June 3, 2019
Good intentions aside, the administrators of the newly founded Numi Opera company, which presented its inaugural performance Thursday of Alexander Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg (The Dwarf), need to do some rethinking if they expect to succeed in the competitive opera landscape of Los Angeles. Amateurism is not going to cut it. Concert opera, as an alternative to on-the-cheap, hodge-podge productions like this Der Zwerg, could be the answer. At least that way the company could focus all its attention (and budget) on the music.
At the moment, Los Angeles has four opera companies that complement one another: Los Angeles Opera as the bastion of big-budget productions mainly from the standard repertory; Long Beach Opera as the ever-adventurous loyal opposition; Pacific Opera Project with its combination of bright-voiced young singers and zany production concepts; and The Industry, whose yearly productions consistently push the operatic envelope.
According to Numi Opera’s founder and executive director, Gail R. Gordon, the mandate of the company is to “Reveal the hidden voices of the oppressed musical masters of the 20th century ... to rediscover operas that have fallen into obscurity due to social and political injustice.”
The concept is not new to Los Angeles. Conductor James Conlon’s “Recovered Voices” series, which debuted in 2008 with L.A. Opera’s double bill of Viktor Ullmann’s Der zerbrochene Krug (The broken Jug) and Der Zwerg, is dedicated to showcasing works by composers whose lives were either disrupted or destroyed by the rise of the Third Reich. As a vote of support, Conlon was in the audience Thursday at the Theatre at Ace Hotel.
Why Numi Opera chose a venue as vast as the former 1920s cinema palace is also something of a mystery; it certainly can’t be that they expected to fill its 1,500 or more seats. In fact, the audience was small and seemed smaller in the big space.
Another reflection of the company’s limited budget was that a piano reduction (performed competently by Lumi’s music director, Christopher Luthi) was presented as stand-in for Zemlinsky’s lush orchestral score.
As to the production (I use the term with reservation), I will only say that the royal ladies of renaissance Spain and the Infanta looked and acted more like the Rose Parade Queen and her giddy court of princesses.
There were, however, vocal performances by the cast, led by heldentenor Rodell Rosel (as the dwarf), that were well worth listening to. These included soprano Oriana Falla (as the Infanta), mezzo-soprano Shana Blake Hill (as her handmaid, Ghita) and baritone Roberto Perlas Gómez as the Major Domo. The performance also benefitted from the choral direction by Oliver Chan.
As in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s 1891 short story “The Birthday of the Infanta” explores the theme of external beauty versus internal ugliness and vice versa. The dwarf is a grotesque who (having never seen his reflection) believes himself to be a princely hero. As written, the Infanta is a richly gowned 12-year old doll, all beauty on the outside, a vain, callous monster inside.
Unfortunately, Gordon’s direction made no attempt to create a visual distinction between dwarf and princess, so the insidious prank played on the dwarf and its aftermath is all but lost.
The saving grace of the performance was Rosel’s performance. Hamstrung by the production and a lack of definition of his character, he did manage to capture the heroic paradox that propels the opera, demonstrating a voice with the mettle of a Siegfried and the edge of a Mime. And while Falla never came close to the reality of her character dramatically, her lengthy duet with Rosel was vocally impressive.