Pity the Rodolfo and Mimì pouring out their hearts this July in La Scala’s La Bohème. It’s possible that more people will be craning their necks to see 27-year-old Venezuelan conducting sensation Gustavo Dudamel in the pit, than either the Mimì (Italian soprano Carmela Remigio) or Rodolfo (American tenor James Valenti, who sang a televised Pinkerton this season at New York City Opera). Neither Valenti nor Remigio is a big name like Angela Gheorghiu, the Met’s Mimì this season, or Jonas Kaufmann, who sang Rodolfo in a Bohème conducted by Dudamel in February. But at least Remigio has lived through Dudamania before: she sang Donna Anna in a 2006 Don Giovanni he led in Milan.
Yes, Dudamania is in full swing. In Los Angeles, where Dudamel begins as the L.A. Philharmonic’s new music director in 2009-10, the orchestra welcomed its curly-haired superstar this spring with a lunch catered by none other than Pink’s hot dog stand, creating for the occasion a special “Dude dog”—guacamole, cheese, fajita mix, jalapenos, tortilla chips. (Dudamel is said to be fond of hot dogs.) Normally, classical musicians are barely on the radar screens of the bigger media outlets, but he’s such a hot commodity that he recently had to turn down numerous interview requests, including ones from Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno. His fiery performances of Shostakovich, Mahler, and Beethoven with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela have gotten people excited the way they used to get over Bernstein. The Venezuelan orchestra has become symbol of the against-all-odds success of that country’s government-run music-education program, and Dudamel is its hero.
Of course, opera and symphonic performances are two different beasts, and the lyricism and sweetness of Puccini’s La Bohème are in pretty strong contrast to, say, Beethoven’s obsessional motivic pursuits or Mahler’s extremes of emotion. But it’s hard not to cheer for Dudamel, whose young Venezuelan musicians regularly whoop it up in an encore from Ginastera’s Estancia ballet that involves instrument-twirling, dancing, and a ferocity and joyful abandon you rarely see from a large orchestra. I’ve been enjoying listening to the Fiesta, a new Dudamel/SBYOV CD of an all-Latin American program that includes the Ginastera, as well as Revueltas’s Sensemaya and the rollicking Mambo from Bernstein’s West Side Story that also has had audiences on their feet cheering the way they do after a goal at a soccer game.