Review by Willard Manus

LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles Opera's recent productions of TOSCA and PARSIFAL will long be remembered. The former was energized by the stirring performances by Violeta Urmana and Salvatore Licitra, both of whom were making their company debuts. Not only did they fill the Music Center with their rich, thrilling voices, they acted the roles of Tosca and Cavaradossi with much flair and verisimo. Thanks to their superb work, Puccini's hundred-year-old opera seemed fresh and new, a work of startling power and passion.

The Lithuanian soprano Urmana came to prominence in Europe, then made her U.S. debut in 1998 at the San Francisco Opera in Tristan und Isolde. She has sung on many prominent stages since then, mostly as a mezzo-soprano. A tall, imposing woman, she has an equally large voice which she produces without effort, even when going up the register and hitting Puccini's many high notes. Her warm, earthy qualities enabled her to turn the diva Tosca into a vulnerable, all-too-believable, love-struck woman.

Licitra, a tenor who has often been compared to Pavarotti, matched Urmana's vocal prowess in their impassioned duets, and also proved himself an able and intense actor.

Samuel Ramey as the villainous Baron Scarpia was also in good form. Sounding better and stronger than he has in quite a while, the bass-baritone helped make the production a triumphant one.

Robert Wilson's production of Wagner's PARSIFAL was even more luminous and successful. Wagner's meditation on the tragic conjunction of the human and spirit worlds has always been a controversial work. Some have found it too slow and portentuous--it runs 4 1/2 hours--and have also attacked it for its ideological obsessions with blood and purity (which later turned up in Nazi proclamations). Many others, though, have hailed it as a profound and healing work of art, packed with important music and drama.

In Wilson's hands--he designed, lit and directed PARSIFAL--the opera also becomes a magical sound-and-light show, an austere but vivid spectacle that equaled the majesty of Wagner's efforts. On a shimmering backdrop that suggested, and reflected, colors in ocean-like fashion, PARSIFAL unfolds at a stately, stylized pace with Parsifal (Placido Domingo in amazing voice) wandering around a brilliantly lit disc in search of the Holy Grail and encountering the likes of Gurnemanz (Matti Salminen), Kundry (Linda Watson) and Klingsor (Hartmut Welker).

Employing the techniques of Japanese Noh theatre and mime-like movement, Wilson let the music and voices, not the actors, deliver the emotion. Gestures were restrained, bodies held in stiff, precise poses. The chorus and army of knights were largely kept offstage, resulting in intense focus on the principals and their epic battle for the soul of mankind.

Kent Nagano (who also conducted TOSCA) got the most he could out of Wagner's music, taking each major leitmotif and building on it, aiming it toward the heavens.