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Big -- as in Bruckner and Bizet -- from the LA Phil to Carmen in 3D

By Donna Perlmutter
Published: Tuesday, March 08, 2011, at 07:41AM
Gustavo Dudamel Anna Hult

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the LA Philharmonic

Everything is relative, as they say. And everything is context. All you have to do for immediate confirmation is check out the Downtown scene in concert music and opera.

Let’s see, there’s our man Gustavo Dudamel leading his LA Philharmonic, just back from a month-long European tour, in a revelatory program of contrasts. Now what could that be?

Try Bruckner -- the biggest, most bloated, but also tidily tucked-in symphonist whose single works could clock in at 80 minutes -- played in contrast to the ultimate deconstructions of Webern, who decided back in the early 20th century’s revolutionary days that it all could be said in two or three minutes.

Okay. Now take a look/listen at something called “Carmen in 3D,” screening at Regal Theatres everywhere, an undertaking of the Royal Opera Covent Garden. 3D. Isn’t that the technology for advanced sci-fi/action movies? No way would we ever expect so much shtick and gimmickry from the Brits. Think of it. A Francesca Zambello staging meticulously mounted within a proscenium arch, in other words, a show meant to be seen from a theatrical perspective.

So what have we here? A come-on (see title). And weirdness in tiny, tacked-on doses (the tenor’s arm seeming to reach you in your seat). But most of all, film director Julian Napier’s inept use of camera angles that destroy a scene’s intended impact. Why, we could be one of the chickens pecking around the stage floor, what with cameras shooting up-close and downward, instead of taking in the panoramic environs of the cigarette factory with Sevillean villagers strolling. A mess.

Still, with so much expensive hullabaloo, i.e. advertising, you’d think Covent Garden would have secured its elite, original, gorgeous cast for its big-time venture in the opera-movie sweepstakes. Not. It even over-amplified everything, so that most of what we heard seemed canned—although, for those who are un-addicted to natural vocal/orchestral artistry and may like to slink into a darkened movie theatre to hear Bizet’s miracle of a score performed by fairly convincing singing actors, this is your ticket.

Does anyone remember Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, the brilliant opera designer/director who, as just one example, gave San Francisco a “Carmen” that was raw and powerful in its incidental political verisimilitude? Or his TV-film version of “Madama Butterfly” that actually used camera techniques to forge the geisha’s vision of her U.S. naval officer’s exploits? I guess those were the days before shtick took over artistry. We were lucky.

As for the performances, I’d give them all a passing grade, not more.

But going back to Disney Hall was pure heaven. That is, hearing our resident band in all its sonic glory – with separate strands of clarified sound massed at climaxes, with unanimous ensemble and perfectly calibrated balances. First came the Webern, Five Pieces for Orchestra, piquant shards that seduced the ear with their discontinous expressionism. Then Takemitsu’s Requiem (for larger string contingent), this time a study in continuity punctuated by a few breakaway motifs, but, again, lasting only ten minutes.

And finally, in contrast to these miniatures, Dudamel gave us a marathon symphony, Bruckner’s Seventh, which not only pulled out all the stops, but enlisted Wagner tubas along with its mammoth orchestra. Next to Webern this last of the grand symphonists can conjure up a picture of old heads nodding wisely, which is not to say there aren’t moments in the music that are as tenderly lyric as a lark.

Conducting without a score, Dudamel paced himself judiciously – after all, this is a challenge not unlike swimming an ocean, for the players as well. They went at it with equal parts vigor, refinement and even a sense of awe to produce Wagnerian majesty but always drove back to warmth, rather than stay among those mystical raptures. And, oh, Joe Pereira, will we ever forget the fluttery heartbeats of your timpani?

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