(Los Angeles, Calif. - April 11, 2009) Your country has just been humiliated in a disastrous war, in which it was the aggressor. A weak coalition of progressives and moderates has taken over the government, but they are printing so much money to pay the huge war debt that hyperinflation is sure to follow. Right-wing fanatics are just waiting for the opportunity to take over. You and your countrymen are looking for a way to repair your lost ideals and establish a new national identity and recover a sense of pride. You want to be optimistic, but you fear no matter what you try, the fates are allied against you.
It's Germany's Weimar Republic in 1920, the year Walter Braunfels' The Birds (Die Vögel) premiered to popular and critical acclaim in Munich. More than a decade later, after the Nazi minority seized power in 1933, Braunfels' work would be banned as "degenerate" by the Third Reich. The Birds did not reappear on the stage until 1971, long after its composer had died in 1954.
LA Opera music director James Conlon lobbied to revive the opera here, and this production is part of the company's "Recovered Voices" project. In Conlon's program notes, he comments, "There is a striking irony concerning Braunfels' history with the Nazis. He embodied everything that represented the best of the German Romantic legacy. Had the Nazis wished to see him as a model of all of their professed ideas about Germany and art, he would have seemed the ideal choice."
After seeing The Birds on opening night, I have to disagree. Although Braunfels' lovely, melodic musical style harks back to the Romantics, his choice of material and the story itself foreshadow the coming of German Expressionism, a movement that emphasized the symbolic roles of characters and drama as political struggle.
The Nazis, I believe, would have resented Braunfels' implication that there is an absolute, immutable higher power that governs - and limits - all human effort. To the Nazis, there was no God, and they believed their iron will was sufficient to reshape humanity in any way they deemed wise. Braunfels was - and here's the real irony - foretelling the failure of German nationalism years before the Nazis came to power.
A brief recap of the thin plot of The Birds should illustrate why I think it's essentially a political drama. (It's based on the play of the same name by the ancient Greek Aristophanes, who himself borrowed the story from even more ancient mythology.) The idealistic young seeker Good Hope (tenor Brandon Jovanovich) and his Loyal Friend (baritone James Johnson) make a journey into the heavens to find a more ideal community. There they discover a rather idyllic society of birds, led by the Hoopoe (baritone Martin Ganter), a former human transformed into a bird. Good Hope and Loyal Friend think they've found the perfect community they long for, especially when Good Hope develops a love interest in the Nightingale (soprano Désirée Rancatore) and the flock welcomes Loyal Friend as a kind of military leader.
However, universal joy is not to be. In Act II, a Rasputin-like stranger stumbles in and predicts doom for the entire assembly. This character is none other than Prometheus (baritone Brian Mulligan), the lesser god who made the mistake of stealing fire from the gods, gave it to humans, and paid dearly for it. Prometheus warns that, if they fly too high, Zeus will simply strike them all down.
No sooner has Prometheus issued his warning than he slinks offstage and, without a twitter of protest, the entire bird flock promptly marches on singing a chorus of praise to Zeus Almighty. Apparently discouraged that even the wise birds can't get past heaven's glass ceiling, Good Hope and Loyal Friend decide to pack up and go home.
LA Opera's production of The Birds evidences the world-class musicianship of Conlon, choreographer Peggy Hickey, and choirmaster Grant Gershon, as well as the company orchestra, dancers, and chorus. Guest director Darko Tresnjak pulled it all together. Particularly noteworthy - receiving cheers from the audience along with applause - are tenor Jovanovich and soprano Rancatore. In my limited experience of opera, I find soprano voices to be lovely but weak or powerful but strident. Rancatore has that rare, delicate high-register voice that can also project into the top balcony.
To judge from the chatter at intermission, the story, or lack of it, in this opera seemed to baffle everyone. During the applause, they stayed seated as they cheered Jovanovich and Rancatore, and they reserved their standing ovation for Conlon when he appeared onstage to take his bows with the company.
Audiences are indeed wise. And a friendly critic back then should have advised Braunfels that putting a long ballet in the middle of his opera would bring what little story it has to a dead stop.
Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels. His cohost reviewer Georja Umano joins him again when they review the opening of Verdi's La Traviata (May 21 - June 21), the last presentation of LA Opera's 2008-09 season.
Photos by Robert Millard
Los Angeles Opera
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LA Opera's The Birds
Saturday April 11, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Saturday April 18, 2009 2:00 p.m.
Thursday April 23, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Sunday April 26, 2009 2:00 p.m.