quite a bit of very passionate kissing, his communication with Fleming was often mechanical, and left one unmoved. However, by Act II, he was like a different singer, singing with ardent, Italianate color.
I’m guessing it had to do with the stodgy staging. Indeed, if the director’s intension was to center the production on the diva to the exclusion of the ensemble, she succeeded.
I’m afraid I disliked the 1999 production, too, with scenic design that ranged from dated and overdone, to garish. Violetta's deathbed looked like a sacrificial altar.
Afterward, the Cincinnati group crammed backstage to greet Conlon, but he was tied up re-filming something for the DVD, and never appeared.
To be continued: A tour of Disney Hall and a mini-review of Don Carlo, with photos. Preview: two thumbs up.