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LA Observed End-of-Year 2016 Review

December 27, 2016

Call them a team. Some team. They are, arguably, the greatest living theater artist and the greatest living dancing actor, in magical cahoots with each other. Namely, Robert Wilson and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Two years ago they brought us "The Old Woman," a revelatory piece that instead of being a fluke with rich resources was just the first combustion of a duo bound for the poetic cosmos.

But return they did to UCLA's Royce Hall (and it couldn't happen for more appreciative hosts) -- this time with "Letter to a Man," otherwise known as their Nijinsky piece, based on the legendary dancer's madman journal writings to his nemesis, Sergei Diaghilev, that haute impresario of the early Parisian 1900's, who sponsored and bedded him, then sent him into exile; this, after his misdeed of marriage to aristocrat Romola de Pulszky.

Did you miss it? Well, you missed a stunning event. What kind? The kind that makes you crave to see the 60-minute show again. To jump on a plane to Paris next week, where it plays for 8 days. And what makes it so?

The moment-to-moment montage, a kaleidoscope that frames the ever-magnetic Misha in a myriad of physical portrayals, his voice projections of the Russian lines set down by Vaslav Nijinsky in the Zurich sanatorium. It's where he lived in otherwise silence for the subsequent 30 years to his life's end.

What Wilson does is drop each vignette into a stage picture, developed through ingenious lighting and set pieces that form a captivating tableau. There's the stark shock value of Misha in white face, with tux shirt and black bow tie, strobe-lit in a freeze of madness, the stage fronted by a row of yellow bulbs. But that's just to start.

Soon the sardonic good times get going. A little song and dance, Bausch-style, with the nostalgia of '30s pop tunes, Misha still doing a fluidly integrated turn or step that advertises his authoritative wit and showmanship. But elsewhere this Nijinsky's expression goes dark and his downcast eyes gaze into the same abyss seen on an LP jacket picturing the dancer as a tragic Petrouchka.

If we're lucky UCLA's Royce Hall will stage an encore.

Meanwhile there's another Russian supernova commanding our attention: Daniil Trifonov, the 25-year-old pianist whose name often brings up talk of Vladimir Horowitz -- although this current virtuoso comes without personal peculiarities. He's simply an extraordinary artist.

So when the Disney Hall crowd, packed wall-to-wall, heard him with Gustavo Dudamel leading his LA Philharmonic, it was blown away. Naturally.

They ventured that beast of the literature, Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto. A knuckle-buster if there ever was one, it became the world Trifonov inhabits, wholly absorbing, intense in its intricacies and rapacious demands, its live-or-die heat, all of it stitched together in unrelenting concentration.

Unlike many others, he even took on the lush romantic theme with an elegant, classical approach -- no swoosh and swoon and swell, no quarter with easy, over-indulgence, but just a modicum of restraint for contrast with the surrounding finger fury.

To be sure, Dudamel kept his band stepping along in unflagging sympathy with the soloist. But there were moments when they swamped him -- so that Rachmaninoff's advanced harmonics (1st movement), as heard when Trifonov played under the Verbier Festival's Yuri Temirkanov, got swallowed up here.

No check on orchestral power came in the remaining program. Dudamel gave his forces their head and then some for Prokofiev's mystical Scythian Suite, followed by Scriabian's "Poem of Ecstasy." For those who have yet to hear the Philharmonic in all its sonic brilliance, this has to be a resolute goal.

But those seeking a massive visual component to music had only to catch LA Opera's production of Philip Glass's "Akhnaten" -- you know, that supposedly androgynous pharaoh, made more so in this re-telling of Egyptian history by the title character's gradual gender change before our very eyes.

Extraneous commotion abounded here, and not just for the staging and majestically static score, momentous music of mounting drama (a Glass specialty). First, there was the Music Center Pavilion's protest rally by "Black History Matters" questioning that the company did not cast an African-American as the lead counter-tenor, despite its color blind composition of numerous others, including Queen Nefertiti.

And then there was Akhnaten (himself/herself), sung by Anthony Roth Costanzo in a somewhat scratchy, appropriately high voice, who appeared nude at one lengthy ceremonial point, head and body shaven, only to be dressed in this glacially slow production by attendants. (One wag was heard saying "what a way to put your pants on!" referring to the choreographed lifting of the whole body and slow guiding of his legs into their coverings). Later, under sheer garments, he appeared with a semblance of breasts.

You could call the entire show a processional, with much sung declaiming, a contingent of jugglers and some stunning scenic triumphs -- all of it underpinned by a score with ongoing arpeggios, led perfunctorily here by Matthew Aucoin (a talked-about composer named to three years as the company's artist-in-residence). But coming after Glass's "Einstein on the Beach," staged three years ago, it doesn't nearly match the power of that celebrated piece.

As a breather LA Opera gave us Leonard Bernstein's charming, upbeat "Wonderful Town" -- and didn't even insist on an operatic conversion, except for baritone Marc Kudisch, the only self-consciously formal voice here, who sang off-pitch much of the time.

So, yes, the Broadway musical has a place here, especially if you believe that music drama can be inclusive. Quality counts, not genre. And although its orchestration fully acknowledges terrific tunes and musical comedy rhythms, Bernstein's interior scoring also lets us in on his compositional kernels for "On the Waterfront" and even "West Side Story."

Grant Gershon led the whole shebang lovingly and energetically (revealing his early roots) -- with the orchestra onstage behind the performing cast. Faith Prince made a comically jaded Ruth with Nikki James her deliciously starry-eyed sister Eileen. Roger Bart, that utterly versatile impersonator, changed voices, accents and characters in the flick of an eye.

Steven Sondheim joined the Broadway focus when Beverly Hills' Wallis Theater put on the composer's still problematic "Merrily We Roll Along."

Despite the staging's over-the-top, unintended caricature (an SNL skit?) and George Furth's now fatuously melodramatic book, Sondheim's marvelous songs and lyrics make the effort well worth our while. Can anyone ever resist the chance to hear "Not a Day Goes By"? Even when up against this show's politically correct diversity casting that makes not a whit of sense? Of course, if you close your eyes and just listen.

Among notable locals there was the best of them, LA Ballet, an enterprise that keeps on amazing us with its often sterling programs.The latest, in a string of successes, led off with signature Balanchine, the "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" and let me say here that the piece is always startling; it is its choreographer's neo-classical genre emblem. Pull it out of the box, amid many diverse ballet formats, and it will outshine everything else.

Of course, that's assuming the dancers, their coach and the general staging can match the demands. No question this time. The soloists made the most eloquent complement to Stravinsky's quirky, convoluted and melancholy score. And the ensemble was not far behind.

The other grateful entry on the bill was Aszure Barton's "Untouched," a clever cowboy's lament set in a dance hall (brothel?) that uses Graham expressionism in an original, characterful way. Again, the dancers rose to the high level of national companies with big budgets. Establishment Los Angeles and its private benefactors must do more to secure this gem of a dance troupe.

LA Observed

by Donna Perlmutter

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