Sunday, April 26, 2009
This afternoon I had the delightful experience of attending Die Vögel (The Birds), an opera by Walter Braunfels. This opera is a continuation of Los Angeles Opera's "Recovered Voices" program, which seeks to rediscover the works of Jewish composers of the early 20th century which had been surpressed by the Nazi regime. They have been giving new life to lost gems, restoring them to their rightful place in the opera canon. I found Die Vögel to be a charming work. Historically, Braunfels was strongly influenced by Wagner (upon seeing Tristan and Isolde, Braunfels decided to drop his law career and pursue music instead), but at least in this work, I found much more influence of other Germans, notably Richard Strauss and Mozart. How can an opera featuring birds, and opening with two guys carrying bird cages, not call to mind The Magic Flute? And some of the Nightingale's arias featured coloratura ornamentation worthy of the Queen of the Night. The story itself was fanciful and allegorical in a Magic Flute sort of way, based on Aristophanes' play The Birds, though made less farcical and with a changed ending (to support the established order rather than overthrow it), giving it more of a story arc and an opportunity to insert a romance. All the performers were strong, but two young stars making their LA Opera debut were particularly captivating. Désirée Rancatore's exquisitely beautiful soprano voice and graceful bearing as the Nightingale made it easy to see her allure, and how Good Hope could fall in love with her. And the honey-golden tenor of the handsome Brandon Jovanovich made Good Hope's passionate arias soar. Their nocturne duet in Act II was so moving, just sigh-inducingly beautiful. Another notable voice was baritone Brian Mulligan, as Prometheus, rich, deep, powerful and commanding. The play was charmingly visualized by director Darko Tresnjak (whom we knew from his Shakespeare work at The Old Globe in San Diego), with a large chorus swirling around in vibrant many-colored costumes, and a bird city in the clouds looking like classical Athens done as birdhouses. The one awkward piece of staging was the conquest of the city by Zeus, which was anticlimactically undramatic, with the birdhouses being gingerly dismantled. A plot-irrelevant thunderstorm from the evening before was more dramatically staged than the actual battle which is the climax of the story. But the final scene is touching, where the two adventurers return to the human world, Loyal Friend shrugging off the experience having learned nothing, and Good Hope having been profoundly moved. "Now I will go back down the mountain, for I have lived," he sings. I left very grateful to James Conlon, not only for his fine conducting, but his leadership in the "Recovered Voices" program for bringing us this unjustly neglected gem.