Bold images of `Fiery Angel' at L.A. opera. Dazzling production boosts fledgling company's profile

When the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, visited Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival here, this city found its operatic fervor rekindled. This is how the Los Angeles Music Center Opera - now in its second season of self-generated productions - came into being. Though Pl'acido Domingo, the company's artistic consultant, will sing and conduct annually, and otherwise involve himself as much as his busy schedule will permit, it is general director Peter Hemmings who is responsible for the overall guidance and planning.

This season, as part of the opening trio of productions, he offered Andrei Serban's staging of Sergei Prokofiev's infrequently performed ``The Fiery Angel.'' In December, the Los Angeles Opera will offer Wagner's ``Tristan und Isolde,'' with Zubin Mehta conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Jonathan Miller as director, and David Hockney as designer. Verdi's ``Macbeth'' will also be staged that month, with Mr. Domingo on the podium. For this fledgling company, in a city that is not exactly known for its progressive musical tastes, this is bold programming indeed.

Prokofiev spent most of the '20s writing and revising the score for several productions that never materialized. In fact, he never heard ``The Fiery Angel'' performed. He culled his libretto from the novel by Russian author Valery Bryusov. His five-act, seven-scene opera is not unjustly accused of being disjointed.

At the heart of the 16th-century drama is Renata, a mysterious creature who appears to be possessed by demons. She is searching for Madiel, her fiery angel, who, she believes, has returned to her in the guise of the elusive Count Heinrich. Early on, she is discovered by Ruprecht, who falls unrequitedly in love with her and follows her through the entire opera.

The production was visually arresting. Robert Israel, the brilliant designer, has given all seven scenes a German Expressionist look in the style of the silent movie ``The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.'' As is so often the case today, it is hard to tell what came first, the set design or the directorial concept: I suspect the design gave Mr. Serban his impetus. I confess that I am no admirer of this director's operatic work. His Los Angeles staging of Puccini's ``Turandot'' for Covent Garden in 1984 was juvenile and pretentious.

Happily, this ``Angel'' is crammed full of searing images (dazzlingly executed by Mr. Israel and lighting designer Marie Barrett). Serban likes to create pictures rather than illuminate the meaning of a work. He views an opera as so many musical picture hooks on which to hang those tableaux and images. But because he prefers to reduce things to a simplistic idea, he makes this ``Angel'' merely a study in devilish sexual hysteria, ignoring all the other levels of interpretation.

Serban also tends not to understand opera singers' acting styles. Thus soprano Marilyn Zschau - who turned in a tour de force performance as Renata - was asked to do things that interfered with her ability to sing. Most of the time, her compromises worked effectively. And when Serban kept her still - as in the final scene with all those dement-ed nuns running around her - she was riveting. She also managed to sing this demanding role with abandon and commitment.

As Ruprecht, Roger Roloff was made to be oafish, which struck me as running counter to the character - who must be strong, even heroic, if we are to understand his downward slide. Nevertheless, he sang the part splendidly. The supporting cast proved uneven, but Gary Bachlund managed the tough role of Agrippa handsomely, and Ken Remo made a chilling cameo of the Doctor.

In the pit, Lawrence Foster, leading the expanded Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, stressed the noisier, hysterical aspects of the score, without getting across either the pain or the ecstasy, or the vibrant sensuality of this remarkable music.

The two other operas need not detain us long. No opera company can function without standard favorites. Puccini's ``La Boh`eme,'' with Domingo as Rodolfo, is a shoo-in sellout. He acts the role well and was in very respectable voice at the Wednesday performance (sandwiched between a Monday and Friday ``Otello'' at the Metropolitan in New York).

Local soprano Angelique Burzynski made a commendable impression as Mimi. Though her acting was earnest but rudimentary, her voice, at its best, proved potent and warm in all its registers. Karen Huffstodt's live-wire Musetta was a decided asset. And if Thomas Hampson would not try so hard to stake his claim as both a good singer and actor, his Marcello might look and sound less pushed and artificial.

Mr. Foster conducted a sturdy if prosaic account of the score. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's Parisian fa,cade sets - purchased from the Houston Grand Opera and seen in San Francisco as well - are awkward and unattractive. Christopher Alden's execution of Mr. Ponnelle's staging was suitably alienating and rather chilly.

Frank Corsaro's doll's-house production of Rossini's ``La Cenerentola'' was dreadful, and Frank Colavecchia's garish sets did not help matters. But Angelina is one of Frederica von Stade's finest roles, and she proved enchanting and graceful from beginning to end. Another asset was Alan Titus's exuberant, sly, stylishly sung Dandini. Fran,cois Loup made a good, if altogether too kindly, Magnifico. Baritone John del Carlo was the sonorous Alidoro, and tenor Dalmacio Gonz'alez the small-voiced, occasionally forced and squally Ramiro. In the pit, Sir Neville Marriner was having one of his less interesting nights.

A stronger conductor than Foster is needed to make the orchestra sound like a true opera ensemble. Such an impressive ``Angel'' - flaws notwithstanding - proves that Mr. Hemmings is a provocative general director, this is good news indeed.

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