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Puccini, Mozart Take Over Grand Avenue This Weekend

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LA County was the opera capital of the world this past weekend, with no fewer than four international-profile productions performed here between Friday and Sunday.

On back-to-back nights, LA Opera Managing Director Placido Domingo himself conducted a world premiere called Dulce Rosa in Santa Monica followed by the popular Puccini classic Tosca at the Music Center downtown. The LA Phil's fully staged Marriage of Figaro production at Disney Hall is the second piece in its Mozart/DaPonte Trilogy project conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. And Long Beach Opera concluded its run of two one-act operas by Bang on a Can's Michael Gordon and former Police drummer Stewart Copeland.

We'd like to say we caught all four of these. But we did our best and made it to Tosca and Figaro.

There are opera sophisticates out there who make a point of disdaining Tosca as an emotionally overwrought bit of lame musical melodrama. We do not count ourselves among these sophisticates. Tosca is one of the great crowd-pleasers in the central operatic repertory, and the crowd at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on opening night Saturday was infectiously pleased by two-time Tony Award-winning director John Caird's mildly blood-spattered production of this violent love story.

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Performing the title role, Los Angeles-trained soprano Sondra Radvanovsky is probably the most prominent singer--other than Domingo himself, of course--whom LA Opera has cast in the past couple seasons, and her star power is undeniable throughout. Her thrilling Vissi d'arte, Tosca's great second-act aria of lamentation, not only effuses the passion and despair of her crisis, but also implies the boldness that she will draw on for her fateful action soon afterward. Later, she nicely manages to draw out the famous death scene that closes the opera for heightened effect without ever crossing the line into "milking" it.

The other two big arias in the opera belong to tenor Marco Berti as Tosca's lover, the politically subversive artist Cavaradossi. Unfortunately, neither of these quite hit the mark on opening night, though Berti does play the part quite well in other moments. Lado Ataneli is serviceable as the villain Scarpia, even if his ill-advised overdramatic gesture at the climax of Act Two evokes unwanted audience laughter in what should really be a moment of fearsome solemnity.

The Philharmonic's Marriage of Figaro production next door is an astonishing achievement, as Disney Hall is transformed into a theatrical performance space by France's renowned architect Jean Nouvel and fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa, along with director Christopher Alden.

All three of Mozart's collaborations with librettist Lorenzo DaPonte are dark comedies of unscrupulous sexual intrigue, though The Marriage of Figaro's tale of lust, deception and, ultimately, forgiveness is especially convoluted. Almost every individual scene, however, offers up its own miniature musical drama in which an emotional tension is introduced, heightened and then at least momentarily resolved. And the spectacular cast assembled for this project makes scene after scene here absolutely compelling.

As the erstwhile barber of Seville, baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer deftly modulates and remodulates his performance when Figaro's initially secure engagement to Susanna is challenged by the efforts of his feudal master, Count Almaviva, to seduce the bride-to-be before they tie the knot. Christopher Maltman as Almaviva, for his part, conveys the subtle desperation of a late-middle-aged lothario whose romantic powers may not forever be a match for his wordly powers, especially in his "Come into the garden with me" duet with Susanna, who is played with endless charm by Malin Christensson.

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The role of the lovestruck young pageboy Cherubino in Figaro is sung by a woman, which leads to a couple of intriguing gender-bends in the opera, first about half-way through, when the lad is forced to disguise himself as a young lady to evade notice, and then when he finally gets all amorous with the peasant girl Barbarina toward the end. Mezzo-soprano Rachel Frenkel tackles these adventures in sexual identity with perfect comic prowess and easily wins us over in both of her principal arias.

Even in a production so chock full of bravura performances, though, it is Dorothea Röschmann as Almaviva's unhappy wife, Rosina--once adored, now ignored--who soars perhaps above all. Vulnerable yet resolute, Röschmann's Countess sings the Dove sono ("Where are the lost moments") aria with exquisite pathos before launching her plot to catch the Count red-handed in an act of betrayal.

Nouvel's ingenious stage design allows the singers unusually close physical proximity to the orchestra personnel, which Alden mines for a couple of nice comic moments (especially one between Cherubino, the harpsichordist and Maestro Dudamel himself). So even when the Philharmonic is not directly involved in the action on stage, its persistent visibility throughout enhances our visceral recognition of the musicians' integral participation in this extraordinary narrative performance.

LA Opera's Tosca runs for five more performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion through June 8 (with Jordi Bernàcer stepping in for Domingo on June 2 only).

The LA Philharmonic performs The Marriage of Figaro tomorrow and Saturday nights at 7:30 in the Walt Disney Concert Hall.