Tom’s Review: German Birds Fly High at Los Angeles Opera in Braunfels’ Rarely Seen “The Birds”, April 23, 2009

Los Angeles’ super-genius film-maker Alfred Hitchcock released flocks of aggressive birds in his renowned and justly famed film “The Birds” upon startled and unsuspecting film-goers decades ago, but now Los Angeles Opera has released very exotic birds of its own in their new production of German composer Walter Braunfels (1882-1954) opera “The Birds (Die Voegel)” – first performed in 1920 in Munich, adapted from an ancient Greek comic-parable by Aristophanes.

Not a flight from fancy for LA Opera, however, as earlier this season they presented an opera about another flying creature – an opera also adapted from another medium – “The Fly” by Howard Shore (see your website host’s review at Dissecting “The Fly”: the American Premiere of Shore’s Opera in L.A. – September 7, 2008).

Unlike “The Fly’s” minimalist, severe sonic-structure, Braunfels’ “The Birds” resonantly sings (no, not minimalist tweets, chirps nor peeps) with lushly-rich, sonorous, classically late-Romantic 19th century music of Mahleresque tonality, very clearly influenced – greatly – by Wagner, Mendelsohn, Bruckner, and Richard Strauss.

Indeed, The Birds flew onto the European operatic scene just after Puccini’s gloriously melodious “La Rondine” premiered in 1917, lavishly done in the recent past by both LA Opera and San Francisco opera to great acclaim, followed in 1918 by Puccini’s wonderful triple-bill “Il Trittico” which LA Opera reprised earlier this season in an utterly smashing stage production (see your website host William’s September 2008 reviews of the three one act operas in this stunner), Stravinsky’s stark but greatly effective “The Soldier’s Tale (L’Histoire d’un Soldat)” in 1918, and then Strauss’ fabulous “Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow)” in 1919.

Then after “The Birds” came Prokoviev’s delicious laugh-in “The Love For Three Oranges”  in 1921, Janecek’s striking “The Makropulos Affair” in 1923 and then that luminescent, impressionism-gushing Ravel “The Child and the Magic (L’Enfant et les Sortileges)” in 1925. This is some remarkable operatic company – to say the least, and opera-history essays reveal that Braunfels’ “The Birds” did very well throughout Europe, including Germany, into the 1930s.

The genesis for these works is LA Opera Music Director and Principal Conductor James Conlon whose The Recovered Voices operatic schema seeks to present works displaced in Europe during the Third Reich era ending in May 1945. (It seems hard to believe that was 64 years ago !) In that era a great many gifted writers, artists, musicians, scholars and composers, fearing the worst, fled Germany, Austria, Holland, Poland and Czechoslovakia and other countries under the Third Reich’s influence (to the immense enrichment for America). Braunfels, after the Nazi ascension to power, migrated to neutral Switzerland, but never left the European mid-continent.

Braunfels, a convert to Catholicism and previous to that a practicing Protestant, was not known to have ever observed either the traditions nor faith of his Judaic heritage.  In fact, although he declined the offer, he was invited by the NSDAP (National Socialist German Worker’s Party) to compose a National Anthem for them long before the Nazi’s took power. He taught at a celebrated school of music in Cologne for years until 1933 (when Hitler became Chancellor). Shortly afterwards he was replaced in Cologne, ultimately moving not far away to the Swiss side of Lake Constance.

The stage production is by Darko (there’s nothing dark about this one!) Tresnjak. He conceives the piece in the ancient world with Greek soldiers and giant Egyptian feathered plumes, very beautiful, indeed dazzlingly colorful plumage for the large flock of feathered friends.

The unitary, unchanging set consists of six palm trees (three on the left and three more on the right) of a type so commonly seen in Los Angeles, plus eight ground-hugging clouds in various changing-light-technicolor hues. The costumes were by Linda Cho, for which kudos should fly her way.

The two major male protagonists – Good Hope, fabulously sung by Brandon Jovanovich and Loyal Friend, ably sung by James Johnson appear at the beginning and end of the piece as rather British-looking, tweed-clad bird-fancier types, armed with field glasses for spotting the birds.

[Below: Darko Tresnjak’s sets for “The Birds”, in front Good Hope (Brandon Jovanovich) and Loyal Friend (James Johnson) in center of second row is The Hoopoe (Martin Gantner), to his right is the Nightingale (Desiree Rancatore) and left is the Wren (Stacey Tappan); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Having recently seen the totally charming animals in Los Angeles Opera’s adorable production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”, one is tempted to compare “The Birds” as taking off (sorry) from “The Magic Flute” in many ways. Many opera lovers attending “The Birds”, including me, were much infused with a feeling of Deja-vu. Haven’t we heard this before?

But these same opera lovers, including me, would rather this Deja vu reprise – rather than being assaulted by the sonic agenda of some of the more bizarre modern numbers San Francisco and Los Angeles audiences have been presented. We’re too politically correct to mention names, of course .  .   .  !

Mr Tresnjak has done much theatrical work, certainly The Bard’s plays at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. His resume is similar to that of set designer David Gordon with much New York theatrical experience to his credit, making his LA Opera debut.

Braunfels was trained not only in music, but also in law becoming a lawyer (like me!), but it’s been often said that after seeing his first performance of  Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”, his life-orientation changed and he apparently concluded that the practice of law was, well, for The Birds (sorry, couldn’t resist).

“The Birds” was not his first opera, but was that which brought him recognition and success for many years. The story is a very loose adaptation from an Aristophanes tale, but entirely re-conceived by Braunfels. Conductor James Conlon, in his long article explaining the music of The Recovered Voices, describes the opera’s story line: “Two young men, Good Hope and Loyal Friend, set out on an adventure to escape disappointment with human affairs in Athens, determined to find a new life amongst the birds.

Like Tamino and Papageno (ed. in Mozart’s Magic Flute), one will come home changed from a mystical experience, the other, chastened and resigned, if not exactly wiser. .  .  Good Hope, having fled rejection by the city girls, will discover cosmic yearning and transcendence through his erotic “encounter” with the Nightingale, as Parsifal will eventually find the grail through his confrontation with Kundry” (Ed. referencing Wagner’s colossal Parsifal in which the hero Parsifal seeks redemption through the satanic-turned-angel Kundry to finally hold the holy Grail itself as heaven’s golden rays embrace him in redemption at the earth-shattering end).

The second Act is much more richly embellished with classic 19th century Romantic music. At one point four seeming Parthenon models appear atop poles (perhaps Birdhouses a la Greque ?) At points one is convinced he or she is hearing Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”, then later music very much like that in Richard Strauss’ “Rosenkavalier” and “Ariadne auf Naxos” is heard.

[Below,  from left to right, Good Hope (Brandon Jovanovich), Loyal Friend (James Johnson) and The Hoopoe (Martin Gantner); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Near the very end a gaunt, hooded monk-like figure stalks the stage, dramatically announcing he is Prometheus himself who tells the crowd that Zeus has given them a final chance to mend their ways and submit to the will of the Gods, but unmoved, the Loyal Friend exhorts them to do battle against these Gods.

Like in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”, a storm suddenly shatters the scene – the wrath of Zeus – and the citadel of the birds is demolished, leaving the birds quite straightened out. The piece ends with the haunting and gorgeous song of the Nightingale.

[Below: Desiree Rancatore is the Nightingale; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Garnering by far the most applause from the standing, cheering audience, was Brandon Jovanovich, with soprano Desiree’ Rancatore as that Nightingale and the Prometheus of Brian Mulligan scoring very enthusiastic applause, all exceeded only by that offered James Conlon.

[Below: Brandon Jovanovich plays Good Hope, edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Desiree’ Rancatore had an extraordinarily silky, crystalline-clear almost Stradivarius quality. William recently reported on her Adina in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amour” at Opera National de Paris (See Hayseed Hilarity: The Pelly “L’Elisir” in Paris – September 16, 2007,) I can’t wait to hear her do Queen of the Night in “Magic Flute”!

German baritone Martin Gantner is Hoopoe, King of the Birds, who has appeared at LA Opera often, most recently in their 2007 Wagner’s  “Tannhauser” (see the review at Powerful, Edgy “Tannhauser” at Los Angeles Opera – February 28, 2007), then as the Music Master in LA’s terrific mounting of Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”, in 2001 as King Heinrich in Wagner’s “Lohengrin” amidst vast operatic experience.

[Below: Martin Gantner is the Hoopoe; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]   ]

The important role of Loyal Friend was filled by bass-baritone James Johnson whose credits include the Met, Chicago Lyric Opera, La Scala, Deutsche Oper Berlin, having debuted here in 2008 with James Conlon’s Recovered Voices operas The Dwarf (by Zemlimsky) and The Broken Jug (by Ullmann).

[Below, left to right: Good Hope (Brandon Jovanovich), Loyal Friend (James Johnson) and the Hoopoe (Martin Gantner); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.]

This cast is remarkable for the experience they bring. All of the Birds come with portfolio: baritone Brian Mulligan (Prometheus), a Juilliard alum, did Melot in LA Opera’s recent triumphant “Tristan und Isolde” (how appropriate since that number is reputed to have changed Braunfels’ life-force from The Law to The Birds!) and the title role in last season’s Met production of Tchaikovsky’s “Evgeny Onegin”.

[Below, from left to right, The Hoopoe (Martin Gantner), Loyal Friend (James Johnson) and Prometheus (Brian Mulligan); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Stacey Tappan played the Wren, having debuted here in the 2006-07 season’s hug-worthy, charmer – Humperdinck’s “Hansel und Gretel” as the tear-jerking Dew Fairy, then in this season’s Achim Freyer Das Rheingold as Woglinde. A Met Nat’l Council Auditions semi-finalist 2003 as the Greek God Zeus aka the Eagle: Mathew Moore. A cast like this doesn’t have to wing it and the audience certainly had no reason to squawk (sorry . . . !)

Although at least one gadfly-cum-critic wrote that this production was, at best, bird-brained (I love the intended pun), I don’t share their chirping – I and the huge majority of the audience very much enjoyed this piece, extolling its virtues at Intermission and after final curtain, relieved that it was not yet another severely modern, bizarre offering not easily recognizable as an opera.

This is indeed an opera very well demonstrating what James Conlon has sought to share with us in The Recovered Voices. It may not make it into the repertory of many opera companies in this era of most companies being unable to financially afford the risk of putting on an unknown piece, but applause is due Mr Conlon and LA Opera for taking that risk and treating us to a lovely, traditional evening of comfort-food late Romantic, easily digestable Germanic music.