Domingo, Fleming Bring Starry End To LA Opera Year

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The monk Athanaël (Plácido Domingo) is smitten with the courtesan Thaïs (Nino Machaidze) in the LA Opera production.  (Photos by Robert Millard)
The monk Athanaël (Plácido Domingo) is smitten with the courtesan Thaïs (Nino Machaidze) in the LA Opera staging.
(Production photos by Robert Millard)
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES –  In a town that loves to worship stars, Plácido Domingo and Renée Fleming were loudly touted as “the reigning king and queen of opera,” flying in to help Los Angeles Opera wrap up its 2013-14 season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with back-to-back local premieres. The only time they actually appeared together, though, was at a photo-op, for Domingo was here to perform another in a prolific series of baritone roles, Athanaël in Massenet’s Thaïs on May 17, while Fleming was here to sing Blanche, a signature role written for her in André Previn’s operatic version of Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire, on May 18. Both triumphed.

Renée Fleming and Plácido Domingo meet an adoring public. (Bonnie Perkinson)
Dynamic duo offstage: Fleming and Domingo. (Bonnie Perkinson)

Though Massenet has been receiving a revival of interest over the last several years, with Werther overtaking Manon as his most popular opera for some reason, Thaïs has remained in the shadows unless a big star like a Fleming or a Domingo takes an interest. It’s hard to see why this is so, for Thaïs is one of Massenet’s better scores. It has an appealing sensuousness, not as syrupy as some of the others, with a pronounced Wagnerian influence and some exotic touches outside the composer’s comfort zone. It may be the only opera whose best aria is given to a solo violin – that being, of course, the beautiful “Meditation” right in the center of the piece.

It has also been the undoing of one major singer – Anna Moffo, who made a recording of Thaïs when she was having vocal problems in the mid-1970s and never quite recovered from the bad reception that LP set got. Going against the grain, I found her performance to be very seductive, sliding up to the notes and all, and very much in sync with the title character, an Egyptian courtesan-performer who discovers her inner piety upon the urging of a raggedy monk Athanaël, who in turn loses his piety as his desire for her grows. It is this seductiveness that I thought was missing from the Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze’s portrayal of Thaïs in Act I in the LA production – not only the voice, whose upper end betrayed some shrillness, but also her costume, which made her look like a weirdly-feathered yellow bird. She fared much better as her character evolved in Acts II and III, though, more convincing as a penitent than as a temptress.

Athanaël loses his piety for the seductive Thaïs.
Athanaël loses his piety for the seductive Thaïs.

Likewise, Domingo seemed to come into his own in Act II as his voice warmed up, steadier now, coupled with his always superb acting skills finding all kinds of depth in the part. Despite the fact that Athanaël is a baritone role, and even given that Domingo adapts his darker vocal colors to the bottom end of the character’s range, we are always aware that a tenor is singing this part; you cannot disguise that distinctive timbre. That said, the great Domingo remains a unique marvel who can still dominate any stage he chooses – and you would never guess his age from the strength and sound of his voice, nor from the way he was costumed as the disheveled, brown-maned monk.

Director Nicola Raab’s production, from the Finnish National Opera, whisked Thaïs’s time frame up to an 18th- or 19th-century opera house, populated by folks in all kinds of outlandishly ornate costumes. Thaïs’s boudoir, by contrast, is a cluttered, claustrophobic, if lavishly appointed little room, but that’s very effective in showing how boxed-in the courtesan feels, insecure in her looks and empty in her soul, providing motivation for her religious conversion. The last act took us to a stylized desert, dominated by what looked like an amphitheater revolving on a turntable. The staging of the final scene, with Thaïs having already ascended to heaven, standing tall and looking like a healthy bride-to-be (she is supposed to be “supine” and dying), would seem to be absurd. Unless, that is,  you assume that Athanaël is still hallucinating from the previous scene (maybe due to dehydration in the desert!). Then, it makes some sense.

Patrick Fournillier led the pit orchestra with vigor and passion at the expense of some sensuality. Concertmaster Roberto Cani played the famous “Meditation” with an ear for subtle shadings and a sublime finish, and Paul Groves displayed a flexible young tenor as Athanaël’s friend Nicias. Alas, it wasn’t the entire opera, for this production cut all of the Act II ballet music, which contains some of the best passages in the score. But we should take our Thaïses where we can find them these days, and this one definitely had its moments of emotional gratification.

Mitch (Anthony Dean Griffey) courts Blanche (Renée Fleming) in 'Streetcar.'
Mitch (Anthony Dean Griffey) courts Blanche (Renée Fleming).

Meanwhile, Streetcar is showing every sign of becoming a permanent staple of the modern opera repertoire. With a PBS telecast and a fine Deutsche Grammophon recording of its 1998 San Francisco Opera premiere adding fuel to its launch, Streetcar has held the stage remarkably well since; indeed, I find it even more moving and satisfying now than at the world premiere performance.

One reason is that it is based on an indestructible play, which Philip Littell’s libretto condenses concisely and follows almost word-for-word. Previn’s resourceful score holds up, too, illuminating each line in the libretto, and familiarity has revealed a distinctive Previn voice – to cite only one example, the use of a soulfully sardonic solo trombone that one recognizes from some of Previn’s film work from long ago. There is jazz here, but only in fleeting instances for underlining, or for sleazy New Orleans color; it’s not a jazz-based score, as some observers keep claiming. It’s not even worth debating whether Previn should or shouldn’t have catered to the tastemakers who demand musical innovations. This score works – on its own terms.

Also, it turns out that Streetcar is capable of accommodating different staging interpretations. The spartan traveling production that Los Angeles saw – owned by Lyric Opera of Chicago – strikes the realistic sets of the world premiere, making do with 15-or-so chairs, a table, a bed, placing the orchestra onstage to the rear of the action. Director Brad Dalton added seven muscled Stanley Kowalski look-alikes as mute actors and stage crew, and the white-suited young Collector (tenor Cullen Gandy) whom Blanche tries to seduce also doubles silently as her late homosexual husband, hammering home one thing that is gradually unhinging the poor woman. The San Francisco premiere was a good first production because it simply let Streetcar be Streetcar, whereas Dalton amplifies some of the play’s points further yet without losing the plot’s emotional pull and insight into human nature. His supers are not necessary, but they cause no harm, either.

Stanley (Ryan McKinny) and Stella (Stacey Tappan) share a rare intimate moment amid familial tensions.
Stanley (Ryan McKinny) and Stella (Stacey Tappan) share an intimate moment.

Yet another reason why Streetcar has legs is that some of the original performers from the launch are still advocating the piece, adding detail and deepening their interpretations – starting with La Fleming herself. Her Blanche now has extra jolts of intensity and desperation, the unhinging process increasing gradually with each act. Her climactic Act III arias “I Want Magic” and “I Can Smell the Sea Air” – now standard features at her recitals – were almost as much acted as sung; such molto expressivo in the service of a character who was going over the edge was welcome. Her voice was in excellent, polished shape, and most gratifyingly, her diction was sharp. Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, the original Mitch, was back – his character’s heavy-set, amiable, drawling, overprotected persona intact. There was to have been a third participant from the original cast, Patrick Summers, who conducted some of the San Francisco performances. But he was forced to withdraw on May 6 due to a back injury, so Evan Rogister propulsively officiated instead.

Blanche (Fleming) depending on the kindness of strangers.
Blanche (Fleming) depending on the kindness of strangers.

Baritone Ryan McKinny proved to be a forceful, brutal, macho Stanley Kowalski oozing swagger and anger to the point where he nearly, but not quite, stole the focus of attention away from Blanche. The sweetly-singing soprano Stacey Tappan aptly portrayed Stella as an unglamorous ordinary housewife with a libido happily fulfilled by Stanley – and the onstage sexual chemistry between the couple was ample enough. All the voices projected clearly and distinctly with the orchestra in the rear –which was fine when the score was underlining most things – but the Shostakovich-like orchestral agitations during the rape scene (blatantly illuminated in red lighting) sounded too recessed.

Ironically, one missing figure was Previn himself, who was raised in Los Angeles, learned his craft in the film studios, and came back years later as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But after fulfilling some conducting dates following his acrimonious resignation from the Phil a quarter-century ago, he hasn’t been back. Our loss.

Thaïs continues on May 25 and 29, and June 1, 4 and 7. A Streetcar Named Desire receives two more performances on May 21 and 24. Go to www.laopera.org

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.