23 Jun 2008
Don Giovanni. No, the other one
No one has ever called Gazzaniga’s Don Giovanni an overlooked masterpiece.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.
In a production first seen in Houston several years ago, and now revised by its director John Caird, Puccini’s Tosca has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago with two casts, partially different, scheduled into March of the present season.
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.