Review L.A. Opera goes cutting edge in double bill of Purcell, Bartók

Steven Sloane
Los Angeles Times

By Mark Swed

Four cautious years after staging Achim Freyer's cutting-edge but coffer-draining "Ring" cycle, Los Angeles Opera has once more sharpened its edge, and dangerously so. On Saturday night, it mounted a peculiar double bill of Purcell's delicate "Dido and Aeneas" and Bartók's indelicate "Bluebeard's Castle."

Purcell's exquisite British Baroque miniature is as gorgeous to behold as anything the company has mounted on the Dorothy Chandler stage. It is lovingly performed. That the humor can be wicked and transgressive only makes the tragedy all the more touching in the end.

Bartók's expressionist early 20th century drama is the unsettlingly awful opposite. There is nothing nice to look at, just a couple's pain made plain. The performance is violent. What is here transgressive is that horror also makes a mass murderer somewhat touching in the end as well.

Cutting edge, indeed. Like those Japanese ceramic knives that lacerate careless fingers with startling ease, these dazzlingly physical productions by provocative Australian director Barrie Kosky are exercises in surgically slicing through vital skin. "Dido" offers sumptuous surfaces. "Bluebeard" is an open wound let fester onstage.

Last season, Kosky put up a good front. In his U.S. debut, he mounted for L.A. Opera a beguiling production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" with magical cinematic effects redolent of the silent film era. It was loved by young and old. But the other side of Kosky, who heads Berlin's traditionally incendiary Komische Oper, is that of a fastidious butcher of the psyche.

Kosky's "Dido" operates on the pleasure principle. The opera takes place on a long white bench on the lip of the stage, with a crenulated wall behind, which happens to serve as an excellent acoustic shell. A period-style orchestra is in a pit raised almost to stage level. The strings come from the L.A. Opera orchestra; the wind instruments, theorbos (long-necked lutes) and keyboards are handled by period-instrument specialists.

Katrin Lea Tag's terrific costumes, 21st century takes on late 17th- and early 18th-century court couture, are an important element. They and the singers wearing them are also the set. When a mountain is needed, the chorus makes one out of its bodies.