Los Angeles Opera presents a splendid rara avis: Walter Braunfel’s “The Birds”


April 24: NEW REVIEW
by David Gregson

When London/Decca began releasing its “Entartete Musik” (“Degenerate Music”) series of CDs several years ago, I managed to add most of them to my collection – but quite frankly, few of these discs lured me to anything more than a quick first listen-through before I basically shelved them for a possible second hearing. I did not get around to listening closely to the two-disc set of Walter Braunfels’ “Die Vögel” (“The Birds”) until last week as I was preparing to attend the Los Angeles Opera’s current production of this truly obscure work – a rara avis to be sure.

One is not too likely to hear this work again: it’s certain to be almost as scarce as hen’s teeth. Los Angeles Opera’s wonderful production ends Sunday, April 26. I regret not having made the drive up from San Diego a little sooner so that I could post an early online plug for something most true opera lovers really should not miss. Even first-time opera goers should enjoy an enchanted evening.

Basically “Entartete Musik” refers to music suppressed by the Nazis for just about any hateful reason you could readily imagine and many you couldn’t. They certainly would have lapped up “Die Vögel” if Braunfels had possessed the necessary Aryan credentials. The composer was working in the mainstream of a lush German-romantic tradition, but he was half-Jewish and had had the audacity to turn down an offer to write a national anthem for The Third Reich, so it’s amazing he didn’t end up getting gassed or roasted like some of his less fortunate “degenerate” contemporaries.

The score of “Die Vögel” is ravishing, its orchestration and graceful vocal writing all guaranteed to captivate. The closest and most obvious similarities are to the operas of Richard Strauss, but Braunfels seems considerably less daring harmonically than his much more famous contemporary. Now that everybody is good and fed up with the ageing academic command that we all feed worshipfully on atonality and musical serialism and other “‘isms” descended from the Third Viennese School, we can just say – what the hell, this is damned pretty and I like it.

Under the direction of conductor James Conlon, the Los Angeles Opera is playing fabulously – much more excitingly and urgently than the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Lothar Zagrosek on the now almost impossible-to-find Decca CD (totally sold out at the lobby’s gift shop.) The cast, too, is superb – and no matter what you have heard or read in the Los Angeles Times, the sets, staging and costumes are no major embarrassment. Stage director Darko Tresnjak, instead of obfuscating the drama in the fashion of current “Ring” director, Achim Freyer, makes everything crystal clear; the scenery design is clever and appealing, free of Freyer’s blast-your-brains-out, pretentious high-art craziness (and therefore naïve in some critics’ eyes); and Linda Cho’s simple, colorful bird costumes do not totally hide the living performers from our view in the fashion of Mrs. Achim Freyer, but allow us to see the human singers wearing them. I know there are Freyer fans out there – and I’d enjoy our “brilliant genius” (are you kidding?) too if he were not narcissistically promoting his mildly interesting concepts over the masterpieces of Wagner! He should just go and do a provocative “Ring” installation down at MOCA which we could see for free after 5:00 p.m. on Thursdays.

(OK – I confess I’ve not seen Freyer’s “Die Walküre” yet: only “Das Rheingold” and the B Minor Mass from a former season.)

As for the story of “The Birds” and their attempt at building a utopian city in the sky – I hardly know what to make of an allegory that puts down the idea of revolution and says just be happy and leave everything up to Zeus. This smacks too much of right-wing ideology in my analysis. How dare the stupid birds defy their oppressors? Well, they quickly lose their war and immediately capitulate and kiss the arses of the traditional ruling class – namely the gods. Even Prometheus is shown as a tragic figure who should never have dreamed helping out mankind and defying the divine decree.

I think one just has to ignore the idiotic libretto and regard everything as a fairy tale. It certainly has none of the satiric bite of the original Aristophanes play. But it’s lovely music – and the familiar existential German concept of “longing,” expressed memorably in the Act Two exchanges between the wonderful tenor Brandon Jovanovich (Good Hope) and spectacular soprano Desiree Rancatore (as Nightingale), add depth to the whole experience – although, frankly, this aspect of the story, such as it is, doesn’t seem to fit in logically with the dominant political/religious symbolism.

Hmm, I’m in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, former Academy venue: Thank you, thank you. There are really too many birds here for me to thank you all for your wonderful performances, but I would especially like to thank Brian Mulligan for a deeply affecting scene as the suffering Prometheus, and baritone James Johnson for being a truly Loyal Friend. You were adorable, soprano Stacey Tappan, as Wren, and I should not forget our terrific Hoopoe, baritone Martin Ganter. I regret I could not tell the First Tit from the Second Tit – so my apologies for anyone I forgot. Fine job Eagle, Raven, Flamingo, doves and swallows. And special thanks to the dancers who did not fall off the very steeply raked stage into the orchestra pit.
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Tickets: THE BIRDS at the LA Opera

THE BIRDS
by Walter Braunfels

Saturday April 11, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Saturday April 18, 2009 2:00 p.m.
Thursday April 23, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Sunday April 26, 2009 2:00 p.m.

NIGHTINGALE Désirée Rancatore
GOOD HOPE Brandon Jovanovich
LOYAL FRIEND James Johnson
HOOPOE Martin Gantner
WREN Stacey Tappan
PROMETHEUS Brian Mulligan
EAGLE/ZEUS Matthew Moore

CONDUCTOR James Conlon
DIRECTOR Darko Tresnjak
SET DESIGNER David P. Gordon
COSTUME DESIGNER Linda Cho
CHOREOGRAPHER Peggy Hickey
ASSOCIATE CONDUCTOR/CHORUS MASTER Grant Gershon

RUNNING TIME
2 hours and 50 minutes
including one intermission

PRE-PERFORMANCE LECTURE
One hour prior to each performance.

Company Premiere
New Production

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