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Walter Braunfels: Die Vögel
Désirée Rancatore (Nightingale), Brandon Jovanovich (Good Hope), James Johnson (Loyal Friend), Martin Gantner (Hoopoe), Stacey Tappan (Wren), Brian Mulligan (Prometheus), Matthew Moore (Eagle/Zeus), Daniel Armstrong, Valerie Vinzant, Courtney Taylor, John Kimberling, Renee Sousa, Rebecca Tomlinson, Ayana Haviv, Nicole Fernandes, Tara Victoria Smith, Adriana Manfredi, Helene Quintana, Amber Erwin and Jennifer Wallace (Ensemble), The Los Angeles Opera Orchestra, Chorus, and Corps de Ballet, Grant Gershon (chorus master), James Conlon (conductor), Darko Tresnjak (stage director), David P. Gordon (set designer), Linda Cho (costume designer), David Weiner (lighting designer), Peggy Hickey (choreographer), Kenneth Shapiro (video director), Fred Vogler (audio engineer)
Recorded live in Los Angeles (2009) – 139'
Arthaus Musik Ref. No: 101529 – Formats: NTSC 16:9-PCM Stereo-Dolby Digital 5.1-DTS 5.1 – Region code: 0 (worldwide) – Subtitles in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian – Booklet in English, German, and French

Among the composers whose music was branded “Entartete Kunst” (degenerate art) by the Third Reich, one can quickly remember Erich Korngold and Kurt Weill, at a stretch perhaps Hanns Eisler and Ernst Krenek. But Zemlinsky, Ullmann, Haas, Hartmann, Schulhoff, Schreker, and Zeisl are names now sadly largely forgotten by many, if not most. Some of these artists perished in the Holocaust, some, luckily for them and us, all made it to our shores. Their fascinating and often-tragic stories should be told again and again, their music played, their memory honored. So, hats off to James Conlon who has set out to lovingly unearth and champion the works of many of these composers and encourage enterprising producers to stage their works, among which Walter Braunfels' Die Vögel (“The Birds”) stands out as a viable vehicle for any company interested in exploring neglected 20th century works.

Part-Jewish and a convert to Catholicism, Braunfels was such a huge figure in German music prior to the arrival of Hitler, that he managed to miraculously stay alive in self-imposed exile inside Germany (one of the very few) until the end of the war, God knows how. He wrote much music during those years but did not hear a note of his compositions in public performance until his reinstatement as Professor Emeritus at the Cologne “Hochschule für Musik” in 1948, from which time he remained unjustly neglected in his own country until his death in 1954.

The fine libretto – by Braunfels himself – is based on Aristophanes' bawdy comedy Ornithes.

In the opera, two discontents, Good Hope (tenor Brandon Jovanovich) and Loyal Friend (baritone James Johnson) – the middle-aged losers Pisthetaerus and Euelpides in Aristophanes' original – travel to Birdland in search of a better life and a fast buck. There, the feathered citizens live seemingly happy lives under the rule of Hoopoe (baritone Martin Gantner), a former human now transformed into a bird. While in Birdland, Good Hope meets and falls in love with the Nightingale (soprano Désirée Rancatore.) Meanwhile, Loyal Friend insists that Good Hope be the architect for a new City-in-the-Clouds (think South Florida condominiums) for the Birds and anyone else who cares to move up there, out of the reach of both men and gods. Zeus (baritone Matthew Moore) – incensed at the men's hubris, destroys the kingdom, and the two humans barely escape alive.

The music of this opera is full-blown post-Romanticism, reminiscent at times of Richard Strauss's late-career operas. The writing for the stratospherically-high role of the Nightingale is reminiscent of the music for Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos, complete with its perilous above high C territory and its flowing melismas, here stylishly tossed off by soprano Désirée Rancatore. The humans in the opera have their own vocal idiom – borderline Wagnerian here and there, declamatory at times, lyrical elsewhere, always consistent with and obedient to the text in good German tradition.

As Good Hope, the young American tenor Brandon Jovanovich is a vocal standout, with a rich and baritonal timbre in the middle voice and ringing above the staff notes. Along with his sidekick, the ample-voiced bass-baritone James Johnson they make a lively pair of ne'er-do-wells in search of their next big break. Baritones Martin Gartner as the Hoopoe and Brian Mulligan as an unbound and heartbreaking Prometheus are both formidable vocal presences. This beautifully-shot and engineered live video-recording of a 2009 Los Angeles Opera performance features Maestro Conlon in magisterial command of the full forces of the Los Angeles Opera Company, with orchestra, corps de ballet, and chorus providing solid support to the excellent cast.

The production team provides a visually-stunning, colorful and child-like world with a whimsical “cut-out” set by David P. Gordon, bright and cheerful avian and human costumes by Linda Cho, imaginative and (thank goodness) bright lighting by David Weiner, inventive air-born and earthly bird choreography by Peggy Hickey – all neatly gift-wrapped in a dramatically-compelling production, guided by the inspired hand of director Darko Tresnjak who infuses the proceedings with classical dignity and 21st century irony. Enterprising conservatories and regional opera companies with the initiative to pass on yet another warhorse, would do well to have a look at The Birds. Seven principal roles – none beyond the ability of a good singer, a terrific ensemble for a dozen young singers, a unit set with minimal changes and, most importantly, eminently singable music with a wonderful “parabasis” ending that essentially says: “Improve your lot right at home, get a life and don't go building castles in Cuckooland. The skies belong to the birds.”

Rafael de Acha




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