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A Strangely Wonderful Trip to the Moon From Disney Hall

March 6, 2018

Los Angeles Philharmonic

To say that Andrew Norman’s self-described “retro-futurist sci-fi adventure opera,” A Trip to the Moon enjoyed a celebratory liftoff Friday at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, would be an understatement. It was an epically scaled event — dramatically wild and playful, musically evocative, sumptuous and complex, and as technically clever as the 1902 silent film by Georges Méliès that inspired its creation.

The production, with a cast in the hundreds, included the musicians of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, the Hoover Street Elementary School Chorus, members of the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (LOLA), and a cast of 10 singers and actors all adroitly conducted by Teddy Abrams and skillfully directed by Yuval Sharon.

Performers and musicians filled the stage: They sang from the balconies, they prowled the aisles, and with the help of some real movie magic they soared through space! If the ghost of Georges Méliès was hovering somewhere in Disney Hall, he had to be smiling.

The production’s credits (slightly shorter than an episode of Star Wars) included: choreographer and associate director Diana Wyenn, set designer Takeshi Kata, lighting designer Christopher Kuhl, video designers Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras, sound designer Mark Grey, and costume designer Ann Closs-Farley­­­­. And all for two public performances and four school programs.  

A Trip to the Moon had its maiden voyage last year in Berlin and London conducted by Simon Rattle. Those two productions, according to Norman, were “mind-blowingly different.” Friday’s entirely new staging used a significantly revised version of the score that reduced its length from 70 to 50 minutes. For the two subscription concerts, the piece was paired with Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

Entering the hall, the audience was confronted by a large movie screen suspended behind the orchestra. A grainy black and white flickering image proclaimed, A Trip to the Moon, produced by Star Film, Los Angeles.

The first section of the opera is set to the Méliès film, as a zany band of astronomers plan their trip to the moon. Norman’s score incorporates a propulsive, post-minimalist style of evolving phrases and rhythms that gain energy and instrumental coloration as the launch process progresses. The section climaxes with the astronomers jauntily boarding their artillery-shell-spacecraft and blasting off for the moon.

The key moment of transition comes when the rocket slams into the eye of the Man in the Moon. Only the face is not the one from the film, it’s one of the actors cleverly superimposed. From that point on, the production cleverly incorporates a pair of “green screens” that flank the stage. Placed before the screens, the actor/astronomers (costumed to match their 1902 counterparts), become seamlessly integrated into an all new version of the movie. And, just like Dorothy’s arrival in Oz, grainy black and white gives way to color — “I don’t think we’re in Paris anymore!”

From this point on, A Trip to the Moon departs entirely from the original film and its colonial-era attitudes. Instead, the message, especially to younger audiences, becomes one of acceptance and the need for mutual cooperation across cultural divides.

The dramatic pivot point comes when the expedition’s leader, Méliès himself (spoken and sung by tenor, Peter Tantsits) encounters an elegant emissary of the Moon People, Eoa, sung mellifluously by Lauren Snouffer. The encounter also allows Norman to introduce an entirely different tonal vocabulary to the opera — “Moonish” which is made up entirely of softly flowing vowel sounds.

The umbrella-carrying astronomers (who speak in English) — Clayton Farris as Professor Barbenfouillis, Todd Strange as Nostradamus, Kalean Ung as Alcofrsibas, and Carolyn Michelle Smith as Parafaragaramus find themselves transported deep into the realm of the Moon People. There they are confronted by the moon’s imposing Queen, who is sung with Wagnerian bravado by soprano Eve Gigliotti.

The Moon People are also represented by a large chorus of children costumed as silvery beings with twinkling starry headdresses. They sing in “Moonish” and further communicate by whirling plastic tubes that produce high humming effects or by pounding the tubes (which are tuned) in a rhythmic “language” that is echoed exactly in the orchestra. They wander through the hall singing and acting totally in character.

It turns out there is an evil rock creature that is threatening the Moon People. But with the help of the visitors, the foe is vanquished, and a bond of friendship is forged.

The effect is all enveloping and so much fun. Norman’s score is richly varied and filled with complex instrumental dynamics. And considering the fact this is his first opera, the arias and choral writing are lushly harmonic. From a technical point of view, the action on the screens is so cleverly designed and integrated that it never loses the naïve wonder of the original. And the way Sharon moves the singers through the hall draws the audience deeper into the experience.

The stated goal of A Trip to the Moon was to show how a modern opera could reach out to the community, deliver an important message, make a bold musical statement, and be as adventurous and imaginative as Méliès’ film. That mission was accomplished.

Jim Farber wrote his first classical music review in 1982 for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. Since then, he has been a feature writer and critic of classical music, opera, theater, and fine art for The Daily Variety, the Copley Newspapers and News Service, and the Los Angeles Newspaper Group (Media News).