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High Notes, Southern Companies

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

The end of the theater season here in Los Angeles also means an end to the opera season. This past season has been an important one because this year, Southern California truly made a credible claim to being the center of operatic goings-on here on the West Coast. Much of this is because San Francisco Opera is suffering from major financial problems and therefore had to cancel most of its adventurous programming.

San Francisco primarily re-staged many of their old productions--usually without the starry casts that have long made San Francisco the nation's premiere operatic venue west of the Mississippi. Still, the War Memorial Opera House did see an excellent new production of The Barber of Seville as well as an interesting staging of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

But a sign of the times was San Francisco's Don Carlos. This sprawling epic is usually the type of thing only a big company like San Francisco can (or should) produce, but this season San Diego Opera staged the exact same production, and presented arguably a better cast.

San Diego Opera also showed real ambition by putting on lesser-known works like Bizet's The Pearl Fishers and Janacek's Katya Kabanova. These are difficult operas to stage, but San Diego pulled them off with the help of some surprisingly high-profile singers.

The star of San Diego's Pearl Fishers was a Canadian singer named Isabel Bayrakdarian, and the heroine of San Diego's Don Carlo was a budding American soprano, Sondra Radvanovsky.

Besides long hard to pronounce last names, these two young singers also share captivating stage presences and big, healthy voices. Both also have had major successes, in recent seasons, at major opera houses in Paris and New York. But interestingly, neither of these prominent singers could be heard in San Francisco this season.

And yet southern California opera-goers not only got to hear Bayrakdarian and Radvanovsky in San Diego, they've also been able to hear them at the Los Angeles Opera. Last weekend, Bayrakdarian finished her run as Susannah in The Marriage of Figaro and this weekend, Radvanovsky closes the season with two performances of Il Trovatore. In Trovatore, she plays Leonora, one of opera's most demanding soprano roles--but Radvanovsky shows she has the vocal chops to pull it off. Her voice and performance aren't perfect yet--she's still young--but hearing her almost makes it worth suffering through the dark, dreary staging of Verdi's melodramatic story about gypsies and long lost brothers.

Since it is the last weekend of Los Angeles Opera's season, it's a good moment to look back at the past 10 months. This has been a strong season for Placido Domingo's troupe. Despite a major disappointment with the world premiere of Nicholas and Alexandra, Domingo managed to put on two of the finest productions in the company's history: a haunting Damnation of Faust and a mesmerizing Robert Wilson-directed Madama Butterfly.

There's no doubt that Los Angeles Opera is seeing its stature rise the on international opera scene. No doubt some of this is due to San Francisco's troubles, but much of it is due to Domingo and his ability to get A-list singers on the stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Next season, L.A. Opera's roster includes Renee Fleming, Bryn Terfel, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu.

But as Los Angeles Opera gets bigger, it good to know that L.A.'s small, quirky opera company is still staying true to its scrappy roots. This weekend also marks the end of Long Beach Opera's brief 2004 season. Two rarely heard works are being presented this Saturday at the Carpenter Center. Saturday afternoon offers an Argentinean &quottango; operita:" Maria de Buenos Aires, composed by legendary bandoneonist Astor Piazzolla, and Saturday evening provides a rare chance to see Richard Strauss' comic opera The Silent Woman--only the third time the piece has been staged in this country in 70 years.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW

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