Rock ‘N’ Wry Handel: ‘Giustino’ In The Mojave, Sparked By A Trap Drum

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The cast of the Long Beach Opera production of Handel’s ‘Giustino.’ (Photos by Jordan Geiger)

LONG BEACH, Ca. — Long Beach Opera has weathered a lot of crises lately — and not just the pandemic, which they emerged from sooner than most organizations with a drive-in production of Philip Glass’ Les Enfants Terrible a year ago this month. There was a change of leadership from Andreas Mitisek to Yuval Sharon to James Darrah, the current artistic director, in a short period of time while the pandemic raged on.

More troubling, there was turmoil in the ranks with the resignation last December of three Black members of the LBO staff alleging “a culture of misogyny, a sustained pattern of racial tokenism, a lack of defining values and principles, and a structural failure to process uncomfortable feedback.” (This, mind you, is the company that recently gave the world premiere of Anthony Davis’ The Central Park Five, which won a Pulitzer and is scheduled to return in a new production in June.) One of the three, the “minister of culture” Alexander Gedeon, stayed on to supervise the season-opening production of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Stimmung, scheduled to start March 19. But just days before curtain time, he withdrew from that, too, and the performances were canceled. An investigation ordered by the board of directors subsequently found that there was “no evidence of any racial or gender discrimination” or tokenism — just poor management practices of not making employees feel like they are being heard.

Luke Elmer as Giustino and Sharon Chohi Kim as La Fortuna.

What a way to start a season. But LBO trudged on, and the second production of the season, now designated as the first, Handel’s Giustino, opened on time with robust attendance; the May 22 performance I attended was sold out.

With Giustino, LBO was returning to the genre of Baroque regietheater that established the company as a scrappy bunch of progressive rebels back in the 1980s. Giustino is another stylized Baroque opera set in a time far away from ours (and Handel’s) — the Byzantine Empire headquartered in Constantinople. The plot is too complicated to summarize in this space, but it involves two couples — the Empress Arianna and her new husband, Anastasio, and the young hero Giustino, who is almost a Parsifal-like figure, and Anastasio’s sister, Princess Leocasta. There are warring factions, misunderstandings, changing loyalties, etc.

All of this was transferred by stage director Darrah to a shabby motel on the edge of the Southern California Mojave Desert, circa 1972 or so. In tune with our times, the casting of a female soprano as Anastasio produced a same-sex royal marriage, and there was some cross-dressing at a strange party near the opera’s close. The company also brought in the composer Shelley Washington to “orchestrate” and “adapt” Handel for this incongruous setting. This resulted in cutting about three-quarters of an hour from the score and inserting brief blasts of disco and rock `n’ roll from a rhythm section attached to the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra — L.A.’s leading period performance-practice band.

They didn’t waste any time rattling tradition. Instead of the Overture, the opera opened with a trap drum solo! Yet for me, to be honest, the American pop interjections — even at their most distracting, like that bizarre off-key saxophone in Act II — were quite entertaining and no sillier than some of the twists in the plot. They could also be emotionally effective, as in the use of a gentle solo Fender Rhodes electric piano to underscore one of the arias in Act II. And there was plenty of authentic-sounding Handel to go around — indeed, most of the evening. Wild Up’s Christopher Rountree, the new LBO music director, led this hybrid band with incisiveness and genuine enthusiasm, as he is used to crossing stylistic boundaries with glee.

Luke Elmer as Giustino and Dante Mireles as Polidarte, wrapped in plastic, standing in for “sea monster.”

As is often the case, LBO also would not be content with staging the opera in a traditional opera house or theater, let alone doing the piece straight. This time, they used the outdoor Sculpture Garden of the Museum of Latin American Art several blocks away from Long Beach’s performing arts center.

Bleachers for the audience surrounded three sides of a long carpeted runway in the center of the garden, with the fourth side occupied by the musicians. A motel sign all lit up in neon, the kind you might have seen alongside Route 66 in the Mojave Desert before the interstate came through, overlooked the musicians. Five giant video screens projected still images of a desert landscape from an installation within the museum, sometimes replaced by live video close-ups of the operatic action on the platform. The latter technique is a Darrah signature, although this time, unlike in the above-mentioned Les Enfants Terrible in the parking garage, he applied it sparingly.

Anna Schubert as Arianna.

Soprano Anna Schubert, previously seen in Les Enfants Terrible and LA Opera’s p r i s m, was even more impressive and expressive as Arianna, and soprano Marlaina Owens displayed a contrasting timbre as Anastasio. Countertenor Luke Elmer was Giustino, Amanda Lynn Bottoms sang Leocasta in a tremulous mezzo-soprano, and soprano Sharon Chohi Kim’s La Fortuna — kind of a trendy fairy godmother-like character — made her entrance in a white tunic with dollar signs on the sleeves. Bass-baritone Douglas Williams powered bravely through a case of non-COVID laryngitis (as announced before curtain time) as Amanzio, Orson Van Gay displayed a strong tenor as Vitaliano, and Dante Mireles was Polidarte as well as a human replacement for Handel’s “sea monster.” All impressions of the vocal performances are necessarily provisional as the sound was amplified — albeit well amplified.

Everything went down colorfully, irreverently, presumably safely (proof of vaccination was required for entry, though masks were optional outdoors). And Handel survived — in one form or another.

Giustino continues at Long Beach Opera through May 28. For tickets and information, go here.