Last year LA Opera's Recovered Voices program was a doubleheader featuring a throwaway (The Broken Jug) and a masterpiece (The Dwarf). Both were directed by Darko Tresnjak, who also directs this year's model, Walter Braunfel's The Birds. I'll give Tresnjak credit for at least not repeating himself. The staging of these three operas have absolutely nothing in common, and that's a pity because The Birds never comes close to the complete success of the The Dwarf.
On the positive side, there are three vocal performances in this production that soar. In the role of Good Hope, Brandon Jonvanovich's rich tenor projected well in this large hall. I've only seen him once before, but his Pinkerton in SF Opera's Butterfly two years ago gave little hint of the terrific voice he displayed Saturday night.
Désirée Rancatore, whose turn as Gilda in Rigoletto I missed when she was last here in SF, also delivered a very strong performance. She has a very high soprano of the sort that often becomes annoyingly shrill after three notes, but she sang with beautiful clarity and an even tone throughout the evening. Her diminutive presence onstage only added to her convincing portrayal of the Nightingale.
Baritone Brian Mulligan's Prometheus drew hearty and justly deserved applause. Like Jovanovich, here is definitely another younger male singer worth keeping an eye out for. Mr. Gockley, can't you cast these fine singers in anything else besides 2nd tier Puccini roles?
The cast of singers for this production is really strong. The opera contains two beautiful arias and one terrific duet, and some music that passes pleasingly enough, though it won't strike anyone as being terribly original or particularly memorable. The orchestra sounded terrific under conductor James Conlon.
So why doesn't this fly?
Because Darko has laid an egg. Sorry, I couldn't resist at least one stupid pun.
In the pre-performance interview Conlon made much of the fact that Act 1 was written before WWI and Act 2 was composed after the war ended, strongly suggesting hearing The Birds as a musical metaphor for Europe's pre- and postwar experiences or collective mindset. My expectations were raised at that comment to expect a bifurcation in the opera along the lines of Fidelio but I simply didn't hear it. Braunfels also changes Aristophanes ending to reflect a grimmer contemporary postwar reality, but these implications never added up to anything that was worked out on the stage. The metaphors never leave the nest.
Also clipping the wings of this production are an unfortunately long and pointless ballet. The ballet sequence should have been re-thought. Better yet, it should have been cut. Gads, yes, I said cut it out! Blasphemy! It stops the action cold, as all ballets do in all operas. The twelve minutes could have been used to greater effect by illustrating some of the darker implications in the source material. How did a ballet end up in a 20th century work anyway?
More problems are an uninteresting, almost juvenile-looking set, and costumes that contained no elements of surprise, except Prometheus, who looked totally out of place (see Brian's review at Out West Arts for some perfect descriptions) and costumes that were lacking imagination or surprise.
These flaws/ shortcomings might have been less magnified if I had not had a seen both Die Walkure and Leila Josefowicz's stunning performance at Disney Hall the day before. Given the brilliance of those events, it's quite possible The Birds may have been cooked from the start. Finally, thanks to the Opera Tattler and Brian for joining me post-performance for drinks, food and conversation.