23 Jun 2008
Don Giovanni. No, the other one
No one has ever called Gazzaniga’s Don Giovanni an overlooked masterpiece.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
No one has ever called Gazzaniga’s Don Giovanni an overlooked masterpiece.
It was composed to a typical buffo libretto by Giovanni Bertati, his collaborator on twenty farces, in Venice in February 1787, where its success inspired someone to send the score to Lorenzo da Ponte in Vienna. He rewrote and expanded the piece, borrowing many of Bertati’s ideas, and gave it to Mozart, who presented his version at Prague’s Tyl Theater on October 29.
One goes to hear Gazzaniga’s Giovanni for foretaste, a prediction, a glimpse of the glory soon to come — a hint of Mozart’s inspiration — but there is little sign of it. The piece opens with an attempted rape and a murder all right, there is a catalogue aria (someone has altered the numbers! Aha!), a peasant wedding, a statue invited to dinner, a ghostly return. There are many moments when you expect to be stunned, enlightened, exalted, shocked, as Mozart’s opera does even on the twentieth hearing — but Gazzaniga keeps missing the chance to startle, to amaze, to create wonder. Donna Anna has the perfect moment for an aria of vengeance when she finds her father’s body (or a duet of vengeance, as in Mozart), but in Gazzaniga … she simply departs, never to return. Don Giovanni has many moments for a seduction duet, but it does not enter his brainless tenor head. Elvira’s last entreaty for Giovanni’s repentance is not an outburst — it’s a full-length aria at a moment when the drama should be snap, snap, snap. The statue’s return sends no cold shivers — the experience of the afterlife has not transformed his vocal manner, as Mozart felt it should. And, having heard Mozart, we know he was right.
It is impossible not to make such comparisons, but it is most unfair to Gazzaniga, and to an evening pleasantly spent. There are lovely tunes in this opera, justifying a long and successful career (51 operas, all but this one forgotten), some elegant ideas, and … a lot that fizzles. With pretty voices, it is a delicious way to pass ninety minutes — ideally by candlelight in a baroque garden theater. (A remodeled warehouse in Toronto’s Distillery District will do in a pinch, and the acoustics are ace.) Gazzaniga was good but ordinary; attending his opera reminds one that Mozart was … extraordinary.
The most effective music, it seemed to me, was the scene of the peasant wedding: the chorus had a Spanish style to it that Mozart did not bother with, and the arias of Biagio (infuriated at his wayward girlfriend) and Maturina (the girl in question, who is falling for the tall, handsome stranger) were very fine and sung by the finest voices in the company, Canadian Opera’s Studio (i.e., their young artists’ program). Justin Welsh, a baritone of energy and smooth production, made the most of Biagio, who has rather more presence in this version — da Ponte and Mozart rightly abbreviated his protest in order not to interrupt the rush of the drama. Gazzaniga gives him a full da capo, and Welsh sang it beautifully — but it interrupts. Maturina was Lisa DiMaria, a sweet, clear, luscious soprano who will mature (no pun intended) into a splendid Susanna and Zerlina in a very short time. I look forward to hearing both of them again.
The other singers, all young, healthy and good actors, did not seem quite so polished, so ready for the major leagues. Jon-Paul Décosse had the most to do as the servant, Pasquariello — he opens the show (just as Leporello does) and sings the catalogue, and serves as his master’s foil in the tomb and dinner scenes. His baritone is strong and supple, but his vigorous antics — sometimes humorous, sometimes menacing — will make him a particular asset to the livelier school of buffo staging. Melinda Delorme, afflicted with a wig that would alienate any lover, made a poignant and energetic Donna Elvira — in this opera the unchallenged prima donna, with two ornamented arias and a comic duet in which she and Maturina fight over “their” man, who of course has set them on each other while he pursues another lady entirely. (That duet’s an idea Bertati might have stolen from Act I of Mozart’s Figaro, but it was probably a buffo staple.) The Commendatore of Andrew Stewart looked gaunt and (as a statue) immobile, but did not succeed in creating shivers where Gazzaniga had neglected to provide them in the score. Michael Barrett (Ottavio) and Adam Luther (Giovanni), the two tenors, sounded uncomfortable with the style of the music, forceful where they should have been graceful, sensuous, ardent. They bit off the ends of notes that should drift into the aether. I suspect both are aiming for nineteenth-century tenor roles, and I applaud that ambition, but precise vocal control always comes in handy.
The production by Tom Diamond was basic and clear, with one annoying, pointless touch: Instead of nobly killing the Commendatore face to face, Don Giovanni sneaked up behind him and stabbed him in the back. This did not suit the story or the personality of our antihero. A consort of nine musicians played the score — undoubtedly it would sound grander with a full orchestra, but the subtle touches of Mozart’s version would still not have been there.
Melinda Delorme as Donna Elvira and Adam Luther as Don Giovanni in the COC’s Ensemble Studio production of Don Giovanni. Photo © 2008 Michael Cooper
The second half of this double bill — for a rather larger band of musicians, tackling a self-consciously brilliant score with aplomb — was Stravinsky’s brief retelling of a couple of farmyard folktales, Renard, composed for the Paris salon of his buddy Princess de Polignac — that’s Winnaretta Singer, the sewing machine heiress, to you. The piece was not meant to be staged, merely sung by a quartet of male singers — but Mr. Diamond could not resist. His production derived from World Wide Wrestling matches (the witty costumes were by Yannik Larivée), and no doubt I missed a lot of in-jokes, but the four hammy singers hurled themselves joyously into it. (No limbs were broken — but it was close.) They sang well, too, in clearly pronounced English — again, I especially enjoyed tiny Mr. Welsh, but the standard was high across the board.