Push­ing lim­its in opera world

The pro­duc­tions are only loosely op­er­atic, and it’s a bumpy ride for mul­ti­me­dia works.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - MARK SWED MU­SIC CRITIC mark.swed@la­times.com

Mark Swed re­views a pair of out­liers, “The Hub­ble Can­tata” and “Pan­cho Villa From a Safe Dis­tance.”

As a genre, the Old World art form of opera lost its rigid­ity in the New World long ago. Even rock opera has a kind of ge­ri­atric con­no­ta­tion th­ese days, when any­one and ev­ery­one is in­vited to make opera into any­thing they like.

That was cer­tainly the case with back-to-back West Coast pre­mieres of new, loosely op­er­atic works, in what would once have seemed un­likely venues, by what are some­times known as “alt-clas­si­cal” com­posers. The tar­get au­di­ence has also changed, with shows hop­ing to be as al­lur­ing to a youngish, hip-ish, so­cial me­di­asavvy crowd as the next hot down­town res­tau­rant.

Tues­day night at the The­atre at Ace Ho­tel, the Los An­gles Ex­change [LAX] Fes­ti­val pre­sented “Pan­cho Villa From a Safe Dis­tance.” The Austin, Texas-based com­poser Gra­ham Reynolds is a rock and jazz band leader, film com­poser (no­tably for Richard Lin­klater), col­lab­o­ra­tor with var­i­ous dance and the­ater com­pa­nies and di­rec­tor of Golden Hor­net, called “a com­poser’s lab­o­ra­tory for the 21st cen­tury.”

Then on Wed­nes­day, “The Hub­ble Can­tata” came to the Ford The­atres, co-pre­sented by Los An­ge­les Opera as part of its Off Grand se­ries. Paola Pres­tini is also a genre-bend­ing (if some­what more tra­di­tion­ally clas­si­cal) com­poser and en­tre­pre­neur who runs Na­tional Saw­dust, the fash­ion­able new mu­sic venue in Brook­lyn.

Although quite dif­fer­ent mu­si­cally and the­atri­cally, the “op­eras” have enough in com­mon to speak of a shared zeit­geist (so much so that Pres­tini will be par­tic­i­pat­ing in a fu­ture Reynolds mu­sic the­ater project). Both pieces are for two singers. “Pan­cho Villa” is es­sen­tially a pop song cy­cle. “Hub­ble,” which might be called an opera/can­tata, also is made of sep­a­rate num­bers.

Both use mul­ti­me­dia — film in the case of “Pan­cho Villa” and vir­tual re­al­ity for “Hub­ble” — as a hook. They fa­vor loud am­pli­fi­ca­tion. They are mu­si­cally and vis­ually ac­ces­si­ble but get fancy with nar­ra­tive.

In­deed, it is mainly in the two li­bret­tos where op­er­atic pre­ten­sion be­comes a prob­lem. If you don’t know much about the Mex­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion or as­tro­physics, you won’t have an easy time fol­low­ing. The idea seems to be that one way to im­press the au­di­ence is with ob­scu­rity.

An­other cu­ri­ous co­in­ci­dence is that the li­bret­tos are struc­tured around a search for mean­ing. In the case of “Pan­cho Villa,” a 19year-old stu­dent is try­ing to find in the life of the famed Mex­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion fig­ure some an­swers to cur­rent so­cial and po­lit­i­cal problems in Mex­ico. The teen is an ex­tra­mu­si­cal fig­ure, pre­sented doc­u­men­tary style on film.

Around that are in­ci­dents from Villa’s life, shown vis­ually and sung, with fan­ci­ful lyrics by Luisa Pardo and Gabino Ro­driguez of the Mex­i­can the­ater col­lec­tive La­gar­ti­jas Ti­radas al Sol. The soloists, Paul Sanchez and Liz Cass, though, are the heart of the show, both ter­rific in con­vey­ing Reynolds’ com­fort­able Tex-Mex mix of rock and Mex­i­can mu­si­cal styles with a hint of Broad­way. The quirky quin­tet of vi­o­lin, cello, elec­tric gui­tar, bass (al­ter­nat­ing with tuba) and drums led by Reynolds on the syn­the­sizer pro­vide the pop moxie of what would ul­ti­mately make an ex­cel­lent al­bum’s worth of songs about Pan­cho Villa.

The fas­ci­nat­ing im­age that in­spired Reynolds was that of high-so­ci­ety Amer­i­can tourists who stood on the roof of an El Paso ho­tel to watch through opera glasses the Mex­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion as it was be­ing fought across the border. And the fas­ci­nat­ing lure for “The Hub­ble Can­tata” is that op­por­tu­nity to don vir­tual re­al­ity gear to spy on the Orion Neb­ula.

But here, there is even less in the way of real the­ater. Two first-rate opera singers, Jes­sica Rivera and Nathan Gunn, stood in front of mu­sic stands. Be­hind them were what were called the L.A. Opera Orches­tra and Cho­rus (but in­clud­ing no reg­u­lar mem­bers) and the Los An­ge­les Chil­dren’s Cho­rus, con­ducted by Ju­lian Wach­ner.

On a giant scrim in front were pro­jected im­ages of the uni­verse and a wo­man lost in it. She is meant to be the wife of an as­tro­physi­cist who has com­mit­ted sui­cide af­ter the death of the cou­ple’s child. An­swers to life’s great and ter­ri­ble mean­ing are sought in the sky above. A guide is the physi­cist and pop­u­lar au­thor, Mario Livio, who adds recorded nar­ra­tion (although he could have done it more ef­fec­tively live on stage, since he was present for a pre-per­for­mance talk).

For the last 10 min­utes of the 55-minute work, we were ex­pected to have down­loaded an app on our phones, which we then used with sup­plied vir­tual re­al­ity gear to have a 3-D look around at the Hub­ble tele­scope float­ing in space and what it sees beyond. Our bodies be­ing noth­ing more than star dust, we be­come one with the great beyond. The score be­gins and ends with the cho­ruses singing “Lie in the grass … Col­lect your stars.”

As an opera/can­tata, at least as pre­sented at the Ford, the “Hub­ble” was a mess from start to fin­ish. It is hard to say much about the mu­sic, be­cause the Ford’s new sound sys­tem and ag­gres­sive sound de­sign con­spired to dis­tort voices and in­stru­ments. What did work were the elec­tronic outer space ef­fects, in­clud­ing chop­per noise that had me look­ing around for an­noy­ing he­li­copters.

The main prob­lem, though, was that Royce Vavrek’s li­bretto, sen­ti­men­tally an­thro­po­mor­phiz­ing outer space, seemed to send Pres­tini astray. There was lit­tle here on the level of her ex­quis­ite ear­lier opera, “Oceanic Verses.” Even El­iza McNitt’s VR film, “Fist­ful of Stars,” proved anti-cli­mac­tic. Cli­matic mu­sic re­ceded into the back­ground as we fid­dled with phones and lowend view­ers (blurry for glasses wear­ers).

In the end what may be most op­er­atic about “The Hub­ble Can­tata” is not the soap opera at­tempt to dra­ma­tize the uni­verse but just the op­po­site, the work’s abil­ity to evoke the vast­ness of what lies beyond our ex­pe­ri­ence. That re­ally is a promis­ing new world for opera.

Francine Orr Los An­ge­les Times

SO­PRANO Jes­sica Rivera per­forms “The Hub­ble Can­tata” at the Ford The­atres on Wed­nes­day night.

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