Review: French Connection – Friedkin’s Cinematic “Tabarro”, Los Angeles Opera, September 6, 2008

Hollywood Does L. A. Opera – Part I

Los Angeles Opera has presented Giacomo Puccini with several presents for his year-long 150th birthday party that should  improve the fortunes substantively of a trio of his lesser known works.

Since the opera company’s founding, it has performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion within the complex of performing arts theaters known as the Los Angeles Music Center.  Several  major American film studios are served by the Hollywood Freeway, which runs by the Music Center, and most of the others are located within a 25 mile radius, so that it is only a few minutes drive from the Chandler Pavilion to these world famous centers of film production.

An obvious and compelling idea is for opera companies to promote enterprises that employ the talents of the film industry (and other centers of American cultural creativity, such as the Broadway theatrical community). The Los Angeles Opera has been a leader in this area, and boasts several collaborations with the acclaimed film director William Friedkin (whose classic films include The French Connection, The Exorcist, Boys in the Band, and To Live and Die in L. A.)

Friedkin, in addition to his film and television projects, now has over a decade of experience in directing operatic productions for the major companies of Florence, Tel Aviv and Turin. But most relevant to this discussion is his Los Angeles Opera production of Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi”, the most often performed of Puccini’s three short operas known as the Trittico. The 2002 Friedkin “Schicchi” was paired on a double bill with a Friedkin production of Bartok’s “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” (the 2002 double bill repeated for Washington National Opera in 2006). He also directed Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” for Los Angeles in 2004.

With the Puccini sesquicentennial in sight, Friedkin agreed to tackle the other two operas of the Trittico – “Il Tabarro” and “Suor Angelica”.  However, instead of reviving Friedkin’s “Schicchi”, for whose inspiration he drew on the Marx Brothers, the L. A. Opera secured an agreement from the legendary film director Woody Allen (Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters) to create a new “Schicchi”.

The three new Trittico productions were chosen to open the Los Angeles Opera’s 2008-09 season.  To further underscore relationships with the film industry, the American premiere of Howard Shore’s “The Fly”, based on David Cronenberg’s 1986 horror film, and engaging Cronenberg as the new opera’s stage director, was chosen to open on the next afternoon, assuring the presentation of four operas with Hollywood connections within a 22 hour period.

Screenplay by Adami

The weekend of Hollywood-inspired productions began with “Tabarro”, which, to my mind, is one of the most “cinematic” of operas. Its “screenplay” by librettist Giuseppe Adami is a tautly devised piece. With superb economy, Adami’s libretto breathes life into a half a dozen characters.  Allotting just a few words each to the smaller roles, we learn enough about La Frugola, her husband Talpa and Talpa’s co-worker Tinca, that they seem like people who really might have scraped a living a century ago among the barges on the Seine.

[Below: Giorgetta (Anja Kampe) with Michele (Mark Delavan) on his barge on the Seine; edited image, based on Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.]

More words are written for the three principals – Michele (Mark Delavan), owner and operator of a Seine barge, his discontented wife Giorgetta (Anja Kampe) and the barge-hand Luigi (Salvatore Licitra) who has become her lover.  All of the conversations with each other, as with Michele’s monologue – illuminate the estrangement that occurred between Giorgetta and Michele following the death of an infant child, Michele’s suspicion that her coldness towards him means she has a lover, the determination of the lovers to find time to be together, and Michele’s murderous rage when their affair is discovered.

More than one film noir or New Wave director could have found a viable film in this material, and might have found the challenge of presenting the story of violent lives at the Seine’s surface inviting, but the story’s immortality is in its operatic form. Puccini’s music eloquently paints the Seine, and through the music for the three principals, the three main comprimario parts, and three additional small roles designed for “local color”, leaves an indelible impression of life on the river and along its banks.

[Below: Giorgetta (Anja Kampe) serves wine to Luigi (Salvatore Licitra) as Set Designer Santo Loquasto’s Paris is in view behind them; edited image, based on Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.]

The creative force that was present in each of the three Trittico productions in L. A. was Set Designer Santo Loquasto.

The unit set for “Tabarro” – built in the San Diego Opera Scenic Studios, as was the “Suor Angelica” set (but not the set for “Schicchi”) was extraordinarily effective in presenting a place on the Seine in mid-Paris from which the Eiffel Tower and other Parisian landmarks were visible, but where the point of view is the riverbank itself.

The opening sequence was particularly noteworthy.  As the opera opens, we see Michele piloting his barge over the last few feet before being docked.  Through the magic of Lighting Designer Mark Jonathan, the Seine constantly appears to be in motion.

The Giorgetta of Anja Kampe is another notable characterization.  Kampe who sang Sieglinde to Placido Domingo’s Siegmund in a European performance of Wagner’s “Die Walkuere” in 2004, has become a familiar figure in the two opera companies  that Domingo leads.  This website has reviewed her Sieglinde (again with Domingo) at Washington National Opera and the title role in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” in Los Angeles, both in 2007.

She has a richly dramatic soprano voice and is able to sing Puccini’s lyrical phrases beautifully.  Complementing her vocal prowess are her remarkable good looks.  At one point in her performance she seemed to stumble on a phrase, surely a case of role debut jitters, but it is clear this role is one which she is equipped to excel.

[Below: Luigi (Salvatore Licitra) with Giorgetta (Anja Kampe); edited image, based on Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.]

Salvatore Licitra now must be ranked among the handful of tenors excelling in the meatier roles of the Italian repertoire.

Some will regard it as luxury casting to assign him the role of Luigi, but, with the baritonal robustness of his tenor voice and his gleaming top, he shows how the music Puccini wrote for this part is at once among his most lyrical and dramatic.

The care in which in the major comprimario roles are cast is also a reflection on the artistic maturity and depth of resources of the Los Angeles Opera.  John Del Carlo, who sings lead bass-baritone roles (e.g., the title role of Verdi’s “Falstaff” at major international companies)  was an extraordinary Talpa, nicely paired with La Frugola, charmingly sung by Tichina Vaughn.

[Below: La Frugola (Tichina Vaughn) explains her philosophy of life to Giorgetta (Anja Kampe); edited image, based on Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.]

Matthew O’Neill, who, like Del Carlo (though much later) spent formative years at the San Francisco Opera, was an interesting Tinca, playing a hard worker who looks forward to nightly drunkenness.  O’Neill’s vivid portrayal while navigating Tinca’s high tessitura suggests that character tenor roles may prove his forte.

But the evening’s accolades for the greatest among great performances was for Mark Delavan. He has emerged as one of the most accomplished of contemporary bass baritones, and his Michele is another triumphant portrayal – of a human soul both vulnerable and treacherous. A standing ovation greeted his curtain call.

Much of “Tabarro”, particularly its early section, has the feeling of a tone poem, and Conductor James Conlon achieved another great performance from the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra.

With so many excellent features of the production described so far, it might seem there is nothing left to praise, but this is all prelude to noting the extraordinarily perceptive directing of William Friedkin.  In a Friedkin performance, everything is carefully thought out.  Some of it, of course, is realizing Puccini’s often very precise stage directions, but Friedkin touches abound.

As an example, the lovers appear on the stairways and upper sidewalks above the walkways that lead along the Seine. The man is in a military uniform.  The lovers re-appear just before the bugle calls announcing that soldiers must return to the nearby army quarters.  The soldier-lover steals a last embrace and slips off to his barracks.

When the song-vendor appears with his snatches from Puccini’s “La Boheme”, two nuns appear in a probable homage to “Suor Angelica”.

In Friedkin’s hands, Michele’s monologue and the subsequent capture and killing of Luigi are juxtaposed with the mist rising on the Seine and dark clouds in the night sky.  The melodramatic ending in which Luigi unwittingly confirms to Michele that he is Giorgetta’s lover, leads to the scene of horror that closes the opera.  In Friedkin’s hands, every detail of the opera that Puccini and Adami created is enhanced by the taste and eye of a cinematic genius.

The Los Angeles Opera and the companies who will host this Trittico are investing huge resources to mount and cast these works.  No major composer had ever conceived such a project before Puccini, and only a very few companies have even tried to present the three operas in a single evening.  But, in the hands of a genius like Friedkin and his compatriots, the evening works wonderfully. And, Trittico aside, Friedkin’s “Tabarro” truly makes the case for this underperformed opera.

For a recent review of another Mark Delavan performance, see: Delavan Shines in a Gleaming San Francisco “Rheingold” – June 14, 2008

For a recent review of another Anja Kampe performance, see: Zambello’s Dazzling “American Ring ‘Walkuere’” at Kennedy Center – March 28, 2007

See also: Friedkin’s Miraculous, Radvanovsky’s Revelatory L.A. “Suor Angelica” – September 6, 2008 and

Woody Allen’s L. A. “Gianni Schicchi”: Spoofing Italian Films – September 6, 2008 and

Dissecting “The Fly”: the American Premiere of Shore’s Opera in L.A. – September 7, 2008