Saturday, May 17, 2008

Mannered Shakespeare; shapely Messiaen

Glendale, Friday, May 16--
LAST NIGHT'S PLAY at A Noise Within -- The Night of the Iguana -- was so good, tonight was bound to be a disappointment. The odd thing was, tonight's flaws were last night's virtues. Geof Elliot, who was such a superb Shannon last night, was a mannered Falstaff. I mentioned yesterday that I disagreed with Variety's complaint that the Tennessee Williams play was "overwrought and undermodulated": that exactly describes tonight's Henry IV, Part 1.

The problem, far as I'm concerned, was the direction. Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott direct a good many of NW's plays. Since Geoff Elliott also takes a number of the leads, NW risks seeming almost a vanity company. We've been coming here for years, so we obviously like it; NW isn't, of course, simply a vanity company. But.

The first half of the evening -- the first two acts of the play -- suffered the most. Interesting, virtually all my complaints have to do with things heard: Laura Karpman's music cues are overblown and uninteresting, and further compromised by the cheap-sounding synthesized "orchestration." Much more serious were problems with declamation and accents.

The biggest problem was Elliott, who singsonged and chanted and declaimed and orated Falstaff's lines to the point that fascination with the vocal delivery overtook every other dimension of the role. Too bad, because physically and intellectually it was an interesting portrayal of a difficult part.

Beyond that, J. Todd Adams, as Hotspur, twisted his lines through an accent that may have been aimed at Scotland but seemed to mediate between Virgina hill country and the Beatles's Liverpool. You never really knew where you were. And that too was too bad, because he was otherwise remarkably good in the role.

Robertson Dean was an understated, dignified Henry IV, thank heavens; and Freddy Douglas was a marvelous Hal, youthful, hesitant, observant, aware, ultimately blossoming into the future king. Steve Weingartner was a complex, rewarding Percy, and other roles were ably taken by Eric J. Stein and Apollo Dukakis.

Best of all, perhaps, was the Bardolph of William Dennis Hunt, who looked like Bert Lahr starring in a goofy Michael McClure play. Come to think of it, Noise Within should let him do exactly that.

EARLIER TODAY WE HEARD a concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the newish Gehry-designed concert hall. Peter Serkin was on hand, a late replacement for an ailing pianist, and the piece that had most attracted us to the concert, Leos Janacek's Concertino for Piano and Winds, had been scrubbed; but the substitution was Olivier Messiaen's "Petites esquisses d'oiseaux" (Little Sketches for Birds), for solo piano; Messiaen's last composition for that medium, one I hadn't heard before, and a beautiful, perfectly persuasive piece.

It was a perfect complement to the other Messiaen piece, Oiseaux exotiques for piano, winds, and percussion, a much earlier piece which also manages to avoid those aspects of Messiaen that to my mind weaken much of the rest of his music: exaggerated sentimentality, unpersuasive mysticism, swoopy postWagnerianism.

Serkin played both pieces magnificently, separating pitches and phrases out of complex aggregates of sound, finding the true music in the bright, percussive piano writing; and in Oiseaux exotiques both the musicians of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and their music director, Christoph von Dohnanyi, supported both Serkin and the composer with real distinction.

Beethoven's Eroica Symphony sounded out quite well -- we were sitting behind the orchestra, seats I always like, and which in this case helped further differentiate the important differences between first and second violins, seated opposite one another in this hall. The interpretation was unremarkable and straightforward.

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