REVIEWS by Willard Manus

What a way to start its 17th season. Los Angeles Opera may have taken a hit last summer when its main donor, Alberto Vilar, could not ante up an extra $600,000 to cover the high cost of mounting the Kirov's production of Prokofiev's War and Peace. But the company refused to let the disappointment spoil its 2002/2003 season, which commenced in high style with Puccini's THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST, Verdi's NABUCCO and Shostakovich's LADY MACBETH OF MTSENSK.

All three operas were launched with sumptuous and handsome productions. Set designer Michael Scott and lighting designer Alan Burrett made the gold-rush country of GOLDEN WEST--saloon, mountain cabin and mining town--look not just realistic but lived-in (that goes for the costumes as well). The cowboys and miners who filled the stage (with the help of the Los Angeles Opera Chorus) were right out of a spaghetti western, but when they opened their mouths and sang it was with power and grandeur.

It has always been fashionable for Americans to poke fun at this horse opera, but its story is no sillier or more contrived than most other operas, and its music is a first-rate blending of Debussyesque harmonies and Straussian sonorities. Long a favorite role of his, Placido Domingo sang Dick Johnson for five
performances in September and was hailed by the critics for his still-nimble vocal work. I saw Luis Lima, Domingo's alternate, take on the same part, which he brought off with consummate acting and singing skill. The Argentinian is a tenor to be watched.

Catherine Malfitano sang pistol-packin' Minnie in all but one of the seven performances. When a viral infection suddenly felled her, Nina Warren stepped in on a couple of hours' notice. On the day I attended, an announcement was made that Malfitano was still under the weather, but "wished to sing for everyone anyway." This she did with beauty, fire and strength, and the chemistry between her and Lima was palpable and exciting.

Wolfgang Brendel sang the Sheriff with much musicality and warmth, and Simone Young, the first woman to conduct an opera at the Chandler, pushed all the orchestra's buttons and made some impressive music.

But for raw power and urgency, GOLDEN WEST couldn't touch NABUCCO. Verdi's first major hit, a biblical-era epic whose exploration of religious and nationalistic conflicts is still valid today, as are the father-daughter battles between Nabucco (Lado Ataneli), Fenema (Kate Aldrich) and Abigaille (Maria Guleghina).

Verdi's score is fervent and explosive, and his 'Va pensiero" chorus (the anthem sung spontaneously by the Milanese at Verdi's funeral) is equally stirring. Aldrich, Ataneli and Guleghina sang magnificently as did Louis Lebherz as Zaccaria (Lebherz also sang Ashby in Golden West), James Creswell (High Priest), Luis Contreras (Abdallo) and Jessica Rivera (Anna).

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the opera which replaced War and Peace, also came from the Kirov--via Tokyo, Japan and Santa Clarita, California. The sets and costumes for the opera were shipped by freighter from St. Petersburg back in August. The ship arrived in Long Beach (L.A.'s port) in early October, but could not be unloaded due to a longshoreman's strike. The ship turned around and sailed for Tokyo, arriving there on Oct. 12 (eleven days before opening night in L.A.). Costumes, wigs and props were removed from the containers and winged by air to L.A., but the large, cumbersome set had to be left behind.

This meant that L.A. Opera's technical crew had to build its own set, in the company's technical plant in Santa Clarita, in a mere 13 days (and at a cost of half a million dollars). This it did, by working non-stop round the clock. Since the singers were not scheduled to arrive until Oct. 21, there was only one day for a rehearsal. On top of that, the opera's peripatetic conductor, Valery Gergiev, did not appear at the theatre until just minutes before curtain time.

Fortunately, the high drama of mounting Lady Macbeth was more than matched by the opera itself. Composed by Shostakovich when he was 24, the opera's music is powerful, vivid and dynamic, a swirling polyphonic work that perfectly suits the story, a serio-comic tale of sex and violence in Czarist Russia's provinces. Shostakovich's harmonic gifts are on display throughout the 3 1/2-hour-long opera, as are his ability to write all kinds of music--dramatic, sensitive, comic, vulgar, sublime.

Gergiev handled this demanding, virtuosic score with amazing ease and skill, coaxing majestic sounds out of the Kirov orchestra, sounds which were unmistakably Russian in their power and soulfulness. Considering the lack of rehearsal time, the Kirov's singers were equally impressive, delivering aria after aria without a hitch. It was true grace under pressure.

Larissa Shevcheno sang Katerina, the bored, repressed wife of Zinovy (Leonid Zakhozhaev), the son of a wealthy merchant and landowner. Vladimir Timofevich registered strongly as Boris, the boorish patriarch of the family who is not above trying to seduce his own son's wife. Katerina, a feminist heroine in Shostakovich's eyes, rebels against her circumstances by having an affair with one of Boris' serfs, Sergei (Vladimir Grishko), a handsome ladykiller who cynically exploits her sexual and emotional needs for his own purposes.

Katerina is driven by anger and passion to murder not just her husband but her fatherin-law, leaving her free to leap into bed with Sergei, an act that Shostakovich lampoons with his music. The composer also makes fun of her crimes, motivated as they are. It is this mixture of the vulgar and the sublime which makes Lady Macbeth so unique. It keeps going from light to dark and back, coming up with surprises, taking chance after chance.

Shostakovich and his librettist, Alexander Preis, give the singers much to do, so much so that it took three sets of singers to handle the vocal demands during the opera's 8-performance run in Los Angeles. There's not a weak singer in the company, and that goes for the Kirov's 70-person chorus as well.

The combination of lusty singing, magnificent score and miraculous stagecraft (thanks to the wizardy of LA Opera's
technical crew) made for a provocative and unforgettable night of opera.

Next up at Los Angeles Opera is Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffman (Nov. 24-Dec. 21), featuring Samuel Ramey, Andrea Rost, Milena Kitic and Sumi Jo. Marcus Haddock takes on the title role with Emmanuel Villaume conducting and Marta Domingo directing. For tickets and information call (213) 972-8001, Ticketmaster, or visit www.losangelesopera.com