Tag Archives: Opera History
In his first ten years (1984 to 1994) as general director of LA Opera, Peter Hemmings had built LA Opera from the ground up into a world-class opera company, known for pioneering productions and adventurous repertoire that brought the best of opera to Los Angeles audiences. In the years leading up to the millennium, Hemmings reaped the benefits of his heroic earlier efforts while pushing the boundaries of the medium. He also continued to nurture relationships with artists at every stage of their careers, prompting many titans of opera (including Maria Ewing, Carol Vaness, Frederica von Stade and Thomas Allen, to mention just a few) to return to Los Angeles numerous times, while simultaneously cultivating future stars such as Rod Gilfry. The conclusion of Hemmings’ tenure at LA Opera (1995 to 2000) was to prove nothing less than a victory lap.
LA Opera’s 1995/96 season opened with a production of Verdi’s Stiffelio, starring Plácido Domingo, Elena Prokina and Vladimir Chernov. Stiffelio was a true novelty, an 1850 work that had disappeared from the world’s opera houses for more than a century. The composer withdrew it from circulation shortly after its premiere, when censors had demanded major last-minute changes to the work’s religious subject matter. Verdi and his librettist subsequently gutted their opera and added new material to transform it into Aroldo. (Premiered in 1857, Aroldo remains one of Verdi’s least performed operas.) Stiffelio was thought lost in its original form until the late 1960s, when a usable copy of the complete score resurfaced in a Naples library.
Hemmings saw potential in a production by Elijah Moshinsky (for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) that evoked the 19th-century American Midwest. Plácido Domingo headlined the show, singing the title role to great critical acclaim. Los Angeles Times critic Martin Bernheimer wrote that Domingo “brought extraordinary intensity to the plaints of the tortured hero, and extraordinary poignancy to his insecurities.”
Stiffelio set the tone for the rest of the season, which included two new tent pole productions: Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman and Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love.
The Flying Dutchman was a new production directed by avant-garde theater director Julie Taymor, whose vision proved massive. The entire action of the show was staged around a deconstructed ship made up of skeletal pieces that rocked like giant seesaws, creating a dreamlike and timeless quality.
Another new production, The Elixir of Love exemplified Hemmings’ knack for taking a fresh look at classic works. Directed by Stephen Lawless, the handsome staging discarded the sugary romance of Donizetti’s comedy for a Chekhovian naturalness. Thomas Allen made a brilliant role debut as the charlatan Dulcamara, and Ramón Vargas, a rising superstar, made his LA Opera debut in the leading role of Nemorino. Elixir became one of LA Opera’s signature productions, revived several times in Los Angeles and travelling to a number of major opera houses around the world.
To open the 1996/97 season, a grandly-scaled Franco Zeffirelli production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, updated to the present day, had caught Hemmings’ eye in Rome. Getting the production to the City of Angels proved difficult, however. The set hadn’t been stored properly and was falling apart. In the end, LA Opera’s technical staff had to recreate an all-new version of Zeffirelli’s enormous set from scratch, basing the entire design from an 11”x17” Xeroxed copy of a single production photo. Starring Plácido Domingo as the tormented Canio, one of his greatest roles, along with soprano Verónica Villarroel and an enormous cast of singers, acrobats and supernumeraries—and even a dog and a donkey—Pagliacci became one of LA Opera’s iconic productions, revived in both 2005 and in 2015.