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Review: 'The Birds' at L.A. Opera

April 12, 2009 |  2:28 pm

Birds 2  

For a young opera company that has yet to stage Messiaen’s bird-besotted “Saint Francois d’Assise,” Stravinsky’s “The Nightingale,” Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie” or Hans Werner Henze’s “The Hoopoe and the Triumph of a Son’s Love,” mounting Walter Braunfels’ “The Birds” (“Die Vögel") is clearly cuckoo. But this endearingly obscure operatic representation of Aristophanes’ Greek comedy, which premiered in Munich in 1920 and has long been out of mass circulation, is the latest in Los Angeles Opera’s “Recovered Voices” project, and it received its first U.S. performance Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.  It was a hit once, and L.A. Opera thinks it could be again.

“Recovered Voices” refers to composers who were persecuted by the Nazis and whose works have had considerable difficultly finding their way back. The scores are unclassifiable by style or content, and Braunfels was a particularly curious case. Although he retained Jewish corpuscles in his bloodstream from past generations, he was a Protestant who converted to Catholicism after being injured fighting on the front line in World War I.

As an intensely Romantic expression of the German soul, his music was exactly the kind of thing that might have, and indeed did, appeal to Goebbels and his goons. But Braunfels -- who was born in 1884 and was championed by such influential conductors of his day as Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Fürtwangler, Hans Knappertsbush, Leopold Stokowski and Otto Klemperer -- was a fervent anti-Fascist. In 1923, the composer was asked to write a National Socialist anthem. Braunfels refused. Hitler was not pleased.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Braunfels was removed from his teaching post in Cologne and retreated to a small German village on the shores of Lake Constance where he waited out the war, returning to Cologne in the late '40s. By then his music was long out of fashion in a town that that became a center of electronic music and the burgeoning avant-garde.

There have been various attempts to revive “The Birds” since the early 1970s but none have taken. An excellent 1994 recording came and went. (Stay away from the collectors charging scandalously high prices for it on the Internet; the Opera Shop in the Chandler lobby has obtained a goodly supply at list price.)Birds 1

It requires but a few seconds of the opera’s prelude to discover why audiences in Munich fell in love with this score – it had a run of 50 performances in two years. A catchy Rachmaninoff-like tune is given the sumptuous Richard Strauss treatment. This is comfort music, And there is a lot more to come. An enchanting fantasy world is evoked that must have seemed sheer heaven at the beginning of the terribly unsettled 1920s in post-war Bavaria.

Braunfels picks up where “The Magic Flute” leaves off. He picks up where “Tristan and Isolde” leaves off. And he picks up, maybe too specifically, on Richard Strauss' lavish successes of the 1910s – “Der Rosenkavalier,” “Ariadne auf Naxos” and “Die Frau ohne Schatten.”  The writing for orchestra and singers is inspired even if you could swear you're heard it all before.

Originality is more in the dramatic concept than the music. Good Hope (Hoffegut) and Loyal Friend(Ratefreund), tenor and baritone and later-day versions of Tamino and Papageno from “Magic Flute,” go in search of a better world among the birds. Loyal Friend organizes the Hoopoe, the avian leader, and his feathered minions into constructing a utopian city in the sky. 

The first and second acts were separated by World War I and Braunfels’ spiritual conversion. After intermission Loyal Friend turns demagogue. Admirable anarchy is replaced by tyranny. Good Hope, a better soul, now becomes a Tristan who idealizes a Nightingale Isolde.

Prometheus warns the birds that Zeus is still boss. They don’t listen, and a storm destroys their city.  The humans return to earth. Loyal Friend is frat boy still. Transformed by love, Good Hope’s head stays in the clouds.

“Recovered Voices” is the passion of L.A. Opera’s music director, James Conlon, and “The Birds” is entirely his baby. He conducted a marvelous performance Saturday, and the orchestra sounded radiant. The large cast and chorus were mostly very good. The standing ovation at the end was, rightly so, for Conlon.

Darko Tresnjak’s production, however, is silly. David P. Gordon’s steep set of pop art clouds and swaying palm trees is populated by Linda Cho’s costumed Roman centurions, ancient Egyptians and miles of colorful birdsy fabric. This is the “Intolleranza” of Hollywood and Highland. Despite an already high sugar content on stage, Peggy Hickey’s kitschy choreography adds artificial sweetener. But David Weiner's lighting saves the show.

Désirée Rancatore is the stratospheric Nightingale. Brandon Jovanovich was a startlingly strong Good Hope; James Johnson a convincingly bumptious Loyal Friend. Martin Gantner’s Hoopoe was warmly winning and Brian Mulligan proved a gripping Prometheus. Wren, Raven, Flamingo, Thrushes, Swallows, Tits and Doves are full of charm.

Next to Achim Freyer’s magnificent stagecraft of Wagner’s “Ring,” “The Birds” looks inexotic, inelegant and inept. But Conlon nevertheless convincingly reveals the opera is a moving relic of a lost world. It is the art of a composer faced with a terrifying present and desperately longing to recover the better voices of the past. Braunfels couldn’t, nor could he, ultimately, recover his own. This is history worth knowing, and it is coated in delicious music.

-- Mark Swed

"The Birds," L.A. Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; 2 p.m. Saturday and April 26; 7:30 p.m. April 23; $20-$250; (213) 972-7219. Running time: 2 hours, 36 minutes.


Photo: Brandon Jovanovich and James Johnson as Good Hope and Loyal Friend (above);  Désirée Rancatore as the Nightingale (below).  Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times.

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